The Rise of the New Authoritarians?

National Interest, February 7th, 2016

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The news this week that the US defence budget will increase dramatically to face challenges in Asia and Europe, is unsurprising. In many ways, one could argue that it marks the beginning of a new deterrence strategy by the United States, reacting to the rise of Chinese and Russian military assertiveness: force will be matched by force. Moscow or Beijing will be warned off from picking off the smaller and less-capable members and allies of the West. Latvia will not become a new Ukraine; Chinese bullying in the South China Sea will remain just that, bullying. However, it is clear that there is much more than simply the “rise of the rest” as was previously thought. The Litvinenko Inquiry findings, released by the British government in late January reveal the more sinister side of the Putin regime to the general public.

There seems to be a new age of silent competition and geopolitics taking place. It is riddled with grand ambitions and has grand stakes. In one corner is a fractured West, one-time victor of the Cold War, now exhausted by 15 years of inconclusive wars with Islamic fundamentalism; in the other, a confident array of new authoritarians, enriched and empowered by their gradual acceptance of Western economics over inefficient state-control. For many, the stakes of the new geopolitics are long-term and vague, though there is growing awareness that the future of global governance and architecture is at stake. Will such architecture be truly pluralistic or merely carry the trappings of democracy in the style favored by new authoritarian regimes?

For some, the stakes are immediate and real. Ukrainians who desired European style pluralism know this. Voters in Taiwan’s vibrant democracy – on display this month in historic elections – know this. Their fate under Chinese control might be glimpsed in the quiet death of Hong Kong-style democracy over the past two years. The new age is a competition of ideas with neo-authoritarian states, but it is unlikely to resemble the Cold War. It is not even likely to be openly-acknowledged. However, it is a real competition and its weapons are disinformation, dodgy referendums, and de-legitimization campaigns against the members of the West and its values. Its new soldiers are “little gray men”, legions of 50-Cent Bloggists, (many of whom, no doubt, will comment on this article, below) and the organs of state propaganda – Russia Today and CCTV – pretending to be media. The new battle fields are the periphery of the West, inside the Western left, in cyberspace, and in the minds of Western populations. So, how did it come to this?

Both new authoritarian states lost the battle of ideas in the Cold War – to the chagrin of their hardliners. China lost it in Tiananmen Square in 1989, while Moscow lost it in front of the Russian Parliament in 1991. Unlike the type of global re-ordering that takes place after actual wars (when victorious states can occupy and re-order the domestic systems of the losing side) the end of proxy wars is far more uncertain. Certainly, the West sought to influence domestic battles from afar, through aid packages and legions of development consultants, and inviting greater people-to-people links with the West – especially through higher education. But ultimately, they failed to persuade key constituents in both states to adapt political liberalism alongside economic reforms.

Instead, key constituences inside Russia and China have spent the past 15 years balancing economic reform with internal reorganization and repression. Ultimately, this domestic re-ordering was won by co-opting the security services and military, and by appealing to the wider population through neo-nationalist propaganda and the promise of economic goods. As with their pre-1991 predecessors, the new authoritarians view western liberal democracy and free-market capitalism with a mixture of skepticism and hostility. Demanding political multilateralism from “American hegemony” abroad, Beijing and Moscow have at the same time undermined and destroyed political opposition at home. At no time since the end of the Cold War has political power in either capital been so centralized around by a single leader.

How is the West to deal with this new era of silent competition? The West cannot resort to Cold War-style containment strategies to keep Russian and Chinese assertiveness at bay. Their economies are simply far too integrated and it would be impossible to de-link without serious damage to the global economy. There are also strong arguments about how continued engagement may help with fostering political liberalism and rights discourse within those societies. In addition, the world’s problems are simply too great for the West to attempt to resolve without the new authoritarians. A viable political resolution to the Syrian Civil War – and the large numbers of refugees destabilizing Western Europe – is ultimately to be found in Moscow not in London. Putin knows this. Iran, climate change, and North Korea are all areas where the West must cooperate with Russia and China. So what can the West do?

First, the West must begin to realize that the new authoritarians are in fact authoritarian. Knowing that shifts how policymakers treat them at the social and media level. Second, we must begin a wider discussion on how to counter the ambitions of the new authoritarians: what can be done to maintain coherence and cohesion in the face of their geopolitical ambitions? The new game is from afar and yet takes place in our living rooms, it’s about undermining rather than directly attacking, and it goes after the weak and dispossessed. It floods Youtube with conspiracy theories, whenever Russian interests are at stake – as with the downing of MH17 over the Ukraine. Its greatest conduit seems to be through de-legitimization campaigns – as run through Snowden – and through the  so-called ‘new media’. Why do Western states continue to allow the tools of state propaganda – Russia Today, Press TV, and the CCTV – to operate freely in the West? Why do they accept that their own media will be repressed in those states? Certainly, a free press is important to the values of the West, but those familiar with those agencies would be hard pressed to argue that they are “free”. Their political control is too strong. They are merely government agencies in the trappings of Western media.

