Why Foreign Elections Matter to Americans

It’s strange for a lot of us insular Americans to realize, let alone accept, that our fates are determined by politicians, voters, and institutions beyond our borders. (Hell, we barely have enough influence over our own political and economic circumstances, but that’s a different story.)

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is an obvious example: Now the specter of nuclear war haunts the world again, to say nothing of the impact on everything from gas to food prices (more so in other countries than in the U.S.). COVID-19 is another dramatic example, and it also reflects the equally difficult issue of being at the mercy of natural forces we often barely think about, let alone prepare for.

A lesser known but consequential example is Brazil, whose 210 million people influence (in the broadest terms) the fate of the Amazon rainforest—which is not only innately valuable for its unique nature but is one of the key ecological regions whose collapse could accelerate climate change and be calamitous for the rest of humanity.

Tomorrow, Brazilian voters will head to the polls to cast ballots in the first round of the country’s highly anticipated presidential election. (In Brazil, federal elections are held the first Sunday of October to maximize accessibility, and a presidential candidate must receive more than half the popular vote to win; otherwise, the top two recipients of votes go on to a second round on the last Sunday of October.)

The two frontrunners are left-wing former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, whose administration was clouded by allegations of corruption, and right-wing incumbent Jair Bolsonaro, who has threatened to reject the outcome of the election if it does not go his way. Not unlike the United States, Brazil is a big, diverse, complex, and federalized republic that ranks as one of the world’s largest democracies, with over 156 million registered voters.

Likewise, Brazilians are increasingly polarized and yearn for a leader who will put the country on the right path—with many remaining cynical about whether either candidate has the vision, discipline, or even political influence to get that done.

Of course, Brazil is far from the only example: There’s a good reason why the rest of the world takes such an interest in our domestic politics, compared to the other way around. Who we elect, what policies we support, how we manage our massively influential economy, etc., have tremendous implications for the rest of humanity (not least because we can literally invade or nuke another nation). We may not like it, but the world is too big and complicated for even one powerful country to make a difference, and there’s a lot that’s beyond our control.

The Great Liberator of D.C.

More belated photos of D.C.’s international character: A memorial to Venezuelan revolutionary Simon Bolivar, located near the National Mall just behind the headquarters of the Organization of American States (OAS), an international organization comprised of most of the Western Hemisphere. It is reportedly the world’s largest equestrian statue of Bolivar and was gifted to the U.S. by Venezuela in 1955.

Considered one of history’s most consequential figures, Bolivar is known as “The Liberator” for his lightning-fast campaign to free much of Latin America from Spanish rule in the early 19th century. He is considered the founder of at least five South American countries—including his native Venezuela, Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Panama—of which all but Bolivia were initially one nation called the Republic of Colombia, or Gran Colombia, which he founded and ruled as its first president.

The creation of Gran Colombia, which John Quincy Adams described as one of the world’s most powerful countries, inspired revolutions elsewhere in Latin America. Having established some of history’s first (official) republics—including abolishing slavery in deference to his Haitian allies—Bolivar is seen as a natural contemporary of America’s Founders, with whom he shared a similar influence from Enlightenment ideals like individual liberty and popular sovereignty (and whose revolution, along with that of France, he admired). But Bolivar was just as flawed as his fellow revolutionaries and was especially cynical about whether democracy could take hold in Latin America; he believed the legacy of Spanish authoritarianism, as opposed to the more liberal constitutional monarchy of Britain, left far less fertile soil for American- or French-style republicanism. Yet as in those countries, Bolivar’s ideals and aspirations would outlive him and the short-lived republican governments he helped create.

The history of the statue is almost as interesting as the man himself: In 1955, the Senate authorized the acceptance and placement of a gift from the Venezuelan government. The eight-ton was designed by Felix W. de Weldon, who sculpted the famous statue depicting the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima.  The original dedication ceremony was scheduled for May 22, 1958, with Vice President Nixon scheduled to preside, but a coup in Venezuela earlier that year delayed the ceremony.

