Robert E Kelly

Political Science, International Relations, East Asia, US Politics…and, yes, the BBC Dad

Robert E Kelly

The Anti-Ukraine-Aid Crowd is Using the Accidental Missile Strike in Poland to Argue, Yet Again, that Escalation is Imminent, so We should Cut Off Ukraine. This is Wrong and has been All Year.

downloadThe anti-Ukraine-aid crowd has jumped from one argument to another to get NATO to stop helping Ukraine since February. Many of these claims are inconsistent, but that makes no difference, because their real purpose is to help Putin win the war by saying anything which might convince NATO to halt aid to Ukraine.

This is why the MAGA right and ‘anti-imperial’ left keep bringing up these arguments. They want Putin to win for their own ideological reasons, but they don’t want to say that publicly, because it is embarrassing to side with a fascist imperialist who commits war crimes. So instead they jump from one disconnected argument to another, whose only commonality is the policy recommendation that we abandon Ukraine. And this week’s missile strike in Poland – likely an accident of Ukraine missile defense debris falling on that country – is being instrumentalized yet again for this purpose.

Let’s review the say-anything laundry list of reasons we should abandon Ukraine:

– First we were told that Ukraine couldn’t possibly win the war, so helping it would needlessly provoke Russia.

– Then we heard that because Russia is a ‘great power,’ there really isn’t much we can do. The Ukrainians just have to suffer like the Melians.

– Then, after Russia stumbled, we heard that aid to Ukraine would prolong the war, so we should cut it off to force a settlement.

– Then, after Russia started losing the war, we heard that aid was so expensive that we couldn’t afford it in these times of inflation and rising energy costs, despite a bill around $100 billion against a combined NATO GDP of $40 trillion.

– Then we heard that NATO aid was depleting NATO’s own weapons stocks so much that it would vulnerable to a Russian attack, the same Russia which can’t subdue Ukraine

– Then we heard that European winter heating bills would be sky high because of the Russian gas cut-off. So we should abandon Ukraine, because Germans and Italians apparently won’t wear sweaters when it is cold.

– Then we heard that aid keeps going a war which might escalate into a NATO-Russian general war, a nuclear exchange, or even World War III.

I find this so exasperating and craven. Pro-Putin MAGA righties should just be honest that they admire the Christian nationalist authoritarianism of Putin and Orban. Similarly, anti-imperial lefties should just say that a Putin victory would be a deserved defeat of Western imperialism, neocons, and the blob. Stop lying and pretending you care about peace or stability or whatever.

I wrote an essay on this for Channel News Asia. After the jump is my pre-edited version of that op-ed.

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How will NATO Respond in the Unlikely Event Russia Uses a Nuke in Ukraine? We will Not Counter-Nuke; We have Many Other Options

Ukraine-3Russian nuclear use in Ukraine is extremely unlikely, and NATO would not hit back with a nuke even if they did.

I am fairly exhausted with the lurid alarmism that we are tumbling toward world war 3 or some kind of nuclear exchange with Russia. I have argue against this here, here, and here.

This claim mostly gets brought up my pro-Putin voices in the West whose real interest is a Russian victory in the war. They therefore stoke exaggerated fears of nuclear war to push NATO to stop aiding Ukraine. The bad faith – the manipulation of nuclear anxieties to pursue unrelated ideological goals – is transparent.

Mostly this comes from MAGA rightists, for whom Russia and Hungary are models of ‘post-liberal’ governance, plus some ‘anti-imperial’ leftists for whom US action is ipso facto bad. Both are trying to scare NATO into cutting off aid to Ukraine by threat-inflating a nuclear exchange. In fact, that event is VERY unlikely.

Further, even if Russia did use a nuke in Ukraine, there is no obvious reason for NATO to hit back in-kind. There is only a ‘slide’ toward escalation if both sides do it, and the US won’t counter-nuke, because 1) it does not want to slide toward a wider nuclear exchange, and 2) it has lots of other economic and conventional options to respond.

I cover those options in this essay for 1945.com:

Throughout his war in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has obliquely hinted that he might use nuclear weapons. I have argued in these pages that this is unlikely. There is no obvious Ukrainian military or infrastructural target of a size commensurate with a nuclear weapon’s power. Russia would be badly isolated by the rest of the world if it took this step, so any target would need to be worth the huge geopolitical blowback. Ukraine does not appear to have one. Its army is spread out across a thousand-mile front. None of its important infrastructure is so massive that it needs a nuke to disable. Much of the nuke-talk in the West is overwrought.

Nevertheless, it is wise to consider how NATO and the wider world of democracies will and should respond if Putin nonetheless takes this step. If Putin is losing badly in Ukraine and his rule at home is threatened by widespread unrest over the course of the war– a somewhat credible scenario for next year – perhaps he will take this gamble to turn things around. So what will the West do?