While the new competition is in the realm of ideas, it is clear that the hard power of the West still acts as a deterrent to mis-adventurism. The new budget is a step in the right direction, and will reassure states on the front line – such as Poland, the Baltics, Japan, and states in the South China Sea. However, Europe and American allies in Asia must match that determination. The fact that liberal democracy did not arise in Russia and China over the past 15 years is perhaps one of the great tragedies of the 21st century. It indicates that in fact, history is not yet over. Somehow, one senses that the future of the liberal order rests on how we frame this coming era and what counter-strategies we employ to defend core Western values. As the supposed Chinese curse has it, “May you live in interesting times.”  We certainly do.


What US Policy Gets Wrong about China

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National Interest, January 6, 2016

As they look over the Asia Pacific region, US policy-makers have much to be proud of and much to worry about. On the one hand, the US-centered ‘San Francisco’ system put into place in the wake of the Second World War has been a great success, fostering economic and institutional growth across the region, dispelling the last legacies of European colonialism in the region, and encouraging a neoliberal approach to institution-building. While enlightened elites and cultural attitudes certainly played their part, US trade and security guarantees allowed many states to focus exclusively on economic growth with superb results. However, there are serious weaknesses in the values-based approach taken by American policy-makers that should be considered. And though this piece does not argue against values-based policy – which is, after all a source of ‘soft power’ – it does argue for the hardheaded examination of the consequences of US values-based decision. It also argues for more cultural awareness in the analysis stage.

The rebirth of Chinese power this century is one event that American policy-making played a primary and direct result. Americans may look to the policy as both their greatest success and – paradoxically – their greatest failure. The normalization of relations, negotiated by Nixon and Kissinger in 1971-2, led to a liberalization of trade relations, and emboldened economic reformers like Deng Xiaoping, who wished to revitalize China’s feeble economy. The 1979 Carter-Deng Joint Communiqué on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations put China at the top table of the United Nations, replacing with a stroke, Taipei’s control of that seat. Preferential US treatment towards Beijing continued, in 1980, with the return of China’s to Most Favored Nation status, made permanent in 2000, and ultimately led to China’s accession to the WTO in December 2000. Since then, Chinese growth has averaged 9% a year and taken it from the 4th largest to the 2nd largest trading nation.

America’s China policy has been a remarkable success in raising China: and yet, it has been marked by a complete failure to truly understand China or the indirect consequences of empowering China. Emboldened and strengthened by its capital gains, its technological prowess and its burgeoning defense capabilities, Beijing has begun to project its military power into the region, threatening regional stability and prosperity in the East China and South China Seas. Rather than respond in kind to a 25-year-old American policy of inclusion, China appears to want to dispel US power from the region, excluding Washington from the nascent regional order. Utilizing a band of technologies, collectively called Anti-Access, Area Denial, Beijing openly targets US defense capabilities, and threatens sea lines of communication dear to regional allies. Furthermore, sensing the potential for global hegemony, China seems to pursue various strategies to depose the dollar as the reserve global currency, possibly with the RMB.

So what can American policy-makers learn from this? What are the lessons-learned from a 30-year-old policy? And how did we come to be here? The most obvious answer is the use by American policy-makers of ideologically-driven assumptions in the analysis process. Take for example the working assumption that the growth of middle classes leads to political liberalization. This is a seemingly tried and tested theory of international political economy, bolstered by various case studies. However, tested against the variable of a strong political elite, determined to resist it, the assumption is meaningless. This is how generations of American politicians and policy-makers came to believe that they should empower China economically. Did it work? Well, naturally there are arguments on both sides of the ledger. China is a freer place than it was in 1972, Chinese citizens can travel outside freely, and there is more of an exchange of ideas and capital between China and the rest of the world. However, the unintended consequences remain just as significant, with China rising as perhaps the key challenger to American regional and global interests. Knowing what we know now, this begs the question: could we have approached China more cautiously?

This “assumption fault” reveals a disturbing trend in how policymakers learn their trade in the United States and in the West in general. Rather than testing potential policies through the prism of unintended consequences, liberal societies insist on certain truths, which then guide the overall framework of policy-making. Because of the universal aspirations of liberalism, these assumptions often guide policy-making in ways that are harmful to the overall strategic mission. One example of this, was the way that European donor nations contributed to reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, often prioritizing culturally-Western projects like the expansion of women’s rights and the development of a free press, and other liberal projects, over the more culturally-neutral areas of state-building, irrigation, and other institutions. Still yet another well known example of an ideologically-driven mistake in US foreign policy-making was the neoliberal assumption that when liberated from authoritarianism, people will choose democracy. Such an assumption flies in the face of the preference for security, which usually trumps democracy. This assumption guided the US policy in Iraq to disband the Ba’athist regime and military as a precursor to building democracy in Iraq. As we now know, the absence of institutions and sudden influx of unemployed, military-trained men fed the growing insurgency in Iraq, and unintentionally doomed the state-building exercise from the very start.

