US Foreign Policy: Misjudging Kim Jong-un

March 16, 2018

US Foreign Policy: Misjudging Kim Jong-un

by John C Hulsman*

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If US President Donald Trump and his advisers continue to assume that traditional deterrence does not apply to North Korea, they are likely to lose the latest geopolitical chess match. History shows that those who mistake their political or military adversaries for lunatics are usually disastrously wrong.

MILAN – Throughout history, political observers have found decision-makers who are deemed “crazy” the most difficult to assess. In fact, the problem is rarely one of psychopathology. Usually, the label merely indicates behavior that is different from what conventional analysts were expecting.

This was surely true of the twelfth-century Syrian religious leader Rashid al-Din Sinan. During the Third Crusade, the supposedly mad “Old Man of the Mountain,” as he was known, succeeded in disrupting a Crusader advance on Jerusalem by directing his followers to carry out targeted assassinations. After carrying out their orders, the assassins often stayed put and awaited capture in full view of the local populace, to ensure that their leader received proper credit for the act.

At the time, such actions were incomprehensible to the Western mind. Westerners took to calling the Old Man’s followers hashashin, or users of hashish, because they regarded intoxication as the only possible explanation for such “senseless” disregard for one’s own physical wellbeing. But the hashashin were not drug users on the whole. And, more to the point, they were successful: their eventual assassination of Conrad of Montferrat led directly to the political collapse of the Crusader coalition and the defeat of Richard the Lionheart of England. As Polonius says of Hamlet, there was method to the Old Man’s madness.

Today, the problem of analyzing supposedly lunatic leaders has reappeared with the North Korean nuclear crisis. Whether North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un is mad is not merely an academic question; it is the heart of the matter.

US President Donald Trump’s administration has stated unequivocally that it will not tolerate a North Korean capability to threaten the mainland United States with nuclear weapons. According to Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, the administration’s position reflects its belief that Kim is crazy, and that “classical deterrence theory” thus does not apply.

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White House Chief of Staff John Kelly

During the Cold War, US President Dwight Eisenhower reasoned that even if Stalin (and later Mao) was homicidal, he was also rational, and did not wish to perish in a US counter-strike. The logic of “mutually assured destruction” that underlay nuclear deterrence worked.

If, however, the leader of a nuclear-armed state is a lunatic who is indifferent to his physical safety and that of those around him, the entire deterrence strategy falls apart. If Kim is insane, the only option is to take him out before his suicidal regime can kill millions of people.

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“Kim Jong-un’s dramatic overture to hold a summit with Trump by May hardly seems to fit the “madman” narrative. In fact, it looks like the act of someone who knows exactly what he is doing.”–John C Hulsman

But is Kim truly crazy, or does he simply have a worldview that discomfits Western analysts? His dramatic overture to hold a summit with Trump by May hardly seems to fit the “madman” narrative. In fact, it looks like the act of someone who knows exactly what he is doing.

Consider three strategic considerations that Kim could be weighing. First, his regime might be planning to offer concessions that it has no intention of fulfilling. After all, an earlier nuclear deal that the US brokered with his father, Kim Jong-il, was derailed by duplicity. In 2002, the US discovered that the regime was secretly enriching weapons-grade uranium in direct violation of its earlier pledge.

In fact, North Korea has demonstrated time and again that it doesn’t play by the rules. It enters into negotiations to extract concessions such as food aid, and then returns to its objectionable activities, thus starting the entire Sisyphean cycle again. There is no reason to think that this time will be different. But the regime’s deviousness should not be mistaken for irrationality or madness. Simply by expressing his openness to talks, Kim has already won some of the political legitimacy he craves.

Second, rather than being a lunatic, Kim seems mindful of recent history. Whereas Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya paid the ultimate price for giving up their nuclear programs, Kim has advanced his regime’s nuclear capabilities and is now publicly treated as a near-equal by the most powerful man on the planet. The Kim regime has always sought such vindication above everything else.

A third and final consideration is that North Korea is playing for time. Though it has agreed to halt nuclear and missile tests in the run-up to the summit, it could be using the intervening months to develop related technologies. For example, it still needs to perfect an atmospheric re-entry mechanism to make its intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of striking the US mainland reliably and accurately. Moreover, as long as the summit is in play, North Korea need not fear a US military strike. That is a perfectly rational and sensible prize for Kim to pursue.

All told, North Korea’s “opening” will most likely amount to much less than meets the eye. But one can still glean valuable strategic insights from Kim’s diplomatic gambit. North Korean thinking reflects cunning, to be sure; but it also betrays the regime’s will to survive, and its desire to master the current situation. This suggests that Kim is not “crazy” after all, and that conventional deterrence will still work, as it has since 1945.

That is good news for everyone, but particularly for the Trump administration, given that it will almost certainly fail to secure any meaningful concessions from North Korea in the upcoming talks.

*John C. Hulsman is President and Co-Founder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a global political risk consulting firm, and the author of To Dare More Boldly (Princeton University Press, 2018).

Rex Tillerson Fired

March 14, 2018

Rex Tillerson Fired

by John Cassidy

In the unique and alarming context of the Trump Administration, Rex Tillerson, the departing Secretary of State, seemed like a stabilizing and independent-minded presence.