Finally on February 27, 1959, President Eisenhower dedicated the 36-foot bronze statue as a symbol of the U.S. and Venezuela striving “to live and work together.” The dedication came two weeks after Romulo Betancourt was elected President on February 13, 1959, ending a decade of dictatorship in Venezuela. (Betancourt would be known as the founder of Venezuelan democracy, making him an appropriate figure to preside over a ceremony dedicated to the country’s less-than-democratic founder.)

The Hero of the Two Worlds

At last, we come to the namesake of Lafayette Square, the Marquis de Lafayette. His contributions to the American Revolution prompted widespread praise and admiration across both sides of the Atlantic, earning him a public square in front of the White House, honorary U.S. citizenship (shared by only seven others), and the moniker, “Hero of the Two Worlds”.

Born into a wealthy French family, Lafayette came from a long line of distinguished soldiers and military leaders; he followed in their footsteps and became an officer at age 13. Despite his noble birth, he truly believed in the Enlightenment ideals of liberty, human rights, and civic virtue, and was inspired by the American Revolution—enough to purchase a ship and sail across the Atlantic to volunteer for the cause.

Lafayette’s energy and enthusiasm impressed those around him, as did his well-needed military experience; Benjamin Franklin vouched for him, while George Washington bonded with him almost immediately (and the feeling was mutual). The young Frenchman was made a major general at age 19 and made part of Washington’s staff; he followed the American commander everywhere, enduring the same hardships and many of the famous (and often arduous battles). Lafayette was wounded during the Battle of Brandywine—the second-longest one-day battle, at 11 hours—but managed to rally an organized retreat that saved numerous lives; Washington cited him for bravery and asked Congress to give him command of American troops. He went on to serve with distinction in several battles, even beating numerically superior forces.

Lafayette’s biggest contribution came in the middle of the war, when he sailed home to lobby for more French support; his efforts resulted in decisive aid to the revolution, from thousands of troops to most of our ammunition. He returned to America in 1780 and was given senior positions in the Continental Army. In 1781, he delayed British forces so American and French forces could position themselves for the decisive siege of Yorktown—the battle that ended the war.

Lafayette returned to France and sought to bring the same changes and freedoms he helped usher in America. After forming the National Constituent Assembly—roughly equivalent to the U.S. Continental Congress—he helped to write the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen with the help of Thomas Jefferson. Inspired by the Declaration of Independence, it is one of history’s oldest and still-current civil rights documents, establishing basic principles of democracy. Lafayette even advocated an end to slavery, something that was still beyond the pale to most fellow revolutionaries. He spent the rest of his life trying to chart a middle course between the radicals of both sides of the revolution.

In 1824, President James Monroe invited the now-elderly Lafayette to the United States as the nation’s guest; he visited all 24 states at the time and was met with large crowds and applause everywhere he went. His integrity never wavered, and during France’s July Revolution of 1830, he declined an offer to become the French dictator.

The Hungarian Father of U.S. Cavalry

The first thing to greet me at the Hungarian Embassy in Washington, D.C., is this very dramatic statue of a horseman waving an American flag.

As it turns out, this colonel Michael Kovats was a Hungarian nobleman who is considered one of the “Founding Fathers of U.S. cavalry”—and who gave his life for the cause of American independence.

Like many of the foreigners who fought in the American Revolution, Kovats was a highly experienced soldier motivated by both adventurism and a genuine belief in the universal cause of liberty. As soon as learned of the war, he ventured to meet the U.S. ambassador in France, Benjamin Franklin, and offered him his sword along with a letter written in Latin:

Most Illustrious Sir:

Golden freedom cannot be purchased with yellow gold.

I, who have the honor to present this letter to your Excellency, am also following the call of the Fathers of the Land, as the pioneers of freedom always did. I am a free man and a Hungarian. As to my military status I was trained in the Royal Prussian Army and raised from the lowest rank to the dignity of a Captain of the Hussars, not so much by luck and the mercy of chance than by most diligent self discipline and the virtue of my arms. The dangers and the bloodshed of a great many campaigns taught me how to mold a soldier, and, when made, how to arm him and let him defend the dearest of the lands with his best ability under any conditions and developments of the war.