It is not to say that these assumptions are always wrong. Sometimes they are right for a given moment, but in learning their art, American policy-makers should not assume that principles are infallible. When working assumptions are not tested rigorously, and become accepted by foreign policy bureaucracies and business communities, they can lead to the type of blind policy processes described above. That is not to say that the United States should have enacted a policy of containment of China until now, or that the Ba’athist regime should have been maintained. However, since we know in both situations, culture and context trumped the assumptions, we know how best to avoid future mistakes.

The United States now faces the dawn of a multipolar age, riddled with complexity and potential dangers. Though China’s hegemonic ambitions are likely to be halted by its demographic challenges, it will remain a predominant power in tomorrow’s world. American policy-makers must up their game and learn to understand the ideological and values-based assumptions that drive policy, and learn to adjust accordingly when empirical conditions fail to match expectations. If the age of American unipolarity is behind us, then what lies before us is likely to be more difficult and to raise the stakes for national interests. American foreign policy-makers must sharpen their game and learn to develop a consequences-based approach to the world. The future of American power depends on it. Something we can ill-afford to give up in tomorrow’s world.


The ‘China’ Role of the US-Japan Trilaterals

The National Interest, December 6, 2015

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Asia’s immense economic growth over recent decades has come in tandem with a large increase in insecurity and military spending. Partly in response, the region has seen a quiet revolution in U.S. Asia-Pacific policy as the ‘hub and spokes’ system has been integrated across U.S. ally partners and external powers. The United States and Japan, for example, have developed a number of on-going trilateral security arrangements with states in Asia, including Australia, India and South Korea. All partner countries regularly deny that these groupings are formal alliances, and lacking formal defence commitments in the third dyad (Japan-Australia, Japan-India, Japan-ROK), they are more precisely forms of alignment, not dissimilar to the Triple Entente of pre-1914.

Not only are trilaterals more ad hoc and flexible than alliances, but they are driven by a complex range of factors. They are partly driven by a strand of neoliberal optimism from the late 1990s, as well as by a more realist strand of pessimism found in the early 2000s. The most mature of these groupings, the US-Japan-Australia trilateral Strategic dialogue (TSD) has focused on “human security” activities, such as peacekeeping, capacity-building, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. This side of their nature stems from their neoliberal optimism that they can be the building blocks of an integrated security community in Asia, and are part of an inclusive approach to former Cold War adversities, like Vietnam and China. To allied partners like Japan and Australia, the activities are important for “anchoring” the United States to the region, and have allowed both alliances a certain amount of legitimacy by providing “public goods,” while carefully avoiding a security dilemma with China.

On the other hand, the trilaterals also have a hard balancing element: the US-Japan-Australia TSD has included defence-industrial cooperation, the institutionalization of intelligence-sharing and growing military interoperability. With this double logic, they are a classic hedging strategy, as envisioned by political scientist Evan Medeiros. They encourage engagement, integrating regional militaries towards common objectives, as well as provide a form of insurance if Chinese revanchism begins to threaten regional stability. This hedging element is not incidental, but has evolved over time, to match rising Chinese assertiveness and the needs (and concerns) of the trilateral partner states.

The trilaterals are not—as China might think—a means of containment. Rather, they act like a restraining woven paper cup, loosely form-fitting. As one expands one’s hand in the basket, the material naturally tightens around it.

In many ways, it is the ultimate moral high ground, since the cup only tightens in reaction to expansion. In this way, as China continues to expand its power projection capabilities and attempts to expand its territoriality into the East and South China Seas, the trilaterals will continue to tighten around it and create the exact reaction that Deng Xiaoping once hoped to avoid.

The revised US-Japan Defense Guidelines are one aspect of that weaving, as are growing Japan-Philippines and Japan-Vietnam capacity-building behaviors in maritime security.

In some ways, this process is neatly described by the security dilemma in Thomas Christensen’s International Security essays. However, there is one material difference. The United States and its allies have helped China rise by investing trillions of dollars over the past three decades and by promoting Chinese inclusion in almost every important regional and global fora. No one could argue that the alliance partners have not done all they can to make China welcome and included in regional politics. Unlike Christensen’s neutral analysis, the increasing constrainment of China is driven by China’s own behaviour in much the way that occurred with pre-1914 Germany. Again, this is an important moral difference and highlights the reactive and defensive nature of the trilaterals.

