Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Trump Goes to Brussels


                                                                Photo: Brendan Smialowski /AFP/Getty Images

Below is a conversation between Drs. Brad Nelson and Yohanes Sulaiman, conducted via email over the last few days, on Donald Trump's trip to Brussels for NATO meetings.

Brad Nelson:  So, what’s your take on Trump’s visit to NATO? As you know, here in the States, Trump’s visit has gone over very badly.

Yohanes Sulaiman: What else is new? Trump said stupid things. And now everyone is outraged, saying it is the end of the world that we know it: Trump is doing the bidding of Putin, his master, etc. But in reality, he behaved more or less okay, declared victory, and moved on to London. And nothing really changes except that people remain pissed at Trump. At this point, I am not even sure who I dislike more, Trump, with his earth-scorching tactics, or his over the top critics. It’s kind of sad, actually, because I am really worried about Trump, but his critics' reactions actually makes him look normal.

What we see here is, I think, is how things work under Trump. Trump takes an extreme right position, everyone goes nuts. Then, when Trump actually makes decision, he tracks back a bit, and his a bit-crazy decision actually becomes the new normal, simply because his critics overreact.

BN: Look, he trashed Germany. His threats for the US to go "its own way" if NATO members don't pony up more for their own defenses is a new wrinkle, for sure. The visual of Trump berating NATO General Secretary Stoltenberg was striking, perhaps downright illustrative of his desire to trash the key elements of the western liberal order. Russia is certainly happy. Russian commentators have publicly remarked that Trump's doing to NATO what the Ruskies couldn't for the last 75 years. All of this has greatly unnerved lots of folks, in Europe and here in the States, mostly the internationalist-establishment types.

And I get it. NATO has provided lots of benefits to the US, it links like-minded nations, and is still a valuable presence in Europe. Ultimately, what it comes down to is how one sees Trump. That completely colors how we interpret his NATO trip. If we see a colluding, erratic, radical president, then his statements and actions in Brussels are ominous and dangerous. On the other hand, if he's an all bark, no bite leader, then his NATO adventure was far more benign. Maybe it's just one big photo op for political base, which shares his antipathy toward international bureaucrats and institutions. 

BN: So, in your view, what's motivating Trump? Why is he taking the scorched-earth approach to NATO?

YS: I basically agree with all you noted—Trump behaved boorishly and unnerved a lot of people. I think we really need to understand what motivates him behind the scene, and I have several suggestions:

1. It’s red meat for his base. He believed that he was elected to upend the status quo, to deal with those cheating Europeans and Chinese and whoever else out there. And by golly, he is going to do it in a big way. That explains a lot, but does not really explain all of what’s happening.

2. The more I am thinking about my "extreme is the new normal" argument, the more I think that is the method behind this entire madness. Trump, I think, realizes and takes advantage of the fact that everyone is basically pro-status quo and relying on the United States to maintain the status quo. Thus, what I think he has been doing -- is to take an extreme position, so extreme, that everyone in the end concede something or do something drastically in order to right the ship -- because nobody likes being in a Titanic. It is an arsonist argument, but, I think, that’s the only thing that really explains this entire roller-coaster ride. See this article.

3. I think the entire US establishment (and the media) got suckered badly by painting Trump as the coming barbarian at the gate that is doing far worse than he has been doing. Think about it. The more the media and the entire establishment sound the alarm, the more people will get panicked and will concede something to him, as long as they think they are saving the ship from this crazy guy–even if what Trump has been doing is actually just yelling "fire," not doing something concrete that harms US national security, its national interests, or the liberal order more generally. Yes, yelling fire in a crowded and dark theater can cost people their lives, and considering America’s size and importance, whatever Trump does will have impacts. At the same time, we need to look behind the smoke and the mirror and see what Trump has actually done to upend the EU and NATO—beyond just big talk.

BN: You make good points, though your response covers both motives (base politics) and tactics (taking extreme positions). Catering to his base is probably highly relevant here. We know already that Trump thinks his primary mission as president is to satisfy his base. And his base isn't a fan of international institutions, unelected international bureaucrats, "free riding" Europe, and the like. Your point on tactics is echoed by Trump biographers, who have said that's exactly how he's operated over the years as a businessman. And I can see traces of that in his policies on immigration, trade, North Korea.

To all of this I would add that the positions Trump has staked out on NATO are probably in line with his beliefs and policy preferences. It's not just cynical politics. After all, for decades, he's railed against foreign nations and entities ripping off the US and the lack of good leaders in Washington who can do something about it.

As we've already discussed, Trump's visit to Brussels caused some turmoil. It prevented much from being discussed and debated; the two day meetings turned into The Trump Show. It caused confusion and worries about organizational cohesion. It undermined US credibility. It played right into the hands of Vladimir Putin, which, I'm sure, has rung alarm bells in the Baltic nations, Poland, etc. And of course, China's on the outside observing US behavior and assessing what it means for Asia. Spoiler Alert: good things, likely. The critics of Trump's NATO visit act as if all of the above make for a new, permanent status quo. I think that's a major issue here. They think Trump is ushering in an irrevocable future, one that's dark and dangerous.

