Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

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.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Xi Jinping's Power Grab

Photo: EPA

CWCP's Dr. Yohanes Sulaiman and Dr. Brad Nelson offer their reactions to the the news that China plans to eliminate presidential term-limits.

Yohanes Sulaiman: This is an interesting development in China, showing how much Xi Jinping has managed to completely consolidate power in his hands. Even though previous leaders tried to bypass the rule and rule behind the shadow (e.g. Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin), they were only successful to a limited degree. And once they transitioned out of power, their successors quickly consolidated their own rule, which limited their continuing grip on political power in China. Here, Xi managed to break the rule that was imposed after the death of Mao and the fall of Gang of Four, to prevent another Mao from emerging.

What are the implications? In the short term, none whatsoever. China will continue on its present political path. It will keep increasing its power, pushing the envelope, etc., though I don't see Beijing attempting to change the status quo. Why? Because (1) China is not ready yet to do so, and (2) China still has a host of domestic problems, notably economic problems, such as overproduction/overcapacity, internal fears of an economic slowdown, and economic malfeasance (e.g. state's seizure of Anbang Insurance). The fact that money is moving out of China so rapidly that the state has to crack down on it should give one pause. I am not saying that China will collapse anytime soon - far from it. But this just shows how unstable China's condition is currently is, making it difficult for them to challenge the status quo.

In the long run, though, this may be a problem. Long-term rulers pursue policies that will allow them to stay in power, but at the expense of the nation. Decision-making processes become atrophied, as institutions lack new blood that could give fresh insight and perspectives. In such situations, leaders often pick bad policies, and that causes long-term problems.

Brad Nelson: My first reaction is to think about how this news impacts US-China relations. China is, in my view, a regional revisionist power. It's already doing things to upset the regional status quo. I've made precisely that point here. The "cabbage" and "salami slicing" efforts in the South China Seas and China's OBOR are but two prominent initiatives of a host of examples we can point to as evidence of China currently creating a new regional order, limiting America's role and movement in Asia, and binding other regional states to China's nascent "Asia for Asians" order. That will now certainly continue.

What seems most assured is that China, for the foreseeable future, will continue to press its political, economic, and security interests outward. Xi's vision of a globally powerful and respected China necessarily requires the Red Panda to flex its muscles. As a result, then, this picture of an assertive, possibly more hostile, China isn't just a temporary blip or something that can be wished away; it's a fact of international politics, one that has ripple effects worldwide. One of which is that there's an increasing likelihood of the US and China butting heads in the future on a host of issues, in Asia and worldwide. While I'm not so sure I buy into Graham Allison's work on the Thucydides Trap, especially as it relates to Sino-US relations in the 21st century, Xi's long-term presence in China does further intensify the dynamics that underpin a potential costly, destructive power transition in Asia. Given all of the above, this story does have the potential to be the defining event in world affairs in 2018, and even beyond.

BN: I'm curious about your take on the weakness/strength of Xi politically. As you know, that's a big debate that's emerged--whether scrapping the term-limits means Xi is riding high and confident or feeling vulnerable and actually weak. Your thoughts?

YS: One thing for sure is that Xi's power in the Communist Party is unprecedented in post-Mao China. As powerful as Deng was back in the 1980s, he still had to deal with divergent factions, ranging from the moderates (e.g. Zhao Ziyang) to conservatives (e.g. Li Peng). Similarly, Jiang Zemin was hemmed by different factions. Hu Jintao ruled by consensus. Xi Jinping has been more successful in reducing the domestic constraints on his rule, namely through his anti-corruption drive. At this point, there is no strong political bloc left in China that can effectively challenge Xi Jinping.

There are several ways to see why the Xi-controlled Communist Party decided to scrap the term-limit.

1. The official explanation says there is really a genuine internal fear of the United States, and so to further cement China's rise to power, Beijing needs a steady hand on the helm. I don't buy it, however. Changes in the leadership ranks may cause some distraction and turmoil in the short-term, but that is offset by the long-term benefits. Promotions and turnover in power allows for fresh ways of thinking (which reduces ideological and policy rigidity and staleness) and generational change, which always quells discontent within any type of government -- including an authoritarian one.

