Tag: North Korea

Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood: Misread and Missed Signaling

Three days after North Korea successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile two U.S. B-1B Lancer bombers flew from Guam to South Korea and dropped guided bombs on a target range. This isn’t the first time the B-1B has “sent a message” to Kim Jong-Un, and it likely won’t be the last, but what message do these bomber flights actually send? Do the flights indicate that efforts to drive a wedge in the U.S.-South Korea alliance won’t work? Are they a demonstration of American capacity to destroy North Korea’s nuclear forces early in a conflict without relying on U.S. nuclear weapons? Something else? All or none of the above?

The number of messages that the bomber flights could be sending reflects the fact that signaling is hard. States use displays of military power as a tool to communicate their intentions or positions to friends and adversaries alike, but these messages can easily be misread or even completely missed by the target. A recent book on nuclear weapons and coercive diplomacy by Todd Sechser and Matthew Fuhrmann contains multiple case studies of crises involving nuclear threats where signals were frequently misread or missed entirely.*

On North Korea, Diplomacy Is the Sensible Option

The Trump administration’s approach to North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile development has been almost exclusively an emphasis on military confrontation. The latest eruption of escalatory actions and rhetoric is in keeping with the norm.

Following Pyongyang’s successful testing of an inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) this week, Trump referenced “some pretty severe things that we are thinking about” in response. Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, commander of U.S. forces in South Korean, warned ominously that “it would be a grave mistake for anyone” to doubt our willingness to use military force in response to North Korean “provocation.” UN Ambassador Nikki Haley said in a statement that we will use “our considerable military forces…if we must, but we prefer not to have to go in that direction.” Finally, U.S. and South Korean forces “fired a barrage of guided-missiles into the ocean” off the east coast of the Korean Peninsula, as a show of force.

Many Americans believe the hardline approach to North Korea is wise because peaceful negotiations, in Eli Lake’s words, have been used by Pyongyang “to buy time and extract concessions from the West.” Diplomacy doesn’t work on the intransigent North Korea, we’re told.

But that conflicts with the historical record. According to Stanford University’s Siegfried S. Hecker, the record from the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations shows that “Pyongyang was willing to slow its drive for nuclear weapons” but “only when it believed the fundamental relationship with the United States was improving, but not when the regime was threatened.”

This is a crucial point. For decades, Washington’s general approach has involved economic sanctions, military encirclement, and regular threats of preventive war. In this environment, and without good faith overtures from Washington, North Korea is going to continue to insist on having the ability to deter invasion or attack by the United States or its allies.

The Paris Agreement and the Future of Nuclear Nonproliferation Efforts

President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord was the latest in a steadily expanding list of actions that highlight his contempt for multilateral diplomacy in U.S. foreign policy. This does not mean that Trump is an isolationist. He clearly favors bilateral engagement with other countries and doesn’t mind using American military power to wage war in the Middle East and apply pressure to North Korea. The question is, what does Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement mean for other areas of multilateral engagement?

A preference for bilateral over multilateral diplomacy may be appropriate in some cases, but the bilateral approach is not ideal for combating, for example, nuclear proliferation. Trump’s disdain for multilateral diplomacy is especially worrisome when combined with the deepening militarization of U.S. foreign policy. These two emerging trends simultaneously endanger the Iran nuclear deal, a major success for multilateral diplomacy and nuclear nonproliferation, while increasing the probability of armed conflict should the deal fail.

The Iran deal is a triumph of multilateral diplomacy, involving the United Nations’ Permanent Five (United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China), Germany, and the European Union. This level of international involvement enhances both the legitimacy and strength of the agreement, which Iran has complied with since implementation began in January 2016. If the Trump administration wants to successfully renegotiate the deal, it would need the buy-in of the partner countries, a condition that becomes harder to achieve as Trump alienates many of our Iran deal partners with actions such as withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord.

If Trump truly wants to renegotiate the Iran deal (and not just unilaterally withdraw from it), then he will need the support of the very countries that he is repeatedly frustrating with his characteristically undiplomatic actions on the world stage.

North Korea Policy: Hoping on a Hail Mary

The Trump administration’s North Korea policy started taking shape this week. On his first official trip to East Asia, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared an end to the Obama administration’s policy of strategic patience, ruled out negotiations with North Korea unless the North gave up nuclear weapons, and said that the United States would not rule out military action. Despite Tillerson’s attempt to put daylight between the Obama administration and the Trump administration, insisting on denuclearization and not ruling out the use of military force have been features of U.S. policy toward North Korea under both Bush and Obama. And this is precisely why the Trump administration’s approach, as it stands now, has little chance of succeeding.