I'm willing to agree that Trump's European policies run counter to US national interests and cause unnecessary chaos—in Washington (already, the Pentagon has been busy calling NATO members, reassuring them that the US isn't abandoning any commitments just yet) and Europe. But I'm not so sure they are extraordinarily damaging in the short-term, nor am I so sure that they're particularly enduring.

Just look at the transition from the Bush to Obama years. Within two years, Obama had unwound quite a bit of the damage of the Bush years to US foreign policy vis-a-vis Europe. European leaders loved Obama. European citizens loved Obama. Trust was back, confidence in the US was high once again. I suspect we'll see something similar post-Trump, unless another Trump-like figure follows The Donald in office. If the US elects a fairly conventional president in either 2020 or 2024, Europe will gravitate back to the US. European states have strong national interests to do so. Plus, there are social, cultural, and historical factors that matter and are of more enduring value than Trump. Depending on how much Trump aggravates Europe over the next few years, the next US president might have to invest considerable time in repairing US-Europe ties. But Europe will come around.

YS: I agree with your assessment, which in essence argues that the current international system, more or less, is pro-status quo, meaning that very few states would try advantage of these Trump-made upheavals, especially since there is simply no other acceptable alternative to the US at this point, at least to the European states.

I wonder though, if this, to some degree, confirms part of realists' argument about (international) system effects: that it is rare for individuals to cause damage to the international system. And I think we could argue that the only times individuals could wreak havoc so badly on international system is when the system is more or less multipolar, where power distribution is relatively equal. The question is how far individuals like Trump can really push the constraints until people, groups, and states simply give up and give in. In this case, I think, the US will get a much bigger leeway due to its size and the status-quo bias among the leadership of EU. (Plus, it’s expensive to change the system, as noted by Robert Gilpin in War and Change in World Politics). It looks to me that Trump is all bark and no bite, in regards to the EU, though not to China.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The Trump-Kim Summit

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AP Photo/Evan Vucci


Here are a few quick thoughts on the Kim Jong Un-Donald Trump summit. I'll start on a positive note. It's good that Trump and Kim met and talked, and that the meeting seems to have gone well. They've established, it appears, good rapport. Indeed, Kim was rather smiley throughout the public portion of their gathering. This could pave the way for a better relationship between the US and North Korea now--especially given Trump's insistence on personalizing US foreign policy--and going forward, beyond Trump's tenure as president. And the happy vibes from the meeting might portend some actual progress down the line on eliminating/dismantling North Korea's nukes. 

Okay, now for the problems. Let's begin with the agreement signed by Trump and Kim. I encourage you to read it, if you haven't. As North Korean expert Victor Cha asked today on MSNBC, "Did we really need a summit for the agreement?" The short answer is no. At bottom, Trump mostly received promises from Kim that the US has gotten previously from North Korea over the last two decades--and of course, the Kims subsequently broke those pledges. The main end goal of the document, "denuclearization of the Korean peninsula," is not the same as the Trump administration's stated objective of CVID (complete verifiable, irreversible denuclearization). 

Just as troublesome, the signed document is awfully vague and is short on specifics. It doesn't mention anything about timetables for implementing the deal; doesn't address how North Korea and the US are going to define "denuclearization" in practice; nothing about monitoring and verifiying that Kim's keeping his end of the deal. Trump is staking his personal and political reputation as a deal maker, as well as the security of the US and East Asia, mind you, on his new-found trust for Kim. If history is any guide, that seems like a terrible way to make discrete decisions, let alone policy. 

Moreover, the US has given up quite a bit already. Trump now has met Kim, bestowing prestige and legitimacy upon Kim, his government, and his nuclear program. Trump lavished Kim with much praise, calling him "talented," "smart," "a tough negotiator," among other things. Trump has also ended America's "war games" with South Korea. And now that Trump has warmed up to Kim, countries in the region, including China, are already reducing the pressure on Kim, interpreting the flurry of US-Korean diplomacy as evidence that Kim's normalizing his behavior. 

Frankly, I do wish both Trump and Kim great success in their diplomatic efforts. And I'm fine with Trump making concessions, even considerable concessions, if, as a result, the US is safer, the threat of war in Asia is reduced, and North Korea moves in a more modern, freer direction. But this agreement does none of those things. This is hardly the "art of the deal." If anything, Kim has suckered Trump. 

Look what he's accomplished on Trump's watch. Kim has built up his nuclear program, met personally with the president of the US (along with the leaders of South Korea and China), garnered glowing praise from Trump, and basked in the global media spotlight surrounding the summit--all of which are valuable on their own terms, but will likely have beneficial domestic political implications for Kim as well. After all, at a minimum, those things can be used by Pyongyang for propaganda purposes. And in return, what did Kim give up? Not much beyond a freeze on nuclear and missile tests. Actually, it's pretty remarkable that such a young and inexperienced leader has been able to the play the US to the extent he has. 

