The Morning Dispatch: More Tense U.S.-China Talks

Plus: A constitutional crisis in Tunisia.

Happy Tuesday! May you one day experience joy as pure and righteous as that of Dean Boxall, coach of gold-medal winning Australian swimmer Ariarne Titmus. Steve did yesterday, when ESPN reported that Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers will very likely come back for one more season with the team.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • Civilian casualties in Afghanistan have reached record highs after accelerating over the past several months, according to a new report from the United Nations. Nearly half of the recorded casualties this year have been women and children. The Wall Street Journal adds that thousands of Afghans are fleeing to Turkey, which already holds 3.6 million Syrian refugees.

  • The Department of Veterans Affairs on Monday became the first federal agency to require COVID-19 vaccinations for most of its employees. Title 38 VA health care personnel—physicians, dentists, registered nurses, optometrists, etc.—will have eight weeks to be fully vaccinated.  

  • President Biden and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi finalized an agreement on Monday that would formally end the United States’ combat mission in Iraq by the end of 2021. “The security relationship will fully transition to a training, advising, assisting, and intelligence-sharing role,” a joint statement from the U.S. and Iraqi governments read. “There will be no U.S. forces with a combat role in Iraq by December 31, 2021.”

  • The White House announced on Monday that those experiencing long-term COVID-19  symptoms could qualify for disability protections under various federal civil rights laws. Guidelines released by the Department of Health and Human Services and other agencies make clear, however, that individualized assessments are “necessary to determine whether a person’s long COVID condition or any of its symptoms substantially limits a major life activity.”

  • The Russian government has blocked dozens of websites linked to jailed opposition figure Alexei Navalny ahead of September’s parliamentary elections. The agency responsible said the websites were blocked due to “propaganda and banned extremist activity.”

  • The Texas Longhorns and Oklahoma Sooners informed the Big 12 on Monday that they intend to leave the athletic conference when their media rights deal expires in 2025, setting the stage for the two schools to join the Southeastern Conference and shake up the college sports landscape. 

  • Former U.S. Senator Mike Enzi, a Republican from Wyoming, died yesterday after sustaining injuries in a bike accident over the weekend outside of Gillette, Wyoming, his hometown. 

  • The U.S. Olympic team continues to pace the field in total medals earned with 22—a single bronze medal ahead of second-place China. Both countries are tied with Japan for gold medals with 9. 

U.S.-China Relations Remain Frosty

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman met with China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Vice Foreign Minister Xie Fen on Monday in Tianjin, China. This is the two countries’ highest-level meeting on Chinese soil since Joe Biden became president and their most high-profile summit since Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan’s consultation with their Chinese counterparts in Alaska four months ago.

The group discussed “ways to set terms for responsible management of the U.S-China relationship,” per a readout from State Department spokesman Ned Price. “The Deputy Secretary underscored that the United States welcomes the stiff competition between our countries—and that we intend to continue to strengthen our own competitive hand—but that we do not seek conflict with the PRC.”

Given the strained nature of U.S.-China relations, even such a clinical statement—“we do not seek conflict with the PRC”—could almost be seen as an attempt at deescalation. But there was still plenty of hostility to go around on Monday.

In a phone interview with the Associated Press on Monday, Sherman—who has served in every Democratic president’s State Department since the Clinton administration—said she had frank conversations with her Chinese counterparts about what the United States sees as China’s transgressions both domestically and on the world stage. These include the PRC’s “crimes against humanity” against Uyghur Muslims, its crackdown on democratic activists in Hong Kong, its economic blackmailing of other countries and corporations, and its “aggressive actions” in both Taiwan and the South and East China Seas. 

Although Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian described the talks as “profound, candid, and helpful for the two sides to gain a better understanding of each other’s position,” he said Wang and Xie came prepared to express their “unequivocal opposition to the U.S. side’s practice of interfering in China’s internal affairs and harming China’s interests,” adding that the United States “must change course and correct its mistakes.”

