Trump at G-20, With His Mind Back Home   

Just minutes after he landed in Argentina for the G-20 summit, U.S. President Donald Trump made clear there were other things on his mind besides the meeting of the world’s leading economies.

Shortly after disembarking from Air Force One, Trump sent a pair of tweets slamming the investigation of special counsel Robert Mueller, demanding he instead look into the “real crimes of the other side.” 

Just a few hours later, as the sun was still rising on the first morning of the G-20 gathering, Trump sent two more tweets on the same topic, suggesting a preoccupation with domestic — not international — affairs.

Of course, Trump is not the first U.S. president to address domestic events while overseas. U.S. presidents travel with an entourage of White House reporters that frequently ask U.S.-focused questions. 

But on his international trips, Trump places an unusually heavy emphasis on domestic affairs. When combined with an “America First” foreign policy that downplays the importance of multilateral institutions, Trump’s approach can complicate forums like the G-20.

“I just don’t think President Trump is interested in the agenda of international cooperation at this summit,” said Mark Simakovsky with the Atlantic Council. “He’s more interested in having it as a venue where he can promote his own national and foreign policy.” 

Trump’s tweets suggest he is especially concerned about Mueller’s investigation that is looking into possible links between Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and Russia, which tried to interfere in the election.

On Thursday, Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty to misleading lawmakers about the timing of talks for a tower that the Trump organization was trying to build in Moscow. 

Rising nationalism

Trump isn’t the only thing impeding multilateral cooperation. From Brazil to Russia, rising global nationalism has complicated international efforts on a wide range of issues, including trade and climate change. 

But Trump has a unique ability to attract attention often hurling insults at world leaders before, during, and after his foreign stops. That alone hurts forums like the G-20, many analysts say.

In June at a G-7 summit in Canada, Trump engaged in confrontations with his counterparts over his steel and aluminum tariffs, before leaving early and failing to sign a joint communique. On his way out, Trump blasted Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as “meek and mild.” 

Earlier this month, Trump skipped a World War I ceremony in Paris, citing traffic and bad weather. While in France, Trump instead tweeted about recent U.S. midterm election results, among other topics. After leaving, Trump noted French President Emmanuel Macron’s “very low approval rating.” 

USMCA success

Trump has scored some multilateral achievements. 

On Friday, Trump joined Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto in signing the recently agreed upon trade deal between the three countries. 

The deal, which only followed often publicly contentious negotiations, now must be ratified by lawmakers in all three countries. 

“This has been a battle, and battles sometimes make great friendships,” Trump told his counterparts during the ceremony. But he called the deal a “truly groundbreaking achievement.” 

Everyone else first, too?

Trump’s “America First” approach also is causing other nations to become nationalistic in international settings, however, like the G-20, according to Roberto Bouzas, a professor at Argentina’s Universidad de San Andres.

“If the U.S., which is the most influential international actor, publicly states that what matters most and only is its own national interest, then it doesn’t make much sense that the rest of the world says something different or acts in a different way,” said Bouzas.

White House officials say that’s OK, insisting that every country is free to look out for its own interests. 

But that approach doesn’t work as well for some smaller countries, others insist.

“If multilateral institutions, multilateral rules fade away, that’s not good for us, because we are small and we need rules in order to perform better,” Bouzas said. “If we are left to power politics only, then we are on the losing side.”

Mexico Starts Moving Some Migrants to New Shelter

Authorities the Mexican city of Tijuana said Friday they have begun moving Central American migrants from an overcrowded shelter on the border to an events hall further away.

About 755 migrants boarded buses at the overcrowded sports complex within view of the border late Thursday and early Friday for the trip to the new site about 10 miles (15 kilometers) from the nearest border crossing.

Alejandro Magallanes, an assistant to the director of the city’s social services department, said authorities hoped to bus over as many migrants as possible Friday. Concerns had been growing over unhealthy conditions at the muddy sports field where migrants are sleeping in small tents.

