Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

China and the U.S.: Similar Frustrations, Different Policies toward North Korea

SHENYANG, CHINA—China-Korean relations are in a state of flux.  The People’s Republic of China and South Korea have exchanged presidential visits.  Trade statistics suggest that the PRC did not ship any oil to the North during the first quarter of the year.  Chinese academics openly speak of Beijing’s irritation with its long-time ally.

The cold feelings are reciprocated.  Last year North Korea’s Kim Jong-un sent an envoy to the PRC to unsuccessfully request an invitation to visit.  In December Kim had his uncle, Jang Song-taek, the North’s most intimate interlocutor with China, executed.

These circumstances suggest the possibility of a significant foreign policy shift in Beijing away from the North and toward the Republic of Korea.  Washington hopes for greater Chinese willingness to apply economic pressure on Pyongyang.  However, the PRC remains unwilling to risk instability by undermining the Kim dynasty. 

I recently visited China and held scholarly meetings amid excursions to long-missed tourist sites (such as Mao’s Mausoleum!).  I also made it to Shenyang, where relations with the North are of great interest because the city is about a two hour drive from the Yalu River.

I met one senior scholar who indicated that there was no doubt that Beijing-Pyongyang relations had changed since Kim came to power.  The two nations “have a different relationship now and it is becoming colder than ever before.” 

However, Jang’s execution had been “weighed too heavily by Western researchers,” he indicated.  In fact, economic relations had continued.  Jang’s fate was a matter of internal North Korea politics, “the result of the natural struggle for power.” 

This doesn’t mean Beijing was happy about Jang’s fate.  However, Jang’s ouster “is not the reason for the DPRK’s and China’s bad relations.” 

Rather, the principal barrier is the North’s continued development of nuclear weapons.  Kim Jong-un wants to visit China.  But it is “unimaginable for Chinese officials to invite him when he’s doing nuclear tests.  Impossible.”

In return, the North is unhappy over Beijing’s refusal to accommodate Kim as well as the end of oil shipments.  “Also, the DPRK is quite angry over the quick development of Chinese relations with South Korea.” 

This has made Pyongyang “eager to make contact with the U.S.,” an effort which so far has gone nowhere.  This is why the Kim regime “took American citizens as hostages” and invited Dennis Rodman to visit, but these tactics “are not working.” 

The North eventually “shifted the focal point of its foreign relations to Japan.”  For the same reason, though “less importantly the DPRK made contact with Russia.”

The PRC is quite interested in U.S.-DPRK relations and Washington’s view of Japan’s move toward Pyongyang.  “One of the uniform convictions for both the U.S. and China is no nuclear weapons in the DPRK,” he emphasized. 

However, in Beijing’s view the solution is not more sanctions which “everyone has been putting on the DPRK,” but revival of the Six-Party Talks.  This is where agreement between the U.S. and China breaks down. 

The PRC wants more negotiations, preceded by an American willingness to reduce tensions and Pyongyang’s perceived need for a nuclear arsenal.  The U.S. wants the North to make concessions beforehand lest the latest round fail like the many previous efforts.

This clash reflects an even deeper disagreement over competing end states.  Both Washington and Beijing oppose a nuclear North Korea.  However, the U.S., in contrast to China, would welcome a DPRK collapse, even if messy, and favor reunification with the South.

As I write in China-U.S. Focus, It isn’t impossible for American and Chinese policymakers to work through their differences.  However, it will require understanding the other party’s perspective and offering meaningful concessions to make the deal a positive for both parties.

Africa: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Last week, President Obama hosted the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, D.C. He welcomed over 40 African heads of state and their outsized entourages to what was a festive affair. Indeed, even the Ebola virus in West Africa failed to dampen spirits in the nation’s capital. Perhaps it was the billions of dollars in African investment, announced by America’s great private companies, that was so uplifting.

Good cheer was also observed in the advertising departments of major newspapers. Yes, many of the guest countries paid for lengthy advertisements–page turners–in the newspapers of record. That said, the substantive coverage of this gathering was thin. Neither the good, the bad, nor the ugly, received much ink.

