Monday, 18 September 2017

North Korea Crisis 2017: Kim Jong Un's Strategy of Maximal Brinkmanship

'Recent events have sharpened Beijing’s antagonism. Calls for stronger action against its neighbour are growing. This week an influential academic suggested that China may have no choice but to hold talks with the US on contingency planning for war'. Tania Branigan, Guardian, Sunday 17 September 2017

China could well have to start planning a joint military plan with America that would allow for 'deconfliction' just as Russia has with the US over the war in Syria, another strategic state whose implosion and descent into warfare had destabilising consequences within and beyond the region where its located.

The situation as of September 2017 is immensely dangerous not because North Korea in itself is such a real threat to the US. The risk is that Kim Jong Un's nuclear programme demands a response which could lead to the destabilisation of East Asia through further nuclearisation and an accelerating arms race.

As Branigan points out, Trump's 'strategy' has been all over the place. The dysfunctionality of the administration is heightening the potential for China and Russia and the US, South Korea and Japan to miscalculate their responses to the North Korea crisis in a fog of uncertainty that could trigger off a catastrophic war.

At one level, the North Korean Crisis is not as severe as the one over Cuba in 1962 because Kim's hermit state simply cannot be compared with the colossal Soviet Empire or its massive nuclear arsenal at the height of the Cold War. Kim's bragging about reaching 'equilibrium' with US nuclear power is just a provocation.

However, at another level, the North Korean stand off could be more dangerous in its unpredictability than Cuba because the real danger comes from the potential of Russia and China on one side and the US on the other to mismanage their handling of the seemingly erratic and suicidally 'mad' Kim Jong Un.

The US approach has been based on threatening war on North Korea as a means to compel China to do what the US insists is necessary-or else. This use of coercive diplomacy towards it over a state right on its north-east borders is bound to be resented because Chinese leverage is more limited than Washington seems to realise.

China clearly resents North Korea destabilising the region but it also fears that if it collapses then there could be chaos and nuclear material floating around in conditions of anarchy. If the US and South Korea were to invade, China would have to move south of the River Yalu to create a new buffer zone.

These circumstances would recreate very similar circumstances to those of the first Korean war that never officially ended in 1953. But the bigger question is whether China, aligning more firmly with Russia in the course of 2017 through joint naval drills in the Baltic Sea and now in the north Pacific, would 'allow' any US military action.

Unless the US is bluffing, it is going either to have to issue an ultimatum or to simply attack North Korea without warning. In fact, it could not offer an ultimatum, as with Germany and Austria Hungary over Serbia in 1914, because the success of its military strikes would depend on knocking the regime out before it could respond.

The chances of a US military strike 'decapitating' the North Korean regime or significantly destroying its military before it launched devastating artillery and missile attacks across the DMZ, aimed at turning Seoul into a 'lake of fire', are minimal. In addition, it could lead to panic responses in China and a geopolitical collision.

Moreover, even Trump's real and growing threat of a using colossal of 'fire and fury' against a North Korea on China's border would lead to a heightened and widened paranoia that the US could resort to force over any number of other frozen border disputes and areas of geopolitical friction from Taiwan down to the South China Sea.

China has every interest in cooperating to find a diplomatic resolution. But it is not going to be forced or even seen to be forced simply to do the bidding of the US on its terms as though it's failure to act as the US demands implies it's responsible or guilty for any further threat or imminent recourse of the US to military coercion.

When the Chinese Foreign Ministry denied it was 'the key' to preventing North Korea developing its nuclear programme, and the US was responsible for untying the knots it had tied together, the emphasis was shifted back to the US to back down from aggressive rhetoric and 'lose face' if necessary after its blustering.

Sanctions, even on oil cannot work, as Kim has the technology to convert North Korea's large coal reserves into liquefied form. It is a state completely set up, above all, to survive anything the external powers could do. Sanctions, in impoverishing the people, make it even more intent on accelerating the nuclear programme.

The reason is that sanctions imposed by the West have already failed to dissuade the regime and China and the US are at cross purposes in trying to get North Korea to change course. China has held out that engaging with Pyongyang and still trading would give it more of a stake in not pursuing the nuclear programme.

In other words, building up trade ties and North Korea developing would give the regime more of a stake in not being rash or suicidal in that it would have more at stake to lose and the elites, in particular, more to lose if they started to get rich. Certain smart sanctions would then have more effect.

The problem is Kim's 'neo-Juche' regime has sabotaged all attempts to balance carrots with sticks by controlling a patronage system that allocates consumer goods carefully according to regime loyalty and mercilessly uses terror and execution for any in the elites who have shown too close a political link to China.

Four of the five pallbearers at Kim Jong Il's funeral in 2011 have disappeared and Kim's uncle executed for becoming too close to China. Kim's step brother was also considered a potential rival and assassinated in February 2017 at Malaysia Airport with VX nerve gas to demonstrate two things to the world.

The first is that Trump's Tomahawk missile strikes against Assad for an alleged chemical weapon attack in April 2017 was not going to impress upon Xi Jinping that he had any way of influencing or building up a counter elite or coup potential. China would never be able to remove him any more than Trump could either.

