Immigration shouldn’t be Trump’s problem

 US asylum policy is broken, and it’s the job of Congress to fix it

I am an immigrant — a legal one. Over a period of 16 years I’ve gone through a succession of work visas, acquired a green card, married an American citizen (herself an immigrant) and passed the citizenship test, and in just 18 days will take the naturalisation oath, accompanied by my wife and our two American-born sons.

Since 2002, I and members of my family have entered the US umpteen times. Occasionally those crossings have been fraught. Once, before she got her green card, my British-born daughter was held up by immigration officers, who doubted her story that she was visiting her father. Those were agonising hours.

So I can understand the great wave of moral outrage that swept the United States and the world last week over the separation of asylum-seeking parents from their children at the US-Mexican border.

I can sympathise, too, with the parents, most of whom are from poor and violent Central American countries. My wife was once an asylum seeker from a poor and violent country. Her main motive for leaving Somalia for Holland (via Kenya and Germany) was to avoid an arranged marriage to a man she scarcely knew. Knowing that this was not a sufficient reason to be granted asylum, she emphasised the civil war in her country. In the same way, whatever their true motives, today’s asylum seekers from Honduras and Guatemala know to talk about the violence they are fleeing. This has been easier since 2009, when the courts started accepting that victims of domestic violence were entitled to asylum.

To those of you contentedly living in the country where you were born, I address a plea for empathy and also realism. A world without cross-border migration would be a poorer world. A trivial example: this Scotsman would never have met a Dutch-speaking Somali, and their two delightful sons would not exist. Nor would we have paid all those taxes to the US Treasury.

So the question is not whether to stop migration but how to manage it. From those of you who regard any regulation of immigration as somehow unjust — who want illegal immigrants to be treated the same as those who follow the rules — I plead for rationality. Wholly open borders are not a sane option for any country. And comparing today’s US government to the Nazis — who persecuted native-born German Jews by depriving them of their citizenship, then their rights, then their property and finally their lives — is preposterous.

No, Donald Trump is not Adolf Hitler, any more than Melania is Mussolini. Hitler was not the kind of leader who performed a U-turn after a week of bad press. Melania's coat, with its tone-deaf message (“I REALLY DON’T CARE, DO U?”), was a green parka, not a brown shirt. Last week a friend suggested to me that the Trumps were engaged in “vice signalling”, the antithesis of virtue signalling — meaning that the policy of splitting up families was intended to gratify Trump’s populist base. I don’t buy that.

“We’re going to have strong — very strong — borders, but we are going to keep the families together,” Mr Trump said as he made his U-turn. “I didn’t like the sight or the feeling of families being separated.

“The dilemma is that if you’re weak . . . really pathetically weak, the country’s going to be overrun with millions of people,” the president added. “And if you’re strong, then you don’t have any heart. That’s a tough dilemma. Perhaps I’d rather be strong.”

No, I can’t imagine the Führer saying any of that either, especially not the “perhaps”. This debacle, the political equivalent of Argentina’s World Cup campaign, is the result of folly more than evil.

Last week Vanity Fair published the claim of an anonymous “outside White House adviser” that Trump’s speech-writer and aide Stephen Miller “actually enjoys seeing those pictures at the border. He’s a twisted guy . . . He’s Waffen-SS.” I think this quotation tells us more about the standards of journalism at Vanity Fair than about Mr Miller, who is both conservative and Jewish. No one in American politics sits down and says: “Guys, I’ve just had a really awesome idea. Let’s put toddlers in cages!”

The problem of what exactly to do with asylum-seeking families predates Miller by about two decades. It was in 1997 that a consent decree was issued, known as the Flores settlement, which prohibits the US immigration authorities from keeping children in detention — even with their parents — for more than 20 days. As it takes up to 50 times longer to adjudicate asylum applications, the authorities either let the families go (most disappear into the invisible army of the undocumented) or they try to separate parents from children. The last time the issue surfaced, in 2014, the Obama administration threw in the towel. Just 3% of the tens of thousands of children from Central America who entered America via Mexico that year were ultimately deported. The Trump administration didn’t want to be such a pushover. It was nevertheless pushed over — not by the asylum seekers, but by the media.