Friday, May 25, 2018

The US-North Korea Summit: Off or On?


If you have spent any time reading, writing, or even thinking about the US-North Korean standoff lately, I’m sure you’ve noticed something: it’s a very unpredictable situation. Mostly, that’s because the leaders of both countries are themselves very temperamental and capricious. Not, irrational, mind you, but unpredictable, prone to unexpected outbursts, statements, and policy shifts.

Just consider the wild and tumultuous course of North Korean-US relations over the last year or so. They’ve careened from name calling and threats of nuclear war and regime change to the prospect of rapprochement and détente, with Trump quickly and without consultation—apparently, neither from his staff nor from the South Koreans, who’ve acted as a mediator between Washington and Pyongyang—agreeing to meet personally with Kim Jong Un.

With all this in mind, it’s probably not a surprise that the proposed Kim-Trump summit was called off this week by Trump. This news has triggered a wave of speculation about the motives underpinning Trump’s decision to cancel. The overriding narrative, it seems, is that Trump feared that the North Koreans would either cancel the summit or back out at the last minute. Apparently, in the week or two prior to Trump's cancellation, dialogue between North Korea and the US had slowed. In fact, there had been zero of the usual requisite planning and coordination between the advance or security teams of North Korea and US ahead of the Kim-Trump summit. Which led US officials, including Trump, to believe that the North was getting cold feet and ready to pull out of the summit. As a result, not wanting to suffer the massive embarrassment of being stood up by Kim, Trump ostensibly pre-emptively scuppered his meeting with Kim. My former grad school colleague and current professor at UCSB Bridget Coggins called Trump’s move an example of the “insecurity dilemma.”

But was the meeting really canceled? Sort of. It’s true that Trump wrote a formal letter to Kim announcing his decision to scrap the meeting, but he also clearly hedged his position, taking time to praise Kim (“beautiful gesture,” “wonderful dialogue”) and encourage him to “not hesitate to call or write” Trump. Really, the letter was less about canceling the meeting than sending certain signals to Kim. It was a bargaining move, designed to show Kim that Trump isn’t overeager to meet Kim and that Kim and his regime has to do more to prove to the US that they really want the meeting.

What happened next? Well, again, no surprise, Trump now claims that talks with North Korea have picked up again and that his meeting with Kim could be back on. Makes perfect sense for several reasons.

First, as just mentioned, Trump really soft pedaled the cancellation, offering enough clues and hope to Kim that the meeting could still go as planned, or with only a minor delay.

Second, North Korea offered, all things considered, a relatively restrained response to Trump. And Trump, in turn, welcomed the statement, calling it “warm” and “productive.” He even tweeted: Very good news to receive the warm and productive statement from North Korea. We will soon see where it will lead, hopefully to long and enduring prosperity and peace. Only time (and talent) will tell!”

Third, a personal, direct Kim-Trump meeting something both Kim and Trump really want to see happen, whether in June or later down the line. We can see this in how they’ve engaged with one another indirectly over the last year; they’ve done so rather delicately, avoiding big missteps that could sabotage talks. For instance, recent outbursts by North Korea have targeted Veep Mike Pence and NSA John Bolton, not Trump himself. Also, keep in mind that Trump has never explicitly denied that he’s been in direct personal contact with Kim. That doesn’t mean he has talked with Kim, but it can’t be ruled out. And that, in itself, would be a major development.

But it’s more than those things. Both Kim and Trump have broader political and personal incentives to reach some kind of an agreement with the other side—whether a narrow one on nukes or a broader one that leads to détente and normalization of ties. Indeed, there has been lots of speculation about what Kim wants and needs from the US. This discussion can be boiled down to three things: (1) regime security, (2) economic factors, and (3) prestige.

Specifically, Kim wants credible promises that the US won’t attempt to topple or undermine his regime. It’s also likely that he sees the US as part of his program to boost North Korea’s economy: for example, aid packages, removing sanctions, and perhaps starting some trade discussions could be a boon to Pyongyang. Additionally, a thaw between North Korea and the US could offer a host of other benefits to Pyongyang. Put simply, it would signal to the rest of the world that it’s finally okay to engage and seal deals with North Korea, which could offer a broader way for North Korea to stimulate economic investment and development.

Lastly, North Korea and Kim specifically would also receive some measure of prestige. A meeting with Trump, with very few preconditions bargained for by the US, is a Bugs Bunny-sized carrot for Kim. It would allow North Korea to come out of the cold, no longer a pariah state, but a normal member of the international community—and in part due to Kim’s decisions. It would also allow Kim to stand on the world stage alongside Trump, figuratively and likely visually, which presents Kim, and by extension North Korea, as a peer of Trump and the US. Should all of this happen, Kim would get to bask in the praise that’s likely to be heaped on him domestically and internationally.

