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Kim Jong-un’s Olympic truce

As the two Koreas move closer US intransigence risks leaving the US out in the cold

Alexander Mercouris

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In the aftermath of the joint parade of Korean athletes from the two Koreas at the Opening Ceremony of the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, and there has been much discussion about how Kim Jong-un’s brilliant Olympic diplomacy has supposedly outmanoeuvred the US.

A classic expression of this was recently provided by an editorial in The Times of London, a newspaper which can usually be expected to take a strongly pro-US position on any international questions

When the whole world is watching, images carry more weight than a thousand diplomatic cables. The pictures of a beaming President Moon of South Korea standing beside the sister of Kim Jong-un, the dictator of North Korea, to applaud the triumphant entry of the joint team of athletes from the Korean peninsula have already changed the dynamics of the stand-off over Pyongyang’s nuclear programme. Suddenly, across the divide, a touch of warmth and diplomatic courtesy has produced a temporary rapprochement unimaginable only three weeks ago. Could this global festival in the snow halt the drift to military confrontation and even nuclear war in northeast Asia?…..

…….Kim has a keen sense of diplomatic theatre. First, he agreed to a joint team for the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics to represent two countries technically still at war. Then he sent Kim Yo-jong, a sister with an engaging smile, to represent him at the ceremonies and give his own family imprimatur on this volte-face — an important symbol in a dynastic regime.

The result has probably exceeded his expectations. The talk and the pictures have focused on little else except this coup de théâtre. President Moon has been invited for face-to-face talks in Pyongyang, and despite his commendable caution, it is clear he intends to make only the third such visit north since the end of the Korean war. South Koreans, who have been living on their nerves for the past year as the North escalated its threats and missile launches, have suddenly felt a moment of relaxation. A renewal of the “sunshine policy” towards the North, pursued with much publicity and few results by the former president Roh Moo-hyun, may now win the liberal Mr Moon some much needed domestic support.

Mike Pence, the US vice-president, has tried to dampen the euphoria. But both his gestures and his words have appeared churlishly out of place. He remained seated, stony-faced, when the Koreans stood to applaud their joint team. He left the leaders’ reception after only five minutes. He repeatedly made clear that the United States would not support any relaxation of the pressure on North Korea unless it was prepared to discuss a reduction in its nuclear arsenal.

The Trump administration is right to take a tough line. But, it has to be admitted, this has run into the brick wall of North Korean pride and the sands of Chinese evasion. Washington should keep up its pressure. But if the nation it is meant to be safeguarding itself wants to try another tack, it would be foolish to shut off that avenue.

All of this is true, save for the claim that it “unimaginable only three weeks ago”.  On the contrary the real mystery is why any of it should have come as a surprise when the tell-tale signs that it was about to happen were there for all to see for months.

Back on 22nd October 2017 I wrote a lengthy article for The Duran in which I discussed the diplomatic moves the Russians were taking to get the two Koreas talking to each other and the growing risk this created that US intransigence might leave the US cut out of talks to achieve a Korean settlement

If the US persists in its present posture – saying it is ready to talk to North Korea but refusing to do so, saying it has no plans for regime change in North Korea but refusing to give North Korea any security guarantees, saying North Korea must disarm but ruling out any withdrawal of US troops from the Korean Peninsula, criticising Kim Jong-un for imposing hardships on North Korea’s people and then searching for ways to increase the hardship which is inflicted on them, and demanding that China solve the Korean crisis for the US without the US giving anything in return – then sooner or later the point will come when the Russians will tell the South Koreans that the biggest obstacle to a peaceful settlement of the crisis in the Korean Peninsula is not North Korea but the US.

At that point the Russians will no doubt point out to the South Koreans that they have a far greater interest in a peaceful settlement of the crisis than the US does, since a failure to resolve the crisis is putting the future survival not just of North Korea but also of South Korea and of the whole Korean nation at risk.

At that point the Russians will no doubt also point out to the South Koreans that it is in their hands to end the Korean crisis by coming to terms directly with North Korea, and that they do not actually need the US to achieve this.

It is not after all as if the contours of a possible Korean settlement are difficult to see: a non-aggression pact between the two Koreas, a withdrawal of US troops from the Korean Peninsula, and an agreement by North Korea that it give up its weapons in return for formal security guarantees from the Great Powers (in this case this means the two Eurasian Great Powers, Russia and China).

