How much should the United States do to address the threat from North Korea, especially in light of its recent blustering? None of the broader strategic options look very attractive. Trying to bribe Pyongyang toward normalcy hasn't worked in the past, but imposing additional sanctions and issuing direct military threats risks unwanted escalation. And nobody really wants to see North Korea collapse, at least not suddenly or soon. Although it is easy (and commonplace) to exaggerate the actual threat that North Korea poses (see Stanford's Siegfried Hecker here for a useful corrective to the alarmism), its past behavior and opaque decisionmaking do provide genuine grounds for concern.
According to today's New York Times, U.S. and South Korean officials have developed plans for proportional military responses to any North Korean military action. It sounds like the familiar "tit-for-tat" response analyzed at length by Robert Axelrod and others, and these preparations (and the publicity surrounding them) are clearly intended as a deterrent warning. In essence, Washington and Seoul are telling Pyongyang that it won't get a free pass if it uses force. That's the right response, I think, because the last thing Kim Jong Un wants right now is a military humiliation that jeopardizes his standing with the rest of the regime.
But there is a larger dimension to this problem that doesn't get enough attention. The North Korea situation is another one of those cases where U.S. interests, though not zero, are a lot smaller than those of our local allies. North Korea does matters to us, but it matters a lot more to South Korea, Japan, and, of course, China. The typical U.S. instinct in such situations is to assume it is Washington's job to deal with the challenge and to get its local allies to go along with whatever response we have in mind. That instinct was in full display back in late March, when the U.S. responded to various North Korean threats by sending a couple of B-2 bombers to conduct a highly publicized mock bombing run.
Given Asia's growing strategic importance and the value of local allies there, the United States cannot appear to indifferent to the problems that North Korea poses. But it is equally important that Washington get its Asian allies to step up and do their fair share too, instead of free-riding on American protection. It's a tricky line to walk: We need to do enough to assure them that we have their back, but not so much to convince them that Uncle Sam will take care of everything. Among other things, exaggerated dependence on U.S. protection enables states like South Korea and Japan to remain aloof from each other, instead of working to resolve their own differences and cooperating to address shared regional security concerns.
I don't know the operational details of the "proportional responses" that the U.S. and South Korea have prepared, but I'd like to see South Korea take the lead in dealing with any North Korean military provocation, in consultation with Washington and with firm U.S. backing. South Korea is far wealthier than its northern counterpart, and its military forces are much more capable. North Korea may have the world's fourth largest military in terms of personnel, but South Korea's forces are far better equipped and better trained and would win a conventional war if one were to occur. (Among other things, the South Korean defense budget is about twice as large as North Korea's entire GDP). Consistent with the terms of our mutual defense treaty, the United States should stand willing to help South Korea in the event of direct provocation. But encouraging those whose interests are most directly affected to lead is a smart long-term strategy. The United States won't get the help it wants from its Asian allies if we insist on doing most of the work ourselves.
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You know the old joke about administrators who have three boxes on their desks: one says "In," another says "Out," and the third says "Too Hard." There are a lot of problems out there in the world that seem to fit that latter box, vexing challenges that seem to have been around forever. Ambitious policymakers and idealistic academics often think up clever ways to address them, but most of the time these schemes go nowhere.
What are my Top Ten Intractable Problems? They will undoubtedly be solved someday, but nobody knows when. Pay attention: There will be a quiz at the end.
#1. Cyprus: The Greek/Turkish division over Cyprus is a legacy of the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, as Cyprus was the main place where the Greek and Turkish populations weren't forcibly separated after the war between Greece and Turkey that lasted from 1919 until 1921. The conflict has been with us in various forms ever since, and despite some near misses, it is still unresolved today. Any guesses on when it will get settled? I have no idea.
#2. The Arab-Israeli Conflict: This one's been around since 1947, or 1936, or 1919 or even the 1890s ... pick whatever date you want. Who's willing to bet it will get settled soon? Warning: Nobody's lost money being pessimistic in the past.
#3. The Korean Peninsula: There is no peace treaty ending the Korean War, and the Korean people are still divided between two countries. Germany was divided for a long time too, and one suspects that Korean reunification will happen some day. But when?
#4. Kashmir: High on anyone's list of dangerous and intractable conflicts is the long-running dispute over Kashmir, which has helped keep India and Pakistan at odds with each other for sixty-five years by now. Is a solution in sight? Not that I can see.
#5. UN Security Council Reform: Everybody knows that the current structure of the UNSC makes little sense, and the current membership of the P-5 is especially anachronistic. But past efforts to devise a better structure have been stymied by rival ambitions. We all agree it ought to be changed, but nobody can agree on who the new members should be. Result: even more gridlock than in the US Congress.
#6. The Democratic Republic of the Congo: The DRC was badly governed back when it was called Zaire, and then it suffered through more than fifteen years of incessant internal warfare and repeated foreign interventions. There have been a few efforts to rebuild a more effective central state, but the country remains a desperately weak black hole in the center of Africa. How long will this continue? No one knows.