Now, as for Trump, certainly an agreement of some sort with North Korea appeals to his well-known narcissism. He’s already broached the idea of winning the Nobel Peace Prize for his diplomatic efforts vis-à-vis North Korea. Plus, Trump would get to revel in solving the intractable, insoluble puzzle that his predecessors, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, could not. He would get to credibly proclaim himself as a global statesman, a man of plans and action, a problem solver.

But there’s more than personal factors at play here. Trump also has political incentives to reach a deal with North Korea. In short, he needs a political win, and North Korea is a potential political goldmine for Trump. Sure, North Korea does offer a host of pitfalls, but probably not to Trump. At this point in his presidency, when he’s facing the prospect of being a one-term leader, if not outright impeached before his term ends, Trump has nothing to lose politically. It can’t get much worse for him. In the parlance of prospect theory, Trump is operating from a “domain of losses,” and in that domain individuals in general, and Trump in particular, are more likely to make risky decisions. Think of this in terms of gambling. Empirical evidence tells us that gamblers who are on a losing streak don’t stop betting, they instead often continue on, hoping to reverse their fortunes by doing the improbable, winning big. That is one way to look at Trump’s approach to North Korea. He’s hoping to win big so as to turn around his political fortunes, to help save his presidency.

So what should we expect going forward? Given the situation, the stakes, and the leaders involved, any predictions should be issued with great caution. Barring a severe uptick in tensions and hostilities, I still expect the Kim-Trump summit to happen at some point. As stated above, both Kim and Trump have plenty of incentives to go ahead with it.

But in the meantime, there is still opportunity for rocky times, especially as each side jockeys for more bargaining leverage. For instance, might Pyongyang be tempted to resume missile tests to regain the initiative versus Trump? If Trump gets frustrated with the  

The other thing to watch is the wider regional environment and its impact on North Korea diplomacy. Specifically, can the US maintain its North Korea coalition? Already, there are signs that South Korea and China are getting fed up with Trump’s campaign of “maximum pressure,” and greatly prefer the US-North Korean relationship to play out at the negotiating table. Hence, if the US doesn't play its cards right, there is the risk of multiple things happening: the coalition could fracture, the pressure campaign could unwind, and the US could find itself alone and sidelined. This would be the worst of all worlds for Team Trump. 

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Why Did Trump Withdraw the US From the Iran Nuclear Deal?

Image result for trump iran

Photo: Evan Vucci/AP. Photo shows memorandum, signed by Trump, reinstating 
sanctions on Iran. 


The news that Donald Trump officially decided to re-impose sanctions on Iran and withdraw from the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) is unfortunate but not surprising. After all, Trump has endlessly criticized the deal, pledging to scrap it. He even dropped a big hint that the deal’s end—as far as the US was concerned—was fast approaching. After he signed the last sanctions waiver, Trump announced that Iran was unlikely to receive more waivers from him. And since then, a host of academics and policy analysts have devoted time to reading the tea leaves about the future of the Iran deal, trying to determine if Trump was bluffing, engaging in tough talk with Iran’s clerics, or if he was sincere and that the pact was on life-support. It turns out Trump was honest. 

Trump’s decision begs a few questions. First, why would he wreck a deal that was working, according to almost anyone who’s a serious nuclear expert? As a matter of fact, the nuclear deal, signed and sealed in 2015, was effectively constraining Iran’s ability to produce nuclear-grade fissile material and by extension a nuclear weapon. Second, why sabotage a deal with which Iran was complying? According to the IAEA, America’s JCPOA partners, and America’s military and intelligence agencies, Iran was fulfilling its end of the nuclear deal. So why? What’s going on here?

There are four things to consider.

1. Trump dislikes, actually hates, the Iran nuclear deal. He’s on record saying a number of disparaging things about the deal. Such as, it’s “weak,” “poorly negotiated,” “the worse deal ever negotiated,” “a major embarrassment,” "one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into,” and so on. Why does he view the deal so harshly?

Hard to say, really. Cynics say that it’s part of Trump’s anti-Obama policymaking: Trump opposes and seeks to unwind all of his predecessors domestic and foreign policy accomplishments, whether Obamacare, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or the Iran nuclear deal. Sounds strange to say that a sitting US president is that vindictive and that those attitudes are shaping a profound part of his presidency, but it’s possible, unfortunately. After all, there is definitely something about Obama that Trump detests. For instance, Trump’s rise to political prominence was built around his crazed effort to undermine and delegitimize Barack Obama’s citizenship and his presidency by challenging the veracity of Obama’s birth certificate. Since then, Trump has spouted a wide range of conspiratorial views about Obama, his policy team, and his bureaucratic supporters inside the US government: they wiretapped him, are connected to the investigations into his affairs, and are looking to damage his presidency (recall his repeated comments/tweets about the so-called “deep state”).