I now am here of my own free will, having taken all the horrible hardships and bothers of this journey, and I am willing to sacrifice myself wholly and faithfully as it is expected of an honest soldier facing the hazards and great dangers of the war … I beg your Excellency, to grant me a passport and a letter of recommendation to the most benevolent Congress. I am expecting companions who have not yet reached here …

At last, awaiting your gracious answer, I have no wish greater than to leave forthwith, to be where I am needed most, to serve and die in everlasting obedience to Your Excellency and the Congress.

Most faithful unto death,

Bordeaux, January 13th, 1777. Michael Kovats de Fabricy

P.S.: As yet I am unable to write fluently in French or English and had only the choice of writing either in German or Latin; for this I apologize to your Excellency.

Talk about a class act! (And he sure as hell looked the part too).

Kovats’ commitment was a huge win for the colonists: The hussars he trained and commanded were some of the finest light calvary in Europe, if not the world; calvary were the elite units of the day, capable of great mobility, shock tactics, and even psychological warfare.

Along with Polish general Casimir Pulaski—who is likewise considered the father of the U.S. cavalry—Kovats reformed American horsemen along the lines of the elite hussars. The resulting “Pulaski’s Legion” was one of the few calvary units in the Continental Army.

Unfortunately, both the legion and its two founders would be short-lived: Like most wars at the time, diseases decimated the troops as much as actual warfare. Following a long march to the south, where the British were shifting their focus, the legion was weakened by smallpox; it arrived as the decisive British siege of Charleston, South Carolina was underway.

Given the desperation of the situation, the legion engaged the attackers in an effort to lift the worsening siege but were promptly cut down—this was the era when calvary were starting to become obsolete in face of ever-improving firearms. Kovats and Pulaski were killed leading the charge to inspire their men; one British major described the force as “the best calvary the rebels ever had”.

True to his word, the Hungarian nobleman—who did not have a dog in the fight—nonetheless remained faithful to the American cause until the very end, though he is little remembered today. (Pulaski, at the very least, was made an honorary U.S. citizen, one of only eight with such an honor).

Fittingly, the Citadel Military College in Charleston has part of its campus named after him.

The Spanish Noble Who Became an Honorary U.S. Citizen

Only eight people have ever been granted honorary U.S. citizenship, which is reserved only for those of exceptional merit; this statue in Washington, D.C. that I stumbled upon is dedicated to one of those privileged few: Bernardo de Galvez, a Spanish military leader and colonial governor who provided decisive aid to the American Revolution.

A career soldier since age 16, Gálvez was a veteran of several wars across Europe, the Americas, and North Africa. While governor of Spanish Louisiana—a vast territory spanning much of the Midwest—he supported the Patriots and their French allies by facilitating crucial supply lines and interfering with British operations in the Gulf Coast. Gálvez achieved half-a-dozen victories on the battlefield, most notably retaking West Florida from the British. His efforts eliminated the British naval presence in the Gulf and prevented American rebels in the south from being encircled; subsequently, Galvez had a hand in drafting the Treaty of Paris that ended the war and granted American independence.

Gálvez’s actions aided the American war effort and made him a hero to both Spain and the newly independent United States. Congress immediately planned to hang his portrait in the Capitol, albeit only doing so in 2014; that year, he was conferred honorary citizenship for being a “hero of the Revolutionary War who risked his life for the freedom of the United States people and provided supplies, intelligence, and strong military support to the war effort.”

While largely forgotten in the United States, Gálvez remains in high esteem among many Americans, particularly in southern and western states; several places bear his name, including Galveston, Texas and Galvez, Louisiana, and Galvez Day is a holiday in parts of Pensacola (formerly West Florida).

