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The Global Rushmore of Autocrats

Donald Trump would dearly like to add his face to Mt. Rushmore as the fifth presidential musketeer. His fireworks-and-fury extravaganza on July 3 was the next best thing. Trump’s dystopian speech was almost beside the point. Much more important was the photo op of his smirking face next to Abraham Lincoln’s.

More fitting, however, would be to carve Trump’s face into a different Rushmore altogether. This one would be located in a more appropriate badlands, like Mt. Hermon in Syria near the border with Israel. There, Donald Trump’s visage would join those of his fellow autocrats, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. To honor the illiberal locals, the stony countenances of Bashar al-Assad and Benjamin Netanyahu would make it a cozy quintet.

Let’s be frank: Jefferson and Washington are not the company that Trump keeps, despite his America First pretensions. His ideological compatriots are to be found in other countries: Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, Narendra Modi of India, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, Viktor Orban of Hungary, and so on. Alas, this global Rushmore of autocrats is becoming as crowded as a football team pressed together for a selfie.

But Putin and Xi stand out from the rest. They get pride of place because of their long records of authoritarian policies and the sheer brazenness of their recent power grabs. By comparison, Trump is the arrogant newcomer who may well not last the season, an impulsive sprinter in the marathon of geopolitics. If things go badly for Team Trump in November, America will suddenly be busy air-brushing 45 out of history and gratefully chiseling his face out of the global Rushmore.

Putin and Xi, however, are in it for the long haul.

Leader for Life

At the end of June, Russia held a referendum on a raft of constitutional changes that President Vladimir Putin proposed earlier in the year. In front of Russian voters were over 200 proposed amendments. No wonder the authorities gave Russians a full week to vote. They should have provided mandatory seminars on constitutional law as well.

Of course, the Russian government wasn’t looking to stimulate a wide-ranging discussion of governance. The Russian parliament had already approved the changes. Putin simply wanted Russian voters to rubber-stamp his nationalist-conservative remaking of his country.

At the same time, a poor turnout would not have been a good look. To guarantee what the Kremlin’s spokesman described as a “triumphant referendum on confidence” in Putin, workplaces pressured their employees to vote, and the government distributed lottery prizes. Some people managed to vote more than once. On top of that, widespread fraud was necessary to achieve the preordained positive outcome.

Instead of voting on each of the amendments, Russians had to approve or disapprove the whole package. Among the constitutional changes were declarations that marriage is only between a man and a woman, that Russians believe in God, and that the Russian constitution takes precedence over international law.

Several measures increased executive power over the ministries and the judiciary. A few sops were thrown to Putin’s core constituencies, like pensioners.

Who was going to vote against God or retirees?

But the jewel in the crown was the amendment that allows Putin to run for the presidency two more times. Given his systematic suppression of the opposition, up to and including assassination, Putin will likely be in office until he’s 84 years old. That gives him plenty of time to, depending on your perspective, make Russia great again or make Russia into Putin, Inc.

The Russian president does not dream of world domination. He has regional ambitions at best. Yet these ambitions have brought Russia into conflict with the United States over Ukraine, Syria, even outer space. And then there’s the perennial friction over Afghanistan.

Much has been made in the U.S. press about Putin offering the Taliban bounties for U.S. and coalition soldiers. It’s ugly stuff, but no uglier than what the United States was doing back in the 1980s.

Did you think that all the U.S. money going to the mujahideen was to cultivate opium poppies, run madrasas, and plan someday to bite the hand that fed them? The U.S. government was giving the Afghan “freedom fighters” guns and funds to kill Soviet soldiers, nearly 15,000 of whom died over the course of the war. The Russians have been far less effective. At most, the Taliban have killed 18 U.S. soldiers since the beginning of 2019, with perhaps a couple tied to the bounty program.

Still, it is expected that a U.S. president would protest such a direct targeting of U.S. soldiers even if he has no intention to retaliate. Instead, Donald Trump has claimed that Putin’s bounty program is a hoax. “The Russia Bounty story is just another made up by Fake News tale that is told only to damage me and the Republican Party,” Trump tweeted.

Knowing how sensitive the U.S. president and the U.S. public is to the death of U.S. soldiers overseas, Putin couldn’t resist raising the stakes in Afghanistan and making U.S. withdrawal that much more certain. Taking the United States out of the equation — reducing the transatlantic alliance, edging U.S. troops out of the Middle East, applauding Washington’s exit from various international organizations — provides Russia with greater maneuvering room to consolidate power in the Eurasian space.

Trump has dismissed pretty much every unsavory Kremlin act as a hoax, from U.S. election interference to assassinations of critics overseas. Trump cares little about Ukraine, has been lukewarm if not hostile toward U.S. sanctions against Moscow, and has consistently attempted to bring Russia back into the G8. Yet he has also undermined the most important mechanism of engagement with Russia, namely arms control treaties.

Trump’s servile approach to Putin and disengaged approach to Russia is the exact opposite of the kind of principled engagement policy that Washington should be constructing. The United States should be identifying common interests with Russia over nuclear weapons, climate, regional ceasefires, reviving the Iran nuclear deal — and at the same time criticizing Russian conduct that violates international norms.

Territory Grab

Xi Jinping has already made himself leader for life, and he didn’t need to go to the pretense of a referendum on constitutional changes. In 2018, the National People’s Congress simply removed the two-term limit on the presidency and boom: Xi can be on top ‘til he drops.

Forget about collective leadership within the Party. And certainly forget about some kind of evolution toward democracy. Under Xi, China has returned to the one-man rule of the Mao period.

So, while Putin was busy securing his future this past weekend, Xi focused instead on securing China’s future as an integrated, politically homogeneous entity. In other words, Xi moved on Hong Kong.

Hong Kong once had great economic value for Beijing as a gateway to the global economy. Now that China has all the access to the global economy that it needs and then some, Hong Kong has only symbolic value, as a former colonial territory returned to the Chinese nation in 1997. To the extent that Hong Kong remains an enclave of free-thinkers who take potshots at the Communist Party, Beijing will step by step deprive it of democracy.

On June 30, a new national security law went into effort in Hong Kong. “The new law names four offences: secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces,” Matt Ho writes in the South China Morning Post. “It also laid out new law enforcement powers and established government agencies responsible for national security. Conviction under the law includes sentences of life in prison.”

The protests that have roiled Hong Kong for the past many months, from Beijing’s point of view, violate the national security law in all four categories. So, violators may now face very long prison sentences indeed, and police have already arrested a number of people accused of violating the new law. The new law extends to virtually all aspects of society, including the schools, which now must “harmonize” their teaching with the party line in Beijing.

What’s happening in Hong Kong, however, is still a dilute version of the crackdown taking place on the Mainland. This week, the authorities in Beijing arrested Xu Zhangrun, a law professor and prominent critic of Xi Jinping. He joins other detainees, like real estate mogul Ren Zhiqiang, who was linked to an article calling Xi a “clown with no clothes on who was still determined to play emperor” and Xu Zhiyong, who called on Xi to resign for his handling of the coronavirus crisis.

Meanwhile, Beijing’s treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang province amounts to collective punishment: more than a million consigned to “reeducation camps,” children separated from their families, forced sterilization. Uyghur exiles have charged China with genocide and war crimes before the International Criminal Court.

Like Putin, Xi has aligned himself with a conservative nationalism that appeals to a large portion of the population. Unlike Putin, the Chinese leader doesn’t have to worry about approval ratings or periodic elections. He is also sitting on a far larger economy, much greater foreign currency reserves, and the means to construct an illiberal internationalism to replace the Washington consensus that has prevailed for several decades.

Moreover, there are no political alternatives on the horizon in China that could challenge Xi or his particular fusion of capitalism and nationalism.

Trump has pursued the same kind of unprincipled engagement with China as he has with Russia: flattery of the king, indifference toward human rights, and a focus on profit. Again, principled engagement requires working with China on points of common concern while pushing back against its human rights violations.

Of course, that’s not going to happen under the human rights violation that currently occupies the White House.

And Trump Makes Three

Donald Trump aspires to become leader for life like his buddies Putin and Xi, as he has “joked” on numerous occasions. He has similarly attacked the mainstays of a democratic society — the free press, independent judges, inspectors general. He has embraced the same nationalist-conservative cultural policies.

And he has branded his opponents enemies of the people. In his Rushmore speech on July 3, Trump lashed out against…

“a new far-left fascism that demands absolute allegiance. If you do not speak its language, perform its rituals, recite its mantras, and follow its commandments, then you will be censored, banished, blacklisted, persecuted, and punished. It’s not going to happen to us. Make no mistake: this left-wing cultural revolution is designed to overthrow the American Revolution. In so doing, they would destroy the very civilization that rescued billions from poverty, disease, violence, and hunger, and that lifted humanity to new heights of achievement, discovery, and progress.”

He went on to describe his crackdown on protesters, his opposition to “liberal Democrats,” his efforts to root out opposition in schools, newsrooms and “even our corporate boardrooms.” Like Putin, he sang the praises of the American family and religious values. He described an American people that stood with him and the Rushmore Four and against all those who have exercised their constitutional rights of speech and assembly.

You’d never know from the president’s diatribe that protesters were trying to overthrow not the American Revolution but the remnants of the Confederacy.

Trump’s supporters have taken to heart the president’s attacks on America’s “enemies.”

Since the protests around George Floyd’s killing began in May, there have been at least 50 cases of cars ramming into demonstrators, a favorite tactic used by white supremacists. There have been over 400 reports of press freedom violations. T. Greg Doucette, a “Never Trump” conservative lawyer, has collected over 700 videos of police misconduct, usually violent, toward peaceful demonstrators.

As I’ve written, there is no left-wing “cultural revolution” sweeping the United States. It is Donald Trump who is hoping to unleash a cultural revolution carried out by a mob of violent backlashers who revere the Confederate flag, white supremacy, and the Mussolini-like president who looks out upon all the American carnage from his perch on the global Rushmore of autocrats.

FPIF, July 8, 2020

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Is It Time to Boycott the United States?

In his infinite ignorance, Donald Trump has invited world leaders to the White House for a face-to-face meeting at the end of June.

Unlike the other countries in the G7, the United States has yet to get the coronavirus pandemic under control. One of the hotspots that the White House itself has identified is none other than Washington, DC. And because of a poorly implemented re-opening of the economy, the American South is already beginning to experience a second wave of infections — in parts of Florida, Alabama, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Texas – that will gather force by the end of June because Trump refuses to consider another lockdown.

Meanwhile, the president himself is reluctant to practice social distancing or even don a mask: “Wearing a face mask as I greet presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens — I just don’t see it,” he said back in April. He peddles snake-oil treatments for COVID-19 that, incredibly, he swallows himself. The virus has already penetrated his inner sanctum.

As if that’s not bad enough, I wouldn’t put it past Trump to add three stops on a G7 itinerary — a nursing home, a prison, and a meat-packing plant — just to demonstrate that the United States is open for business (or to infect the world leaders that he has always despised).

Aside from French President Emanuel Macron, these world leaders have not jumped at the chance to set foot in the global epicenter of the pandemic. Naturally, they’re concerned about their own health.

Really they should be concerned about the health of American democracy. Instead of giving Donald Trump the legitimacy on the world stage that he so desperately craves, the leaders of the other G7 nations should be considering a boycott of the United States. They should threaten to sanction America as well, for that is the only language Trump understands.

The G7 has done it before — with Russia. In March 2014, after it annexed Crimea, Russia was indefinitely expelled from what was then the G8. The United States, the European Union, and several other countries also imposed economic sanctions on Moscow because of its actions in Ukraine. Most of those sanctions are still in place.

