In Other News: Demonstrations in Europe and Around the World, Brazil’s Democracy Under Threat, New Start Negotiations with Russia & More – June 12, 2020

June 12, 2020

Demonstrators have taken to the streets in Europe and around the world, inspired by the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States. Protests against the police killing of American citizen George Floyd in the United States have had global reverberations. Demonstrations have been seen in major cities of Europe, including Paris, Berlin, and Amsterdam, and in other countries like New Zealand, Syria, and Kenya. Most of the global demonstrations have been peaceful, as protesters have expressed solidarity with a movement in the United States to address issues of racial justice. In Europe, protesters have also sought to address their history of colonialism and racism. For example, in Bristol, England, protesters pulled down a statue of 17th century slave trader Edward Colston. Social upheaval in this moment should not come as a surprise, however, as the global coronavirus pandemic has caused economic and social dislocations while also bringing attention to existing social and racial inequities around the globe.

Brazil’s democracy is under threat as President Jair Bolsonaro seemingly embraces the possibility of a military takeover. President Bolsonaro has faced intense criticism in the past two months for his handling of the public health crisis and the economic fallout of Covid-19. The death toll from the virus has increased past 38,000 in official numbers. At the same time, Bolsonaro is under scrutiny for abuse of power and intervening in an investigation into corruption allegations related to his sons. Military leaders like Bolsonaro’s national security advisor Augusto Heleno have warned of “unpredictable consequences” to growing instability in the country, and Bolsonaro seems to be embracing the possibility of a military takeover as a way to maintain his grip on power. Bolsonaro was elected in 2018 with support from the military and has many Army generals in his cabinet, so it is not surprising that he is leaning on the military now in a time of political, economic, and social crisis. However, the specter of the military taking control over Brazil’s democratic institutions in an “autogolpe” or self-styled coup d’etat harkens back to the 1980s when the Brazilian military ran the country. This does not bode well for Brazil’s democracy. Brazil has the second-highest number of Covid-19 cases in the world, and the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) has warned that the virus continues to spread “aggressively” in Brazil, Peru, and Chile.

The U.S. and Russia will return to talks later this month on extending the New Start nuclear disarmament treaty beyond its scheduled expiration in February, but suggestions that China might also participate have been rebuffed. The treaty stipulates that the U.S. and Russia must reduce their inventories of strategic nuclear missile launchers by half, and the Trump administration appears to back its extension. However, the U.S. has also floated the idea of replacing it with a more far-reaching arms-control treaty that includes China, which has a much smaller nuclear arsenal than either the U.S. or Russia, but whose military capabilities are growing. The U.S. proposal prompted a warning from Moscow that China’s inclusion would scuttle prospects for an extension, and China has said it will not participate in nuclear talks. Whether or not the two sides pursue a modified arrangement that includes China, an extension would mark progress towards multiple goals – a long-desired U.S.-Russia reset (provided both sides are acting in good faith), avoiding a new arms race (which would add yet more financial hardship to the economic impact of the pandemic), and showing global leadership on disarmament.

North Korea has cut off all lines of communication with South Korea and pledged to treat it as an “enemy” over allegations that defectors in South Korea have been distributing anti-North Korean regime leaflets in the North. Though South Korea has said it would take legal action against organizations engaged in propaganda distribution north of the border in a bid to ease tensions, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un has seized on the U.S. response to the incident – a public statement from the State Department expressing its disappointment in the development – and threatened to interfere in the upcoming U.S. presidential election in November. These threats are unlikely to rise above the level of what have become standard provocations, possibly intended to push the U.S. closer to some sort of deal exchanging North Korean nuclear non-proliferation commitment for sanctions relief or even economic assistance from the U.S. But there is limited scope for progress on a deal between now and November, and if history is any guide, this will turn out to be nothing more than a short-lived spectacle.