Research & Analysis

The World This Week: Trump’s setbacks in Georgia and Pennsylvania, hectic American engagements in the Middle East, and the race for the COVID-19 vaccines

The United States: Trump’s strategy to block the election results suffer reversals in Georgia and Pennsylvania. He may lose the case in Michigan as well.

What happened?
On 21 November, a judge in Pennsylvania dismissed a lawsuit filed by the Trump team against voter fraud. According to the judge, the lawsuit had “strained legal arguments without merit and speculative accusations” and was “unsupported by evidence.” Earlier, Rudy Giuliani, the personal attorney for President Trump had filed a lawsuit that the mail ballots had widespread voter fraud. The WSJ quoted the judge saying: “In the United States of America, this cannot justify the disenfranchisement of a single voter, let alone all the voters of its sixth most populated state.” Pennsylvania would certify the election results on Monday; according to the existing tally, Biden would win 20 seats from the State.

On 20 November 2020, in Georgia, the election officials after a “methodical hand recount” reconfirmed the victory of Biden by 12,670 votes. The NYT quoted Georgia’s secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, bluntly declared on Friday, “I live by the motto that numbers don’t lie.” This would mean, Biden would win 16 seats from the State. 

Also on 20 November 2020, according to another NYT report, a “delegation of seven Michigan Republicans, who had met with Mr Trump at the White House at his request, said they had no information “that would change the outcome of the election in Michigan.” According to the existing tally, Biden has won more than 50 per cent of the votes in Michigan, while Trump has only 47.89 per cent. Michigan would provide another 16 seats to Biden if the State has to certify the election results. 

What is the background?
First, the refusal to accept the US presidential election result by Donald Trump. Never before in the recent history of US presidential elections, there has been such a vulgar response to the final result. At the core, is Trump’s refusal to accept the verdict, and his refusal to see the writing on the wall.

Second, the failure of legal options to delay the inevitable. The Trump campaign has filed a series of lawsuits alleging largescale voter fraud, especially in the postal ballots. While there have been a few cases of ballots not having the dates, there has been no large scale fraud, as the Trump campaign alleges. The courts, as has been the case in Pennsylvania, have been dismissing such lawsuits as having no credible evidence. As a result, the Trump campaign is running out of options, as it is unable to prove large scale voter fraud in the elections. Trump has asked his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani to represent these lawsuits; so far, he has no single legal case of success. 

Third, the pressure on the Republican party. The party has also been under pressure from Trump to take sides. The latest case is the White House is pressurizing the Republican officials in States to delay the inevitable, by not certifying. The officials were invited to the White House, and a meeting was held during the week on the above. 

What does it mean?
First, Trump is threatening the very foundations of the electoral system in the US democracy. He is not only questioning the process legally but also inciting his supporters to undermine the election results by engaging in the street protests. Several election officials have been receiving threats from the Trump supporters.

Second, the standing of the Republican party and its role in safeguarding the electoral process and the sanctity of the Presidential election system. The party would face serious questions in the long run, for openly siding with Trump’s strategies to undermine the American vote and the larger values.

Third, questions over the larger electoral process. There have been a few issues in the larger process through which the US elects its President. Trump has revealed the loopholes and areas where the process needs fixing. 


The US in the Middle East: A week of hectic engagements over Israel, Syria, Iran, Qatar and Iraq
What happened?
On 19 November, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Psagot Winery, an Israeli settlement in the West Bank. He also visited occupied Golan Heights at the Syria-Israel border. This is the first visit of a top American official to areas that are not recognized by the international community.

On 18 November, the US imposed new sanctions on Islamic Revolution Mostazafan Foundation, a conglomerate that is closely linked to the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The US Department of Treasury accused Khamenei of misusing the Foundation’s funds to “enrich his office, reward his political allies, and persecute the regime’s enemies.” While the US is attempting to isolate Iran in the Middle East, it is working towards lifting the three-year blockade on Qatar. The US National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien hinted at the possibility of GCC crisis thawing within the next 70 days.

On 17 November, the US Acting Secretary of Defence Christopher Miller, announced troop reduction in Iraq and Afghanistan. 500 troops will be recalled from Iraq, leaving only 2500 troops on the ground.