The German leader Trump more closely resembles is thus not Adolf Hitler but Angela Merkel. She too was forced to cave in by the media in 2015, when her statement to a sobbing Palestinian girl that Germany “just can’t manage” to accommodate refugees from the Middle East triggered a storm of emotion. You may recall what happened in the months after Merkel’s U-turn. As I pointed out last week, European and American leaders confront essentially the same problem. I just wish the media would express the same outrage about the camps in Turkey and north Africa where Europeans are trying to confine their would-be immigrants. I remain to be convinced that families trying to enter the US are treated worse than those trying to enter the EU.

This is not an American problem. It is a global problem. According to a Gallup survey a year ago, more than 700m adults around the world would like to move permanently to another country. Of that vast number, more than a fifth (21%) say their first choice would be to move to the US. The proportion who name an EU country as their dream destination is higher: 23%.

As I said, they have my sympathy. I love Scotland, the country where I happened to be born, but it was not where I wanted to spend my life. What I didn’t do was jump on a boat with my kids and try to bluff my way into America, intending to stay there even if my asylum claim were rejected.

“An undocumented alien is not a criminal,” Senator Kamala Harris argued last year. Sorry, but that’s wrong, just as it’s wrong for local authorities to defy the federal government by establishing “sanctuary cities”, and wrong for judges to subvert the system for processing asylum claims by making the temporary detention of applicant families impossible.

America has a broken immigration policy and it cannot be fixed by presidential orders. The constitution clearly states that this is a job for Congress. That’s one of the things a newly minted American citizen learns. It’s the native-born journalists, with their addiction to hyperbole and bad history, who seem to have forgotten it.

Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford

The EU melting pot is melting down

 On immigration, Italy’s populists are the future. Merkel is the past

One hundred and 10 years ago the British author Israel Zangwill completed his play The Melting Pot. First staged in Washington in October 1908 — where it was enthusiastically applauded by President Theodore Roosevelt — it celebrates the United States as a giant crucible fusing together “Celt and Latin, Slav and Teuton, Greek and Syrian — black and yellow — Jew and Gentile” to form a single people.

“Yes,” declares the play’s hero (like Zangwill’s father, a Jewish immigrant from Russia), “East and West, and North and South, the palm and the pine, the pole and the equator, the crescent and the cross . . . Here shall they all unite to build the Republic of Man and the Kingdom of God.”

It is rather hard to imagine a similar play being written about the European Union in the early 21st century. Or rather you could easily imagine a very different one. In it, the influx of migrants from all over the world would have precisely the opposite effect to the one envisioned by Zangwill. Far from leading to fusion, Europe’s migration crisis is leading to fission. The play might be called The Meltdown Pot.

Increasingly, I believe that the issue of migration will be seen by future historians as the fatal solvent of the EU. In their accounts Brexit will appear as merely an early symptom of the crisis. Their argument will be that a massive Völkerwanderung overwhelmed the project for European integration, exposing the weakness of the EU as an institution and driving voters back to national politics for solutions.

Let us begin with the scale of the influx. In 2016 alone an estimated 2.4m migrants came to the 28 EU member states from non-EU countries, taking the total foreign-born population of the union up to 36.9m, more than 7% of the total.

This may be just the beginning. According to the economists Gordon Hanson and Craig McIntosh, “the number of African-born first-generation migrants aged 15 to 64 outside sub-Saharan Africa [will] grow from 4.6m to 13.4m between 2010 and 2050”. The great majority of these will surely head to Europe.