We Won’t Counter-Nuke Russia

So long as a Russia nuclear strike was limited to Ukraine, NATO would almost certainly not respond in kind. To do so would risk a further Russian nuclear response and a spiral of nuclear exchanges. The Ukrainians might be so shocked and horrified by the extraordinary damage, that they would demand this. But the West will almost reject that request, just as it rejected Ukrainian demands for a no-fly zone back in March.

But the West also need not escalate like that. NATO is conventionally superior to Russia, and that lead has widened considerably because of Russian losses in Ukraine. If Russia cannot defeat Ukraine, then it is very vulnerable to NATO conventional retaliation. The West will almost certainly start there, if only to prevent nuclear escalation.

Read the rest here.

My Extended Comments on Potential South Korean/Japanese Nuclearization for the Asian Leadership Conference and Foreign Policy Magazine

imageI spoke at the Asian Leadership Conference in Seoul a few weeks ago on S Korean/Japanese indigenous nuclearization and then published my basic thinking with Foreign Policy magazine on the topic a few days later.

Both of the venues required a more abbreviated presentation for time/space constraints, so I thought I would put up my full remarks here, at my own site. Here is the 2022 ALC site, and here is my original article for FP.

In brief, my argument is that the US should get out of the way to let Seoul and Tokyo make up their own mind. The US has long opposed ROK/Jpn nuclearization, but increasingly that strikes me as inappropriately hegemonic or strong-arming of them. There is a pretty strong case for SK and Japan to counter-nuclearize against China, Russia, and especially NK. I sketch that in detail after the jump, but the short version is:

1. The US is not going to exchange LA for Seoul/Tokyo. In 1961, de Gaulle asked JFK would he exchange NY for Paris. JFK waffled; de Gaulle was no idiot; he built French nukes shortly afterwards. The logic is the same here. The US is not going to fight a nuclear war solely for non-Americans. This will raise endless, irresolvable credibility debates between the US and its Asian allies. The best way to resolve that is to do what our European allies did – self-insure through indigenous nuclearization.

2. Trump will likely get elected – or ‘elected’ – in 2024, and he will ‘blow up’ the ROK alliance as he promised he would. So ROK nuclearization may happen no matter what we think. And a US retrenchment from SK would probably scare Japan so much that the whole nuclear debate there would shift substantially to the right.

There is a lot of anxiety about this step, and I share it too. So I don’t endorse SK/J nuclearization. But there is SK polling showing high interest in this, and SK is terribly exposed to NK nuclear devastation with few good options as the NKs continue to build relentlessly. (All this I cover below.) So the least we Americans can do is get out of the way and let them debate it themselves.

The original, pre-edited FP essay on this follows below the jump:

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Teaching the American Gun Debate in a Foreign Country: No Matter What You Say, They Think We’re Bananas

Officers stand near a memorial of flowers at the scene of the mass shooting at the Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas on 25 MayUS politics is part of my teaching load here in Korea. And part of that is, inevitably, the US gun debate. Foreigners just don’t get the US fascination with guns at all, and that is putting it mildly.

I have lived outside the US for almost 18 years – in East Asia and Western Europe – and I have discussed guns in America with non-Americans countless times given that my area is political science. Non-Americans are genuinely curious why we allow private fire arm ownership, especially when it so obviously correlates with gun violence. I can say that I have never had a non-American ever tell me they wished their country had US gun laws. Not one.

I have written a lot on foreign perceptions of US gun ownership on Twitter in the last two days. Try this, this, this, this, and especially this.

In short, there is no other country in the world which approaches guns with the laxity we do. No other conservative party in a democracy approaches guns as the GOP does. Often my students here often don’t even understand how gun ownership is a ‘conservative’ or partisan issue, which is something Americans should know. Righties in other countries are not gun fetishists. Even other societies with a frontier tradition – Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Russia – don’t have the gun culture we do.

No one else thinks about Mad Max government collapse scenarios which would require you to be armed. (Trying to explain that one to non-Americans is almost impossible.)

No one else talks about an ‘armed citizenry’ resisting tyranny. When you try to explain this one, my students often can’t even figure out why they would battling their own democratic government. Good question! And then they wonder how regular Americans with guns could outshoot the cops or the military. They can’t, of course. Another good question!

And very definitely, no one wants armed teachers, metal detectors in schools, open carry, concealed carry, and so on. Hardening schools and letting regular people walk around packing strikes them as insanely dangerous.

Inevitably then, I get three or four papers a year in my US politics class on guns, and they’re uniformly negative and incredulous. One particular title I remember from years back: ‘The US is a Gun-ocracy.’ That just about sums it up.

