By Jacob L. Shapiro
It is no secret that technology has been both a blessing and a curse for the dissemination of information. The blessing lies in the way it has made information accessible and timely. There is a wealth of data out there – more than any single person can distill – and we are privy to developments all around the world in real time. The curse is that the sheer amount of information available makes it more difficult to separate the important from the mundane. And once we are accustomed to the instant gratification – when all news is “breaking” – how can we know what is deserving of being news in the first place? Knowing everything ironically leads to knowing nothing.
This past weekend has not been without developments that are worth our attention. The high-level U.S. trade delegation to China returned home after inconclusive talks, reportedly without even getting a chance to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping or his top lieutenant, Wang Qishan, who was recently deputized to handle U.S.-China relations. The delegation has so far said only that it had frank talks and that it now needs to present options to U.S. President Donald Trump. In other words, the U.S. and China are butting heads over trade, and the U.S. has to decide just how far it wants to push, and how much short-term cost it wants to pass on to the U.S. consumer, in using its leverage as China’s most important trade partner to change China’s behavior.
Meanwhile, the Korean Peninsula awaits the upcoming summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. South Korean news reports claim to have a scoop: It appears that the two will meet in Singapore in mid-June. The details still have to be ironed out, but for now the situation on the peninsula is basically frozen in place. North Korean media is trying to shape the narrative, saying that sanctions did not bring Kim to the bargaining table and that South Korean opposition parties are trying to poison the reconciliation process. Japan, China and South Korea will hold a high-level summit this week, out of which many photo ops and statements will be released. Everyone awaits the main event.
The winds of a second Cold War are blowing strong as ever. The U.S. chief of naval operations announced the re-establishment of the U.S. 2nd Fleet, responsible for naval operations on the East Coast of the United States and the northern Atlantic Ocean. The 2nd Fleet was disbanded in 2011, mostly because of budget cuts but also because it was deemed obsolete – the U.S. faced no threats on the Eastern Seaboard. Resources were better deployed in Middle East wars and trying to “pivot” to the Pacific. Now, according to the CNO, the U.S. faces an era of renewed great power competition, and that means the 2nd Fleet must be ready for duty. A Pentagon spokesman added that NATO’s new Joint Forces Command would be based in the same city as 2nd Fleet headquarters – Norfolk, Virginia – and said both moves were prompted by “a resurgent Russia.”
The day before the U.S. announced the resuscitation of the 2nd Fleet, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute reported that Russia had cut its defense spending by 20 percent (in real terms) in 2017, the first time since 1998 that Russia’s defense spending has decreased. A Kremlin spokesman said SIPRI was wrong about the figure but right about the trend – Russia was indeed reducing spending. Just a few months ago, the Kremlin was showing off brand-new, expensive advances in weapons technology. Such a reversal is not what one would expect from an enemy whose navy is reportedly more active in the North Atlantic than at any time since the Cold War.
The biggest developments out of Russia over the weekend were domestic, not military. Russia arrested and released its favorite opposition punching bag, Alexei Navalny, as he led a rally against Russian President Vladimir Putin days before Putin’s inauguration. Such occasional protests have not amounted to much in the past, and there is little reason to expect them to now. This doesn’t mean we should put too much stock in the claim of the Russian Public Opinion Research Center that Russians’ happiness over the past 12 months “is the highest over the entire history of opinion polls” in the country. But generally speaking, Russia’s government is still popular at home. The underlying dynamics threatening Putin’s rule are still present, but with oil prices holding steadily high enough to balance Russia’s budget, there’s not much to see here.
As for Europe, EU budget negotiations continue apace. France continues to thump its chest abroad and doubt its president at home. Germany has essentially vanished, with a weak grand coalition struggling to build an EU-wide policy to respond to U.S. protectionist policies. This is bringing Germany and France into conflict, as Germany, ever-dependent on trade, wants to find accommodation with the U.S., while France, less dependent on trade and ever-desirous of making a point, prefers to take a harder line. Both countries are steeling themselves for the U.S. to reinstate sanctions against Iran at the end of next week, having failed to convince Trump of the Iran nuclear deal’s worth.
In the Middle East, it was a rare weekend in which not much happened. The Iraqi air force hit Islamic State targets in Syria, but that has become something of a regular occurrence. Here, too, regional actors are waiting for the other shoe to drop. The Iranian government, which has already been embarrassed by repeated Israeli airstrikes on its bases in Syria, will be embarrassed by the United States’ reneging on the nuclear deal. It has been plotting its response to both. Turkey is heading into election season, Israel is preparing for war, and Syria remains engulfed in spasmodic civil war. The Middle East has been in the throes of a low-level proxy war, teetering on interstate war, for months. For now, the proxies are doing the fighting while the most important powers await an opportune moment to seize their interests.
In other words, the world was in a holding pattern over the weekend. No single event was more important than another, and none of the developments were transformative. But these are the mundane stories – not the latest Stormy Daniels story, or a photo essay on what Mosul looked like before the Islamic State – that will be the subject of the headlines that matter this week.