Despite all the Agent Orange, the Jungle Grows Back

Fighting wildfires

The DPRK-USA summit in Vietnam is about to start. Given the generations that have passed since a frozen armistice was put in place and the decidedly erratic character of the American president I will withhold from speculating on how effective such talks will be. I do support having them, however. Everyone should. There is not a person on this Earth that would benefit, long term, from renewed hostilities on the Korean peninsula. Even the usually gleeful for conflict types in policy and business would suffer when China, now a nuclear armed nation came to the DPRK’s defense. Though we do not presently look like we are are staring down the barrel of such a confrontation, leaving the festering sore of nonexistent relations between Pyongyang and much of the rest of the world is of little benefit to anyone.

My concern here is that Pyongyang has an astute eye on Venezuela, and rightfully so. Saddam Hussein had no up to date weapons of mass destruction but for domestic reasons could not come out and say it. His lack of them hardly prevented the war that came his way. Qaddafi then saw an opportunity for his nation to be lifted from U.S. sanctions and in return give Bush a (minor) victory by renouncing such weapons. This failed to save him from an attack launched by the Obama administration under heavy pressure from Britain and France. This taught the world, and especially Syria, that it wasn’t worth giving up your WMD’s. In fact, it might be just what you need to make more powerful foes think twice. Everyone knows Israel, which once was subjected to endless conventional attack, has not been so attacked since it (unofficially) became a nuclear power. Everyone knows that North Korea’s bargaining position has been stronger since it became one. The intercontinental ballistic missile is the ultimate sovereignty guarantor.

Meanwhile, while this noteworthy and laudable attempt to normalize relations with North Korea goes forward, the US is attempting at the very same time to topple the government of Venezuela. This is extremely counter productive and will put Pyongyang on edge. Considering that all factions in Venezuela are unpopular, and that so far most of the army seems to be sticking with Caracas, it flirts with the risk of conflict or disruption that could set off another wave of migrants and conflict. Even if it does not, outside of private corporate interests who seek the Venezuelan economy opened to them, the average American stands no chance at benefiting from any major US-backed operation there…but will no doubt pick up the tab for it as always. Indeed, Maduro’s popularity is extremely low but not lower than Macron’s (who arguably treats opposition protesters worse), and opposition to US military intervention in that country is significantly higher than even the percentage of the people who want Maduro gone. If they want him gone, they will do it their way.

So far of candidates running for high office, only Tulsi Gabbard has raised a voice of opposition to our destabilizing actions in Venezuela, particularly at this sensitive time. The odds are high that if reaching a deal is more difficult than expected this would be the reason why.

This is just one issue among many that one could point to in order to make the counter-point to a growing Beltway-Lanyard narrative about America’s supposed withdrawal from the world. Robert Kagan, a well respected prognosticator despite a very long record of supporting failed policies, uses the phrase ‘the jungle grows back.’ We often see this narrative used increasingly by democrats and ‘never Trump’ conservatives to critique Trump from the neoconservative right. They are setting up a false binary where we must choose between pure isolationism and endless brushfire-war militarism. This is obviously false because there is quite simply no way the worlds largest economy could return to anything resembling prewar ‘isolationism’, much less give up its numerous diplomatic ties.

There is this assumption that undoing World War Two, the crucible of American world domination, lurks as a potential in every part of the world. But the Second World War was not normal, it was bizarre. Most of human history does not have quite so large conflicts in all out total war for global hegemony where the triumph of one side was so clearly preferable than to the other. The circumstances that made the prewar era do not exist any longer. And most tellingly, it would hardly be the United States to which much of the world would look to for deliverance at this point in time. This is because rather than intelligently shoring up its position once its last remaining true rival, the Soviet Union, fell in 1991, the United States has gone on not to uphold the stability to the post Cold War world but to endlessly undermine it. In so doing it has not only undermined its own position through over-expansion, but also made itself the most feared and least trusted nation on planet Earth. Trump’s bumbling obviously doesn’t help, but this problem dates back on some level to the over-expansion of NATO in the Clinton administration and especially from the unhinged Bush Jr. presidency. If the rest of the world doing its thing is the jungle, then we are Agent Orange. And the overreach of so much of our consensus foreign policy has made a lot of those jungle dwellers nostalgic for the days without chemically induced mutation.