The Ukraine War is Teaching N Korea that Nukes Can Keep the Americans Out of Your Conflicts

  North Korea ICBMRussia’s success at blocking NATO intervention in the Ukraine war via its nuclear weapons is a huge learning moment for North Korea. This is a re-post of an essay I wrote at 1945.com after the recent missile test.

Usually we say that NK wants nukes on missiles for:

1) Deterrence and Defense: to keep the Americans from ever striking NK, as they threatened in 1994 and 2017

2) Level the Military Playing Field: NK is too poor and technological backward to compete conventionally with SK or the US anymore. So nukes are a great equalizer.

This is true, but as we are all seeing in Ukraine, nukes are also a great way to keep the Americans at bay, to keep them from intervening in your conflict with an American ally. If Russia weren’t nuked up, it’s safe to say that NATO would be more heavily involved. And pundits have been very honest about admitting that we can’t do more, such as a no-fly zone, because we fear escalation with nuclear-armed Russia. I have argued this too.

So if you are NK, nuclear ICBMs, which give you direct deterrence with the US, are a possible way to prevent the Americans from helping SK in a conflict, just as Russian nukes are keeping us out of the Ukraine war. This is to drive wedge between the US and SK. At some point, we are going to have to reckon with this threat, and missile defense is not an answer, because it does not work well enough.

Here is my essay from 1945:

North Korea just tested a new intercontinental ballistic missile. It appears that this is Pyongyang’s longest-range missile yet. The goal, obviously, is to strike the United States if necessary. North Korea has sought, and now likely achieved, the ability to directly threaten the US mainland with substantial nuclear force.

ICBMs normally are designed to deliver a nuclear payload. North Korea first detonated a nuclear weapon in 2006. It is widely assumed that it now has several dozen nuclear warheads. North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Un has also hinted that he wishes to develop MIRVs (multiple, independently-targetable re-entry vehicles). This would permit each ICBM to carry multiple warheads. So even if only one North Korean ICBM were to survive American missile defense, it could then still devastate multiple American cities.

Read the rest here.

If the EU Steps Up (which it won’t), then Ukraine Need Not Undermine the US Pivot to Asia

ChinaThis is a re-post of an essay I wrote for 1945.com a few days ago. My argument is an expansion of what I complained about a few days ago: Europe, not the US, should be leading on Ukraine.

Yes, the US can do it, but that Europe can’t take care of security issues of medium-range right on its own doorstep is just embarrassing. It raises the obvious opportunity cost that deeper US involvement in Europe undercuts the pivot.

I am little skeptical of this overrating this fear, as I say in the essay, because the US spends so much on national security – the Defense Department budget, plus all the other defense spending we don’t run through DoD in order to make its budget look smaller than it actually is. That aggregate number is around 1 trillion USD, which should be enough to confront both Russia and China (especially given Russian weakness), except for open war with both simultaneously.

So we shouldn’t get carried away that Ukraine will stop the American re-balance against China. Biden is pretty clearly avoiding a major commitment to Ukraine to prevent this outcome.

But still, it is long overdue for the Europeans to get organized on common defense, especially when they complain about the US ignoring their opinions on issues like Iraq or Afghanistan. That’s what happens when you don’t spend on defense and implicitly expect the Americans to do the heavy lifting.

In fact, the an ideal world would be an integrated European Union defense identity which acted as a second liberal superpower, confronting Russia and Islamic radicalism in its region, while the US confronted China. What a huge advancement of liberal and democratic values that would be! But that’s decades away if ever…

Anyway, here is that 1945 essay:

As the Ukraine crisis heats up, its impact on the US effort to re-balance to Asia, specifically against China, has arisen. The consensus is that, for the most part, a renewed US focus on European security will pull US resources and policy-maker attention away from Asia and back toward Europe. In a similar manner, the US has hitherto struggled to focus on East Asia, as China took off in the last two decades, because of the war on terror. Yet China is of far greater import to the US in the coming decades than either Eastern Europe or the greater Middle East. On that, there is near consensus in the foreign policy community now.

The rest is available here.

American North Korea Policy under the Next President 2: Trump – He will just Drop North Korea

Biden calls North Korean leader a 'thug' but says he'd meet Kim if  denuclearization is agreed - Pacific - Stripes

This is the second part of a series for The National Interest on North Korea policy under the next president. Here is my first essay on Biden and North Korea.

I am of the school that says Trump’s outreach to North Korea was a great big nothingburger. More dovish analysts will tell you that there was a window there for a few years (2018-2019) to forge a deal. I don’t buy that, mostly because of Trump himself – his laziness, disinterest, unwillingness to prepare, and so on.