Those “mistakes”? Visa restrictions on Chinese students and members of the Communist Party, sanctions on Chinese leaders and government agencies, “attacks” on the Confucius Institute, the registration of Chinese media as foreign agents, and attempts to extradite Huawei official Meng Wanzhou after she was arrested in Canada.

According to Chinese state media, Vice Foreign Minister Xie was even more aggressive in his remarks, painting the United States as an international bully and indulging in a healthy dose of whataboutism. 

“The U.S. side’s so-called ‘rules-based international order’ is an effort by the United States and a few other Western countries to frame their own rules as international rules and impose them on other countries,” he said. “How can the United States portray itself as the world’s spokesperson for democracy and human rights? … Historically, the United States engaged in genocide against Native Americans. Presently, the United States has lost 620,000 lives because of its halting response to COVID-19. Internationally, the frequent U.S. military action and the wars caused by the United States lying about the facts have brought undue catastrophe to the world.”

“The China-U.S. relationship is now in a stalemate and faces serious difficulties. Fundamentally, it is because some Americans portray China as an ‘imagined enemy,’” Xie continued. “It seems as if by making China an ‘imagined enemy,’ a national sense of purpose would be reignited in the U.S. The hope may be that by demonizing China, the U.S. could somehow shift domestic public discontent over political, economic and social issues and blame China for its own structural problems.”

Xie’s comments, according to Nanjing University professor Zhu Feng, are “aimed at giving the Chinese public confidence that the government will not succumb in the face of heightened pressure from the U.S. side.” But this “imagined enemy” line is not new.

China has long sought to convince the international community of its “peaceful rise,” arguing it would remain inwardly focused as it grew economically and militarily and not threaten the existing global order. With tensions growing in recent years, Chinese officials have maintained “threats that other countries feel [by China’s rise] are just wrong,” Oriana Skylar Mastro, fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, told The Dispatch. “There’s no truth to that.”

If anything, Mastro added, the United States had—before its recent turn on Beijing—long “tried to wishfully fake its way to a peaceful U.S.-China relationship.”

Regular TMD readers are well aware of China’s myriad transgressions on the world stage. From the unconscionable persecution of Uyghur Muslims, to obfuscation and defiance over the coronavirus’ origins, to extensive cyberattacks, to incursions into Taiwanese airspace, China has not been acting like a country set on a “peaceful rise.”

Americans are taking notice. In 2018, the Pew Research Center found Americans’ perception of China was slightly below—but close to—their perception of India: 42 on a 0 to 100 “feeling thermometer.” Three years later, China’s figure there has plunged to 28, while India’s—as well as Japan’s and North Korea’s—remained essentially unchanged. 

There remain fundamental disagreements within the United States—and the West at large—over how to address the threat posed by China’s rise, Mastro said. But she argued leaders have “credibly communicated” to China in recent years that the United States will not simply accede to Beijing’s ascendancy toward global dominance.

Tunisia in Turmoil

After months of churning political instability in Tunisia, President Kais Saied moved in one fell swoop on Sunday to dismiss Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, suspend parliament for 30 days, and revoke its members’ legal immunity. The takeover—which has been both condemned as a coup and praised as a culmination of the people’s will—came amid mass anti-government protests in response to the coronavirus pandemic and economic insecurity. 

“We have taken these decisions ... until social peace returns to Tunisia and until we save the state,” the president said in a televised address, citing Article 80 of Tunisia’s 2014 constitution. The emergency provision lays the groundwork for the president to take “any measures necessitated” in the event of “imminent danger threatening the nation’s institutions or the security or independence of the country,” but many legal scholars have dismissed Saied’s interpretation as pretext for a power grab. 

Nevertheless, proponents of the decree rushed the streets to celebrate Sunday, singing Tunisia’s national anthem and waving its flag. 

