Rule Britannia, another Brexit delusion

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In a speech to a UK think tank yesterday, British Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson argued that leaving the European Union will open a door for Britain to pursue a renewed, muscular, interventionist, unilateral foreign and defense policy:

In an era of ‘Great Power’ competition we cannot be satisfied simply protecting our own backyard. The UK is a global power with truly global interests. … And since the new Global Great Game will be played on a global playing field, we must be prepared to compete for our interests and our values far, far from home.

That is why Global Britain needs to be much more than a pithy phrase. It has to be about action. And our armed forces represent the best of Global Britain in action. Taking action alongside our friends and allies. Action to strengthen the hand of fragile nations and to support those who face natural disasters. Action to oppose those who flout international law. Action to shore up the global system of rules and standards on which our security and our prosperity depends.

And action, on occasion, that may lead us to have to intervene alone.

Apparently, after Brexit, Britannia will once again rule the waves. Color me skeptical.

The last time the United Kingdom “had to intervene alone,” i.e. unilaterally projected military power abroad, was 1982, when Margaret Thatcher sent British troops and warships 8,000 miles to a remote colony in the South Atlantic to wrest back control of some windswept rocks that had been invaded and seized by Argentina.

By the time the Falklands War was over, 649 Argentines and 255 Brits were killed in action, including more than 300 Argentine sailors who drowned when their WWII-era cruiser, the Gen. Belgrano, was torpedoed by a British nuclear submarine.

The financial cost to liberate the 1,800 British subjects and about 400,000 sheep who at the time constituted the Falklands population? The contemporary estimate was $1.19 billion, or the equivalent of about $3 billion today.

Take away it’s nuclear arsenal and Britain would struggle to be described as a military great power. It’s land forces and navy have over the years shrunk to a shadow of their former selves, and are likely no match for the kinds of adversaries Williamson envisions by evoking a 21st century Great Game of the sort that pitted the old British Empire against its Russian imperial rival two centuries ago.

To give an idea of how wildly implausible all of this is, the plan Williamson announced includes the purchase of a pair of civilian passenger ferries or cargo ships for conversion into amphibious assault vessels. And don’t forget the “swarm fleets” of off-the-shelf drones that he envisions fielding alongside the Royal Air Force.

The idea implicit in Williamson’s speech, that membership in the European Union has prevented the UK from militarily asserting its national interests is equally farfetched. Beyond it’s own weakness, a greater constraint on British adventurism, if it really wanted to engage in such, is its membership in NATO. And that’s not going changing, at least not anytime soon.

Only 47 more days until Brexit!

A song for GM workers

(Illustration: Detroit Free Press)
(Illustration: Detroit Free Press)

 

This song, by the great Irish singer-songwriter Christy Moore, may have been written for the 14,000 GM workers who are losing their jobs even as the corporation posts $11 billion in profits for 2018.

Some unionized workers are getting bonus checks. Meanwhile, five factories are slated to close.

A week ago the automaker began laying off some 4,000 white-collar workers. Friends of mine lost their jobs. Others escaped, for now, even as family members were “involuntarily separated” from a company they had worked for nearly their entire adult lives. They’re not optimistic about their futures.

This song is for all of them.

Kind of right, but for the wrong reasons

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In his belated State of the Union address last week, President Trump had this to say about North Korea:

As part of a bold new diplomacy, we continue our historic push for peace on the Korean Peninsula. Our hostages have come home, nuclear testing has stopped, and there has not been a missile launch in 15 months. If I had not been elected President of the United States, we would right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea with potentially millions of people killed. Much work remains to be done, but my relationship with Kim Jong Un is a good one.

I think Trump has the kernel of a valid point here. The situation on the Korean Peninsula was much more dangerous before he came into office than it is today. The situation is more stable, and thus a lot safer, now. The president is just wrong about why.

Trump ascribes this new stability to his self-professed superior deal-making skills and his “we fell in love” relationship with North Korea’s brutal dictator Kim Jong Un. Let me suggest a far more plausible explanation.

The Korean Peninsula is more stable today not because of Trump’s brilliance, but because North Korea has perfected its nuclear capability and clearly demonstrated its ability to deliver a warhead on American soil. In November 2017, following the “fire and fury” summer of escalating threats and counter-threats, North Korea successfully launched the Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile with an estimated range of more than 8,000 miles, enough to hit any target in the continental United States.

They haven’t tested a missile since. Because. They. Don’t. Have. To.

Having proven that it can put a nuke on a mainland American target, North Korea no longer needs to test its missiles or the weapons themselves. The lull that Trump is taking credit for has nothing to do with him, and everything to do with the maturity of North Korea’s nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programs.

In 1979, in an essay prepared for a joint CIA/Department of Defense conference, political scientist Kenneth Waltz argued that the gradual spread of nuclear weapons was, contrary to the fears of public and policymakers alike, a force for increased stability in the international system, and would therefore produce a safer, not more dangerous, world. (You can read Waltz’s further elaboration on this idea here.)

Waltz argued that nuclear weapons, because their effects are so catastrophic, make states more cautious and less willing to take risks that could lead to an escalation and nuclear exchange. Under these conditions miscalculation, historically a significant contributor to the outbreak of war, becomes less likely because getting it wrong has such dire consequences.

In short, once nukes are introduced into the equation, no one can play fast and loose with the kinds of aggressive actions that risk provoking a nuclear holocaust.

Apply these ideas to the relationship today between the United States and North Korea and you can understand why the Korean Peninsula is more stable, and thus safer, than it was in 2016. Until last year, the nuclear equation was one sided.

The United States could bluster and threaten a preemptive strike against North Korean targets secure in the knowledge that any retaliation by the North would fall on South Korea or maybe Japan. Yes, hundreds of thousands of civilians would die, but those wouldn’t be American cities burning. Seoul or Tokyo aren’t Seattle or San Francisco. That might be the kind of loss an American president could be willing to accept.

That option is now off the table. And that’s the reason why North Korea will never denuclearize, as President Trump’s own intelligence chiefs have testified, contradicting their boss.

North Korea now possesses a nuclear deterrent sufficient to force the United States into a more cautious, less risky, posture toward the Kim regime, just as the American nuclear monopoly induced the same kind of caution on part of the North Koreans.

The Korean Peninsula is safer and more stable today because North Korea achieved nuclear maturity on Donald Trump’s watch. That’s a good thing, but hardly the story the president wants to tell.

If a blogger sees his shadow …

Groundhog

I’ve been kind of laying low these last few months, at least as far as the blog goes. I’ve got good reason. A couple of weeks ago political theorist Jacob Levy said on Twitter what I’ve been thinking and feeling:

The problem, as Levy points out, is the president. Dan Drezner, patron saint of blogging political scientists, summed it up this way: “All the arguments about Trump have already been made, and there is no point in thinking up new ones.” In short, there are only so many ways to write about the same nonsense.

Drezner, to his credit (and to honor his arrangement with the Washington Post) is going to soldier on and keep writing about the seemingly endless series of corruptions, missteps, mistakes, ineptitudes, outrages, cruelties, and lies large and small that characterize this present administration.

Now that I’ve poked my head out of the burrow, I’m going to try to be like Punxsutawney Phil and make an optimistic prediction for the future. Phil called for early spring. I’m predicting more frequent posts here on the blog.

Of course Phil is usually wrong. I’ll try to do better.