Instead I think Trump went into this solely for the symbolic imagery and a Nobel Peace Prize. Obama won a Nobel. Trump loathes Obama, so he had to get one too. I think it’s really as simple as that. That’s why there was no deal. The Trump team had not thought through the concessions which would be necessary to strike a deal. The North Koreans were going to ask for way more than just sanctions relief. Trump had nothing greater to offer – and bureaucratic resistance at home would have fought a serious concession like a US drawdown.

So my prediction for Trump and North Korea in a second Trump term is that he will do nothing. Trump has the pictures he wanted. He won’t get a Nobel, and he won’t fight the battles in Washington to offer concessions which NK might actually go for.

The full essay follows the jump:

American North Korea Policy under the Next President 1: Biden–Traditional Washington Hawkishness

North Korea lashes out at Joe Biden - CNN Video

This is a re-post of an essay I wrote for The National Interest recently. They’re running a good symposium on North Korea policy in the next presidential term: how would Trump and Biden differ? This was my submission on a possible Biden victory. My submission Trump is here.

Biden was the easier one to write. Biden is a pretty establishmentarian guy. He respects the foreign policy community. And as Obama’s vice president, we have his foreign policy thinking from that period too.

So it’s not too hard to predict that Biden will revert to a fairly traditional Washington hawkish approach – no more summits or public praising of Kim; working with allies; emphasizing sanctions enforcement and China. If this sounds really unimaginative – the same kind of old-hat you’ve heard from every hawkish North Korea analyst (including me) for decades – then you are right! It is the same old story, but that’s because our options on North Korea are terrible.

For all of Trump’s threats in 2017 and blandishments in 2018-19, he got nothing out of the North Koreans. Neither has SK President Moon Jae-In’s Sunshine Policy redux. So if it’s back to the future with Biden, I am not opposed to that.

The full essay follows the jump:

70th Anniversary of the Korean War: North Korea isn’t Going Anywhere; It’s Pretty Stable (Unfortunately)

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This is a re-post of my contribution to The National Interest’s recent essay round-up on the 70th anniversary of the Korean War. (My essay here; the full symposium here.)

My argument, in brief, is that North Korea is actually quite stable. Hence the answer to the symposium question – would Korea be re-unified by 2025 – is a resounding ‘no.’ Here is a brief Twitter thread which summarizes my argument.

North Korea faces little pressure internally – Kim has consolidated power quite nicely; elites are quiescent; there’s never been a popular revolt – and externally – China is unwilling to cut NK off; nukes give NK deterrence against regime change. The sanctions are tough, but Northern elites have been pushing the costs of them onto their population for decades. They won’t bring down or substantially change the DRPK system.

So we are stuck. We can try to negotiate, and we should, but the last few years’ flailing shows how hard that is. The stalemate is quite persistent.

The full essay follows the jump:

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Failing North Korea Talks Once Again Suggest Starting Small

Image result for north korea talks sweden

This is re-post of an essay I wrote for The National Interest a few weeks ago. The argument is one I have made repeatedly – that big-bang, all-or-nothing deals with North Korea are unlikely – because of low trust on both sides – and they represent far too large a leap to take given North Korean cheating in the past. We should scale back our efforts to smaller, cumulative steps which are actually doable. Think where would be now if we had done this for the last 18 months instead of gambling again and again on a huge breakthrough while not making any actual progress.

The problem is that the US and South Korean presidents both want a big-bang deal for domestic political reasons unrelated to the substance of denuclearization talks with the North. Trump wants a Nobel Peace Prize to stave off impeachment and get himself re-elected. He will sign anything because he doesn’t actually care about the deal’s contents. Also, and perhaps as important, Trump is lazy. He doesn’t want to negotiate in depth and detail with NK because he doesn’t know enough to do that and doesn’t want to learn.

SK President Moon wants a big-bang deal because he has pinned his whole presidency to détente with North Korea. All his domestic policies are contentious and are being overwhelmed by the North Korea issue which is absorbing all Moon’s time and energy. NK has a way of overwhelming SK presidents’ time in office, and Moon has worsened that normal time-suck by jumping in with both feet (and getting nothing).

In short, the North won’t go for a big, one-shot deal just because Moon and Trump are desperate at home. If we really want progress, we need to start with small, manageable, transparent swaps. These should involve a limited series of steps on both sides over a limited period of time. This would make post-hoc evaluation easier: after such a swap, we could do an after-action analysis and decide what the next swap should be. With each step, we could enlarge cooperation, building organically and credibly on previous steps. Needless to say, this will take a long time. But it is far more likely to actually work than hoping that NK will suddenly – after 50 years developing nukes – agree to trade them away. They won’t. That should be pretty obvious at this point.

The full essay follows the jump:

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