At the same time, positioning himself against the Iran deal has been politically smart for Trump. At bottom, it speaks to his base as well as much of the Republican-Conservative end of the US political spectrum. Just consider this: while the deal is relatively popular among Americans in general, the right, and especially his base, doesn’t like the deal, seeing it as a tool that only strengthens Iran, weakens Israel, and destabilizes the entire Middle East. We can debate the merits of each of these points, but ultimately it doesn’t matter whether right-leaning voters are right or wrong here. What matters most is how his they perceive the deal. And they dislike the deal.

Meantime, there is also the truth that the Iran agreement, as currently constructed, isn’t perfect, it’s flawed, and even the deal’s proponents would say as much. So, on that score, Trump does have a point. For example, the deal does have an expiration date. It doesn’t completely shutter Iran’s nuclear program. It doesn’t deal with a host of issues that Iran critics believe should’ve been broached in a wider deal with Tehran—things like Iran’s support for Hamas and Hezbollah, its ballistic missile program, its vigorous support for Syria’s Assad, its antagonistic approach to Israel, it’s revisionist aims, etc.

2. Trump has political incentives to scrap the Iran nuclear pact. Trump is simply fulfilling a campaign promise. On the campaign trail, Trump pledged to scrap the deal if elected. He’s now following through on his promise. Research tells us that most US presidents, most of the time, do actually keep their campaign promises. And fulfilling this promise is especially important to Trump, given how politically weak and vulnerable he is. As mentioned above, by officially reapplying sanctions on Iran, thereby jeopardizing the deal, Trump is appealing to the right, and especially his #MAGA supporters, offering them some red meat to keep them politically satisfied and in his camp. And that’s something that’s always a concern of his, not just because of his personality, but because he’s likely to be primaried come 2020. Already, names like John Kasich, Jeff Flake, and Ben Sasse, among others, have been bandied about as potential contenders for the GOP nomination. As a result, Trump needs to ensure his base is strong, on his side, and politically activated going forward.

3. The White House has a strong, prominent anti-Iran bent. Trump began his tenure in office with several anti-Iran hawks on his team. And since that time, their presence has remained strong. Yeah, Nikki Haley and Rex Tillerson have been praised by mainstream types for their moderate views on global politics—of course, Tillerson was widely criticized and lampooned for his management style—and their push for diplomacy over force. But Rex has been ousted and Haley is a secondary figure in Trump’s foreign policy world. More important are General James Mattis, Mike Pompeo, and John Bolton, and all three are known to have taken strident positions on Iran, believing that Iran is the biggest source of instability, violence, and terrorism in the Middle East. That then means that, arguably, the three most important US national security posts, the people who influence Trump most on foreign policy—the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of State, and the National Security Adviser—are whispering anti-Iran sentiments in Trump’s ear.

Yes, I’m including Mattis. Don’t forget that Mattis was ousted from the Obama White House because he preferred a much more hardline US stance vis-à-vis Iran. So while, as a Trump official, he has indeed advocated the US staying in the deal, I suspect he wasn’t as forceful about it as many people think. In fact, reports indicate that Mattis didn’t put up the same fight for the nuclear deal as he did back on October.  Some argue that Mattis, in effect, saw the writing on the wall and decided to capitulate to Trump’s fait accompli. Perhaps. But I also suspect that, in the end, Trump’s decision loosely accords with Mattis’s worldview, and that’s in part why he push strongly for the US to remain in the deal. On Wednesday, toeing the company line, Mattis testified before a Senate subcommittee, arguing that “we have walked away from the JCPOA because we found it was inadequate for the long-term effort….We will continue to work alongside our allies and partners to ensure that Iran can never acquire a nuclear weapon.”

4. Trump has learned the wrong lessons from the North Korea crisis. Trump clearly thinks that coercion (sanctions, threats, aggressive tweets, and the like) brought North Korea to the bargaining table. He’s even publicly communicated this, as he’s taken credit lately for everything from North Korea participating in the recent winter Olympics to the ongoing South-North Korean detente. And so what’s happening now is that Team Trump, feeling vindicated in their approach to North Korea, are applying the same tactics to Iran. If it worked on North Korea, the logic goes, it should work on Iran.

There are lots of problems with this thinking, though. North Korea is not Iran. These are completely different countries, sitting in radically different regions, with different leaders, political systems, political cultures, economies, military/defense capabilities, national interests, trade partners, and so on. There’s no prima facie reason to believe that what worked on North Korea will work on Iran. It’s a logical fallacy. And as Trump will find out eventually, despite all the compliance troubles that North Korea has given the US in prior agreements, Iran is probably the more nebulous, complicated case. One major reason is because of Iran’s multilayered domestic politics.  

But more importantly, let’s back up and assess whether Trump is right in asserting that coercion is what has caused Kim to come out of the cold, to open up diplomatically with China, South Korea, and the US. I think he’s fundamentally wrong. The US should be under no illusion that it drew Kim to talks, and that, instead, Kim’s manufactured nuclear crisis induced others to meet with him. Moreover, Kim now feels confident enough—in his domestic political standing and international position—to talk about his nuclear program.