What is the background?
First, the most assertive pro-Israel stance by the US. Trump administration has taken an overwhelming pro-Israel position in the Middle East. Earlier in 2018, the US recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and relocated its embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. Mike Pompeo’s visit to the Golan Heights and the Israeli settlements in the West Bank is a major step towards acknowledging Israel’s sovereignty over these occupied areas.

Second, the pressure on Iran, as Trump continues his ‘maximum pressure’ policy. He imposed sanctions, unilaterally withdrew from the JCPOA, launched an offensive against the Quds Force and the IRGC. The killing of General Soleimani in January 2020 further deteriorated the bilateral relations. The US has been pursuing an economic policy to isolate Iran and increase its economic woes.

Third, the role of US troops in the Middle East. The Trump administration has substantially reduced troops in the region, particularly in Iraq. This is a part of Trump’s policy to end wars on foreign soil. Besides reducing the troops, the US has used its military efficiently in supporting the Kurdish forces, killing Abu Bark al-Baghdadi and decimating the Islamic State. 

What does it mean?
First, the Trump administration, unlike the previous ones, is not pursuing a balanced role in the Israel-Palestine issue, particularly on new settlements and human rights violations. He aims at a legacy that shows a consistent policy that includes a firm pro-Israel stance, and the need to end “endless wars”.

Second, the Palestinian cause and regional dynamics. Abraham Accords act as a major game-changer. The Arab countries are beginning to have official diplomatic relations with Israel, much to the disappointment of Palestine. Also, the non-Arab countries like Iran and Turkey are supporting the Palestinian cause. In this regard, Arab vs non-Arab debates are becoming more evident. The Accords has been successful up to some extent, at least in binding the rivals of Iran together.

Third, Trump projects his policies towards the Middle East as his major achievement. Through mediation and peace plans, he aims to see concrete outcomes in the region. It may be premature to label it as a successful peace initiative, as there is categorical support for one side against the other. He has also encouraged Saudi Arabia to purchase more arms and ammunition from the US, despite knowing that they will be used against the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Nevertheless, Trump will see through the lens of the Accords and project this as the major achievement.

Fourth, the tough road ahead for Joe Biden in the Middle East. It is likely to constrain Biden’s approach towards the region. Certainly, there will be attempts to reverse some major foreign policy decisions of Trump, particularly on the maximum pressure policy on Iran, and cases of human rights violations. However, any move to undo Trump’s actions will be perceived as pro-Iran; hence Biden has a tough road to tread over in the Middle East.


The COVID-19 Vaccine Race: The politics of development and distribution

What happened?
On 18 November, Pfizer announced that its vaccine, developed with partner BioNTech SE, has tested to be 95 per cent effective in its final stages of clinical-stage data analysis. It has sought an emergency authorization; the vaccine is expected to be available for use before Christmas. 

On 19 November, the CEO of Serum Institute of India announced that the Oxford vaccine would be priced at 1000 INR, and would be made available as early as February 2021, with a priority for the elderly and healthcare workers. 

What is the background?
First, the race towards the vaccine. So far, only two vaccines have been approved – both from Russia. Sputnik V and EpiVacCorona have been granted regulatory approval and have been in use since August 2020.  With 10 candidates at phase three testing, two prominent public-private partnerships are underway. The Operation Warp Speed, a trans-Atlantic initiative, is funding three vaccine candidates from the US and Europe for Phase three trials: Moderna’s mRNA-1273, University of Oxford and AstraZeneca’s AZD1222, and Pfizer and BioNTech’s BNT162. With four leading candidates, China has administered three of its experimental vaccines by Sinopharm and Sinovac Biotech to almost a million people through its emergency use programme. The WHO has COVAX initiative to offer low-cost COVID-19 vaccines to countries. 

Second, the questions over effectiveness. Vaccine characteristics that are critical for successful rollout globally, like immunization schedule (ideally a single dose), temperature stability (ideally no refrigeration), the potential for rapid scale-up of manufacturing, and low cost, which are key to mass production, are currently not being considered in the competition for licenses or marketing approval. This week’s updates on vaccine development come with an ongoing race between the pharmaceutical companies to develop a vaccine promising high effectiveness and secure their position as major suppliers. However, some experts have expressed doubts; for example, Masayuki Miyasaka, a leading immunologist from Osaka University has stated, “There’s no doubt that their effectiveness is quite high, but their safety is not guaranteed at all,” sounding a word of caution about expectations from the vaccines.