2. Xi is so powerful that he can dictate whatever he wants. That is probably the most common explanation, though it oversimplifies the situation. We have to look at China's current economic condition, which while very impressive from the outside, is marked with mounting debt and economic mismanagement, not to mention a very high overcapacity problem. In fact, one may argue that China's "Belt and Road Initiative" is actually more of an attempt of China to export its overcapacity elsewhere (dumping). Frankly, should the economy collapse, whether sooner or later, whomever holds power at that time will be blamed for this, and this factor might be what drove Xi's policy.

What does that mean? We could see that this term-limits debate is his warning, that basically he is going nowhere, so everyone better stick with the economic reforms. Or perhaps Xi simply wants to remain in power even as the economy slows down. At this point, it is really difficult to find any reliable analysis on the current power struggle in the Party. While I tend to stick with the former argument, I do believe it also reflects some desperation on Xi's part.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Post-Cold War US Grand Strategy

The topic of grand strategy has become a cottage industry in US policy and academic circles the last 25 plus years. This shouldn’t be a surprise, actually.  

For almost five decades, the cold war provided considerable structure for US foreign policy. It spawned a grand strategy—containment of Soviet power and influence—that organized why, how, where and when the US exercised its soft and hard power globally. But once the cold war was over, the main foreign policy mission of the US had also ended. So while the US won the cold war on its terms, and was now the undisputed sole superpower and global leader, it had work to do: it had to rediscover itself in a brand new world. This fact of life triggered a widespread macro foreign policy debate about America’s future role in the world. Put simply, what kind of grand strategy should the US pursue in the coming years? 

In a sense, right from the beginning, the post-cold war grand strategy debate met a goldilocks dilemma: Is it better for the US to do too much or too little in the world? Or can the US strike just the right balance? So for instance, should the US attempt to take advantage of its new position in the world—perhaps by creating new institutions or exporting democracy? Or should it be picky about where and when it exercises its power abroad? Or maybe it should simply come back home and build a Fortress America, thereby insulating itself from the dangers and threats beyond its borders? In the end, vigorous internationalism won the day. But how we got there, and the specific contours of it, varied from president to president. Only with the arrival of Donald Trump have we found a full-throated questioning of the virtues of internationalism.

The 1990s were a period in which the US was finding its way in the world. The Clinton presidency placed international institutions and institution-building at the heart of US foreign policy, as NATO and EU expasion and the creation of the WTO were notable self-touted achievements. At the same time, however, Clinton muddled through much of the decade, reactively responding to brushfires in the Balkans and the Middle East, while regrettably doing little to nothing about a host of crises in Africa. In retrospect, given the gathering storm of Islamic terrorism that we now know festered on Clinton’s watch, his tenure reeks of fecklessness and incompetence on foreign policy matters. But even at the time, by the end of his presidency, conservatives viewed Clinton’s presidency as lost at sea morally and substantively. This perceived aimlessness created a sense of purpose for Clinton’s successor, George W. Bush.

To correct the mistakes of Clinton, Bush entered office with a mission to lead the US in a new, well-defined direction. This didn’t take shape until 9/11. Prior to 9/11, Bush foreign embarked on a fuzzy-headed mission to harmonize US relations with Russia and China. After 9/11, Bush completely overhauled his foreign policy, turning toward a pro-democracy, nation building craze that led the US into a two-front war and occupation of two countries. What emerged from all this conflict and violence was what came be known as the Bush Doctrine, a series of policies and strategies that shaped and unified America's orientation toward the rest of the world.

At bottom, the Bush Doctrine outlined the necessity for the US to wage unilateral preventive foreign wars in the name of anti-terrorism and pro-democracy reform, and served as a comprehensive organizing force for US foreign policy. Either foreign nations were on board with the Bush Doctrine, willing to assist and work with the US, or they were against the US. Bush’s problem was that his grand strategy wasn’t the right one, for a number of reasons. His foreign policy led to two costly, disastrous wars—wars that hurt or killed thousands of Iraqis and Americans, divided America politically, wrecked America’s global standing, and abetted the rise of global rivals like Russia and China. Additionally, there were, and still are, scholars and intellectuals who see global terrorism as more of a policing issue than a strict foreign policy one. Moreover, while the dangers of terrorism to Americans are real, the probability of experiencing such an attack is extraordinary low. Americans are much more likely to die as a result of a lightning strike or by falling down in their bathtubs.