Post-Bismarckian German foreign policy was unpredictable, expansionist and supported by a growth in nationalism and militarist culture. Similarly, Chinese revanchism is driven by a narrative of exclusion and regaining its “rightful place in the sun.” No one power—not even the United States—has the power to contain Chinese expansionism. However, an interlocking web of alliances around this struggling behemoth can deter it from unwise adventurism and act as a constraining influence. What happens next, of course, depends on China and its ultimate ambitions. States must understanding that in seeking to constrain China, they are not themselves acting dangerously or – as Hugh White might contend – recklessly. They are doing what they must to defend a rules-based order during a time of structural instability. The real recklessness would be in to appease the rolling ambitions of a newly-risen power, rather than seeking to shape and constrain them.


The PRC: Britain’s New ‘Special Relationship?’

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PacNet, CSIS Pacific Forum, October 27

Chinese President Xi Jinping received the reddest of red-carpet treatments in London last week, with Xi being treated to a 21-gun salute, a royal carriage ride down the Mall, an address to both Houses of Parliament, followed by a State Banquet at Buckingham Palace and a visit to the Prime Minister’s official residence Chequers.  The fact that British Prime Minister David Cameron used the full powers of the British state to welcome the Chinese leader has many wondering about the future of UK-China ties as the two proclaim a new “golden era” of bilateral relations, and agree to create a “global comprehensive strategic partnership.”

While many in London question the timing – this year Beijing mismanaged a stock market slump while simultaneously tightening control over dissidents – the Treasury attitude is simply to bulldoze the new China approach through other departments of government, including a skeptical Foreign Office. The visit and the assumptions it’s based on raise questions about Britain’s tactical understanding of China. After all, as Evan Medeiros, former senior staffer on Asia on President Obama’s National Security Staff, told the Financial Times, “if you give in to Chinese pressure, it will inevitably lead to more Chinese pressure.”

The seemingly ‘new’ mercantilist approach of Chancellor George Osborne is deeply imbedded in historical traditions of British foreign policy-making, and has run parallel and sometimes counter to Britain’s values-oriented foreign policy. Long before Henry Kissinger said it, Lord Palmerston claimed that Britain had no “permanent friends or allies, only permanent interests.” Britain has always viewed trade as one of these permanent interests, since power is derived from economic standing. This is evident throughout the last century: the UK was the largest source of long-term foreign direct investment in the United States, played a pivotal role in Japanese industrialization, and was one of Germany’s main trade partners prior to both the first and second world wars. If the new China policy is a mistake, Britain has made it before.

The Soviet Union was the exception to the rule: blame Russian communist views of trade. Therefore, it is unremarkable that Osborne wishes to hitch the UK wagon to China’s rising star. Seen from Whitehall, this approach marries traditional notions of liberal trade internationalism with the promise of profit for City of London financiers. The Downing Street website puts this financial promise at the front of its webpage describing Xi’s visit, claiming it will “unlock” more than $48 billion of commercial deals across energy, finance, technology, and education. The question is whether all this promise will be delivered and at what cost to Britain’s security and freedom of maneuver.

Unlike Britain, China does not prize the bilateral relationship for short-term economic gains, but rather seeks to use British financial acumen to lift itself into ascendancy. The internationalization of the RMB, using London as a trading hub, and a scheme to link the London and Shanghai stock markets – both announced during Xi’s visit – are to build the foundation of a new Chinese order. Xi was not in London just to meet the Queen. He was there to make deals, buying the experience and know-how of the British financial world, and he has the cash to close the deal. The $48 billion that he’s put on the table could be just a start: despite the slowing of its economy and huge public debt, China has more than $1.53 trillion in sovereign wealth funds. Furthermore, London would profit immensely from becoming the primary RMB trade hub, which is a very real possibility says Yang Du, head of Thomson Reuters China business desk. Currently, Britain is the eighth largest destination for Chinese investment: when Prime Minister Cameron and Chancellor Osborne said at the Buckingham Palace Banquet that they want Britain to be China’s “best partner in the West,” this is what they mean.

Caution is in order, however. The Osborne Doctrine suffers from several fatal flaws. First, it is hype built on hype. Several economists view Britain’s strategy toward China as over-relying on foreign investment to sustain growth. Rather than passing the costs of building British infrastructure – such as three planned nuclear power plants – on to China, why not borrow at 3 percent and maintain control over processes, control over quality, and most important, maintain the capacity of local industry? This off-shoring is rich in irony: Britain – home to the industrial revolution – is paying China – one of the most recent adherents of the industrial revolution – to finance and make British products in Britain. As if to drive home the point, Xi’s visit was preceded by the bankruptcy of a leading company in the British steel industry, a result of Chinese steel dumping this year.

The second flaw is that China does not seem serious about upholding either the rules-based order that Britain helped build after World War II or the liberal economic and political values implicit in that order. Prime Minister Cameron’s silence over human rights issues for the sake of finance was widely criticized in the British media with Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei claiming that it was in the name of profit. The Chinese ambassador had even warned that Xi would be “offended” if human rights were raised during the visit. The main problem with this approach is that it is simply out of step with the British public, which expects an ethical foreign policy from Whitehall. Power and finance are not enough.