Why? Two reasons. First, after years of consolidating his political power inside North Korea, he’s essentially “coup-proofed” his regime. He feels strong enough politically to venture out of his nation’s territory and offer to make some concessions on peace, weapons, and joint dialogue without fear of being toppled by internal opponents. Second, Kim now has a deterrent capability that’s capable of mitigating security threats from the US. The result of which means Kim doesn’t have to worry about being bullied by the US in talks. Kim’s growing arsenal reduces the negative external implications of making any concessions.

The punchline of all of this is: don’t expect a heavily pressured Iran to react in the ways that the Trump administration anticipates. Furthermore, don’t expect America’s JCPOA partners to support a sustained US-led campaign of threat and sanctions on Iran, given that they see the US, not Iran, as in violation of the nuclear deal. If anything, Trump has needlessly further alienated the US, except in the eyes of Israel and the Sunni states in the Middle East. 

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Trump Stikes Syria, Again


Syrian research facility, in Barzeh, hit by the US and its allies on April 14th. SANA/AP. 


Below is a conversation between Drs. Brad Nelson and Yohanes Sulaiman, conducted via email over the last few days, on last weekend's strikes on Syria.

Brad Nelson: So, Yohanes, what’s your take on America’s latest round of airstrikes on Syria?

Yohanes Sulaiman: Trump just lobbed a few missiles that will not change the reality on ground. And seeing that he already declared "Mission Accomplished," that means there's no way he is going to escalate the situation further.

On the flip side, there's no way the Russians will allow Assad to lose, but at the same time, I doubt if they really want to escalate this into a war.

All of them know it. Trump knows that Putin will not escalate and Putin knows that Trump will not escalate further. This is a game of full information.

BN: What's new, to me anyway, is that Trump actually went after Syria's chemical weapons facilities. The previous US air strikes on Assad were symbolic, really. In April 2017, Trump targeted the Shayrat airbase, which was quickly repaired. It mostly a show of force, no more than that. Now, the latest attack set back Syria's chemical weapons program. The other thing is that Trump ordered the attack as part of a minilateral coalition, with Britain and France as partners; it wasn't a pure unilateral act against Syria. In some ways, that's reassuring. It shows that, at least when national interests converge, Trump is able to work well with others internationally, at least temporarily. 

Overall, though, the Syria attack revealed the utter chaos inside Trump's national security team and the confusion of Team Trump on Syria. One day, Trump wants to stay in Syria for years, helping to build an on-the-ground force significant enough to prevent ISIS from re-emerging and Iran from spreading its tentacles. The next, Trump wants out as soon as possible. The latter position, getting out of Syria, seems to be the policy de jour, as reports indicate the US seeks to pull out quickly and put an Arab force in its place. That probably won't work and carries risks, but, okay, fine, Trump wants out of Syria. I see the logic of that thinking. And it's consistent with his America First platform.

Yet at the same time, Trump pushed the military for a quick, harsh engagement against Assad. In response, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and the generals wanted to route the attack through Congress, to provide legislative oversight, and had to pressure Trump to back down and settle for a more selective, pinprick attack. Now, this turn of events is puzzling. A more devastating attack on Assad would've been extremely risky. It could've triggered a military response from Russia and Iran. And that, in turn, could've pulled the US deeper into the Syrian conflict, which runs counter to Trump's stated preference for staying/getting out of foreign wars.

In part, I'm sure this mushy thinking is product of Trump's emotional, erratic, narcissistic personality. But maybe this also portends the future of Trump's security team going forward, especially given the rise of new NSA John Bolton, a notorious hawk. In short, we might see even more visible fractures between moderates and hawks on various foreign policy crises. If so, we're going to have to hope that the generals (the moderates) have enough influence and are persuasive enough to override the Bolton wing in the White House.

YS: I am not sure how much the attack set back Syria's chemical weapons program. Once Syria know how to make such WMDs, it just needs to stockpile enough and then hide it all over the country. It is not as complicated as running a nuclear weapon program. And with Russia or Iran willing to provide them with as many ingredients as Syria wants, Assad can likely just rebuild it all again.

But I agree that this may be different in the sense that Trump was able to actually bring a coalition to do the dirty work: Britain and France. Granted, they often working closely with the United States (e.g. Libya), but for unilateralist Trump, this is actually an encouraging development. I hope he learns this lesson when he is going to deal with Kim Jong Un in a few weeks!

On your comment on chaos in the Trump's administration, I suspect that things are actually far more stable than we think it is. Maybe I am spending too much time writing and not really paying much attention to the news lately, but seems that after the resignation of Tillerson, the Trump administration is actually moving with one voice. Obviously there are squabbles (e.g. Bolton demanding a much stronger response), but isn't that normal in any deliberations? I mean, think about RFK’s "Thirteen Days," which chronicled the Cuban Missile Crisis, where you have so many options being discussed, including a full force invasion to Cuba that could have triggered a Third World War.

