Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

South Korea’s Preemptive Decapitation Strike Is a Bad Idea

Last week’s nuclear test by North Korea generated a wealth of commentary and analysis about the future of security on the Korean peninsula. The United States and South Korea quickly responded to the test. On September 13, the United States flew two B-1 bombers over South Korea in a show of force, reminiscent of bomber flights conducted after North Korea’s third nuclear test in March 2013. South Korea’s response didn’t feature any displays of military force, but in many respects it was more dangerous due to its implications for crisis stability.

Two days after the nuclear test, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported on the Korea Massive Punishment & Retaliation (KMPR) operational concept. According to the news report, “[KMPR] is intended to launch pre-emptive bombing attacks on North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and the country’s military leadership if signs of their impending use of nuclear weapons are detected or in the event of a war.” The strikes would likely be conducted using conventionally-armed ballistic and cruise missiles. Jeffrey Lewis of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies summed up the concept, “[South Korea’s] goal is to kill [Kim] so that he can’t shove his fat little finger on the proverbial button.”

A preemptive decapitation strike against North Korean political leadership is a bad idea for a host of reasons.

First, it will be very difficult for South Korea to know with certainty that a nuclear attack is imminent. Based on the press release accompanying the latest nuclear test, North Korea says it will mount nuclear warheads on Hwasong missile units. All the missiles in the Hwasong family are liquid fueled, meaning they take time to fuel before they can launch, but recent test footage indicates that they can be fired from stretches of highway. This presents a very complicated detection problem for South Korea. Moreover, even if Seoul can detect missiles moving into position, these missiles can be armed with either conventional or nuclear warheads further contributing to detection difficulties.

Second, decapitation strikes are very difficult to pull off. In the opening hours of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the United States tried to kill Saddam Hussein with cruise missiles and bombs from aircraft to no avail. Furthermore, even if the KMPR plan was implemented successfully and Kim Jong-un was killed before he could order a strike, there is no telling what happens next. Kim could simply devolve launch authority to missile units already in the field, telling them to go through with an attack even if he is killed. Or, without its dictator, the North could descend into chaos as various groups and individuals vie for control. Such a scenario is rife with uncertainty, and if armed conflict with South Korea broke out in the wake of a preemptive decapitation it could be more difficult to bring the conflict to a close.

Terrorism News and the 9/11 Anniversary Effect

Terrorism, I have argued previously, has hijacked much of the American foreign policy debate. Regardless of whether we are discussing Iraq, Iran, Libya, Russia, or nuclear weapons, it seems we are really talking about terrorism. But although it feels like we talk about terrorism nonstop these days, we actually talk about it a lot less than we did right after 9/11.

As Figure One shows, the news media’s attention to terrorism declined steadily through 2012. The Syrian civil war and then the emergence of the Islamic State reversed the trend. But even so there were almost 40% fewer news stories mentioning the words “terror” or “terrorism” in 2015 compared to the peak in 2002. 

 Chart of Terrorism News Trend

Of course, the one time every year when we can guarantee seeing plenty of news about terrorism is around the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Figure Two compares the daily average coverage of terrorism each year to the number of stories published on September 11. We can think of the difference between the coverage on 9/11 and the daily average as the “anniversary attention effect.” The biggest anniversary effect came in 2011 on the 10th anniversary of the attacks, when the major U.S. newspapers printed almost six times more articles mentioning terrorism than the daily average. The smallest anniversary effect came in 2015 when the effect only boosted coverage of terrorism by about a third. Though the trend is a bit noisy, over time it is clear that the anniversary effect is shrinking. From 2002 through 2006, anniversary coverage was an average of 2.37 times higher than the daily average, but over the last five years from 2012–2016 anniversary coverage has averaged just 1.88 times higher.

9/11 Anniversary Effect on Terrorism News

The shrinking anniversary attention effect suggests that the resonance of 9/11 may be waning as the attacks recede into history. Of course, we should not be too hasty to conclude that public fears of terrorism are also fading. As John Mueller has written here (and in greater detail here), Americans have harbored a healthy level of fear of future terrorist attacks ever since 9/11. But given how hyperbolic and utterly divorced from reality much of the terrorism rhetoric has been this election cycle, we can only hope that 9/11 is beginning to lose some of its symbolic power. Though it is important to honor friends and family we have lost to terrorism, we cannot let emotion dictate foreign policy. 

