War with North Korea over its nuclear ambitions is now a very real possibility

Such is the concern about the mad, cruel, despotic regime of Kim Jong-Un of North Korea that recently an internet falsehood spread that sounded just crazy enough to be true.

According to the apocryphal tale, the untested Kim—chafing under the patronising tutelage of his uncle, Jang Song-thaek—decided he had had enough. Jang was dramatically arrested by the young dictator, stripped naked and fed to a pack of starving dogs.

While this Bond villain ending proved to be untrue (Jang was more prosaically merely executed by firing squad), the simple fact that the hoax was so believable highlights the problem of the West in dealing with North Korea over its nuclear programme. Deterrence only works if the other side is rational. In the case of Kim’s leadership, this is a highly dubious proposition.

As America’s most underrated modern President Dwight D. Eisenhower put it, nuclear deterrence is only effective if the other side doesn’t want to die. Ike gauged that Stalin, for all the rivers of blood he caused to flow, was rational to this extent. As such, a peaceful nuclear stalemate was possible. For all the modern world’s many twists and turns, until the advent of the North Korean nuclear programme, Eisenhower’s test has precariously held: no state with nuclear weapons has been open to committing suicide.

However, given the fundamental irrationality of the hereditary communist despotism there, relying on this in the future amounts to more of a hope than a certainty. Indeed, both the outgoing Obama foreign policy team as well as Israeli intelligence have alerted the Trump White House to the rising danger from Pyongyang, stressing that it is the most immediate peril facing the world.

For North Korea’s nuclear programme has not been standing still. In 2016, it conducted two nuclear tests and more than 20 missile tests, in an effort to expand its nuclear missile reach. In his past New Year’s speech, Kim boldly announced North Korea is in the final stages of developing an Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) capable of carrying nuclear warheads, which could theoretically reach the American mainland for the first time. Further, many regional experts expect North Korea is preparing yet another nuclear test for the near future, perfecting its ballistic missile programme.

Were this to prove so (Kim’s regime notoriously tends to overstate its capabilities), it would do nothing less than change the basic global strategic equation, constituting a primary threat to the United States. North Korea, equal parts malevolent and incompetent, is playing with fire in thinking that this further exercise in brinksmanship will not elicit the strongest response from the US, as this jarring strategic shift may be something Washington is simply not prepared to live with.

In the end, America and the West have only two basic policy alternatives to halt these very alarming developments: negotiate or take military action to stop the programme, very likely risking a renewal of the Korean War and catastrophically destabilising the volatile Asia-Pacific region, even risking armed confrontation with China.

The obvious, logical, least bad policy alternative would seem to be to talk to the North Koreans. And that is what all recent American administrations have done, achieving absolutely nothing, as the outgoing Obama administration has glumly admitted.

The only real outside driver who can leverage North Korea to halt its grandiose nuclear ambitions is China, whose vibrant economy just about keeps its economic basket case ally going. However, so far Beijing has preferred to tacitly support its difficult friend, rather than joining the rest of the world in standing up to Pyongyang and risking its implosion on the Chinese border. And if negotiations did not work during the time of the Obama administration, they are far less likely to do so now, as the new Trump White House is far more antagonistic towards China than its predecessor.

All this makes for the most dangerous of potential crises, and is a wholly underrated political risk roiling the world. North Korea is dangerously aiming to alter the global strategic nuclear balance. Negotiations to curb its ambitions have failed over many years, and are even less likely to work now that the US and China are at daggers drawn. But if negotiations show no chance of success, don’t expect the US to meekly accept the alarming development of an effective, accurate North Korean ICBM which can hit the mainland US.

War, and all the peril it could bring, is very much a possibility. It is past time the world woke up to the growing political risk over North Korea.

Published in City AM London, February 6, 2016

Putin is dangerous not because Russia is strong–but because it’s so weak

Putin isn’t dangerous because Russia is strong—but because it’s so weak

“Some people without brains do an awful lot of talking.”