Trump hasn’t invaded and annexed any foreign territory, though he’s been eying Greenland for some time now. But under Trump, the United States has violated several international laws, unraveled numerous international agreements, and trampled on one democratic institution after another at home. He is a rogue president in a rogue party presiding over a rogue power.

As the president attempts to extend his reign of error to a second term, the international community should consider sending a message to the American people: Donald Trump is an illegitimate leader who is a threat to the planet. Mere criticism of the United States is not enough. The G7 should get the ball rolling by refusing to meet with Trump, in Washington or anywhere else.

I anticipate the Twitter backlash: Isn’t it unpatriotic for Americans to call for a boycott of their own country?

Quite the contrary. It’s proof of just how far patriotic Americans are willing to go to save our country and stop the violations of international law.

Violations at the Border

In one of the first acts of his administration, Trump issued a ban on travel to the United States from seven countries, all of them predominantly Muslim.

Federal courts almost immediately blocked the executive order. Trump reissued an almost identical travel ban. The courts blocked him a second time. Trump tried a third time, throwing in North Korea and Venezuela to obscure the intention of the order. Although the federal court system again blocked the Muslim ban, the Supreme Court allowed the administration to implement the policy as it reviewed the case. In June 2018, the Supreme Court upheld the ban 5-4.

Although the Supreme Court has decided by a slim margin that Trump’s action is legal in the U.S. context, his Muslim travel ban remains a violation of international law. It flouts all the UN conventions against discrimination, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It also violates the Refugee Convention. Imagine the uproar if a country promoted a Christian travel ban. The United States would be first in line to apply sanctions.

But the Muslim travel ban was just the first volley in the administration’s attack on border crossers and international law.

Within a few months of taking office, the Trump administration began to tear apart migrant families. Before the courts could intervene, over 4,000 children were separated from their parents. Even worse, the administration did not track these family separations, so it couldn’t guarantee that children could reunite with their families. Even when a judge blocked the policy in June 2018, the administration continued its “zero-tolerance” policy, simply under a different name, and separated another 1,100 children from their families.

This is not just a violation of international law. It’s a moral outrage.

It’s gotten even worse. During the pandemic crisis, the administration has violated U.S. anti-trafficking laws by expelling hundreds of young people from the country. Write Nomaan Merchant and Sonia Perez in The Washington Post:

Under a 2008 anti-trafficking law and a federal court settlement known as the Flores agreement, children from countries other than Canada and Mexico must have access to legal counsel and cannot be immediately deported. They are also supposed to be released to family in the U.S. or otherwise held in the least restrictive setting possible. The rules are intended to prevent children from being mistreated or falling into the hands of criminals. 

Even before the pandemic hit, the administration was violating non-refoulement laws. In July 2019, the administration changed its asylum policies to force the desperate to apply for asylum in a third country before reaching the United States.

The result has been the wholesale rejection of asylum claims. Only 1 percent of applicants under the Migrant Protection Protocols had been granted asylum through the end of January, and only two people have been granted refuge since March. According to the principle of non-refoulement, asylum-seekers can’t be returned to countries where they might face persecution.

The July 2019 action was only the latest barrier the administration has placed before asylum-seekers, all of which constitute violations of the non-refoulement principle. In November 2018, Trump attempted to block all asylum seekers from entering the United States through Mexico. A federal court ruled the policy illegal and prevented him from doing so.

This March, the administration tried again, using the pandemic as a new rationale. It generated pushback, but the administration shut down the possibility of asylum anyway. And it has started sending asylum-seekers back as part of the “Remain in Mexico” program.

Taken together, the Trump policies on immigration, refugee, and asylum policies are a massive affront to decades of patiently constructed international laws.

Targeted Assassination

So many people have been assassinated by U.S. drones that Americans have become dangerously inured to this violation of international law.

The Obama administration was responsible for the expansion of this program. But Trump has expanded even on Obama’s expansion. Worse, according to a new policy implemented last year, the administration no longer reports on the number of drone strikes and resulting civilian casualties outside of active warzones, which include Pakistan and Somalia.

Whether these drone strikes constitute a violation of international law hinges on whether they represent assassination, which is illegal, or lawful targeting in armed conflict. If the latter, they are permissible if done in self-defense or as approved by the United Nations. According to these standards, administration officials argue that the drone strikes the United States conducts in a warzone — for example, Afghanistan — are indistinguishable from more conventional aerial bombing.

But because so many U.S. drone strikes take place outside war zones where the United States is a declared combatant, international law experts like Philip Alston, former UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killing, have concluded that they often violate international law. Alston was particularly concerned about the CIA’s role in conducting drone strikes, which the Obama administration eventually scaled back after steadily increasing them. Trump, however, has reversed Obama’s policy.

Most of Trump’s drone strikes have been quiet and anonymous, at least so far as the U.S. media is concerned. The targets have also been, for the most part, non-state actors, so-called terrorists. The assassination in January of Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, was a different matter. He was a representative of a state with which the United States is not at war. The Trump administration might consider him a “terrorist.” But according to international law, the drone strike that killed him was an assassination, no different than if a U.S. attack had taken out Iran’s president.

The Trump administration claimed that the strike was done in “self-defense,” that Soleimani was planning an attack or attacks on U.S. targets. But it did not furnish any real proof of these imminent attacks. Soleimani’s past record, however noxious, does not constitute sufficient legal rationale for assassination.

Other Trump administration military actions have also violated international law, such as the 59 Tomahawk missiles it rained down on Syria in April 2017. The administration didn’t even bother to seek UN authorization. Nor did it do so a year later when it launched another missile attack on Syria in response to the government’s alleged use of chemical weapons.

The Trump administration could have argued that it was protecting a civilian population from extermination. But the missile attack came before a fact-finding mission could determine whether chemical weapons had been used. In any case, neither then nor subsequently has the Trump administration seemed to care much about protecting the lives of Syrian civilians.

But these Syrian attacks point to another reason to boycott the United States: the Trump administration’s fundamental disregard for international institutions and agreements.

International Agreements Sundered

The Trump administration has been gradually ripping up the international arms control regime that has been in place for decades.

First, it stepped away from the Iran nuclear agreement, which blocked the country’s path to acquiring nuclear weapons. Last year, it withdrew from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Agreement, a high point of U.S.-Russian efforts at arms limitation. And then, last week, it announced it would no longer participate in the Open Skies agreement, another landmark achievement to prevent accidental war that was negotiated in 1992.

Meanwhile, Trump wants to resume testing nuclear weapons, something that hasn’t happened in nearly 30 years. Technically, because the United States is not party to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), Trump’s action would not violate an international agreement. But if the United States were to go ahead with a test, it would put enormous stress on the CTBT, which 184 nations have signed.

The administration’s arms control policy has become positively Orwellian. Trump’s arms control envoy Marshall Billingslea, for instance, seems to believe mistakenly that he was appointed head of the Pentagon. “We know how to win these [arms] races and we know how to spend the adversary into oblivion,” he said in a recent videoconference. What part of “control” does he not understand?

In addition to abandoning arms control, the Trump administration has hindered efforts to control carbon emissions by trashing the Paris climate accord. It has withdrawn from the UN Human Rights Council. It quit UNESCO. It has threatened to leave the World Health Organization and the World Trade Organization.

So, at what point does the international community decide that it has been attacked enough to strike back in self-defense? A boycott and economic sanctions seem more than justified given these three areas of violations: international human rights law, the laws governing the use of force, and the deliberate destruction of international agreements and institutions.

The Downsides of Boycott?

Okay, so what if the Trump administration deserves to be boycotted. That doesn’t mean that it’s strategically wise to do so.

After all, if all the globalists gang up on Trump, won’t that create a rally-around-the-president effect just in time for the November election? The very tactic designed to delegitimate Trump might end up boosting his reelection prospects.

Then there’s the perennial problem that name-and-shame tactics often don’t work with people or countries that refuse to be shamed. Virtually the entire international community agrees that the human rights situation in North Korea is abysmal. But the North Korean state doesn’t really care about the reputational damage it suffers as a result of all the official protests, UN inquiries, and grassroots campaigns. Trump seems to be similarly unshameable.

Finally, there is the challenge of collective action. The United States, despite its current difficulties, remains a powerful global actor. It’s not easy to pull together a coalition in the face of an administration determined to make deals with specific countries to destroy the unanimity required to implement a boycott and sanctions.

The first two counter-arguments are unpersuasive. At this point, nothing the international community can do will significantly alter Trump’s approval ratings. He has played his nationalism card so many times that the gambit can no longer win fresh converts. But there are still some independents and perhaps even some Republicans who would be swayed if the rest of the G7 censured the United States. These swing voters might still feel shame, too, if the international community repeatedly broadcasts the administration’s multiple violations of international law.

But let’s face it, the collective action problem is probably insurmountable. The G7 nations don’t have the guts to stand up to the United States. Trump acts with impunity, and they appease him. Thanks to the Chamberlains of the world, Trump has celebrated a Munich practically every day of his administration.

So, it’s up to popular movements to challenge Trump’s illegal actions and the international community’s appeasement of them. In developing a Boycott, Divest, Sanction campaign against the Trump administration, activists can take inspiration from the groups that worked with South Africans in the 1980s to bring down their apartheid regime.

I know, I know: everyone is hoping that Americans will solve this problem ourselves in November. But that might not happen.

So, people of the world, you’d better build your BDS box, paint “Break Glass in Case of Emergency” on the front, and stand next to it on November 3. If Trump wins on Election Day, it will be mourning in America. But let’s hope that the world doesn’t mourn: it organizes.

Foreign Policy In Focus, May 27, 2020

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Afghanistan: Out of the Graveyard and into the Pyre?

Afghanistan has long been touted as the “graveyard of empires.” The British and the Soviets certainly discovered that lesson to their great regret. Perhaps future historians will judge the failure of the United States to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan over a two-decade period as a critical factor in the loss of American hegemony as well. If so, these historians will no doubt chuckle at the irony of Mr. Make America Great Again throwing the last shovelful of dirt on the grave.

After all, the Trump administration is working hard to negotiate a deal to end America’s longest military engagement. If the two sides can agree, Washington will withdraw nearly half of the contingent of 14,000 U.S. troops as long as the Taliban renounces al-Qaeda and similar groups, adheres to a ceasefire, and sits down with the Afghan government to discuss power-sharing.

So what if Trump wants a troop drawdown only so that he can tell voters that he is ending America’s “forever wars” before the 2020 election? Ending a war is ending a war.

As with the North Korea negotiations, however, U.S. critics are worried that Trump will make one-sided concessions in his eagerness to achieve the semblance of a foreign-policy win. In their worst-case scenario, the Taliban will use any ceasefire to press its advantages – on the ground and then politically – to overrun the country and reestablish their medieval rule.

Those concerns are premature, to say the least. The current deal doesn’t look anything like the end of the Vietnam War, for instance, when helicopters evacuated U.S. personnel from the rooftop of the U.S. embassy in Saigon as the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong prepared to take over. If the preliminary details hold true, the United States would still keep 8,000-9,000 troops in Afghanistan, which is more or less the number of soldiers deployed there when Trump took office. So, “withdrawal” is something of a misnomer. Also, the U.S. military would likely continue to operate out of several bases, including Bagram, Kandahar, and several in and around Kabul, in order to preserve U.S. air power.