“Consider Some History”

As a battered and weary country peers into the hellmouth of Election 2016, contemplating the “bleak choice between a ‘liar’ and your ‘drunk uncle,’” along come two of (Anglo-) America’s premier public intellectuals with a plan for getting honest, sober policies out of our next president. “We urge the next president to establish a White House Council of Historical Advisers,” Niall Ferguson and Graham Allison write in this month’s Atlantic. Modeled on the Council of Economic Advisers, the CHA would bring together the country’s finest historical minds, backed by a professional staff, to help close the “history deficit” at 1600 Pennsylvania.

It’s one of those buzzworthy notions that seems ingenious on first airing—a presidential “Dream Team of Historians”!—but gets less shiny the closer you examine it. 

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., speaking truth to JFK's power!

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.: speaking truth to JFK’s power

“I think there would be more than enough work for a council of applied historians,” says Harvard’s Allison. What kind of work? As Ferguson and Allison envision it, the Council could help presidents avoid unforced historical errors, like the invasion of Iraq. When Bush “chose to topple Saddam Hussein,” they write, “he did not appear to fully appreciate either the difference between Sunni and Shiite Muslims,” and “he failed to heed warnings that the predictable consequence of his actions would be a Shiite-dominated Baghdad beholden to the Shiite champion in the Middle East—Iran.”

It’s a fair critique, but neither Ferguson nor Allison is in a great position to make it. It wasn’t what either of them were saying at the time.

During the war fever of 2002-03, Ferguson wasn’t urging the administration to rethink the Iraq adventure, lest they inadvertently empower Iran–he was cheering the disaster on. “By showing them just how easily Saddam’s vicious little tyranny could be overthrown,” he wrote in the Daily Mail (“Empire of the Gun,” June 21, 2003), “Mr. Bush has made it clear to the leaders of Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia that he is in deadly earnest. If their countries continue to sponsor terrorism as all three notoriously do, Saddam’s fate could befall them too. Such saber-rattling evidently works.” Further: “Historians may well look back on 2003 as a turning point in the troubled politics of the Middle East. And they will give much of the credit for that transformation to the courageous and undoubtedly risky strategy adopted by President George Bush.” Just the hard truths Bush needed to hear!

New Support for a European Union Army

While the American news media were preoccupied with Donald Trump’s latest tweet or Hillary’s Clinton’s latest explanation for a scandal that barely passed the straight face test, a more important development took place in Europe that received scant attention.  The prime ministers of both Hungary and the Czech Republic urged the European Union to build its own army.  That is a very significant shift in attitude.  Until now, the European countries had been content to channel security matters through NATO and to focus the EU’s attention on economic issues. 

The insistence on NATO’s primacy also reflected Washington’s wishes, since it guaranteed U.S. control of transatlantic security decisions.  That control came at a high cost, however, since it enabled the European allies to free ride on Washington’s security exertions.

U.S. leaders have repeatedly discouraged independent security initiatives on the part of the European nations.  There was a tremendous opportunity to change policy and off load security burdens with the end of the Cold War.  Perhaps the clearest opportunity was when Yugoslavia began to disintegrate in the early 1990s.  When the initial European diplomatic and peacekeeping efforts faltered and, predictably, the allies then sought U.S. “leadership,” the Clinton administration’s response should have been a firm rejection. 

U.S. officials should have told their European counterparts that the turmoil in the Balkans was a regional matter that had little impact on the United States.  And just as we would have no right to expect them to take a leading role in resolving a similar parochial bout of disorder in Central America or the Caribbean, they had no right to expect U.S. military involvement in the Balkans. Such a stance would have pressured the Europeans to address security issues in their region as competent adults instead of hapless dependents.

Instead, Washington continued to play a dominant role in the Balkans through NATO, first with the Bosnia intervention in 1995 and then with the Kosovo intervention in 1999.  Democratic Europe’s security dependence continued unabated.  Indeed, NATO’s prominence and Washington’s risk exposure increased steadily as the alliance expanded first into Central Europe and then into Eastern Europe.  As defense analyst Nikolas K. Gvosdev laments, the U.S. Senate, in a monumental dereliction of its constitutional duty, failed to ask the hard questions that needed to be asked as Washington undertook increasingly far-flung, questionable security obligations.  With a few exceptions, that was also true of the broader foreign policy community.

