September 25, 2023Latin America
When the BRICS grouping held its annual summit in late August, it was widely covered as a portentous affair that signaled a ripening challenge to the U.S.-led global order.
For the first time, the group expanded considerably, reflecting a growing ambition not necessarily shared by each original member. It was reasonable to wonder whether a robust challenge to U.S. hegemony was imminent.
For Latin America’s largest nation, however, participation in an increasingly assertive BRICS need not conflict with a warm working relationship with Washington. Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva demonstrated as much at last week’s UN General Assembly.
Indeed, Lula’s deft diplomacy turned his country into arguably the biggest winner at the annual gathering of global leaders, showing almost single-handedly that the door is not yet shut on a genuinely independent foreign policy in a moment of heightening superpower tensions. He did so by identifying substantive areas of mutual interest with the United States and taking concrete steps to show flexibility and an openness to dialogue, also with respect to the Ukraine war.
When Lula, who began an unprecedented third term in January, announced early in his address on Tuesday that “Brazil is back,” he was interrupted by applause from members of the General Assembly, which by tradition Brazil opens. Lula’s address emphasized many of the same points he made as Brazil assumed the reins of the G20 in India earlier this month: the urgency of combating climate change, the need to find mediated solutions to armed conflicts, and the importance of reversing growing inequality worldwide.
Lula’s return to the dais 20 years after his first address as president marked a welcome return to form for Brazil, a country long committed to the UN as a meaningful arena of international diplomacy. Indeed, aside from South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa, Lula was the only BRICS leader to attend this year’s General Assembly.
Lula used his address to criticize the UN for its inability to preserve its relevance, describing the impasse as he sees it and calling for reforms that he believes can make the body matter more. “The international community must choose: On the one hand, there is the expansion of conflicts, the deepening of inequalities and the erosion of the Rule of Law,” he said.“ On the other, the renewal of multilateral institutions dedicated to promoting peace.”
He decried sanctions applied unilaterally and the ongoing embargo against Cuba. He also criticized the ineffective insularity of the UN Security Council, discredited by “the actions of its permanent members, who wage unauthorized wars in search of territorial expansion or regime change. Its paralysis is the most eloquent proof of the need and urgency to reform it, giving it greater representativeness and effectiveness.”
Lula made clear that his nation wants a greater say in a UN that is actually functional and effective, not withdrawal from a body consigned to irrelevance.
Lula’s meeting with Ukrainian president Vladimir Zelenskyy the next day demonstrated his careful and even-handed diplomacy in pursuit of an early end of the war in Ukraine. Brazil, like most Global South states, has prioritized relations with both warring parties as it realizes well the high economic costs of the conflict’s continuation. Even though he has clearly criticized Russia’s invasion of its much smaller neighbor, he had before this week not met personally with Zelenskyy. Finally having done so, Lula has bolstered his claim to fairness and balance.
For his part, and from a different angle, President Joe Biden argued for the continued importance of the UN. He called the lack of further world wars, the ascension of hundreds of millions out of poverty, and the eradication of several devastating diseases “a profound testament to what we can achieve when we act together when we take on tough challenges.”
U.S. health assistance in Africa — such as PEPFAR and fighting the Ebola epidemic — have been excellent examples in this regard. Biden urged the UN to re-embrace its founding precepts of collaboration, respect for sovereignty, and human rights and seemed to signal support for a reform of multilateral institutions to reflect shifting international dynamics. He also spoke of strengthening democratic values around the world. In these areas, his message aligned with Lula’s.
The following day, Lula and Biden held a bilateral meeting to discuss a host of issues, but most importantly to announce a new joint effort related to workers’ rights.
“Over the last few days,” Biden said by way of introducing the initiative, “the nations of the world have talked about climate change, sustainable development, food security, economic resilience.” The president noted the centrality of working people to each one of these challenges and concluded that “we have to empower them as well. And that’s what this new partnership is all about.” Pointing at Lula, he added, “the partnership actually was this man’s idea.”