There is no logical reason why any of this should require the agreement of the US, and if the two Koreas were to agree to this the US would not be in a position to prevent it…..

That after all is how the big breakthrough came in the Syrian crisis, with Russia and Turkey agreeing a deal with each other after the fall of the Jihadi stronghold in Aleppo, which did not involve the US.

……..given the strong interests all three parties have in a settlement, if the US is not careful it may not be so long before it comes to that……

Whilst this outcome objectively speaking would not be contrary to US interests, for the “indispensable nation” which “can see further” than all the others such an outcome would qualify as a total humiliation.  That however is the most likely outcome to which US intransigence on the Korean issue is leading.

The US still has time to avoid this outcome, and there are some people in Washington – Secretary of State Rex Tillerson probably being one – who are prepared to take the necessary action to do so.  However there is little sign of their opinions prevailing at the moment, if only because few people in Washington seem to recognise the danger.

It subsequently became clear that what looked in October to be essentially a Russian diplomatic initiative, was actually a joint Russian-Chinese diplomatic initiative, with the Russians working with the North Koreans and the Chinese working with the South Koreans in order to get the two Koreas talking to each other.

Here is what I wrote about that in an article The Duran published on 10th November 2017

…….The Chinese and Russian objectives are in all respects identical, conclusively confirming that the two Eurasian Great Powers are acting in concert towards the same objective,.

Clearly there is an agreed division of labour between them, with the Chinese talking to the South Koreans over whom they have substantial economic leverage (see this article by Reuters), and with the Russians talking to the North Koreans, with whom – unlike the Chinese – they have traditionally always had good relations…..

………the possibility of an eventual South Korean realignment with South Korea agreeing to become part of some sort of regional structure bringing together however loosely the two Koreas and China and Russia does not seem to me altogether farfetched.

Whether Kim Jong-un and his officials would be interested in such an arrangement is another matter.  Doubtless the Russians are working hard to try to find out, and in time they will no doubt point out to Kim Jong-un its very obvious advantages to him

Such an arrangement would obviously distance South Korea from the US. However it would not mean that South Korea would have to become an enemy of the US.

The Chinese and the Russians know that that is something to which the South Koreans would not agree, and from their point of view it would not be desirable anyway.

However South Korea – unlike say Germany or Turkey – is not a member of a tightly structured US-led alliance like NATO in Europe.  A shift by South Korea away from its current close security relationship with the US would not therefore require a formal break with the US.  That makes a realignment easier to achieve.

As the article in Global Times shows, the Chinese and the Russians – being the highly practical and realistic people that they are – are not proposing such a realignment to Seoul at the moment.

Rather they are pressing Seoul and Pyongyang to begin direct talks with each other.  At the back of their minds they will hope that when such talks begin the idea of a realignment will emerge naturally out of them.

The prospects are in fact better now than they have ever been.

A rapprochement bringing together the two Koreas and China and Russia would have been inconceivable during the Cold War when Kim Il-sung first proposed it because of the bitter ideological divisions of that period.

In the early 2000s, when it was again mooted, the US was still very much the hyper-power with an effective veto over any move by South Korea and with the Chinese and the Russians having little to offer.

By contrast today the huge growth of Chinese power and the strong recovery of Russia mean that for the first time a rapprochement between the two Koreas, China and Russia looks both attractive and viable.

Whether the negotiations currently underway between the Chinese and the South Koreans and the North Koreans and the Russians eventually lead to that outcome remains to be seen.

However already Chinese diplomacy has achieved a dramatic success, with South Korea’s agreement to limit THAAD deployments on the Korean Peninsula, the South Koreans ruling out the idea of a tripartite alliance between themselves the US and Japan, and with the South Koreans also agreeing to re-start defence talks with China.

My guess is that a rapprochement bringing together the two Koreas and realigning them closer to China and Russia is both fully viable and much closer than many realise.

Indeed its logic is so strong that if or rather when the two Koreas finally begin to talk to each other I expect it to come to the forefront quickly.

The challenge is to get those talks started.