-L. Frank Baum, The Wizard of Oz

As a child, I remember being fascinated by the populist allegory The Wizard of Oz. My favourite part of the story—sure to cause me to burst out laughing even when I knew what was coming–came when the supposedly omnipotent Wizard was humiliatingly revealed to be a mere mortal, and a terrified one at that. It was an early lesson for me that things are not always as they seem in terms of power, and that conventional wisdom could (and often was) entirely off base.

Recently I have thought of the unmasked Wizard in the context of the seeming rise and rise of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Having decisively intervened in the Syrian Civil War, ruined for all time through military meddling Ukraine’s efforts to join the West (in the guise of EU and NATO), and being seen as playing a nefarious and important role in President Trump’s shocking victory (though for all the hyperventilation I am still waiting to hear how these dark arts actually determined the election), Putin bestrides the world like a colossus. Or so the gormless global commentariat would have you believe.

In actuality, even at this surface level, the Kremlin sees the world more as the hapless Wizard might do. In the Middle East, it has one war-ravaged ally (Syria); the US has literally a dozen. Ukraine may have been decisively prevented from joining the western bloc, but it is not safely the Russian satellite it used to be. And while the Trump administration is likely to reach out to Russia in search of some sort of geopolitical accommodation over ISIS and radical Islam, it is hard to think of any other major policy areas where the interests of the two powers actually line up. So much for the Kremlin’s Oz-like omnipotence.

But graver, more intractable problems lurk just beneath the surface. Russia’s economy amounts to an ageing petrol station, a one trick pony wherein nearly two-third’s of Russian exports are oil and gas. While oil prices have gotten off the floor, the miracle of America’s shale revolution (a great curse to the Kremlin) provides an enduring new ceiling for oil prices, preventing Russia merely riding out bad times, waiting for the oil price to ride to its rescue.

The lack of economic diversification when times were good is Putin’s original sin, as Russia’s economic woes over time will directly threaten its continued great power status. And if Russia did not manage to fix the roof when the sun shined in terms of the commodities boom, now is the rain. In 2015, Russia’s GDP actually shrunk (hardly the calling card of a great power) by 3.7%.

While Russia has stagnated, others have moved ahead. Calculated on a current dollar basis, Russia’s GDP is puny, less than seven percent of America’s, roughly the size of the state of Texas. Between 1992-2016, the real compound annual growth rate of Russian per capita GDP has been 1.5%; over that period of time it was a healthy 5.1% in India and an eye-catching 8.9% in China. Other rising powers are running rings around the Kremlin.

So let us be crystal clear in a Wizard of Oz type way; Russia is a great power in all kinds of long-terms trouble. However, the peril it poses stems from its weakness, and not its supposed strength. Wounded animals are often dangerous, and the bear did strike out—especially in Ukraine—to secure its primary interests when it felt itself under threat. While this make keep the wolf away from the door now, structural economic decline (there is no movement toward systemic reform) awaits the former superpower.

Yet in the short to medium term, the Kremlin still has some good cards to play, even if it is on course to lose the trick in the end. Putin’s approval rating remains a stratospheric 82%. As such, he remains the undisputed master of the country, capable of acting quickly and decisively and of using an army (compare all this with the neutered, divided EU in the Ukraine crisis) to further his immediate interests. Weakened and wounded, in terms of hard power Russia does remain a force to be reckoned with.

At the end of the Wizard of Oz, the chastened real-world shell of Oz does cause some unwitting mischief, as the balloon designed to send Dorothy home flies off with the Wizard instead. But Dorothy surmounts this obstacle, at last making it back to Kansas. The Wizard, like Russia, is a wrecking power, capable of upsetting aspects of the present order. But in their weakness that is all they are; neither the Wizard nor Russia can create anything like a new order in place of today’s imperilled world.

