This is a re-up of a column I wrote for 1945.com recently. I find the hyperbole in Western media on Ukraine exhausting. As with the Afghanistan withdrawal commentary last August, the usual suspects of blob neocons and hyperventilating journalists are going bananas that nothing less than world order is on the line in Ukraine! Did you know we even have to fight a war with Russia? Did you know that war has been ‘imminent’ for, um, the last six weeks? *sigh*
All this is wrong, just like it was wrong last summer when the ‘it’s always the 1930s!’ crowd engaged in the same histrionics over Biden’s Afghan withdrawal. Here are two Twitter threads by me – on Ukraine and Afghanistan – about the neocon-blob-industrial complex’ impulse to read every challenge to the US everywhere in the most apocalyptic terms possible.
So yes, Ukraine is a crisis, but a limited one. It’s not going to bring down NATO or the EU or democracy and so on. And no, it’s not going to encourage China to attack Taiwan. Deterrence doesn’t work that way. It’s far more nuanced and local than whether or not a US president is seen as ‘strong’ or ‘weak,’ which is such a flexible, subjective criterion anyway, that it is analytically pretty useless. Not everything is about the US president’s reputation for toughness, and that US analysts so often come back to this point just shows you their parochialism: they don’t know much about the rest of the world so they read everything through the US politics lens they know. Bleh.
The real geopolitical take-away from the Ukraine mess is – besides the obvious looming catastrophe for Ukraine and, somewhat also, for Russia – is the pathetic impotence of the Europeans on their own security even on their doorstep. Good grief. Anytime the Europeans want to step up and take responsibility for their own affairs would be great. Paul Poast and I have a piece coming in Foreign Affairs about US allies’ free-riding, and Ukraine is illustrating our argument every day.
Anyway, here is that 1945 essay:
Ukraine is a serious, but limited, crisis. For the Ukrainians living near Russia’s potential invasion points, the possibility of serious violence looms. And for Ukraine’s fledgling, unsteady democracy, such an invasion would be a disaster. Even Russia grey zone warfare – a mixed attempt at subversion and bullying without opening invading the country – would be terrible. It would set Ukrainian democracy back a decade or more, corrupt the government, and likely split the country. Russia clearly has the ability to enforce its will on Ukraine in the short-term, and there is little the West can do about it barring the risk of major escalation.
Basically my argument is that even if you are a hawk on China and see it as an emerging competitor or even threat to the US, the clash of civilizations framework is a weak analytical model by which to understand Sino-US tension.
The big problem is that Huntington builds his civilizations everywhere else in the world around religion, but in East Asia he can’t, because that would make China and Japan – who are intense competitors – allies in a Confucian civilization. Making Japan and China allies would be ridiculous, so Huntington can’t use Confucianism as a civilization, even thought that so obviously fits his model for East Asia. Hence, Huntington falls back on national labels, identifying separate ‘Sinic’ and ‘Nipponic’ civilizations. This ad hoc prop-up of the theory undercuts Huntington’s whole point of arguing that national distinctions are giving way to civilizational ones and that therefore we should think of future conflicts as between civilizations, not nation-states. Well, apparently East Asia didn’t make that shift; conflict here is still nationalized. So
There are other issues I bring up as well, but that’s the main problem. Please read the essay after the jump…
I argue that we can in fact live with a nuclear missilized North Korea. Yes, that sucks. But all this irresponsible talk that we can’t adapt, that nuclear North Korea is an undeterrable, existential threat is just threat-inflating baloney. We’ve learned to live with nuclear missiles in the hands a Muslim state with a serious jihadi problem. Would America prefer this not to be the case? Yes. But is living with a nuclear Pakistan a better choice than bombing it or sending in US special forces to destroy their nukes? Absolutely. Or we would have done it already.
This is a local re-post of an essay I wrote for the Lowy Institute earlier this month on US Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ trip to Japan and South Korea. It was your fairly typical meet-the-allies thing, but under Trump nothing is what it seems. In brief my argument is, why would US allies listen to SecDef when the president is this erratic and impressionable? What really matters, especially if Michael Flynn is on the way out, is what Steve Bannon, Trump’s very own Dr. Strangelove, thinks. Creepy. I still can’t believe this guy is POTUS.
I know the only thing people want to talk about now is Trump, but here is a parting review of Obama in Asia. I wrote this a few weeks ago for the Lowy Institute. All in all, I’d say he did about as well as you could expect.