In the unique and alarming context of the Trump Administration, Rex Tillerson, the departing Secretary of State, seemed like a stabilizing and independent-minded presence.

On Monday, Rex Tillerson, the departing Secretary of State, cut short a visit to East Africa to fly back to Washington. Before he left, he remarked that the nerve-gas attack recently carried out on a former Russian spy in Salisbury, England, was a “really egregious act,” but he also said it wasn’t entirely clear who was responsible. Later on Monday, though, the State Department issued a statement in which Tillerson expressed his “full confidence” in the British government’s assessment that the Russian state was almost certainly the culprit. (In the House of Commons on Monday, Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, said it was “highly likely” that Russia was responsible.)

“There is never a justification for this type of attack—the attempted murder of a private citizen on the soil of a sovereign nation—and we are outraged that Russia appears to have again engaged in such behavior,” Tillerson’s statement said. “From Ukraine to Syria—and now the UK—Russia continues to be an irresponsible force of instability in the world, acting with open disregard for the sovereignty of other states and the life of their citizens. We agree that those responsible—both those who committed the crime and those who ordered it—must face appropriately serious consequences. We stand in solidarity with our Allies in the United Kingdom and will continue to coordinate closely our responses.”

This was arguably the strongest condemnation of Russian behavior that the Trump Administration has ever issued. And it turned out to be one of Tillerson’s final official acts as Secretary of State. At 8:44 A.M. on Tuesday, Donald Trump announced Tillerson’s firing on Twitter. “Mike Pompeo, Director of the CIA, will become our new Secretary of State,” Trump wrote. “He will do a fantastic job! Thank you to Rex Tillerson for his service! Gina Haspel will become the new Director of the CIA, and the first woman so chosen. Congratulations to all!”

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President Donald Trump and Mr. Mike Pompeo

Some of Trump’s aides immediately insisted to reporters that the President hadn’t dismissed Tillerson because of the Russia statement. Citing multiple White House officials, the Washington Post reported that the White House informed the Secretary of State on Friday that he was going to be ousted. Zeke Miller, of the Associated Press, subsequently filled out this narrative, reporting via Twitter, “WH official says chief of staff John Kelly called Tillerson Friday and again on Saturday. Both calls to Tillerson, the official says, warned that Trump was about to take imminent action if he did not step aside. When Tillerson didn’t act, Trump fired him.” In brief remarks to reporters, Trump said he had been thinking about replacing Tillerson for “a long time,” because “We were not thinking the same.” He also said Tillerson “will be much happier now.”

At least one of Tillerson’s aides pushed back against this White House narrative, however. Elise Labott, CNN’s global-affairs correspondent, reported that Tillerson only found out from Trump’s tweet that he was fired. Josh Lederman, of the A.P., reported, via Twitter, “We got off the plane with Tillerson less than four hours ago. There was zero indication on flight home that this was imminent.” The White House reacted quickly to this counter-narrative. By early afternoon, the White House had fired the aide, Steve Goldstein, who contradicted its version of what had happened.

If Tillerson did know that the President was about to can him, his statement on Russia was perhaps a final act of defiance. On Tuesday, the Russian government again denied responsibility for the attack in Salisbury and said it wouldn’t respond to British claims unless it was provided with samples of the nerve agent used. Trump also spoke with May, finally, and, after the call, the White House issued a statement saying he agreed with her “that the Government of the Russian Federation must provide unambiguous answers regarding how this chemical weapon, developed in Russia, came to be used in the United Kingdom.” However, the statement stopped short of saying Trump agreed with the British assessment that the Russian government was very likely responsible.

It is certainly true that Tillerson’s departure wasn’t entirely unexpected. Although he has avoided criticizing Trump publicly, behind the scenes the former ExxonMobil C.E.O. hasn’t hidden his contempt for the President. Last summer, after Trump gave a wacko speech to the Boy Scouts of America, an organization Tillerson used to lead, Tillerson reportedly came close to resigning. In October, NBC News reported that after a meeting at which Trump called for a tenfold increase in the U.S. nuclear arsenal, Tillerson referred to him as a “moron” in a conversation with other officials. One of the NBC reporters would clarify that Tillerson used the term “fucking moron.”

After those revelations, which Tillerson didn’t explicitly deny, there were frequent suggestions that Trump was considering replacing him with Pompeo, a former Republican congressman. Despite this acrimony, the fact remains that Trump announced Tillerson’s firing barely twelve hours after he had forcefully sided with the British government against the Kremlin. Either Trump decided that Tillerson’s show of defiance was the last straw, or he was oblivious (or indifferent) to the impression that firing him at this juncture would create.

To be sure, there were policy differences between Trump and Tillerson—many of them. In addition to the Iranian nuclear deal, where Tillerson was more supportive than the President, trade and North Korea come to mind immediately. Last week, Tillerson reportedly warned White House officials that Trump’s proposal to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum imports would endanger U.S. national security. On Thursday, just hours before Trump agreed to meet with the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Tillerson told the reporters traveling with him in Africa, “We’re a long way from negotiations.”

