Trump, North Korea, and the Death of IR Theory

Photo by White House Communications Agency | Public Domain

The dominant theme in media commentary regarding President Trump’s foreign policy has been his unpredictability. While this carries relatively innocuous implications, as far as the women entangled in his sexual dalliances are concerned, the double-dutch policy towards the recently concluded summit with North Korea has the potential to ignite a serious violent conflict among major powers. In an article trying to ascertain Russian attitudes on the matter, the Christian Science Monitor reported that “trying to read the intentions of the Trump White House has become an exercise for Russian foreign-policy experts that makes old-fashioned Kremlinology look like an exact science by comparison.”

While it may damage the sense of importance of the grand old figures of IR (International Relations) theory and geopolitics, the current era of U.S. foreign policy is guided merely by the egotism of, perhaps, three people, and not by scrupulous maneuverings on the global chessboard. The preceding 10 years of interaction with rival states has hobbled towards this moment; hindsight reveals an increasing readiness on the part of the executive to sideline the advice of his most knowledgeable advisors and confidants on key matters of U.S. power. Add to his predecessor’s support for infamously elusive “moderate” rebel groups in Syria, Trump’s scrapping of the Iranian nuclear deal, his contemptuous withdrawal from international efforts to deal with climate change, and, now, the reprobate handling of the North Korea crisis, to the list of grave instances in which the president has flouted the guidance of those with even minimal expertise in favor of a more personalized style of management. The bare adherence to international norms and institutions that persisted prior are now overruled, not only wherever they clash with perceived state interests, but even merely when they clash with Trump’s.

Steady as the ultimate goalsof U.S. hegemony have remained, the courseof securing them appears less and less coherent. Veteran Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn noticed, during the Obama years, that “US policy has an Alice in Wonderland absurdity about it, everything being the opposite of what it appears to be.” Cockburn’s characterization, alluding to that administration’s disarrayed modus operandiin Syria, suggests a somewhat patternized irrationality, though policy-making under President Trump seems enthralled to an even more disturbing volatility.

The appointments of John Bolton as National Security Advisor and Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State may lead to a ruinous acceleration of this pattern, wherein the rules of bargaining and diplomacy have altogether been scrapped in favor of the achievement of short-term goals rooted in domestic public relations concerns. But Trump’s penchant for taking credit for all things positive on the world scene may mean that he will submit to the strategy of standing back, allowing the two Koreas to work independently towards achieving their various timetables, and then reinserting himself into the range of the camera lenses when the Nobel committee comes a-knockin’, joining Kissinger, Peres, and Suu Kyi in the wretched pantheon of “peace-makers.” It is, perhaps, this yearning for adoration that accounts for his resistance to tank the process, as has been the habit, until now. Upon suspending the joint U.S.-ROK military exercises, Trump even went so far as to call them “very provocative”—likely without precedent.

That Trump is honestly concerned with reigning in a nuclear threat cannot be taken seriously. In addition to his own “plans to build a new kind of low-yield nuclear weapon, launched from submarines, to match Russian nuclear advances”—one of the few continuations of a prior Obama-era program—all the confirmation by relevant monitoring agencies of Iran’s compliance with the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was discarded with transparent scorn. The “Economics” section of the latest issue of BusinessWeekis devoted to North Korea, and purports to explain the drastic shift in U.S. policy. It effuses over the DPRK’s “China-like potential,” made possible by its “[p]ristine coastline,” its “vast stores of minerals—including iron and rare earths,” and its cheap and “rarely traded” debt, which could be a “windfall for anyone holding them when and if a peace deal with the North comes to fruition.” Despite all the gushing descriptions, however, even business-interests are not a reliable metric of U.S. interest in peace in the Korean Peninsula, since these same interests were overruled in Iran, an investment prospect over which both American and European corporations had previously salivated.