Secondly, the use of a chemical weapon was designed to remind the world that Kim has huge stocks of these weapons and is not in any denial that he has them or would use them to lethal effect against any attempt to remove him or his regime by military force. Such weapons could easily be fired against any regional state.

Kim Jong Un's Strategy: Maximum Brinkmanship and Regime Survival.

Kim is playing a game of suicidal brinkmanship based on the seemingly rational calculus that the US is going to have to recognise his power and either it or China, with US tacit approval, is going to have to offer to 'monetise' any halt to the nuclear programme or else re-engage in talks to end the Korean war.

A return to the Six Party talks are the only way out. The alternative is for North Korea to proceed, Japan to gear up for rearmament, including even developing its own nuclear missiles and for South Korea to have more THAAD anti-ballistic missiles deployed and for China to fear North Korea is being used as a further pretext to 'contain' it.

The cost of not resolving the crisis diplomatically or putting in place a process to start doing so is the dangers of any move or perceived move to resolve it through force could lead to insecurity and paranoia in conditions of heightened tensions where the North Korean crisis could trigger off a wider geopolitical clash.

THAAD anti-ballistic missiles in South Korea are to be used against short and medium range missiles, but the radar technology they come equipped with are thought to have another function as an early warning system that would downgrade the deterrent function of China's ICBMs relative to those of the US.

Kim's strategy would appear to be to ratchet up the regional crisis and to destabilise it through stimulating a potential arms race which would threaten to make a diplomatic resolution even harder in future should the Great Powers not deal with North Korea now. The longer they delay, the higher the stakes become.

The decision to fire potential nuclear armed missiles over Hokkaido is intended to get Japan to accelerate an arms race already in motion, including a shift towards developing nuclear missiles as China and Japan dispute the sovereignty of the Senkuku Islands, their claim to the seas round them and the oil that lies beneath.

Kim has increased the pace of H bomb testing and missile firing throughout 2017 probably because he realised in the new US administration the chance to contribute to the insecurity bred by Trump's campaign comments that Japan and South Korea could develop nuclear missiles and the US shouldn't pay for their security.

By launching his own dash for nuclear ICBMs, Kim is increasing the threat of hostilities not only towards his own state but also of the other regional states to one another. It's this effect of his nuclear programme and the fear that the US is not a reliable ally, one swinging between belligerence and being unengaged, that he's exploiting.

The ultimate ambition in Pyongyang is regime security. It's thought developing ICBMs capable of striking US cities within a short time frame also would deter the US from assisting South Korea should North Korea cross the DMZ and forcibly reuniting the Korean Peninsula. Certainly, ICBMs could have such deterrent effect.

As a pretext for US military action to prevent Kim having ICBMs, this falls into a trap set by Kim who in 2013 claimed he no longer recognised the forty year truce and to hasten the nuclear programme accordingly. But the idea North Korea would be able to develop ICBMs without a counter deterrent coming is not credible.

On September 5, South Korea hinted for US nuclear weapons to be redeployed there, only for President Moon Jae-in to dismiss the possibility of deploying nuclear weapons in his country, warning sensibly it could "lead to nuclear arms race in northeast Asia": this would mean both China and even Russia.

The regional powers appear to understand that the purpose of Kim's missile tests is to try to ratchet up fear and paranoia and keep playing them off in having to come to him with a deal or for the threat of war in future in the region to be increased. The problem is Trump's administration has no strategy to bring about multilateral talks.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

'Normalising' North Korea: The Threat of Nuclear War and the Strange Role of Dennis Rodman.

'If the west really wants to bring change to North Korea then it should do it from within, not without. It should bomb the place with trade, rot it with contact, bribe and suborn its apparat and its families, exchange its students, conquer it with capital'.-Simon Jenkins, Guardian, September 15 , 2017
Bombarding North Korea with Trade.

Simon Jenkins is right that sanctions on North Korea are simply not going to work. Yet China and has tried to 'bombard the place with trade': Russia with energy. China's entire strategy has depended upon increasing trade ties with a view to building up a pro-Chinese ruling elite and to give Pyongyang a stake in East Asian prosperity.

China has failed to effect any change in North Korea because the totalitarian dictatorship has managed to use control over consumer goods and access to them as part of its own loyalty system. Elites who were seen as too close politically to China, such as Kim's uncle, said to have been executed by been ripped to pieces by dogs.

Jang Song-thaek was killed in 2013. Four out of the five pallbearers at Kim Jong Il's funeral have been purged and eliminated since Kim Jong Un came to power in 2011. Then there was Kim's half-brother who was assassinated in April 2017 at Malaysia Airport with VX nerve agent gas to remove him as rival.

Kim Jong Nam was regarded by China as a potential alternative to the neo-Juche Kim. So the North Korean regime is well aware of the danger trade and consumer luxuries might pose in tempting elites away from the puritanical ideology of the state and how it might be used by China as a tool to manipulate factions within.

Kim's entire reign has been about repositioning North Korea as a purer neo-totalitarian state, one that harks back to the 'good old days' of the Cold War and higher living standards under Kim Il Sung who successfully played on Sino-Soviet rivalry to extract economic concessions and so to buy influence in this geostrategically located land.