This misplaced faith in Chinese investment promises and the willingness to downplay human rights issues have not gone down well in Washington, where London’s embrace of authoritarian China looks increasingly out-of-step with its regional concerns. This is the third flaw of Osborne’s strategy: Britain is out of touch with other liberal democracies like Germany and France and how they balance economic policies with principles. London’s willingness to join the AIIB without consulting or even alerting the G-7 was a major blow to the group, but it also damaged British prestige.

Britain is increasingly out of step with Washington, which sees its trade relationship with China rapidly eclipsed by issues such as cyber security and maritime security in the Asia Pacific. Osborne’s willingness to throw open certain sectors of the economy critical to national security to Chinese investment strikes many as naïve if not dangerous: a 2013 British Parliamentary committee issued a scathing report of the government’s willingness to award large contracts in the telecommunications sector to Huawei, a Chinese company with purported links to the People’s Liberation Army. Though Cameron did receive a joint statement from Xi over cyber security during the visit, it is no stronger than the one Xi gave in Washington, and probably has less meaning.

Finally, there is the flaw of unintended consequences: Beijing’s belief that Britain – a major player in the current liberal rules-based order – is bandwagoning for profit may encourage China to attempt to dismantle the system in favor of one that favors Beijing’s autocratic preferences. No one believes that Britain could play a pivotal role if a conflict broke out in the Asia Pacific, but Western cohesion may help deter Chinese adventurism. This regional aspect highlights the shortsightedness of the Osborne Doctrine because it assumes that as long as China’s misbehavior occurs in the Asia-Pacific region, it does not impinge on British interests. This belies Britain’s dependence on trade routes that transit the contested South China Sea and East China Sea waters.

President Xi’s carriage ride down the Mall to Buckingham Palace was rich in symbolism; the image of Prime Minister Cameron kowtowing to the Chinese president evokes Britain’s first diplomatic mission to China in 1793, when Lord Macartney traveled to meet the Qianlong Emperor in Peking. His attempt to open trade between the two empires ended in failure as the two held incompatible worldviews and practiced incompatible diplomatic cultures. Seeing President Xi and his wife dressed in Western clothes, in front of a trade delegation to Britain would seem to indicate that two states understand each much better now. However, Cameron’s willingness to trade British principles and significant concessions for investment and market access show that perhaps London is no closer to understanding Beijing than it was 250 years ago.


The Girl with Seven Names

hyeonseo-lee_cover400x0Hyeonseo Lee as the dinner speaker

Tuesday, 21 October at 19:00 – 22:00

Naval and Military Club

The Policy Dinner Club is proud to announce that it’s next speaker is Ms. Hyeonseo Lee. Ms Lee, a defector from North Korea, who will draw from her new book, The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defectors Story, to discuss technological change in North Korea, and the impact it is having on North Korean society and government, among other aspects of life inside North Korea.
Hyeonseo spends much of her time speaking about North Korean human rights and North Korean refugee issues, including speeches at the Stanford University Global Speaker Series, Princeton University, New York University Law School, and at various venues throughout Europe. She has personally met public officials like UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and the South Korean Minister of Unification, Yu Woo-ik, to discuss these issues.
When:    19:00-22:00, October 20th, 2015
Who:      Ms. Hyeonseo Lee
Where:   Naval and Military Club* (map)
Speaker’s Biography

Hyeonseo Lee is a North Korean defector living in Seoul, South Korea. She has recently completed writing her memoir, The Girl With Seven Names, which will be published in July 2015 in more than 20 countries. Over 5 million people have viewed her TED Talk about her life in North Korea, her escape to China and struggle to bring her family to freedom. Hyeonseo has given testimony about North Korean human rights in front of a special panel of the UN Security Council, and has discussed the issues with important leaders such as UN Ambassador Samantha Powers.

She recently completed her undergraduate studies in English and Chinese at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, and has been a Young Leader at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Hyeonseo has written articles for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal Korea Real-Time, the London School of Economics Big Ideas blog, and worked as a student journalist for the South Korean Ministry of Unification. She has also been interviewed by the BBC, CNN, CBS News and numerous other television, newspaper and radio outlets throughout the world.

She is currently writing another book with other female North Koreans living in South Korea, and is planning to start an organization to help promising North Korean refugees interact with the international community.


No Deal: Why North Korea won’t be the next Iran

The National Interest, August 25, 2015

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As the sounds of artillery faded across the North-South Korean border recently, the possibilty for a new diplomatic breakthrough between the United States and North Korea had been dashed. Hopes had been raised in Washington, in Beijing and even in Seoul, for a revival of the Six Party Talks in the wake of the successful U.S.-Iran Nuclear Deal. Speculation was rife in the run up of visits to Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing by the American special envoy to these talks, Sydney Seiler, in late July. However, the recent announcement of Vice-Premier Choe Yong-gon’s execution in North Korea swiftly dampened optimism. For North Korea-watchers, the recent spate of purges of elites by Kim Jong-un suggests that the regime is going through a consolidation of power, and it is unlikely to accept or even to deal with diplomatic overtures from the United States or its allies for some time. In many ways, the reason for this latest cross-border flare-up has its origins in North Korea’s domestic politics rather than in what happened on the border.

