Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

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.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

The Sustainability of Us: An Interview

Below is an interview I’ve conducted over the last few weeks with the writer/poet Amalie Flynn. Our readers/followers might remember Ms. Flynn, as we’ve previously highlighted Amalie and her work on this blog. For those who might not remember, Amalie is the author of several blogs and the poetic-memoir Wife and War, which was released in 2013. We at CWCP have been fans of her work for years. And now, Amalie is back with a new project called The Sustainability of Us. Ms. Flynn describes this project as “eco-memoir – made of poems. It is about one family – mine. And wider still. Across our bodies and bodies of land. Because it is about all of us – and the question – the question of what is sustainable.” In the following interview, I ask Amalie about the motives and themes that underpin her new project, as well as the role that the current political landscape in the US is playing in her work.

Brad Nelson: First, I'd like to start with a basic question. What motivated you to start your new project The Sustainability of Us?

Amalie Flynn: A convergence of desires led me to The Sustainability of Us.

My desire to write about my child, who has a disability, who has apraxia, and who does not have language, the full power to speak. I want to write about him and express his experience, empower it in a way he cannot, by speaking it into being.

My desire to write about the environment, the physical land, which surrounds all of us, and holds us in this space. I want to write about the connection between each of us and the land, how it writes the story of our lives, and we write its story, weaving in and out of each other’s narratives, and how there is always consequence. I want to write about the specific connection between my son and the land, in terms of language and rights, the rights of the environment and the rights of my son, rights that can be cultivated and cared for by the rest of us, but are often desecrated and dismantled, torn down and ripped away.

And my desire to write about my child and the land - right now - in this new political reality we are living in, that is marked by division and fracture and seemingly insurmountable separation. I want to write in search of the ways we are interdependent, the ways we can be connected, all of us, to the government, to one another, to the land. I want to write about how we interact, together, in this, our giant ecosystem of being. I want to write about the rights and responsibilities we have, our own rights and the responsibilities we have, to protect the rights of others and of the land, what rights we choose to protect and what rights we choose to risk, what we choose to conserve and what we choose to endanger, and the sustainability of it, the sustainability of us.

BN: Was it easy to decide to write publicly about your son's experiences? Or did you have any trepidation about that?

BN: Another thought occurred to me. Your comment about the interdependence and interconnectivity among people, the government, and the land is quite fascinating. I'm curious about what has inspired and influenced your thinking about the world in these terms. To my ears, it sounds very Buddhist--whether intentional or not.

AF: I’ve written about both of my children before. In my Wife and War poems, I wrote about my son’s disability in poems like Horn, Fill, Matter, Locate, and Words. But in my Wife and War poems, I wrote about my son’s experience alongside war. This project – The Sustainability of Us – is different. Because my son’s experience is the focus. And because – in these poems, his experience is paired with the environment. The environment is dynamic in a different way than war. War is destructive while the environment is constructive, organic, and cyclic. Writing about my son’s disability paired with the environment is my effort to convey his experience of being, almost ecologically, in terms of his autonomy and his interrelationship with others – in a world where he may seem not to fit in but a world that is undoubtedly his. You asked me if it is hard to write about my son. And, yes, it is hard. Because it is raw and vulnerable and, all at once, mine and not mine. But it is harder not to write about him. Not to give voice to his story, to my story with him, to our family’s story. It is a story of struggle and strength and a constancy of tenuous beauty, like a lotus through mud.

AF: The idea that we are all connected is a repeating theme in my writing, a core belief, and an interest, really, in what happens when we forget, forget we are connected, disconnect, and, then, remember again. Often we forget that we are part of the natural environment, this ecosystem of living and nonliving species, or that we are dependent on other species and they are dependent on us. We forget that we are living in a community with these species, with blades of Blue Fescue grass, a Rufa Red Knot, algae in bloom. And this forgetting happens in our human relationships too. We forget that we are connected to other humans, interrelated, and, in many ways, interdependent. So, in these poems, I am laying, like gauze, the idea of an ecosystem over our interactions, our interactions with the environment, with each other, and with our government, so that I can see and describe what bleeds through, what happens when we forget we are connected and what happens when we remember our connections again. I am drawn to the land in my writing because I think it provides a perspective and a tension to the human experience – and because I think the land possesses intrinsic value and is important.  This philosophy comes from my scholarship – my doctoral work was an eco-anthropological analysis of the American suburban front lawn. It comes from Aldo Leopold’s land ethic, the warnings of Rachel Carson, and my own sense of environmental ethics. It comes from my obsession with space and place, what we build and what we do not, what fills and what leaves holes or a void. It comes from my belief in the narrative and story and shape of land. And it comes from my own sense of self, my deep connection to land. Being in nature is almost ritualistic for me. I do it every day. And it is one of the ways I feel most myself, most human, when I find myself amongst the land, because I remember myself again in a contrast to and in a connection with that land.

BN: I'd like to swing back to a comment you made earlier in our conversation. You said, "And my desire to write about my child and the land - right now - in this new political reality we are living in, that is marked by division and fracture and seemingly insurmountable separation." I'd like to tease out this sentence a bit. In particular, I'm curious about the impact of the current political environment on your work. How do you see it? And is the impact different from, say, the Obama years?

AF: Currently, America is fiercely divided. The current administration operates by way of division, seems to empower itself by dividing us, and is deeply mired in a scandal that divides us further still. And, yet, at the heart of this division is the reality that politics are personal. Politics are personal because politics affect people, real human beings with lives that are delicate and deserving of certain protections from their government. For me, what marks this administration as so different from the last administration, beyond all the fanfare and cacophony of scandal, is the very real reversal of rights, the moving backwards.

The policies and pursuits of this administration threaten the rights of many Americans – the rights of minorities, women, refugees, immigrants, the LGBTQ community, those who practice Islam, Judaism, or no religion at all, the rights of the environment, and, yes, the rights of those who live with disabilities – like my child.

Through aggressive deregulation of environmental protections, this administration has relegated the environment to the role of raw resource – a material to be used by humans, exploited, disregarded, and thrown away. There is a connection here – with the alarming way this administration has threatened the rights of people with disabilities. This administration has not proven to be an advocate for disability rights. Instead, there is an effort to strip health care coverage away from people with disabilities. There is a rolling back of ADA and regulations requiring businesses to be accessible. There is the proposal that IDEA be no longer federally mandated but left to states to decide whether to enforce it or not. There is the prospect that restructuring the public school system through school choice and voucher programs will re-segregate schools and deny children with disabilities the right to free and equal education. There is the actual physical erasure of the page on the White House website that was formerly dedicated to disability rights.

So, I see the environment and people with disabilities as connected. They are connected because the rights of each are threatened by this administration. Viewed from this perspective, my son and the environment are even more closely connected. Because they are both voiceless. They are both without a voice, at least in a traditional sense.