If North Korea is to be 'bombarded by trade', this would only happen after North Korea has an effective ICBM arsenal. It's part of Kim's neo-Juche programme and of ensuring no external power could ever come to liberate North Korea. It's an additional reason why China would not want stringent oil sanctions that could collapse the regime.

The North Korean Strategic Game Plan: Unpredictability and Dividing the Great Powers.

North Korea uses the threat of its own disintegration and the danger it poses to extract economic concessions from China. The more sanctions are placed upon in, the more it has the full rationale to fire missiles and threaten the prospect of an attack on any surrounding state, in order to keep them guessing and to believe the leaders are mad.

The rationale in Pyongyang is to ratchet up the arms race in East Asia and contribute to a developing insecurity whereby the North Korean threat would mean Japan aims to develop nuclear missiles or militarise its response in ways that would antagonise China. This upgrades North Korea's relative bargaining status as a key to peace.

Japan has been threatened twice by missiles fired over Hokkaido because should Japan respond with aggressive rhetoric , it could be used to portray Japan as reviving its dangerous role as an aggressor state as it was during World War Two. There is still resentment at Japan for its war crimes across Korea and in China alive in 2017.

As Mark Almond argues 'Stoking more than a century of Korean-Japanese antagonism is part of Kim's play to split America's allies. At the same time he is bolstering his dynasty and ramping up national feeling by reminding North Koreans of the potent myth of his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, as a resistance hero, defying the Japanese'.

More broadly, with China's ascendency, nationalism has been rekindled as a force in the region. There are disputes over sea rights and over islands that lie in seas known to contain reserves of oil and gas. South Korea is arguing with Japan over sovereignty over the Liancourt rocks and China and Japan over the Senkaku Islands.

The history of World War Two in the Asia Pacific and Japan's refusal to apologise for the fate of Korean 'comfort women' and its war crimes have become 'weaponised' in nationalist ideology as a tool of power politics in the region. North Korea thrives off this resentment and the idea Japan and the US are as one as evil 'warmongering imperialists'.

The US and Japan were enemies during World War Two until the use of atomic bombs ended it in August 1945. But the subsequent way the two aligned thereafter and the US defended Korea south of an arbitrarily delineated border drawn by a US general across the 38th parallel through a victim country has never been forgotten or forgiven.

Certainly, Kim would like to detach the US from Japan should he be able to threaten reaching the US with ICBMs or else to provoke Japan into an overreaction that would concern China and force it to retain North Korea as a strategically placed state between it and South Korea and Japan. That would upgrade his usefulness.

It is not just North Korea that fears a Japan that could become an effective military power once more: South Korea and China would fear it too once the US made clear that Tokyo could reprise the hegemonic role it gained between the end of the Russo-Japanese war of 1905 and throughout the 1920s and 1930s.

While the US guaranteed the peace in East Asia after 1945, there is a fear not only of the clash this could bring about between the US and the rising power of China but also of the security gap it could open up as the US enters a stage of relative decline and is looking to 'regionalise' its geopolitical grand strategy and offset burdens.

As Mark Almond states,

'In response to the North Korean threat, Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is trying to push through changes to his country's post-war 'pacifist' constitution which renounces war and 'the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes'. And while other players in the region such as South Korea, China and the Philippines don't like Kim's aggression either, they have lurking fears of Japanese rearmament'.

As befits North Korea's Orwellian state, war means peace through aggression.  The aim, though, is to monetise the nuclear programme and for the various regional powers to have to strike a deal to pay off the leadership in return for putting the programme on hold. The alternative is the regional powers ratchet up a dangerous arms race.

Sanctions could hardly work, as Vladimir Putin rightly pointed out, as nothing could deter Kim from the nuclear programme as the regime is determined to survive at any costs as the alternative is considered suicide anyway. The only way forward is to open up diplomatic back channels and get the US and South Korea in talks with Pyongyang.

Enter Dennis Rodman and 'Basketball Diplomacy'.

Dennis Rodman is the person who might be the key to this. When he first visited North Korea with Vice News journalists in 2013, it was written off as a publicity stunt by a deranged ex-NBA basketball star which only helped to 'humanise' the dictator and provide good public relations for North Korea.

Rodman was welcomed by Kim who loves basketball and even sang a weird rendition of Happy Birthday to Kim, copying Marilyn Monroe's famous serenading of John F Kennedy in the 1960s. None of it was taken at all seriously but Kim was hardly going to be taken more 'seriously' or policy change because of Rodman.

Kim is probably hoping that the US remembers how 'ping pong diplomacy' opened up the way for connections to be made in the early 1970s before President Nixon's famous visit to China, one that finally brought Mao's state out of its isolation and ended the 'bamboo curtain' that had existed since the CCP took power in 1949.

Whether Rodman is quite aware of what he is doing is unclear. But certainly Kim and the ruling elite know their history and how Rodman is of use to them as they are aware of the precedent. They could be hoping Washington picks up on this. It's only careful diplomacy that could end the immediate threat of war breaking out.

The problem is not North Korea alone as Jenkins appears to think. The broader problem is North Korea is threatening to destabilise the entire region unless its own security needs are accepted and used as the basis for a comprehensive settlement that officially ends the Korea War and in which denuclearisation is linked to it.