The (French) Hero of Yorktown

A (poor) selfie with my bro, Rochambeau (sorry).

It might seem odd that the capital of the world’s first modern republic would have a prominent statue to a French nobleman facing the White House. But we probably owe the very existence of the United States to Frenchmen like Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau.

In fact, the statue is located on Lafayette Square, named after another French hero of the American Revolution (whom I’ll get to later)!

To understand Rochambeau’s significance, you need only go down the street to the U.S. Capitol. Among the four paintings prominently displayed in the Rotunda is the Surrender of Lord Cornwallis by John Trumbull (known as the “Painter of the Revolution” for his many iconic depictions of the war and period; you’ll recognize many of them if you look him up).

The painting shows the British surrender at Yorktown in 1781, which marks the decisive end of the American Revolution. Flanked on one side of the defeated general are Americans carrying the Stars and Stripes, while the other side depicts French soldiers beneath the banner of France’s monarchy. These troops were commanded by Washington and Rochambeau, respectively, and are portrayed with equal prominence and dignity.

Trumbull’s decision to depict French and U.S. forces as equal combatants reflected widespread acknowledgement that the U.S. owed its independence to the Kingdom of France. (Ironically, the world’s first modern republic owes its existence to one of history’s oldest and most absolute monarchies—more so than that of Great Britain!)

Having cut his teeth in several battles in Europe, Rochambeau was selected to lead the French Expeditionary Forces sent to aid the Americans in the revolution—the only time an allied military force served on U.S. soil for an extended period of time. Almost as many French troops took part in the final battle as Americans, and one of the two military columns that secured victory was entirely French.

Meanwhile, the French Navy had kept British ships from coming to Cornwallis’ aid, prompting him to surrender—and the British to sue for peace.

Little wonder why you see so many French names in D.C. (more on that later).

The Geneva Convention I.D. Card

There are many subtle and often-unseen ways that international law is integrated in our domestic systems and institutions. Case in point: I have worked on some cases involving U.S. servicemembers, and noticed they are each issued a “Geneva Convention I.D. Card”.

In compliance with the fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, the U.S. requires all employees of the Department of Defense, from combat troops to civilian staff, to carry a card such as those pictured below (an older and newer sample); the card must include the bearer’s name, ranks, affiliation, and other biographical details.

The idea is to facilitate the fair and ethical treatment of prisoners of war by allowing whoever has captured them to determine whether they’re part of the regular armed forces subject to protection, are civilians rather troops, etc.; it also helps provide a clear record of who has been killed, imprisoned, or missing.

The idea of treating captured enemies fairly sounds quaint and absurd; but the drafters of the Geneva Conventions, in a display of calculated pragmatism, recognized that ending war was going to be a longer and more difficult goal than trying to restraint its worst impulses.

If nothing else, a Geneva Convention I.D. Card serves a practical purpose, and like most areas of international law we have chosen to abide by, it is the practical benefits that often motivate us; see similar treaties that sent universal standards for mail, shipping, airlines, passports, etc.

The Mexican-American War

This week in 1846 saw the outbreak of one of the most obscure, consequential, and unjust wars in U.S. history: The Mexican American War, which in two years resulted in the U.S. becoming a continental power, at the expense of its weaker southern neighbor—something even American heroes like Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant regarded as a grave injustice.

The war began under the equally obscure but history-making presidency of James K. Polk, a one-term president with the rare distinction of having fulfilled all his campaign promises—one of which was expanding U.S. territory to the Pacific.

The problem was that Mexican (and to a lesser extent British) territory was in the way. Beginning with the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, which more than doubled the size of the fledging republic, there were several overtures to purchase what was then Spanish territory; in 1825, Andrew Jackson made a sustained effort to buy the northern lands of what was now newly independent Mexico, to no avail.