Much has been made of Trump’s reflexive rejection or reversal of Obama-era policies; the hostility seems to transcend ordinary partisan pettiness, rooted in extreme racism against a man many in the Republican base believe is the “anti-Christ.” But far lesser outrage has been expressed over the adoption by Congressional Democrats of precisely the same technique with regard to Trump, minus the bigoted wellsprings. Wesley Pruden observes in the Washington Timesthat, the “Democrats, still mired in the mud of the presidential campaign past, just can’t give up their fantasy that something will turn up to reverse the result and send Hillary to the White House, after all.” Accordingly, its leadership has chosen to extend its dread of détente with Russia to North Korea. “Now that the meeting will proceed as planned,” leading Senator Charles Schumer told the press earlier this month, “we want to make sure that the president’s desire for a deal with North Korea doesn’t saddle the United States, Japan and Korea with a bad deal,” echoing Trump’s ambiguity-cum-business savvy as well as his pitiful sentence-structures. “We just can’t settle for something less than what will ultimately make the peninsula, the region and the world more secure,” said highest-ranking Senate Foreign Relations Committee Democrat Bob Menendez, for that would be inconsistent with the time-honored U.S. tradition of subduing the parties with whom it negotiates. Furthermore, we may recall that the second phase of the so-called “Libya model,” namely, regime-change, was implemented by a Democratic administration, following a negotiated disarmament overseen by Republicans.

On May 16, after the DPRK postponed participation in the impending summit over what the Democrats’ proxies in the news media called “the North’s sudden objection to joint military drills by the South and the United States,” an emergency meeting was held between ROK Defense Minister Song Young-moo and Gen. Vincent Brooks. Brooks is the commander of the United States Forces Korea, an organization whose title reads like the beginning of an intriguing and telling sentence. The South Korean press reported that, during “the closed-door meeting, Song asked Brooks not to deploy nuclear-capable B-52 Stratofortress bombers for the Max Thunder exercise,” in a feeble attempt to draw attention to the legitimate security concerns of the North. These requests were rebuffed without comment, followed by the usual deluge of denunciations of DPRK bellicosity. The Moon Jae-in administration, which “scored a solid win after campaigning for the country to ‘learn to say no’ to America,” in the words of historian Alfred McCoy, has nevertheless been unable to extricate itself from its subordinate status, forced to tag along with hostile American maneuvers while working ostensibly towards peace. Treading a careful line, it remembers well the events of 2010, when President Hatoyama “pledged to end Japan’s dependence on the United States” by moving the “Futenma base and its noisy helicopters off Okinawa,” and immediately “ran into stiff resistance from the Obama administration,” a glaring power-play that ended in his resignation.

Not to be outdone by the dictator he has come to admire, on May 25, Trump canceled U.S. participation in the summit, perhaps to the brief relief of the two Koreas, citing recent insults he had incurred from Kim Jong-un—but this is not a serious objection. Why was not that same puerility enough to dissuade Trump and Tillerson from talking to DPRK leaders before, when, as we will recall, Trump tweeted that North Korea is the “last place on Earth I want to go to,” was called a “dotard,” and provided for Michael Wolff an apocalyptic title for his book-length expose of his electoral campaign? Worse, the cancelation came only hours after the Kim regime publicly destroyed its only known nuclear test site at Pungyye-ri, demonstrating that no concession is sufficient to avert U.S. resolve. Although the joint U.S.-ROK exercises have been suspended since the summit, Trump can easily secure for himself a flimsy pretext on which he may decide to restart them, reminding the world of the boundlessness of his caprice.

The handshake at Panmunjon was far more significant than the one on the White House lawn in September 1993 between Rabin and Arafat, which initiated the creation and conversion of the Palestinian Authority into a force of neocolonial workhands. Indeed, the absence of an auspicious American president between Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in was a sign of hope, reflecting the two governments’ commitment to work towards “determining the destiny of the Korean nation on their own accord,” as spelled out in the joint declaration of April 27. The choice of words was careful and deliberate, and was obviously made with deep cognizance of the ignoble history of U.S. sabotage, not Chinese. On the contrary, China has been crucial to the minimal progress made with the six-party diplomatic track (“double-freeze,” etc.), of particular importance because its success carries the potential to defuse a major conflict on its borders.