Sanctions have failed. The US pulled back from surrounding North Korea with ships to enforce an embargo. This could have led to a ship being attacked and to trigger off a war should North Korea have become paranoid about the prospect of a seaborne invasion force, as with MacArthur's that landed at Incheon in September 1950.

There are no military options that would not almost inevitably lead to North Korea launching a devastating missile and artillery barrage across the DMZ against Seoul that would lead to an intense war and potentially millions dead. The danger of a clash with China should war with North Korea happen is very possible.

The only way the North Korean threat to regional stability could be averted has to involve its gradual reincorporation into the rest through diplomacy to end the first Korean War and not overt threats of a second war it's been preparing for since the 1950s. This can only start if back channels talks are initiated, by Rodman if necessary.

The Danger to World Peace Unabated.

The worst-best outcome is thought to be that North Korea obtains ICBM and the world learns to adapt and cope with it. This, and Jenkins idea of bombarding North Korea with trade and bilateral ties, ignores the aggressive and destabilising dynamism of the North Korea regime of the rationale behind its seeming irrationality.

North Korea having nuclear missiles changes the strategic balance in the region and Japan and South Korea, especially Japan would feel more insecure as without nuclear missiles it could not be absolutely sure of its security depending on the US alone should it be able to threaten American cities.

If Japan develops nuclear missiles this would 'nuclearise' the region. Even if that response does not happen, the deployment of THAAD anti-ballistic missiles and the tendency to militarise responses to the North Korean threat-and few really know quite what its strategy is for sure-would lead to an intensified arms race.

China vociferously opposes THAAD in South Korea as, though used against short and medium range missiles, its radar systems could also be used as an early warning system for the US in the Asia Pacific and so help downgrade the deterrent threat of China's nuclear arsenal force in relation to that of America.

Going for broke on the nuclear missile programme is the only way North Korea could hope to gain recognition and a degree of security and freedom from 'regime change' from without. The way Trump has attempted to ditch the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and his own threats of nuclear war have made this vital to their survival.

The Spectre of a China-US Collision over North Korea.

North Korea knows it is able to pursue brinkmanship because should the US threaten it with unilateral military action, this antagonises China which regards North Korea as part of its Asian sphere of interest. Defying China over nuclear tests while threatening the region and the US is a way to divide and weaken their response.

Kim's regime is calculating the US response of military action, hinted again as an 'option' that could be passed over by Nikki Haley and H R McMaster to James 'Mad Dog' Mattis if the latest sanctions fail to deter, would meet with hostility and even counter threats from China should the US issue an ultimatum.

As of September 17 2017, the Chinese foreign ministry has rejected the US claim from Haley and Tillerson that China has the key to defuse the crisis by cutting off all trade and energy lifelines to the regime. Being pushed into a corner by the US, threatening that either it acts or the US will in its way, is bound to be rebuffed.

The Chinese position is that Trump and his administration have upped the ante and the war of rhetoric or 'tied the knots' and so the US has to 'untie them'. This essentially means it needs to either back down or extricate itself from the crisis by pursuing diplomatic routes to try and make North Korea part of a peace settlement.

The big danger is that the US calculates that China really does have the means to stop North Korea and that its unwillingness to do anything means that the threat to the US and its allies is regarded as less important than China retaining a buffer state between it and South Korea where its military and missiles are based.

China could become substantially fearful that the US is effectively blaming it for the fact North Korea was allowed to become a threat to California. Set against a variety of hostile comments about China's role in the global economy, in 'ripping off' the US in trade and warmongering comments, China would fear US military action in Korea.

Without any diplomatic process agreed on between China and the US to jointly deal with North Korea, any imminent attack or threat of it could lead China to mobilise its forces to cross the River Yalu as it did in October 1950 after MacArthur landed at Incheon and forced North Korean forces back towards China.

As Graham Allison points out in Destined to War, North Korea is one of the unresolved geopolitical flashpoints that could provide the spark that triggers off a major clash, either before a US military intervention or after as US and South Korean troops cross the DMZ and potentially collide with Chinese forces moving south.

After all, North Korea is one of those 'frozen conflicts' that came at the end of China's re-emergence as a modern state in 1949 and that are coming back to the fore as China becomes the dominant power in the Asia-Pacific region. It's one of several that surrounds China's flanks from Xijiang, Burma, the South China Sea round to Taiwan.

Of all these, North Korea is the most intractable, one which could lead to mutual miscalculation between the US and North Korea and, even more worryingly, escalate into a collision with China should it dramatically spin out of control. It's this aspect of the 2017 crisis that's drawn comparison with the outbreak of war in 1914.
The other comparison is with the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The big difference is the two major players, China and the US, are not engaged in a mutually hostile Cold War antagonism as were the Soviet Union and America then. Moreover, Cuba accepted Soviet missiles whereas North Korea has developed its own.
In many ways this makes the North Korean Crisis less of a danger, as it in no way rivals the Soviet threat to the US in the 1960s, despite bragging it aims at nuclear 'equilibrium'. But in another way, it's more dangerous because none of the regional or global powers knows what North Korea actually intends to do: it's uncontrollable.
The biggest danger lies in whether US military planners and the politicians are leaning towards believing the window of opportunity to deter or then prevent North Korea from developing ICBMs that could threaten the US is closing and that either it acts militarily in 2017 or learns to deal with a nuclear armed North Korea.
As the US shifts towards indicating it could be prepared to strike North Korea and Pyongyang has no accurate way of knowing exactly when this could occur, it's all the more resolved to accelerate the nuclear programme and the apocalyptic threats. It's with such heightened tensions that mistakes could easily detonate a major war.

