The crisis over North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic-missile programs now builds to a perilous pitch with no precedent in at least two decades. There are two features of this regress that are essential to recognize in order to understand why Northeast Asia is where Washington’s policy cliques now announce a new passage in the grand scandal of American foreign policy.
One, there is nothing inevitable about the ticking-clock emergency now unfolding on the Korean Peninsula. It has been induced. As suggested in an earlier column, the current crisis—in one or another form, at one or another velocity—was more or less scheduled to proceed no matter who took the White House last November. Two, this latest confrontation in Northeast Asia cannot be viewed in isolation. A chain of events lies behind it. It is necessary to recognize how these events are linked if we are to understand that the policy cliques are about to add one more failure to the pile they have long insisted on accumulating.
I will begin at the beginning.
The morning after that cruise-missile attack on Syria two weeks back, a well-wired source I have known for more than a quarter of a century telephoned from Washington with an advisory. “Don’t miss the way Trump and Tillerson timed the announcement of the attack on the Shayrat airfield,” he urged. “They were at Mar-a-Lago. Xi Jinping had just arrived for his summit. This wasn’t happenstance. It’s all about China’s insistence that the US open talks with North Korea.”
His implication was quickly clear. To cast the point in historical terms, Shayrat is to Beijing as Hiroshima was to Moscow long ago, the message on both occasions being, “This is what we’ve got. This is what we’re prepared to do.”
Within hours of that exchange, the head of the Pacific Command, the ever-belligerent Adm. Harry Harris, ordered—however bungled the order, we now learn—the USS Carl Vinson, a carrier-strike group, to waters off the Korean Peninsula. The following Tuesday, President Trump tweeted, “North Korea is looking for trouble. If China decides to help, that would be great. If not, we will solve the problem without them! USA.” A day later, Trump gave Fox Business Network an interview in which he went most of the way to confirming my source’s suggestion that the attack on Shayrat was intended, to a considerable extent, as a message to the Chinese. “Mr. President, let me explain something to you,” Trump recalled telling Xi. “We’ve just fired 59 missiles, all of which hit, by the way, unbelievable, from, you know, hundreds of miles away.” This was over dessert, Trump took evident delight in elaborating, “and we had the most beautiful chocolate cake that you’ve ever seen.”
And here we are. We are not eating chocolate cake. In a matter of days, “SyriaSyriaSyria,” in the megaphone manner our media tell us what we must fret and tremble about at a given moment, became “NorthKoreaNorthKoreaNorthKorea.” (“RussiaRussiaRussia,” I have to note, has curiously gone off the boil. Hmmm.) Last Sunday, The New York Times called the tension mounting over Pyongyang’s nuclear and rocket programs “a Cuban missile crisis in slow motion.” I do not know where the Times got “slow motion,” given the extraordinary pace with which Washington has wound up the Korean question into an impasse one incident away from zero hour. But we must all agree on one thing: This, readers, is a real, live “pivot to Asia.”
The Syria strike, that Strangelovian bomb in Afghanistan almost no one even knew the Pentagon had, a flashpoint in Northeast Asia, and, as of late Wednesday, Secretary of State Tillerson’s uninhibited attack on Iran and the accord governing its nuclear program: This is not a collection of one-offs. This is not the indispensable nation rushing to put out the world’s flash fires. This is the ever-less-welcome nation lighting them, fair to say. Taken together, these developments tell us that our policy cliques have turned a page in their defense of American hegemony. The characteristics of this new phase are three, at least so far: Policy is now likely to be more daring (Syria) and dangerous (North Korea and Iran), it will be more desperate in the face of sharpening contradictions (China), and the neurotic fear that has long driven American foreign policy will be ever more evident (everywhere).
Donald Trump is not an honest man, but he is a blunt man, and there is a place for blunt in Washington. It is always good when Trump says things that are perfectly the case but are supposed to remain unstated. So it was when he gave a press conference a week ago. “What I do is I authorize my military,” Trump told reporters. “We have given them total authorization, and that’s what they’re doing.”
Total authorization. Never mind the happy face Trump put on this breathtaking statement: “Frankly, that’s why they’ve been so successful lately.” The president was reporting his own capitulation. The source I quoted above, who enjoys unusual access to Washington political circles, calls it “the domestication of Donald Trump.” However one terms it, Trump has finally succumbed to the incessant hysteria over conjured connivances with Russia. Those who boarded the bandwagon—and there was plenty of room, since evidence of any kind took up no space—may now wish to consider the consequences of their insistent campaigns, but that is another conversation.
There was always a contradiction at the core of Trump’s thinking, such as it is. He is transactional by nature and favored negotiation with adversaries—President Putin, famously, but also Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader. He opposed imperial adventure and questioned why NATO, a Cold War alliance, needs all the money it still drains from the US budget. I have just noted three sound policy positions. But Trump’s views were never more than inchoate and lacked the ballast of conviction when challenged by what I will not call “the deep state” because it upsets many people’s illusions. Trump also entertained a traditionally right-wing idealization of the military and its “mission.” This was his great, unresolved contradiction. Something was bound to give, and something just did. I have long argued that the United States has a military policy as against a foreign policy, especially in the Pacific. With Trump’s surrender, we no longer have even the curtain customarily drawn over this extraordinary reality.
We have just been advised of what total authorization will look like in our current zones of war—Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan the hottest of them. What is it going to look like across the Pacific? This question now confronts us with sudden urgency.