Meanwhile, Mexico was well aware of its precarious position: Not only was it wracked by political instability and social strife, but it lacked full authority over the rugged, sparsely inhabited lands of the now-American Southwest—especially against the various fiercely independent native tribes that were effectively sovereign. So, in the 1820s, the Mexican government invited Americans to settle and “civilize’ the vast, largely empty plains of present-day Texas; among them were men like Stephen F. Austin, the “Father of Texas“, who brought hundreds of “Anglo” families with him.

The rapid influx of Americans led to them outnumbering Mexicans in their own distant territory, which was already thousands of miles from Mexico’s political base in Mexico City. Aside from cultural and linguistic barriers, a major sticking point—surprise—was slavery: Mexico’s constitution had outlawed the practice decades before the U.S., but the vast majority of American settlers were slaveowners.

In a macabre foreshadowing of what was to come, disputes over slavery—along with the Mexican government’s effort to impose property taxes on the fiercely independent American immigrants—led Mexico to close the border with the U.S.—only for American slave owners to continue illegally crossing into Mexico (no need to harp on the irony here).

Escalating matters further, Mexico’s strongman president, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, sought to roll back the country’s federal system in favor of centralized power; this upset the quasi-independent “Texans”, and when Santa Anna led an army to reign them in, the Texas Revolution broke out, and the Texans, with U.S. support, achieved de facto independence in 1836.

Mexico never recognized this claim—though the U.S. and other foreign powers did—and the border of this new “Republic of Texas” were subsequently unclear and disputed. So, when America made the controversial move of annexing Texas as a state in 1845—hotly debated in Congress and by the public—this brought the dispute to what was now our border.

After yet another failed attempt to buy Mexican territory and finding significant opposition to starting a war with its only independent neighbor, Polk essentially egged on Mexico to start hostilities first—by sending a military expedition deep into Mexican territory. Even Grant, who served in the war despite his opposition to it, claims in his Personal Memoirs (1885) that the main goal was to provoke the outbreak of war without attacking first, thereby hindering domestic opposition to the war.

“The presence of United States troops on the edge of the disputed territory farthest from the Mexican settlements, was not sufficient to provoke hostilities. We were sent to provoke a fight, but it was essential that Mexico should commence it. It was very doubtful whether Congress would declare war; but if Mexico should attack our troops, the Executive could announce, “Whereas, war exists by the acts of, etc.,” and prosecute the contest with vigor. Once initiated there were, but few public men who would have the courage to oppose it. … Mexico showing no willingness to come to the Nueces to drive the invaders from her soil, it became necessary for the “invaders” to approach to within a convenient distance to be struck. Accordingly, preparations were begun for moving the army to the Rio Grande, to a point near Matamoras. It was desirable to occupy a position near the largest centre of population possible to reach, without absolutely invading territory to which we set up no claim whatever.”

After Mexican forces engaged what it saw as American invaders, killing or capturing dozens, Polk made his case for war. Many pro-slavery Democrats supported a declaration of war, while many northern “Whigs” remained staunchly opposed—including a freshman Congressman from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln, who challenged Polk’s assertion that American blood had been shed on American soil as “a bold falsification of history.” Within hours, Congress voted to formally declare war against Mexico—one of the few times in history that the U.S. as officially been at war with another country.

Notwithstanding some success on the battlefield, Mexico simply lacked the resources, military experience, and political unity to defend itself against superior American forces. Once its capital was occupied—along with most other major cities—it was clear that the U.S. was victorious and could dictate terms—which unsurprisingly included annexing the northern territories the U.S. had long sought.

U.S. forces occupying Mexico City

(There was actually an “All of Mexico Movement” that sought to take the entirety of Mexico, but it fell apart due in large part to concerns about incorporating millions of inferior Indian and mixed races that comprised the majority of the country’s population.)

In the peace treaty that followed, Mexico ceded to the United States the present-day states of California, Nevada, and Utah, most of New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado, and parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Wyoming.

In return, Mexico received $15 million—$470 million today—which was less than half the amount the U.S. offered before the war; the U.S. further agreed to assume $3.25 million in debts that the Mexican government owed to U.S. citizens ($102 million today).

