Kind of right, but for the wrong reasons

823003

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.

Pay attention to this unhinged threat

(Image: Daily Star)
(Image: Daily Star)

 

It used to be that we had to wait for the latest official statement from North Korea to experience the kind of unhinged threats that President Donald Trump vented toward Iran last night:

If you think I’m exaggerating the comparison, take a look at this handy collection of North Korean gems compiled last year by the Evening Standard:

  • “The four islands of the [Japanese] archipelago should be sunken into the sea by the nuclear bomb of Juche … Japan is no longer needed to exist near us.
  • The US should be “beaten to death like a rabid dog.”
  • “Let’s reduce the US mainland into ashes and darkness. Let’s vent our spite with mobilisation of all retaliation means which have been prepared till now.”
  • Pyongyang is ”ready to use a form of ultimate means” to punish the United States.
  • “The forthcoming measures by DPRK [the Democratic Republic of Korea] will make the US suffer the greatest pain it has ever experienced in its history.”
  • “If the US is stupid enough to shove its stinky face on this land again and keep brandishing its nuclear club despite our repeated warnings, the DPRK will teach the US some manners with the strategic nuclear force that it had so far shown to the world. Any form of military threat or blackmail by the US can never scare the DPRK. On the contrary, it will only redouble the resolve of the Korean army and people to annihilate the enemy.”

Honestly, compared to Kim Jong Un’s government, Trump’s efforts lack real flair or creativity. And generally speaking, Trump’s threats are just as believable.

That said, there are good, and worrying, reasons why we shouldn’t just brush this off, as former National Security Council official Jeffrey Prescott has outlined. The risks here come more from the very real dangers of misstep, blunder, and accidental escalation than they do from a carefully calculated policy of coercion.

Since walking out on the international agreement which had very successfully put a brake on Iran’s nuclear arms program, the United States has failed to offer a viable diplomatic alternative to getting greater cooperation from Tehran. Instead we’ve reverted to the kinds of threats and economic pressure that were proven failures in terms of reining in Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

This led to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani warning Trump in a speech Sunday not to raise tensions further. Trump’s bedtime all-cap threat-tweet was his carefully considered reply.

While the United States has unilaterally reimposed sanctions on Iran, our partners in the original agreement have not followed suit. As a consequence, the Trump administration is trying to put pressure on other countries to stop buying Iranian oil. The Iranians have responded by reminding us, and the rest of the world, that they can easily choke off the flow of Middle East oil and natural gas by closing the Strait of Hormuz through which those supplies must pass to reach international markets.

Unsurprisingly then, this increased pressure from the United States has increased tension with Iran, raising the possibilities of further escalation, deliberate or otherwise. To this mix, add the fact that Trump has surrounded himself with advisors – specifically National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – who have long pressed for regime change in Iran.

At the same time, Trump probably believes that his “maximum pressure” approach to North Korea brought that country to the Singapore summit, which, while producing great optics for Trump, delivered nothing in terms of a North Korean commitment to denuclearize. This is something the president himself has apparently come to realize even as he refuses to say so in public.

So keep an eye on this one. Because war with Iran would be catastrophic, for everyone.

Putin’s man in Washington

IMG_3383

If the last few disastrous days of American diplomacy prove anything it’s this: Vladimir Putin’s investment in Donald Trump has paid off far beyond the Russian dictator’s wildest dreams.

As I said on the radio this morning, it’s like Putin dropped five bucks on a scratch-off lottery ticket at the corner gas station and found the million-dollar jackpot underneath.

From President Trump’s attempted demolition of the NATO alliance at its summit in Brussels, to his undermining of British Prime Minister Theresa May that further destabilized her already tenuous hold over her own government, to describing the European Union as a foe of the United States, to his final lickspittle, groveling performance at the feet of Vladimir Putin before the eyes of the world’s media in Helsinki, this was a week unlike any we have ever seen in modern American foreign policy.