For me, the difference between this administration and the last administration is a backwards movement, the reversal of rights, the danger and darkness of a retrograde. And I am focused on this difference poetically – what this difference means for the environment, my child, all of us, not just politically, but personally. Because the America I love is forward moving. It is constantly trying to move forward. In ways that include everyone.

That we now live in an America that is moving backwards is devastating and will have very real and harmful repercussions, for the environment, in the personal lives of people, and for us all as a public society. So, it is this difference and this devastation that I am writing about. It is the disregard for a child. It is a river forced dry.

BN: I detect a sense of urgency in your assessment of the Trump era: the seemingly dire state of US politics, the growing intractable divisions within America, the declining state of our environment, and so on. It seems clear that your new project is a personal visceral reaction to all of that. At the same time, I suspect that you see—and maybe even hope—your poetic-blog goes beyond that, beyond the personal to something larger and bigger. Am I right?

AF: The degradation of the environment, the diminishment of certain groups of people, such as people with disabilities, the divisions between us – these realities precede our current administration and have always existed in America – as has my disquiet about them. Policies of the current administration that target the environment and people with disabilities only bring into focus a subjugation that is always there, that has always been there, in America. So, while this project speaks to the danger of the current administration’s mistreatment of the environment and of people with disabilities, it is speaking to something larger, an America where domination and degradation is woven into so many of our interactions, with each other, with our government, and with the land. In these poems, I seek to say something illimitable – about the environment and about us – about the dichotomy at the heart of this existence – resilience and self-sustainment, fragility and vulnerability. Ultimately, these poems are about humanity, how we are all connected, and the deep schisms and voids that form when we deny these connections or sever them. In each poem, there is the optimism of connection, reconnection. And the reality that sometimes – sometimes it is too late.

Amalie Flynn is an American writer and the author of WIFE AND WAR: THE MEMOIR and three blogs: WIFE AND WAR, SEPTEMBER ELEVENTH, and THE SUSTAINABILITY OF US. Flynn’s WIFE AND WAR poetry has appeared in THE NEW YORK TIMES AT WAR and in TIME’S BATTLELAND, has appeared in THE HUFFINGTON POST, and has received mention from THE NEW YORK TIMES MEDIA DECODER. Her SEPTEMBER ELEVENTH blog has received mention from CNN. In addition, her WIFE AND WAR blog has a global readership, with readers from over 90 countries. WIFE AND WAR: THE MEMOIR is her first book.

Monday, October 9, 2017

How Trump is Screwing Up the North Korean Crisis

                                                                     Photo: CNN

US President Donald Trump continues to issue incendiary statements and tweets on North Korea. As you may recall, there is the “fire and fury” statement, the “Rocket Man” mocking tweet, the “destroy North Korea” UN speech, and his “calm before the storm” boast, which has been interpreted as a threat to Pyongyang. In two October 7th tweets (see here and here), Trump wrote, “Presidents and their administrations have been talking to North Korea for 25 years, agreements made and massive amounts of money paid….hasn't worked, agreements violated before the ink was dry, makings fools of U.S. negotiators. Sorry, but only one thing will work!”

Combined, these statements and tweets suggest that Trump believes or at least wants Kim Jong Un to believe that military force, if not outright regime change, is on America’s agenda. Trump thinks that past American presidents have been far too lenient on North Korea and that tough talk, coercive actions, and maybe even military force are better courses of action. There is a place for coercion, actually. And I’ve advocated a combination of containment and deterrence as appropriate coercive maneuvers. As examples, strengthening America’s partnerships with South Korea and Japan, relying on the principles of Mutually Assured Destruction, boosting missile defenses in Asia and on the homeland, putting pressure on China to manage better North Korea, attempting to squeeze Pyongyang’s diplomatic space and contacts, pursuing economic sanctions, and tracking and punishing smuggling of all kinds—things Team Trump are, mostly, doing—are good, reasonable approaches.

However, the US can’t embrace an “all sticks, no carrots” approach, which is what Trump is doing. It makes the Kim regime feel as if it has no way out of its crisis with the US, no suitable policy off-ramp to avoid a head-on collision: either Pyongyang prepares for war or it capitulates to American demands. There has to be a blend of containment/deterrence with the hope of talks that offer some concessions—some policies and tools that allow Kim Jong Un to save face, feel less insecure, and trust the US in any potential negotiations.

With all this in mind, then, it’s fairly evident to me that Trump is bungling the North Korea crisis. And not only that, he’s getting quite a few fine-grained aspects of the crisis wrong. Please consider the below arguments and empirical realities.

1. Empirical research by the Center for Strategic and International Studies clearly indicates that engagement with North Korea—diplomatic outreach, promises of concessions, etc.—have consistently gotten Pyongyang to the negotiating table. Yes, once at the negotiating table, North Korea has posed problems: it has sabotaged talks and undermined nuclear deals that have been agreed upon over the last 25 years. That said, drawing Pyongyang to talks is a desirable thing. It lowers the tensions and hostilities, regionally and internationally, allowing all sides to take a breather. It also enables existing US-North Korean diplomatic channels to talk and coordinate without the unnecessary burden of a nuclear war looming in the background. And those two things, in turn, just might offer the proper conditions for a comprehensive nuclear deal to get done, finally. After all, that’s the goal, right? 

2. Directly and obliquely threatening a very insecure and isolated Kim Jong Un only bolsters his inclination to stay away from diplomatic talks and expand his nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities. The Kims have long believed that the US has designs on overthrowing their government, despite pleas to the contrary by various American administrations since the end of the Korean War. North Koreans think their predicament with the US is an existential dilemma. Upping the threats only plays into the long-held narrative about US intentions and motives vis-à-vis North Korea.

3. North Korea is especially insecure and vulnerable these days. It’s a cornered and isolated nation. Of course, Kim is shunned and threatened by America and its Asia allies, Japan and South Korea. But China, Pyongyang’s lifeline, is also alarmed and tired of Pyongyang’s antics, which only fuels North Korea’s sense of insecurity, particularly its feeling that it could well be abandoned and left unprotected by Beijing. Astonishingly, President Xi Jinping has yet to meet Kim, and there’s no sign of that happening anytime soon. And when Kim has his uncle killed in 2013, he eliminated China’s main contact to North Korea. Additionally, in recent years, and particularly this year, China has voted with the US on UN resolutions condemning North Korea and applying further sanctions on the Kim regime. Sure, there are reports of Russia filling in the economic gap vacated by China, but such activity merely helps to keep the regime afloat another day but doesn’t lessen much Pyongyang’s insecurity. North Korea knows that Russia isn’t attached to the Kim dynasty and doesn’t have strong historical ties and connections to North Korea, and so it’s unlikely that Pyongyang views Moscow as a potential savior. It’s this sense of isolation and danger that informs how North Korea views the world and how it interacts with it.