The Russians have made a strong pitch to the North Koreans, whilst the Chinese breakthrough with the South Koreans suggests that the start of direct talks between Seoul and Pyongyang may not be as far off as most people think.

(bold italics added)

Just two months after those last words were written the start of direct talks between North Korea and South Korea has begun, with Kim Jong-un’s sister Kim Yo-jong meeting South Korean President Moon in PyeongChang, and extending to him an invitation – which President Moon has accepted – to visit North Korea and to meet there with Kim Jong-un.

Assuming this visit takes place, it would be the first occasion that a world leader – specifically President Moon of South Korea – will have set foot in North Korea and will have met with Kim Jong-un since Kim Jong-un came to power in December 2011.

What is truly remarkable about all this is that even as it is happening the US remains in denial.

The surly behaviour of US Vice-President Mike Pence in PyeongChang mentioned in The Times of London editorial obviously reflects US anger – and bafflement – that the South Koreans are acting independently of the US, and that the US has been sidelined in a diplomatic process in which it has played no role, and which it does not welcome.

I came across the same attitude of denial during a debate on Press TV on 2nd January 2018 with Michael Lane, the founder of the American Institute for Foreign Policy

When I explained to Michael Lane the diplomatic moves between the two Koreas which were by then already underway, and when I explained to him that if the US maintained its intransigence it risked finding itself faced with agreements reached between North Korea and South Korea and backed by China and Russia to which it was not a party, he simply dismissed all this as a play by Kim Jong-un to “drive a wedge” between South Korea and the US, which he confidently said would have a “much less than 50-50 possibility of success”.

He then went on to talk of financial sanctions against China, and of an economic blockade of North Korea intended to bring North Korea to its knees.

In reality it is US intransigence – not Kim Jong-un’s brilliance or Russian or Chinese diplomacy – which is driving this process.

It is exasperation with US intransigence which has driven the Russians and the Chinese to push the two Koreas to talk to each other – cutting out the US – and it is US intransigence which has alarmed the South Koreans, creating a diplomatic opportunity which Kim Jong-un has exploited.

No agreement the two Koreas agree with each other presents any conceivable danger to the US.  On the contrary a detente between the two Koreas which stabilises the situation in the Korean Peninsula benefits the US, even if it comes at the price of a stronger Korean alignment with China and Russia, and even if it leaves North Korea in possession of all or some of its nuclear weapons.

Even The Times of London is able to understand this, as these words in its editorial show

The Trump administration is right to take a tough line. But, it has to be admitted, this has run into the brick wall of North Korean pride and the sands of Chinese evasion. Washington should keep up its pressure. But if the nation it is meant to be safeguarding itself wants to try another tack, it would be foolish to shut off that avenue.

(bold italics added)

The US urgently needs to rethink its approach to North Korea and try another tack.

The way to do that is to do what the Chinese and the Russians have been urging the US to do for months: freeze its military deployments and its military exercises in and around the Korean Peninsula, and talk to Pyongyang.  An offer of a summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un is an obvious and necessary step.

The alternative the US risks – if it insists on maintaining its present belligerent and intransigent course – is that North and South Korea will come to agreements with each other and realign with China and Russia in a way that leaves the US out in the cold.

It is impossible to see how that makes sense for the US.

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Russian Il-20 downed by Syrian missile. Russia blames Israel. Israel blames Syria (Video)

The Duran – News in Review – Episode 110.

Alex Christoforou

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The unthinkable has happened in Syria.

The world now teeters on the brink of all out war in Syria as a Russian Il-20 was downed by Syrian missile after Israeli F-16s used it as cover during attack, according to statements made by the Russian Ministry of Defense.

President Vladimir Putin, answering a reporter’s question during a press conference with Hungarian PM Viktor Orban, said the downing of the Russian Il-20 plane looks like “a chain of tragic circumstances.” 

The Duran’s Alex Christoforou and Editor-in-Chief Alexander Mercouris discuss the tripwire triggered that has the potential to tip the fragile balance in Syria towards conflict between Russia, Iran and Israel.

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The Russian military says an Israeli raid on Syria triggered a chain of events that led to its Il-20 plane being shot down by a Syrian S-200 surface-to-air missile. Moscow reserves the right to respond accordingly.