While both leaders talked about the importance of union protections, living wages, pensions, and other basic rights often denied in the modern economy — Lula’s labor minister also took the opportunity to sit down with members of the United Auto Workers to discuss the ongoing strike and working conditions in the United States — it remains to be seen what concretely will come from this new undertaking. Nevertheless, its importance should not be underestimated. More than anything, it marks an identifiable point of convergence between Brasília and Washington, an issue on which both leaders are personally and politically invested.
Durable, productive ties between nations require such investment. A willingness to collaborate in this area — or even just to be seen committing to collaboration — is a positive sign. However, the Biden-Lula convergence on global labor standards may not be aligned with many Global South states, especially in Asia, who see the U.S. push for such standards as protectionism in disguise.
Labor was not the only area in which members of the Brazilian delegation sought to make clear that it still very much wants to engage with the United States. Climate action was another. Finance Minister Fernando Haddad held multiple meetings with activists, government officials, and investors to pitch them on green investments in Brazil. Before flying to New York, Haddad gave an interview in which he praised Biden’s economic agenda and said there was absolutely no reason the United States shouldn’t see Brazil as a key trading partner — not least because, as he noted, "China is entering America through the Southern Cone.” Minister of the Environment Marina Silva held several meetings as well, emphasizing Brazil’s role in mitigating the effects of climate change.
Together, these efforts underscored Lula’s attempts to show that Brazil’s embrace of a multipolar world does not mean it is eager to turn its back on the United States. That Brazil is finding meaningful areas of collaboration with countries of various ideological and political stripes indicates that international relations in Latin America have not yet ossified into the rigid opposing camps that would characterize a new cold war.
It might serve as a model, in fact, for countries looking to avoid one.
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September 22, 2023QiOSK
The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday that “Israeli officials are quietly working with the Biden administration on a polarizing proposal to set up a U.S.-run uranium-enrichment operation in Saudi Arabia as part of a complex three-way deal to establish official diplomatic relations between the two Middle Eastern countries,” according to U.S. and Israeli officials.
The article, authored by Dion Nissenbaum and Dov Lieber, largely showcases Israeli opposition to the deal. Mark Dubowitz, CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a group whose mission includes providing “education to enhance Israel’s image in North America…” was quoted opposing a uranium enrichment program on Saudi soil. He warned that “we’re one bullet away from a disaster in Saudi Arabia,” adding, “What happens if, God forbid, a radical Islamist leader takes control?”
Israeli sources speaking to the WSJ acknowledged concerns about nonproliferation safeguards and the potential for a regional nuclear-arms race. But the one expert who was reported as thinking “the idea is worth exploring,” is an executive at an organization that depends heavily on Saudi funding, a potential financial conflict of interest that wasn’t disclosed by the WSJ to its readers.
The WSJ quoted Brian Katulis, described as “vice president of policy at the Middle East Institute think tank in Washington,” supporting the controversial idea.
Nissenbaum and Lieber reported:
“The concerns of a nuclear-arms race in the Middle East are very serious and real, indeed,” [Katulis] said. “The question is whether the U.S. sitting on the sidelines, crossing its arms and scolding countries in the region for pursuing civilian nuclear energy is a more effective strategy than starting a discussion that aims to build trust and confidence among key actors in the region like Israel and Saudi Arabia.”
Katulis said, “The risk of some hostile leader getting these capacities is one we’ve seen and managed in a number of places around the world, including Pakistan.”
“It’s not an ideal situation in those instances,” he said, “but the risks can be managed.”
The WSJ didn’t provide readers with the context about MEI that is provided on MEI’s very own website: the organization’s biggest funders are linked to the Saudi government, a government which, in this case, is pushing for the very nuclear deal that the WSJ was reporting on.
MEI’s website discloses that in the first seven months of 2023, its single largest contribution was $833,456 from Saudi Research and Media Group, a publishing group with close ties to the Saudi ministry of information. MEI also collected $200,000 from Aramco, the Saudi largely-state-owned oil company and $25,000 from the Saudi embassy in Washington.