The United States continues to conduct drone strikes in Afghanistan. Indeed, a recent UN report indicates that these aerial attacks are largely responsible for the significant uptick in civilian casualties so far this year. The Trump administration no doubt wants to preserve its capacity to conduct such strikes so that, if the president changes his mind about seeking an end to the war, it can turn around and pound the Taliban from the air just like it did to the Islamic State.

Remember: Trump dropped the “mother of all bombs” – the most powerful conventional ordnance – in Afghanistan back in 2017. The president has a fondness for “fire and fury.” Trump said this week: “We could win Afghanistan in two days or three days or four days if we wanted. But I’m not looking to kill 10 million people.” He didn’t specify how many people he might be willing to kill in order to “win” in Afghanistan.

If Trump does follow through on his determination to at least reduce the U.S. military footprint in Afghanistan, he would be attempting to put out one fire even as he stokes several more. In fact, the president is pushing ahead with provocative moves on both the nuclear weapons and trade fronts that may have implications far greater than any deal currently on the table with the Taliban.

The China Quagmire

In a column this week in The New York Times, economist Paul Krugman compares the Trump administration’s trade conflicts to a classic quagmire, no different from the wars in Vietnam or Afghanistan.

Trump’s trade war is looking more and more like a classic policy quagmire. It’s not working — that is, it isn’t at all delivering the results Trump wants. But he’s even less willing than the average politician to admit to a mistake, so he keeps doing even more of what’s not working. And if you extrapolate based on that insight, the implications for the U.S. and world economies are starting to get pretty scary.

This week, the Trump administration imposed tariffs on Chinese imports to the United States worth approximately $300 billion. It also declared China to be a currency manipulator. The announcements led to a significant drop in the stock market, as investors worry that a trade war between Washington and Beijing could precipitate a global economic downturn.

Although investors were reportedly “blindsided” by Trump’s move, they shouldn’t have been. The president has been threatening to impose these additional tariffs for some months. And late in July, the administration upped the pressure on the World Trade Organization to remove China’s “developing nation” status. Meanwhile, as I explained in a cover story for The Nation a couple months back, the consensus of opinion among China experts in the United States now favors a more aggressive response to Beijing, which provides Trump with elite cover for his moves.

While Wall Street worries, Main Street braces for the impact of the new policies. U.S. farmers will suffer in particular, and none more so than the soybean growers who have relied on Chinese purchases for over $11 billion in revenues annually. Last year, Chinese soybean purchases dropped by an astonishing 75 percent. The Trump administration has promised billions of dollars more in bailouts to keep American farmers afloat (more to the point: to secure the farm vote for the 2020 elections). But temporary government subsidies are not going to cut it if the trade war becomes semi-permanent as China switches to other suppliers for its agricultural and manufacturing needs.

It’s not just farmers and manufacturers who pay. Ordinary consumers will have to pony up more at the checkout counter. This is, in effect, a hidden tax on Americans that they’ll invariably blame on China and other countries rather than on the Trump administration.

China is not the Taliban. It won’t be cowed by Trump’s rhetoric or his aggressive trade moves. Beijing allowed its currency to plummet in order to make its exports more competitive, which will squeeze U.S. products out of foreign markets. It’s digging in for the long haul, and it has the resources to do so. The Chinese government has many more levers at its disposal to adjust monetary and fiscal policy to weather this storm. And unlike Trump, Xi Jinping doesn’t have to worry that he’ll be voted out of office.

As Krugman explains, the tariffs are not even accomplishing Trump’s goals. The trade deficit is growing larger, and U.S. exports are actually shrinking. Tariffs are probably the worst possible tactic for boosting U.S. trade and addressing ongoing disagreements with Beijing. Not only are they ineffective in the short term, they have the potential to drag the global economy into a depression much deeper than the financial crisis of 2008.

More Nuclear Escalation?

The Obama administration negotiated a nuclear deal with Iran in 2015. It pushed through the New START treaty with Russia in 2010 (though, to get the treaty through the Senate, the administration had to commit to an expensive and entirely unnecessary modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal). And Obama was the first president to embrace the goal of complete nuclear disarmament (as opposed to mere arms control).

Trump, by contrast, seems to have fallen in love with nuclear weapons. He has pushed for an increasein the nuclear weapons budget that will mean an additional $100 billion over the next 10 years over and above what the Obama administration had planned. He plans to test some new nuclear-capable missiles, including a low-yield submarine-launched ballistic missile a new nuclear submarine-launched cruise missile.

But the most dangerous development is the U.S. withdrawal from the Intermediate Nuclear Force treaty, which the administration finalized last week. I described this projected development a couple months ago, but I probably underestimated the potential negative consequences.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has declared that his country is prepared to go head-to-head with the United States in a new nuclear arms race. Now that the INF restrictions have disappeared, Putin has pledged to build short-range and intermediate-range nuclear missiles to match anything Trump develops.

At the same time, the U.S. insistence on missile defense has pushed Russia and China in particular to develop measures to bypass this so-called shield in order to preserve their deterrent capabilities. As Alex Wellerstein writes in Quartz:

The US military is well-aware of these foreign developments and is somewhat giddy at the prospect of funding its own projects to “keep up” with them, even though they’re the cause for race in the first place. But it’s not just about legit defense: The tit-for-tat nature of this kind of technological development means new toys, more tax-payer money, and—importantly—more prestige.

As part of this escalation, the Trump administration is committed to developing more “usable” nuclear weapons – which of course increases the risk of a conventional conflict turning into a devastating nuclear exchange.

Addicted to War

The Trump administration favors a war of all against all. That’s obvious from its response to the mass shootings in the United States. Rather than support gun control measures, the administration has backed the NRA line: more guns for teachers in schools, more guns for the average person to take out the “bad guys” on the street, more military-grade firepower for local police.

Similarly, the Trump administration has come out shooting in trade relations, most disastrously with China but also with allies like Canada and Mexico. And it has reopened an arms race around nuclear weapons that should have been shut down once and for all at the end of the Cold War. These policies threaten to drag the United States and the world backward: to the heyday of U.S.-Soviet rivalry in the first case and to the days of tariff escalation of the 1920s in the second. If only one of these happens, it will be a disaster. If both happen, it will be a catastrophe.

Ending the war in Afghanistan is indeed a noble goal. But even if does happen, it would qualify as only a minor accomplishment in comparison to the escalating trade war and the new nuclear arms race. It would be like putting out a little brushfire in your backyard when a massive forest fire approaches from the other direction. And given the terms of the latest deal on the table, the brushfire will continue to burn, though perhaps at a less dangerous level.

Meanwhile, even if you can’t actually see the forest fire approaching, you can at least smell the smoke and hear the distant crackle of flames. It’s an entirely avoidable conflagration. The president who claims to be saving the United States is out there patrolling the firebreak, but with lighter fluid in hand.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, August 7, 2019

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Articles Featured Security

A Farewell to Arms Control?

My first trip to Washington, DC to do something other than protest on the streets was to interview for a Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellowship, which brings young people to the nation’s capital to work on arms control and disarmament.

It was 1987, around the time that Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Agreement. The INF treaty committed the United States and the Soviet Union to eliminate nuclear weapons for the first time on a large scale (over 2,500 of them by 1991). It was a high point for the arms control movement.

To get to the interview stage, however, I wrote an application essay about the flaws of arms control agreements — that they provided a false sense of accomplishment, that they capped the number of nuclear weapons but rarely reduced them, that they accepted the “logic” of mutually assured destruction, that they reinforced the privileges of the nuclear club, and so on.

Arms control was conventionally thought of as the path toward disarmament. I made the case instead that arms control was a detour around disarmament.

When I walked into the room for my interview, I found myself facing a dozen of the leading arms control advocates in the country. I’d anticipated a one-on-one discussion, not a full court of inquisition. They understandably grilled me about my arguments and looked universally dissatisfied with my answers. Yet, in the end, they gave me a fellowship, perhaps for the same reason that Antonin Scalia liked to employ one liberal Supreme Court clerk — to have a dissenter close at hand to sharpen arguments. I did my fellowship at Nuclear Times magazine, a periodical devoted to scrapping nuclear weapons rather than merely controlling their production.

Nuclear Times folded long ago. Now the INF agreement, after both the United States and Russia suspended their compliance this February, is effectively dead too. Led by National Security Advisor John Bolton, an inveterate opponent of arms control, the Trump administration has taken aim at a wide range of efforts to control the production and proliferation of weapons, from the Iran nuclear deal to the Arms Trade Treaty that the president just savaged in front of a group of cheering National Rifle Association members.

And yet, Trump has also said, just this week, that he wants to get rid of all nuclear weapons. So, is it time to write an epitaph for arms control and herald a new age of disarmament?

The Swerve

Since my time at Nuclear Times, two major events contributed to pushing some otherwise conservative policy makers away from arms control and towards actual disarmament.

The first development was the collapse of the Soviet Union. The number of nuclear weapons in the world peaked the year before my Washington interview at just over 70,000. The end of the Cold War spurred a reduction to under 14,000 today.

Also, in 1991, Democrat Sam Nunn and Republican Richard Lugar teamed up to create a groundbreaking piece of legislation, the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program, later dubbed the Nunn-Lugar Act. It provided U.S. funds to decommission weapons of mass destruction in the former Soviet states. Among other results of the program, the new states of Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus became the first countries in history to abandon their nuclear weapons.

But attempts to negotiate a new set of arms control treaties with Russia have run up against a number of obstacles, from the intransigence of congressional hawks to Russia’s seizure of Crimea and involvement in the civil war in Ukraine. Over the years, Congress has chipped away at the funding for CTR. And Richard Lugar died this weekend, the passing of one of the last moderate Republicans committed to a cooperative U.S. relationship with the world.

The other half of Nunn-Lugar, meanwhile, has been part of the second major development: the response to global terrorism.

In 2007, Sam Nunn joined Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, and William Perry to author a series of op-eds in The Wall Street Journal urging the foreign policy establishment to embrace not just arms control, but disarmament. They expressed concern about states like North Korea and Iran acquiring nuclear weapons and disrupting the tenuous balance of nuclear power. But they reserved most of their anxiety for scenarios in which non-state actors acquired nukes:

In today’s war waged on world order by terrorists, nuclear weapons are the ultimate means of mass devastation. And non-state terrorist groups with nuclear weapons are conceptually outside the bounds of a deterrent strategy and present difficult new security challenges.

The United States built an arsenal of nuclear weapons to preserve and extend its global dominance. But now, in a perverse development, nukes threatened that dominance. So, the lions of U.S. foreign policy had decided that they must go. No longer convinced that nukes kept the peace, they pushed for a world free of these weapons of mass destruction.

Two years later, clearly influenced by these arguments, President Barack Obama gave a speech in Prague announcing for the first time that the United States was committed to nuclear disarmament. He outlined a number of steps toward that goal: a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Moscow, U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, a fissile material cut-off treaty, a strengthened Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and so on. It was an impressive to-do list, but alas this agenda remains unrealized.

The nuclear stand-off of the Cold War was predicated on predictability. The United States and Soviet Union wouldn’t launch a first strike because of the near certainty that the other side would then engage in massive retaliation. But the end of the Cold War and the possibility that nuclear material would fall into the hands of unpredictable actors changed the nuclear calculus.

Then, to complicate matters further, along came the most unpredictable element of all: Donald Trump.

The Trump Paradox

As the self-professed king of negotiators, Donald Trump used to boast of his ability to solve the nuclear impasse if only the U.S. government would appoint him as special emissary to the Soviet Union. Within an hour of meeting Gorbachev, Trump told Nobel Peace Prize winner Bernard Lown, he could end the Cold War. In an article for The New York Times in 1984, journalist William Geist wrote:

The idea that he would ever be allowed to get into a room alone and negotiate for the United States, let alone be successful in disarming the world, seems the naive musing of an optimistic, deluded young man who has never lost at anything he has tried. But he believes that through years of making his views known and through supporting candidates who share his views, it could someday happen.