Thomas Christensen writes in Foreign Affairsthat China “has been reacting, however abrasively, to unwelcome and unforeseen events that have often been initiated by others,” such as the placement of the THAAD missile system in Japan and Taiwan—understood on all sides to bolster offensivemilitary capacities—and joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises, that, among other contingencies, simulate the overthrow of the DPRK with nuclear-armed aircraft. Whenever such legitimate security concerns are raised, the U.S. appeals to the provocative nature of DPRK nuclear tests, which are, themselves, justified by the aforementioned security concerns. Without pursuing the obvious causality dilemma, which does not bode well for the U.S. version of events, we need instead only to consider the Apollonian plea of Bruce Cumings, the preeminent historian of modern Korea. He finds the religious avoidance of context in these matters “infuriating.” “[A]ll of our media,” he explains, “appear to live in an eternal present, with each new crisis treated as sui generis.”

In attempting to restore the context, one is tempted to begin with President Eisenhower’s criminal flattening of the Korean Peninsula in the 1950s—and his associated threatening of the North with nuclear weapons, in the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—or the decisive manner in which the U.S., in Cumings’s words, “enmeshed these territories in security structures that rendered them semi-sovereign states,” referring to Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan. But the current state of the crisis can be accurately understood as the prolonged result of the scuttling of the 1994 Agreed Framework, when former President Jimmy Carter successfully convinced the DPRK to freeze its plutonium production at its Yongbyon facility and others, in exchange for light-water reactors that could meet the country’s energy needs. International inspectors verified that the DPRK had ceased developing any more fissile material.

By 2000, the Clinton administration had even begun to get the DPRK to relinquish its medium- and long-range ballistic missiles. To be sure, while there were failures on both sides to meet the strict letter of the Agreed Framework, there was substantial adherence to them, until the incoming Bush administration promulgated its infamous “Axis of Evil” dichotomy, and renewed threats. As a result, the DPRK expelled international inspectors, and re-intensified missile development efforts. So, it continued until September 2005, when, under international pressure, the Bush administration agreed to Six-Party talks, ending in a commitment by North Korea to end all nuclear weapons-related activities, respect the sovereignty of its neighbors, and, again, allow for international inspections. Almost without warning, Bush slapped onto the North sanctions that, in Cumings’s words, were “specifically designed to destroy the September pledges.”

The vacuity of the U.S.-DPRK statement from Singapore is certainly a cause for a cautious optimism; at least it does not raise unattainable barriers for either party. Taken in isolation from the malaise of absurdity, criminality, and contempt for international obligations, Trump’s apparent push to reduce the amount of nuclear powers in the world is a goal that is worthwhile. Indeed, just as in most other international arenas, its success is largely dependent on how closely the U.S. will uphold the commitments it so vehemently claims to be upholding. North Korea may be among the most hideous regimes of the modern world, but it would give hypocrisy a bad name to use that fact as a hurdle to negotiations. In The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future, Victor Cha concedes that “the only country that can solve the security problem that North Korea poses is the United States. Pyongyang wants diplomatic relations with the world’s superpower, and it wants to be recognized as a normal state without the plethora of U.S. sanctions levied against it. It wants a peace treaty ending the Korean War, and it seeks to be accepted in the community of nations. The key country that can provide these benefits is the United States.” Just to give an idea of the cost of hostility, in return for full denuclearization, the Kim regime would likely want up to $2 billion in economic aid annually, a fraction of the $11.5 billion to which Trump has raised the budget of the Missile Defense Agency, for the purposes of fortifying and expanding “defenses” against the DPRK. How contemporary IR theory, premised in the coherent self-interestedness of states that can hypothetically enter into mutually beneficial international alliances, can account for such irrationality is anyone’s guess.