Published in City AM London, January 30, 2017

Forget Russia: Trump’s China trade war risks breaking Asia’s fragile peace

 

“I see myself as an instrument of the Almighty and go on my way, regardless of transient opinions and views.”

–Kaiser Wilhelm II, 1910

While he was diabolically poor at follow-through, former President Barack Obama has the makings of a first-rate political risk analyst. Early on in his term, Obama keenly saw that Asia was where most of the future global growth in the world would come from, but was also the region where most of the global geopolitical risk lay. This basic insight was the motivation for Obama’s ill-starred Pivot to Asia, where the region was to rightly receive more strategic involvement from America.

Risk has been dangerously bubbling up in Asia for two basic reasons. First, and unlike in Europe where Russia is kept at bay and Germany caged, there is no multinational military organisation like NATO that both deters revisionist powers (in this case China) and keeps possibly frightening allies (in this case Japan) on the reservation.

This is largely because of the hugely counter-productive insistence of Japan’s elite to regularly pray at what my staff have come to call ‘The War Crimes Shrine’ at Yasukuni. Japan’s grudging failure to come to terms with its barbarism in World War II has alienated would-be allies such as South Korea, making the formation of a NATO-like organisation to keep the peace—and to keep America’s allies on the same page–impossible.

Second, the rise of China has created a state of being problem in East Asia; the United States is the dominant power there, and the Chinese wishes to re-claim its traditional historical dominance in the region. This basic fact—and the obvious tensions that flow from it—can simply not be wished away.

In typical business-like fashion, the Chinese leadership commissioned a study to look at historical examples over the past 500 years of what happened to the world when an emerging power (such as the China) collided with a status quo power (such as the US).

The doleful conclusion of the Thucydides study—so named for the geopolitical rivalry between Athens and Sparta that ignited the Peloponnesian War—was that, in 12 of the 16 past cases, the result has been bloodshed. Given that historical reality, the structural peril to the present world is so great only a statesman of great ability and subtlety is likely to buck the odds.

Instead of this, we have newly-inaugurated President Donald Trump, who so far has passed his audition to be the neurotic Kaiser Wilhelm of this era with flying colours. Whereas under Obama the US and China increasingly engaged in a strategic competition in East Asia in the South China and East China Seas, Trump seems intent on increasing the danger by adding an obviously harmful trade war to the menu.

Given that—unlike the Cold War where the Soviet and Western economies were strikingly separate—China and the US are inextricably linked economically, this is bound to hurt both countries, and nobble the world’s hopes for decent rates of growth. Beyond even this, it is pouring gasoline on the open fire of the inevitable Chinese-American competition in East Asia, making avoidance of the Thucydides trap infinitely harder.

Far worse still, Trump is heading into his showdown with China having just greatly alienated his many prospective allies in the region, in his breathtakingly counter-productive abrogation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an ambitious trade pact that would have welded America economically closer to key allies such as Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Singapore.

Instead, by unilaterally walking away from the meticulously negotiated pact, Trump’s White House has allowed Beijing to whisper the poisonous words to America’s Asian allies, ‘The US is not to be trusted.’

So in his Wilhelm II audition—a vainglorious bumbler who bluffed the world into an avoidable conflict—Donald Trump seems a cinch for the part. He is taking China on over the wrong issues (macro-economics not geo-strategy), with the wrong balance of power (having just spurned America’s regional allies), at the wrong time (when the world desperately needs all the global growth that it can muster).

Under Obama, the US was firm but business-like with China, defending freedom of navigation in the seas there but working with the Chinese where it could, and furthering joint economic links that make it ever harder for Beijing to turn its back (due to its vast economic interests) on an American-dominated order. The results were impressive strategically, with much of East Asia openly and increasingly siding with the US over the neighbourhood bully.

Trump’s Kaiser Wilhelm impersonation throws all this out the window, imperilling America’s favourable strategic position. As as true when Obama came to power, Asia is once again the region in the world to watch, but for far more terrifying reasons.

Published in City AM London, January 23, 2017