Magallanes said nobody would be forced to move to the new facility, a large building known as El Barretal that has been used for concerts and other events in the past.

But city officials planned to stop offering food and medical services at the Benito Juarez sports complex next to the border on Friday.

Migrants would be allowed to stay — many who hope to cross don’t want to move far away from the border — but they will have to find their own food, Magallanes said.

Experts had expressed concerns about unsanitary conditions at the sports complex where more than 6,000 migrants are packed into a space adequate for half that many people. Mud, lice infestations and respiratory infections are rampant.

Magallanes said many migrants squeezed into a gymnasium at the outdoor sports complex amid a steady downpour Thursday night. The complex was covered with mud with the storm. On Friday, rain was intermittent with breaks in the clouds.

Some migrants had found work near the sports complex and were unsure about moving to a place they did not know, though it meant they would have a roof over their heads.

But authorities and residents in Tijuana are concerned the migrants might try to make another mass rush across the border: Their first attempt last weekend led to a brief closure of border crossings that Tijuana residents use to reach jobs and shopping on the U.S. side.

Meanwhile, several migrants swam around or climbed over the border barrier overnight and were detained by U.S. officials.

Six men and one woman jumped or slipped over the border barrier in Tijuana and were quickly detained by customs and border protection agents.

One Honduran man tried to swim to the U.S. side but quickly got in trouble in the rough waters of the Pacific. A Mexican rescue team forcibly pulled him ashore and put him into an ambulance.

 

Migrants from US-Bound Caravan Get Help Returning Home

The U.N. migration agency says that in November it repatriated more than 450 Central American citizens, mostly men, who were in a caravan of U.S.-bound migrants.

The agency says at least another 300 of the estimated 4,000 migrants and asylum-seekers who have arrived in the Mexican border city of Tijuana expressed an interest in going home. International Organization for Migration spokesman Joel Millman says his agency is coordinating a safe and dignified means of transportation for those wishing to return to their countries of origin. 

He tells VOA that people who have concerns for their safety are referred to government institutions that can help them when they arrive in their home countries.

“We are aware of clan violence or gang violence in a lot of these neighborhoods,” Millman said. “And, of course, IOM has a long-standing program of assisting LGBT, especially teens, in these countries. So, we know that those kinds of cases certainly will be referred to any social society people and also government institutions where they can help.” 

Millman says many of the migrants wishing to go home have told aid workers they learned about the U.S. caravans through social media and TV and impulsively joined them. He says few considered the risks and the many exhausting days of walking, instead thinking only that they could get jobs in America.

He says information and registration booths will remain open in Guatemala, Mexico City and Tijuana for migrants voluntarily seeking assistance to return home. The program is funded by a $1.2 million grant from the U.S. State Department.

U.S. President Donald Trump has maintained the illegal entry of immigrants across the southern border is harmful to the national interests of the United States. Mexico has denied it is willing to let the asylum-seekers stay there pending the outcome of their cases in U.S. immigration courts.

Brussels Police Water-cannon ‘yellow vest’ Protesters

Belgian police fired water-cannon and teargas in central Brussels on Friday to drive back protesters inspired by France’s “yellow vest” anti-tax movement who hurled rocks at the prime minister’s office.

For nearly three hours, crowds of people complaining about fuel prices and a squeeze on living standards had disrupted traffic and walked the streets in an unauthorized demonstration that lacked clear leadership, largely promoted via social media.

Several hundred people wearing the fluorescent safety vests drivers must carry in their vehicles eventually converged on the office of Prime Minister Charles Michel. Dozens, many of them masked, threw rocks, firecrackers and road signs at police who doused them with high-pressure water jets and fired gas rounds.

Protests in Belgium, notably around fuel depots in the French-speaking south, have been inspired by the yellow vest — or “gilet jaune” — actions in France against increases in fuel duty imposed by President Emmanuel Macron’s government as part of efforts to reduce emissions causing global warming.

