North Korea 1.

Back in the 19th Century, a dynamic Europe challenged the major Asian nations.  Japan and China took different paths forward.  China clung to tradition and soon fell under foreign domination.  Japan copied the West in some things in order to be able to preserve its core culture in other things, and thrived.[1]  One thing the Japanese copied was imperialism.  They took over the neighboring Korean peninsula, long a tributary kingdom of China.  At the end of the Second World War, the Soviet Union and the United States agreed to divide Korea into temporary occupation zones pending the eventual unification of a single, independent Korean nation.

Almost immediately, the Cold War began.  The two great powers began to turn their occupation zones into rival states.  In June 1950, North Korea—armed and probably poked in the backside by the Russkies—invaded South Korea.  The Americans poured in troops, then kicked the behinds of the North Koreans.  Chased them all the way to the Yalu River (the border with China), while the American commander (Douglas MacArthur) talked about using nuclear weapons and carrying the war to newly-Communist China.  The Chi-Coms, in their turn, poured in troops.  Three years of gory war followed.[2]  The war ended in a truce in 1953.  Two new states emerged, North Korea and South Korea.

There are two things to say about North Korea since 1953.[3]  First, the country has become a hereditary monarchy with a dynasty of murderous tyrants at the helm.  Kim Jong Chee, Kim Jong Il and his blue-eyed boy, Kim Jong Un have ruled the country since 1950.[4]  Kim Jong Un took over in 2011.  Since then, he’s murdered a lot of government officials.  He’s also had his uncle and his half-brother killed.  He is sometimes described as “paranoid and unpredictable.”  Psychological diagnoses done from afar aren’t much use.  Still, he’s got some bolts loose.

Second, almost from the end of the war, North Korea sought nuclear weapons of its own.  This went nowhere for a long time: North Korea is mountainous, resource-poor, and Communist.  The search really began to gather steam in the 1990s.[5]  Then Kim Jong Il launched a huge effort to develop nuclear weapons.

Almost immediately, the North Koreans got caught.  In 1994 North Korea agreed to halt progress on its nuclear program in return for aid.  Then in 2003, North Korea announced it had a nuclear weapon.  The US, Russia, China, Japan, and South Korea all conferred with North Korea.  It was agreed that North Korea would halt its nuclear program in return for more aid.  Then, beginning in late 2015, North Korea began ahead testing bombs and the missiles to deliver them.  So the track record on negotiating with North Korea isn’t good.

Still, as late as March 2017, it seemed that North Korea remained three years away from posing a serious danger to other countries, most especially the distant United States.[6]  The Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama administrations all practiced a policy of “strategic patience.”  They hoped that a combination of economic sanctions, pressure on China, and computer hacking of the North Korean missile and atomic programs would keep the problem in check.  South Korea and Japan were within of North Korea’s medium range missiles.  So were the American military forces stationed in those countries.  However, ground-based and ship-based missile interceptor systems had a high rate of accuracy in tests.[7]

[1] See “The Last Samurai” (dir. Edward Zwick, 2003).

[2] See “Pork Chop Hill” (dir. Lewis Milestone, 1959).  Milestone also directed “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1930).  The messages of the movies differ in ways that reveal the change of public mindset across thirty years.

[3] “The growing threat from North Korea,” The Week, 31 March 2017, p. 11.

[4] That first one was just a joke, OK, a joke!

[5] Was this a response to the very evident failure of the model of the centrally-planned economy?  Both Russia and China soon abandoned the model.  Turmoil followed in both countries.

[6] “Shielding the homeland,” The Week, 19 May 2017, p. 11.

[7] One hundred percent test success for the Air Force’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system and eight-five percent success for the Navy’s Aegis system.

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My Weekly Reader 29 June 2017.

A pessimist’s analysis of the American position in the world might run something like the following.  The United States is the world’s only global power.  (As such, it performs many of the vital military, political, and economic functions of a world government.)  It faces a host of regional powers bent on disrupting the global order created through American leadership after the Second World War.  Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and radical Islamist jihad all offer examples of the failure of military power as a solution to challenges.[1]  Moreover, the foundations of American power have been cracked by changes in America’s society and economy.  Liberal internationalist elites ignored the human costs of their policies until they inspired a backlash under the last three presidential administrations.  Domestic politics have come to center on divisive identity politics and the expansion of entitlements (including the entitlement to not be taxed) beyond what the traditional economy can support.  In light of these grim facts, America should shift from “hard” (lawyers, guns, and money) power to “soft” power (diplomacy, humanitarianism); America should seek to lead from behind by encouraging allies to assume their responsibilities; and America should do its nation building at home.

Eliot A. Cohen takes sharp issue with this point of view.[2]  “The chances are growing that the United States will find itself using military power chronically and at varying levels of intensity, throughout the early decades of the 21st century.”  Even over the short-run, the United States faces complex challenges: China’s rise as an economic and military power in a key region for American interests; an aggrieved Russia trying to punch above its weigh while it still can; and a transnational radical Islam that will continue to inspire local insurgencies.  These quarrels may have to be resolved in places as different as the high seas, the anarchic peripheries around or between failing states, and even outer space.  So far as he’s concerned, micro-lending isn’t going to cut it.  “Hard” power will have to be at least part of the response.