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said…

“Israel did not warn the command of the Russian troops in Syria about the planned operation. We received a notification via a hotline less than a minute before the strike, which did not allow the Russian aircraft to be directed to a safe zone.”

The statement by the Russian Defense Ministry said that four Israeli F-16 fighter jets attacked targets in Syria’s Latakia after approaching from the Mediterranean.

The Israeli warplanes approached at a low altitude and “created a dangerous situation for other aircraft and vessels in the region.”

The statement further said that 15 Russian military service members have died as a result…

“The Israeli pilots used the Russian plane as cover and set it up to be targeted by the Syrian air defense forces. As a consequence, the Il-20, which has radar cross-section much larger than the F-16, was shot down by an S-200 system missile.”

According to reports from RT, the Russian military said that the French Navy’s frigate ‘Auvergne,’ as well as a Russian Il-20 plane were in the area during the Israeli operation.

Map of the incident on September 17 in Syria provided by the Russian defense ministry.

The Russian ministry said the Israelis must have known that the Russian plane was present in the area, but this did not stop them from executing “the provocation.” Israel also failed to warn Russia about the planned operation in advance. The warning came just a minute before the attack started, which “did not leave time to move the Russian plane to a safe area,”the statement said.

The statement gives a larger death toll than earlier reports by the Russian military, which said there were 14 crew members on board the missing Il-20. It said a search and rescue operation for the shot-down plane is underway.

A later update said debris from the downed plane was found some 27km off the Latakia coast. The search party collected some body parts, personal possessions of the crew, and fragments of the plane.

Meanwhile Israel has come out to blame the Syrian government for the downing of the military plane, according to an IDF statement.

Israel said that it “expresses sorrow for the death of the aircrew members” of the Russian plane. However, it stated that the government of Bashar Assad “whose military shot down the Russian plane,” is “fully responsible” for the incident.

Israel further blamed Iran and Hezbollah for the incident.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) explained that its jets were targeting a Syrian facility “from which systems to manufacture accurate and lethal weapons were about to be transferred on behalf of Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon.”

Israel claimed that the weapons were “meant to attack Israel.”

Via RT

The IDF assumed that the Syrian anti-air batteries “fired indiscriminately” and didn’t “bother to ensure that no Russian planes were in the air.” The Israelis said that when the Syrian military launched the missiles which hit the Russian plane, its own jets were already within Israeli airspace. “During the strike against the target in Latakia, the Russian plane that was then hit was not within the area of the operation.”

According to the Israeli military, both IDF and Russia have “a deconfliction system,” which was agreed upon by the leadership of both states, and “has proven itself many times over recent years.” The system was in use when the incident happened, the IDF stated. The IDF promised to share “all the relevant information” with Russia “to review the incident and to confirm the facts in this inquiry.”

The military presented a four-point initial inquiry into events in Latakia. It insisted that “extensive and inaccurate” Syrian anti-aircraft fire caused the Russian jet “to be hit and downed.”

The Russian Il-20 aircraft, with 15 crew on board, went off radar during an attack by four Israeli jets on Syria’s Latakia province late Monday. Later on Tuesday the Russian Defense Ministry said that an Israeli raid on Syria triggered a chain of events that led to its plane being shot down by a Syrian S-200 surface-to-air missile.

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Trump Orders Immediate Release Of All Text Messages, Carter Page FISA Application From Russia Investigation

Trump has ordered the DOJ to release all text messages related to the Russia investigation with no redactions.

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Via Zerohedge

President Trump has ordered the Department of Justice to release all text messages related to the Russia investigation with no redactions, of former FBI Director James Comey, his deputy Andrew McCabe, now-fired special agent Peter Strzok, former FBI attorney Lisa Page and twice-demoted DOJ official Bruce Ohr.

Also released will be specific pages from the FBI’s FISA surveillance warrant application on former Trump campaign aide Carter Page, as well as interviews with Ohr.

The statement reads in full:

“At the request of a number of committees of Congress, and for reasons of transparency, the President has directed the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Justice (including the FBI) to provide for the immediate declassification of the following materials: (1) pages 10-12 and 17-34 of the June 2017 application to the FISA court in the matter of Carter W. Page; (2) all FBI reports of interviews with Bruce G. Ohr prepared in connection with the Russia investigation; and (3) all FBI reports of interviews prepared in connection with all Carter Page FISA applications.