Young no more and now in a powerful political position, Trump still holds on to this illusion. But to achieve his ambition of personally disarming the world, Trump believes that first he has to get rid of all the poorly negotiated efforts of his predecessors. In this endeavor he is aided by Bolton, who has made it his personal mission to torpedo every arms control treaty that he can bring within his sights.

That’s why the Trump administration seems to be all over the map on arms control. On the one hand, the president has withdrawn from the nuclear deal with Iran and pulled out of one of the last remaining arms control agreements with Russia, the aforementioned INF treaty.

Then, last week, he announced that he would unsign the Arms Trade Treaty, which the Obama administration supported and which imposes a number of important restrictions on the sale and transfer of armaments across borders. The Senate has yet to ratify the treaty. Over 100 nations have both signed and ratified the ATT, and it went into effect in 2014. Trump, by denigrating the ATT, has thrown the United States into the same camp of opposition as North Korea, Iran, China, and Russia.

On the other hand, Trump also declared last week:

Between Russia and China and us, we’re all making hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of weapons, including nuclear, which is ridiculous. And I would say that China will come along, and I would say Russia will come along. It doesn’t really make sense that we’re doing this.

The president has thus instructed officials to prepare for big agreements on nuclear weapons with both Russia and China.

To get from here (dangerous) to there (disarmament), Trump has to follow some pretty obvious steps, points out David Wright, of the Union of Concerned Scientists. These include a new treaty on strategic nuclear weapons with Russia, reentry into the INF Treaty, scaling back on missile defense, and kicking Bolton out of his administration. So far, Trump has expressed zero interest in making any of these moves.

When it comes to any kind of large-scale arms control treaty with Russia and/or China, as Daryl Kimball writes in Arms Control Today, the administration has “no plan, strategy, or capacity to negotiate such a far-reaching deal. Even if it did, negotiations would likely take years.” Kimball suspects that the administration has an entirely different goal in mind: to load the arms-control agenda with so many big asks that it makes future deals, like a new strategic treaty with Russia, untenable. Kimball continues:

If in the coming weeks, however, Team Trump suggests China must join New START or that Russia must agree to limits on tactical nuclear weapons as a condition for its extension, that should be recognized as a disingenuous poison pill designed to create a pretext for killing New START.

Trump will soon come to the same realization on arms control that he did on health care: “Nobody knew [it] could be so complicated.”

Of course, everyone knew that health care — and arms control — could be so complicated. Only Trump believes that he alone, though force of will, can substitute for the patient and informed diplomacy of hundreds of experts. As with his efforts to negotiate with North Korea, once he bumps up against the complexity of the situation, Trump will hand over responsibility for the details to his aides — and that means that Bolton will have a free hand to block any progress in talks with Russia and China.

Since 1987, the logic of arms control has changed. Because of the end of the Cold War, arms control agreements have led to dramatic reductions in nuclear forces and the prevention of states like Iran from becoming nuclear powers. The threat of nuclear material falling into the hands of non-state actors, meanwhile, has shifted the consensus away from deterrence and toward disarmament. Arms control is now clearly part of the solution, not part of the problem.

So, I’ve changed my mind about arms control being a detour around disarmament. Arms control has become more important than ever before, given that a new nuclear arms race beckons.

The United States, China, Russia are all modernizing their arsenals. Key arms control treaties, like the INF, no longer serve as checks on weapon development and deployment. Important initiatives like the Comprehensive Test Ban treaty can’t go forward without U.S. support. The nuclear club refuses to sign the new treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons. And John Bolton is on the loose, like a fox bent on killing off every inhabitant of the henhouse.

So, it isn’t just Donald Trump who has a paradoxical attitude toward nuclear weapons. The world as a whole has never been closer to consensus on the need for disarmament. And yet it’s also never been further away, in a practical sense, from following the necessary steps to achieving global zero.

Perhaps, however, this is only a temporary paradox. Let’s hope that the Trump administration proves to be the detour on the path to finally bidding farewell to nuclear arms.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, May 1, 2019

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Articles Featured US Foreign Policy

Bolton and the Troika of Tyranny

If you’re in the market for a troika of tyranny, Donald Trump, John Bolton, and Mike Pompeo certainly fit the bill. Or, if you’d rather focus on countries not individuals, you might single out Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt as the three most likely candidates. Perhaps, if you’re in a confessional mood, how about Christian fundamentalism, Jewish extremism, and Salafist Wahhabism?

A troika, for those who haven’t read any 19th-century Russian novels recently, is a carriage drawn by three horses. So, the ultimate troika of tyranny, from the point of view of the planet as a whole, would feature the three horsemen of the ongoing apocalypse: climate change, nuclear proliferation, and global pandemic.

But no, that’s not what National Security Advisor John Bolton had in mind when he talked last week of a “troika of tyranny.” In a rehash of a speech he gave in November in Miami, Bolton declared last week that the “troika of tyranny — Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua — is beginning to crumble.” Further laying on the insults, Bolton called Cuba’s Miguel Díaz-Canel, Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega “the three stooges of socialism.”

Ever since George W. Bush included Iraq, Iran, and North Korea in an “axis of evil,” speechmakers have been in search of the holy grail of geopolitical matchmaking (for instance, Condoleezza Rice’s “outposts of tyranny”).

Bush’s phrase, which proved so enduring, was an extraordinarily flawed piece of work. The three countries he grouped together had little to no relationship at the time. Iraq and Iran had fought a nearly decade-long war that left them bitter regional rivals. North Korea, which has no ideological affinity to either country, was probably included in the list so that it didn’t appear anti-Islamic. This particular axis didn’t have a leg to stand on.

Bolton’s more alliterative phrase suffers from the same conceptual problems. Worse, it revives an anti-Communist crusade that could easily expand to include North Korea, China, and any left-leaning country (New Zealand?) that makes the mistake of looking at Bolton funny.

A New Monroe Doctrine?

Trump understands the world in terms of three types of leaders. There are the autocrats he like. There are the autocrats he doesn’t like. And then there are all the rest: the democrats he doesn’t respect.

Cuban leader Miguel Díaz-Canel is one of those autocrats that Trump doesn’t like. It’s not Díaz-Canel’s ideology that rubs the American president the wrong way. After all, Trump has no problem praising China’s Xi Jinping or falling in love with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. Rather, Cuba made the unpardonable error of negotiating a détente with Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama. So, by the logic of the Trump administration, Cuba is guilty by association.

Over the last two-plus years, Trump has rolled back the elements of the agreements that the Obama administration negotiated with Cuba that culminated in diplomatic recognition in July 2015. The Trump administration has restricted travel to the country, the amount of money that Cubans in America can remit to their families back home, and the deals that U.S. businesses can negotiate with Cuban counterparts. Also, the administration will now allow U.S. entities to file lawsuits against foreign companies operating on property appropriated by the state after the 1959 revolution.

The Obama policy was all about nudging Cuba in a particular direction. More people-to-people contact would increase the free flow of information. More business deals would encourage the growth of market activities. Meanwhile, unrestricted remittances would help Cubans deal with the myriad difficulties of everyday life.

The Trump administration isn’t interested in nudging Cuba in a particular direction. Its punitive measures are designed to encourage regime change, pure and simple. The decision to allow lawsuits to go forward is aimed at scaring off European investors in particular who’ve been operating in Cuba despite decades of U.S. sanctions and embargo. In response, Spain wants the EU to challenge the new U.S. policy at the World Trade Organization.

Bolton never liked Cuba. When he was undersecretary of state for arms control in the George W. Bush administration, Bolton accused the country of making biological weapons. This accusation came only two months after Bush had inaugurated the “axis of evil,” and Bolton was eager to shoehorn Cuba into the new group. But his efforts to designate the Caribbean island a “terrorist threat” — and prepare the ground for yet another U.S. invasion — foundered when a congressional investigation turned up no evidence of a biological weapons program in the country.

Now Bolton is excited to have a second chance to group Cuba with two other countries that have fallen afoul of the United States: Venezuela and Nicaragua.

Like the original members of the “axis of evil,” they don’t have much in common with one another. Cuba is avowedly Marxist in orientation, with a Third World agrarian spin. Venezuela, on the other hand, is a corrupt petro-state led by a leader who calls himself socialist but is really just a klutzy kleptocrat. Then there’s Daniel Ortega, who was once a socialist revolutionary but has transformed himself into a Catholic dictator along the lines of Francisco Franco.

None of these countries poses even the remotest threat to the United States. They have dismal human rights records, but that hasn’t been a concern for the Trump administration anywhere else in the world.

So, why is Bolton bothering to waste his rhetorical flourishes on the trio? The national security advisor claims that Cuba is propping up Maduro. He hints that Ortega’s days are numbered. Is Bolton campaigning to revive what had once been the traditional U.S. approach to Latin America: invasion, occupation, regime change?

After all, his most recent “troika of tyranny” speech was timed to coincide with the anniversary of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba on April 17, 1961. And the audience for his speech was similarly chosen with care: the Bay of Pigs Veterans Association.

When it comes to Bolton, war is always a possibility pretty much anywhere in the world. But with the Trump administration focusing most of its wrath against Iran, the “troika of tyranny” speech is probably not the opening salvo of a new, hyper-militarist Monroe Doctrine.

Bolton likely has a longer game plan in mind.

Expanding the Troika

You can almost see the lips beneath the walrus moustache purse in displeasure when Donald Trump shakes hands with Xi Jinping, murmurs sweet nothings to Kim Jong Un, and has quiet confabs with Vladimir Putin.

John Bolton has never concealed his profound antipathy to the current government in North Korea. He wants to rewrite the one-China policy and is willing to use military force against Beijing as part of that effort. As for Russia, Bolton believes that Putin is a liar and Moscow represents a serious long-term strategic threat to the United States.

This, then, is the shadow “troika of tyranny” that John Bolton would roll out in a speech if only Donald Trump’s personal predilections didn’t get in the way.

But that isn’t stopping the national security advisor from carefully preparing the ground to do just that as soon as Trump gets frustrated with Kim, Xi, and/or Putin.

Toward that end, Bolton carefully chose “troika” for his phrase: a Russian word that can later be repurposed to suggest that Moscow is in fact at the root of these problems. And Bolton is hammering away at the “socialist-communist” nature of the three Latin American countries, which will prove enormously useful later on when expanding the troika to include North Korea and China.

In the end, Bolton is after nothing short of a new Cold War.

Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua are small countries with no desire or means to attack the United States. North Korea with its nuclear weapons, China with the world’s second largest military, and Russia with its geopolitical ambitions, on the other hand, are much worthier adversaries.

Prolonged conflict with these three will keep militarists like Bolton in business for decades. As importantly, Bolton can use these larger confrontations to unravel all international institutions, all forms of international cooperation, in fact anything that smacks of an international community.

With all eyes focused these days on Trump and his myriad crimes, John Bolton’s speeches are a reminder that even worse options are waiting in the wings.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, April 24, 2019

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Articles Asia Featured

The World’s Most Dangerous Divide

In the beautiful and terrifying novel The City of Devi, communal hatreds escalate in India and Pakistan until the two countries feel compelled to threaten each other with nuclear weapons. At least, it starts out as a threat. Pakistan vows to take out Mumbai, and India will level Karachi. But everyone involved knows that nuclear war doesn’t really work that way.