Discussion about US grand strategy remained a hot topic during the Obama years. After suffering through roughly seven years of a costly, expansionist grand strategy, hopes were high that Obama would offer a new foreign policy approach that scaled back US overseas commitments while also improving America’s image globally. Supporters of Obama wrote pieces spelling out what a potential Obama Doctrine might look like. But over time, those hopes were dashed, as Obama offered less a grand strategy than a general dictum for the US “not to do stupid stuff.” Obama’s risk averse foreign policy—aside from the catastrophic Libya intervention—bled into his handling of crises in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, and Iran, among other cases. This relatively low-risk approach prevented the US from accruing massive costs in blood and treasure, in contrast to the Bush years, though it did feed the perception, in the US and beyond, that Obama was content with “leading from behind.” Which, in turn, arguably galvanized the avaricious ambitions of Moscow and Beijing to fill the power vacuums created by America’s reticence to involve itself in various global disputes and conflicts. Richard Haass used the term “reluctant sheriff” to describe the US during the Clinton presidency, though it probably applies much better to Obama’s America.

With the transition from Obama to Trump, the grand strategy debate has once again reared its head. Does Trump have a grand strategy? If not, what might a Trump grand strategy look like? Trump advocates claim that his America First platform is his administration’s foreign policy organizing principle. America First is fashioned as an anti-globalist program that is skeptical of trade deals, international institutions, and global elites. It defines the national interest very narrowly, as Trumpites prefer instead to erect barriers and walls to keep out bogeymen of various ethnic and national backgrounds. But on specific details, it's inchoate. The biggest problem is that America First doesn’t offer any guidelines as to how we can determine what’s in America’s best interests in each and every instance or event. America First is a foreign policy nugget—really, a slogan—in search of something larger, bigger to flesh it out and give it more meaning and substance.

One could argue that Trump’s National Security Strategy is his administration’s grand strategy. It’s supposed to be, but it’s not. It’s a document that has, in part, translated some of Trump’s tweets into foreign policy jargon and, in part, incorporated some of the contemporary thinking of Washington’s foreign policy establishment. This dual nature of the NSS makes for a jarring read, particularly the sections on Russia and China.  

A smart-aleck could argue that Trump’s personality quirks prevent him from thinking strategically or in a long-term manner. But there really is something to this. Frankly, my biggest concern is that Trump, whether on television or in the White House, is notorious for not liking scripts—which is somewhat akin to how a grand strategy functions for leaders and their governments—but desperately needs one at all times. He sees them as too confining, believing that he’s better—in terms style and substance—when he’s able to improvise and rely on his instincts. Unfortunately, as we have seen, a freewheeling Trump is one who is prone to exaggeration, lying, boasting, and making all sorts of wild statements and accusations seemingly without much concern about the consequences—to him, to the US, to the world. Yes, he’s a bit stiffer and looks uncomfortable, but Trump does perform significantly better when he’s prepared, when he’s giving remarks that have been ruminated over and vetted for accuracy, clarity and coherence—which by themselves aren’t the same as grand strategy, but they are by-products of what a well-oiled White House team and a grand strategy can offer. An organized, detailed grand strategy would keep Trump more focused and on point, polish off some of his personal rough spots, and deliver a more consistently effective US foreign policy. Alas, this something we probably won’t see—in part because of Trump’s personal preferences and in part because there are no signs his team deems a foreign policy doctrine as especially important.

Fortunately, Trump foreign policy hasn’t led to any major calamities yet. However, he has committed a host of unforced errors—including the decisions to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, station a permanent force in northern Syria, engage in name calling with Kim Jong Un, and act deferentially to Russia and China—which could well haunt the US down the line. 

Sunday, December 10, 2017

2017 Person of the Year: Kim Jong Un

                                                            KCNA, December 2017.

The last few years in global affairs have been dominated by Vladimir Putin. Since his reelection to the Russian presidency in 2012, Putin’s ambitions and policies have strongly impacted the globe in sorts of ways. Just consider the following: Russia’s hosting of the 2014 Winter Olympics, its invasion and dismemberment of Ukraine, Russia’s intervention in the Syrian civil war, and its meddling in various elections throughout the west, including in the US and France—all important events. Over the past decade, Russia, on many fronts, has been a force that other actors have to cope with and respond to, despite not being one of the two most powerful states in the world. Russia has punched above its weight, so to speak, in global influence and significance.