4. The North Korea problem is no longer a denuclearization problem, as has been suggested by various elements of Team Trump, but rather a deterrence puzzle. As soon as Team Trump realizes this, the better US foreign policy will be. Put simply, Kim has nukes and he’s not giving them up. Handing them over/dismantling them only exacerbates his political and personal insecurities and vulnerabilities, for it means he’ll no longer have the requisite capabilities to deter an American invasion. Plus, years of North Korean propaganda have made both the nation’s nukes and its nuclear scientists quite popular, offering a source of pride in what citizens believe to be an indigenously created and sustained program of scientific achievement. Furthermore, the nuclear program gives the Kim regime a veneer of legitimacy it sorely needs, as it fulfills the promise the Kims have made that they and only they can protect the nation from imperialists and other invaders seeking conquest of North Korea. Mothballing the nuclear program raises the possibility that North Koreans might begin to question the things that have been drummed into heads for decades, potentially leading to the whole house of cards falling down. Don’t underestimate Kim, he knows this. Hence, North Korean denuclearization is a longshot, best-case scenario, one that’s highly unlikely at the moment and thus should not be the focus of US foreign policy. 

5. Team Trump has no clue how to communicate threats to North Korea. Scholarly research shows that whether threats are deemed credible depends crucially on the interests and capabilities of the actor who issues them. If an actor issuing a threat is viewed as powerful, and if that threat covers issues seen as vital to that actor, it's likely those threats will be perceived as credible or believable. On those counts, US threats to North Korea are indeed credible. Keep in mind, though, there are other factors that can enhance or weaken the credibility of threats: most notably, consistently and clarity. Deterrence/compellence scholars have argued that threats are credible if the same message of those threats is explicitly and overtly communicated on a repeated basis. More specifically, (1) the issue at stake, (2) the policy or behavior that is sought by the actor issuing the threat, and (3) type or form of punishment if compliance isn’t forthcoming absolutely must be clearly and repeatedly communicated to the threated side/actor. If not, there is room for the threatened to misinterpret or misunderstand the threat, which can throw both sides into a conflict that might have been otherwise avoided.

On this matter, on consistently and clarity, the Trump administration is performing extraordinarily poorly. In his public statements and tweets, Trump brandishes bellicose rhetoric. In fact, his statements are tweets have been so outside of the norm of past US administrations that North Korean diplomats have been left puzzled by their meaning. As Evan Osnos reports, they’ve been desperately searching for clues in their efforts to decipher the meaning and intent of Trump’s wild and brazen threats. So that, by itself, is a major problem. But additionally, Trump’s statements and tweets are often at odds with public comments made by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Tillerson has repeatedly offered very cautious remarks meant to lower hostilities and make clear that the US seeks diplomacy rather than war. But Trump has, on several occasions, undercut him, arguing that diplomatic overtures are a waste of time. As a result, the North Koreans don’t know what to think. Is Trump simply playing good cop/bad cop with them? Or is Tillerson irrelevant? Is US foreign policy made by Trump via Twitter? Given this sense of uncertainty, and given Pyonyang's insecurities, it makes loads of sense for North Korea to assume and prepare for the worst: that the US, led by an unpredictable and rash leader, isn’t just looking to bully Kim but seeks war against him and his state.

6. The North Korea problem can’t and won’t be solved, whenever it’s eventually ameliorated, by force. On this issue, the much-lampooned Steve Bannon is correct. The US is unable to take out all of North Korea’s nuclear facilities and its missile systems. What this means, then, is that if the US did attempt degrade North Korea’s military capabilities, Kim will have a residual force that could be used to strike against US interests in Asia, enough to cause significant death and destruction—including the deaths of hundreds of thousands American troops and civilians who are stationed/live in the region. Regime Change is also a no-go because Kim would very likely use his nuclear arsenal in response. North Korea’s nuclear doctrine is probably one of “asymmetric escalation,” a term coined by Vipin Narang. This refers to the prospect of North Korea quickly escalating an ongoing conflict, one in which conventional weapons are used against it, to the nuclear realm. Regime change is precisely the kind of conflict that would trigger asymmetric escalation.

Moreover, using military force against North Korea raises the thorny issue of Chinese behavior. In short, what would China do? Would a fed up and disgusted let Kim fall? In that case, it might stay on the sidelines or perhaps even coordinate with the US—so as to ensure that it has a say in what a future North Korea looks like. But the US should by no means assume this behavior by China. For example, what if China fears that regime change equates to North-South unification, Seoul as the capital, and a unified Peninsula, on its border, inside the Western camp, an outcome akin to Germany in the early 1990s? This is exactly the kind of outcome China fears and wants to avoid. So what does China do? Does it rescue Kim?

7. Making Kim believe that the US is hell-bent on using military force against North Korea could cause him to launch a pre-emptive war against the America and South Korea. In other words, coercive pressure by the US could backfire and produce the outcome that everyone globally is looking to avoid. This is a problem that Trump has single-handedly caused: his “madman” approach to North Korea, allegedly inspired by Richard Nixon’s policy posture and decision-making during the Vietnam War, has led Pyongyang to conclude that the Trump administration is looking for a fight. Unfortunately, though, if Kim thinks that no matter what he does—no matter what kinds of policy changes he enacts on the nuclear issue—the US will deploy force against North Korea, then he has incentives to order a first-strike with the hope of gaining early advantages on the battlefield. And as outlined above, given North Korea’s probable asymmetric escalation nuclear doctrine, a first move with conventional forces greatly enhances the likelihood that nuclear weapons will quickly enter the picture. This is the most likely route in which a rational Kim Jong Un, responding to perceived threats and pressures, uses nuclear weapons against the US territory and US interests.

8. Trump’s preference to decertify Iran only makes the North Korean problem more difficult. Surely, Kim is looking Trump’s effort to abrogate the Iran deal and sees this as evidence of the US as being an untrustworthy partner, one whose word is effectively meaningless. Specifically, I’m sure Kim is struck by two things: (1) a deal negotiated by one US government can be stymied by its successor; and (2) Trump wants out of the deal based on details that are unrelated to the actual specifics of it. The IAEA, Mattis, the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford, the Europeans, various nuclear watchdogs, and so on, all say Iran is upholding its end of the nuclear bargain and that the US ought not take measures to scupper it. Hence, Trump can’t really say that Iran’s violating the deal; instead, his claim is that Iran is repudiating the “spirit” of the deal by conducting missile tests and arming extemist/militant groups like Hamas and Hezbollah—bad things, yes, but outside the purview of the deal as negotiated by Iran and the P5+1. With this in mind, why should Kim go ahead with nuclear talks if the US will break its promises down the road? Pushing to renegotiate the Iran deal—a tactic known among Congressional Republicans as “fix it or nix it”—only deincentivizes North Korea to come back to the negotiating table. 