I mean, Trump has his policy preferences, which is, as Kori Schake notes, that he wants to pull US out of Syria, preferring instead to position the US as an off-shore balancer, let the Arabs and other powers share the responsibility to police their own hot spots, and then, once in a while, when he is watching innocent civilians get gassed, demand the military to lob missiles to make his point. Seems like a pretty good policy, actually, rather than declaring a red line that everybody in the end crosses without much repercussions.

BN: On the impact of the attack, yeah, I'm probably being a bit generous to the White House. And the US military has admitted that Assad likely has more chemical weapons stockpiles elsewhere in Syria. Still, it seems the attack was effective, at least in a very narrowly defined sense: the US degraded Assad's ability to use and manufacture chemical weapons.

I still stand by my claim that the Trump team is riddled with chaos and confusion. You're right, every country, regardless of location or regime type, experiences foreign and domestic policy divisions, even sharp fractures. Indeed, this has been an endemic feature of US policy for years. Some would even argue that that is a feature, not a bug, of democratic, decentralized US policymaking. So, sure, this problem isn't just a Trump problem. That said, the internal divisions within Team Trump do seem more than a bit unusual. There has been constant turnover in senior positions in the White House: prominent names like Tillerson, McMaster, Priebus, Hicks, Cohn, Spicer, The Mooch, Flynn, Comey, and a bunch more are all gone.

Furthermore, name an issue and you'll find mixed messages broadcast publicly since day one of Trump's tenure in office. You'll also find constant turf wars and public rebukes involving Trump's security team, and his administration more broadly. Who can forget the very public, open infighting between Reince Priebus and The Mooch? Which lead to the infamous quote:  "I'm a Wall Street guy. I'm more of a front-stabbing person." That's been present on an array foreign and security issues as well. See the various public battles: Rex v. TrumpTrump v. MattisTrump v. HaleyHaley v. Kudlow, Trump v. McMasterKushner v. Miller and Bannon, and so on. It's wild. And it's attributable to Trump. He's confessed that he thrives on conflict and chaos. He's stated: “I like conflict, I like watching it, I like seeing it, and I think it's the best way to go." This is how he operated the Trump Organization and it's how he runs the White House.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Giving Trump Credit on North Korea


Previously, on this blog, I’ve written critically of US President Donald Trump’s approach to the ongoing North Korean crisis. In short, I’ve believed Trump’s bellicose statements and tweets were the wrong track to use against a weak and insecure Kim regime. Threats of force play into the longstanding narrative that the US seeks to overthrow Kim and has imperial ambitions on the Korean Peninsula, which only reinforces Kim’s desire to advance the nation’s nuclear program and makes that program ever more popular among north Korean citizens. And more generally, history has shown that olive branches, of various shapes and sizes, have been more effective in getting North Korean to the negotiating table. While getting the North Koreans to the table isn’t an final end goal, it’s one small goal along a line of many different goals, leading, I would hope, to a negotiated deal of some sort between the US and North Korea (and possibly also South Korea and China).  

The latest news, which I’m sure you’ve all heard about by now, is that Kim has made an offer—via South Korea—to meet Trump later this year. Whether this is the product of American actions (sanctions, military muscle in the area) and statements, diplomatic moves by South Korea, dumb luck, or all of the above, it doesn’t matter. What matters most is that Trump is fully on board with the diplomatic track on North Korea.

Yes, it’s true that members of his administration have done quite a bit of behind the scenes diplomatic legwork over the last year. Most notably, Rex Tillerson, among others, has spent time strengthening the US-South Korea-Japan coalition, in the hopes that a united front can deter Kim from further provocative moves, get him to back down, and go the negotiating route. The problem is that Trump has sent mixed messages in response to Tillerson’s efforts, saying, on the one hand, that he doesn’t want war, but, at the same time, expressing his belief that Tillerson was wasting his time.  

For now, Trump deserves some kudos. In a chaotic and very unconventional way, he’s gotten Kim to reach out to the US. This is a very good development. It seems like it should be self-evident, though in this political climate I fear it’s not: Lowering tensions, reducing the likelihood for war on the Korean peninsula, is good for the US and North Korea, sure, but also South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia, as well as Asia more broadly and the world. And while Trump critics, those on the left and right, worry that the run-up to the meeting and the meeting itself offer ample opportunities for Trump to inflame relations with North Korea, let’s be fair. The fact that Ttrump got Kim to make the first move is a clear win for Trump and the US. 

Moreover, Trump has bucked the conventional wisdom that “too much prep” needs to be done, on both sides, before a Trump-Kim meeting. The prep argument has always seemed like an excuse to prevent the US from engaging in high-level talks. I'm not dismissing some pre-diplomacy legwork as necessary, to be clear. But I do believe that most of those who espouse this logic are making it not because of comitted stance in favor of preparedness but because they have an overly negative, harsh view of Trump (his personality, intellect, etc.), which may or may not have any basis in reality. Besides, talking just to talk—the fear among some, that the talks will therefore be aimless and thus pointless—isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it can help establish an improved personal relationship between Kim and Trump and pave the way for better broader North Korea-US ties. Think of it this way: by May 2018, Kim may have met the US president more times he's met with Xi Jinping, China's president. 