The problem is intractable. Continental Europe’s population is ageing and shrinking, but European labour markets have a poor record when it comes to integrating unskilled migrants. Moreover, a large proportion of Europe’s immigrants are Muslims. Liberals insist that is should be possible for Christians and Muslims to coexist peacefully in a secular, post-Christian Europe. In practice the combination of historically rooted suspicions and modern divergences in attitudes — notably on the status and role of women — is making assimilation difficult. (Compare the situation of Moroccans in Belgium with that of Mexicans in California if you don’t believe me.)

Finally, there is a practical problem. Europe’s southern border is almost impossible to defend against flotillas of migrants, unless Europe’s leaders are prepared to let many people drown.

Politically, the migration problem looks likely to be fatal to that loose alliance between moderate social democrats and moderate conservatives/Christian democrats on which the past 70 years of European integration has been based.

European centrists are deeply confused about immigration. Many, especially on the centre-left, want to have both open borders and welfare states. But the evidence suggests that it is hard to be Denmark with a multicultural society. The lack of social solidarity makes high levels of taxation and redistribution unsustainable.

In Italy we see one possible future: the populists of the left (the Five Star Movement) and the populists of the right (the League) have joined forces to form a government. Their coalition is going to focus on two things: entrenching old welfare norms ( it plans to undo a recent pension reform) and excluding migrants. Last week, to much popular applause, the interior minister, Matteo Salvini, turned away a boat carrying 629 migrants rescued from the sea off Libya. The Aquarius is now en route to Spain, whose new minority Socialist government has offered to accept its human cargo.

Where else can the populists come to power? They are already in government in some way in six EU member states: Austria, the Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Italy and Poland. But across the EU there are a total of 11 populist parties with popular support of 20% or more, implying that the number of populist governments could roughly double. It’s just that few countries can match Italy for political flexibility. Imagine, if you can, the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) sitting down with the German leftists (Die Linke) for sausages and beer in Berlin. Impossible. As a result, as Germans found after their last election, there is in fact no alternative but for the old grand coalition of centre-right and centre-left to limp onwards.

Limp is the word. Last week the chancellor, Angela Merkel, collided with Horst Seehofer, her interior minister, who wants to turn away from Germany’s borders any migrants already registered in other EU states. Under the EU’s Dublin regulation, the country where an immigrant first arrives is in theory responsible for his or her asylum application. But in practice migrants can shop around for the most favourable destination, thanks to the Schengen system of borderless travel that Germany belongs to.

In Merkel’s eyes, Germany cannot opt out of Schengen without risking the collapse of the entire system of free movement. Her hope is she can cobble together some kind of pan-European package on immigration at the EU summit in Brussels at the end of this month. But it is not yet clear that her Bavarian Christian Social Union coalition partner (which Seehofer leads) can go along with this. The CSU has state elections approaching in October and fears losses to the AfD precisely on the immigration issue. In any case, the chances of a coherent pan-European migration strategy seem remote. National borders look like a simpler solution.

I used to be sceptical of the argument that Brexit was about leaving a sinking ship. I am now reassessing my view. Even as the impossibility of reconciling Tory remainers and Brexiteers becomes an existential threat to Theresa May, events in Europe are moving in directions that seemed inconceivable just a few years ago.

In his upcoming book on US immigration, my brilliant friend Reihan Salam — himself the son of Bangladeshi immigrants — makes a bold argument: America must either restrict immigration or risk civil war as rising inequality and racial tension combine.

I hope Salam is right that the American melting pot can somehow be salvaged. But I have no such hope for Europe. No one who has spent any time in Germany since Merkel’s great gamble of 2015-16 can honestly believe that a melting pot is in the making there. Anyone who visits Italy today can see that the policies of the past decade — austerity plus open borders — have produced a political meltdown.

Fusion may still be an option for the United States. For Europe, I fear, the future is one of fission — a process potentially so explosive that it may relegate Brexit to the footnotes of future history.

Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford

We’d better get used to Emperor Donaldus Trump

 The president’s age-old strategy is to bully China and Europe. It seems to be working

To most highly educated people I know, Donald Trump is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad president. But might he have the makings of a rather effective emperor? The death of the republic is not something that I, a soon-to-be-citizen, would welcome. Yet it’s a possibility that needs to be considered, precisely because so many smart people persist in underestimating Trump. For two years the People with At Least Two University Degrees (Paltuds) have been gnashing their teeth about Trump’s every utterance and move. To the foreign policy experts he is a bull in a china shop, trampling the “rules-based international order”. To the economics establishment he is a human wrecking ball, smashing more than half a century of consensus that free trade really works better than protectionism. No, no, no, the international-relations types exclaim. Don’t upset your European allies. Don’t walk out of the Paris climate accord. Don’t threaten North Korea. Don’t agree to a summit with Kim Jong-un. Don’t scrap the Iran deal. This will all end in disaster — either the Third World War or a peaceful Chinese takeover of the world. Or a Russian takeover of Europe. Or something terrible, horrible, no good, very bad. Stop, stop, stop, wail the economists. Don’t impose tariffs on anyone — especially not your allies. Don’t demand reductions in the US-China trade deficit. Don’t pass huge tax cuts. This will all end in disaster — either a Great Depression or galloping inflation. Or something terrible, horrible, no good, very bad. A striking feature of all this dire commentary is how wrong it has been so far. Despite all the Cassandra talk, America could still meet its Paris target for reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Europeans have largely accepted that they need to spend more on their own defence. Kim has halted his missile and warhead tests and come to the negotiating table (if not quite on his hands and knees, as Rudy Giuliani claimed last week). And Iran is reeling from the reimposition of sanctions and a concerted US-Israeli-Arab military pushback. Despite all the trade war talk, the US economy is at full employment, the dollar is rallying, the stock market is up 30% since Trump’s election and the only countries in any trouble are the usual suspects with their usual problems (such as Turkey). It is not that Trump is an underrated genius, or an idiot savant. It is just that his intuitive, instinctive, impulsive way of operating, familiar to those who have done business with him, is exposing some basic flaws in the conceptual framework of the Paltuds. Yes, there is much to be said in principle for an international order based on explicit rules; and, yes, those rules should favour free trade over protectionism. But if, in practice, your liberal international order allows China to overtake you, first economically and then strategically, there is probably something wrong with it. The key to the Trump presidency is that it is probably the last opportunity America has to stop or at least slow China’s ascendancy. And while it may not be intellectually very satisfying, Trump’s approach to the problem, which is to assert US power in unpredictable and disruptive ways, may in fact be the only viable option left. Think of the world as a three-empire system. Forget the World Cup and its fantasy that all nations have an equal shot and giant-killing Davids can sometimes slay Goliaths. In the real World Cup of power, Goliaths rule. As Thucydides says the Athenians told the Melians: “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” The strong in today’s world are the United States, China and Europe, in that order. Each empire is evolving in a different direction. The American empire, having experienced overextension in Afghanistan and Iraq, has not retreated into isolation but continues to exert lethal force and still dominates the world’s oceans. Its latest step down the road to empire is domestic: Trump’s claim that he can pardon himself is part of the fundamental challenge he poses to the formal and informal rules of the republic. A moment of truth is fast approaching when Robert Mueller’s report exposes all kinds of crimes and misdemeanours, some of them very probably of the “high” variety that would justify impeachment. Probably the Democrats will win back the House of Representatives in November and proceed to impeach Trump. But what will happen if his approval rating holds up — perhaps even improves? What if he simply brazens it out, as Richard Nixon did not? That would be the Roman moment. All the accompanying symptoms of the transition from republic to empire are visible. The plebs despise the elites. An old and noble senatorial order personified by John McCain is dying. A cultural civil war rages on social media, the modern-day forum, with all civility cast aside and character assassination a daily occurrence. The president-emperor dominates public discourse by issuing 280-character edicts, picking fights with gladiators — sorry, American football players — and arbitrarily pardoning convicted criminals. Meanwhile, the Chinese empire becomes ever-more centralised, ever-more invasive of its citizens’ privacy and ever-more overt in its overseas expansion. The western world regards Xi Jinping as an almighty potentate. Few observers appreciate the acute sense of weakness that has motivated his tightening grip on party and state and his surveillance of his own people. Few see the risks of imperial ventures such as the Belt and Road initiative, which is drawing Chinese investment into economically unpromising and strategically dangerous locations. The weakest of the three empires is the EU. True, its institutions in Brussels have the power to impose rules, fines and taxes on the biggest US and Chinese corporations. But Europe lacks its own tech giants. Its navies, armies and air forces have melted away. And the political consensus on which it has been based for the past 60 years — between social democrats and moderate conservatives in every member state — is crumbling under a nationalist-populist assault. The logic of Trumpism is simply to bully the other empires, exploiting the fact that they are both weaker than the United States, in order to extract concessions and claim victories. The Chinese fear a trade war and will end up buying a very large amount of American produce in order to avoid one. The Europeans dare not stand up to Trump over his Iran sanctions and secretly agree with him about China, and so are reduced to impotent seething (Angela Merkel) or sycophancy (Emmanuel Macron, until last week). If they unite against him (as on the eve of the G7), he brings up Russia and divides them again. To the Paltuds, all this is incomprehensible. They will continue to find fault with Trump’s every success, nitpicking their way through the small print, failing to realise that in the imperial transition such details cease to matter. Octavian, too, was terrible, horrible, no good, very bad in the eyes of many of his Roman contemporaries. As Augustus, however, he triumphed. It is one of history’s most disquieting lessons. It will be a pity if Paltuds and plebs alike have to relearn it the hard way. Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford

Trump outwits Iran in a spaghetti gunfight

 The president’s foreign policy is pure The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

The greatest gunfight in the history of cowboy films is in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. It’s a three-cornered shootout between Blondie (Clint Eastwood), Tuco (Eli Wallach) and Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef). The crucial point is that before the shooting starts, Blondie has emptied Tuco’s revolver of bullets.

To members of Washington’s foreign policy establishment, regardless of party affiliation, Donald Trump’s decision to exit one nuclear deal (with Iran) only to enter another (with North Korea) is beyond baffling. “At a time when we are all rooting for diplomacy with North Korea to succeed,” wrote former president Barack Obama last week, “walking away from the JCPOA [joint comprehensive plan of action] risks losing a deal that accomplishes — with Iran — the very outcome that we are pursuing with the North Koreans.”

“If the terms of the Iran deal were applied to North Korea,” wrote CNN’s Fareed Zakaria on Thursday, “it would require Pyongyang to destroy its nuclear weapons.” Richard Haass, of the Council on Foreign Relations, was equally dismayed: Trump’s decision to abandon the Iran deal “could lead North Korea to question the utility of signing an agreement with the US”.

These guys clearly never saw The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Like Eastwood’s Blondie, Trump understands that only one of his antagonists has a loaded gun. North Korea needs to be treated differently from Iran, just as the Bad had to be treated differently from the Ugly.

I wish I had a dollar — or a fistful of dollars — for every article I have read in the past year about the foolishness or recklessness of Trump’s foreign policy. The funny thing is how few of the people writing such pieces pointed out the much greater foolishness and recklessness of his predecessor’s foreign policy. True, Obama’s cool professorial style was far more congenial to national security professionals than Trump’s tweetstorms. But let’s judge foreign policy by its results.

As I argued in July 2015, the goal of Obama’s Iran deal was not just to postpone the Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons by 10 years. For it to be more than a mere deferral, it also had to improve the relative strategic position of the United States and its allies so that by 2025 they would be in a stronger position to stop Iran entering the club of nuclear armed powers.