Events in North Korea this summer have revealed a country undergoing continued instability as leader Kim Jong-un carries out purge after purge of the top brass. Vice Premier Choe Yong-gon was apparently executed in May, but news of his execution only surfaced on August 12. The news follows earlier purges of Armed Forces Vice-Minister So Hong-chan, Defense Minister Hyon Yong-chol and Director of the Designing Department of the National Defense Commission Ma Won-chun. While purges in North Korea are nothing new, North Korea analyst Aidan Foster-Carter points out that top-level bureaucrats and military elites usually just disappear. It would appear that these arrests and executions have been staged for internal consumption. As with all things domestic, these purges are a form of internal signaling from the regime to the elites.

While all of this seems of peripheral interest to U.S. policy makers, the question of the stability and staying power of the regime is important both for planned diplomacy and for anticipating future provocations. Though feeling the economic pressure of sanctions, an internally robust Pyongyang might be coaxed back to the diplomatic table. Presumably, a regime at peace with itself would be able to agree internally what its negotiating terms are, in line with some sort of national strategy. An internally weak or divided regime, on the other hand, will eschew any form of compromise with the regime’s perceived enemies, as any compromise might be construed as weakness or treason, and used internally by one faction against another. In North Korea, roughly speaking, there are three main factions: the Kim family (and its supporters), the Korean People’s Army and the Korean Worker’s Party. As with pre-Revolutionary France, these three factions subtly vie with each other for the power and resources of the state: their roles might be said to equate to France’s monarchy, aristocracy and clergy. Historically, the relationship has been marked by cycles of competing and cycles of converging interests.

While verification of events inside the hermetic kingdom is famously difficult, it is possible that these purges have arisen from a competition taking place between the three factions initiated by the young leader. To put this competition in perspective, one must look back to the evolution of this power triangle between 1996 and 2010. If one looks back to Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, one can see that only two years after taking power he implemented a new constitution (called the 1998 Constitution). This consolidated his position within the military’s National Defence Commission and simultaneously elevated the military above the party in a policy that came to be know as Songun or “military first”. In essence, Songun was both a counterrevolutionary strategy and a strategy for governing, complementing the official state ideology of Juche and the cult of leadership built around the Kim family (Kimilsungism-Kimjongilism). While there is no clear evidence that Kim Jong-un has officially reversed that and elevated the party above the Korean People’s Army, his pursuit of economic growth may have been at the expense of the army’s interests, leading him to co-opt the party.

Finally, there is the possibility that Kim Jong-un’s age is a factor in driving this new iteration of inter-elite competition; the neo-Confucian society of Korea traditionally elevates age above youth and is heavily reliant on social networks to enable influence and power. Elevated well above his peer group, Kim Jong-un may have found it difficult to compete with the clannish military leaders, with their decades of friendship and loyalty to the military. Carrying out initial purges may have allowed him both to signal the continued strength of the Kim family and to undertake some practical internal reordering. Purges open up seats and give Kim the power to fill them, allowing him to displace the old with the new. In essence, purges strengthen Kim’s coercive power, his interpersonal power and his patronage power all at once. His promotion of a trusted family member, sister Kim Yo-jong, to vice-director of the KWP’s Propaganda and Agitation Department also suggests that Kim Jung-un will continue to burnish the family’s cult of personality. While Songun and Juche are shared out among the military and party respectively, the sacred place of the Kim family in Kimilsungism-Kimjongilism makes it uniquely unassailable with respect to the other two factions. As with the concepts of divine monarch and heavenly mandate, the cult of leadership built around Kim Jong-un will liken treason to heresy.

In terms of deciding future U.S. policy, it is clear that North Korea is not ready to come back to the table. Internally, it is undergoing too much upheaval. Nor is it clear that coming to the table would be much use, given its policy of maintaining its nuclear-power-state status. The United States and its allies face a choice: they can sit back and allow the Kim regime to consolidate power between the military and the party, hoping to be rewarded for their forbearance, or they can make minute shifts in policy that have ever-larger effect. Realistically a policy of forbearance is unlikely to be recognized much less rewarded by Pyongyang. One can see this from how the regime simply pocketed previous diplomatic gains—such as under the Sunshine policy. Rather than waiting to buy the same horse again, the United States should seek to modify the policy of strategic patience with a growing information campaign inside the regime. This should be enough to keep the regime off balance, rather than seek to bring it down, though the long-term effects of this should be anticipated. The watchword should be subtlety; revealing the truth is likely to be far more successful than propaganda loudspeakers on the border. It is surprising how lenient the United States and its allies have been in this regard, given the success of such campaigns vis-a-vis the Eastern Bloc during the late stages of the Cold War. This should be replicated. Information control is the Achilles heel of all totalitarian regimes: revealing the true state of the outside world and the perks of the regime’s ruling class would suffice, through the use of DVDs, USB drives, and increased radio traffic. Not to do so, is to allow a nuclear-proliferator regime to continue its existence through the lifespan of another Kim, allowing the regime to blackmail China and others for aid and sustenance for another sixty years or so. Worse still, it is to support the current plight of the long-suffering North Korean population.