#7. The Cuba Embargo: The U.S. has had an embargo on Cuba since 1961 intended to bring down the Castro regime. This monument to domestic lobbying and diplomatic rigidity has been a complete failure, yet may continue as long as anyone named Castro is in power and maybe beyond that.
#8. The European Union: Until relatively recently, the EU was a great
success story, but now it looks like one of those soap operas where the players
lurch from crisis to crisis without either divorcing or reconciling. Will the Euro survive? Will the UK leave? Will right-wing fascism return? Will Berlusconi apologize to
Merkel? Will Turkey ever become a member? Stay
tuned for the next exciting episode of "As the Continent Turns..."
#9. Climate Change: Except for a few flat-earthers like Senator Jim Inhofe, we know now that human activity is altering the earth's climate ... and not in a good way. But there are major conflicts of interest between the key players, as well as huge intergenerational equity problems. And how do you convince politicians to impose big sacrifices on their constituents today, in order to benefit people who aren't even alive? Will a solution be reached? Probably, but I wouldn't hold my breath. And that's just one of the big environmental issues that mankind is facing.
#10. The Former Soviet Fragments: Lastly, what about all the remnants of the former Soviet empire? Some of these fragments have become effective states, but there are still a lot of unresolved conflicts lying around. Think of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nadgorno-Karabakh, the potential for further unrest in Chechnya, or the breakaway provinces of S. Osetia and Abkhazia, who are recognized by Russia, each other, and hardly anyone else. It hardly seems likely that these entities could be around for very long, but stranger things have happened in the past.
And now for your quiz.
First, which of these conflicts will be the first to be resolved? (My bet is #7, because neither Fidel nor Raul are going to live forever. But they can always designate a successor to try to keep the regime going.)
Second, what are the most important unresolved disputes that I've missed?
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Victor Cha of Georgetown University scores a rare two-fer on today's oped pages, landing a piece in the New York Times and another in the Financial Times, both on the implications of Kim Jong Il's death. Victor's main argument is that new leader Kim Jong Un, (son of the deceased Kim Jong Il, grandson of Kim Il Sung) won't be up to the task of running an already-troubled regime. In his words: "Such a system simply cannot hold." He suspects this situation will encourage China to get more actively involved in internal North Korea politics (and might go so far as to "adopt" it as a quasi-province). Cha doesn't think there's much that the United States can or should do at this juncture, but he recommends that the United States start more active contingency planning for the collapse of the regime or significant internal turbulence, and redouble its efforts to establish a channel of communication on this issue with Beijing.
Victor knows a heck of a lot more about North Korea than I do, so I'm reluctant to challenge either his forecast or his prescriptions. But I can think of at least one reason why Kim Jong Un might -- repeat might -- fare somewhat better than Cha expects. If North Korea's ruling elite understands their own fragility and recognizes the dangers that a serious power struggle might pose, then Kim Jong Un can survive by default. Why? Because he's the one leader that all the potential contenders can agree on, if only to avoid the dangerous uncertainties that an open contest for power would entail.
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It's the holiday season, but Death does not observe such man-made conventions. I've been more conscious of that fact this past week, in part because my mother would have been 84 last Thursday and she is woven into a whole tapestry of my holiday memories. It is at such times that the loss is most acute.
And as it happens, we have seen three notable departures this week. Herewith a brief comment on each.
1. Christopher Hitchens. I never met Hitchens (though my wife knew him slightly back in the 1980s), but I've enjoyed several of his books and a fair bit of his commentary over the years. His talents were considerable and his achievements worthy of note (and I'd give a fair bit to be as able and witty a writer as he was), but the outpouring of tributes this past week struck me as decidedly over-the-top. (I can't help but think that he would have been first in line to skewer most of them). I don't doubt the sincerity of his friends' affection and or question their sense of loss, but as Glenn Greenwald notes, if you want people to say nice things about you when you're gone, make sure a lot of your friends are well-connected Establishment writers.
Like a lot of public intellectuals, Hitchens embraced an odd set of ideological fixations at various points in his career. He started out a Trotskyite, and ended up a cranky neoconservative fellow-traveler (at least regarding the Iraq War and the threat from radical Islam). And his public persona never seemed tempered by self-doubt, despite having been massively wrong on more than one occasion. A bit more humility might have made him a less successful writer, but also a more sensible one.
Is it possible that his oscillations reflected a lack of deep intellectual foundations? He was clearly formidably well-read, but apart from his outspoken atheism, I'm not sure he had a well-developed theory for how the world really worked. By his own account, the unifying core of his thinking was a hatred of "the totalitarian"--and especially any movement or ruler who tried to control what we think--but isn't that about the easiest target for anyone (and especially a writer) to pick? I mean, who's going to rise to totalitarianism's defense in this day and age, and especially inside the American Establishment? (Civil liberties may be under siege these days, but we have a ways to go before we come close to true tyranny.)