What about the good? Private business creates prosperity, and prosperity is literally good for your health. My friend, the late Peter T. Bauer, documented the benefits of private trade in his classic 1954 book West African Trade. In many subsequent studies, Lord Bauer refuted conventional wisdom with detailed case studies and sharp economic reasoning. He concluded that the only precondition for private trade and prosperity to flourish was individual freedom reinforced by security for person and property.

More recently, Ann Bernstein, a South African, makes clear that the establishment and operation of private businesses does a lot of economic good (see: The Case for Business in Developing Countries, 2010). Yes, businesses create jobs, supply goods and services, spread knowledge, pay taxes, and so forth. Alas, in the Leaders Summit reportage that covered the multi-billion dollar investments by the likes of Coca-Cola, General Electric, and Ford Motor Co., the benefits of the humdrum activity of business and trade were nowhere to be found. But, as they say, “that’s not the president’s thing.”

Let’s move from the good to the bad and the ugly, and focus on the profound misery in Sub-Saharan Africa. I measure misery with a misery index. It is the simple sum of inflation, unemployment, and the bank lending interest rate, minus year on year GDP per capita growth. Using this metric, the countries for Sub-Saharan Africa are ranked in the accompanying table for 2012.

President Obama Makes U.S. Participation Inevitable in Renewed Iraq War

On April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson called for a Declaration of War against Germany. His unreasonable policies regarding submarine warfare had made America’s entry well-nigh inevitable.

When President Barack Obama first spoke to the nation about Iraq, he sounded reluctant to be the fourth straight president to intervene militarily.  However, the conditions he set on Washington’s participation guarantee a much broader and longer campaign.

President Wilson implemented a policy which ensured that war would result if Germany used the only maritime weapon it possessed capable of contesting London’s overwhelming naval advantage. Great Britain’s passenger liners carried munitions and were ordered to ram submarines which surfaced to inspect their cargoes. Germans started sinking passenger ships without notice. 

Wilson’s position was that Americans had an absolute right to book passage on belligerent vessels carrying munitions through a war zone. The position was ludicrous. In January 1917 Berlin decided to unleash unlimited submarine warfare against London and Wilson got his casus belli.

Maybe U.S. Should Defend South Korea by Letting it Develop Nuclear Weapons

U.S. foreign and defense policy long has been brain dead.  ‘Whatever has been must ever be’ seems to be the Pentagon’s mantra.  That’s the typical response to the idea that Washington should bring home its troops and allow South Korea to defend itself.

The Republic of Korea has grown up and surged past the North. The ROK should use its abundant wealth and larger population to close the military gap.  Just as most Americans expect those on welfare to get a job to take care of themselves and their families, the ROK should step up and take care of itself.

There may be good arguments against the proposal. But I have yet to hear them. Instead, what dominates is the tyranny of the status quo. 

Perhaps the best, or at least most interesting, counter is that America must babysit the ROK lest a frightened Seoul go nuclear in response to the DPRK.  In fact, Washington’s conventional forces do nothing to forestall a North Korean nuclear bomb. 

But will the ROK believe in America’s nuclear umbrella without a conventional guarantee?  Washington has risked war on Seoul’s behalf for six decades. If that’s not enough, the problem might be the weak case for Washington to turn other nations’ nuclear wars into America’s nuclear wars. 

If Pyongyang eventually develops a miniaturized nuclear warhead and reasonably accurate ICBM, what risks would Washington take on South Korea’s behalf?  Why should the United States turn a peripheral geopolitical problem into an existential threat?

The Challenges of Being a Superpower

The foreign policy meme is fixed that President Barack Obama is weak and therefore responsible for virtually every global ill.  It’s hard for the denizens of Washington to accept that not everything in the world is about them. 

As I point out in National Interest online:  “People elsewhere have interests and ambitions.  Like the obstreperous British colonists in North America more than two centuries ago, foreigners are willing to defy major powers in order to achieve their ends.”