“Nuclear bombs are like potato chips,” the author Manil Suri writes, “nobody can stop at just one. Every scenario predicts that a country under attack will launch all its weapons at once to avoid losing them.”

The populations of the two cities panic. A great exodus takes place as residents flee by car, by train, even by foot, and the wealthy try to snag the last berths on the outgoing ships. A woman and a man traverse this chaos in search of the object of their affections: it’s love in the soon-to-be-ruins. They hope against hope that the bombs won’t fall. And then an accident happens, as they so often do, and Pakistan mistakenly launches one missile at Mumbai. And India retaliates with four strikes on Karachi.

One of the characters in the novel, Mr. Cheerio, assesses the damage from some faraway perch via short-wave radio:

You might think me cold-blooded, but this is one of the best possible outcomes in terms of human cost. Only one or two cities struck, and that too almost empty — can you imagine the miniscule probability? There was bound to be an exchange, either now or in the future — things had gone too far. Every war-game simulation I’ve ever seen predicted results more final, more unthinkable, than how this seems to have played out.

Manil Suri is a mathematician, as well as a novelist, so he knows about probabilities. The devastation wrought by the nuclear exchange in The City of Devi is terrible — the incineration, the radiation, the environmental damage. But a roll of the nuclear dice could have produced much worse.

Those worse-case scenarios are what India and Pakistan — and the rest of the world — have been recently contemplating. After all, the most likely locus of nuclear war is not on the Korean peninsula. It’s not across the old Cold War divide in Europe. It won’t involve Israel’s secret cache of H-bombs.

If nuclear war comes, it will happen because of a calculation or miscalculation by India or Pakistan. There are fanatics on both sides who care only about vanquishing their rival by any means necessary.

Unlike in a novel, however, a catastrophic denouement to the current conflict is not inevitable.

Tit for Tat

India and Pakistan have been engaged in a tug-of-war over the territory of Kashmir since the very separation of the two countries that followed independence in 1947. China, too, has gone to war with India over its portion of the territory. Kashmir is the only place in the world where three nuclear powers have a border dispute.

In the most conflict-ridden part of the region, the Jammu and Kashmir region of northern India, a separatist movement inspired by Islamic radicalism squares off against about a half a million Indian troops. Three wars between India and Pakistan, plus the skirmishes that have taken place in between, have claimed around 70,000 lives.

Last month, as part of the insurgency against Indian control of this part of Kashmir, a suicide bomber went after a unit of Indian soldiers, killing 40. In response, India launched its first cross-border attack on Pakistan in nearly 50 years when it bombed a presumed militant encampment. Pakistan responded by dropping some bombs inside Indian territory. Neither attack seems to have destroyed much of anything, though India claims otherwise.

In a subsequent dogfight, Pakistan shot down an Indian jet fighter and captured the pilot. In a hopeful move, Pakistan returned the pilot to India “as a gesture of peace.” However, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi reciprocated with a threat: the first attacks were just practice, he warned, “now we have to make it real.”

A new round of attacks, however, was not forthcoming. Pakistan has promised to go after Islamic militancy and has even taken some steps in that direction. As The Economist put it, “Relations between India and Pakistan are returning to the normal huffy disdain after a week of military brinkmanship.”

It’s a mistake, however, to think that all is well on the subcontinent.

Future Sparks

The political party of Narendra Modi subscribes to a virulent version of Hindu nationalism. He largely soft-peddled this nationalism four years ago when the BJP won a commanding parliamentary majority. Once in power, however, Modi has fallen back on what worked for him as the chief minister of Gujarat: inflaming the passions of his more militant followers. Writes Max Frost in The National Interest:

Indian politicians have normalized hardline Hindu nationalism through draconian cow protection laws, the renaming of cities with Muslim names, and the appointment of extremist Hindu nationalists to powerful positions. These shifting priorities explain Modi’s 2017 appointment of a firebrand Hindu monk, Yogi Adityanath, as chief minister of India’s most populous state. Adityanath has claimed that Hindus are “preparing for religious war” and has called Muslims “a crop of two-legged animals that has to be stopped.”

Hindu nationalists have also taken aim at the Indian constitution, which provides Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir province the special status of greater autonomy. So, for instance, Indian citizens from other parts of the country can’t buy property in the province, which helps it retain its Muslim majority. Top BJP officials, however, want Article 370, the offending part of the constitution, repealed.

Indian elections take place next month, and Modi is campaigning for a second term. Because of the myriad problems facing the country, he was looking at a significant backlash at the polls. The aggressive response to Pakistan, however, has boosted his electoral fortunes. According to political analyst Yogendra Yadav, Modi’s party could have lost at least 100 seats in the upcoming election, but now, “the impression is things have improved for BJP.”

Pakistan has promised to go after suspected militants on its territory. But Prime Minister Imran Khan is in a difficult position. The country is practically bankrupt, and he has had to go begging to Saudi Arabia in particular for assistance. He has also taken a more accommodationist approach to the Taliban as a way to resolve the war in Afghanistan and reduce cross-border problems. The Trump administration, meanwhile, has not shown Pakistan much love. China has much better relations with Islamabad, but has been quite selective in pressuring its ally to crack down on extremism. China views some extremist factions, for instance, as useful for cementing Beijing’s influence in Afghanistan and hobbling its major challenger in the region, namely India.

As The New York Times notes, the Trump administration is in no position to act as a mediator, given the president’s obvious preference for India, “where he has pursued business interests.” Indeed, the subcontinent has emerged as a locus of U.S.-China conflict, as Beijing has pushed forward with its Belt and Road initiative in Pakistan and the United States is pressuring India to join its containment strategy against Iran.

India and Pakistan may well shape up to be the modern counterpart to Cold-War-divided Germany. Kashmir, then, is the new Berlin: divided, tense, full of intrigue. The two superpowers have found two very dangerous proxies to engage in shadow play.

The military confrontation, meanwhile, has developed its own dynamic. As Arzan Tarapore writes at War on the Rocks:

India demonstrated a new appetite for imposing costs on Pakistan, and especially for crossing thresholds and accepting risk. Its actions probably still won’t deter Pakistan, though they will make the next crisis more dangerous. India may now assess that henceforth it can strike its neighbor, absorb a proportionate Pakistani retaliation, and safely de-escalate later in a crisis. But with Pakistan now more concerned about its own deterrent, this crisis may induce both sides to take riskier action next time.

Such riskier actions could escalate all the way to the nuclear level. And the consequences of a nuclear exchange would be considerably worse than what’s depicted in The City of Devi. If the two sides only use only a portion of their nuclear arsenals, it would kill millions of people on the subcontinent and also have a devastating impact worldwide. A partial nuclear winter would settle upon the planet: the resulting hunger, drought, and disease would kill as many as 2 billion people.

Now that the acute crisis has passed, regional actors have to use this reprieve to defuse the world’s most dangerous nuclear faultline. Those efforts have to begin with Kashmir. Fortunately, the difficult task of working out a joint resolution to the problem has already been done, back in the mid-2000s. As Ahmed Rashid points out:

Indian and Pakistani envoys agreed to make the Line of Control, the heavily militarized border between the Indian and Pakistani-controlled portions of Kashmir, irrelevant by giving the Kashmiris the right to free movement and trade across the line. They agreed upon providing autonomy to Kashmir’s subregions and drawing down forces as violence receded. They also agreed to establish a body of Kashmiris, Indians, and Pakistanis, vaguely described as a “joint mechanism,” to oversee the political and economic rights of the Kashmiris on both sides of the line.

Khan seems amenable to revisiting this deal; Modi will not budge until after the elections. The missing ingredient at this point is pressure from outside the subcontinent. Here, the cluelessness of the Trump administration and the unraveling U.S.-China relationship serve as significant obstacles.

But maybe India and Pakistan will show more sense than their respective backers. These are ancient civilizations that have weathered many previous storms. Now they just have to team up to avoid a nuclear winter.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, March 5, 2019

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Articles Featured Korea Security

North Korea: Nukes vs. War?

Nuclear weapons have held the world hostage for more than 70 years. Although they possess terrifying power and the world has come close to nuclear war on several occasions, these weapons have only been used twice, in 1945, by the United States against Japan.

Advocates of deterrence believe that nuclear weapons actually kept the peace during the Cold War. The United States and Soviet Union, according to this theory, did not attack each other directly because of the fear that one side or the other would launch an ICBM, the conflict would quickly escalate, and the world would go up in smoke.

Over the course of the nuclear era, there have been plenty of conventional wars. Those conflicts have left millions dead, injured many more, and created today’s unprecedented refugee crisis.

Nuclear weapons possess great potential evil. Conventional wars represent persistent, everyday evil.

The United States has expended a great deal of energy to prevent other countries from acquiring nuclear weapons. It hasn’t eliminated its own arsenal, nor has it of late vigorously pursued arms control agreements with Russia that would achieve global disarmament any time soon. Meanwhile, the United States has initiated or supported a disproportionate number of wars around the world, including ones in Afghanistan and Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

In general, the United States has prioritized nuclear non-proliferation over the prevention of war.

That helps to explain the muted U.S. reactions to the recent Pyongyang summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. But it doesn’t make those reactions any less frustrating.

As a result of the third inter-Korean summit, the two countries have agreed to a remarkable set of security measures. The two Koreas will cease military exercises along the Military Demarcation Line (MDL), establish a no-fly zone above the MDL, and establish a maritime peace zone around the Northern Limit Line in the West Sea. Even more dramatically, they announced a plan to turn the most visible symbol of inter-Korean division and hostility – the border area at the 38th parallel – into a peace zone, beginning with the withdrawal of 11 guard posts from the DMZ, the demilitarization of the Joint Security Area, and the creation of a joint team to recover remains within the zone.

And what was the predominant U.S. reaction to these momentous changes? Even though Kim Jon Un did make several proposals to move forward on nuclear disarmament, U.S. politicians and pundits focused on what was missing, namely unilateral moves before the United States reciprocates. These skeptics somehow expect North Korea to provide an inventory of the country’s nuclear capabilities, relinquish its existing weapons, or shut down its plutonium and highly enriched uranium processing facilities simply to show good faith and in the hopes that Washington will remove economic sanctions. In other words, the U.S. skeptics are not interested in the give-and-take of negotiations. They want some sign that North Korea is bending to pressure.

For instance, Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) tweeted: “”Surprise, surprise: North Korea wants concessions from the U.S. for steps far short of denuclearization. Glad the admin has made no commitments. Maximum pressure campaign should proceed.”

His Republican colleague in the Senate, Lindsey Graham (R-SC) tweeted much the same thing: “While North Korea has stopped testing missiles and nuclear devices, they have NOT moved toward denuclearization.”

“Talk is cheap,” said Bruce Bennett of Rand Corporation. “What Washington has been looking for is action.”

The Trump administration has praised the results of the recent inter-Korean summit. But here, too, U.S. officials have talked about the need to advance the denuclearization agenda.

Obviously, the U.S. preoccupation with nuclear non-proliferation has blinded the foreign policy elite to what is ultimately a more profound development. The two Koreas are not waiting for a peace treaty to replace the armistice that ended the Korean War in 1953. They’re not relying on a U.S. declaration that hostilities have ended. They are actively dismantling the very mechanisms of war on the Korean peninsula.

I don’t necessarily believe that nuclear deterrence kept the peace during the Cold War. First of all, the nuclear powers were exceptionally lucky not to have blown each other up. Second, there were plenty of hot wars during that period, including the Korean War and the Vietnam War, and several of these wars could have escalated to the use of nuclear weapons.

