Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

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.