Monday, August 14, 2017

Nazis in Charlottesville

Photo: Incisive

It’s beyond crazy and wild, terrible and horrific, to see the protests, violence, and torch-bearing Nazis in Charlottesville. I spent two years as a grad student at the University of Virginia, or UVA, and loved my time there and in and around Charlottesville. For those who are unaware, it’s a beautiful part of America: UVA is a national treasure, for architectural and historical and scholastic reasons, and the natural scenery of the bucolic surrounding area, which includes Shenandoah National Park and the Blue Ridge Mountains, is breathtaking. It’s so strange to have such a majestic, tranquil area roiled by unrest and murder. Not so long ago I never would have dreamed that Charlottesville would be the center of a major news event, but it is. In fact, the city is a major front in the battle between 21st century America and white nationalists and Nazis. Yes, Nazis.

Trump's Statements

If you scan mainstream news sources and social media, there’s been a justifiable outcry across the political spectrum, against President Trump’s initial statement, one that reeked of bizarre moral equivalency, that blamed “all sides” for Saturday’s violence. By not naming and shaming the Charlottesville Nazis, Trump, in effect, let them off the hook. And they know it. Chatter from Nazis, most notably from The Daily Stormer, showed their pleasure that Trump failed to condemn them, their rhetoric, or their actions. They firmly believe the president of the US has their back, which is by itself astounding and disturbing. But it also means that this Nazi problem isn’t going away anytime soon. Given the political climate (the polarization, Trump in charge, Breitbarters in the White House, etc.), it’s hard not to see them as emboldened, even ascendant, right now.

On Monday, Trump gave a more forceful statement, albeit a scripted, Teleprompter-read one. Keep in mind, though, that it took two days and a second try for Trump to name and denounce "KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups." For a guy who's ultra-quick to call out "losers," "haters," and "bad hombres" and "fake news," his fumfering spoke volumes. Many wondered if Trump was sincere.

Apparently not. On Tuesday, Trump held a disastrous press conference, one that was supposed to focus on his infrastructure plans, but instead was consumed by last weekend's events in Virginia. There, in an off-the-cuff exchange with reporters, he reverted back to his "all sides" sentiment. He did call out the murderer, the Nazi who crashed his car into a crowd, but he also placed blame on the "alt-left," calling them violent, and said that there were some good people who attended the white nationalist rally, and that they "peacefully" marched on Friday night. Evidence shows otherwise, as the marchers shouted "Jews won't replace us," and "Blood and Soil," among other white supremacist slogans. In the aftermath of the Tuesday's press conference, Richard Spencer and David Duke tweeted their plaudits for Trump's performance, which they viewed as a full-throated defense of their movement.

What's going on here? What explains Trump's behavior? Why defend a violent hate movement, one, mind you, that despises members of his own family?

Four Explanations

1. Trump is a racist or has racist inclinations.

I don't throw around the R word lightly, so it's difficult to write that anyone, let alone the American president, could well be a racist. But this is where we're at. The possibility that Trump's a racist or racist inclinations can't be ruled out anymore; it's not just leftist hyper-babble. And we can't simply pin the blame for Trump's various repugnant statements and policies on Stephen Bannon, his Darth Vader-like Chief Strategist. Not when Trump, of his own unprompted volition, publicly and vigorously defended white nationalists. And please note Trump's history. Well before he was a political figure and had to make political calculations about his words and actions, Trump had a checkered past with various identity groups. He (along with his dad and Trump Management) was sued in the 1970s for housing discrimination, played a part in spreading false statements and riling up New Yorkers in the Central Park Five case, and aroused suspicions of bigotry during his Apprentice days. And of course, what helped Trump rise to political prominence, even before his formal participation in US politics, was his "Birther" antics, a xenophobic and racially-tinged campaign against former President Barack Obama. 

2. He far underestimates the goals and intentions of the American white supremacist movement.

It's certainly plausible that he's been fooled by the 21st century uniform of the white nationalists that no longer embraces the white hood. That's been replaced by khakis and white polo shirt. And Richard Spencer, an infamous white nationalist, typically dresses in fancy suits. Perhaps Trump sees the more open, transparent racists as less threatening. Maybe. Relatedly, and more importantly, behind closed doors Trump has reportedly voiced that argument that these folks are simply trying to protect their "heritage." That's revealing. It shows that Trump likely sees at least a chunk of the white supremacists as just another civic action group seeking to assert their interests and voice their grievances. If so, then, in Trump's worldview the white supremacists are no different than union workers, the NRA, the pharmaceutical lobby, and so on.

3. He sees himself in the Nazis

No, I'm not necessarily referring to whether Trump is a racist. Rather, it would not surprise me if viewed the white nationalists as similar political actors existing in a somewhat similar situation: that they are both insurgents or outsiders, attacked, demonized, and misunderstood by the "mainstream media" and the left, willing to say the politically incorrect "hard truths" that nobody dares to say, and desirous of shaking up the political establishment. I think he has a personal affinity for the white nationalists, and feels a sense of kinship with them.

4. Self-preservation politics

Politics are playing a role here, I have no doubt. They are very likely pushing and pulling him in dark directions. I suspect that he believes the rubes (“I love the poorly educated!”) and racists are the support base he simply cannot lose. And at an approval rating about 35%, Trump knows his margin for success, now and in the future, is tenuous at best. Trump seeks to keep the kooks on his side and inspired, in part because of his desire to reciprocate their loyalty, according to those who know him, but also because they're vital cogs in his machine—pledging support, donating money, buying hats, attending rallies, intimidating the press and political opponents, and causing mischief and proselytizing online, where they're members of his army of Internet trolls.

Should Trump fail to keep these groups firmly in his camp and highly motivated, he runs the risk of not just losing the presidency in 2020, but he very well could lose the GOP nomination in 2020—and that’s says nothing about the fate of the impending Congressional elections in 2018. It’s clear that Trump has made a strategic decision to solidify his far right flank by playing up various cultural wedge issues, gambling that satisfied, galvanized racist numbskulls can help to keep him in office. Embedded in this is another gamble: that he won't alienate his overall base of white voters and that they will accept his hug of Nazis, either approving of it or looking away. Certainly, this strategy is ruinous for the country, but, then again, Trump is not a country-first patriot; he’s a me-first plutocrat whose prime directive is to enrich himself and his family.

Reports on the state of the White House reveal a cornered, threatened, and paranoid Trump. For starters, the Russiagate investigations, the constant turnover and infighting within Team Trump, Trump's reckless and incendiary tweets, and the lack of much substantive policy progress are taking a significant toll. It's creating the impression of a White House that's chaotic, incompetent, and mendacious. For instance, most Americans don't think Trump is trustworthy or approve of the job he's doing as president. Most troubling for Trump, even approval from white working class voters without a college degree, his much-hyped base, is trending downward.

Moreover, the GOP vultures are circling Washington, believing that Trump is politically vulnerable. There are already rumblings that his Veep, Mike Pence, is planning contingency operations to run for the presidency in 2020. Conservative power broker Bill Kristol is floating the idea of putting together a “Committee to Not Reelect the President,” sort of an anti-CREEP coalition, for those who recall the Nixon days. There are also, already, a number of prominent Republicans who seem primed to run for the GOP nomination in 2020, such as Ben Sasse, Jeff Flake, and John Kasich: Sasse and Flake have recently released books—a typical first-step for US politicians seriously considering a run at the White House—and Kasich has made sure to keep his name in the news. The avid cable news watcher that he is, Trump is abundantly aware of all these developments.