Cohen is equally persuasive, alarming, and rough-edged in the rest of the book.  Asking whether America possesses the means to use force where needed, Cohen answers with a qualified “Yes.”  His deepest concern lies in the nature and quality of thinking about the use of the instruments of power, rather than about the quality and quantity of those instruments.  One danger springs from what he sees as the capture of strategic thinking by process-oriented bureaucrats.  Plans, working papers, studies, and a deep dive into minutiae introduce rigidity and myopia into thinking about the long-term strategic environment.  In short, dopes have a large voice in the use of military power.  Another concern arises from our public discourse on these issues.  The United States, says Cohen, needs to do some serious thinking and debating on its relationship to the outside world and on how and when to use military force.  Not only must Americans recognize the need for force, they will have to accept that the country is in for a series of long wars with no easy resolution, let alone parades.  In the White House, in Congress, and in the Pentagon, decision-makers are too much concerned to define the “end state” of any military action.  Get in, wreck stuff, get out defined the 1991 and 2003 wars with Iraq.  Neither resolved the basic problem.  Here Cohen could profit from a review of the post-WWII experience.[3]

Left largely unaddressed is the problem of paying for all this power.  It seems presumptuous to believe that Americans will prefer national security to Social Security.

[1] Hence, the Obama administration recognized that the American people opposed any new war in the Middle East.  From this perspective, a deal to slow down Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons made a lot of sense.

[2] Eliot A. Cohen, The Big Stick: The Limits of Soft Power and the Necessity of Military Force (2016).

[3] See: https://waroftheworldblog.com/2017/06/29/soldiers-become-governors/

The Middle Kingdom.

China has emerged from backwardness and isolation with astonishing suddenness.  The death of Mao Zedong, followed by the overthrow of his immediate successors, brought to power Deng Xiaoping.  While opening China to foreign trade, investment, and learning, Deng counseled modesty.  “Hide your brightness, bide your time.”  Now that time has come.  China has begun to exert its power in ways unprecedented in modern times.

The Romans built roads to hold their empire together, then they built a lot of other things to increase its value.  Alarm has begun to spread at a new “One Belt, One Road” enterprise launched by ChiComCo.[1]  The “Belt” is an overland transportation system (roads, railroads, bridges and tunnels) and its attendant support systems (power generation and transmission, a regulated version of the Internet).  The “Road”[2] is the complementary sea-route to Europe, along with all the logistical support (like ports).[3]

Chinese companies can count on the lion’s share of construction contracts.  For example, Chinese construction companies have built “95 deep-water ports, 10 airports, 152 bridges, and 2,080 railroad” segments in countries along the routes of the Belt and Road.  As it is completed, the Belt and Road facilitates Chinese trade.

Recognizing the rising economic power of China, the United States sought to counter this with the “Trans-Pacific Partnership” (TPP) trade treaty.[4]  However, American politics suddenly shifted against an open world economy.  Not only Donald Trump, but Bernie Sanders and then Hillary Clinton declared the TPP a bad deal for Americans.  While the leaders of many countries likely to be touched by China’s great plan attended a “Belt and Road” conference in May 2017, the United States sent only a delegate.  Some of the negative commentary about China’s investments abroad is couched in humanitarian, rather than economic or strategic, terms.  China founded its pursuit of prosperity on seizing land for economic development projects and then shoving huge numbers of people off the land.[5]  (One counter to this is that countries like Pakistan or Cambodia act in similar ways—without greatly improving the economic lives of their citizens.)  The Chinese investment may have a long-term effect of putting the critical infrastructure of developing countries under Chinese control.  Hence, many people see the United States as ceding global leadership to China.[6]

It’s difficult to know what to make of this charge.  On the one hand, George W. Bush in his second term and Barack Obama in both his terms sought to limit American engagement abroad in the interest of strengthening a redoubled country at home.  The Trump Administration’s “America First” rhetoric and policies falls in line with these earlier efforts.  Thus the national impulse seems to be running toward dealing with domestic problems.  It is hard to deny that America has pressing domestic problems that will not be easily resolved.

On the other hand, China’s strengths are many and real.  It would be foolish to think that these will not reshape the global order.  So, where is the sweet spot?

[1] “China’s plan to run the world,” The Week, 16 June 2017, p. 11.

[2] Obviously, the planners hadn’t been reading Cormac McCarthy.  See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Road

[3] For the historical antecedents, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zheng_He

[4] The treaty was highly favorable to Americans.  It created a free trade zone encompassing 40 percent of the world’s trade, while creating safeguards for American interests through labor and environmental standards.

[5] Along the way, China moved  86 percent of its people out of extreme poverty.  Many of them moved into lives of middle-class abundance—and stress.

[6] American announcement that the country would withdraw from the Paris Climate Control agreement is offered as a further example of American abdication.