As Obama himself put it then, his hope was that by “building on this deal, we can continue to have conversations with Iran that incentivise them to behave differently in the region, to be less aggressive, less hostile, more co-operative . . . in resolving issues like Syria or what’s happening in Iraq, to stop encouraging Houthis in Yemen”.

This echoed what he had told The New Yorker back in 2014. “If we were able to get Iran to operate in a responsible fashion — not funding terrorist organisations, not trying to stir up sectarian discontent in other countries, and not developing a nuclear weapon — you could see an equilibrium developing between Sunni, or predominantly Sunni, Gulf states and Iran.”

Obama’s goal was a balance of power in the region. The key question, as I said at the time, was whether or not the Iran deal would increase regional stability. The outcome has been much as I predicted. In return for merely slowing down its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, Iran was handed $150bn in previously frozen assets, as well as a trade bonanza as sanctions were lifted.

Under the deal there was no threat to “snap back” sanctions if Tehran opted to use its new resources to increase its military support for Hezbollah and Hamas, Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria and Shi’ite Houthi rebels in Yemen. And so it did just that.

Equally predictably, Iran’s rivals in the region — particularly Saudi Arabia and Israel — responded by stepping up their military efforts in these theatres. Obama thought that by buying time he would get closer to a regional balance. The outcome was just the opposite: escalating conflict. The whole strategy sounded so clever and calculated. In practice it was foolish and reckless.

What about Obama’s North Korea policy? In essence, his administration applied ineffectual sanctions that did nothing whatsoever to slow down Kim Jong-un’s nuclear arms programme. As Obama left the White House, we were assured that North Korea was still roughly five years away from having intercontinental ballistic missiles and a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on them. Within months of Trump’s inauguration, it became clear that North Korea had in fact been just five months away from possessing those assets.

Trump’s approach is almost exactly the opposite of Obama’s. Here the parallel with the Eastwood film must be set aside. (Knowing that Tuco has no bullets, Blondie simply shoots Angel Eyes then makes Tuco dig for the gold they are after.) Trump began with the Bad, not the Ugly. He explicitly threatened Pyongyang with “fire and fury”.

For a time, Kim acted defiant but the fact that South Korea and China feared Trump was in earnest had its effect. The South Koreans offered olive branches. The Chinese squeezed North Korea’s economic windpipe. Trump then made a key concession: he agreed to a summit meeting with Kim. Next month in Singapore we shall see what comes of it. My guess is the deal will make Trump’s knee-jerk critics themselves look foolish. He won’t get complete denuclearisation, but he will get some. Meanwhile, large-scale South Korean and Chinese investment in North Korea will start the process of prising open the hermit kingdom.

I don’t suppose the Scandinavians will give Trump the Nobel peace prize, any more than they will rescind Obama’s for screwing up Syria, but that’s not the point. The point will be that Trump achieved a breakthrough where Obama utterly failed.

Now for Iran. Trump’s strategy in year one was to reassure his country’s traditional allies in the region — not only the Saudis and Israelis, but also the other Arab states — that he was on their side against Iranian expansionism. Apart from the little local difficulty of Qatar, that was achieved. In year two he is not only reapplying American sanctions on Iran — and remember that they affect not only US companies but European ones too — but also applying pressure on the ground in all those countries where the Iranians have intervened. Step forward the new national security team, secretary of state Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton — names calculated to make the mullahs quake.

“You see, in this world there’s two kinds of people, my friend,” Blondie tells Tuco after that memorable gunfight. “Those with loaded guns and those who dig.” Thanks to the Obama administration’s ineffectual tactics, the North Koreans got themselves into the former category: it became a nuclear state. But Iran now has to dig.

Economically weak enough to suffer a wave of riots in December and January, the Iranians will not find it easy to withstand the snap-back of sanctions and the roll-back of its forces abroad. And if you think the Russians will help them, you must have missed Binyamin Netanyahu shaking hands with Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin last week.

Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford

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