Category Archives: China and Asia Pivot

The North Korean crisis is going to explode–just not yet

“The essential ingredient of politics is timing.”

–Pierre Trudeau

It is true in dancing, love, and politics; timing is everything.

A lack of appreciation of this basic fact explains the failure of much of the fruit-fly analysis seen in today’s newspapers, as well as the pathetic prognostications of many of my political risk competitors. European populism is staved off this week; crisis solved! Trump’s lack of knowledge has not been as big a hindrance yesterday as we had feared; not a problem! China’s artificial spending binge has not laid them low this morning; not to worry!

But of course beneath this veneer of the immediate—where the commentariat loves to dwell—there do sometimes lurk genuine sea monsters. This continual failure to reckon with the seminal factor of time would be downright amusing, if it did not have the most dangerous of consequences.

The present crisis with the Crazy Fat Kid (as Senator McCain has so immortally nicknamed him) Kim Jong-Un of North Korea is the starkest case in point. The almost constant American media misrepresentation of the standoff between Pyongyang and the US over the former’s expanding nuclear programme is as a ‘new Cuban Missile Crisis,’ never mind the fact that in 1962 the whole episode played out in 13 days (the exact title of Bobby Kennedy’s 1969 book about the event).

It was perilous, quick, and a decisive outcome almost immediately reached under conditions of unbearable pressure. None of this describes what is likely to happen over North Korea. This analytical mistake is far from trivial. For if the timing–the rhythm of an event—is not understood, the very policy options put forward as solutions are likely to be woefully lacking, and not fit for purpose given that the true nature of the present crisis has a very different time frame to it.

Over Cuba, the missiles that would destabilise the strategic balance between the US and USSR were set to be operational in days, if not in hours. In the case of North Korea, experts estimate the country is several years away (say around 2020) from succeeding in miniaturising its nuclear devices and placing them on an Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). Such a technological breakthrough would enable Pyongyang to strike the west coast of the United States with nuclear weapons whenever it wants to (as it already uncomfortably can over Japan and South Korea).

This is the true red line, the moment when the geostrategic calculations of the United States would be decisively upended. President Trump is right; it is totally unacceptable. However, the key codicil that understanding time gives us is that it is—unlike in Cuba—not going to happen tomorrow. Such a basic grasp of the rhythm of the crisis must condition America’s policy responses if they are going to prove successful.

As such, as a political risk analyst I care far less about when the US aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson sails toward the eastern shore of North Korea, as this is an utter sideshow for cable news junkies. What matters between now and 2020 is that Washington convinces the Crazy Fat Kid’s patron China (which provides a mammoth 90% of foreign trade with the economic basket case, such as the essentials of food and energy) that the North’s nuclear build-up will not be shamefully allowed to drift for another two decades, as it has done under the utterly failed US doctrine of ‘strategic patience’, which became code words for talking with North Korea and doing absolutely nothing.

Only if Beijing believes Washington is serious about not allowing the development of a North Korea ICBM—that the Trump administration is prepared in the medium-term to deal with the matter militarily if necessary–will it bring North Korea (kicking and screaming presumably) to the table, to conclude a real, enforceable deal that stops them short of developing this destabilising capacity.

This is the hinge point of the whole crisis. While the clock is certainly running, there are still years ahead for the Trump strategy to work. As such, Washington is right to lean on Beijing now to get things moving, while as loudly as possibly rattling its sabre. But the important fact for analysts to keep in mind is nothing decisive is going to happen tomorrow, or in the next 13 days. There is still plenty of time for diplomacy to work, spearheaded by a China that fears America might just be determined enough to deal with this on its own soon.

So with the failure of the latest North Korean missile test (quite possibly due to American cyber interference), look for the issue to recede from the headlines, for the sea monster to submerge. But don’t for a second take your eye off the ball as the fruit-fly commentariat is bound to do. For he is still there, lurking beneath global waters. Timing is everything, and the North Korean nuclear crisis has just begun.

Published in City AM London, April 24, 2017.

The America First insurgents couldn’t withstand contact with the real world

“If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.”

–Herbert Stein, Chairman of the US Council of Economic Advisers under Nixon and Ford

As has been true for most administrations over the past century, the new Trump regime came to Washington promising to change everything about the way the place worked and the policy outputs it produced. Over the past 100 years, only FDR and Reagan truly managed to do this. As such, it should come as little surprise that, with Trump’s slew of foreign policy about-turns on China, Nato, Russia, and Syria, the amateurish America Firsters’ reign at the top of US foreign policy lasted mere weeks, as its naïve view of the world could not withstand real world contact either with the Washington establishment or the verities of what is actually happening in the world.

