Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

If North Korea Implodes, Its Neighbors Should Pick up the Geopolitical Pieces

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea remains sui generis, a communist monarchy wrapped in mystery, prone to sporadic brinkmanship and violent spasms.  The young leader’s surprise execution of his uncle suggests regime instability, which might spark new international provocations for domestic political purposes. 

The latest events have rekindled predictions of a possible North Korean collapse.  In a recent study the Rand Corporation’s Bruce Bennett argued that “There is a reasonable probability that North Korean totalitarianism will end in the foreseeable future.” 

Of course, DPRK has outlived the Soviet Union by more than two decades.  Pyongyang may continue to surprise the West with its resilience. 

The Council on Foreign Relations Doesn’t Care What You Think

Bruce Stokes has a piece up at Foreign Policy describing the disconnect between public opinion on US foreign policy and elite opinion. The point has been made many times before. Benjamin Page and Marshall Bouton wrote a book arguing that there is a disconnect in that the public wants more liberal foreign policies—focusing on multilateral cooperation, protecting weak nations from one another, improving foreigners’ standards of living, and promoting democracy abroad—but elites are more realist, focused on power and dominance. Dan Drezner, on the other hand, argued that there is a disconnect, but in exactly the opposite direction: the public is more realist, focused on power and security, and cool to the liberal views and policies of America’s foreign-policy elite.

Tabling who is right and who is wrong about what the public wants, everyone making this sort of argument is at least implicitly acknowledging that the foreign-policy elite defies public preferences on foreign policy. This is pretty easy to explain. Since the United States is so safe, foreign policy isn’t salient to voters in the way that their proximate interests—getting a tax credit or transfer payment—are. Some scholars have pointed out that public opinion on foreign policy has a lot to do with voters’ identity: right-thinking sorts of people hold these sorts of foreign policy views: “I am a right-thinking person, therefore I will hold these sorts of views.” This is why you hear foreign policy elites bleating endlessly about leadership, American exceptionalism, strength, et cetera. Those concepts zap the public in ways that wonky arguments about how extended deterrence or alliance politics work don’t.

As Ben Friedman and Chris Preble recently wrote in the LA Times, the public is moving closer to the views of Cato’s defense and foreign policy scholars. A disastrous decade of foreign policy brought to them by the foreign-policy elite, combined with an economic slowdown and growing concerns about our domestic economy and politics, have created a come home, America sentiment among the public. Academic scholars, as well, have become more Cato-ish. As three academic proponents of the status quo recently admitted with alarm, “According to…most scholars who write on the future of U.S. grand strategy,” restraint’s time has come.

U.S. Leverage over Iraqis? When Did We Have That?

Today’s Wall Street Journal features a front-page story (may be paywalled) on the civil war raging in Iraq. The headline observes that the United States has minimal leverage in Iraq, and that American officials fear that they will therefore be unable to halt the war, at least not any time soon.

Despair over our supposed “lost leverage” has been building for a while. Late last month, Max Boot lamented “the tragedy of Maliki’s Iraq” and opined “Maliki needs to implement a comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign…whose central feature must be outreach to the estranged Sunnis.” “The tragedy,” Boot concluded, “is that Maliki lacks the acumen to do that–and the U.S. lacks the leverage to compel him, because of the ill-advised pullout of American forces at the end of 2011.”

Such recommendations are based on two fundamental misconceptions: 1) That Americans once had leverage over the Iraqis, and that we lost it around the time U.S. troops were withdrawn from Iraq; and, 2) that there is a durable political solution within reach, if only we had the gumption to go back in.

Instead, the hard fighting of brave Americans to secure Iraq’s future have been, in the inimitable Boot’s words, “squandered by politicos in Baghdad and Washington.” 

Boot ignores there was no public appetite for leaving U.S. troops in Iraq after 2011, and there is even less enthusiasm for sending them back in today. If he wants to criticize politicos in Baghdad and Washington, he must also criticize the voters who elected them. Otherwise, he is effectively howling at the moon.