That said, I was also struck by one more thought upon reading all those commentaries on his career. I cannot imagine the American system of higher education producing anyone quite like him, and especially not the typical American Ph.D. program in the social sciences. Whatever his flaws may have been, Hitchens was wide-ranging, provocative, willing to take unpopular positions, and above all fun to read. Whereas graduate education in the United States is increasingly designed to take smart and ambitious young students, stamp most of the fire and creativity out of them, and make them safe, largely indistinguishable from each other, and above all, boring. (There's a reason we call them "academic disciplines"). So if Hitchens is your role model, for god's (note the small "g") sake don't go get a Ph.D.
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I'm back from a short trip to Korea, and I thought I'd pass along some of the lessons I gleaned from the trip. I should start by saying that my Korean hosts were extremely gracious and welcoming and the conference itself was exceptionally well-organized. Given that I'm something of a newcomer to many Asian security issues, I learned a lot from the exchanges and am grateful for the opportunity to add a country to my list. My one regret is that I didn't have much time to tour Seoul (let alone the rest of the country), and I only hope I have a chance to go back for longer.
The participants at the conference included a number of prominent Korean scholars and policymakers (the two categories overlap), along with several former or current U.S. officials (Jim Steinberg, Kurt Campbell, and Jeffrey Bader), and prominent academics (John Ikenberry, John Mearsheimer, Victor Cha, and yours truly). Interestingly, the conference also included two well-connected scholars from China, and the whole proceeding was "on-the-record" (and covered by the Korean media). The audience included an impressive number of Korean graduate students, by the way, who asked some excellent questions at the end of each session.
Not surprisingly, much of the discussion focused on the implications of China's rise and North Korea's continued status as a regional trouble-maker. As my last post indicated, South Korea would like to maintain both its extensive economic ties with China and its close security ties with the United States. In other words, they lean economically in one direction and militarily in the other. South Koreans are under no illusions about the implications of China's increasing power, however, and they are eager to preserve the alliance with the United States as a result. Given their strategic location and long history of foreign occupation, this attitude is hardly surprising.
In this regard, the Obama administration's decision to invite South Korean President Lee Myung Bak for a state visit this week was a very smart move, and the Free Trade Agreement that is now being considered by Congress is important as a signal of the U.S. commitment (its direct economic benefits is probably modest). We also had the opportunity to meet with President Lee for about an hour after the conference concluded, and I found him to be extremely impressive. We asked him a whole set of challenging questions, and his answers were clear, assured, and for the most part convincing. If he were American, he'd probably mop the floor with the whole set of GOP presidential hopefuls, and I suspect President Obama will enjoy their discussions.
There was of course broad consensus on the challenges posed by North Korea, and a general sense that the United States and South Korea have to take a harder line against provocations like the sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan, and the artillery shelling of Yeonpyeong island. The participants were divided on the issue of reunification, however: some speakers saw reunification as wholly desirable, because they saw North Korea as a dangerous source of regional instability. In this view, reunification under South Korean auspices would be in everyone's interest, including Beijing. Others -- including myself -- were more skeptical about China's willingness to allow the two Koreas to unify. Unification under South Korean auspices would place a key U.S. ally on the Yalu River, and probably encourage an even more lively competition for influence there between Beijing and Washington. The United States could promise not to deploy forces north of the 38th parallel, of course, but why would Beijing take such assurances at face value? And if Beijing insisted that the northern areas of a reunified Korea remain demilitarized, wouldn't Koreans feel that this left have of their newly united country vulnerable to Chinese pressure? All this tells me that reunification is not in the cards anytime soon.
I've just arrived in Seoul, after a long but uneventful flight from New York. Korean Airlines did a nice job getting me here, but why do all airlines (not just KA) feel compelled to feed you a meal right after takeoff? In this case, we took off from JFK at 1:15 AM, and were immediately served a nice but wholly superfluous dinner. Even if you skip the dinner they don't dim the cabin lights for an hour or so, when you'd really rather be sleeping.
But I digress....
As I mentioned last time, I'm here for a conference on Asian security issues. I'll be talking a bit about issues on the Korean peninsula, and the fine line that South Korea has been walking in recent years as its economic ties with China have grown. But my main contribution -- such as it is -- will be talk a bit about the balance-of-power dynamics that I anticipate in East Asia in the years ahead. Here's an edited version of the key portion of my paper (disclaimer: the following reflects just my views, and not those of the conference sponsors or any of the other participants).
In general, states seek allies to balance against external threats. The level of threat, in turn, is a function of the power of potential rivals, their geographic proximity, their specific offensive capabilities, and their perceived intentions. As states grow stronger and amass greater power projection capabilities, nearby countries worry about how these capabilities will be used and to look for external support.