For draconian UN sanctions cannot deter the regime from nuclearisation. They only make it more liable to the internal threat of disintegration and so the last ditch recourse to threatening the region and even Guam and the US mainland with nuclear strikes so as to be able to strike some sort of bargain to ensure regime survival.


Sunday, 10 September 2017

Aung San Suu Kyi , Rakhine and the Geopolitical Struggle over Myanmar.

As thousands of Muslim Rohingya have fled west from Myanmar across the border into Bangladesh amist accusations of 'ethnic cleansing' or even a 'genocide', Aung San Suu Kyi, the leading advocate of democracy, human rights and Nobel Prize winner has now been firmly condemned for her silence on her General's actions.

Suu Kyi might do well do to heed her own advice “Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it.” However, it is unfortunately a feature of many democratic transitions from dictatorship in multi-ethnic states to have the outbreak of ethnic-sectarian separatism and violence.Yugoslavia after 1991 was one example.

The other was the 'Arab Spring' of 2011 which rapidly became hijacked as part of an Iranian-Saudi and Qatari proxy war. The Myanmar military would appear to be persecuting the Rohingya Muslim and pursuing 'ethnic cleansing' but the brutal reality is a nasty civil war in the province going on has developed since October 2016.

Moreover, the Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) which is launching an insurgency is a fanatical newly branded jihadi group backed by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia for geopolitical advantage. The new Myanmar-China gas pipeline runs right through coastal Rakhine and the Saudi would like to extend control over the province.

Riyadh wants to pose to pose as the champion of global Sunni jihad and block off Iranian gas and oil exports through to China which will, in return, supply much need electricity to Myanmar. Riyadh has been bankrolling intolerant Wahhabi Islam throughout neighbouring Bangladesh in order to extend its influence.

Though Harakah al-Yakin (HaY) was mostly concerned with local grievances, it converted to become the ARSA the better to draw in funds from the Gulf States, in the same way the Sunni jihadists in the FSA attempted after the Syrian uprising was hijacked for similar geostrategic reasons and to sabotage rival projects.

The silence of Suu Kyi could well reflect knowledge that Myanmar is becoming the site of a jihad backed by external powers and that the insurgency-terrorist threat is real. That could offset the fact Myanmar military is cracking down disproportionately and driving out Rohingya Muslims in revenge for ARSA attacks.

Weapons have reached ARSA through southern Bangladesh into Myanmar via the Bangladeshi border and Bay of Bengal. As with the KLA in the conflict with the Serbian-Yugoslav forces, much funding comes from the Rohingya diaspora community. It's becoming a regional  Islamic jihad cheerled by the Saudis.

This meddling in Myanmar's internal affairs started in 2012, just as it did in Syria and Yemen after 2011. Riyadh started to provide funds for the Rohingya and, even prior to that in 2009, the previous king offered sanctuary to 250,000 Rohingya of whom 3,000 were amnestied from its prisons and sent back to Myanmar.

Saudi Arabia is doing what it usually does in trying to radicalise Muslims through Wahhabi teachings and using their terrorist threat as power political leverage. Riyadh would be able to use its defence of the Rohingya to upgrade its status as a defender of Muslim human rights and get the West bound closer to it in its rivalry with China.

One reason for this alignment is the Myanmar-China pipeline. For it allows less energy to go between Africa and the Middle East by tanker via the Malacca Straits which is patrolled off Malaysia by the US navy and could be used to choke China's energy hungry economy of oil should both Great Powers collide over geopolitical interests.

The US has only expressed 'concern' over events in Rakhine. It would not want to drive Myanmar and Thailand further towards China's sphere of interest. Both states have become more closely aligned since 2012 and the Thai coup. Both have trying to balance off Western interests, not least in Myanmar's oil and gas, China.

As for Aung San Suu Kyi, she would risk being deposed if she attacked the still powerful generals who could be sure of total and powerful Chinese support in order to preserve and protect the Myanmar stretch of its huge new "One Belt, One Road" initiative, one that challenges US hegemony in Asia.

The West too is ready to criticise her now as an irrelevant and tarnished asset in the New Great Game. Her previous champion Timothy Garton Ash has, since 2012, little or nothing to write in public about her as a beacon of human rights and freedom while US officials are probably wondering how to balance their interests best.

Friday, 8 September 2017

President Trump is Not a Fascist

'This was apparent recently in Charlottesville, in the US, and the demagogue who excited the murderous rage that day, and later excused it, was Donald Trump'.
It's not entirely clear Trump 'excited' the Charlottesville mob directly to descend into the town, though clearly Trump's demagoguery during the 2016 election helped stoke up the far right in the US. However, Trump simply is not a fascist, even if his body language has certain similarities to Mussolini.