The idea of punching above one’s weight has remained a dominant theme in international relations in 2017. But it’s not Russia that has driven the lion’s share of world events this past year, it’s North Korea. And because of that, my nomination for world politics “Person of the Year” is Kim Jong Un, the portly young “Rocket Man” of Pyongyang.

To be clear, this isn’t an endorsement of North Korea’s behavior or wild statements and threats. Moreover, it’s not a vote of approval of how Kim governs and leads North Korea. Rather, it’s simply an observation that North Korea, under Kim’s guidance, has managed to set the tone and course of events in 2017. Let’s face it, North Korea has dominated news headlines in 2017. It has dominated the attention of world leaders. It has triggered a flurry of diplomatic activity in the UN and East Asia. It’s even baited US President Donald Trump into a twitter spat. It has repeatedly flouted UN resolutions and broken international law. And just as importantly significantly, North Korea has threatened and frightened an increasing number of people worldwide.

The source of all this sturm und drang is Kim Jong Un’s unrelenting drive to advance his nation’s missile and nuclear capabilities. This quest could be a function of offensive motives, such as the desire to unify the Korean Peninsula on his terms. It could well be an effort to test Trump, to see if he’s a paper tiger. It might also be a product of defensive factors, such as worries of being abandoned and left vulnerable by China and longstanding fears of an American-led invasion. Plus, domestic politics is also probably playing a part here. Keeping the nation safe—something the Kim dynasty has promised that only it can do—buttresses Kim’s legitimacy.

Regardless, what we do know is that Kim’s military program has sped into overdrive this year. In September, North Korea is widely believed, based on geological data, to have tested a two-stage hydrogen bomb, a more sophisticated and destructive nuclear test than it had previously tested. As The Washington Post points out, “original estimates had put its yield in the 100-kiloton range, but updated seismic data analyzed by experts…put it closer to a whopping 250 kilotons, or nearly 17 times more powerful than the bomb that flattened Hiroshima.” Just as alarmingly, the explosive device is believed to be small enough to fit inside a rocket. In other words, North Korea has ostensibly perfected the art of miniaturization and weaponization.

Meantime, North Korea has also conducted twenty-three tests on six different types of missiles in 2017. North Korea’s latest missile test, which displayed a new ICBM called the Hwasong-15, has triggered further global concern, especially in Washington. The Hwasong-15, launched on November 29th, flew for roughly 54 minutes at almost 2800 feet in altitude, giving it a likely range of over 8000 miles, if launched at a normal trajectory—all of those figures, but most significantly altitude and range, exceed North Korea’s previous tests this calendar year. Pyongyang’s July 29 “game changer” test was tabbed by experts as evidence that North Korea could hit America’s Midwest. The late November test puts all of the US in range, including East Coast hubs like New York, Boston, Washington, DC, and Miami. Even Cuba is now within range of a North Korea rocket—either a conventional one or a nuclear-tipped one.

Put simply, the North Korea problem is a gathering storm, one that’s becoming more dangerous and complicated by the day, and one that’s come to a head in 2017. North Korea’s growing and advancing nuclear and conventional weapons arsenal is problematic on its own terms, as it gives Pyongyang greater abilities to harass, threaten, and strike US and allied interests. But we’re also now seeing harrowing off-shoot problems, like the prospect of first-strike preventive attacks, accidental launches, and war via miscalculation/misinformation, picking up steam. Furthermore, 2017 is the year that the North Korean puzzle has turned from a denuclearization problem to a deterrence game. And America’s refusal to treat the problem as such inevitably means that Kim gains more time in the global spotlight going forward.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Assessing Trump's Trip to Asia

                                                                           Photo: CNN

Earlier this month, US President Donald Trump embarked on a five-nation trip across Asia, a journey that spanned nearly two weeks--his longest trip abroad since becoming president. As we've come to expect by now, his "excellent adventure" was a mixed bag of good and bad elements.