“Michel, resign!” people chanted on Friday. Michel, a liberal ally of Macron, voiced sympathy for people’s troubles on Thursday, but added: “Money doesn’t fall from the sky.”

His center-right coalition faces an election in May.

Canada, Mexico, US Sign Trade Deal

The leaders of Canada, Mexico and the United States signed a new North American trade deal Friday. Justin Trudeau, Enrique Pena Nieto and Donald Trump inked the deal in Argentina, ahead of the opening of the G-20 summit.

It will, however, take a while for the agreement to take effect as lawmakers from all three countries have to approve the scheme, officially known as the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA.

The pact underpins $1.2 billion in annual trade among the three countries.

It replaces NAFTA, a pact that Trump had roundly criticized in his 2016 presidential campaign, terming it the worst trade deal in history and blaming NAFTA for the loss of American manufacturing jobs since it went into effect in 1994. 

Trump called the deal a “model agreement that changes the trade landscape forever” at a news conference with his North American counterparts in Buenos Aires, Argentina, ahead of the G-20 conference.

When the three countries agreed on the USMCA deal earlier this year, the U.S. leader said, “This landmark agreement will send cash and jobs pouring into the United States and into North America.” 

Joshua Meltzer, a senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, told VOA at that time that the deal was not that much different from NAFTA.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a vastly different deal at all.” Meltzer said. “It’s an agreement that’s over 20 years old and so it clearly needed to be updated.I think certainly it reduces a level of anxiety about how the administration was going to square its rhetoric on trade with an actual trade deal. We certainly see some increased protectionism in some areas, particularly in the auto sector.But overall it’s an update of a trade agreement, it’s comprehensive, and it’s largely good for improving integration between the three economies.” 

Ukraine Bars Entry to Russian Males, Upping Ante in Conflict

Ukrainian officials on Friday upped the ante in the growing confrontation with Russia, announcing a travel ban for most Russian males and searching the home of an influential cleric of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The long-simmering conflict bubbled over Sunday when Russian border guards rammed into and opened fired on three Ukrainian vessels near the Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow annexed in 2014. The vessels were trying to pass through the Kerch Strait on their way to the Sea of Azov. The Russians then captured the ships and 24 crew members.

The Ukrainian parliament on Monday adopted the president’s motion to impose martial law in the country for 30 days in the wake of the standoff.

There has been growing hostility between Ukraine and Russia since Moscow’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014. Russia has also supported separatists in Ukraine’s east with clandestine dispatches of troops and weapons. Fighting there has killed at least 10,000 people since 2014 but eased somewhat after a 2015 truce.

Petro Tsygykal, chief of the Ukrainian Border Guard Service, announced at a security meeting on Friday that all Russian males between 16 and 60 will be barred from traveling to the country while martial law is in place.

President Petro Poroshenko told the meeting that the measures are taken “in order to prevent the Russian Federation from forming private armies” on Ukrainian soil.

The announcement follows Thursday’s decision by U.S. President Donald Trump to scrap the much-anticipated meeting with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Trump said it isn’t appropriate for him to meet with Putin since Russia hasn’t released the Ukrainian seamen.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian intelligence agency announced on Friday that they are investigating a senior cleric of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Ihor Guskov, chief of staff of the SBU intelligence agency, told reporters that its officers are searching the home of Father Pavlo, who leads the Pechersk Monastery in Kiev. He said the cleric is suspected of “inciting hatred.”

The Pechersk Monastery, the spiritual center of Ukraine, is under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The Ukrainian church, which has been part of the Russian Orthodox Church for centuries, moved close to forming an independent church — fueled by the conflict with Russia Ukraine’s Orthodox communities earlier this year.

There are currently three Orthodox communities in Ukraine, including two breakaway churches. Ukrainian authorities sought to portray the Russian Orthodox clerics in Ukraine as supporting separatists.