Usually very sensible commentators such as brilliant historian Tim Snyder have been right to caution about the threat to the rule of law and a constitutional republic. But it's hard to avoid the impression Snyder has been blinded by hatred for Putin's Russia, which he regards as 'fascist' and so yokes Trump with him.

The 'Russia collusion' narrative has been taken up by democrats smarting from Hillary Clinton's humiliating defeat and Republicans such as Senator McCain who have a neo-Cold War loathing for Russia and see any potential for a rapprochement as 'appeasement'. He also failed to become Republican President in 2008.

There is, however, very little evidence Russia successfully colluded with Trump's campaign team to install him in the White House. This conspiracy theory is held to by liberals who refuse to accept a right wing demagogue with an admiration for Putin could possibly have been voted in the world's leading democracy.

In the US there is no mass movement that Trump leads that swept him into the White House. That distinguishes Trump clearly from Hitler. Trump has no long term involvement in politics or agitation in radical nationalist groups. He's an outsider who flirted with both Democrats and republicans over the years.

Trump's straightforwardly a rabble rousing populist who would say anything to get votes and pose as the strongman who will 'Make America Great Again'. Unless there is a group within the US elites prepared to back an executive order in a 'state of emergency' to curtail the rule of law, the US is nowhere near 'fascism'.

This is not to say the US could not shift towards an authoritarian-nationalist power state should Trump shift towards an aggressive war after a 9/11 moment or building up with an Iraq style of choreography for a war with Iran later in 2017. But it's hard to see how the MSM and elites would not support such a war.

In fact, it's for this very reason Trump's administration could well be planning a war on Iran. After all, the brief missile strikes on Syria in April 2017, following Assad's alleged chemical weapons attack, repositioned Trump as truly Presidential-'the making of a President'-according to CNN's Fareed Zakaria.

Otherwise, unlike in 2003, the MSM might this time do its job should Trump cynically sabotage the 2015 nuclear deal and cook up various 'post-truth' pretexts for war. Those ranged in anti-war protests could well be demonised as 'enemies within'. There are dangerous signs Trump wants to militarise the police.

But it's more likely Trump's Presidency is going to be more 'sound and fury' rather than 'fire and fury'. The reason even normally staid liberals are tacking towards almost 'antifa' positions is more about demonising Trump because, understandably, he's not playing the public diplomacy game on 'US values'.

Trump is blundering, aggressive in rhetoric and largely lame in his Presidency. He commands no wider movement with power outside the Washington elites. There is no evidence of the police or FBI or others plotting or planning a takeover of the state. Checks and balances are working to restrain Trump's Presidency.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Apocalyse Now: September 2017- The Escalating North Korean Crisis.

'..the reckless rhetoric coming from the Trump administration — such as a threat of “fire and fury” and a claim that North Korea is “begging for war” —  damages alliances and raises the risk of conflict.'
The reason for the Trump administration's escalation of the rhetorical war is that there seems not to be any diplomatic strategy in place other than Trump's tactic of a 'Madman Act'. Emulating Nixon in 1969, the idea seemed to be to get China to compel what's considered a proxy power-North Korea-to the table.

The problem with this tactic is that it heightens the paranoia in Pyongyang without there being any evidence, as there was in the late 1960s over Vietnam, of any attempt at back channel diplomacy going on. Consequently, as this crisis gathered momentum in early 2017, a potentially lethal game of  'chicken' has developed.

Kim Jong Un has no idea what Trump could do and has every rationale to play for the highest stakes in this game of nuclear brinkmanship. In April, Trump, who opposed involvement in Syria, suddenly did a complete reversal of policy and fired off tomahawks on the pretext of an alleged Assad gas attack.

The real reason had being to impress upon Xi that Trump could do anything and that cooperation over North Korea, and reining in Kim, was vital if he were not to consider doing the same against another rogue dictator. But the Chinese simply don't have the leverage over Kim that Trump assumes they have.

In fact, the public and savage execution of Kim's uncle in 2013, either thrown to dogs or blasted live out of a cannon, was designed to signal that those who had aligned close to Beijing could expect to be purged or murdered, a policy of terror that has undermined China's attempt to use trade to mollify the regime.

Trump's expectation that either Xi sorts out Kim or Trump will deal with him from supreme strength-including 'fire and fury'-is bound to turn what is potentially a containable conflict into a serious war, even World War Three, should China then draw red lines as regards any unilateral use of force to 'take out' the regime.

In fact, the best diplomatic response has actually, probably for this purpose of 'deconfliction', been from China which has advocated a 'dual freeze' policy whereby talks could be established and Pyongyang would agree to freeze its nuclear tests in return for the US-South Korea ceasing its war games and drills.

Ultimately, if there are to be talks, there needs to be an opening move followed by a mutual intent to try to bring the First Korean War that ended in 1953 to an official end and steadily demilitarise the Korean Peninsula on both sides of the DMZ. This would mean Russia and China are essentially a party too.

North Korea: Permanently Awaiting War.

North Korea lives in terror state of fear imposed by the regime and by history. It has been on a permanent war footing ever since the conflict ended: in fact, the war has not ended in North Korea where propaganda drills it into the people morning, noon and night that a vile US Imperialist attack is coming.