And then there are the Democrats. Undoubtedly, the Democrats have their issues: they lack clear leaders, they leaders they do have are largely aged and uninspiring, and they lack a clear message and policy alternative to Trump. Yet they are able to get under Trump's skin. His Twitter rants against various Democrats, like Richard Blumenthal and Chuck Schumer, and the Democratic Party make that point clear. And Congressional Democrats are united in their fierce resistance to all things Trump, which makes his life difficult. Without Democratic support, he can't get any legislation passed, has to make excuses and scapegoat others, including members of his own party, for his lightweight governing record, and is forced to rely on executive orders, which, all combined, make him appear weak and feckless.

Making Sense of It All

What does all this mean? The four explanations, individually and/or collectively, leads us to an uncomfortable but inescapable conclusion: Trump has an incentive to turn a blind eye, if not cozy up, to these groups. And Tuesday's defense of the Nazis is just the latest in a string of overtures to them. Indeed, he’s thrown many winks and nods to them since he began his political career more than two years ago. During the campaign, Trump refused to immediately and sharply disavow support from infamous former KKK leader and white nationalist David Duke, repeatedly posted retweets from known white nationalists, and he and his children tweeted the notorious Pepe the Frog memes. His policy proposals and initiatives include “The Wall,” banning transgender folks from the military, the infamous “Muslim Ban” executive order, and a government direction to focus solely on Islamic terrorism, thereby mostly ignoring the more numerous terror acts of white nationalists, among other things. Trump has elevated bogus and extremist “news outlets” like InfoWars and Breitbart. And to top it off, several of his key staff—like Sebastian Gorka, Stephen Miller, and Stephen Bannon—have a history of espousing bigoted, xenophobic views. In all, this has been a bonanza for Nazi types in the US.

If you add it all up, it seems rather dire. Frankly, it feels as if the US is rotting from the inside. A day ago my nine-year-old daughter, after seeing pictures of the Nazi flag on television, said to me: "Dad, I thought the Nazis were defeated in World War II? And why are they here in the United States?" Clearly, we have a massive problem, one that's (1) complex, in that there are multiple causes and contributors to white nationalism and supremacy, (2) growing, considering that the ranks of "alt-right" are swelling and the movement is already planning more "marches" and rallies," and (3) lacks a quick or easy solution. Most troublesome, a part of the problem stems from the highest office in the US. Trump has publicly and tacitly endorsed white supremacy, elevated this ideology and its adherents to mainstream status, and demonized and marginalized those individuals and groups who want to challenge the narrative and actions of white racists. At bottom, we have a sitting US president who's abdicated his moral authority, and that's only one of a host of major foreign and domestic problems that he's either created or worsened since taking office seven months ago.

On a positive note, many good Americans, on the right and left, are activated and mobilized, in various ways, against far, far right extremism, Nazis and others of their ilk, and their abettors in the White House. Much, much more needs to be done, obviously. But don’t despair. Instead, remain vigilant, speak out, put pressure on your Congresspersons to repudiate and investigate extremism and hate groups. Please, let’s make America kind and decent again.  

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Nuclear Brinksmanship: North Korea and the US

                                                                Photo credit: CNN

Brad Nelson and Yohanes Sulaiman offer their thoughts on the latest news on North Korea's nuclear program. 

Yohanes Sulaiman: The North Korean nuclear issue has been sliced and diced beyond recognition -- even by us, in the past couple of years. And the core issue remains: how much is the US and its allies willing to pay for getting an outcome they want.

While there have been discussions that a "limited strike" is on the table, frankly, I don't see any "limited strike" as possible. For the North Korean regime, any "provocation" must get a reply, especially a strike by the United States, for one simple reason: This is a very insecure regime that has to ratchet its provocations all way up to eleven. And any attack that goes without response, would make the North Korean people and, more importantly, its political elite question whether the Dear Leader has gone soft or has joined the rank of mortals, and thus presenting an opportunity for an uprising.

In essence, there is only two major options: wait and do nothing or go for war.

1. Wait

Some specialists argue that the regime is vulnerable due to its weak economy, growing discontent, etc. But as we can see from many examples all over the world, such as in Venezuela, where you have a two-bit very unpopular autocrat ruling a country that is wrecked daily with protests from the opposition, any determined autocrat, as long as he or she can maintain the loyalty of political elite, can survive indefinitely.

And North Korea is a special basket case, where you have a population that is totally subservient (they don't even riot during the great famine period!) and a cowed political elite. Moreover, you have China next door, who, while it loathes the regime, hates the possibility of the US presence in the Yalu River even more. Thus, regardless of North Korean provocations, Beijing will keep the supply lines open. And Kim Jong Un also knows that.

2. War

This will be messy for sure. Can't sugarcoat this. Thousands or even millions may die, with sky-high damage, and, depending on the outcome, that would also destroy the reputation of both China and the United States in the region, because the Korean and Japanese population would blame both China and the US. Kim Jong Un's regime is gambling that this will be the brake that forces both China and the US to stay in option one. Why is he confident? See all the appeasement from the US to North Korea since Bill Clinton era and how China keeps supporting the regime even today even after North Korea essentially gave China the finger.

The third option is the Trump option. Trump is so bombastic and unpredictable that he may actually convince China that war is inevitable and that China really needs to do something about Kim Jong Un. At this point, though, China's ineffective policy to North Korea would come home to roost simply because China does not have any Korean policy per se, except keeping the North Korean regime afloat. I doubt Beijing actually considers the possibility of North Korea going rogue, considering the close relationship between Kim Jong Il and Beijing. And even if China wants to do any regime change in North Korea, the possibility has probably already closed when North Korean agents managed to murder Kim Jong Un's brother in Malaysia, preempting this kind of scenario. So, there is very little possibility that China can impose regime change without bringing the entire country down, and Kim Jong Un knows it. And Beijing also knows it.

Brad Nelson: As I see it, the developments over the last day have revealed three new things. (1) US intelligence has recently estimated North Korea could have as many as 60 nukes, which is about three times the typical estimates that I've heard about North Korea nuclear capabilities. Most estimates have placed the country’s nuclear arsenal at around 15-20 nukes. (2) North Korea has the ability to miniaturize a nuclear weapon and therefore weaponize a ballistic missile. Nuclear weapons experts have believed that North Korea would probably perfect this technology, but that it was several years away from doing so. (3) Arguably, the rhetoric from the sitting US president ("fire and fury"), which has escalated tension (North Korea possibly targeting Guam), is another new wrinkle in this intractable situation. 

