Daily Briefing The nuclear treaty is dead, long live the nuclear treaty

Bye-bye INF, hello something else; Merkel does Japan; the SPD keeps self-destructing; Maduro gives EU the finger. Here’s our Daily Briefing for February 4, 2019.
Quelle: AP
Up in the air.
(Source: AP)

“#NATO fully supports the US suspension & notification of withdrawal from the Treaty.” So tweeted Jens Stoltenberg, the alliance’s secretary general, as US President Donald Trump made good on his threat to pull out of the so-called INF Treaty between Russia and America. Russia promptly declared that it, too, would quit. And Germans, as is their wont, fell back into their traditional stance of sanctimonious outrage and naivete.

The treaty, signed during the Cold War in 1987, banned a certain class of ground-based missiles (those with a range between 500 and 5,500 kilometers) that could be nuclear-tipped. But it only constrained the signatories, the US and Russia. And it only constrained their use of land-based missiles, saying nothing about those fired from the sea or air. And, crucially, the treaty didn’t even do any of that, i.e. constrain. Russia, as the US and NATO agree, has been cheating. So this treaty is not worth crying over, as I argued in January.

Andreas has been editor-in-chief of Handelsblatt Today (formerly Handelsblatt Global) since March 2017. His articles can be found here. Quelle: Marko Priske for Handelsblatt
Andreas Kluth

Andreas has been editor-in-chief of Handelsblatt Today (formerly Handelsblatt Global) since March 2017. His articles can be found here.

The question is what should happen next. Germans, out of old Cold War reflexes, are worrying that Russia will point medium-range missiles at central Europe again (remember, it is already doing that), and that the US will station missiles in Germany to deter the Russian ones, as in the 1980s. Over our dead bodies, say the Social Democrats (SPD), about whom more below.

But the situation is completely different, and much more complex, than it was in the 1980s. First, the “game” has more players: China, above all, but also Pakistan and India, and indeed North Korea, and possibly other countries and – conceivably and most worryingly – non-state actors. Second, these owners of nuclear weapons have new, faster and stealthier ways of delivering them.

So instead of hyperventilating about the obsolescence of a treaty that has already been broken, Germans and everybody else should be calling for a new round of talks, including all major nuclear powers, and certainly China, to negotiate new limits. Or, as Donald Trump put it in his ripe-for-parody style: “to get everybody in a big, beautiful room and do a new treaty that would be much better.” This will be unfathomably hard. But it is the only sane way.

Angie visits Abe

The INF Treaty will also be a topic in Tokyo today, where Chancellor Angela Merkel has landed for two days of talks with her counterpart, Shinzo Abe. Japan is, as her spokesman reminded everybody on Twitter, one of those countries, like Canada, that Germany regards as potential allies in its struggle to build a network of “multilateralist” countries to counterbalance the nationalism of Trump, Putin, Erdogan and others. (Here is Foreign Minister Heiko Maas announcing that strategy last year.) Fittingly, Merkel and Abe can can toast to the new trade pact between Japan and the EU that has now kicked in. What else do they plan to talk about?

Data, apparently. This has become a big thing for Merkel, to which she returns often. Unlike Abe, who favors free flows of data, the chancellor believes that the question of who owns digital information in this coming age of artificial intelligence is decisive, and deserves regulation. She’s thinking not only about consumers but also about German industrial firms, for instance. Geeky, but important, to be sure.

The Social Democrats are at it again

Meanwhile, Germany’s Social Democrats (SPD), like their comrades elsewhere in Europe, are so desperate about their ongoing decline in the polls that they keep throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks. Hubertus Heil, the labor minister, has now proposed a grandiloquently named “basic pension.” His plan is to top up the meager retirement income of formerly low-wage workers, by dipping not into the social-security trust but into the income-tax pot. No way, said the Christian Democrats, who are the coalition partners.

Heil’s little idea is a great example of the SPD’s failure of imagination. After their drubbing in the 2017 general election, the Social Democrats had promised to reinvent themselves with big, fresh ideas. Instead, they keep peddling their old brand of redistribution, by looking for new ways to skin fat cats and new handouts to sub-groups in society.

A big idea worth examining and analysing would be, instead of a basic pension, a basic income. As I argued last year, nobody in the world really knows how this kind of reform would play out – whether it can be financed, for example. But it has the potential to create new political alliances, because liberals like me could get used to the idea of replacing the entire existing bureaucracy of the welfare state with a simpler system, namely the Universal Basic Income (UBI). Liberals could thereby limit the state and prepare it for the disruption of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Socialists (and liberals and conservatives too) would find a more efficient way to protect the weakest.

But, as I said, that idea is too big for Germany’s SPD. They have rejected it. Instead, they’re sticking to their old game, which is undermining one another. Gerhard Schröder, the last SPD chancellor (“last” in the sense of “most recent,” but perhaps also the other sense), has now told Der Spiegel, a weekly magazine, that Andrea Nahles, the SPD’s current boss, is an “amateur” and knows nothing about economics. That’s absolutely true. But also impolite. And not helpful. So rest assured that the SPD will keep sinking, first slowly, then fast. It is history.

Maduro: EU who?

And finally, a quick glance at Venezuela, which is on the verge of either a revolution or a brutal crackdown, as the stand-off continues between Nicolás Maduro, the corrupt autocrat, and Juan Guaidó, the opposition leader who has declared himself the legitimate interim president. Germany and several of its EU partners, you may recall, had rather bombastically demanded from Maduro to hold new elections at once. That ultimatum expired yesterday. To nobody’s surprise, Maduro ignored the Europeans.

So one question is: What happens next? That depends largely on whether Venezuela’s army keeps backing Maduro or, like the population, switches over to Guaidó, but also on whether the US intervenes. A smaller but nonetheless interesting question is what Germany and the EU do next. The pattern in world politics is: Europe demands x, is ignored, sulks, demands y, is ignored, sulks, .... Does Europe have anything else in its diplomatic tool kit? I’d like to see it.