As Bruce Cumings has pointed out, whereas Trump probably has no idea about the 'forgotten history' of the Korean War, North Korea has perpetually expected a second devastating attack in line with the deeply traumatic impact of the first. The disconnect between how the war is remembered in the US and North Korea is clear.

Whereas the US war is depicted as being that of a 'policeman' to deter unprovoked communist aggression, few "understand that the South also mounted hundreds if not thousands of terrorist attacks on the North". Standard accounts also tend to underplay the sheer destruction unleashed by US carpet bombing.

Cumings makes clear in his The Korean War that the bombing destroyed 80% of cities in the north and killed five million people. When Air Force General Curtis Le May had literally run out of any more targets, he then decided to bomb the huge irrigation dams, destroying 75% of North Korea's water supplies.

The intractable problem in September 2017 is that the US gives all the signals in planning a unilateral action and Kim could have a semi-suicidal drive to see his brinkmanship through until he demonstrates he has functioning ICBMs that make him untouchable. Trump has rejected talking again and again.

Comparisons between North Korea and Iran.

Pyongyang is also bound to be aware that even if it were to strike a deal with the US, it would be worthless as Nikki Haley, who claimed Kim was 'begging for war' in the UN, has also set about intentionally sabotaging the nuclear deal with Iran, despite the fact the atomic inspectors found Tehran in compliance.

The race towards attaining nuclear weapons was hastened in earnest within North Korea in 2002 when George W Bush placed North Korea on the 'Axis of Evil' along with Syria, Iraq and, of course, Iran. The attempt to find Iran non-compliant in 'spirit' is more about purely power political considerations.

Throughout the summer of 2017, Haley and members of the Trump administration, as well as those close to it such as John Bolton, have been trying to undermine the deal because the long term consequence of the Iraq invasion has been the rise of Shia power and the westwards expansion of Iranian influence.

If WMDs rather than geopolitical and strategic resource considerations in the Middle East had been paramount, North Korea should have been the focus of diplomatic initiatives to continue a freeze on nuclear weapons programme in according with the framework set up in 1994 in which it would stop in return for energy help.

Given the fate of so many rogue state actors, such as Saddam, it's unclear whether why Kim could ever trust the US to keep its word. Gaddafi gave up his WMDs in 2004 when Blair struck a post-Iraq War deal with the West in order to survive. Just seven years later, France and the UK led yet another war of regime change.

North Korea: Determined on Highest Stakes Brinkmanship.

Mark Almond is right that Kim has little way too of backing down now over the tests. One ultimate rationale for nuclear power is regime survival and to impress on his own people the state is genuinely eternal, like the first Dear Leader himself, and no outside power is going to try to 'liberate it' from without.

Becoming a nuclear power is the last definite way Kim could ensure his regime lasts, as the threat of future sanctions that would be truly draconian and designed to destabilise his state would still require China to calculate whether it could afford to have a failed state with nuclear weapons right on its border.

Then, in the US, Trump is also struggling domestically with criticism he is a weak leader when he came to power pretending to be tough and consequential. As with Kim, it's now a game of nerves and who is going to blink first. And at present there seems no indication either side understands the other or will back down.

This is truly a problem from hell. There is no guarantee the Trump administration knows what the hell it is doing or what it could unleash should the US decide it's 'now or never' and go for a military solution to destroy Kim's regime before he acquires an ICBM arsenal that could reach mainland America.

'Freeze and Rollback' or 'Dual freeze': Rival Diplomatic Approaches.

North Korea might freeze missile testing as part of a quid pro quo in which, once negotiations are opened, require the US and South Korea to stand down the war game preparations. China would be brought in as part of a negotiated plan to fund North Korea on condition its nuclear programme remains frozen.

This would require North Korea to submit to inspectors in exchange for unlocking Chinese funding. This plan would have the benefit of drawing China into a deeper and more substantial role in holding Pyongyang to account, in ways it cannot at present, and to have more responsibility for reining Kim in.

Victor Cha and Jake Sullivan call this, in the Washington Post, a 'freeze and rollback' scheme. He isn't convinced by the 'dual freeze' plan. However, once China is more effectively involved into a mechanism to hold Pyongyang to account, there then could later be a broader move to demilitarise the Korean Peninsula.

China, as the power political circumstances stand in September 2017, is not going to be drawn into a deal in which it has the choice of either forcing Kim to stand down or else face a unilateral military action by the US to destroy the regime on its borders in which it has the choice of accepting on US terms or not.

Ultimately, the resolution of this crisis has to be regional and aimed at the US reducing its military role in South Korea and for China to step up and take responsibility for holding North Korea to account. It's dangerous to demand of China it does so 'or else' the US would attack North Korea to end the threat.

Unfortunately, there is, in US nationalist circles, still this Cold war idea North Korea is just a 'puppet' of China and that it's deceiving the West and its allies over its attempts to rein Kim in. The UK's Boris Johnson's demand that it must place more draconian sanctions on Pyongyang mindlessly replicates this stance.

China faces the nightmare dilemma that if it simply cuts off all supplies to North Korea, and its sanctions have actually been draconian so far, the regime could collapse and even become more aggressive in even threatening China as its nuclear arms swash around in a border state in conditions of chaos.