Furthermore, Trump, it appears, has discarded the notion—or at a minimum, he’s not constrained by the notion—that meeting with Kim accords him way too much prestige. That’s mostly hooey. Yes, a summit with Trump will probably enhance kim’s standing domestically, inside of North Korea, as North Korean citizens see him together, on the same stage, with the president of the US. But internationally? Probably not. Which state(s) will change it’s views of Kim and North Korea after one lone set of face-to-face talks with Trump? Consider this: Did the Iran nuclear deal radically alter how the international community sees Iran? Nope. The world, by and large, still sees Iran as a human rights violator and regional instigator of violence and instability—and that’s despite the almost unanimous recognition that Iran is complying with the deal. I’d expect something similar with respect to North Korea.

But here’s the other thing to think about: Should Trump care that a meeting with Kim might enhance Kim’s standing and prestige? Somewhat, but that shouldn’t be a dominant focus, right? But that’s not what the critics are suggesting, at least implicitly. That’s preposterous, though. It’s the cutting off of one’s nose to spite one’s face syndrome, actually. It’s far more important to make diplomatic progress with North Korea than be concerned about how Kim is viewed and treated domestically and globally. And honestly, if Kim does elevate his image in the world, it’s not from one singular meeting with the US, but from consistently complying with the rules and norms and laws of the extant international system. And that should be his—and any dictator’s—reward for coming out of the cold and meaningfully engaging with the world.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Kim and Trump


Kim Jong-un and Dennis Rodman watching a basketball game in Pyongyang in January 2014
Photo: AFP/Getty

The news that President Trump has suddenly decided to meet Kim Jong Un caught everyone by surprise. At this point, aside from conservatives who support Trump, I haven't seen anyone who really thinks that this is a good idea.

Widely respected North Korean expert, Victor Cha, for instance, wrote in The New York Times that "But that is Mr. Trump’s world — black is white, front is back, chaos is good," essentially warning that this is an amateur hour in the White House. Both Tom Nichols and General Michael Hayden essentially think that Trump is walking to North Korean trap that had ensnared every single leader before him.



Are they right? At this point, though, I am keeping my powder dry.  We need to see what's on the table first, before freaking out that the US is setting loose a bull in a China store, with a disastrous results.

I think it is useful to think about what brought North Korea to the negotiating table. Three points immediately come to mind.

1. The sanctions worked, Ki Jong Un is afraid of Trump, and he is desperate for a deal.

I agree that the sanctions worked, and most likely North Korea is feeling the pinch. Taking a page from the Kim’s old playbook, Pyongyang has decided to offer some "concessions" to the US, before pulling out again, leaving everyone else holding the bag.

Still, the question is, of course, whether Trump is that stupid and whether North Koreans think Trump is that dumb to fall for such a gambit? Granted, Kim might well believe that he can manipulate Trump’s ego. Plus, keep in mind that the North is using a conciliatory partner in South Korea as an intermediary here, which might indicate that Kim thinks he’s in the driver’s seat.  

On the other side, we have to factor in Trump’s weak domestic political position as well as his narcissistic personality, two things that could be driving Trump to accept Kim’s offer. With this in mind, then, Victor Cha's fear might not be unfounded, that Trump might be tempted to show the world that he is the best negotiator by pulling what Cha termed as a "big bang" approach, basically end up giving North Korea everything it wants while getting nothing in return.

But until I see the end result of the deal, I am holding my fire, as I don't think Trump is that dumb. Chaotic and impulsive, yes, but not so stupid as to not get some concrete concessions from Kim. Plus, I do think that he will also consider Japan's interests, since I think based on his visit to Japan last year, it seems to me that both him and Abe managed to get along very well.



2. Kim Jong Un is pulling a "Nixon comes to China."

Kim Jong Un doesn’t trust China, as I wrote in my Global Asia article, and think that the United States might be a better partner in the end. Kim just might believe that too. This is evident in the fact that Kim has not visited China once -- and the fact that Trump will be the first leader that he will ever directly meet means a lot in this face-oriented society of China, Japan and Korea. But whether this means Kim is prepared to denuclearize is doubtful. Kim has built his legitimacy around the issue of nuclear weapon. And he also must aware of the fate of Gaddafi, who gave up his nukes and the United States helped to topple him in the end. Moreover, while it is possible that Trump may stick to his word on any potential deal with North Korea, there is no guarantee that Trump's successor may behave the same. Kim is acutely aware of this.

3. Kim is in a position of strength.

Perhaps flush with confidence, given the success of North Korea’s missile program over the last year, he invited Trump to talks, believing he’s now in a position of strength. In short, he’s ready to bargain now that he has the ultimate chips, nuclear weapons that can potentially hit much of the United States. While it is tempting to think about that, I doubt that Kim is that self-centered, inviting Trump just so he could gloat or give him a fait accompli. That would only limit his options both in the short- and long-term.