On Monday, Tunisia’s military forced the closure of the parliament building and surrounded it with armed vehicles. Fighting broke out on the street outside between Saied’s supporters and opponents as members of parliament were barred from entering. 

“It’s a coup against the constitution, against the revolution, against public and private freedoms. We consider the elected democratic institutions still upheld,” Rached Ghannouchi, Parliament Speaker and co-founder of the Islamist Ennahda party, said Monday. “This is what the Tunisian people rose up against. This is why I’m calling on the Tunisian people to stand with their revolution, with their constitution, and to lead a peaceful struggle to restore the democracy that was canceled by this statement.”

The government established after Tunisia’s 2011 Revolution—the genesis of the broader Arab Spring—has been hailed by the international community and human rights watchdogs as one of the most democratic in the region. But seeds of volatility have been present since its inception. 

The Ennahda party, which currently holds the most seats in parliament, has faced significant internal opposition over its religious leanings, Tunisia’s astronomical unemployment rate (nearly 17 percent in 2020 per the World Bank), and its supposed mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Though per Statista, Tunisia has experienced far fewer COVID deaths per million residents than its neighbors, Libya and Algeria.)

Many Tunisians have taken to the streets to voice their support for Saied’s move. But “you also see a lot of people—supporters of the Islamists, but also not—who are out there saying this is anti-democratic, this is unconstitutional,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace senior Middle East fellow Sarah Yerkes told The Dispatch. “[They] are just really worried about the future of Tunisia’s democratic transition.”

As Saied begins the process of replacing key administrative positions, including that of prime minister, his picks for the posts could indicate his commitment—or lack thereof—to restoring democratic government. 

The Biden administration, for its part, has voiced its broad support for Tunisia’s democracy, but has yet to denounce Saied’s takeover directly. In a call with Tunisia’s president Monday, a State Department spokesman said Secretary Antony Blinken “encouraged President Saied to adhere to the principles of democracy and human rights that are the basis of governance in Tunisia” and “urged President Saied to maintain open dialogue with all political actors and the Tunisian people.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki was similarly reluctant to assign blame in Monday’s press briefing. “We’re concerned about the developments in Tunisia, which come as Tunisian authorities are seeking to stabilize their economy, confront a resurgence in the COVID-19 pandemic, and improve living standards for all Tunisians,” she said. “A determination about a coup is a legal determination, and we would look to the State Department to conduct a legal analysis before making a determination. So there hasn’t been a conclusion on that front.”

But failing to move quickly to hold Saied accountable runs the risk of emboldening him, Yerkes explained. “He’s testing the waters,” she said. “He’s going to keep going and do more if he doesn’t feel like there are consequences to his actions.”

Worth Your Time

  • As the more transmissible Delta variant spreads, we’ve begun to hear about an increased number of “breakthrough” infections affecting the fully vaccinated. If you’ve gotten your two shots (or one J&J one), should you be worried? Not really, science reporter Katherine Wu argues for The Atlantic, comparing breakthrough infections to an assault on a castle. “Without vaccination, the castle’s defenders have no idea an attack is coming,” she writes. “COVID-19 shots act as confidential informants, who pass around intel on the pathogen within the castle walls. With that info, defensive cells can patrol the building’s borders, keeping an eye out for a now-familiar foe. … Prepped by a vaccine, immune reinforcements will be marshaled to the fore much faster—within days of an invasion, sometimes much less. Adaptive cells called B cells, which produce antibodies, and T cells, which kill virus-infected cells, will have had time to study the pathogen’s features, and sharpen their weapons against it. While the guard dogs are pouncing, archers trained to recognize the virus will be shooting it down; the few microbes that make their way deeper inside will be gutted by sword-wielding assassins lurking in the shadows.”