In my time at the State Department I often found that the foreign service officers who had served in countries that struck an independent course of self sufficiency were often the ones more content with their ‘hardship’ (not fully developed nation) postings. Prewar Syria and Belarus were commonly lauded places to be. There is, perhaps, a reason why foreign service officers are restricted to two years per post abroad. You don’t want them getting any funny ideas about countries pursuing independent paths of development.

This needs to be kept in mind when doing big diplomatic negotiations like the one currently in Vietnam. A country that we dumped endless amounts of chemicals on, then left, and allowed the jungle to grow back. Now Vietnam is doing better than ever before in modern history *and* has positively warm relations with the United States. Diplomacy, its cheap and effective and our war to preserve the artificial construction of South Vietnam was for nothing. But in addition to hard power backing up diplomacy it also needs the soft power of knowing you are reliable and trustworthy.

Many in North Korea may be looking at Venezuela and wondering how many concessions it is worth giving the United States. It didn’t have to be this way, and it sure doesn’t in the future. There is a professional and political class in desperate need of replacing.

Douglas MacArthur’s Ghost and the Bolton Democrats

 

Trumpkim.jpg

Image via the BBC

Today was a big day in diplomacy over there in Singapore. Trump met Kim and their advisers met each other. America has apparently committed to ending joint military exercises with South Korea (for now) and North Korea has started demolishing its weapons testing sites, though only a few so far.

The almost nonexistent relationship between the US and the DPRK is an artifact of the Cold War. One that became obsolete from an ideological point of view in 1992 but has lingered on anyway. This is, of course, because it (much like the Cold War itself in my opinion) was not primarily ideological but rather a contest of rival power poles and alliance networks. In reality, North Korea has remained an issue because it fears the United States and encirclement from their allies but also fears that this unenviable and de facto blockaded position on the world stage would force it to become so subordinate to their giant ally China that their sovereignty might also be indirectly compromised from that direction.  If you wondered why a government is so clamped down and beholden in all factors to security concerns this is why. China wants a compliant vassal state protecting its only land border with a US rival, South Korea and the US want to keep affirming their alliance, and Japan wants to stop being used as a testing ground for North Korean weapons demonstrations. North Korea, for all its oddness, really just wants to survive and avoid any kind of regime change operation, be it conducted from their south or, perhaps more indirectly, from their north. When it comes to security actions and goals abroad, Pyongyang is one of the most rational actors around today.

So why is there so much moaning that we are even talking to them directly now?

I have no interest in predicting whether these current talks will be successful or not. Trump is far too mercurial and there will be many established interests in many different countries who will not want these talks to produce good results. I *hope* they start a running dialogue that succeeds in their purposes, but I am not going to yet come out and say they will. They should, however, be given the chance. To increase the chance of them working, much of foreign policy in both major parties in the United States should be figuring out how to bring this about.

But here rises the ghost of Korean War General Douglas MacArthur.

MacArthur began his role in the Korean War with a massive amphibious flanking victory at Inchon, changing the fortunes of the war which up to that point had been largely one North Korean victory after another. His famous hubris led him to build off this victory by driving ever onward without regrouping or securing his position and in frank disregard (which he would convince an initially reluctant Truman to follow with) for China’s determination of keep America off its border. What resulted, in the Yalu Campaign, was one of the US armies’ biggest defeats, perhaps second only in scale to the loss of the Philippines in 1942-something MacArthur also played a role in. The war went from imminent US victory to grinding stalemate, with MacArthur having to be replaced by the more cautious and adaptive General Ridgeway. There would be a ceasefire in 1953, but in technical terms the conflict never would end.

MacArthur returned stateside to play the victim of Washington, the scapegoat of the President. Never mind he himself had advocated for expanding the war into China and the use of tactical nuclear weapons to facilitate this grandiose and mad counter-offensive. Never mind that he had inverted his WWII career by starting out winning and ending up losing. He blamed others and became an icon of the far right which was just then beginning to descend into the howling madness of McCarthyism.