Third, the gap between science and practice. Though the vaccine developments have promised high efficiency, there is no clarity on the distribution and availability for the regions across the world. Many laboratories have begun to take the rights to develop, manufacture, and commercialize it for their own countries’ consumption. The WHO has warned of “building a base camp on Mount Everest, not reaching the summit,” indicating that the real challenge is the enormous task of global immunization.

What does it mean?
It has been almost a year since the breakout. Though vaccine development is a tedious process, scientists have projected that the protection may be relatively short-lived (likely a year), requiring more than one dosage per person. 

The multiple vaccines in the race would help in meeting global demand. However, they would also bring out the differences between nations that have the means to develop/procure vaccinations and the developing world. 

Given that the news on vaccine developments is exciting, there is cause for concern when even in countries like India, “Probably by 2024, every Indian would get vaccinated,” is the only official statement that would come from the leading vaccine lab. The vaccine conundrum brings to the fore the limitations faced during times of crisis despite the heights of technological growth. 
 


Also in the news…
by Akriti Sharma and Lokendra Sharma

East and Southeast Asia This Week
Australia: Defence Ministry’s report on Afghanistan war crimes released 
On 19 November, the Australian Defense Force (ADF) Chief Gen Angus Campbell released the findings of a four-year inquiry report on war crimes committed by the elite Australian forces in Afghanistan. The report found “credible information” about the “unlawful killing” of 39 unarmed Afghan prisoners, farmers and civilians during the period 2009-13. Gen Campbell apologized to the people of Afghanistan on behalf of the ADF. 

The APEC Summit: Trump’s surprise participation and Xi’s counter over US protectionism
On 20 November, the US President participated in the online Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit. He has skipped the APEC summits since 2017. A day before, the Chinese President countered the US protectionism and touted the “resilience and vitality” of the Chinese economy amid challenges presented by the pandemic. In a first joint statement since 2017, the 21 APEC leaders agreed to work for open, free and non-discriminatory trade and investment. 

Thailand: Clashes between the protestors and royalists
On 18 November, the charter amendment proposal put forward by iLaw, a human rights NGO, was rejected by the Thailand parliament. Drafts proposed by the government and opposition were however passed in the first reading by parliament. On 17 November, pro-democracy protestors clashed with royal supporters as the former marched towards the parliament. At least 55 were injured and six treated for gunshot wounds. 
 
South Asia This Week
India: Opts out of the RCEP, cites negative consequences
On 18 November, Indian Foreign Affairs Minister S Jaishankar said that opting out of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) was justified as becoming its part would have resulted in “immediate negative consequences” for India’s economy. On 15 November, the 10 ASEAN countries plus China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand signed the RCEP, world’s largest free trade deal. Absence of India and the US would add to China’s rising influence in global commerce flows.          

India: Phase-II of the Malabar exercise concludes with the US, Australia and Japan
On 20 November, the navies of India, the US, Australia, and Japan concluded the Malabar naval exercise in the Arabian sea. The first phase took place from 3-6 November in the Bay of Bengal and the second phase took place from 17-20 November. The exercise reflected the “commitment of the participating countries to support free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific as well as rule-based international order”, the Indian Navy said in a statement.

India: First summit with Luxembourg in two decades
On 19 November, Prime Minister Narendra Modi attended the India-Luxembourg summit virtually. It was the first summit between the two nations in two decades. Four bilateral agreements in the financial sector were signed. The two leaders also reaffirmed the need for the EU-India Free Trade Agreement (FTA). The prospects of the economic cooperation between the two nations in the financial, digital, and steel sectors were discussed.

India: PM Modi addresses BRICS Summit
On 17 November, Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the 12th BRICS summit hosted by Russian President Vladimir Putin. This year’s theme is ‘Global Stability, Shared Security and Innovative Growth.’ He mentioned that ‘Self-Reliant India’ can contribute to the global value chain in the post-COVID-19 economic scenario. The leaders also called for joint effort on the COVID-19 vaccine development.

Pakistan: Conviction of Hafiz Saeed
On 19 November, Jamat-ud-Dawa (JuD) chief Hafiz Saeed was sentenced to 10 years in jail by an anti-terrorism court in Pakistan in two more terror financing cases. In February 2020, he was also sentenced to 11 years in jail in two terror financing cases. His conviction is an outcome of Pakistan’s efforts to avoid punitive blacklisting by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF).   