First, it's certainly possible that Trump's off-the-cuff remarks yesterday, while intended to signal strength and resolve, could be interpreted By Kim as deeply ominous and threatening—that Trump is seriously thinking about a 1st strike against the regime. And if that's the case, Kim, thinking he has nothing to lose, might lash out militarily against American interests in the region (South Korea, Guam, etc.). And second, if Trump really intend to deliver a nuclear 1st strike threat, that goes against decades of US foreign policy, which has embraced the notion of second-strike deterrent or extended deterrent threats as sufficient to protect and preserve US national security interests. Is Trump moving US nuclear policy in a more aggressive direction?   

So what to do? Well, as you know, there've been many different proposals bandied about by policymakers, scholars, and analysts over the years. Recent pieces by Mark Bowden and Jeffrey A. Bader do a good job of highlighting these options, which include regime change, targeted strikes against North Korea's arsenal, delegating the issue to China, putting significant pressure on China to strangle Pyongyang, resuming the six-party talks, doing nothing/acceptance (that North Korea is indeed a nuclear power), containment/deterrence, and direct high-level bilateral negotiations with North Korea’s leadership.

Of these, I'm in favor of a combination of containment/deterrence and negotiations. The other options either likely won't work and/or entail significant costs in blood and treasure (for the US, South Korea, and North Korea). Roughly speaking, my two-track plan involves very senior-level talks up to and possibly including Kim and Trump on freezing then rolling back North Korea's nuclear program over time in exchange for various economic concessions and security guarantees; at the same time, the US would also up its missile defense in the region and on American homeland, strengthen its ties to states throughout Asia via more military exercises and arms transfers, and actively clamp down on North Korea's economy and military. Based on how North Korea responds to all of this, the US could then decide whether to ease up on containment in favor of talks, or prioritize containment over talks. 

Historically for the US, this has been the most successful path to moderating disputes and tensions. The US used this dual-track approach vis-a-vis the Soviets during the cold war, and the Bush and Obama administrations did likewise against Iran. Eventually, both Iran and the Soviets came out of the cold, after they realized they couldn't compete against the US and its allies and needed to play nice with the rest of the world. The downside is that this two-track approach doesn't lend itself to a quick, overnight resolution and it requires patience by American leaders--something that's on short supply at the moment, it seems. Of course, nobody likes the idea of Kim possessing nuclear-tipped ICBMs that can hit dozens of nations, including, it now seems, the heartland of the US. But patience can work in the end. Kim is rational, North Korea is isolated and poor, and China despises Kim and his antics. Plus, I see an added benefit here: if the US sincerely reaches out to Pyongyang, which is what Beijing wants, I suspect that China, seeing its interests taken into account by Washington, will be willing to do more than it has on the North Korea problem.

YS: Again, I don't think that negotiation will work simply because it cannot give both sides what they want: North Korea, at least under Kim Jong Un, simply wants nukes for self-preservation. Kim and his cronies might negotiate, but at the end of the day, they will present the fait accompli: They have nukes, deal with it. And that is unacceptable for everyone else. For Pyongyang, giving up nukes at this stage would risk a massive backlash domestically, because it would (1) signal that the Kim Jong Un's regime is as vulnerable to outside pressure, and (2) defeat the entire raison d'etre of its existence. Other states, such as Iran, can backtrack on their military nuclear programs because they've never tied their legitimacy to them, but not North Korea, which has placed itself in a corner.

What I think we have to deal with in the future is: how to deal with a nuclear North Korea, the possibility of further proliferation, and a massive rearmament in South Korea and Japan. Maybe I am too pessimistic here, but I just don't see Kim being willing or able to negotiate a freeze or roll back of his country’s nukes.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Russia and the Return of Geopolitics in Korea

In his 2014 Foreign Affairs article "The Return of Geopolitics", Walter Russell Mead asserted that whereas the US has been concerned with ideas of "global governance" since the end of the Cold War, powers such as China, Iran and Russia remain focused on traditional questions of territory and power. 

The term "geopolitics" is frequently used in conjunction with Russia's foreign policy. It is, however, often limited to the context of Russian activities in the post-Soviet space. Indeed, much of Russia's current foreign policy is driven by a desire to re-assert influence in countries and regions that were formerly under Soviet control.

Despite not having been a part of the former Soviet empire, the Korean Peninsula offers a unique chance to glean the dichotomy between the US's supposed concentration of "global governance" and the Russian preoccupation with the issue of territory. Much of the international focus on the DPRK has been based on stemming North Korea's nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. The primary framework through which the international community has worked to achieve this is through international bodies such as the United Nations, buttressed by international agreements such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Nevertheless, Russia's geopolitical interests have a long history in Korea. Those interests, it seems, are making a comeback. Russia, however, is forced to contend with a divided Korea that makes the pursuit of its geopolitical designs more difficult.

The establishment of a Korean state that is friendly toward Russia, but which is not particularly aligned with one state, has constituted a basic Russian policy toward Korea since the end of the 19th century. The historic roots of Russia's ambitions on the Korean Peninsula date from approximately 1860, during the reign of Aleksandr II. Russian designs for Korea entered a period of abeyance during the Japanese occupation of Korea. After the end of the Second World War, however, the USSR revived its Korea policy based on three fronts: advancing the Soviet Union's national security, increasing the scope of the communist camp, and keeping Russia in the realm of great power politics.

Following the "hot" phase of the Cold War, which included a rupture in Sino-Soviet relations, the balance between China, the United States and the USSR became more-or-less balanced. Nevertheless, the rapprochement between Japan and South Korea following the 1965 normalization agreement between Seoul and Tokyo led to another major shift in the USSR's geopolitical position in Northeast Asia. While the US's alliance system in Asia was based on a series of bilateral agreements between Washington and other individual states, rather than a collective security system such as NATO, Japan-South Korea normalization led to the formation of a Japan-South Korea-US network. In Asia, Russia was unable to form a network of alliances or collective security similar to the Warsaw Pact in Eastern Europe. As a result, in order to securitize its Far Eastern regions, in 1980 Russia embarked on a program of tripling its direct investment in the Russian Far East's military position, compared with defense spending in the Far East in 1978. Nevertheless, the USSR was unable to undertake such a program, as at this time the first cracks in the Soviet socio-economic system began to appear [1].

Upon assuming leadership of the USSR in 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev hoped to use North Korea as a sort of lightning rod to expand the Soviet Union's influence in East Asia more broadly. In addition to the narrower imperatives of East Asia, Gorbachev's policy of outreach to North Korea was also in part based on his attempts at shoring up cooperation with the broader global communist bloc, including those countries that had kept their distance from the USSR. During the final days of the Soviet era, however, a reform-minded Gorbachev viewed South Korea, having recently experienced a massive economic transformation in the so-called "Miracle on the Han", as a valuable partner for the USSR. In particular, Gorbachev viewed South Korea as a potential source of investment. Yet in the chaotic aftermath of the USSR's collapse, Russian leaders (especially conservative politicians) became increasingly disappointed with the fact that ROK-Russia ties didn't provide the material benefits as had previously been hoped. Boris Yeltsin, therefore, began to move Russia back to a more equidistant position between North and South Korea.  