The Special Relationship and Western Grand Strategy

The International Security Network, June 26, 2015

The anxiety over Britain’s ‘resignation’ as a global power speaks volumes about the incoherence of Western strategic thinking and the need for a unified approach to a complex security environment. Here are some recommendations for righting the ship.

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In the past year, there has been a growing debate in Washington about Britain’s loss of stature on the world stage. This increasingly public conversation has suggested that Britain’s will to be a global power may be eroding and that the future of one of the key alliances of the 20th century may therefore be uncertain. Yet this debate actually represents a wider problem: i.e., the lack of a coherent Western strategy and the need for a unified approach to an increasingly complex security environment. In this new context, three measures can help the West to negotiate its current strategic impasse: 1) reconsidering retrenchment; 2) downgrading humanitarian intervention; and 3) increasing strategic dialogue.

The sun finally sets?

Over the past year or so, quiet conversations have been taking place in Washington regarding the trans-Atlantic relationship. After US requests for information met with silence in Whitehall, these conversations began to spill out into the public arena. In March, General Ray Odierno, the US Army Chief of Staff, said he was “very concerned” about the UK’s planned defence cuts. As if on cue, the former Chief of Staff of the British Army, General Peter Wall, then argued in a Telegraph article that the UK had “a lower level of ambition for UK involvement in global security than ever before.”

This opened the floodgates: in the following week, the Washington Post published an article worrying about the UK’s ‘shrinking military clout’; then, in April, the New York Times published a longer article about Britain’s ‘drift from the global stage.’ Finally, in May, CNN journalist Fareed Zakaria argued that Britain had essentially ‘resigned’ as a world power. Only the Independent’s Washington correspondent, Peter Foster, pointed out that the US itself also seemed to be in retreat. After ‘leading from behind’ in Libya, it had ducked behind the British Parliament over Syria and failed to produce tangible defence guarantees to the Ukraine. Foster was not right about everything, but his point illustrates a wider problem: that the West has an alarming ‘strategy gap’ and is undergoing a review period.

It is true that the UK is in the midst of a slow-motion constitutional crisis and deep financial retrenchment, but it is also – like the US – experiencing a crisis of strategic thought after a decade of setbacks. To illustrate, consider how the Cold War unified the UK, the US, and their ‘first world’ allies behind two basic notions: that there was a single overarching threat (communism) and that they had a strategy for dealing with it (containment). With these two reference points, the Treasury could get down to the tricky business of allocating resources to Britain’s Armed Forces and intelligence agencies and coordinating parallel and complementary goals with the United States and its NATO allies. It was as effective as it was simple.

A brief look at priorities of the 2010 National Security Strategy indicates how much has changed. The report includes four major high risk areas: (1) terrorism, (2) cyber, (3) international crises, and (4) major accidents or hazards. There are also a number of lesser risk areas, such as energy security, organized crime, and border security, and a number of variables, such as the rate of technological change, demography, the diffusion of power in the international system, and environmental factors, among others. To cap things off, the report then makes clear that “Our most urgent task is to return our nation’s finances to a sustainable footing.”

To simplify: the UK would like to have a medium-sized military force that would work closely with others (i.e., the US and NATO allies) to defend against terror attacks at home and abroad; to defend against cyber- espionage, cyber- crime, and cyber- attack; to carry on nuclear deterrence at sea; to defend Britain’s trade routes; and to get involved in short-term humanitarian interventions in fragile or failed states. The UK would like to do all of this while continuing to modernize its ISR capabilities – and while saving money. This is not a strategy: this is what President Obama and many others are beginning to refer to (in an American context) as the “ whack-a-mole” approach. One prioritizes everything, so that, in the end, nothing is prioritized. With the tail wagging the proverbial dog, such an approach blinds strategists to two emerging realities: that great power politics is returning to the global system; and that the age of humanitarian interventions and ‘soft’ security is over.

Whitehall is not completely to blame for the current strategic drift. American critics of the UK’s downsizing are no less critical of their own strategic ambiguity. After all, what is Western – or even American – strategy in Ukraine? Or the Middle East? How should we deal with the resurgence of great power politics, in the South China Sea and elsewhere? If the US is to lead, then it must communicate an overarching strategic vision to its Western allies, one that gives meaning to the allied blood and treasure already lost in Iraq and Afghanistan and to any future blood and treasure that will be spent. It must also attempt to reset its Asian Rebalance to match the realities of growing European insecurity.