There are no good solutions to our challenges out here, just as there were none to communist power in the 1950s. Hawks calling for ‘toughness’ and ‘leadership’ should remember that rollback was a catastrophe (in the Korean War) that almost ignited WWIII. We then settled for ‘hanging tough’ until communist power imploded, which it did. The contemporary Asian analogue of hanging tough is Obama’s ‘strategic patience.’ Everyone criticized it, but no one has a better option that isn’t hugely risky. So stop complaining about strategic patience until you’ve got a better, genuinely workable idea.
The standard first line of reviews like this is to bemoan North Korea and China. I do a little of that here, but tried to look beyond facile predictions that the US and China will fight in the South China Sea shortly. Asia is a pretty status quo place, so the only big ‘disruptors’ are the usual suspects – the Kim family of North Korea and Donald Trump. The Chinese and the Japanese aren’t really interested in rocking the boat much, so they’re barely mentioned, curiously enough. For example, the next time North Korea does something dumb, we can count on China saying that we should all calm down and maintain stability – in other words, do nothing. One thing I do wonder about is if the left wins the South Korean presidency this year, will it dramatically change South Korean foreign policy by accommodating (read: appeasing) North Korea?
Part 2, next week, will focus on South Korean security issues in the new year.
Basically it seems to me that Clinton is offering the status quo, which is intuitively attractive to Asian elites, while Trump offers who-knows-what. It is fairly established then that Asia’s democracies want Clinton to win, while its non-democracies want Trump, although honestly, I wonder if the Chinese might be having second thought given how much Trump seems to be itching for a trade war.
Trump is the interesting variable here, and his trade policies are the big unknown. Unraveling America’s alliances out here would be really hard. I doubt Trump has the stamina, focus, and attention to bureaucratic detail to tackle that. But on trade, he would enjoy a lot more sympathy, and he could really change (ie, wreak havoc) on US trade relations with Asia is he wants.
I’m just scratching the surface in this short essay. If you really want a deep dive, go to the Peterson Institute for International Economics’ blog on North Korea, which has provided a lot of such coverage in greater detail than I provide here. Go to the bottom of this post for extended commentary from Stephen Haggard and Marcus Noland.
This is a re-post of something I wrote for the Lowy Institute earlier this month. The original is here.
So yes, Donald Trump is awful. He is a threat to American democracy, an vain narcissist, doesn’t know anything about nuclear weapons or national security, and so on. I know what you’re thinking, so I will say that I mailed-in my absentee ballot today, and I voted for Hillary Clinton.
That does not necessarily impugn all of his ideas however. And when he says that Japan and South Korea might pursue their own nuclear weapons, I have never understood the hysteria that greets this notion. That Trump says it, and that he might not really even understand what he’s saying, does not automatically mean it is wrong.
The debate over SK and Japanese nuclearization is a lot more variegated that we normally hear from mostly ‘liberal international order’ analysts who dominate Washington thinking on foreign policy. The essay below makes several claims, but the strongest to my mind is that a northeast Asian nuclear arms race is already underway; SK and Japan are just not participating in it – which does not mean it is not happening. It is true that they need not to some extent, because they are covered by American extended deterrence, which gives them ‘shadow nuclear weapons’ I suppose.
But the costs of them going nuclear are not that high anymore. Russia and North Korea have both substantially elevated the role of nuclear weapons in their grand strategies in the last two decades. China might start counter-building, but what is China doing for Japan or South Korea that it earns the privilege of them staying non-nuclear? Specifically, if China won’t rein in NK, the case for SK and Japanese nuclear restraint diminishes.
The following is a re-up of an essay I published this week with Newsweek Japan. I was thinking about Obama’s attendance at both the G-20 and ASEAN this month. Those trips really do reflect his commitment to the pivot to Asia – probably as much out of conviction as out of a desire to escape the sink-hole of the Middle East.
But as readers of this website know, I am rather skeptical that the pivot actually grips the median American voter. Sure, elites love it, especially realists. It has all the trappings of geopolitical excitement think-tankers and IR types love. But regular Americans care way more about other regions first – when they even consider foreign policy, which the rarely do when they vote. Europe and increasingly Latin America will always have a powerful ethnic pull, because most Americans have roots there, while the Middle East bewitches the American evangelicals who are obsessed with Islam and Israel. China, even though it is vastly more important, isn’t actually as pressing to voters except as a trade issue.
This is not to say that I don’t support the pivot. I do. Very much. But if you look at Trump and Clinton’s foreign policy utterances, they basically cleave to the pre-pivot norm: the obsession with the Middle East, Islam, terrorism, while Asia is basically a trade-cheater. Hillary has turned against her own creation, TPP, while Trump sounds like he’d spark a trade-war with China, and maybe even Japan.
So if you’re an Asia hand, enjoy your moment in Obama’s sun. Next year, we’ll back to warring in the Middle East.