Thankfully, there is intelligent, informed commentary on what is happening in Iraq, commentary that recognizes political realities in Iraq, and doesn’t succumb to fantasies about the United States’ magical democracy-making powers. I especially appreciated the New America Foundation’s Douglas Ollivant’s piece at ForeignPolicy.com. His advice to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki? Fight. There is no talk in Ollivant’s piece about American soldiers fighting for him.

Making a Blood Purge Pay in North Korea

North Korea long has been called the “Hermit Kingdom.”  Although the North’s isolation has eased in recent years, it still resembles “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,” as Winston Churchill famously described the Soviet Union.  No one is sure what to make of the execution of the young leader’s uncle and one-time mentor Jang Song-taek. 

However, the latest turmoil provides an important entrepreneurial opportunity for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, one of the world’s poorest nations.  Jang was denounced for having “seriously obstructed the nation’s economic affairs and the improvement of the standard of people’s living.”

No one knows the truth of this charge.  But something continues to obstruct economic development.  There may be an answer.  As I suggest in my latest American Spectator article:

Something needs to be done to spark the sort of growth in North Korea occurring elsewhere in East Asia, including China.  The answer is to turn the purge into a profit-making opportunity. Communist countries always have had a special talent for treating power struggles as public spectacles. Why not also use the ongoing purge to make some cash?

Start with T-shirts. A colleague of mine suggested “I Survived the Purge” would be a winner with tourists—as well as residents of Pyongyang, assuming anyone actually survives the purge. Other ideas include “I was Purged and All I got was this T-Shirt” and “Purge them All and Let God Sort Them Out.” 

Tourist shops could stock bobble-heads of political favorites, including winners and losers in the North’s ongoing political battles. Directed especially at the Russian market would be matryoshka dolls, with successively smaller figures fitting within the others. 

The Kim dynasty could license a special line of liquors, along the lines of Jack Daniels’ new “Sinatra Select,” named after Frank Sinatra, who favored the brand. The late Kim Jong-il was a devoted fan of Chivas Regal. Perhaps Kim fils has a special drink he relaxes with—and sips while purging and executing his enemies. 

Another opportunity is product endorsements. Kim Jong-il cornered the market on platform shoes and big sun-glasses, as well as bouffant hair styles. Kim Jong-un loves basketball.  What American boy would want to be without the special Kim Jong-un ball and hoop set?

Indeed, there’s no reason to stop with basketball products. The latter Kim could team up with his close personal friend and former NBA great Dennis Rodman to start a professional basketball league in North Korea. Imagine the Pyongyang Purge playing on an international tour. 

The North Koreans also should create board, card, and video games centered around their unique “social system,” as they called their society when I visited years ago. Who needs “Monopoly” when you can have “Show Trial”?  Combat games could feature liberation from South Korean oppression, overthrow of Japanese colonialism, and, of course, destruction of American imperialism. 

Finally, the North needs to tap into the global cultural marketplace. Who needs Hollywood, Bollywood (India), and Nollywood (Nigeria) when you could have Pollywood in Pyongyang?  (In fact, Kim Jong-il was so committed to developing a domestic movie industry that he ordered the kidnapping of foreigners to produce North Korean works.)

Obviously, these activities would only be the start of an economic revival.  But the legacy of Jang Song-taek, noted “human scum,” could live on if the Kim regime grasps the opportunity before it. With the right marketing, Jang could end up bigger than Darth Vader, an enemy of truly global proportions. And Pyongyang could profit in the process.

Japan and South Korea: The Other Worrisome Spat in East Asia

Considerable attention has focused on the rising tensions between Japan and China, with some experts now warning that we should not underestimate the possibility of war between the region’s two major powers. Relations between Tokyo and Beijing have certainly become hostile over the past year or so. The ongoing, highly emotional dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea has been the principal source of friction, but Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s late December 2013 visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, which contains the remains of 14 high-level, World War II war criminals, also infuriated the Chinese.

Washington is understandably concerned about the deterioration of Sino-Japanese relations, but the surging animosity between those two countries is not the only source of worry for U.S. policy makers. Although it has received less attention, relations between Japan and South Korea are also on an ominous trajectory. The reaction in South Korea to Abe’s pilgrimage to Yasukuni was as angry as the response in China. Seoul also has its own territorial disputes with Tokyo, primarily over a chain of small islands called Dokdo in Korea and Takeshima in Japan, and those controversies are intensifying.