First, the good stuff. Because of the narrative of low expectations that continually surround Trump and his foreign policy, this trip could be seen as at least a partial success, even though there wasn't a breakthrough in policies or ideas. To begin, Trump seemed to be able to build rapport with the leaders of the countries he visited. He hit it off with Japanese Prime Minister Abe, with the latter flattering him with “Donald & Shinzo” baseball caps. In Seoul, Trump reiterated America's commitment to South Korea. In China, Trump seemed to build a good personal relationship with Xi Jinping, whom he called “a very special man.” Trump even showed Xi a video of his granddaughter speaking Chinese and singing for “Grandpa Xi.” Trump also said the right words in Vietnam, assuring his host about America's commitment in the South China Sea. And finally, in the Philippines, President Duterte serenaded Trump, while Trump exclaimed that he had “a great relationship” with Duterte.

In short, Trump was on his best behavior, courting no controversy while building rapport with the leaders he needs to work with. Unfortunately, Trump appears to think that if he has good personal relations with foreign leaders, like Xi, Abe, Duterte, and Moon, then the US automatically and by definition has good, harmonious ties with these foreign nations and that any divergent national interests at stake thereby wash away. But that's a very dubious belief.

For instance, no matter how well Trump was feted by Xi, the US and China still are loggerheads over a number of issues--most notably, over which great power, the US or China, will dominate in Asia now and in the future. Another problem with this trip is that Trump seemed to sacrifice the core ideals long embedded in the US national interest, most notably the issues of democracy, liberalism, and human rights. Trump touched very little on human rights in his visits with Xi and Duterte, and in Vietnam, Trump ignored the political dissidents. 

Another glaring problem was Trump was played by his hosts, especially China. So as to woo The Donald, China reportedly told Trump that he was given a "state-plus" visit, replete with a lavish dinner, state ceremonies, and screaming kids lined up along the streets to cheer on Trump's movements around China. In response, Trump was butter in Beijing's hands. All of the economic criticisms he's lobbed at China over the years--as a civilian, as a political candidate, and as president--on issues like currency valuation, US-China trade deals, and the like fell by the wayside. Instead, Trump bizarrely blamed past US administrations for China getting the upper hand in the relationship and congratulated Beijing for being wily and clever. It's one thing to pursue good relations with Beijing, it's quite another to act obsequiously toward China. At this point, it's certainly plausible that China now believes it can roll over and sweet talk Trump, even on issues of American national interest. 

At the same time, however, it is possible that Trump's personal approach to foreign policy might yield some benefits. For instance, de-emphasizing tensions with China, rather adopting a confrontational approach to Beijing, in both public and private settings, can be good thing. It's establishes some stability in Sino-US ties, which can reverberates throughout the broader Asia. And just as importantly, having good ties with China is lays the foundation for US and China to jointly work on some of the world's toughest issues, like North Korea, global economic growth, China's expansionism in the South China Sea, and so on. 

Another interesting part of Trump's trip is that he revived the so-called quad, a four-country dialogue involving the US, Japan, India, and Australia. The quad, along with the use of the term "Indo-Pacific," rather than Asia, signals an effort by Team Trump to include India in its thinking and policymaking on Asia. Which is a good and important development. India is the world's largest democracy, a latent economic powerhouse under Prime Minister Modi, and potential aspirant for regional hegemony down the line. In terms of US national interests, it's far better to have India fully integrated into the existing regional order, working and playing well with Washington's allies, and firmly on America's side. 

Lastly, it seems like quite a bit of Asia is starting to move on from the US, already preparing for a post-America Asia, and Team Trump either doesn't see it or isn't particularly bothered by it. The 11 remaining members of the TPP have already reached consensus on several major core issues that could well pave the way for a revised pact (now called the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership) minus the US now that Trump withdrew America from the TPP back in January. Furthermore, it's important to note that observers of the recent major gatherings in Asia have commented on the difference in how Xi and Trump have been received by audiences: Xi has been cheered, Trump not so much. Trump's America First platform, with its emphasis on bilateral trade deals and protectionism, doesn't resonate in Asia. These things are viewed as relics of the past, elements of a retrograde economic policy. Asia is becoming increasingly open and integrated economically, and this is the direction Asian nations, on balance, want to go. Trump is treading down a different path, one with not so many followers, and it risks transforming America First into America Alone. 

Overall, while Trump might find it worthwhile to build good rapport with leaders of the countries in East and Southeast Asia, this might not help him or the US very much absent a coherent US foreign policy strategy that takes into account the long-term interests of the US, rather than the en vogue knee-jerk populist policies that could well make China into a de-facto leader across Asia.