For these and other reasons, I think it’s important to push for nuclear disarmament. Nuclear weapons, even if they haven’t been used in more than 70 years, are extraordinarily dangerous.

But ultimately, the most important task is to prevent war – to prevent the circumstances that would give rise to the potential use of nuclear weapons. In this way, the two Koreas have gotten the order correct. They are focusing on dismantling war structures before the talks on nuclear weapons have really started.

This is a profound lesson for Americans. Instead of seeing the inter-Korean talks as a prelude to the “more important” discussions on nuclear weapons, the United States should see the denuclearization negotiations as supporting Korean efforts to end war on the peninsula.

As long as Washington’s preoccupation with nukes goes hand in hand with conflict reduction between the two Koreas, the non-proliferation agenda is part of the solution. But if denuclearization gets in the way of peace – if squabbling over the particulars of North Korea’s nuclear program disrupts the progress North and South have made on reducing tensions – then it’s part of the problem.

Hankyoreh, October 1, 2018

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The Korean Shell Game

Conmen always keep up a patter. While they’re extracting the wallet from your pocket, they maintain a nonstop monologue so that you focus on their mouth and not what they’re doing with their hands.

Beware the voluble stranger.

Donald Trump has always been a talker. Even before he discovered Twitter, Trump was constantly bending people’s ears — about himself, his deals, his girlfriends. He even pretended to be other people on the phone in order to more credibly boast of his achievements: a ventriloquist who performed as his own dummy.

A few months before the 2016 elections, his former ghost writer Michael D’Antonio compared Trump to a card sharp: “His verbal gymnastics are intended to burnish his image, excite his followers, or tear down his competitors and critics. And like the three card monte dealer, Trump is prepared to bolt should he get caught in the game.”

Unfortunately Trump learned that the most successful conmen don’t bolt. When caught, they stand their ground and raise their (con) game. The short con is for losers.

In November 2016, enough Americans were distracted by Trump’s patter to put him into the White House. The Russian trolls that helped out through social media were just an expanded version of what Trump used to do by himself — create fake people to advance his cause. And when critics have tried to pin all this fakery on Trump himself, he has merely turned the tables by accusing his accusers of “fake news.” In a long con of this nature, the dupes are never quite sure what is real and what is sham.

Trump has brought this art of the con into foreign relations. He’s tried to pretend that he has an “America First” trade policy even as he grants concessions to China’s telecommunications giant ZTE (and just after Beijing awarded Ivanka a few more trademarks as well). He lambasted the 2003 decision to invade Iraq but is following the same pattern with Iran. He has promised a grand peace deal in the Middle East even as he jettisons the last pretense of America’s role of neutral arbiter and tightens his embrace of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But the most mystifying policy so far has been toward North Korea. In the last week, Trump has gone from eagerly anticipating a June 12 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to abruptly cancelling the summit to starting up the preparations again for the very same summit.

It looks and sounds like a classic shell game. Where’s the summit? Under this walnut shell? Wanna bet? Sorry, buddy, the summit disappeared. Ah, but wait — here it is, under this shell! Now, watch carefully as I move the shells one more time…

The least charitable interpretation of this behavior is that Trump is all sound and fury signifying nothing, which certainly characterizes his knowledge of all things Korean. The most charitable interpretation is that it’s all part of a sophisticated negotiating strategy of bluff and bluster.

Trump’s volatility, however, has an altogether different origin. It’s not just Trump’s patter that serves as a distraction. Trump himself is the distraction. While all eyes are focused on him, other forces are at work to make sure that the audience is fooled.

Why Did Trump Cancel?

Donald Trump wants a summit with Kim Jong Un. He wants the spectacle. He wants to demonstrate that he’s better than all the presidents who came before and failed to solve the nuclear crisis. He wants to prove that he, alone, can do diplomacy the right way (and so why not cut the State Department budget by a third?).

But ham actors are acutely aware of the prospect of being upstaged. Trump wants a Korean drama, but only one that he controls. As The Washington Post describes the scene in the White House on the eve of the cancellation:

Inside the White House residence, the first alarm sounded about 10 p.m. Wednesday when national security adviser John Bolton told Trump about North Korea’s public statement threatening a “nuclear-to-nuclear showdown” and mocking Vice President Pence as a “political dummy.”

Trump was dismayed by Pyongyang’s bellicose rhetoric, the same theatrics Trump often deploys against his adversaries. Bolton advised that the threatening language was a very bad sign, and the president told advisers he was concerned Kim was maneuvering to back out of the summit and make Americans look like desperate suitors, according to a person familiar with the conversations.

So Trump called it off first.

Pay attention to the key person in this account. It’s not Trump, who remains as always blithely unaware of what lies beneath the froth of current events. It’s John Bolton. Ostensibly he’s just the bearer of bad news in this story. But the national security advisor knew exactly how to play the president. He provided just the intelligence necessary to further Bolton’s own agenda: undermining the summit.

Searching for a scapegoat to blame for the summit going south, the administration seized on China. Trump asserted that Kim Jong Un had shifted his attitude toward the United States and the summit after a second discussion with Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

That’s the conman’s equivalent of snapping his fingers to divert your attention once again. China has consistently supported the summit and would love to see North Korea fully denuclearized. Moreover, North Korea didn’t fundamentally adjust its stance since Kim and Xi met on May 8. Indeed, the meeting came just before Secretary of State Mike Pompeo went for his second trip to Pyongyang and negotiated the release of three American detainees.

And, of course, North Korea went ahead as promised two weeks later with the destruction of its nuclear test site at Punggye-ri. In fact, it was demolishing this site at the very same time that Trump was preparing to send out his letter cancelling the summit. Talk about awkward!

For the world at large, Trump was clearly the unreliable flip-flopper, not Kim. And the key difference between the time Trump accepted the summit invitation and the moment he cancelled it was not Xi Jinping, but John Bolton. That’s part of the con. The Trump administration must somehow convince Americans and Koreans alike that this dangerous hawk can play a dove if called upon to do so.

On Again

The leaders of the two Koreas scrambled to meet again quickly in the wake of Trump’s cancellation letter. They met for a fourth inter-Korean summit to reaffirm their commitment to working level talks, to denuclearization, and to a U.S.-DPRK summit. In an even more promising development, North Korea is sending to the United States one of its top officials — Kim Yong Chol, a former head of military intelligence and reportedly Kim Jong Un’s right-hand man — to signal the importance of the meeting with Trump.

Eighteen years ago, North Korean General Jo Myong Rok made a similar trip to the United States to discuss the planned visit to Pyongyang by then-President Bill Clinton. The 2000 elections intervened, along with the surprise victory of George W. Bush. While the Supreme Court adjudicated the Florida vote, Clinton called off what might have been a historic turning point in U.S.-North Korean relations. Kim Yong Chol will meet with Pompeo to pick up on where Jo left off.

All of these moves do much to allay the American president’s chief concern — that the North Koreans will embarrass him personally by not showing up in Singapore. Trump, in turn, has indicated that the summit may well be on again, even for June 12, though it’s only a couple weeks away. In a tweet on Sunday, Trump wrote:

Our United States team has arrived in North Korea to make arrangements for the Summit between Kim Jong Un and myself. I truly believe North Korea has brilliant potential and will be a great economic and financial Nation one day. Kim Jong Un agrees with me on this. It will happen!

But what will happen? The summit? North Korea becoming a great economic nation one day? Or simply another move of the walnut shells?

What game is Trump playing exactly?

The Long Con

Let’s first put to rest two misconceptions surrounding this summit. The first is that Trump’s belligerent approach to North Korea is something new and has already yielded results. The second is that the diplomatic approach to North Korea obviously failed over the years, since the country now possesses nuclear weapons.

Trump’s threats and see-sawing attitude toward North Korea is nothing new. Bill Clinton nearly started bombing Pyongyang in 1994. George W. Bush included North Korea in his axis of evil in 2002. Successive administrations have reminded North Korea, both rhetorically and through repeated military exercises near its border, that the United States has sufficient firepower to obliterate the country. The only thing different about Trump’s strategy has been his personal invective. Everything else — more sanctions, pressure on China to rein in its putative ally — has been borrowed from administrations past.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, neither Trump’s insults nor his borrowed tactics have much to do with the change in North Korea’s behavior. That has more to do with South Korean leader Moon Jae-in’s sophisticated engagement policy along with economic, political, and security calculations inside North Korea itself.

Diplomacy, meanwhile, hasn’t prevented North Korea from going nuclear. But it nevertheless produced partial success in the past — the freezing of North Korea’s plutonium program in the 1990s, the partial destruction of elements of that program in the 2000s, a multi-year moratorium on missile launches. The reasons for the failure of that diplomacy are myriad. Suffice it to say that it takes two to mess up a tango.

So, diplomacy can still work to bring peace to the Korean peninsula. And Trump’s belligerence is not likely to make the difference in such a scenario.

It’s impossible, of course, to know what’s going on inside Trump’s brain. The president himself seems to have only intermittent access to that dimly lit space. However, it’s likely that Trump believes that he can dazzle Kim Jong Un — with charm, with bravado, with threats, with promises.

This, too, is a shell game. The president has to persuade Kim Jong Un to give up his nuclear weapons in exchange for what? A promise not to attack? A promise to lift sanctions like the United States did for Iran? A promise of economic investment that neither the U.S. government nor the private sector is likely to provide?

Meanwhile, Kim Jong Un is playing his own shell game. He knows that nuclear weapons are his only real bargaining chip. If he gives them up completely, the game is over, just like it was for Muammar Gaddafi. So, he too must keep the walnut shells in motion.

In other words, both leaders are playing a long con designed to maintain their own short-term political survival. It’s the perfect scenario for a movie like The Sting.

But here’s the twist. There’s a good chance that the two cons will cancel each other out at the summit because neither side will have to give up anything, at least not completely or immediately. At the summit, the leaders will simply sign a pre-planned document that will be simultaneously grand and bland. As CNN reports:

U.S. officials said the most likely document would provide a framework for future negotiations, without going into great detail about what North Korea might be willing to give up or what steps the United States would take in exchange. Instead, those details would be hammered out at the working level in the months and years to come. 

Pay attention to the key word here: years. In a new report, nuclear expert Sig Hecker foresees a process at least a decade in the making:

The initial phase, taking up to a year, is the halt of military, industrial, and personnel operations. The second, taking up to five years, is the winding down of sites, facilities, and weapons. The final and hardest phase, taking up to 10 years, is the elimination or limiting of factories and programs.

And now you understand the real long con at work here.

If all goes well, the two Koreas will proceed with the hard work of reunification — slow, patient, full of difficult compromises — while U.S. and North Korean negotiators are absorbed in the equally time-consuming task of dismantling the North’s nuclear program. John Bolton’s regime-change fantasies will be mothballed. Donald Trump can claim victory for a process, not an outcome.

Diplomacy will ultimately give way to regime change — not in Pyongyang, but in Washington. By the time that voters have ousted Trump and crew from the White House, the Koreans will have created a dynamic on the ground that a subsequent U.S. administration will have great difficulty reversing.

That’s not the only way this story could end. The summit might not happen. John Bolton might succeed in turning the president away from diplomacy. North Korea might get disgusted with the Trump administration’s intransigence. Disagreement over denuclearization might doom the discussions. Relations between Pyongyang and Seoul could sour.

But for the moment, let’s go with the Hollywood ending. Let’s imagine a big close-up of Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un shaking hands. Let’s imagine a peace treaty ending the Korean War. Let’s close with the image of Koreans from north and south working together in a joint IT complex.

Cue The Entertainer. Roll the credits. Smile and applaud.