All of this might be a matter of limited concern to the United States if it were not for Washington’s defense treaties with Japan and South Korea. U.S. leaders have already taken the dubious step of insisting that the bilateral defense pact with Tokyo applies not only to indisputable Japanese territory but also to the highly contested Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. That stance has drawn sharp objections from Beijing and puts the United States on the front lines of a worsening confrontation between China and Japan.

Although an armed conflict between Tokyo and Seoul is less likely than a Sino-Japanese war, Washington’s defense obligations put the United States in an extremely awkward position if the Japanese-Korean relationship crumbles. Clearly, Washington would not be able to honor its obligations to both parties, if they came to blows. One wag suggested that the U.S. Army could fight alongside the Koreans, while the U.S. Marines (based mainly on Okinawa) could assist the Japanese.

It’s no laughing matter, though, and the current tensions underscore the pitfalls of Washington’s tendency to acquire allies or security clients in a promiscuous manner. At a minimum, such ties cause diplomatic headaches; at worst, they can entangle the United States in unwanted, even irrelevant, conflicts. It’s not a new problem. During the Cold War, Washington repeatedly found itself trying to keep NATO allies Greece and Turkey from going to war against each other.

That history, along with the current turmoil in East Asia, should cause U.S. leaders to conduct a thorough re-assessment of the country’s overgrown alliance commitments. Alliances are supposed to advance America’s interests and enhance its security, not drag this country into unnecessary, dangerous quarrels.

Europeans Debate Creating a Bigger Military Policy with a Smaller Military

A second marriage, it is said, is the triumph of hope over experience.  So is a European Union debate over defense.  At the latest European Council meeting in late December, European leaders again promised to do more than free ride on the U.S. 

It was hard enough to get the Europeans to divert cash from their generous welfare states during the Cold War when there was a plausible enemy.  The financial crisis, enduring recession, and Eurozone imbroglio have sapped what little interest most Europeans had in maintaining real militaries.  Earlier this year a top NATO official admitted at a private luncheon that “there is no chance for budget increases, not even for keeping spending levels as they are.” 

The Europeans have been embarrassed when going to war.  They ran out of missiles when fighting the grand legions of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi.  France’s Little Napoleon, Francois Hollande, had to turn to the U.S. for air “lift” to get his forces to Mali in 2012. 

So European leaders have been issuing calls for better if not more spending—in fact, “smart defense” has become a NATO mantra.  But it doesn’t matter how smart you spend if you don’t spend much.

The latest Council meeting delivered what we have come to expect from the European Union: grandiose promises and minimal expectations.  Europe will grow only more dependent on America—at least if Americans allow it.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, only Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain fall within world’s top 20 military spenders.  Even that sounds more impressive than it really is.  London spends 8.9 percent of Washington’s outlays on the military.  Madrid spends 1.7 percent. 

Even the Central and Eastern Europeans, who claim to worry about Russia, are laggards.  As I point out in the American Spectator:

Whatever their rhetoric, these countries either don’t feel threatened or don’t want to be bothered to create even a minimal deterrent capability.  They all prefer that NATO, meaning America, prepare for a war which would be disastrous and would serve no conceivable U.S. interest.

The European Council admitted as much in its discussion of the Common Security and Defense Policy:  “Defense budgets in Europe are constrained, limiting the ability to develop, deploy and sustain military capabilities.”  Instead of urging more outlays, the Council called “on the Member States to deepen defense cooperation.”  But what if even the continent’s “big” powers, Britain and France, are shrinking their militaries? 

Indeed, Council members indicated they weren’t very serious even as they approved the latest communiqué.  First, Great Britain sought to keep Europe dependent on America through NATO.  Prime Minister David Cameron explained:  “It isn’t right for the European Union to have capabilities, armies, air forces and the rest of it.”

Second, France found little support from its fellow EU members for French military operations in Mali and the Central African Republic.  Paris did, however, win a Council call for a report on how the EU could address the “challenges and opportunities arising for the Union.” 