  • In a recent piece for National Review, Yuval Levin brings his experience in public policy to bear on the ongoing infrastructure negotiations. “I’ve learned over the years that when it comes to a contentious legislative process like this, success and failure feel exactly the same while they are happening. They feel like a chaotic series of near-death experiences,” he writes. “The fact that the Democrats’ legislative strategy now has that feel to it doesn’t mean it won’t work. But I do think that both as a matter of substance and as a matter of strategy, the bipartisan infrastructure process makes sense for Republicans.”

  • In a terrific reported piece for The Philadelphia Inquirer, Andrew Seidman takes a look at how election conspiracies have metastasized within the Pennsylvania GOP—and launched One America News and Newsmax favorite Kathy Barnette to contender status in the race for retiring Sen. Pat Toomey’s seat. “As Barnette energized the denial movement with her futile hunt for voter fraud on Philadelphia’s Main Line, which hasn’t been previously reported, the movement elevated her,” he writes. “Meanwhile, two Barnette advisers are now working with a group that’s pushing Pennsylvania lawmakers for an Arizona-style partisan election review. Another parlayed his work into a job for Lindell. And Piton worked on the Arizona probe, collaborated with a prominent QAnon figure, and is now running for Senate in Illinois.”

Something Olympic

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Also Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • David and Sarah took a deep dive into abortion jurisprudence on Monday’s Advisory Opinions, focusing on Mississippi’s challenge to Roe v. Wade, which directly asks the Supreme Court to overturn the almost 50-year-old precedent. How did the Mississippi attorney general frame the argument? How likely is it that the argument will succeed? And what would American governance look like in a post-Roe world?

  • On the site today, Emma Rogers has a profile of Chloé Valdary, an anti-racism activist whose “Theory of Enchantment” work is a counterpunch to the likes of Robin DiAngelo and Ibram X. Kendi, teaching people how to “choose to comport ourselves in such a way that we approach one another with love and compassion, even in the midst of profound disagreement.” 

Let Us Know

Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Xie Fen is full of it on a whole host of issues. But does he have a point that an existential battle with China would reignite the United States’ “national sense of purpose?”

Are we more polarized right now because we don’t have a common enemy—Germany and Japan in World War II, the Soviet Union for much of the 20th century—to unite us?

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Charlotte Lawson (@charlotteUVA), Ryan Brown (@RyanP_Brown), Harvest Prude (@HarvestPrude), Tripp Grebe (@tripper_grebe), Emma Rogers (@emw_96), Price St. Clair (@PriceStClair1), Jonathan Chew (@JonathanChew19), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).

The Morning Dispatch: Biden's Business-as-Usual Nepotism

Plus: The Biden administration OKs Russia's Nord Stream 2 pipeline.

Happy Thursday! The Dispatch’s softball team rides again tonight. Time to bring the thunder to the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • Overall life expectancy in the United States fell by one-and-a-half years in 2020 per new Centers for Disease Control data, the largest one-year decline since World War II.

  • The United States and Germany announced an agreement yesterday that will allow the Nord Stream 2 natural-gas pipeline connecting Russia and Germany to be completed. The pipeline’s completion will strengthen Russia’s grip on the European energy market, allowing double the supply of Russian natural gas to be shipped westward via a route that bypasses Ukraine, which had urged the United States to impose sanctions preventing construction on the pipeline to finish.

  • House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday rejected two of Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s five recommendations to serve on the January 6 select committee, prompting McCarthy to decry the committee as a “sham process” and withdraw all five nominations. Pelosi had said the appointment of Reps. Jim Banks and Jim Jordan would impact “the integrity of the investigation.” 

  • A procedural test vote that would have allowed the Senate to begin debate on the bipartisan infrastructure framework failed as expected on Wednesday, with Majority Leader Chuck Schumer switching his vote to “no” at the last minute to retain the ability to bring up the same vote in the future.

  • The Biden administration on Wednesday extended restrictions at the U.S.-Canada border for another month—until at least August 21—in light of concerns about the Delta variant. Canada had said earlier this week it would begin allowing fully vaccinated Americans to cross the border on August 9.