Ideally, states facing a rising threat would like to "pass the buck" to some other country, so that they don't have to bear the burdens of balancing against the threat. If "buck-passing" is not feasible -- usually because there is no other country to pass the buck to -- then states have little choice but to increase their own defense capabilities and form external alliances in order to preserve their autonomy and security.
In rare cases, weak or isolated states may be forced to "bandwagon" with a powerful state. Weak states can do little to affect the outcome of a great power contest and may suffer grievously in the process, so they must choose the side they believe is most likely to win. They may be willing to stand up to a stronger power if they are assured of ample allied support, but a weak state left to its own devices may have little choice but to kowtow to a larger and stronger neighbor. That is how "spheres of influence" are born.
What does this logic tell us about alliance patterns in East Asia? On the one hand, prospects for balancing ought to be fairly good. Although China has the greatest power potential in Asia, several of its neighbors are hardly "weak states." Japan has the world's third largest economy (despite a lengthy period of stagnation), a latent nuclear capability, and significant military power of its own. Despite a rapidly aging population, it would be hard to intimidate unless it were completely isolated. Vietnam has never been a pushover, India has a billion people, a rapidly growing economy, and is nuclear-capable, and states like Indonesia and Singapore possess valuable strategic real estate and (in Singapore's case) military strength disproportionate to their size. Last but not least, the Republic of Korea is now an impressive industrial power with advanced military capabilities and a number of strong alliance partners.
Furthermore, even a far more powerful China would have some difficulty projecting power against its various neighbors, because it would have to do so via naval, air, and amphibious capabilities and not via land power alone. And given the U.S. interest in preventing China from exercising regional hegemony, the potential targets of a Chinese drive for regional dominance would have a great power ally ready to back them up.
It should not surprise us, therefore, to observe that China's rise is already encouraging balancing behavior by many Asian countries. Japan, India, Indonesia, Vietnam, and South Korea have all begun significant defense modernization programs, and each of these states has taken steps to strengthen its ties with the United States. These responses, it is worth noting, are both a response to China's growing power and a reaction to its increasingly assertive regional behavior. Their desire to improve ties with the United States has found a welcome audience in Washington, which is also concerned about China's rising power and regional ambitions.
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Question: What happens when other major powers face growing security problems, and begin to wonder whether the United States will continue to protect them?
Answer: They stop free-riding quite so much and start doing more themselves.
Case in point: Japan. As the New York Times reports today, Japan has responded to fears of a rising China, potential dangers from North Korea, and concerns about the U.S. commitment to Asia not by "bandwagoning" with China or opting for neutrality, but by bolstering its own defenses and reaffirming its security ties with America. Its goal, according to the Times, is to become a "full military partner" with the United States.
There are two obvious, lessons to be drawn from this example. The first is that the United States can take advantage of the tendency of great powers to balance to reduce some of its own defense burdens, confident that wealthy allies like Japan can take up some of the slack. By playing "hard to get," in other words, we can "pass the buck" to our allies to a greater extent than we have in recent decades. The United States can do this in part because it has the luxury of being safe and secure in the Western hemisphere while our allies lie closer to potential sources of danger, and smart strategists should take advantage of this favorable situation. If the United States insists on doing it all, of course, we can confidently expect other states to keep free-riding on our efforts.
The second lesson, however, is that there's a limit to how far one can pass the buck to others. If the United States were to withdraw entirely from Asia, or to reduce its military capabilities too much, then some other states might eventually decide to make other strategic arrangements. But given that the U.S. is spending nearly 5 percent of GDP on national security these days, while Japan spends less than 1 percent, I'd say we've have a long way to go before our allies think seriously about realigning.
Remember: The main reason for a state to have allies is so that they can help make it more secure. If having a large array of allies just means the United States has more areas it is obligated to defend, then maybe we need to rethink how many of those commitments actually enhance our security, and how many of them just add burdens without compensating benefits.
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It's Christmas Eve, and my brain has been deadened by hours of grading a take-home final exam. (The papers themselves aren't bad, but reading dozens of answers to the same questions can get a bit mind-numbing). I can't dull the pain with egg nog or some other suitable spirit until this evening, so I'm taking a quick break to offer this holiday post.
My own holiday shopping is finished, thank goodness, but I began wondering about what sorts of gifts I'd like to see some prominent world leaders receive. In the spirit of the season, here's a hypothetical gift list for a few people who've been on my mind over the past year or so.
1. For Barack Obama. A copy of Machiavelli's The Prince. President Obama is ending the year on an up note, having successfully managed to end Don't Ask Don't Tell and obtained Senate approval for the New Start Treaty. I think the former achievement is more important than the latter, but both are worthy accomplishments. The new Congress won't be nearly as friendly (and the last one was no picnic), so the president will need all of Machiavelli's wily advice to confound his opponents. Let's hope he learns that it's better to be feared than loved, at least when you're dealing with today's Grand Obstructionist Party.