A new strategic vision

If the West is not only to survive but to thrive in the modern age, it will have to make difficult choices in an effort to anticipate future developments rather than simply react to them. In this regard, three courses of action can help to resolve its current strategic crisis.

(1) Prioritize spending

As London’s foreign policy choices have highlighted, this is ultimately an age of economic scarcity where smart resource allocation is needed. With this in mind, Prime Minister Cameron has attempted to husband his resources. While this has not stopped him from sending troop trainers to Ukraine or from bombing ISIL, it has meant making difficult choices, for example, when asked by the US not to join China’s new infrastructure bank, the AIIB. However, it should be noted that there has been a degree of political side-stepping by the Cameron government on spending. Despite claims of austerity, the UK remains the world’s fifth largest economy, hosts one of the largest global financial hubs, recovering far faster from the financial crisis than many of its European counterparts. The fact that it is being outspent on defence by a historical peer competitor, Russia, is galling – particularly since its budget revenue, at $986 billion, is nearly  twice that of Russia’s $416 billion. The fact that Osborne is again likely to ringfence DfIDS’s aid budget indicates that there is more latitude in this debate than Whitehall has admitted. In other words, there are alternatives to the planned defence cuts. They should be discussed, rather than assumed behind closed doors.

(2) Prioritize threats 

The UK cannot treat all threats as equal. Threats to the system should be prioritized over threats to humanitarian values. This means that Ukraine is more important than Syria because of the effect it would have on Europe’s eastern flank. In the wake of failures in Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan, the West should abstain from the humanitarian interventionism of the 1990s. The idealism represented by such interventions was well-meaning and occasionally effective (as in Sierra Leone and the Balkans), but it also occurred in a much more benign international environment, in which revisionist Russia and China were themselves engaged in domestic retrenchment. What has become clear to many, particularly after Libya, is that while Western nations can carry out front-end kinetic operations against lesser regimes, they lack the stomach and resources for peace-building and state-building. The continued lack of a strong state and the flow of refugees from Libya suggests that, without this necessary institution-building, interventions may hurt more than they help. Power vacuums present non-state actors with opportunities, while creating further problems for those they were intended to help. It is unclear that bringing about Assad’s downfall in 2013 would have alleviated the suffering of civilians: indeed, ISIL would have been the clear winner in territory, population and resources.

(3) Talk more with each other

The UK-US Alliance is certainly experiencing problems, but these are exacerbated by a lack of communication over delicate issues. Some place the blame for this at the level of the incumbent administrations, pointing to a lack of dialogue between this Prime Minister and this President. Others emphasize a necessary phase of navel-gazing in the UK during a period of constitutional difficulties relating to the Scottish situation and the upcoming referendum on EU membership. In the case of the UK’s domestic turmoil, the United States has little choice but to remain patient with this loss of focus in Whitehall. However, the UK cannot take an indefinite break from talking to its allies or from the work of providing security in and around Europe. Now more than ever, it must communicate its commitments to enemies and allies alike. Happily, alliances are seldom based on the personal foibles of leaders but on common interests, values, institutions, and history. The deeply enmeshed intelligence relationships, for example, involve common institutions with a legacy of working together for shared goals. The bureaucracies can continue working closely together – but strategic vision is policy, and that must be coordinated at the political level. In the run-up to the November release of the NSS and SDSR, the UK and United States should build on the track 1 and track 1.5 work that is already taking place – to discuss their worries, concerns and possible solutions in a way that is clear and useful for other Western / NATO allies. While some question the need for an overarching Western strategy, the very process of debate is in itself, a useful one, focusing minds and clarifying common goals and means, an essential part of procurement cycles.

Conclusion

It seems that one of the defining features of alliances is the assumption that they are in trouble. Since the beginning of the US-UK Alliance after the Second World War, a year has scarcely passed without the publication of a newspaper article or book worrying about its health. Indeed, worries about the state of affairs between Washington and London are arguably an offshoot of the decline narrative, one of the most common tropes in Western political discourse – one that should be treated with respect but also with a certain amount of stoicism. What is needed now is more discussion rather than more alarming headlines.

The US-UK Alliance is certainly experiencing a triple challenge of war-weariness, insecurity overload, and resource scarcity. However, these are problems that the West writ large is also facing; better to hang together than hang separately. The Special Relationship has been one the most significant alliances of the 20th Century – one that has endured two world wars, numerous civil wars and insurgencies, and countless other conflicts including the current intervention against ISIL in the skies of Iraq. The two intelligence agencies and defence industries work closely together in a way that adds values to their respective capabilities. Even now, American and British diplomats are working closely on Iran’s nuclear programme, over Russian revanchism in eastern Ukraine, and on NATO’s readiness. We cannot afford to take this partnership for granted. It is one of the cornerstones of Western security.

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