Government and guerrilla leaders still may worry about what Washington thinks. But they judge American threats based on a perception of U.S. interests more than abstract “credibility.” 

Little would have changed had President Obama launched military strikes in response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons. No other country would have feared military attack for different reasons.

For instance, what happens in Ukraine matters to Washington, but not enough to confront Russia, which considers the issue an essential matter of security. The United States might be willing to attack another largely helpless Middle Eastern state for peripheral stakes, but it won’t do the same against a nuclear-armed great power.

Unfortunately, top officials routinely put U.S. credibility at stake by issuing proclamations better left to second tier State Department desk officers. In the midst of the African summit, for example, the Obama administration complained that the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Joseph Kabila, might run for a third term. 

Foreign Policy Solyndra

Washington’s track record over the decades of selecting honest, effective, and democratic political leaders to support in developing countries is as dismal as the government’s attempts to pick economic winners in this country.  We have endured a lengthy series of foreign policy equivalents of the notorious Solyndra scandal.  I discuss that depressing record in a new article over at the American Conservative.  

U.S. officials habitually make one of two blunders.  On some occasions, they back a foreign client who is willing to do Washington’s bidding, even if that person lacks meaningful internal political support from the very beginning.  On other occasions, the chosen client may initially have respectable domestic backing, but soon dissipates that support through pervasive corruption and brutality, often funded by U.S. tax dollars. 

Washington’s diplomatic love affair with Ahmed Chalabi, leader of the Iraqi National Congress, was a prime example of the first type of fiasco. U.S. policymakers during the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush wildly overestimated Chalabi’s popularity inside Iraq.  When the U.S-led military intervention ousted Saddam Hussein, American officials acted as though the Iraqi people would choose Chalabi as their new leader virtually by acclamation.  The actual extent of his domestic support became apparent in Iraq’s first free parliamentary elections in 2005. Chalabi’s party received a paltry 0.5 percent of the vote and failed to win a single seat.

The enthusiasm for Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines was a typical example of the second type of embarrassment.  Marcos won his first election as president in 1966 in legitimate fashion, but he soon displayed all the usual characteristics of a tinpot dictator. Yet Washington continued to back him diplomatically and financially until his imminent overthrow in a popular revolution could no longer be ignored. More recently, Washington’s enthusiasm for Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai and Iraq’s Nouri al-Maliki proved equally misplaced over the long term.

Those experiences (and many others) should teach U.S. officials not to fall in love with superficially attractive foreign political clients.  Instead of reflexively backing glib figures who are adept at telling American policymakers what they know those policymakers want to hear, we should approach all foreign players with caution, coldly evaluating how much popularity and staying power they are likely to command. The United States also needs to be far more skeptical about whether backing any particular client serves the best interests of the American republic.   

Japan Moves Closer to Defending Itself like a Normal Country

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has begun to transform Japan into a normal country. Tokyo plans to take a more active role internationally. Eventually it should take over responsibility for defending itself.

As military occupier after World War II, the United States imposed Article Nine of the Japanese constitution, disarming Tokyo.  But in recent years, Washington has pushed Japan to do more militarily. 

So far, Tokyo simply has revised its interpretation of Article Nine. Japan’s “Self Defense Force” will be allowed to cooperate with other countries in combat. 

Overseas the response was mixed.  Naturally, the United States was pleased. China was unhappy. Other nations, such as Australia, were supportive.

Some critics still worry about Tokyo’s ultimate intentions, as if the Japanese had a double dose of original sin.  But Japan, with a stagnant economy, middling (and declining) population, and pacifist ethos, doesn’t look much like the next global dominatrix.

Instead, Japan’s well-established desire to do nothing has run aground because the world looks ever more dangerous. Moreover, basic economics suggests that Washington will have to reduce its role. As Prime Minister Abe recognized in 2012: “With the U.S. defense budget facing big cuts, a collapse of the military balance of power in Asia could create instability.”