Europe will almost certainly continue its downward military descent.  The Europeans don’t believe they have to do anything, other than the bare minimum necessary to quiet U.S. complaints.  Their only fear is that Washington might eventually tire of playing GloboCop for countries that prefer to devote their resources to economic development and social welfare.

However, the U.S. should start saying no to European dependency.  The American military’s job is to most effectively and inexpensively defend America—its people, territory, liberty, and prosperity.  Safeguarding the European welfare state should not be Washington’s objective.

The U.S. should turn responsibility for Europe’s defense over to Europe and bring America’s troops home.  It’s time to dismantle the Cold War alliance and treaty structure.  And for America to invite Europe to take up its proper military responsibilities in a new and changing world.

Freedom of Thought Under Siege Around the Globe: When You are Not Free to Not Believe

Much of the world has just celebrated the most sacred Christian holiday, yet persecution of Christians has never been fiercer, especially in the Middle East.  Other faiths also suffer varying degrees of persecution. 

Nonbelievers also often are mistreated.  The lack of religious belief is less likely to be punished by communist and former communist regimes.  But such systems penalize almost all independent thought. 

Moreover, atheists and other freethinkers are at special risk in theocratic and especially aggressively Muslim states.  The International Humanist and Ethical Union recently published its second annual report, Freedom of Thought 2013: A Global Report on the Rights, Legal Status, and Discrimination Against Humanists, Atheists, and the Non-religious.

America’s Founders enshrined religious liberty in the U.S. Constitution because they understood the imperative of freedom of conscience and thought.  If a state is unwilling to respect a person’s most fundamental and intimate views, it is unlikely to leave them free to act.  Argued IHEU, “when thought is a crime, no other freedom can long survive.”

Freedom of Thought 2013 addresses the status of the non-religious.  Unfortunately, governments routinely violate the liberty not to believe. 

Concluded IHEU:  “the overwhelming majority of countries fail to respect the rights of atheists and freethinkers.  There are laws that deny atheists’ right to exist, revoke their right to citizenship, restrict their right to marry, obstruct their access to public education, prohibit them from holding public office, prevent them from working for the state, criminalize their criticism of religion, and execute them for leaving the religion of their parents.” 

Restrictions are many. IHEU figured that “in effect you can be put to death for expressing atheism in 13 countries,” all Muslim.

Persecution often fades into less virulent but still offensive discrimination.  Noted IHEU:  “Other laws that severely affect those who reject religion include bans on atheists holding public office, and some governments require citizens to identify their religion—for example on state ID cards or passports—but make it illegal, or do not allow, for them to identify as an atheist or as non-religious.” 

Moreover, “Religious privilege is one of the most common forms of discrimination against atheists.”  More controversially the organization includes “religious discrimination, or religious privilege, in this report even when its supporters claim it is merely ceremonial or symbolic.”  The latter is common in the U.S.

Not all persecution emanates from government.  Extra-legal violence is common and governments often do little or nothing in response. 

As I point out in my latest column for Forbes online:

Some religiously faithful may be inclined to dismiss the freedom not to believe.  However, Matt Cherry, the report’s lead author, emphasizes that “the fight for the rights of the non-religious [are] inextricable from the fight for the rights of the religious.”  All possess a fundamental right of belief and conscience, and an equally fundamental right to act on belief and conscience.

Obviously, one can disagree over details, including IHEU’s individual assessments.  Nevertheless, Freedom of Thought 2013 addresses a genuine and very serious threat to liberty.  Governments the world limit the most basic freedoms of belief, thought, and expression.  Moreover, it is easy to ignore the impact on individual lives if one shares the majority’s religious or other worldviews. 

IHEU judges 46 countries (counting the Palestinian territories) as involving “severe discrimination.”  The greatest problems come from the 29 nations categorized as guilty of “grave violations”:  Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Brunei, China, Comoros, Egypt, Eritrea, Gambia, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Morocco, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Swaziland, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.

Americans should review their practices at home.  Moreover, U.S. officials should include the liberty of non-believers in Washington’s human rights dialogue with other nations.

The rest of us also should promote freedom of conscience abroad.  Not by coercing and invading other countries, but by convincing, encouraging, pestering, pushing, pressuring, and embarrassing.  Everyone, from citizens to policymakers, has a stake in expanding liberty for those around us.