In addition, President Donald J. Trump has directed the Department of Justice (including the FBI) to publicly release all text messages relating to the Russia investigation, without redaction, of James Comey, Andrew McCabe, Peter Strzok, Lisa Page, and Bruce Ohr

***

As we reported last Monday, Trump had been expected to release the documents any time – with specific attention to the Page documents and the “investigative activities of Justice Department lawyer Bruce Ohr” – who was demoted twice for lying about his extensive relationship  with Christopher Steele – the former MI6 spy who assembled the sham “Steele Dossier” used by the FBI in a FISA surveillance application to spy on Page.

Republicans on the House Intelligence and Judiciary committees believe the declassification will permanently taint the Trump-Russia investigation by showing the investigation was illegitimate to begin with. Trump has been hammering the same theme for months.

  • They allege that Bruce Ohr played an improper intermediary role between the Justice Department, British spy Christopher Steele and Fusion GPS — the opposition research firm that produced the Trump-Russia dossier, funded by Democrats. (Ohr’s wife, Nellie, worked for Fusion GPS on Russia-related matters during the presidential election — a fact that Ohr did not disclose on federal forms.)
  • And they further allege that the Obama administration improperly spied on Carter Page — all to take down Trump. –Axios

Ohr, meanwhile, met with Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska in 2015 to discuss helping the FBI with organized crime investigations, according to The Hill‘s John Solomon. The meeting with the Putin ally was facilitated by Steele.

Last month Trump called Ohr a disgrace, while also tweeting: “Will Bruce Ohr, whose family received big money for helping to create the phony, dirty and discredited Dossier, ever be fired from the Jeff Sessions  “Justice” Department? A total joke!”

Trump’s threat came one day after two tweets about Ohr, noting a connection to former FBI agent Peter Strzok, as well as a text sent by Ohr after former FBI Director James Comey was fired in which Ohr says “afraid they will be exposed.”

According to emails turned over to Congressional investigators in August, Christopher Steele was much closer to Bruce Ohr and his wife Nellie than previously disclosed.

Steele and the Ohrs would have breakfast together on July 30, 2016 at the Mayflower Hotel in downtown Washington D.C., days after Steele turned in installments of his infamous “dossier” on July 19 and 26. The breakfast also occurred one day before the FBI formally launched operation “Crossfire Hurricane,” the agency’s counterintelligence operation into the Trump campaign.

“Great to see you and Nellie this morning Bruce,” Steele wrote shortly following their breakfast meeting. “Let’s keep in touch on the substantive issues/s (sic). Glenn is happy to speak to you on this if it would help.”

“After two years of investigations and accusations from both sides of the aisle about what documents indicate, it is past time for documents to be declassified and let the American people decide for themselves if DoJ and FBI acted properly,” Freedom Caucus chairman Mark Meadows told Axios earlier Sunday.

In early August, journalist Paul Sperry tweeted that Trump may use his presidential authority to declassify “20 redacted pages of a June, 2017 FISA renewal, “and possibly” 63 pages of emails and notes between “Ohr & Steele,” and FD-302 summaries of 12 interviews.”

President Trump threatened to declassify documents two weeks ago – one day after the New York Times allegedly published an anonymous Op-Ed claiming to be from a White House official claiming to be part of an unelected “resistance” cabal within the Trump administration.

“The Deep State and the Left, and their vehicle, the Fake News Media, are going Crazy – & they don’t know what to do,” Trump tweeted earlier this month, adding: “The Economy is booming like never before, Jobs are at Historic Highs, soon TWO Supreme Court Justices & maybe Declassification to find Additional Corruption. Wow!”

Trump’s threat comes as calls by frustrated GOP legislators to release the documents have hit a fevered pitch. Spearheading the effort are Republican Reps. Meadows, Jim Jordan, Matt Gaetz and Lee Zeldin – who have repeatedly asked Trump to declassify more of the heavily redacted FISA surveillance warrant on former Trump campaign aide Carter Page in late 2016.

In June, Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee asked President Trump to declassify key sections of Carter Page’s FISA warrant application, according to a letter obtained by Fox News.