The Biden White House’s Government Ethics Dilemma

Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election can be chalked up to a variety of factors, but perhaps chief among them was his implicit pledge to bring a sense of normalcy back to the White House after the chaos of the Donald Trump years. In many ways, he’s delivered. He makes much less news, his moves are almost always choreographed days in advance, and his staff-written tweets are blander than a bowl of Cheerios.

But in Washington, “business as usual” is not necessarily commendable or praiseworthy in and of itself—and one former high-level Obama administration official is waging a lonely crusade to call attention to the Biden team’s shortcomings.

“[The White House is] taking a lawyerly approach to ethics,” said Walter Shaub, a senior fellow at the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) who led the Office of Government Ethics under former President Barack Obama from 2013 to 2017. “They’re looking to see what’s technically allowed, and then they’re doing it.”

What does he mean? Shaub—who is no Republican—clarified that the administration is doing a “pretty good job on following the existing rules,” but proceeded to run through a laundry list of concerns in a 35-minute interview with The Dispatch Wednesday evening. His most pressing? Nepotism and the exploitation of proximity to power.

In a break from his predecessor, no member of Biden’s family holds a job in his administration. But among the president’s top advisers, that’s rare. Steve Ricchetti—a longtime Biden aide who now officially serves as “counselor to the president”—has four children, and three of them are working in the administration in various low to mid-level positions. Ricchetti’s brother Jeff operates a lobbying firm in D.C. that on Wednesday reportedly quadrupled its first-half 2020 earnings during the same period this year. (Jeff maintains that he does not lobby his brother, and the White House said Steve recuses himself from all matters related to Jeff’s clients.)

The Ricchettis aren’t alone. The daughter of Biden Deputy Chief of Staff Bruce Reed works as Biden’s scheduler, and Sarah Donilon—the daughter of Office of Presidential Personnel head Cathy Russell and niece of senior Biden adviser Mike Donilon—has a job at the National Security Council. Monica Medina, the wife of Biden’s chief of staff, Ron Klain, was nominated to serve as assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Science Affairs, and press secretary Jen Psaki’s sister Stephanie has a senior position at the Department of Health and Human Services.

The White House does not see a problem. “The president has instituted the highest ethical standards of anyone to ever hold this office,” deputy White House press secretary Andrew Bates said last month. “And he’s proud to have staffed the most diverse administration in American history with well-qualified public servants who reflect his values.”

The “well-qualified” point has been a common refrain when administration officials are pressed on these issues, and in many cases it is accurate. “Can confirm my job over the last 5 months did not retroactively get my brilliant sister a masters degree from Harvard, a PhD in public health from John’s Hopkins [sic] and decades of published work and respect in the field,” Psaki tweeted a few weeks ago. Medina, Klain’s wife, has been working on environmental issues since the 1980s, including multiple stints at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

But with familial connections making up such a significant portion of political appointees, Shaub argues it’s now on the White House to prove qualifications in each and every case. “The standard that they keep coming back with in response to questions is, ‘These people are qualified,’ but that was never the question,” he said. “The question is, were they the ones who would have gotten the job? Were they the absolute, most qualified candidate? Was there no doubt whatsoever that this is the person who would get the job if you had never heard of their relative that works in the White House?”

Axios reported last week that Shaub himself sought a job in the Biden administration, and the former ethics czar confirmed that fact to The Dispatch yesterday, saying he submitted an application as “one of many things [he] was considering” before taking his current position at POGO. But he believes someone leaked that information as a means of framing his criticism as that of a disgruntled would-be employee. When presented with this allegation yesterday, the White House press office declined to comment.

As disappointed as Shaub was with the White House’s hiring process, he was near irate discussing Hunter Biden. The president’s younger son’s business dealings in Ukraine and China played a prominent role in former President Trump’s first impeachment trial and the closing days of the 2020 campaign, but Hunter has made no effort to shy away from controversy now that his dad’s in the Oval Office. He published a memoir in the spring and launched a for-profit art career a few weeks later—planning to sell his pieces through a dealer at up to $500,000 a pop.