In East Asia, August was a Busy Month for Burden Sharing

East Asia is a rough neighborhood. Chinese activities in the East and South China Seas stoke tensions and raise questions about Beijing’s plans for regional or global dominance. North Korea’s latest contribution to regional instability came in the form of a submarine-launched ballistic missile test on August 24, during a large annual U.S.-South Korean military exercise. Initial analysis suggests that the missile could have a range of 1,000 km or more, which would give Pyongyang the ability to place all U.S. military bases in South Korea and the main Japanese islands at risk.

America’s allies and partners in East Asia have not stood idly by while Beijing and Pyongyang acted aggressively. Rather, they have taken relatively small but still meaningful measures to improve their defenses and, thus, their ability to resist coercion.

Tokyo announced that it would develop new anti-ship missiles and deploy them to islands near the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea after multiple Chinese Coast Guard and fishing vessels began operating in the area in early August. During the annual Han Kuang military exercises, Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen announced that the Ministry of National Defense will devise a new strategy by January 2017. U.S. allies and partners also worked with one another. For example, on August 18, Japan delivered the first of ten coast guard vessels to the Philippines.

In the near term, the United States will likely retain its status as the ultimate guarantor of security for its East Asian allies and partners, but these efforts to take on a greater burden for self-defense should be praised. Eventually these states may take up the mantle of security guarantor, but such a transformation will take time. Additionally, the next president of the United States should encourage further burden sharing. Allies that are capable of deterring coercion or responding to security threats on their own enable a more restrained U.S. grand strategy by reducing the range of incidents or crises that require U.S. intervention. 

Can the United States, China and Russia Cooperate on Trade?

The 2016 G20 summit in Hangzhou is fast approaching and, similar to the pre-summit meetings hosted by China throughout the year, the focus will be the state of the global economy. Still contending with sluggish global economic growth, the summit’s theme of “Towards an Innovative, Invigorated, Interconnected and Inclusive World Economy” is especially timely. Under the umbrella of global economic growth, cultivating opportunities for trade and investment will become a major priority for G20 states, and three global powers—the United States, China, and Russia—are each developing their own multinational trade route projects. These major trade projects could serve as opportunities for cross-country cooperation and growth, but they could also become sources for future conflict.

China’s management of domestic markets, currency, and commitment to structural reforms was a cause for global concern at the first meeting of G20 Finance and Central Bank Governors in February. At next week’s summit, China’s President Xi Jinping will undoubtedly point out China’s efforts towards realizing supply-side structural reforms in the face of China’s “new normal” of slower economic growth. As part of these reforms aimed at rebalancing China’s economy, Beijing plans to cut industrial overcapacity, tackle overhanging debt, reform state-owned enterprises, and seek out new consumer markets. On the last point, Beijing is championing its New Silk Road Initiative (also known as “One Belt, One Road”), a major state project focused on opening up new markets. To accomplish this, Beijing is building vast trade networks spanning several countries and continents, by land and by sea. However, many countries are wary. The project, billed as purely an economic one, may evolve to include a political and/or military dimension as well.

North Korea: Friendly Proliferation May Beat a Nuclear Umbrella

The Obama administration is debating a declaration of no first use of nuclear weapons. Some Asia specialists fear the resulting impact on North Korea. But dealing with Pyongyang is a reason for Washington to encourage its ally South Korea to go nuclear.

Washington has possessed nuclear weapons for more than 70 years. No one doubts that the United States would use nukes in its own defense.

However, since then, Washington has extended a so-called “nuclear umbrella” over many of its non-nuclear allies. For instance, the United States long has threatened to use nuclear weapons in its NATO allies’ defense, though the precise circumstances under which the United States would act were not clear.

Northeast Asia is the region where nuclear threats seem greatest. Japan and South Korea are thought to be snuggled beneath America’s nuclear umbrella, which has discouraged both from acquiring their own weapons.