To its credit, MEI has been transparent about its funding and makes the information readily available on its website.
The WSJ, on the other hand, did not inform readers that its only pro-Saudi-nuclear-deal source’s work is partially funded by Saudi sources, a potential conflict of interest that may be of interest to readers seeking to better understand the benefits and pitfalls of the Saudi-Israeli normalization framework.
The WSJ did not respond to a request for comment.
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Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.). Jan. 2019 (Photo: lev radin via shutterstock.com)
September 22, 2023QiOSK
UPDATE: Sen. Bob Menendez temporarily stepped down from his powerful role as chairman of the Senate Relations Committee late Friday afternoon, according to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.
Federal prosecutors indicted Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the chair of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on corruption charges for allegedly taking bribes to help business partners in New Jersey as well as the Egyptian government.
The indictment alleges that Menendez accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of cash as well as gold bars and a luxury vehicle from three New Jersey businessmen. His wife, Nadine Menendez, was also charged.
Wael Hana, a New Jersey businessman, allegedly promised to put the senator’s wife on his payroll for a no-show job in exchange for Menendez’s promise to facilitate weapons sales to Egypt. The indictment also claims that Hana arranged a meeting between the lawmaker and multiple Egyptian officials in a Senate office in which no staff were present.
Menendez also allegedly passed on information about the staffing of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo via his then-girlfriend to Hana, who subsequently gave it to an Egyptian official.
Among the most significant allegations is the claim that Menendez personally ghost wrote a 2018 letter for Egyptian officials to use in lobbying efforts “to convince other U.S. Senators to release a hold on $300 million in aid to Egypt.”
In a statement, Menendez denied the allegations as “baseless” and claimed they are the work of “forces behind the scenes” who have “repeatedly attempted to silence my voice and dig my political grave,” an apparent reference to previous corruption charges against the senator that resulted in a mistrial in 2017. (The Senate Ethics Committee, for its part, found that Menendez had broken the law and “severely admonished” him in a rare public censure.)
“Those behind the campaign simply cannot accept that a first-generation Latino American from humble beginnings could rise to be a U.S. Senator and serve with honor and distinction,” Menendez argued. “Even worse, they see me as an obstacle in the way of their broader political goals.”
Despite the fiery statement, Menendez will reportedly step down from his role as chairman on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, according to WNBC, NBC’s New York affiliate.
The allegations come amid growing concerns about the extent of foreign influence peddling in the United States. As Nick Cleveland-Stout reported in RS last year, numerous former officials have gone on to lobby for Egypt, including Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) former chief of staff. A 2020 report by Ben Freeman of the Quincy Institute found foreign countries had given at least $175 million to U.S. think tanks.
Freeman, who recently testified before Congress about Saudi influence campaigns in the United States, described the accusations as “deeply troubling.”
“If the indictment is accurate, the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was selling U.S. foreign policy for cash and gold,” he told RS. “This was all allegedly happening at the same time as serious concerns were being raised — including by Menendez’s colleagues in the Senate — about continuing to provide U.S. military assistance to Egypt given the regime’s abysmal human rights record and its anti-democratic turn.”
Freeman noted that the allegations go further than most cases of foreign influence, which often center around whether an American citizen failed to register as an agent under the Foreign Agent Registration Act.
But the accusations Menendez faces go further, leading government watchdogs like Citizens for Ethics in Washington (CREW) to call for his immediate resignation.
“With these latest revelations, it’s time for Senator Menendez to resign,” CREW President Noah Bookbinder said in a statement. “The stain of corruption continuously taints Menendez.”
The alleged work on behalf of Egypt is noteworthy given the lawmaker’s long-standing public stances in favor of promoting democracy abroad and holding autocratic regimes accountable for their excesses. His response to the accusations mentions that he has “stood steadfast against dictators around the world,” noting his work on Iran, Cuba, and Turkey but pointedly leaving out Egypt from the list.
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