2. For Hillary Rodham Clinton: a pair of reading glasses, an espresso machine, and a couple of days off. Why? So she can read the new Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review. I just downloaded this sucker, and it's over 200 pages of bracing bureaucratic prose. I plan to read it myself over Xmas break, but I'll bet it takes me a few espressos to get through it too. And I have a sneaking suspicion that it will be cited more than read, even by people at State.
4. For Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas: A copy of Roger Fisher and William Ury's Getting to Yes, and Ali Abunimah's One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. Because if we don't get to "yes" on two states, one state is what you'll end up with.
5. For Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez: A copy of The General in His Labyrinth, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Chavez has been obsessed with Simon Bolivar -to the extent of exhuming his remains in an attempt to prove that the South American hero was poisoned-but Marquez's novel also offers a warning of the sort of fate that Chavez himself may be destined for.
6. For UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon: A copy of Albert Camus' essay "The Myth of Sisyphus." Running the United Nations must sometimes seem like a Sisyphean task, and every bit as absurd as Camus judged the fate of man to be. But perhaps the Secretary-General can take comfort from Camus' conclusion -- "we must imagine Sisyphus happy."
7. For North Korean heir apparent Kim Jong-un: A DVD of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. The question is: will he govern like Nurse Ratched, or like McMurphy?
8. For General David Petraeus: A Youtube link to Pete Seeger's "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy." There just might be a lesson in there.
9. For Chinese General Secretary Hu Jintao: A framed reproduction of Matisse's Fall of Icarus, as a reminder of what can happen when one flies too high too fast.
10. For readers of this blog: My thanks for your interest, your sometimes spirited dissents, and your generous words of support. May each of you bask in the love of family and friends this holiday season, and may we all grow a little bit wiser in the year ahead.
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In my last post I suggested that the United States and China start talking about how they would handle the collapse of the North Korean government. I should emphasize that I was not suggesting that the United States and China try to topple the North Korean regime. Beijing has zero interest in that happening right now, and we've already got more problems on our plate than we can handle.
My first point was that the North Korean regime could collapse no matter what we do (though nobody can predict when), and that it would be a good thing to have discussed how to respond in advance. My second point was that merely having such a conversation might have a sobering effect on Pyongyang, although I confess that I'm not entirely sure of that either.
I am pleased to report, however, that some people have started to think about what we should do in the event that North Korea really does start to go down the tubes. Specifically, USC's Korean Studies Institute sponsored a workshop on this topic earlier this year, and you can read a summary of their deliberations here. Kudos to the organizers, David Kang and Victor Cha, for trying to look down the road, and to help us get ready for a potentially thorny problem before it actually occurs.
How should we respond to North Korea's latest bit of infuriating behavior? So far, the Obama administration's decision to send a US carrier for joint naval exercises with South Korea strikes me as about right. Overreacting would just give North Korea what they usually want-i.e., more attention than they deserve-but a purely verbal statement of support would have been seen as too modest by South Korea and our other Asian allies.
At the same time, we want to let Seoul take the lead in responding to this attack (while letting them know that we have their back), because we want our Asian allies to start taking more responsibility for their own security. South Korea is far wealthier and stronger than the North (which has a large but poorly trained and equipped army), and there's little danger of escalation if South Korea chooses to retaliate in a measured way. A real war on the Korean Peninsula would almost certainly bring about the final death knell of the North Korean regime, and somehow I don't think Kim & Co. have a death-wish.
But there's another step that I'd consider. Specifically, I'd try to initiate some quiet discussions with China on how to deal with the whole thorny issue of a post-Kim environment and the prospect of reunification. We're already asking China to intercede, but I'd go further and push them to talk about what our two countries will do in the event that the Pyongyang regime begins to unravel and reunification suddenly begins to look like a real possibility. One of the reasons China keeps protecting North Korea is their legitimate concern that the collapse of the Kim regime would cause enormous headaches for them. Among other things, they worry about a massive influx of refugees, the emergence of a major public health crisis just across the border, the security of North Korea's nuclear arsenal, and the possibility that a reunified Korea would remain allied with the United States, thereby putting a traditional U.S. ally right next door. Because China doesn't want any of those things to happen, it doesn't want the Kim dynasty to disappear. And this situation gives Pyongyang some leverage.
Yet even though I don't think North Korea is on the verge of collapsing, there are two good reasons to start some quiet conversations about what we would do it if did. First, North Korea might implode at some point in the future, and it would be nice to have thought about how we should respond and to have discussed this problem with China in advance. The second reason, and the one more relevant to today's concerns, is that news of these conversations would inevitably leak, and Pyongyang would undoubtedly be deeply concerned if they thought that Beijing was having serious conversations with Washington about the implications of a post-Kim world.