As Putin’s top diplomat, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, put it, from their perspective the Trump-Putin meeting in Finland wasn’t just “better than super,” it was “fabulous.”

And why shouldn’t the Russians assess it that way? In their joint press conference, Trump openly rejected the consensus of his own government and embraced Putin’s “powerful denial” that Russia had in any way interfered in the 2016 presidential election. Trump said it was the United States that was responsible for tense relations between the two countries, both his predecessor in the Oval Office and the ongoing special counsel investigation into Russian meddling.

Certainly nothing he was willing to point the finger at Putin for, like waging covert war in eastern Ukraine, or using military force to redraw international borders by forcibly annexing Crimea, or shooting down a civilian air liner over Ukrainian territory in 2014, or the use of a deadly chemical weapon on British soil in an attempt to assassinate a Putin critic earlier this year.

In fact, Trump didn’t mention even one of those.

And why would he? When you’re someone else’s puppet, they’re the one pulling strings. Trump just acts, and speaks, accordingly.

Trump at NATO: Making anarchy great again

(Fraser Nelson for The Spectator)
(Fraser Nelson for The Spectator)

 

For years now I’ve had students in my international conflict class read an old article by University of Chicago political scientist John Mearsheimer, “Why We Will Soon Miss the Cold War.” In it Mearsheimer, a noted international relations realist, predicts Europe will return to the bad old days of unstable multi-polar balance of power dynamics which historically led to wars among the continental great powers.

Mearsheimer was writing in 1990, just as the Cold War was ending, and where others saw a bright, cooperative, and peaceful future, he saw something much darker:

We may, however, wake up one day lamenting the loss of order that the Cold War gave to the anarchy of international relations. For untamed anarchy is what Europe knew in the forty-five years of this century before the Cold War, and untamed anarchy – Hobbes’s war of all against all – is a prime cause of armed conflict. Those who think that armed conflicts among the European states are now out of the question, that the two world wars burned all the war out of Europe, are projecting unwarranted optimism onto the future …

Peace in Europe during the Cold War was, in Mearsheimer’s analysis, a product of the order imposed by two roughly equally matched, nuclear-armed, superpowers. With the Cold War over, that bipolar order went with it, paving the way for a return to the old, destructive patterns of history.

With the order of the Cold War gone, the states of Europe would once again be forced to put their own security first. Neither the prosperity that comes with membership in a common economic market, nor joint adherence to democratic norms and values, would be sufficient to guarantee the safety of European states in system characterized by anarchy and the requirements of self-help. Nuclear proliferation, at the very least to Germany, was assumed. War was not out of the question.

But the old patterns never actually came back, despite Mearsheimer’s prediction. Thirty years on from the end of the Cold War, Europe remains peaceful, prosperous, and democratic. And neither the Germans, nor any other European state, has developed nuclear weapons.

The key question I ask my students is why. Why was Mearsheimer wrong?

The answer is simple: Mearsheimer assumed that with the Cold War over and the threat posed by the Soviet Union gone, the United States would abandon Europe and the NATO alliance would dissolve. That, of course, didn’t happen.

Perhaps until now.

President Trump is now in Brussels for the NATO summit, and has spent his time, both in tweet before and in person while there, berating America’s allies, demanding they increase defense spending (they already have), and claiming the alliance is a raw deal for the US that disproportionately benefits Europe while we’re left holding the bag.

Every public statement from the president further undermines confidence in America’s commitments. Every new statement, every new set of plaudits thrown by Trump at Vladimir Putin’s feet, creates a little more doubt about whether we will stand in common defense of our allies. With all this, our allies must think, perhaps they should look to their own security once again.

And so, Mearsheimer might say, begins the return to form.

When it comes to understanding international politics, realists like Mearsheimer suggest that it all comes down to the long game. Given time, the standard patterns of interaction that characterize international relations will reassert themselves, sure as one season follows another. Wait long enough and history, or some close variant of it at least, really does repeat itself.

I hate to think that Trump is making Mearsheimer right after all.