Reining in North Korea has rapidly risen to the top of the Trump administration’s list of international challenges. In February, Pyongyang tested a solid-fueled ballistic missile with a tracked transporter erector launcher that will be very difficult for the United States to track and target in a preemptive attack. The following month, during the annual U.S.-South Korean Foal Eagle military exercises, which North Korea views as a dress rehearsal for an invasion, the North launched at least four ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan simulating a nuclear attack against a U.S. Marine Corps air station at Iwakuni. Jeffrey Lewis of the Middlebury Institute for International Studies at Monterey succinctly described the Foal Eagle/missile launch interaction, “If we are practicing an invasion, they are practicing nuking us to repel that invasion.”

Nuclear Apocalypse Likely Farther than Doomsday Clock’s Hands Claim

It’s been a busy time for nuclear weapons-related news—between President Trump’s alleged confusion about and denouncement of the New START arms reduction treaty with Russia on Friday, the White House’s subsequent assurances that the president understands the treaty, and North Korea’s missile launch test over the weekend.

The people behind the “Doomsday Clock,” have declared that the world is “two and a half minutes to midnight.” That’s the closest we’ve allegedly been to Armageddon since 1953, when both the U.S. and Soviet Union first possessed thermonuclear weapons.

A graph from HumanProgress.org might help put the current fearful commotion in perspective.

The U.S. has 4,000 nuclear warheads stockpiled and Russia has 4,490, according to the Federation of American Scientists, a group devoted to arms reduction, as of their latest data update on January 31st of this year. 

Upcoming Cato Discussion on China’s Role in Dealing with North Korea

The United Nations Security Council has approved another round of sanctions against North Korea in response to its latest nuclear test. No one really believes that the new penalties, focused on Pyongyang’s coal and other exports, will have any effect. In fact, it is doubtful that China, which purchases most of the North’s goods, will fully enforce the new resolution.

Still, with most policymakers giving up any hope that the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea will voluntarily negotiate away its nuclear program, Beijing remains the best option for constraining the DPRK’s nuclear ambitions. The People’s Republic of China so far has refused to play its assigned role, but Washington continues to press the PRC to act.

Getting Beijing to take strong action against North Korea is a long-shot, as I explain in an upcoming Policy Analysis, but worth serious effort by Washington. What that would involve is the subject of a forum at Cato at noon on December 8. Susan Glaser of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Scott Snyder of the Council of Foreign Relations will join me in a panel discussed moderated by Cato Vice President Christopher Preble to discuss the challenges and possibilities of engaging China over the issue.

One thing is clear. Washington and its East Asian allies need to persuade rather than demand that the PRC act. How best to convince Beijing, and what mix of carrots and sticks would be most effective in doing so, will be among the issues discussed on the 8th. I hope you can join us: the details, including where to RSVP, are included here.

The Enemy Gets a Vote

Resolute Desk

In the week since election night, foreign policy watchers (myself included) have rushed to speculate about the effects that President Trump’s administration will have on the world. The most dramatic effect is the potential upending of the international order that the United States built after World War II. Of course, at this point it is impossible to determine whether or not such a consequence will come to pass, but it deserves consideration.

Baked into the idea that Trump will tear down the international order is the assumption that Hillary Clinton would have maintained the order if she was president. Jeffrey A. Stacey argued as much in Foreign Affairs when he wrote, “The world’s challenges require a determined use of U.S. leadership, not isolationism. And in the areas where Obama’s restraint has failed, the more activist Hillary Clinton Doctrine…could likely prevail.” However, the idea that the United States can influence events through “leadership” ignores the fact that in foreign policy the enemy gets a vote. In other words, the growing relative power of America’s adversaries will still pose a challenge to the international order, regardless of what actions the United States takes or who sits in the Oval Office.

America’s ability to rein in the bad behavior of other states has diminished, not because the United States is in decline, but rather because the power of our adversaries has grown. In East Asia, for example, the two most important challenges to the security status quo are North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and China’s improving conventional military capabilities. Both developments threaten the regional order in East Asia, and resist American attempts to stop them. Multilateral and bilateral sanctions efforts have failed to stop North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, which has come a long way with minimal external assistance.

China’s growing military power enables more assertive behavior in the South and East China Seas, despite displays of resolve by the United States and its allies. While many have criticized the Obama administration for not doing more against China, the simple fact is that as its military grows strong it becomes harder to deter China from using it. Beyond East Asia, after years of neglect following the Cold War, the Russian military is fielding new capabilities and pushing back against NATO expansion to countries along its border.

The growing relative power of America’s adversaries does not make the president obsolete, but the individual behind the Resolute desk is not omnipotent. They cannot always prevent changes in the balance of power or maintain the international order by dialing up the “leadership” they demonstrate. We don’t know what impact Donald Trump will have on the world, but the threats America faces would exist regardless of who won the election. The assumption that Hillary Clinton would be able to prevent negative outcomes through greater leadership on the international stage disregards the growing power and agency of America’s challengers. 

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