Of course, it is possible that China would just stiff us on this issue, either refusing to discuss the matter or using the conversations as an opportunity to back up Pyongyang once again. But at this point they may be growing tired of North Korea's unpredictable antics, and the steps outlined above would be a subtle and low-cost way for them to show it. And if they refused to help on this issue, it will undercut their attempts to portray themselves as an increasingly responsible "stakeholder" in the East Asian security environment.
The Obama administration is now rolling out the results of its "Nuclear Posture Review," and presenting it as a significant if not quite revolutionary rethinking of U.S. nuclear strategy. I haven't seen the full text of the document and have only excerpts and press reports to go by, but the basic idea is to narrow the range of scenarios in which the United States would threaten a nuclear response.
To be a bit more specific, instead of reserving the option of nuclear strikes in response to a nuclear attack, an attack by other forms of WMD (such as biological weapons) or even a large-scale conventional invasion, the review declares that the "fundamental role" of the U.S. arsenal is to deter nuclear attacks on the U.S., its allies, or partners." Accordingly, as a matter of declaratory policy, the Review declares that "the United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations."
The exceptions to this narrower focus would be non-nuclear attacks by any nuclear-armed state, or states that the United States deems to be in violation of the NPT. Translation: We still reserve the option of first nuclear use against Iran and North Korea.
Lots of ink will no doubt be spilled analyzing this shift in declaratory policy, and nuclear theologians will spend time at conferences and workshops parsing the fine-grained implications of the change. And stay tuned for assorted hawkish windbags and right-wing think-tankers declaring that this new language has somehow imperiled U.S. security, even though we still have thousands of nuclear weaspons in our arsenal and the strongest conventional forces in the world.
I'll concede that this new statement may have some public relations value -- i.e, it lowers the priority given to nuclear weapons in U.S. strategic thinking, consistent with Obama's commitment to eventually reduce global nuclear arsenals. But from a purely strategic perspective, this new statement is largely meaningless. To the extent that it does matter, it may even be counter-productive.
Here's why. No matter what the U.S. government says about its nuclear strategy, no potential adversary can confidently assume that the U.S. would stick to its declared policy in the event of a crisis or war. If you were a world leader thinking about launching a major conventional attack on an important U.S. ally or interest, or contemplating the use of chemical or biological weapons in a situation where the United States was involved, would you conclude that it was safe to do so simply because Barack Obama said back in 2010 that the U.S. wasn't going to use nuclear weapons in that situation?
Of course you wouldn't, because there is absolutely nothing to stop the United States from changing its mind. You'd worry that the United States might conclude that the interests at stake were worth issuing a nuclear threat, and maybe even using a nuclear weapon, and that it really didn't matter what anyone had said in a posture review or an interview with a few journalists. And you'd also have to worry that the situation might escalate in unpredictable or unintended ways -- what Thomas Schelling famously termed the "threat that leaves something to chance -- and thereby ruin your whole day.
To the extent that nuclear weapons deter -- and I happen to think they do -- it is the mere fact of their existence and not the specific words we use when we speak about them. In short, nobody can know for certain if, when or how a nuclear state might actually use its arsenal to protect its interests, and that goes for any potential aggressor too. Because the prospect of nuclear use is so awful, no minimally rational aggressor is going to run that risk solely because of some words typed in a posture statement.
Furthermore, the decision to exclude nuclear weapons states, non-signatories of the NPT, or states we deem in violation of it (e.g., Iran) strikes me as both too clever by half and maybe counterproductive. The purpose seems to be to give these states an additional incentive to sign the NPT or to conform to it, but it's hard to believe that this statement will have that effect on anyone. India, Pakistan and Israel are all non-signatories, but surely they aren't worried about U.S. "first use" against them and so this statement will be irrelevant to their nuclear calculations.
The real target of this exception is Iran (and conceivably North Korea and Syria). At best, this new statement will have little or no effect, for the reasons noted above (i.e., no one know what we might do in a crisis or war, so pledges of no-first-use are essentially meaningless). At worst, however, excluding Iran in this fashion -- which amounts to saying that Iran is still a nuclear target even when it has no weapons its own -- merely gives them additional incentives to pursue a nuclear weapons option. In particular, declaring that we reserve the right of "first use" against Iran now (when it has no weapons at all), sounds like a good way to convince them that their own deterrent might be a pretty nice thing to have.
Remarkably, U.S. policymakers never seem to realize that the same arguments they use to justify our own nuclear arsenal apply even more powerfully to states whose security is a lot more precarious than America's. If the U.S. government believes that "the fundamental role" of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attacks on the United States, and the United States is now proclaiming that it still reserves the option of using nuclear weapons first against non-nuclear Iran (under some admittedly extreme circumstances), then wouldn't a sensible Iranian leadership conclude that it could use a nuclear arsenal of its own, whose "fundamental role" would be to deter us from doing just that?