Like many insurgencies, the America Firsters–epitomised by campaign svengali Steve Bannon and erstwhile National Security Adviser General Michael Flynn–have a good story to tell. Years of a gormless, utterly unaware American elite—the people I meet at swish conferences who are breathtakingly, wilfully unaware of the true damage they have done both in the sands of Iraq and to the global economy post-Lehman, and still think they are somehow entitled to run the world—running down the American lower middle class has given them a huge political opening. But if their narrative of elite incompetence is unerringly on the money, their practical policy alternatives have always amounted to little more than dangerous pixie dust.

For the American Firsters are, despite their conservative cloaking, genuine revolutionaries. They do not want to reform an establishment desperately in need of it, but rather throw the baby out with the bathwater and over-turn a global system which has safeguarded American dominance for the past 70 years and managed (just, thanks to JFK’s adroitness) to see off the cataclysm of another World War.

But here is where the real world kicks in. Gravity cannot be wished away, any more than the objective power realities of the present multipolar system. And, just as with gravity comes the affirmation of certain physical laws, so with the multipolarity of today comes political realities which just this past week reasserted themselves in terms of overall American foreign policy.

Not seeing that the perils of radical Islam—upsetting as they surely are—amount to a second order global problem that was under-studied before 9/11 and is over-studied now, the Bannonites have made its destruction the centrepiece of their foreign policy thinking, which inevitably leads to disastrous geostrategic results.

Much like the anarchist movement of the late nineteenth century—so wonderfully dissected in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent—radical Islam can kill and maim and even (in the case of the anarchists) bump off the odd Russian Tsar (Alexander II), American President (William McKinley), or Austrian Empress (Sisi). But it has nowhere near the power either to change the overall nature of the global system, or to replace the United States as the dominant power on earth. It is a real, vexing, terrible problem but not what geostrategists should be concentrating on.

From this mistake about the true nature of the world, all other America First strategies amount to being fruit from this poisoned analytical tree. Russia is not worth cosying up to for a whole host of reasons (Assad, Ukraine, meddling in western elections) as the aid it gives the West in fighting a soon-to-be extinct ISIS isn’t remotely worth the price. Russia is a weak, declining power, an aging gas station with nuclear weapons, but it is a far cry from being America’s new joint partner in combatting radical Islam.

Likewise, China—which along with rising democratic powers such as India is where American strategic attention absolutely ought to be—is not the villain of the piece. Instead, with the help of the only power which in a generation might emerge as a peer competitor to America, the Trump White House can master the hornet’s nest of the nuclear ambitions of ‘the crazy fat kid’ in North Korea (as Senator McCain has so memorably dubbed him), keep the global economic system on the road, and sooth tensions in the South China and East China Seas, preserving stability in the undoubted global engine for future economic growth.

In other words, in the world we actually live in (as opposed to the alternative reality populated by Flynn and Bannon and their henchmen), China is worth engaging, Russia is worth opposing, and radical Islam (while important) is worth taking a deep breath over.

All of this happened this past memorable week as gravity returned to international relations, and the Trump administration pivoted back to reality. Thank God.

Published in City AM London, April 18, 2107.

Trump’s foreign policy twists are not as odd as they seem

“Take time to deliberate, but when the time for action arrives, stop thinking and go in.”

 –Andrew Jackson, Seventh President of the United States

 Like all bad analysts, most of the world’s foreign policy commentariat have been in a state of perpetual surprise this past stormy year. They were surprised by the Columbian referendum on ending the war there, by Brexit, by the Italian referendum and above all else by the ascent to power of Donald Trump in the US.

 Over this past year, to read most of the papers in this country is to dwell in a parallel universe, with all right-thinking people needing smelling salts to be revived, as the word, over and over again, did not behave as it ought to. Of course what was really happening was that an elite world view was dying, one that simply did nothing to explain the facts of political life as they were being lived.

 Nowhere was this shock more evident than over the election of Trump, the first truly populist President to run the United States since his hero Andrew Jackson, back in 1829-1837. But this past ten days, a further ‘shock’ has been in store for our befuddled commentariat, one of an altogether more pleasant kind for them.