Pakistan: PTI to form government in Gilgit-Baltistan
On 16 November, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) emerged as the single largest party by winning 10 seats. Five independents have also joined PTI, thereby giving it a majority in the legislature. The elections for 23 seats were held on 15 November. However, India slammed Pakistan for conducting elections in the illegally occupied territory.

Pakistan: Presents a dossier, accusing India of sponsoring terrorism
On 15 November, India rejected Pakistan’s dossier that listed evidence of Indian sponsorship of terrorism. Earlier, on 14 November, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, along with military spokesman Major-General Babar Iftikhar said, “India was allowing its land to be used against Pakistan for terrorism and was planning attacks from neighbouring countries”. 

Afghanistan: Imran Khan visits Kabul
On 19 November, Prime Minister Imran Khan visited Afghanistan for the first time after assuming his office two years back. Both nations jointly issued a statement titled ‘Shared vision between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan to support peace and stability in both countries and the wider region.’ The visit aimed to strengthen bilateral ties and extend help for the Afghan peace process.

Afghanistan: The US Secretary of State meets Taliban delegation
On 21 November, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met representatives from the Afghan government and the Taliban in Doha, Qatar. His visit was a part of the seven-day tour to Europe and the Middle East. Earlier this week, the Pentagon also announced pulling back troops out of Afghanistan.

Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa This Week
Kyrgyzstan: Parliament unveils draft constitution 
On 18 November, Kyrgyz parliament unveiled a draft constitution for public comments. Earlier, on 16 November, Sadyr Japarov, acting President of Kyrgyzstan since October, resigned from his post to become eligible for the presidential elections scheduled in January 2021. The public will vote for both presidential elections and the constitutional changes on the same day. The constitutional changes have been criticized as they concentrate too much power in the office of president and have been proposed by a parliament that has been annulled by the Central Election Commission on 6 October. 

Yemen: UN Secretary-General warns of famine as an imminent danger
On 20 November, Antonio Guterres, UN Secretary-General, warned that “Yemen is now in imminent danger of the worst famine the world has seen for decades” and that “millions of lives may be lost” if “immediate action” is not taken. He cited a reduction in funding, ongoing conflict, floods and locust attacks as reasons for the deepening crisis. He urged the involved parties to “act urgently” to “stave off the catastrophe” and to not take any action which makes the situation even worse.

Iran: The UN resolution slammed
On 18 November, an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson slammed a resolution adopted by the third committee of the United Nations General Assembly on the human rights situation in Iran. Coming one year after large scale protests, the resolution calls Iran to end “widespread and systematic use of arbitrary arrests and detention”. Targeting Canada, which forwarded the resolution, the spokesperson said that it is “unfortunate” that countries like Canada “employ human rights and its international mechanisms as tools to advance their own political agendas”.

Iraq and Saudi Arabia: Arar border crossing opened after 30 years
On 18 November, Iraq and Saudi Arabia opened the Arar border crossing for trade after 30 years. The crossing was closed following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Current Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi shares a close relationship with Crown Prince Salman of Saudi Arabia, and Arar’s opening marks an improvement of their countries ties.

Israel and Syria: Israel launches airstrikes in Syria
On 18 November, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) said in a statement that they had launched airstrikes in Syria on targets belonging to the Iranian Quds Force and the Syrian military. IDF said this was in response to the discovery of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights on 17 November. IDF alleged that these were planted by a “Syrian squad led by Iranian forces”.

Israel and Palestine: Resumption of ties after months of suspension
On 17 November, the Civil Affairs Minister of the Palestinian Authority (PA) tweeted that PA would resume its ties with Israel. PA had cut off contact with Israel in May 2020 due to the latter’s annexation plans in the occupied West Bank. He said that ties are being resumed after receiving “official written and oral letters” confirming Israel’s commitment to the past agreements.

Uganda: Bobi Wine released
On 20 November, Bobi Wine, presidential candidate and opposition leader, was released from jail. On 18 November, protests broke out across Uganda over his arrest. Thousands of his supporters came on the streets of Kampala to demand his immediate release. He was arrested for the second time this month while campaigning in eastern Uganda. The security forces accused him of violating COVID-19 restrictions by conducting a rally consisting of over 200 people. 

