Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

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.