World Beat, Foreign Policy in Focus, May 30, 2018

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Playing Trump for Peace

When, in early March, Donald Trump agreed to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, the Washington foreign policy elite nearly suffered a collective heart attack.

For one thing, the announcement came as a complete surprise. Trump had telegraphed his other foreign policy bombshells well in advance: leaving the Paris climate accord, ripping up the Iran nuclear deal, reversing détente with Cuba. North Korea was another matter. Trump had repeatedly insulted Kim Jong-un in his trademark style, calling him “Little Rocket Man” on Twitter and threatening at the U.N. in September 2017 to “totally destroy North Korea.” Official Washington was braced for war, not peace.

You’d think, then, that an announcement of jaw-jaw, not war-war, would have met with universal acclaim in the nation’s capital. Instead, observers across the ideological spectrum found fault with Trump and his attempt to denuclearize North Korea through negotiations. They criticized his timing, his impulsiveness, even the fact that the announcement came from South Korean representatives visiting Washington and not the president himself.

Experts on Korea promptly decried the president’s move because he hadn’t demanded any North Korean concessions first. “We’d expect such a highly symbolic meeting to happen after some concrete deliverables were in hand, not before,” tweeted New America Foundation fellow Suzanne DiMaggio. (In fact, the North Koreans had declared a moratorium on further testing of their nukes and missiles, but that apparently didn’t count.)

Worse yet, the North Koreans were getting the summit of their dreams for nothing. “Kim will accomplish the dream of his father and grandfather by making North Korea a nuclear state,” tweeted Abraham Denmark, head of Asia programs at the Wilson Center, “and gain tremendous prestige and legitimacy by meeting with an American president as an equal. All without giving up a single warhead or missile.”

Although some foreign policy professionals did express cautious optimism that something good could still come from the first summit between an American president and a North Korean leader — now officially scheduled for June 12th in Singapore — the overall verdict was one of barely concealed dismay. “The U.S. has been getting played and outmaneuvered the past three months… and it’s happening again, right now,” tweeted former Pentagon official Van Jackson.

Skepticism is, of course, the default position of the foreign policy community. Bad things happen all the time in geopolitics; peace is an extraordinarily difficult feat to pull off; and most diplomatic outcomes are, at best, glass-half-full affairs. So, for pundits eager to maintain their gigs on network TV and a steady stream of interview requests from print journalists, it was a far better bet to put their chips on double zero.

And it’s true, the history of U.S.-North Korean relations has been a graveyard of defunct initiatives: the Agreed Framework of 1994, the Six Party Talks from 2003 to 2007, the Leap Day Agreement of 2012. If North Korea were to cancel the summit because of U.S.-South Korean military exercises or the inflammatory statements of John Bolton, it would become just another headstoneFar more competent negotiators than Donald Trump tried their hands at preventing the North from going nuclear and suffered epic fails. More troubling still, Trump was preparing for negotiations without even an ambassador in South Korea, lacking a special representative for North Korean policy, and with a new secretary of state barely confirmed by the Senate. In other words, at that key moment, “understaffed” would have been an understatement when it came to the U.S. diplomatic corps and the Koreas.

Finally, both Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump have posted some of the highest negatives since Attila the Hun. The notion that two such wrongs could make a right certainly tests the credulity of the most dispassionate observer. You wouldn’t normally want to buy a used car, much less a complex diplomatic deal, from either of them.

And yet, don’t fool yourself (even if most of Washington does): the upcoming Trump-Kim summit, if it happens, will represent an extraordinarily important step forward, whether it actually produces an agreement of substance or not. It may not end the longest ongoing conflict in U.S. history, but that’s really not the point. The summit’s importance lies largely in its symbolic encouragement of another process entirely, one already underway between the two Koreas. U.S. observers remain focused on nuclear weapons, but nukes aren’t actually the key issue here. In fact, for all the talk about Donald Trump getting a Nobel Prize, to put events in perspective you need to remember that the American president is, at best, a third wheel in what’s developing.

The leaders of the two Koreas have effectively manipulated him into supporting a genuinely hopeful, potentially history-changing process of reconciliation on their peninsula. It’s been a brilliant tactic and if U.S. observers of Korea could put aside their kneejerk skepticism, as well as their America First biases, they would be applauding the best chance in decades for Koreans themselves to defuse the most dangerous situation in Asia.

Playing the President

In keeping with his particular brand of narcissism, Donald Trump is convinced that he alone is responsible for bringing about change on the Korean peninsula. He believes that his threats against the North, his push for tougher sanctions, and his pressure on China to tighten the screws on its erstwhile ally were the key factors in Kim Jong-un’s decision at the beginning of 2018 to reach out to his southern neighbor and extend an olive branch to Washington.

In truth, the initial impetus for the changes in Korea had little to do with President Trump.

After his country conducted its sixth nuclear test in September 2017 and its first ICBM test that November, the North Korean leader must have come to believe that his nuclear weapons program was the sufficiently solid deterrent and valuable bargaining chip he had been seeking. By then, too, he had consolidated his political control in Pyongyang by purging the party, the military, and even his own family, leaving him confident that he could negotiate agreements outside the country without worrying about a palace coup back home. Finally, the North Korean economy was actually managing modest growth, despite the fierce American sanctions campaign against it. This was in part because so many countries were willing to look the other way in the face of widespread violations of the global sanctions regime.

Undoubtedly, Kim was aware of warning signs as well: a dangerous economic dependence on China, a lack of capital for investment, and a declining growth rate. When it came to all three, the logical place to turn was South Korea. Since taking office in March 2017, South Korean President Moon Jae-in had pushed hard for a new engagement policy with the North.

For many months, Pyongyang did not respond, so Moon mended fences where he could. He launched a “New Northern Policy,” focusing on fostering further cooperation with Russia. That November, he reached a compromise with China, promising not to expand a new U.S. missile defense system placed in South Korea earlier in the year in exchange for Beijing lifting restrictions on trade and investment.

In a New Year’s speech in January 2018, however, Kim Jong-un suddenly and very publicly reversed his position. Moon was already well primed — some might say desperate — to take advantage of such a gesture. As a result, in the full glare of international media attention, the two Koreas suddenly launched a policy of cooperation at the 2018 Winter Olympics being held at the time in the south. Then, at the end of April, Kim and Moon actually met in the first inter-Korean summit to take place on South Korean soil.

This was, admittedly, not the first time the two Koreas had attempted a détente, but previous efforts had been stymied, at least in part, by American opposition. Congressional hostility toward North Korea during the latter years of the Clinton era and George W. Bush’s inclusion of North Korea in his ominous “axis of evil” in 2002 put a distinct damper on the possibility of inter-Korean cooperation.

This time, however, the two leaders adopted a new strategy for roping the United States into the process. Instead of appealing to the Korea policy community in Washington — an unimaginative gaggle of Cassandras — each of them decided to “turn” the U.S. president.

Initially, both were undoubtedly as bemused by Donald Trump’s erratic foreign policy tweets as the rest of the world. Still, Kim and his officials reached out to Republican-linked analysts in Washington and soon grasped that the new president valued personal relationships, discounted the advice of policy professionals, dismissed the importance of human rights, and measured his successes largely by the failures of his predecessors, especially Barack Obama.

Keep in mind as well that, for all the hostility Trump had directed toward Pyongyang during the 2016 presidential campaign, he had also signaled — though at the time it was treated as a throwaway line — that he’d be pleased to meet Kim Jong-un and serve him “a hamburger on a conference table.” As president, in May 2017, months before he started threatening to deliver “fire and fury like the world has never seen” to the North, he even called Kim a “smart cookie” and reiterated his willingness to sit down with him. In both instances, he received mockery, not support, from America’s Korea watchers who considered him “naïve” (which was true but beside the point).

Most critically, the North Koreans evidently realized that they could appeal to Trump’s desire to destroy the legacy of Barack Obama. The president had fervently promised to unravel anything and everything his predecessor had ever done, from health care to climate change. But on the Korean peninsula, Obama had never achieved a thing. His policy of “strategic patience” had amounted to little more than eight years of hoping that North Korea would relocate to another planet. In such a situation, the North’s appalling human rights record, its spotty negotiating history, and its very real nuclear weapons program mattered little in Trump’s quest to once again one-up Obama.

South Korea faced a similar set of challenges. In the fall of 2017, Trump accused Moon Jae-in of the “appeasement” of North Korea, though he provided no specifics. Normally, such a charge would have been poison in Washington. Moon could certainly have upped the ante by retaliating in kind. Instead, he cannily held his tongue — and when the tone suddenly shifted in inter-Korean relations in early 2018, the South Korean president pursued a psychologically even smarter tactic: he began heaping compliments on President Trump for making it all happen.

True, Moon’s over-the-top praise flew in the face of what really lay behind the transformation in relations, but he, too, had been well briefed on the president’s personality and predilections. He, too, grasped that the American narcissist-in-chief would incline toward praise like a plant toward the sun. When asked if he should get a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts, Moon immediately insisted that it was Trump, and Trump alone, who deserved such an honor. (Only later did Trump’s base begin chanting “Nobel! Nobel! Nobel!”)

The leaders of both Koreas grasped a reality that eluded Washington’s pundits: that Donald Trump was their best chance of disarming a skeptical American foreign policy elite. In gaining Trump’s support, the two Koreas have indeed, however paradoxically, neutralized the United States as an actor in the drama of inter-Korean relations.

Confronting the Impossible

Think of the story of the two Koreas as a parable of two “impossibles.”

The first impossible is denuclearization. Now that North Korea has a nuclear weapons program, it’s difficult to imagine that it will surrender such weaponry. After all, given the relative decline of its conventional forces, nukes provide a genuine insurance policy against any outside effort at regime change. They’re also the main reason the United States pays any attention to the country. Without nuclear weapons, North Korea would become as vulnerable as Iraq was in 2003 and as irrelevant as Laos after 1975. Nuclear weapons are Pyongyang’s ticket to international respect. Why on Earth would Kim Jong-un give them up in exchange for a non-aggression “guarantee” from the United States, a pledge that a subsequent administration might simply tear up (just as Trump recently shredded Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran)?

The second impossible is reunification. The Koreas are about as far apart as two countries coexisting in the same century could be, as economically disparate as Germany and Ghana, as politically different as Athens and Sparta. One country is thoroughly connected to the world community; the other maintains an isolation policy comparable to eighteenth-century Japan’s. Like matter and anti-matter, the two Koreas risk catastrophe if suddenly brought together.

There are three imaginable ways of dealing with these two impossibles. The first, of course, is the regime-change approach of National Security Advisor John Bolton and his fan club. The idea would be to accelerate the demise of Kim’s regime either indirectly through covert means or even directly through war. In the wake of a North Korean collapse, according to this crackpot scenario, the U.S. Army would sweep into that country, gathering up the loose nukes, while South Korea absorbed the north just as West Germany swallowed East Germany in 1990. No one with an ounce of sense, from academics to Pentagon officials, considers this a viable approach, given the heightened risk of a war with mass casualties, possibly tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands dead and wounded, and the potential use of some of the North’s nukes in South Korea and beyond. And that’s not even taking into consideration the South’s unwillingness to contemplate the immense costs of an overnight reunification.