“People get lost in the weeds asking, ‘Well, is this good art?’ That’s not the question,” Shaub said, arguing Hunter is clearly” profiting off his dad’s presidency. “The question is, would somebody be paying half a million dollars for a piece of art if it wasn’t the president’s son? And the answer has got to be no.”

The Biden administration unveiled an arrangement earlier this month whereby Hunter would be able to sell his work through the Georges Bergès Gallery in New York, which will be responsible for rooting out any “suspicious” buyers and keeping any buyer’s identity anonymous. But a gallery spokeswoman seemed to completely contradict said agreement Wednesday when she revealed that “of course” Hunter plans to meet with prospective buyers at two upcoming art shows in Los Angeles and New York.

“Congratulations, you’ve just outsourced government ethics to a high-end art dealer,” Shaub scoffed, arguing the White House’s efforts only made things worse. “We’re just supposed to go on blind trust that not only will they comply with the agreement, but the agreement is designed perfectly to ensure any leaks will not happen.” Sens. Rob Portman and Tom Carper released a bipartisan report last summer detailing how the art industry is rife with money laundering and that Russian oligarchs have used it to evade U.S. sanctions.

Underlying any discussion of the Biden administration’s ethical failings is the reality that the Trump administration’s were significantly worse. An October 2020 Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) investigation tracked more than 3,700 conflicts of interest that cropped up during the Trump presidency—including at least 150 distinct foreign government officials visiting a Trump property. Moreover, the Washington Post reported in September that the Trump Organization charged the U.S. government over $1.1 million for room rentals—mostly for Secret Service—over the previous four years. Trump’s daughter and son-in-law worked directly in the West Wing while failing to completely divest their business interests, raising numerous ethical concerns.

But that reality, Shaub argues, makes it more important for the current White House to hold itself to a higher standard—not less. “We’re not seeing any recognition that going back to the way things were when we got Trump is not the answer. What we really need is a new approach to ethics. And at the very minimum, squeaky-clean conduct to send a message that this stuff matters,” he said. “The lesson Biden and so many of his supporters seem to have taken from the last four years is better than Trump is good enough. And that just can’t be the standard.”

The president’s allies on the Hill seem to disagree. The Dispatch asked several Democratic senators for comment on these issues Wednesday, and only one—Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia—provided a substantive answer. “I don’t think you can say, just because they’re related to one another there’s nepotism involved,” Kaine said. “I think the question is, are they qualified, and how’d they get hired? And I think you have to understand those things before you render any kind of conclusion.”

Sen. Cory Booker told The Dispatch that he’s “always concerned about ethics in government” but that he “know[s] nothing about what you are talking about,” and an aide to Sen. Mazie Hirono stepped in to prevent her from answering our question. The Dispatch also reached out to the offices of all seven Democrats on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee; we did not receive any responses.

White House Gives in on Nord Stream 2

Yesterday, the United States and Germany announced a deal to allow completion of the $11 billion Nord Stream 2 pipeline, a 764-mile natural gas line under the Baltic Sea running directly from Russian fields to the German coast. The U.S. has opposed construction of the pipeline for years on the grounds that it would increase Russia’s influence over the European energy market and undermine the economic position of Ukraine, which has historically earned revenue from transporting Russian gas to the rest of Europe. 

After the Trump administration implemented sanctions targeting firms constructing Nord Stream 2 back in 2019, the Biden administration’s decision to allow—if not explicitly endorse—its completion has been billed by officials as necessary to rebuilding U.S. diplomatic ties to Germany. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the House Foreign Relations Committee earlier this week that, since more than 90 percent of Nord Stream 2 had been completed before Biden took office, “the physical completion of the pipeline was, I think, a fait accompli.”