 For reasons that still pass their (limited) understanding, the new regime has acted more like the well-regarded establishment Republicans of the past (Eisenhower, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush) and less like the fire-breathing Voldemort of opinion page nightmares. Uneasily, the raft of stories on this sea change make it clear that the vast majority of the writers have no idea why this happened, or for how long this pleasant shock can be maintained.

 But the primary answer to the riddle is there, in plain sight, but it requires a real study and understanding of American history, something I have always found surprisingly lacking in the foreign policy elites across the Atlantic. All that Trump has done can easily be put down to his heartfelt Jacksonianism, an American foreign policy school of thought that has been around now for almost 190 years. But again, knowing this would require some analytical knowledge of America and its history.

 While many of the rest of us like Johnny Cash, Jacksonians are Johnny Cash. Jacksonians—a minority view in first the Democratic and now Republican parties—finds its most vociferous adherents traditionally clustered in the lower-middle class in the south and the industrial Midwest. I have often called them Springsteen Democrats; think of one of the Boss’s songs about the mill closing somewhere and the damage that has done and in your mind’s eye you will know who I am talking about.

 Because so few Jacksonians are running around in elite policy circles—in my decade in Washington I never met one—they have been conveniently forgotten by American foreign policy thinkers, let alone foreign commentators. But in Trump, Jacksonians have at last found their champion. However he imbibed this world view (my guess is it came from working on building sites for his father’s company when he was impressionable) Trump is a true Jacksonian believer.

 Jacksonians care deeply about the United States and its welfare and only about the rest of the world insofar as it has a direct impact on the country. As such, their view of the American national interest is far narrower than almost every other US foreign policy school of thought.

 A Jacksonians view of global warming is instructive. Jacksonians care less about whether the science underlying global warming is real, and wonder more why we are talking about islands in the Pacific sinking into the sea—only to be stopped by America spending billions on foreigners—when the local mill has closed in Pennsylvania. It is the elites’ misplaced sense of priorities—whether the issue is transgender bathrooms or icebergs melting, rather than focusing on the massive dislocation of the American lower middle class—that angers Jacksonians, as for them the American elite has done worse than fail them; it has utterly ignored them while worrying about peripheral issues.

 Given this tight focus on an America-First view, Jacksonians have a transactional view of alliances in general, not valuing them for their own sake but readily accepting them if they obviously and directly promote these sacred American interests. As such, as candidate Trump said, NATO–despite being the most successful military alliance in the history of the world—was past its sell-by date, as the allies shamefully free-ride off American and British defence spending.

 On the other hand, after the US missile strike on Syria two weeks ago NATO has value if it serves as a clubhouse to round up allied support for Washington’s actions. Likewise, the Chinese are the enemy if they militarise the South China Sea but can be an ally if they apply pressure to the North Koreans, as only they can. Yesterday, Vice President Mike Pence reaffirmed America’s commitment to Japan and South Korea—to the wailing and gnashing of teeth in North Korea—allies who during the campaign Trump had suggested need to take care of their own defence. Likewise, the White House congratulated President Erdogan of Turkey for his tainted referendum victory giving him monarchical powers, as he is needed if Syria is ever to be stabilised. These are not contradictions but display the fixed Jacksonian ideology’s penchant for being utterly relaxed about tactical shifts as long as core and specific American interests are served.

 The last major plank of Jacksonianism revolves around the use of force. With the end of the era of the draft, the children of Jacksonians do the actual fighting and dying in most modern American wars.

 As such, Jacksonians, despite their hearts-on-sleeve patriotism, are very cautious about the use of force. For them force should only be used when it will lead to clear-cut victories. But when the decision has been made to go to war, Jacksonians are loathe to abandon a conflict short of total victory. They are the last ones in, the last ones out, as was shown in wars from Vietnam on.

 Looked at through the Jacksonian prism, all that Trump has done with Syria, North Korea, Afghanistan, China and NATO suddenly makes sense. That is what an understanding of American history will do for you.

 –Dr. John C. Hulsman is the President and Co-Founder of political risk consultancy John C. Hulsman Enterprises, and a member of the US Council on Foreign Relations. His new book, Drake’s Prayer: A History of Political Risk, is due to be published by Princeton University Press at the end of the year.

Published in the London Evening Standard, April 18, 2017.