If he were around today he would sound like John Bolton…or your average establishment Democrat. After all, the historic meeting in Singapore had barely made the press when notorious King of Corruption and Popularity, Senator Bob Menendez, said it was a ‘victory for North Korea’ that we had somehow blundered into to our loss. Meanwhile, the old guard of the Democrats (as well as the sociopathic hawk and daily birthday cake quaffing Tom Cotton and his types) have been constantly pushing America’s famously vain and media-obsessed President to take a more hawkish line on North Korea.

Do keep in mind these are the same people who constantly refer to him as a madman and unhinged. Yet they want more war like policies from him as they vote for more and more defense spending increases. Amazing.

These Bolton Democrats are in effect trying to push Trump to his right on foreign policy as well as position them as the ‘true patriots’ who ‘aren’t afraid of foreign countries’ and can say ‘see we told you so’ if something goes wrong. The problem is that policy issues of this size really shouldn’t be partisan footballs. There is no ideological clique driving this policy, such as there was in Iraq, but rather probably just two leaders both seeking a win to legitimize their standing. This seemingly petty reason should not turn us away from the many opportunities that improving relations between DC and Pyongyang could represent. And it should not blind us to the fact that America holds most of the cards in this bilateral relationship, from sanctions to diplomatic relations in the region, and therefore can afford to give a little here and there. North Korea will have little to give up at the opening stages, so I don’t really view it as a failure to diplomacy to scrap the exercises early on.

Furthermore, in a grand strategy perspective, taking bold moves towards ending rivalry with the DPRK might provide proper benefits to American Grand Strategy in the future. The US is far stronger at sea than on land in Asia, and a Korean peninsula working towards reunification peacefully would almost certainly be a de facto neutral nation, allaying both Chinese and American concerns there. The task would be Herculean enough that they would most likely want to stay out of more great power rivalry, giving the Chinese some breathing room on their border and the US the ability to avoid being sucked into a repeat of 1950-3’s land war. Any conflict that might break out would be at sea, where the much more strategically vital Indonesia waits. This would most likely be to American advantage should it happen.

In the inevitable barrage of Norms Nerd commentary which is to follow, who will wring their hands and clutch their pearls about ‘normalizing a regime’, I can say only this: The Kim family and the ruling party have run North Korea for significantly over half a century. Get over it. You will find when you come to accept reality as it is and not as you wish it to be, that it can be much easier to get things done in the field of diplomacy than otherwise.

Axis of Evil II: The Revenge

 

koreatiger

Much as the obvious partisanship of American foreign policy continues, with conservatives who would likely be deriding alternative universe Clintonian hawkishness on North Korea now singing Trump’s praises as he threatens ‘fire and fury’ on Pyongyang while liberals in the media currently panicking about nuclear war but which would probably have been applauding ‘strong leadership’ as Hillary prepares in an alternative universe to once again ‘run up the gut’, I think there is a thorough bi-partisan criticism that can be made right now involving weapons of mass destruction and our perception of their proliferation.

In other words, the party leader here is not a significant factor in a country’s likelihood to use weapons of mass destruction as a bargaining chip, but rather the overall mainstream trend of recent US foreign policy. This is a process that began a long time ago, when George W Bush gave his now infamous ‘Axis of Evil’ speech in which, using the militarism of the immediate post-9/11 world, he justified a singling out of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as major threats to world stability and the proliferation of WMD’s to non-state actors. This speech was likely intended to assist paving the way on the many causes belli being constructed for Iraq’s transparently imminent invasion as well as to use as a talking point against the other two states. In the end, it would fail spectacularly on all of these fronts.

First, Iraq had no WMD’s of note. Delusional fantasies of certain tortured conservative nerds aside, Iraq had been effectively neutered by Gulf War I and the subsequent No-Fly Zone. Having wisely been left by the first Bush administration as a rump buffer against Iranian influence, the invasion by US and Coalition forces only succeeded in removing this buffer and giving Iran a free hand in the region. The inevitable chaos that followed, and Iran’s newfound ability to directly strike at US forces using its own proxies and spec  ops meant that the US would also be too bogged down to do anything effectual against the Iranians. Additionally, they temporarily ratcheted up their nuclear power program as a bargaining chip which would serve them well later. North Korea, which had been previously working on getting nuclear materials from Pakistan then decided to speed up their own weapons program and loudly proclaim its successes (something which was quite debatable at the time). They saw it as actually because Iraq had no WMD’s that it was subject to a regime change invasion. Against the immense power of the United States on a rampage, only such weapons could provide the necessary deterrence. North Korea, wisely and rationally, became a nuclear power for the same reason anyone would-it becomes a guarantee of regime survival and sovereignty. It was either that or keep their existence by sacrificing autonomy to Beijing in exchange for more overt protection.