Despite Trump’s embrace of a summit with Kim Jong-un, Bolton hasn’t given up on this regime-change approach. He initially sought to load the summit agenda with enough non-nuclear issues (missiles, abductions of Japanese and South Koreans) to make it unwieldy and bound to fail. More critically, he insisted that the “Libya” model would serve as the example the United States would follow with North Korea — an ominous signal, given that the regime of Muammar Gaddafi collapsed under the pressure of a U.S.-NATO intervention several years after it gave up its nuclear program. In explaining why North Korea might cancel the summit with Trump, a government spokesman singled out Bolton and his Libya references. And in truth, the North Korean reaction was not a “tantrum,” as the Washington Post editorialized, but a reasonable objection to Bolton’s tactics.

The second approach, the default position for several decades, has been to wait for North Korea to “come to its senses” and beg for an agreement with the United States. Tighter sanctions and an inflexible negotiating position, the adherents of this theory believe, will eventually inflict so much pain on the North that, sooner or later, even the autocratic leadership of Pyongyang will realize its people can’t eat nukes and trade them in for a ticket to the global economy. However attractive this strategy may look, it obviously hasn’t worked over many years. Here, Trump’s critique of the Obama administration has for once been accurate.

The third approach, slow-motion reunification, finally seems to be emerging as the plan of choice for both Koreas. It treats each of the impossibles as resolvable over time.

Moon Jae-in adopted this approach to reunificationfrom his mentor, former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung. Cooperative economic projects are to be designed to gradually bridge the income gap between the two countries. Negotiations over a rail link and fishing rights in adjoining waters are meant to begin the process of harmonizing the political approaches of the two countries. According to a plan Moon delivered to Kim via USB drive at the April summit, South Korea would help its northern neighbor enter the global community by degrees so that, like a diver surfacing from a great depth, it wouldn’tsuffer the bends.

Denuclearization is equally tricky. But a slow-motion process might also square the circle. If North Korea and the United States agree to a staged reduction of the North’s nuclear weapons in exchange for a gradually increasing set of incentives, Kim Jong-un could potentially have his nukes (for a while) and give them up as well (eventually).

Although the elimination of nuclear weapons may be the ultimate goal — for North Korea as well as all other nuclear states — denuclearization as such could prove a distraction in the medium term. After all, Kim Jong-un could decide to reverse such a commitment or continue to pursue the objective secretly. So the goal should really be to ensure that North Korea doesn’t want to use those weapons — or any other weapons — because to do so would jeopardize its newfound position in the global economy. That was the U.S. strategy toward China in the 1970s after it, too, had become a nuclear power and it worked without either denuclearization or regime change.

In other words, the worst position Trump could take in Singapore would be to demand that North Korea completely and immediately abandon its nuclear weaponry before it receives any benefits from a reduction in global economic sanctions. By contrast, a more gradual timeline for denuclearization could well dovetail with slow-motion reunification. What many Korea watchers insist is a fatal flaw in the Trump-Kim summit — a completely different understanding of what denuclearization entails — might turn out to be a blessing in disguise. Such strategic ambiguity could allow both sides to make interim compromises and embrace an interim reduction in tensions even though they were incapable of really agreeing on the end game.

Which brings us back to all the skepticism surrounding the upcoming summit. Sure, it might end up more show than substance, but that would be fine. What the two Koreas really need is the equivalent of a papal benediction from Trump. Let the American president claim the credit, all of it, for processes of denuclearization and reunification meant to intersect at some distant horizon. Let him preen about his contributions to world peace (while he ratchets up war tensions against Iran). Let his fans chant and his Republican backers in Congress nominate him for a Nobel Prize. Let him cling to his misconceptions about North Korea, nukes, and the nature of geopolitics.

And then let him get out of the way so that the Koreans can do the real work, the historic work, the breakthrough work, of knitting the peninsula back together.

TomDispatch, May 20, 2018

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How Those Trump-Kim Talks Might Go: A Transcript

In a surprise announcement in early March, President Donald Trump said that he would meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un within two months.

The preparations for the meeting were hampered by the lack of North Korea expertise within the administration, the short-staffed State Department, and the mercurial temperament of the president. The North Korean side complicated matters with its infrequent communications and opaque decision-making. Skeptics in the United States gave the odds of the meeting taking place at less than 50 percent and the chances of an actual agreement considerably less.

And yet, despite this skepticism — and despite the replacement of the relatively diplomatic Rex Tillerson with the fire-starter Mike Pompeo as secretary of state — Trump and Kim did ultimately sit down at the end of April in the Joint Security Area conference room in Panmunjom, which straddles the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea.

It was the first time that a North Korean leader met a sitting U.S. president. No advisors were present. The leaders met with only their translators by their sides.

Here is a transcript of the historic meeting.

Kim Jong Un: Welcome to Korea, President Donald Trump. This is a gift from the people of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. This golf club is gold-plated with inlaid jewels. It comes with my personal invitation to tee off at the Pyongyang Golf Course, an 18-hole course in our beautiful capital.

Donald Trump: That’s tremendous, thank you, thank you. It’s a pleasure to meet you, too, General Kim. I have a lot of friends who are generals. I think we can be great friends too. You’re doing a great job in a difficult situation. And here’s my present for you. This is our newly designed presidential coin. Also gold. Very gold! Has my name on it. Beautifully made!

Kim: Thank you. We will put this in our International Friendship Exhibition in Myohyangsan. You have travelled a great distance. You must be tired.

Trump: Very excited to be here. I think we can make a deal. You and me. We can work this out. This nuclear thing. Why not? Other presidents tried. They couldn’t. They were weak. They had their shot, and all they did was nothing. I can get this done. We can get this done.

Kim: Yes, we can. The people of the DPRK very much want a Korean peninsula free of nuclear weapons.

Trump: Yes! That is what we want too.

Kim: But we are also realistic. We know that this is complicated. We know that it can’t happen today. Or tomorrow.

Trump: No, no, of course. But before the next elections. I am sure we can do this before the next elections. Our elections. You don’t have elections. I envy you. But we can start here by making an agreement.

Kim: Even a 1,000-mile trip must begin with a first step.

Trump: Yes, we will take this first small step together. But it will be a giant step for me. I mean, for mankind.

Kim: Of course, we have already taken several steps. We have declared a moratorium on the testing of nuclear weapons and of long-range missiles. We have accepted your military exercises with your ally.

Trump: And we have also taken a step. We have not bombed your country.

Kim: Excuse me?

Trump: It is a joke! I say what is on my mind. All the time. No censor. That is why you can trust me. I say what I mean. And what I say is mean. I mean: I mean what I say.

Kim: That is good. That is why I want to meet you. My advisors tell me that it is a mistake to meet a mentally deranged dotard. But I tell them, no, he is a businessman. We can do business together.

Trump: Yes, business. Even though you are a Communist.

Kim: I am a Korean. I must do what is best for my country. We don’t care what color the cat is as long as it grabs the mouse, tears its head off, and eats the bloody corpse. We need business. And your name is synonymous with business.

Trump: All over the world!

Kim: Yes, but not in Pyongyang. So, let me make the first offer. We want to give you space in downtown Pyongyang for a Trump International Hotel. No taxes for the first five years. We want the best hotel in the world. We want Trump.

Trump: Now we’re talking!

Kim: And your Ivanka. We will give her trademarks to sell her products all over the country. Jared can invest into a business tower. We have a casino in Najin-Sonbong for Eric and Donald Jr. We understand the importance of family in North Korea. My family and your family.

Trump: I knew that we could see eye to eye. You know Xi over there in China? We’re great friends. Duterte in the Philippines? Putin? That Egyptian guy, I forget his name. Same with the guy in Turkey. All great friends. I don’t care what they do in their own countries. As long as they don’t bother us. As long as they go about their own business. As long as they go after Islamic terrorists.

Kim: You have good friends. But they cost you a lot of money. Japan. South Korea. These are rich countries. But you are spending all this money on them.

Trump: Bingo! That’s what I’ve been telling everyone. But even Mattis over at Pentagon doesn’t understand me.

Kim: You should make them pay their own way. Then you can spend your money building hotels and highways in America. Then you can send your soldiers to fight against Islamic terrorists elsewhere. There are no Islamic terrorists here. No terrorism. No Islam. No religion!

Trump: And you will give up your nuclear weapons?

Kim: Yes. Eventually.

Trump: Can you give me a date? How about by October? We could make an announcement in late October. We can even make it a surprise.

Kim: Speaking of surprises, here is a draft peace treaty to end the Korean War. It will be important for us to sign this first.

Trump: But the Korean War ended a long time ago. The 1960s, wasn’t it?

Kim: It was an armistice. In the 1950s. So, first we must end that war. It is just a formality.

Trump: I’ll show it to my lawyers.

Kim: Your lawyers don’t know as much as you do.

Trump: That’s true. But sometimes they provide good advice. Like when I have to pay off… certain people.

Kim: You could get a Nobel Prize if you sign it.

Trump: Oh! You really think so?

Kim: And you will get the prize for a good reason. For actually doing something. Unlike your unworthy predecessor.

Trump: Good point. Let me read it.

Kim: Take your time. As you see, China has already signed. We have too.

Trump: This seems reasonable. The war is over, and we’re just saying that the war is over. Okay, my gut says: let’s do this thing.

Kim: Very good.

Trump: I want to take a picture of this and tweet it.

Kim: Of course. It is important to tell the world.

Trump: Bolton said this would never happen. And then I’d have to bomb you because we ran out of road. Bolton is going to be very unhappy.

Kim: I think the world is very happy when John Bolton is unhappy.

Trump: He also wanted me to push you on human rights.

Kim: We think that business is more important than human rights.

Trump: Well, honestly, so do I.

Kim: That’s why we want you to remove economic sanctions. So that we can do business with the world. With the United States. With the Trump organization.

Trump: Makes sense. And you’ll get rid of your nukes.

Kim: Eventually. But I must ask you: How can we trust you? You signed an agreement with Iran, and now you want to pull out. You made a deal with Cuba, and now you are backing away.

Trump: That was Obama. Not me. You can’t blame that on me.

Kim: But what happens with this agreement if your Congress opposes you? Or someone else becomes president in a few years and reverses your policies? Your political system is crazy. You Americans are always changing your mind. You are so unpredictable.

Trump: I said that I would meet you. And I am here. And hey, you guys also violated agreements.

Kim: We did what we had to do to survive. To make North Korea great again. The only way this is going to work, the only way we can trust you, is if we solve everything all at once, here and now. We have to be like Chollima, the horse that gallops a thousand miles in a day.

Trump: Everything?

Kim: A big beautiful American embassy in Pyongyang.

Trump: And you’ll give up your nukes?

Kim: Eventually. And for us, we would like your old FBI building on Pennsylvania Avenue. Then we can watch your military parade together from the rooftop.

Trump: I’m a world-class negotiator. So I’m going to have to pin you down. No nukes by October 30.

Kim: Here’s the agreement. The Everything Agreement. And watch: I will put in the date. October 30.

Trump: I don’t know about the FBI building.

Kim: Watch: we will change that to “location TBA.”

Trump: You’re a tough negotiator, General Kim. But I like this. Let’s do it.

Kim: There. I will take a picture. But no Twitter.

Trump: I can taste the Nobel Prize.

Kim: Congratulations, Mr. President.

Trump: And this October 30, we will make a surprise announcement that North Korea has completely given up its nuclear weapons.

Kim: This October 30?

Trump: Yes, just before our mid-term elections. We’ll get a nice bounce.

Kim: But please, Mr. President, look carefully at the agreement that we just signed. There is no year specified. We have promised to eliminate our nuclear weapons by October 30 at some point in the future.

Trump: Wait —

Kim: This October 30, let us golf together in my hometown. And I will show you the future location of Trump International Pyongyang. Maybe we will also have some fireworks to celebrate our agreement.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, March 14, 2018