Aside from its obvious enrichment of the U.S., the war had a huge impact on American domestic politics: A bloody expansion led to a bitter and polarizing debate about whether America was fulfilling its “Manifest Destiny” as an enlightened republic or was instead no different than the imperialist Europeans it claimed to have broken from. Once again, Grant captured the mood in his memoirs:

“For myself, I was bitterly opposed to the measure, and to this day regard the war, which resulted, as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory.”

The already-violent debate over slavery came to a head as both sides debated which of these vast territories should be “free” or “slave”; it was a cruel irony considering that the war had begun partly because illegal American immigrants insisted on having slaves in an “uncivilized” nation that had long since banned the despicable practice.

In some sense, America’s actions came to haunt it barely a generation later when these disputes over the fate of former Mexican territory furthered the boiling point to the American Civil War—which was led and fought by many veterans of the Mexican American War with tactics and strategies learned from that conflict.

Grant also expressed the view that the war against Mexico had brought punishment on the United States in the form of the American Civil War. “The Southern rebellion was largely the outgrowth of the Mexican war. Nations, like individuals, are punished for their transgressions. We got our punishment in the most sanguinary and expensive war of modern times”.

An illustrative example of the war is in the Great Seal of the State of New Mexico, which was the center of population in northern Mexico. The peace treaty made assurances that the Mexican population would become U.S. citizens and treated accordingly. To drive home the point, the state’s seal shows the Mexican eagle — with serpent and cactus, as in the coat of arms of Mexico —literally under the wing of an American eagle, which reinforces the state’s historic, centuries-long roots in Spanish, Mexican, and indigenous civilization. 

The ASAT Race

Russia’s anti-satellite (ASAT) test, which took out an old but large Soviet satellite, garnered widespread condemnation for the risk it posed to the International Space Station—and the wider problem of mounting space debris threatening human endeavors in space. But it also reflects yet another battleground among the world’s major powers.

Russia is one of just four countries—along with the U.S., China, and India—to have anti-satellite capabilities; this test exceeded Indian and American altitudes, but fell short of China. No doubt yet another race is in the works.

In addition to clogging up space with more deadly junk, such technology also serves as a demonstration to rivals: In a highly digital world, the ability to take down satellites can greatly weaken an enemy’s recon and spying capabilities, as well as disrupt disrupt the lives of billions.

Ironically, all four anti-sat players are also competing in the development and/or launching of satellites, which are in greater demand than ever.

My Paper: Lessons from Around the World on Drug Decriminalization and Legalization

After decades of tremendous financial and social costs, the punitive drug model is being steadily eroded at home and abroad. Even the conservative law-and-order types who oppose the use of illicit drugs are increasingly accepting that the war on drugs has failed both in its objective (undercutting drug use) and its efficiency (accomplishing little yet reaping a huge economic and human toll).

Even Mexico, which has suffered more than most nations from our appetite for illegal drugs, has gone forward with legalizing marijuana in an effort to undercut a major source of funding for its powerful and vicious cartels. (So now both of America’s only neighbors have fully done away with punitive attitudes towards one of the weaker and comparatively less harmful illicit substances.)

All that being said, I do feel validated in having proposed and written a paper exploring the alternative methods, policies, and cultural attitudes of various countries when it comes to illegal drugs. As the U.S. and other countries question the wisdom of the status quo, it may help to look abroad at those places that were ahead of the curve in dispensing with the punitive approach in favor of more constructive methods. I focus especially on Portugal, which twenty years ago blazed the trail towards decriminalizing all illegal drugs and framing their use as a public health matter rather than a criminal one.

See the source image

As you will hopefully read, many of these strategies are unique to the time, place, or sociopolitical context of the nations that implemented them; nevertheless, there are still useful lessons to glean, and at the very least we can see proof that there are other ways to address the scourge of drug addiction, trafficking, and other associated ills, besides the blunt instrument of police and prisons.

Feel free to leave your thoughts, reactions, and feedback. Thanks again for your time.