Let us divide the answer into three, as follows:
- China. Remaking the power balance in the western Pacific to accommodate China’s regional and global influence is without question among the most pressing tasks of our time. It may be No. 1 on the list. The impediments to this not-to-be-avoided project do not lie in Beijing. They lie in Washington. The Chinese have signaled countless times that they do not view the Pacific region’s security in zero-sum terms. The United States has signaled as often that it does. Hillary Clinton once made the case that the South China Sea might just as well be named “the American Sea.” You cannot call it statecraft, but Clinton could be bluntly revealing sometimes, too.
The essential problem is the nostalgia Washington has nursed at least since 1945, and arguably since TR’s “imperial cruise” in the summer of 1905, when the great poseur cast his eye (downward) on all that it was America’s destiny to claim as its dominion. The consciousness persists most strongly but not only in the Pentagon. Barack Obama’s innovation was not to get us past an anachronistic rivalry but to try prolonging it by other means: The Trans-Pacific Partnership, do not forget, was a strategic instrument intended to counter Chinese influence more than it was a trade agreement.
The South China Sea has been one zone of contention for years. North Korea has been another, and it just became the more urgent. The Chinese understand that talks between Washington and Pyongyang are the only way to resolve the problem of the North’s nuclear and missile programs. Trump’s previous willingness to enter such talks is one reason he just lost control of his foreign policy. The Pentagon wants once-and-for-all military intervention to figure prominently when Vice President Pence (now in Asia) and others assert over and over that “all options are on the table.”
The adversaries in Northeast Asia today are two, it is important to understand—one declared and one not. Pyongyang is to be prevented from developing its nuclear capabilities. Beijing is to be advised that the United States still manages security in the western Pacific.
You are reading now that the Xi government is gradually coming over to Washington’s side on the North Korea question. You should read other publications. China will prod Pyongyang at the margins, but it is not on for “regime change” or anything like it. As every statement from the foreign ministry and every editorial in People’s Daily make plain, the Chinese, who do not rattle easily, are nearly beside themselves as those now running American policy raise the temperature on the peninsula. When Beijing declines to follow Washington’s lead, Washington pretends that it is. This is what you are reading. It cannot last long. How much hostility will the US administration—whatever this may mean now—risk in defense of its flat refusal to reopen talks to defuse the Korean crisis? This is the question between Washington and Beijing.
- North Korea. It cannot be stressed too often that Pyongyang’s behavior must be understood in historical context. Once the past is brought to bear, Washington’s portrayal of the North as a house full of madmen evaporates. Bruce Cumings, the distinguished historian of the Korean War, just demonstrated this in The Nation’s pages. North Koreans have lived with a nerve-racking threat on their borders for 72 years. It explains a lot.
Pyongyang’s willingness to negotiate on its nuclear and missile programs has been clear nearly as long as it has pursued them. But this alternative is now foreclosed. In this line, Secretary of State Tillerson’s assertion when he was in Seoul last month ranks among the best: We will not negotiate with Pyongyang until it gives up its nuclear and missile programs. I wonder: Is that artfully artless or artlessly artful? Or just transparently cynical?
Having pushed matters into standoff territory, the administration has crystallized the Korean crisis, in my view. So long as Washington refuses to reopen talks—a point on which it stands entirely alone—avoiding calamity depends on deterrence. Deterrence, most readers will recall, was the essential key to maintaining peace during the Cold War. And so it is again in this remnant of those awful decades. Here is the bitter, bitter truth to consider as the Vinson steams northward: The North must not step back from its nuclear program until this administration in Washington, or the next or the next, returns to the mahogany table. This is where our new phase in foreign policy lands us.
Americans do not like deterrence when it is Americans who are being deterred. China, with its own history not forgotten, understands this perfectly well: It vigorously advises Pyongyang to desist from further missile launchings and defer a sixth nuclear detonation. So it should. So far as I know, it has never urged the North to denuclearize unilaterally. So it must not.
- South Korea. South Koreans protested loudly as the Park government, deposed this spring, prepared to welcome the Pentagon’s THAAD anti-missile system. They protested again when Admiral Harris announced that he had redirected the Vinson. Now they have cause to protest once more: Yonhap, the South Korean news agency, reported Tuesday that two more carrier groups—the USS Ronald Reagan and the Nimitz—are also on their way northward.
A succession of American officials has trooped through Seoul this spring: first Defense Secretary Mattis, then Tillerson, now Pence. I was struck from the first by a single detail consistent in these visits. All of these officials met Hwang Kyo-ahn, prime minister under Park Geun-hye and the acting president. Hwang is of no consequence: He is finished as of an election to replace Park May 9. The front-runner by a long way, Moon Jae-in, favors talks with the North and cancellation of the THAAD system. None of the Americans visitors bothered to see him.
It suggests everything one ought to expect and not want for South Koreans in the months to come.
Anyone who knows Koreans has to admire their long resistance against American-backed dictators in the name of a genuine democracy. They won that fight back in the 1990s; South Korea would no longer be one of those disgraceful places where Cold War America destroyed democracy to save it, just as it burned Vietnamese hamlets to save them. Park Geun-hye’s fall consolidated that victory.
But South Koreans were never able to crawl out from under what Asians euphemistically call “the American security umbrella” and see the sky for themselves. Now what? It is a question one wishes there was no need to ask.