Moscow's policy of maintaining balanced relations with both Koreas has continued under the Putin government. Russia's attempts at maintaining balanced relations with North and South Korea, however, could end up backfiring, as happened with the USSR's attempts at maintaining balanced relations with both Ethiopia and Somalia in the 1970's. With this in mind, Russia ultimately hopes for a reunified peninsula. Moscow, however, approaches unification with a mindset of cautious optimism.

According to a report published by the Russian committee of the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP), two of Russia's main interests insofar as Korean crisis management is concerned, is for Korean unification to happen gradually, rather than suddenly, and for Korea not necessary to fall under the geopolitical auspices of Russia, but rather for Korea not to come under the geopolitical fold of one single country.

Ideally, unification would occur peaceably. Russia, however, remains wary of the possibility of a large-scaled armed confrontation. By extension, Russia also fears that the aftermath of armed conflict would produce a unified Korean Peninsula with US troops directly on its borders. This makes Russia's geopolitical situation in East Asia not unlike Russia's circumstances in Europe, where the positioning of large-scale military powers increases the possibility of confrontation. In contrast, perhaps the most critical difference between Russia's geopolitical interests toward the Korean Peninsula and other regions on the Russian periphery is that whereas in other areas Russia attempts to create a network of pro-Moscow states on its borders, but as far as Korea is concerned, the most pressing issue for Russia is not creating a buffer state, but rather creating investment opportunities for its Far Eastern regions.

As Russia continues its so-called "turn to the East," the Korean Peninsula will likely hold an increasingly important position in Russia's geopolitical designs. At present, Russia is limited in its ability to exercise geopolitical influence over Korea. The peninsula remains divided, with the northern and Southern halves generally aligned with China and the US, respectively. Should the overall situation in Korea change in any notable way, however, Russia, based on its long-standing interests, will be desirous to take advantage of any major shifts in North and/or South Korea's political circumstances. By striving for closer ties with both North and South Korea, Russia seeks to be primed to, at the very least, not be left out in the cold in any ensuing geopolitical scramble for influence in a reunified Korea.   

[1] А. Б Волынчук "Россия в Северо-Восточной Азии: вектор геополитических интересов"

Saturday, July 1, 2017

The Problems with Trump’s Tweeting

Photo: Reuters

President Donald Trump sure loves Twitter. Social media, including Twitter, if used properly and well, can be valuable tools for world leaders. If not, these tools can cause a lot of headaches, if not something worse, for them. Trump’s fascination with and addiction to Twitter seems to fall in the latter category.

Sure, Trump does use Twitter to highlight his meetings, new legislation and executive orders, and his pet political causes. Unfortunately, he also uses Twitter for a whole lot more than that. He fairly constantly wields his Twitter account to demonize the left, the media, and other domestic opponents. Trump’s recent and much-publicized spat with Morning Joe’s Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski is only the latest example of his reckless use of Twitter. This fiasco is fairly instructive of the perils of Trump using twitter for ill-conceived ends.

So what happened? It’s sufficient to say that Trump, on Thursday, irked by what he perceived as unfair reporting and analysis by Scarborough and Brzezinski, tweeted unflattering remarks about both Joe and Mika, including a misogynist one on Mika, possibly lied about an interaction between him and Joe and Mika, and criticized Morning Joe’s television ratings. (See here and here.) Trump’s tweets, as many do, received a firestorm of attention, to the point that they were discussed and defended in the daily press briefing by Sarah Huckabee Sanders—which caused another round of scorn heaped on the White House. And as for Scarborough and Brzezinski, they kept the story alive by jointly penning an editorial in The Washington Post and debating and criticizing Trump’s tweets the next day on their show. Never to let the other side get the last punch, Trump has continued to tweet about Scarborough and Brzezinski, thereby giving further life to a decidedly negative story that can only hurt himself politically. For instance, he tweeted Friday and Saturday about Joe and Mika and their show, going so far as to call Brzezinski “dumb as a rock.”

Trump thinks he’s defending himself and picking up political points in the process, by putting the “liberal media” in its place. But this is extraordinarily short-sighted. His incendiary tweets, and the Morning Joe debacle in particular, come at a great cost—to him, his political standing and agenda, US institutions, and American society more generally.

So what’s the fallout of his Twitter feud with Morning Joe? Here are several things that immediately come to mind.

1. It highlights the incompetence of not only Trump, but his staff. After all, what kind of a president engages in name calling with journalists on social media? This behavior is usually observed from tweens these days; we don’t expect this from the leader of the so-called free world. As a result, it also renews speculation—as wild it may be—about his mental state and his fitness for the presidency. Additionally, Huckabee Sanders willingly defended the indefensible. In her press briefing, she defended Trump’s tweets and then placed blame on “the liberal media” for constantly criticizing Trump.

2. Attacking the media and journalists only incentivizes them to press harder on Trump regarding his shady business deals, nepotism in the White House, Russiagate, and so on, which only makes life more difficult—not easier—for him.

3. The Morning Joe tweets caused Republican and Democratic Congresspersons to unite publicly in their frustrations with Trump’s coarse rhetoric—taking this situation out of the land of partisanship. Hence, Trump suffered political blowback from the right and left.

4. Did Trump try to coerce, or even blackmail, journalists? That’s exactly what Joe and Mika stated in their Friday Morning Joe discussion of Trump’s tweets. Reportedly, Trump offered to pull some strings to scrap a sordid story on Scarborough and Brzezinski from being published in the National Enquirer. If true, this raises all sorts of questions—legal, as well as moral and ethical. Moreover, does this mean that Trump has another media outlet (besides Fox News) doing his bidding? And was he behind the infamous 2016 Enquirer story that linked Senator and then-GOP presidential contender Ted Cruz’s father to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy?

5. Why is Trump so preoccupied with domestic critics--in fact much more than with the host of complex national security threats and issues the US faces nowadays? Is it simply because he’s a narcissist? Or does he have massive political skeletons in his closet that he wishes remain hidden?

6. Trump’s comments on Brzezinski are likely another window into his thinking about women. Throughout his public life, Trump has a long history making of harsh, misogynist remarks about women—about their intellect, their looks, etc. He’s brushed them off, saying that they were largely made for entertainment purposes. That, in itself, is rather revealing. And his tweets on Mika also expose a very weird obsession with women and bleeding. This first came to light with his post-debate comments on Megyn Kelly. I’m not sure and don’t feel qualified to say what we should make of Trump’s bizarre bleeding comments. That said, I encourage you to look at two recent articles on this topic from The Atlantic and Daily Beast.

7. Trump’s persistent needling and attacking of the media only entrenches preexisting negatively held beliefs about “the liberal media” and “liberal journalists” within his base. Regardless of Trump, maybe these folks would never watch CNN or MSNBC or read The Washington Post or The New York Times. Perhaps. But Trump is ensuring that they never will. But what’s worse, he’s pushing his followers toward pro-Trump fringe outlets like Infowars and Breitbart, which only further fuels the polarization and extremism endemic in US politics today.