“We have an opportunity to make something positive out of a bad hand that we inherited when we came into office,” he added.

The alleged inevitability of Nord Stream 2 has been the Biden administration’s justification for allowing construction of a pipeline senior officials themselves consider a bad deal for Europe. Just Tuesday—one day before the official agreement was announced—State Department spokesman Ned Price labeled the pipeline “a Kremlin geopolitical project that is intended to expand Russia’s influence over Europe’s energy resources and to circumvent Ukraine,” adding that it is “a bad deal for Germany, … a bad deal for Ukraine, and for Europe more broadly.”

Yet the Biden administration over the past six months has refrained from endorsing many of the sanctions already in place against companies who aided in construction of the pipeline in an act of deference to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has staunchly backed its construction. As we wrote back in February:

Biden himself has repeatedly called Vladimir Putin a “KGB thug” and reversed course in recent years to declare Russia the United States’ toughest geopolitical foe. White House press secretary Jen Psaki even said last month that Biden “continues to believe that Nord Stream 2 is a bad deal for Europe.” So why isn’t he doing all he can to prevent its completion?

Primarily because Europe doesn’t believe it’s a bad deal for Europe, and Biden is desperate, after four years of tensions under Trump, to rebuild the United States’ relationships on the continent—particularly with Germany.

Merkel visited Biden at the White House last week, and reporters pressed them on the issue. “My view on Nord Stream 2 has been known for some time. Good friends can disagree,” Biden said. “But by the time I became president, it was 90 percent completed. And imposing sanctions did not seem to make any sense.”

This isn’t the first time a Russian pipeline overcame U.S. opposition. In the 1960s, President John F. Kennedy tried and failed to block the Friendship (Druzhba) pipeline from Tatarstan to Europe, Kevin Book—managing director of the research group ClearView Energy—told The Dispatch. And in the early 1980s, Reagan lobbied America’s Western European allies to reject the Yamal pipeline on the grounds that it would allow the Soviets to expand their influence over Europe. Both projects were completed regardless.

“It was always going to be very difficult to stop a pipeline an ocean away,” Book said. “Particularly when an allied country wanted to build it.”

In a joint statement announcing today’s deal, U.S. and German leaders said the countries were “united in their determination to hold Russia to account for its aggression and malign activities by imposing costs via sanctions and other tools.”

“Should Russia attempt to use energy as a weapon or commit further aggressive acts against Ukraine,” the statement reads, “Germany will take action at the national level and press for effective measures at the European level, including sanctions, to limit Russian export capabilities to Europe in the energy sector, including gas, and/or in other economically relevant sectors.”

As part of the deal, the U.S. and Germany have also pledged to contribute to a new $1 billion “Green Fund for Ukraine,” which is designed to increase the country’s energy independence. Germany plans to reimburse Ukraine for lost gas transit fees through 2024.

Ukrainian leaders, however, have criticized these measures—despite Politico reporting that Biden officials have been privately urging their Ukrainian counterparts to keep their qualms quiet. (A senior State Department official denied this charge, telling reporters “there were no threats.”) 

“This decision has created political, military and energy threat for Ukraine and Central Europe, while increasing Russia’s potential to destabilize the security situation in Europe,” Ukraine and Poland’s foreign ministers said in a joint statement yesterday. “The hitherto proposals to cover the resulting security deficit cannot be considered sufficient to effectively limit the threats created by NS2.”

Many in Congress share the same concern. Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma told The Dispatch that allowing completion of Nord Stream 2 is a “terrible idea.”

“The American government, the Biden administration, is cutting the legs out from under the Ukrainians with a promise that Germany is going to stay engaged in the future,” he said. “This also cuts off American jobs because the United States would be the supplier of natural gas. This basically helps the Russian economy, hurting the American economy. I have no idea why the president would do that.”