Carter Page, the DOJ/FBI’s person of interest, weighed in on the matter in late August, tweeting: “The Corrupt DOJ, co-conspirators in the DNC and their high-priced consultants correctly believed they had American democracy and the FISA Court over a barrel in 2016.”

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De-Dollarization Tops Agenda at Russia’s Eastern Economic Forum

The Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) was held in Vladivostok on Sept.11-13. Founded in 2015, the event has become a platform for planning and launching projects to strengthen business ties in the Asia-Pacific region.

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Via Strategic Culture

This year, the EEF brought together delegations from over 60 countries to discuss the topic “The Far East: Expanding the Range of Possibilities”. A total of 100 business events involving over 6,000 participants were held during the three days.

1,357 media personnel worked to cover the forum. Last year, the number of participants was 5,000 with 1,000 media persons involved in reporting and broadcasting. The EEF-18 gathered 340 foreign and 383 Russian CEOs. Nearly 80 start-ups from across South-East Asia joined the meeting.

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This year, a total of 175 agreements worth of 2.9 trillion rubles (some $4.3 billion) were signed. For comparison, the sum was 2.5 trillion rubles (roughly $3.7 billion) in 2017.

They included the development of the Baimsky ore deposits in Chukotka, the construction of a terminal for Novatek LNG at Bechevinskaya Bay in Kamchatka and the investment of Asian countries in Russia’s agricultural projects in the Far East.

Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), Mail.Ru Group, Megafon and Chinese Alibaba inked an agreement on establishing AliExpress trade joint venture. Rosneft and Chinese CNPC signed an oil exploration agreement.

The Chinese delegation was the largest (1,096 people), followed by the Japanese (570 members). The list of guests included the president of Mongolia and prime ministers of Japan and South Korea.

It was also the first time Chinese President Xi Jinping attended the event to meet his Russian counterpart. The issue of de-dollarization topped the agenda. Russia and China reaffirmed their interest in expanding the use of national currencies in bilateral deals.

During the forum, Kirill Dmitriev, the head of RDIF, said the fund intends to use only national currencies in its transactions with China starting from 2019. It will cooperate with the China Development Bank.

This “yuanification” is making visible progress with Shanghai crude futures increasing their share of oil markets up to 14 percent or even more. China has signed agreements with Canada and Qatar on national currencies exchange.

READ MORE: Eastern Economic Forum opens new chapter in US-Russia dialogue

De-dollarization is a trend that is picking up momentum across the world. A growing number of countries are interested in replacing the dollar. Russia is leading the race to protect itself from fluctuations, storms and US-waged trade wars and sanctions.

Moscow backs non-dollar trade with Ankara amid the ongoing lira crisis. Turkey is switching from the dollar to settlements in national currencies, including its trade with China and other countries. Ditching the US dollar is the issue topping the BRICS agenda. In April, Iran transferred all international payments to the euro.

The voices calling for de-dollarization are getting louder among America’s closest European allies. In August, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas called for the creation of a new payments system independent of the US.

According to him, Europe should not allow the United States to act “over our heads and at our expense.” The official wants to strengthen European autonomy by establishing independent payment channels, creating a European Monetary Fund and building up an independent SWIFT system.

Presenting his annual program, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker called on Sept. 12 for the European Union to promote the euro as a global currency to challenge the dollar.

According to him, “We must do more to allow our single currency to play its full role on the international scene.” Mr. Juncker believes “it is absurd that Europe pays for 80 percent of its energy import bill – worth 300 billion euros a year – in US dollars when only roughly 2 percent of our energy imports come from the United States.” He wants the raft of proposals made in his state of the union address to start being implemented before the European Parliament elections in May.

70% of all world trade transactions account for the dollar, while 20% are  settled in the euro, and the rest falls on the yuan and other Asian currencies. The dollar value is high to make the prices of consumer goods in the US artificially low. The demand for dollars allows refinancing the huge debt at low interest rates. The US policy of trade wars and sanctions has triggered the global process of de-dollarization.

Using punitive measures as a foreign policy tool is like shooting oneself in the foot. It prompts a backlash to undermine the dollar’s status as the world reserve currency – the basis of the US economic might. The aggressive policy undermines the US world standing to make it weaker, not stronger.

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