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I had a very pleasant R & R -- thank you -- and I'm grateful to Justin Logan for filling in with such clear and well-argued pieces on unipolarity and Iran's nuclear program. I would only add that I'm a big fan of the work that Bill Wohlforth and Steve Brooks have done in recent years, despite my various disagreements with some of what they've written, and I'm glad that Justin put their work up in bright lights.
I managed to avoid the Internet almost entirely while I was away, and even skipped the New York Times most days. So I'm playing catch-up on the week’s events, and have only a few thoughts on recent developments.
On North Korea: The freeing of the two journalists strikes me was a clear case of pragmatic realism in action, and President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton deserve points for their calm, clear-eyed approach to a vexing but ultimately not-very significant problem. They achieved the U.S. goal -- getting the two women out -- and Kim Jong Il got a photo op but nothing more. Even getting a former president to drop in isn't all that significant these days, because North Korea has welcomed former presidents before. True, North Korea got Bill to visit without having to pay his normally whopping speaker's fee, but they also didn't get a speech. Indeed, the fact that they seem to place so much value on a brief drop-in by an ex-president reveals a lot about the regime's pathetic need for attention. As for the former president, he deserves credit for staying on message and not grandstanding while he was there, though the real work was almost certainly done behind-the-scenes and he didn't have to do any actual negotiating.
In the end, the whole business was not that big a deal (except for the two journalists and their families, of course), and I think it confirms the value of not over-reacting every time Pyongyang does something annoying. Being annoying is its only diplomatic asset these days, but our best course is to treat them as a minor irritant and reserve most of our attention for more important problems. And it's probably good for Hillary if Bill has something constructive to do every now and then.
So props all around, and I would love to hear how conservative critics of the administration's handling of the problem would explain their positions to the journalists or their families.
On Afghanistan: The Times reports today that the Obama administration is still trying to come up with suitable "benchmarks" to measure progress in Afghanistan. Taking time to develop meaningful yardsticks for success or failure is a good idea in theory, but such measures are usually elusive in the context of counterinsurgency warfare. Body counts are a terrible measure, for example, because rising counts may simply reflect greater insurgent activity (and recruitment), and signs of diminished insurgent activity may simply mean that they are lying low. Testimony from civilians is also suspect, because they have obvious incentives to tell whoever is currently in charge of their village or region whatever they think the occupier wants to hear. Remember what a South Vietnamese general told a U.S. official back in the 1960s, in reference to the late Robert McNamara: "Ah, les statistiques! Your Secretary of Defense loves statistics. We Vietnamese can give him all he wants. If you want them to go up, they will go up. If you want them to go down, they will go down."
More broadly, the fact that Obama's team is having a tough time devising good measures is another sign that we don't really know what we are doing there. And I mean that in two senses: 1) what are we trying to accomplish, and 2) what ARE we doing there? I'd also remind everyone that the Bush administration spent a lot of time laying out various "benchmarks" in Iraq, and then focused primarily on the ones where there was progress.
Via Matt Yglesias (linking to Mark Kleiman), we've also learned that the U.S. expenditures on Afghanistan are now more than five times greater than the country's entire annual GDP. That allocation of resources might make sense if we were trying to corner the opium market and sell it ourselves, but otherwise, it suggests that we aren't thinking very clearly about our strategic priorities. It was reasonable to spend a lot of money deterring Soviet expansion in Europe during the Cold War, and one can make a similar case for spending money to preserve a balance of power in the Persian Gulf, because Europe was a "key center of industrial power" and oil is the lifeblood on which the world economy runs. But spending five times more than it would cost to buy up everything a country produces (and committing the U.S. to do so for many years to come), is like putting an elaborate burgler alarm on a tar-paper shack, and then hiring an expensive security service to guard it for the next decade. Not smart.
How should we respond to North Korea's unconscionable decision to sentence two American journalists to twelve years at hard labor? North Korea has a history of using prisoners as bargaining chips or for propaganda purposes (as it did with the crew of the USS Pueblo, which it seized back in 1968), or as a way to get far more powerful countries to make symbolic apologies or concessions. This tactic shouldn't surprise us: when you are as weak as the Hermit Kingdom, facing the possibility of more intrusive sanctions, and apparently in the midst of a succession struggle of some kind, trying to find some way to get Uncle Sam to do your bidding is probably hard to resist.
But the louder we protest, the more domestic benefits the regime gets and the greater their incentive to extract the maximum prestige by prolonging the journalists' incarceration. North Korea wants this story on page one and wants Obama to pay lots of attention to them, but we don’t have to play that game. In fact, we want to remind them that we've got lots of more important countries to deal with and we just don't have much to say to them anymore. Once they are ready to release the captives, they know how to reach us. Pyongyang might demand some sort of apology or statement of regret from Washington (as it received when it finally repatriated the Pueblo's crew), and if that's all it would take to get the journalists released, then we ought to go ahead and give it to them. The good news is that we could say almost anything they asked and nobody outside of North Korea would believe we actually meant it. In fact, the more abject and absurd the apology, the less credible it would be and the less actual harm it would do to our image.