South Sudan: Conclusion of the National Dialogue Conference
On 18 November, the National Dialogue Conference concluded after President Kiir Mayardit said that the resolutions would be incorporated in the constitution. The conference was led by a steering committee that held regional meetings in Upper Nile, Bhar-el-Ghazel, and Equatoria. The discussions started with regional meetings followed by the national conference. Participants raised issues such as whether the country should adopt a federal system. The conferences were originally started in 2017 to help unite and reconcile the country after years of violence.

Europe and the Americas This Week
The United Kingdom: Brexit talks shift to online mode 
On 19 November, the EU chief negotiator said that one of his team members has tested positive for COVID-19 and due to this the talks with the UK would be suspended “for a short period.” However, the UK government spokesperson later said that “the UK and EU teams have agreed to continue to negotiate remotely for the time being.” With only six more weeks of transition period left, both sides are under pressure to strike an agreement quickly.  

Europe: Hungary and Poland veto EU budget and coronavirus recovery package
On 16 November, Hungary and Poland blocked the passage of a combined USD 2.1 trillion long-term EU budget and pandemic recovery package. Both countries have objected to the tying of budget with the rule of law requirements which would entail a reduction of EU subsidies if member states violate the rule of law and erode democratic standards. The dispute remained unresolved even after the 19 November summit in which European Union leaders participated. 

Russia: Coronavirus mutations surface in Siberia
On 17 November, Anna Popova, head of Russia’s consumer health watchdog Rospotrebnadzor, said that coronavirus mutations are appearing in Siberia. Popova added that mutations would not make the virus more dangerous even as she did not divulge details about its contagiousness. The trials of Russia’s second COVID-19 vaccine being developed by Siberia’s Vector Institute are also underway. Vector Institute director-general said that mutations would not affect the vaccine’s effectiveness. 

France: Macron’s ultimatum on the charter of republican values
On 18 November, French President Emmanuel Macron gave an ultimatum to the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) to agree to a “charter of republican values” in 15 days. The charter would entail a rejection of political Islam and any foreign interference. CFCM is also asked to create a ‘National Council of Imams’ which would issue official accreditation to Imams in France. A wide-ranging bill to tackle radicalization was also unveiled on the same day. 

Germany: Thousands protest against new infection protection law
On 18 November, thousands of protestors gathered in central Berlin near the parliamentary complex. They were protesting against the introduction of a new infection protection bill in the German parliament. In the ensuing clash of police and protestors, nice police officers were injured and 190 protestors were arrested. The bill was passed by both houses of parliament and signed into law by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier on the same day. The opposition populist party AfD has likened this law to the Enabling Act of 1933 which paved the way for Hitler’s dictatorship.  

Peru: Third president in a week 
On 17 November, Peru swore in a third president within one week. Lawmaker Francisco Sagasti was chosen by the Congress to be the interim president after the departure of two presidents amid ongoing protests. He will serve as president till July next year and will also oversee the presidential elections of April 2021. Peruvians are protesting as they are disillusioned with the political class; calming tensions and instilling confidence in the political system would be a major challenge for Sagasti.

The US: Withdraws charges against Mexico’s former defence minister 
On 18 November, a US federal judge granted the government request to withdraw charges against Salvador Cienfuegos, a retired four-star general and former defence minister of Mexico. He was arrested in October 2020 at Los Angeles airport by the US authorities and charged with drug trafficking and money laundering. Government prosecutors cited “sensitive and important foreign policy considerations” for withdrawing charges.

The US: Trump administration’s push for oil drilling in Alaska
On 17 November, the US Bureau of Land Management initiated the process of leasing oil and gas drilling sites in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). The Trump administration is rushing the process to ensure leases are issued before President-elect Biden takes over on 20 January next year. ANWR is an eco-sensitive zone and any drilling there would harm many endangered species. The Gwich’in people, who have lived in the ANWR region for thousands of years, have also opposed any drilling for oil or gas.  

 

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About the author

D Suba Chandran, Rashmi Ramesh, Harini Madhusudan | NIAS

D Suba Chandran is Professor and Dean, School of Conflict and Security Studies, NIAS. Rashmi Ramesh, Harini Madhusudan, Akriti Sharma and Lokendra Sharma are PhD Scholars in the School of Conflict and Security Studies at NIAS.

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