Ukraine’s president announced on Thursday that the Constantinople patriarchy has approved a decree granting the Ukrainian Orthodox Church independence from the Russian Orthodox Church, a major boost to the president’s approval ratings.

Both the Russian Orthodox Church and Russian authorities are strongly against the move and have warned Ukraine not to do it, fearing sectarian violence.

Russian government-appointed ombudswoman for Crimea told Russian news agencies that all the seamen have been transported from a detention center in Crimea. The three commanders have been taken to Moscow, she said. It wasn’t immediately clear where the other 21 have been taken.

A Crimea court earlier this week ruled to keep the Ukrainian seamen behind bars for two months pending the investigation.

Report: Russia, China ‘Stress-Testing’ Resolve of West

Russia and China are among several countries attempting to “stress-test” the resolve of traditional powers, according to a report from the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.

It claims so-called “challenger” nations are persistently testing the tolerance of established powers for different forms of aggression, from proxy wars to cyberattacks.

The researchers cite the seizure this week of three Ukrainian naval vessels by Russian forces in the Azov Sea off Crimea, the territory that was forcibly annexed in 2014. Moscow claims these are Russian waters, in contravention of a 2003 deal between Moscow and Ukraine, which agreed the Azov Sea would be shared.

Ukraine warns its Black Sea ports are being cut off. A bridge built by Russia linking it with Crimea now limits the size of ships able to navigate the Kerch Strait.

Probing for weaknesses

The aim is to change the facts on the ground, said Nicholas Redman, co-author of the institute’s “Strategic Survey” report.

“They’re testing tolerances, probing for weaknesses, getting a measure of the resolve of other states by acts that are generally aggressive but are below the threshold of something that would obviously require a military response,” Redman told VOA.

Iran is also accused of conducting “tolerance warfare” by using its Revolutionary Guard and proxies across the Middle East to destabilize other countries, such as Syria.

Beijing’s activities in the South China Sea are also seen as part of the strategy to test Western resolve in that arena.

“China has used not its navy, but its coast guard or some other at-water capabilities in order to slowly push the envelope in the South China Sea. And obviously, the island-building campaign and the growth of infrastructure around there is about — without directly confronting anyone — nevertheless changing facts on the ground,” Redman said.

How to respond

So how should those on the receiving end of “tolerance warfare” respond? The report’s authors praise Britain’s reaction to the attempted chemical poisoning of a former double agent on British soil earlier this year, which London blamed on the GRU, the intelligence branch of Russia’s armed forces.

“What we saw was a powerful, asymmetric response. Sanctions, a tremendous degree of allied solidarity over diplomatic expulsions, and then an information operation over several months to systematically expose GRU activity,” Redman said.

The report warns a new era of geopolitical competition urgently requires new rules governing international behavior but negotiating such a global framework is fraught with difficulty.

Britain’s May to Talk With Saudi Crown Prince About Khashoggi Killing

The British prime minister says she intends to talk about the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the G-20 meeting in Argentina.

Theresa May said on the airplane to Buenos Aires that the British government “wants to see a full and transparent investigation in relation to what happened and obviously those responsible being held to account.”

The Guardian, a British newspaper, said Downing Street sources have not officially confirmed a bilateral meeting but have suggested that May and the crown prince would be “engaging.”

Khashoggi, a Saudi national and critic of the crown prince, was killed last month after entering the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, where he had gone to obtain documents needed for his upcoming wedding.

Saudi Arabia has denied allegations that Salman played a role in Khashoggi’s death, blaming the killing on rogue agents. U.S. President Donald Trump has echoed Riyadh’s denials and said the matter remains an open question.

South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, a frequent defender of Trump has joined other U.S. lawmakers in demanding a briefing by the CIA on Khashoggi’s death and has threatened to withhold votes on urgent legislation if it does not occur.