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Contrary to what I suggested last week, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates took the bait that Pyongyang dangled last week. In a direct response to North Korea's nuclear test, Gates told the delegates at the "Shangri La Dialogue" (a major Asian security conference held in Singapore) that “we will not stand idly by as North Korea builds the capability to wreak destruction on any target in the region -- or on us."
Strong words, but they will ring hollow if the United States and its various Asian allies (and China) do not actually do anything, and I’m betting they won't. Gates warned that North Korea could "continue as a destitute, international pariah, or chart a new course," but it's been clear for quite awhile now that pariah status doesn't bother the government in Pyongyang. And because none of North Korea's neighbors want to deal with the consequences, there isn't much support for the kind of pressure that might cause the North Korean regime to collapse. Unfortunately, that’s also the only kind of pressure that might make it change course.
Gates was on firmer ground when he warned North Korea that the United States would consider any transfer of nuclear materials to other countries or terrorist groups a "grave threat" to the United States and its allies. Even here, however, a bit more discrimination was in order. We obviously don't want North Korea giving nuclear know-how or nuclear material to other countries, but it's not clear we would do anything to them if we discovered that they were. After all, as Georgetown's Matthew Kroenig has documented, giving nuclear assistance to another country is hardly an unprecedented act. Russia assisted China's nascent nuclear program when they were allies, France gave key support to Israel's nuclear program, and China helped Pakistan's nuclear program as well. Pakistan's A.Q. Khan network subsequently spread nuclear technology in several directions, and North Korea appears to have provided nuclear assistance to Syria. The key point: in none of these cases was it seen as grounds for war.
But giving nuclear technology to a terrorist group is another matter entirely, and we need to make it clear to Pyongyang that this is an act that would lead us to discard our normal reservations and remove them from power once and for all. Not only do we want to deter North Korea from ever trying something like this, but we also want to establish and reinforce a clear precedent for other nuclear powers. Regime survival seems to be the paramount concern of Kim Jong Il and his associates, and they must be under no illusions about what nuclear transfer to terrorists would mean for their own futures. This scenario should be the topic of some serious contingency planning by the U.S. military, as well as some serious discussions among the other interested parties, beginning with the other members of the Six Party talks (Russia, China, Japan, and South Korea). None of these states have an interest in nuclear leakage to terrorists, so it should not be that hard to get them to agree that giving nuclear materials to terrorists would be clear and immediate casus belli.
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By Stephen M. Walt
North Korea's nuclear and missile tests are hardly good news, but they don’t justify going into full panic mode. We already knew that North Korea had a nuclear weapons capability, and though this latest test seems to have been slightly more powerful than the initial one, it doesn’t imply a qualitative shift in the strategic environment. North Korea's defiance is annoying, perhaps, but it’s not like the act of testing a nuclear weapon tells us something new about their regime. And let's not forget that the United States has tested a nuclear weapons 1030 times (plus another 24 joint tests with Great Britain), while Pyongyang has tested exactly twice.
The other reason not to get too bent out of shape is that there is little we can do about it. We've been worried about North Korea’s nuclear program for decades, and the Clinton adminstration seriously considered a preventive strike against North Korea’s nuclear facilities back in 1993-1994. But they ultimately refrained, because our allies in the region were opposed to it and because the risks of an attack were deemed too great. The Bush administration was critical of Clinton’s emphasis on diplomacy and took a tougher line at first, but that approach didn't stop North Korea from testing in 2006 and may even have encouraged them. In the end, the Bush team also recognized that it had no good coercive options and ended up going the diplomatic route too.
There are two reasons why our hands are largely tied. First, we don’t have extensive economic ties with North Korea, so we can't pressure them by threatening to cut off aid, trade, or investment. Second, using military force to disarm or topple Kim Jong Il's regime or to impose a full economic blockade could unleash an all-out war on the Korean peninsula. All-out war could do considerable damage to Seoul, which lies within artillery range of the border, and the sudden collapse of the North Korean state could create a massive humanitarian problem and make it more likely that some of its nuclear materials would escape reliable custody. These considerations explain why China and South Korea generally oppose stronger sanctions on North Korea, even when they are upset by Pyongyang's actions.
So the best response is to remain calm, and stop talking as if this event is a test of Obama's resolve or a fundamental challenge to U.S. policy. In fact, the tests are just "business as usual" for North Korea, and it would better if the United States "under-reacts" rather than overreacts. Instead of giving Pyongyang the attention it wants, the United States should use this incident as an opportunity to build consensus among the main interested parties (China, Russia, South Korea, Japan) and let China take the lead in addressing it. Above all, the Obama administration should avoid making a lot of sweeping statements about how it will not "tolerate" a North Korean nuclear capability. The fact is that we've tolerated it for some time now, and since we don't have good options for dealing with it, that's precisely what we will continue to do.
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.