But it wasn’t just Republicans expressing apprehension. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democratic member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, offered similar criticism yesterday. “I am not yet convinced that this agreement—or any bilateral agreement—can sufficiently provide assurances to our European allies and minimize the considerable economic impact and security implications of this pipeline’s completion,” she said in a statement. “While I look forward to being briefed by the administration on the final details of the agreement, I’m skeptical that it will be sufficient when the key player at the table—Russia—refuses to play by the rules.”

Still, some in Congress have defended the Biden administration’s actions, arguing the White House made the most of a difficult situation.

“Thinking America alone can stop a pipeline that is 98% complete is based in fantasy not reality. The deal Biden reached with Germany isn’t perfect, but it’s a good outcome under the circumstances,” Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut tweeted. “I guess we could’ve burned our relationship w/ Germany + others to the ground over Nordstream 2, but that would have come at an enormous, indefensible cost.”

For his part, Book says it would still be possible for the Biden administration to delay or possibly stop completion of Nord Stream 2, but that the diplomatic fallout from such a move could be high. “The United States could sanction the gas going through the pipeline—it could literally designate the seller or an intermediary and impose penalties on buyers who interacted with those sellers,” he said. “[But] it’s going to be very hard for Washington to argue to Berlin that they’re protecting Europe’s energy security by cutting off energy from Europe.”

Worth Your Time

  • Large numbers of Americans consistently report dissatisfaction with our two political parties, and Frank DiStefano argues in American Purpose that it’s time for a new one—not as a spoiler, but as a replacement. “If you want to build a movement that can become a major party, or overthrow one and replace it with new people and ideas, there is a method to succeed. Proven patterns have repeated again and again throughout the history of America that, if followed, can serve as a how-to manual for anyone wanting to shape the next era,” he writes. “The first rule for building a new party is that it can’t be a futile attempt to recreate a party that’s already dead. A new party has to break orthodoxy and think fresh. It must actually be new.”

  • California has traditionally seen itself as being to America what America has been to the rest of the world: a lodestar of cultural tolerance and economic freedom. In The Atlantic, Colin Friedersdorf admits he’s worried about losing that story. “If California fails to offer young people and newcomers the opportunity to improve their lot, the consequences will be catastrophic—and not only for California,” he writes. “The end of the California Dream would deal a devastating blow to the proposition that such a widely diverse polity can thrive. Indeed, blue America’s model faces its most consequential stress test in one of its safest states, where a spectacular run of almost unbroken prosperity could be killed by a miserly approach to opportunity.”

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • On yesterday’s Dispatch Podcast, the gang debated whether the White House’s attempt to diminish vaccine skepticism by flagging misinformation on Facebook will actually embolden anti-vaxxers. Plus, how concerned should we be about inflation? Do Republicans have any interest in uncovering what happened on January 6? And can Biden convince the Democrats to accept a bipartisan infrastructure agreement?

  • The Chinese Communist Party celebrates its 100th anniversary tomorrow, and Charlotte has a thoughtful piece on how, while the party itself has evolved over the years, one consistent has been its insistence on absolute loyalty.

  • Jonathan Chew spoke with Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya when she was in Washington earlier this week. She discussed, among other topics, what gives her the strength to fight the Lukashenko regime: “The regime is afraid—afraid of betrayal, afraid of people, afraid of other countries, so I’m sure we will come to the point when it will be evident for everyone that [there’s] no future with Lukashenko.”

Let Us Know

Does it bother you that the Biden White House has replaced the Trump swamp with a swamp of its own? Or are you resigned to the fact that nepotism and shady wheel-greasing is always going to be a part of our governance?

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Charlotte Lawson (@charlotteUVA), Ryan Brown (@RyanP_Brown), Harvest Prude (@HarvestPrude), Tripp Grebe (@tripper_grebe), Emma Rogers (@emw_96), Price St. Clair (@PriceStClair1), Jonathan Chew (@JonathanChew19), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).

Loading more posts…