So in the end it was USA vs Axis of Evil, 1-2. Axis victory. Iran gained significant power in the Middle East, and North Korea got a ticket out of the threat of imminent invasion. Given this track record, it was no wonder that many small countries that felt threatened by the US gave their moral support to Iran and North Korea in the early and mid Oughts. Zimbabwe and Cuba jumped on the bandwagon overtly, and Pakistan started accelerating its dangerous double-game in Afghanistan. The problem was that none of these countries really posed a direct threat to core US security interests, yet the many in the media, think tank world, and foreign policy establishment who can think little outside of a certain framework of reference in strategy built them up to be gigantic threats. All of this was done by ignoring that much of the increased saber rattling on behalf of these countries was given a boost in the wake of the Iraq War and the subsequent bogging down of US effort in the Middle East. This was a process that would only accelerate after the Arab Spring, which was made doubly noteworthy due to the fact that no policy maker talked seriously of regime change in Libya before they gave up their chemical weapons stockpiles, but the Arab spring happened after. In that instance the two issues may not have been connected, but to many observers it would certainly not seem so. And another country whose present predicaments make we wonder how much of its population wish it had not disarmed its stockpiles is Ukraine, for obvious reasons.

This is not to say that North Korea’s upping the ante to this extreme is good or wise. Far from it. By firing missiles into Japanese sovereign waters they have been tempting pan-regional fate with a cavalier attitude which deserves some response and castigation. But their actions are no more irrational than anyone else’s in this current standoff.

In my time as an academic I engaged with many theories of International Relations from a variety of directions. On base, the one I found generally most useful for explaining what was going on in state-state interactions was Neoclassical Realism-a theory that postulates that regime survival by the governing elites is the key to understanding decisions made in foreign policy. Usually this requires an understanding of the history of a country, the issues its people consider vital to the security and integrity of the state, and how the ruling class legitimizes itself. In this case, North Korea’s governing elite holds the stalwart battle against American hegemony on the Korean peninsula as well as resistance to Japanese regional power to be part of its core justification with the masses. In Pyongyang’s eyes, they are what stands against attempts to bring the North under the same ‘puppet’ regime as the south is under. It is important to keep this in mind. It is also important to keep in mind that sometimes the way Washington behaves acts as a catalyst for nations seeking sovereignty guarantees in the form of nuclear weapons. Regime survival drives most actors, and the more unstable or comparatively weak the country, the more it will drive them.

The problem comes up when a country’s key legitimacy policies start to conflict with its actual interest. I would say that North Korea’s blatant testing affecting waters not their own is truly a dangerous catalyst which once day they may not be able to contain. But I would also point out that as the reining hegemonic power, the United States has very little to gain from picking these fights with countries whose weight on the geopolitical scale is almost nil. There is a Lanyard Class that reaches for military solutions to everything first, but why court such risk when diplomacy from a position of strength can do more with less danger? The military in such a hegemonic position should be reserved as a conventional deterrent and not a first option.

Personally, though I see little desire in either Beijing or Washington to deal with this issue in the long term as it might mean sacrificing their influence on each half of Korea, but it is my hope that one day both powers can come to a far-sighted agreement regarding the Korean peninsula. I believe this would entail a reunification under the South but with the North’s political party left as a legal entity and a declaration that Korea would be unified as a neutral power, securing China’s landward Pacific border by the withdrawal of US military presence and also ending the threat of a PLA invasion from the north. The unified Korea would have a painful development and integration process, so the space of neutrality between powers would be welcome for them. This neutrality would have to allow in foreign investment and trade as that would be the pay off for both powers giving up more direct forms of influence. A Switzerland of sorts in th East Asian Littoral.

I think this could be done, given the political will. But its that, on all sides, I find lacking.

In the meanwhile, try not to get caught up in the…Crossfire.