Content from the Brookings Institution India Center is now archived. After seven years of an impactful partnership, as of September 11, 2020, Brookings India is now the Centre for Social and Economic Progress, an independent public policy institution based in India.
In keeping with his reputation as the global disrupter-in-chief, US President Donald Trump’s unprecedented acceptance of a face-to-face meeting with North Korea’s strongman Kim Jong-un in May has created a political whiplash. While most experts have only focused on the nuclear dimension, this initiative, if it is to materialize, is likely to have international repercussions well beyond the nuclear realm.
In its most optimistic rendering, the Kim-Trump summit might be akin to the dramatic US opening up to China by president Richard Nixon in 1971-72. Nixon’s trip to China was a high-stakes gamble as there was no certainty that he would meet chairman Mao Zedong. However, the run-up to the historic Nixon-Mao summit and beyond significantly changed the course of international relations. Washington infamously tilted towards Pakistan and China, turned a blind eye to the ongoing brutality of the Cultural Revolution, supported China’s permanent membership of the UN Security Council, hastened the end of the Cold War, and contributed to China’s eventual economic rise. Consequently, today China has emerged as an economic and, increasingly, strategic peer to the US.
The upcoming summit’s most pessimistic outcome might be like the first and, perhaps, most disastrous meeting of the Cold War between the young and newly elected US president John F. Kennedy and the older and experienced Soviet dictator Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna in June 1961. The seasoned communist apparatchik pummelled and harangued the neophyte president. After the summit, Khrushchev dismissed the youthful president as “too intelligent and too weak” while Kennedy, a seasoned veteran of World War II, admitted that the meeting was the “roughest thing in my life”. Partly on account of his impression of Kennedy’s lack of resolve, Khrushchev felt emboldened to plant nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba, engage in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation, and risk the possibility of a nuclear war.
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President López Obrador's extension of the term of Supreme Court chief Arturo Zaldívar is part of his strong effort to recentralize power in the Mexican presidency and hollow out the independence and power of other Mexican institutions. His other moves to bend the justice system to his will include a reform that lowered the salary of judges but did not improve the quality of prosecutors and his unwillingness to allow an independent selection of the attorney general, with López Obrador himself retaining the power of appointment. His latest move with the two-year extension of Zaldívar’s term is especially worrisome. Zaldívar is also the president of the powerful Federal Judiciary Council. The council appoints and dismisses judges, sets career advancement rules and disciplines judges. Zaldívar will be setting the council’s and, thus, the whole judiciary’s, agenda and priorities for two years. This allows López Obrador to influence how courts will rule in cases regarding the executive branch, what cases they take up and the legality of new policies. These moves are taking place when the effectiveness of the judiciary in Mexico remains limited and deeply concerning. The attorney general’s office has proven weak, unwilling to take up key cases such as against the suspects in the brazen attack on Mexico City’s security minister, Omar García Harfuch—an event that symbolized the impunity with which Mexican criminal groups operate. Mexico’s justice system showed itself equally meek and disappointing in inadequately investigating the alleged complicity of former Mexican Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos and dismissing the case, potentially the most significant case of corruption and criminal collusion charges against a high-ranking Mexican official in two decades. A decade and a half after Mexico initiated its justice system reforms, 95 percent of federal cases still go unpunished. President López Obrador has scored some points, but the already precariously weak rule of law in Mexico, and thus the Mexican people, will suffer.