Worse, the US demand in the UN for severe sanctions that would see Russia and China cutting off oil and gas supplies would intensify the potential for regime collapse and Kim to ratchet up the nuclear programme to the point of a first missile strike. Without sanctions being attached to talks, the risk to China rises.

As Kim uses this threat as one reason why China could not cut off all supplies and trade, Cha's strategy of tying Chinese funding for the regime to a verified freeze in proceeding with the nuclear programme would be one way of ensuring it actually goes towards state survival and mutually accepted goals.

If Trump could be pushed into brokering such a China-North Korea deal, he would be able to come away with being able to claim success for his brinkmanship in response to Kim and to restore confidence in the US as a regional force for stability and cautious diplomacy. China's stance would be validated too.

The Future Threat Unabated.

This is the only realistic chance of averting catastrophe. If the stand off is left to develop, and North Korea achieves nuclear power status with ICBMs, the unofficial acceptance of this, combined with the unpredictable nature of the regime and concern over its capability and intent, would stimulate a nuclear arms race.

Both South Korea and Japan would not be prepared to rely on a Trump administration that is dysfunctional, comes out with contradictory claims and rhetoric on a daily basis and makes dark threats that are not credible in relation to North Korea. Trump has given every impression of empty blustering.

The prospect then for a worse crisis later would be increased. For if no war or diplomatic resolution, North Korea would have developed a second-strike capacity and it would be too late to do anything to  put pressure on Pyongyang to curtail its nuclear programme and all regional powers would arm to face the threat.

North Korea is the 'joker in the pack' as regards nuclear missile power. None of the regional powers are onside with Pyongyang. None have security against it, as none know who the missiles could or would be aimed at. That would compel Japan to develop a nuclear deterrent and resurrect Chinese fears of it.

Though a nuclear armed North Korea might need to be adapted to, the process whereby the regional and global powers do adapt to it is fraught with the potential for a series of potentially catastrophic strategic miscalculations on both sides, the 'fog of uncertainty' and blundering that led to war in 1914 and, almost, in 1962.

The North Korean Crisis of 2017 is being compared to the Cuban Missile Crisis but it's far more potentially dangerous, as then there were two sides in a 'bipolar world' which had the capacity to engage to defuse the crisis. This time no Great Power quite has any idea what Kim Jong Un intends or could do.

While North Korea isn't in itself much of a nuclear threat, the danger lies in the potential for China and the US colliding over their approach to dealing with this state and China panicking in response to any US plan or an ultimatum, in which an attack on North Korea is mooted, and counter mobilising in reaction.

While common opposition to North Korea's nuclear programme could bring the Great Powers together, mutual fears and suspicions within the region-and an incompetent Trump administration-is playing havoc with the strategic calculations of the regional powers in ways that could multiply the confusion and room for error.

Sooner or later, either the US is either going to have to go to war with North Korea, back down and be seen to allow Kim a victory or else it's going to broker talks involving both it, China and the two Korean governments. Which way Trump will go-or be pushed-is unpredictable as much of what he does is a big show.

What's certain is the longer the North Korean Crisis goes on, the greater the danger of a miscalculation in response to Kim upping the ante by even more displays of seemingly psychopathological aggression will be in proportion. He has no intention of ceasing in his strategy of provocation and brinkmanship.

Monday, 4 September 2017

Useful Articles and Links on Geopolitics and Great Power Politics

Here is a list of some of the most interesting articles on Geopolitics, Great Power politics and Grand strategy I have read recently or else intend to read soon. It will be expanded and updated with new items in the coming weeks.



Fareed Zakaria, The Post -American World

Henry Kissinger, World Order.

Paul Kennedy, Rise and Fall of the Great Powers.

Mark Mazower, Governing the World.

Resource Wars and the New Great Game

Michael Klare, Resource Wars

Michael Klare, Blood and Oil

Michael Klare, Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet.

Michael Klare, The Race for What's Left.

US Empire

Alfred McCoy, In The Shadows of the American Century, The Rise and Decline of US Global Power.

James Dower, The Violent American Century: War and Terror since World War Two

US and East Asia/ China

Graham Allison, Destined to War: Can China and the US Avoid the Thucydides Trap ?

Martin Jacques, When China Rules the World.

Henry Kissinger, On China.

Simon Winchester, Pacific ( Chap 10 'Masters and Commanders' )

Bill Hayton, The South China Sea

Robert Kaplan, Asia's Cauldron

NATO Expansion, Eastern Europe and the Caucasus.

Richard Sakwa, Frontline Ukraine



Paul Kennedy, The Pivot of History ( Guardian, Saturday 19 June 2004 ).

Michael Klare, Escalation Watch, Tomdispatch, Jan 17 2017.

Trump's Cruise Missile Diplomacy: Iran & North Korea Could be Next ( The Nation, April 11, 2017)

The US Empire.

Alfred McCoy, The Demolition of U.S. Global Power , ( TomDispatch, July 17 2017 )

East Asia and the US.

R, McGregor, Could Trump’s Blundering Lead to War between China and Japan? ( Guardian, Thursday 17 August 2017 )

J, Scahill, Donald Trump and the Coming Fall of American Empire, ( Intercept, July 22. 2017 )