This post, so far, has focused only on the domestic repercussions of Trump’s rash, rude, and often vulgar tweets. The sad reality is that Trump’s tweeting also has foreign policy implications. Leftist talking heads and social media types lament that Trump’s tweets could trigger an international war. You may recall his brash, at times unprovoked, tweets on Taiwan, China, North Korea, etc. and the angry responses from officials from these countries, and so it seems there’s a grain of truth in this worry. But wars over Twitter are highly unlikely. The good news is that even if Trump is as dopey as he sometimes seems—and that’s not a given, mind you—other world leaders, by and large, aren’t, especially those in other great power nations. And they aren’t likely to go to war, expending blood and treasure and domestic political capital, over idle words on social media.

Still, that doesn’t mean that Trump’s tweets—yes, even his domestic-focused ones—don’t have a foreign policy consequences. Indeed, Nada Bakos, a former US intelligence officer, recently wrote a thorough, outstanding piece for The Washington Post on this very topic. Bakos argues that Trump’s Twitter account provides foreign actors with ample information—information that’s free, requires almost zero effort to procure, and can be accessed and analyzed in real time.

In particular, she writes: “Trump’s tweets offer plenty of material for analysis. His frequent strong statements in reaction to news coverage or events make it appear as if he lacks impulse control. In building a profile of Trump, an analyst would offer suggestions on how foreign nations could instigate stress or deescalate situations, depending on what type of influence they may want to have over the president.” Further, Trump’s Twitter reveals that he’s quick to anger, easy to flatter, and sensitive about the ongoing Russia investigations. What does this all mean? Put simply, Bakos claims, Trump is actively signaling to the world how foreign actors can gain leverage over him, and by extension the US. He’s telling the world the various pressure points—whether on policy issues or his thin-skinned personality—they can wield to their advantage.

Moreover, even banal things on Trump’s Twitter page can aid foreign actors. For instance, Bakos writes: “Analysts can glean information about Trump’s sleep patterns from the time of day or night when he tweets, showing which topics keep him up, his stress level and his state of mind. Twitter also often reveals what Trump is watching on TV and when, as well as what websites he turns to for news and analysis. Knowing this can be useful for foreign governments when they are planning media events or deciding where to try to seek coverage of their version of world events.”

This is deeply concerning. Trump is placing the US in a potentially horrible position. Not only could Trump be compromised by Russia as a result of possible shenanigans involving him and his staff, he might well be a disadvantaged and disempowered president globally because of his near-constant tweeting. Trump has created an environment in which he can be manipulated to the detriment of US national security, political, and economic interests. Even more troubling, there's no easy solution to this mess. Yes, his staffers want him to forgo his personal Twitter account and let them post as needed using the official @POTUS Twitter handle. But Trump firmly believes he receives tangible political benefits from avoiding the mainstream media and communicating directly to his millions of followers through social media. And another obstacle here is Trump's prickly, obstinate personality: he's not one to back down easily or admit defeat, even if the stakes are small, like the use of his personal Twitter account. Given these variables, it's difficult to envision him changing his Twitter habits. 

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Is Trump's Foreign Policy Anti-Obama?

Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat, recently tweeted a provocative take on Trump foreign policy. He wrote: "NATO. Paris Accords. Saudi Arabia. Cuba. Trump foreign policy has only one guiding principle: do the opposite of Obama, no matter the cost." Of course, his is a partisan take. That said, it makes for an interesting debate topic, as it does at least have the veneer of truth, right? He's only been in office a few months, yet Trump has already targeted several of Obama's key foreign policies. So, with that in mind, I asked my CWCP colleague Yohanes Sulaiman for his thoughts on Murphy's tweet. His response is below, and mine follows afterward.  

Yohanes Sulaiman: Trump as anti-Obama?

Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that he is against a lot of stuff that Obama was for, like the Paris Accords. But at the same time, Trump is basically responding to what his main constituents, those in the rust belt who voted for him, think and want politically, economically, and so on. His supporters are against trade deals and the Paris Accords, for example, because they fear both are job killers. Like it or not, that's what many people in the so-called flyover states believe.

To simply call whatever Trump does as anti-Obama risks ignoring the real and valid concerns of Trump's base and that, in turn, could hand Trump another term in 2020 on a silver platter.

Brad Nelson: At first glance, there does seem to be an anti-Obama bent to Trump's foreign policy. After all, there have been a number of shifts or reversals, on a wide range of issues, from the Obama era: climate change, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Europe (NATO/EU), and so on. I suspect there are a number of motives in play; it's not as simple as an anti-Obama reflexive impulse. Here are a few guesses.

First, Trump could genuinely believe that Obama foreign policy was misguided, that he sincerely thinks Obama was dragging the US in a wrong direction globally and regionally on security, diplomatic and economic affairs.

Second, he might seek to limit the successes and preferably damage Obama's legacy because of a personal beef with Obama. It's possible. Some say jealously is a factor: that he can’t get past the fact his predecessor was so beloved by the media and a considerable swath of the American public. Others point to personal animosity. For instance, if Trump really sees the ongoing Russiagate negative headlines and investigations as a conspiracy driven by Obama and his staff (like Susan Rice) and Obama holdovers in the US government, it would make sense that he has a big axe to grind against Obama himself. Rolling back or watering down his purported "successes,” like the Paris Accords, the opening to Cuba, the Iran nuclear deal, among other things, are viable ways to spite Obama.

Third, as you suggest, domestic politics likely play a big role here. Many of Trump’s foreign policies and policy statements—including, yes, his tweets—are supported by his core supporters. He’s simply doing what his base wants. For instance, his base wants the wall built, think they’re being ripped off on trade deals by foreign nations, want a more aggressive approach to Islamic terrorism, demand US allies and friend to do more “burden sharing,” see climate change as either a hoax or something that’s been overly dramatized by liberals, and don’t see Russia, and Putin in particular, as enemies of the US. As a result, then, Trump has a domestic political incentive to move away, more or less, from certain Obama foreign policies.

Fourth, Trump seems to have an affinity for strongmen, for autocrats, and that’s moved US foreign policy away from prizing human rights and reform, which stands in contrast to the Obama years. At one time or another, he’s complimented or praised a wide array of foreign autocrats, including al-Sisi, Putin, Kim Jong Un, Erdogan, King Salman, Duterte, Xi Jinping, just to name but a few. Now, why is this the case? Perhaps it’s because his strategic thinking is in line with realpolitik, which coldly prioritizes national security interests above mushy-headed ideals. Maybe it’s because he sees the world’s autocrats as political brothers, with whom he shares similar political beliefs and instincts. Perhaps it’s because he has business interests in some authoritarian countries, and so he feels the need to cozy up to and flatter leaders there.

What say you, CWCP readers? Is Trump simply anti-Obama, or are there other things going on here? Let us know.