Tuesday, August 08, 2017

The Thucydides trap and the Korean conundrum

This is an outstanding episode of Federalist Radio. Ben Domenech interviews Graham Allison about his new book. From there the conversation ranges to China, Korea, and the limits of expertise.

Can Lessons From Thucydides Keep America From War With China?
A couple of follow-on points:

1. Allison notes that regime change in Korea may seem necessary, but also warns that our experience of Iraq and Libya also shows that the aftermath of regime-change is never pretty and never a cake-walk.

Left unmentioned was the direct link between the fall of Gaddafi and Kim Jong Un’s drive to secure a nuclear capability. Jerry Pournelle warned that the Obama/Clinton adventure in North Africa would have serious consequences:

North Korea: Jerry Pournelle can say 'I told you so'

One lesson to be learned is, DO NOT LOSE if you are in the dictator business. The US will borrow money to furnish the Brits, French, and Italians with the means to kill you. Understand that, and be sure that you have the means for defending yourself. The more strategic your country the more important it will be to have defenses including personal defenses. Another lesson is, do not renounce your nukes. Get some. Get at least one and let it be known that it will detonate if you don’t talk to it at daily intervals.

Kim Jong Un grasped the Realpolitik lesson of the Melian Dialogue. The immediate cause of Gaddafi’s downfall was not his brutality but his weakness.

The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.
Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War
2. To the Chinese, a ‘solution’ to the Korean crisis looks much different than it does to Washington.

This may be an example of Dr. David Lai’s point that “different nations play different games” which in turn means they view the world from different geo-strategic perspectives.

A nation of Go players cannot help but notice that “dealing with Kim Jong Un” also looks a lot like “encircle the Chinese homeland.”

[See also Beyond Chess and Checkers]
Even if that is not the intention of US foreign policy, we must understands that China will still look with suspicion on such moves.

3. We also have to recognize that our post-Cold War foreign policy has given China ample reason to suspect that such encirclement is the real goal. It is, after all, what we did to Russia despite our promises that we would do no such thing.

The first 30 minutes of this lecture provides a solid overview of the missteps and broken promises that marked US-Russian relations in the Clinton-Bush years.

It really does not matter if the US was reckless, feckless, naïve or Machiavellian. What matters is that our past actions shape how other nations perceive our current initiatives.

4. We also must recognize that China may value Kim Jong Un as a cat’s paw. During the tensest days of the Cold War Khrushchev explained the real value of Berlin to Moscow: “Every time I want to make the West scream, I squeeze on Berlin.”

It is quite possible that China sees Kim in the same light. His provocations are an ideal way to hobble and distract the US in the Western Pacific.

5. Allison has some smart things to say about the limits of expertise in dealing with knotty foreign polity issues. Let us say that he is not in the Tom Nichols “shut up and obey” camp.

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