Maybe that’s why Trump decided to act now, although it wouldn’t explain why he waited five days and then made the announcement on Twitter. It’s also possible that another factor played into his timing. Early Tuesday morning, the Washington Post reported that Roger Stone, the Republican dirty trickster and longtime Trump adviser, told an associate in the spring of 2016 that “he had learned from WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange that his organization had obtained emails that would torment senior Democrats such as John Podesta, then campaign chairman for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.” This conversation took place “before it was publicly known that hackers had obtained the emails of Podesta and of the Democratic National Committee,” the story also noted.

As Reince Priebus, the former White House chief of staff, told Fox News’s Laura Ingraham, Trump pays a great deal of attention to how the daily news narrative evolves. After the Post’s scoop appeared, other news organizations leapt on it, and Stone’s name trended on Twitter. In all likelihood, the Post’s story, with its implication of possible collusion, would have dominated the day in cable news. But once the news of Tillerson’s firing broke, it slipped down the home pages, and Stone dropped off the trending list.

Whatever really happened, the fact is that Tillerson is gone—the first Cabinet secretary ever to be fired by tweet. Given his effort to gut the State Department, and the departure of many senior diplomats with distinguished careers in the department, Tillerson’s fall likely won’t be lamented in Foggy Bottom, or in many other places. But in the unique and alarming context of this Presidency, he seemed like a stabilizing and independent-minded presence. At least, he wasn’t a Trump flunky or a Bannonite ethno-nationalist.

With Tillerson’s departure so closely following the resignation of Gary Cohn, the former Goldman Sachs executive who served as Trump’s senior economic adviser, the circle around the President is getting even tighter. Pompeo, Tillerson’s replacement, is a Trump loyalist who has tried to downplay Russian interference in the 2016 election. And so it goes on.

John Cassidy has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1995. He also writes a column about politics, economics, and more for

Can Trump strengthen America’s influence in Asia during his visit?

November 4, 2017

Can Trump strengthen America’s influence in Asia during his visit?

by David Shambaugh

David Shambaugh says the region, an economic powerhouse, is vital to US interests and Trump must win over leaders with reassurances of US commitment. Boorish behaviour will not be tolerated.

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As Donald Trump embarks on what the White House describes as the longest visit by a US president to Asia in a quarter of a century (12 days, seven stops, five countries), a very nervous Asia is looking for reassurances of stability and continuity of commitments from him. If Trump sticks to the script – always a huge “if” – prepared by US government staff, countries in the region should be reassured by the outcomes. But if he spontaneously veers off script with provocative language, he could do much damage to regional stability and US interests. Rude behaviour by the president – as he exhibited in Europe earlier this year – will also go down poorly with “face”-conscious Asian leaders and publics.

Despite the symbolically and substantively damaging withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in the first days of his presidency, it must be said that the Trump administration has undertaken some gestures to reassure Asia of continued American commitment. Trump began by meeting Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and China’s President Xi Jinping early in the year, and has remained in close contact with both since.

This was followed by meetings at the White House with the leaders of India, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam. Trump met separately Indonesia’s Joko Widodo and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on other occasions. This is an impressive record of presidential engagement in just 10 months.

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Vice-President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defence James Mattis have also visited Asia on several occasions.

This high-level engagement has been particularly noticeable since the summer. During the first half of the year, there was a palpable American absence across the region – creating a strategic vacuum ready to be filled by China. The past few months of stepped-up engagement has helped assuage nervous governments, particularly in Southeast Asia.

Yet, there remain doubts about the overall strategy and staying power of the US towards the region. The Trump visit will be closely scrutinised for signs of US priorities. Will Trump explicitly reaffirm the five core alliances with Australia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea and Thailand? He is likely to refer to the “free and open Indo-Pacific” region in his speeches, but does this really reflect a change in American strategy? Will he make any commitments to deployments of US military forces in the region?

What – if anything – will he say about significant human rights transgressions in China, Myanmar, North Korea, the Philippines and Thailand? Will he discuss democracy, as all previous American presidents have done? Will he emphasise Southeast Asia and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations as an American priority? Will he speak positively of multilateralism? How outspoken will he be about his “America First” trade and investment agenda? Can the US-China relationship, which steadily haemorrhaged during the Obama administration, be stabilised and improved? What will Trump say about the US-South Korean relationship to reassure Seoul? And perhaps, above all, what will he say about the North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile threats? Asia awaits answers to these and other pressing questions.

Trump visits Asia at a time of change and dynamism across the region. Politically, there is relative stability. Not only are Japan’s Abe, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and China’s party general secretary Xi all fresh from recent elections and possessing new political mandates – but in Southeast Asia, Trump will encounter a similar set of well-ensconced leaders.

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Economically, the region continues to boom. The gross domestic products of China, Japan and India rank among the top 10 nations in the world, while South Korea, Indonesia and Australia all rank in the top 20. Asian economies account for around 40 per cent of the aggregate global economy, are the primary drivers of international GDP growth and account for one-third of global trade volume.

Asia accounts for 66 per cent of global currency reserves, and about 60 per cent of global capital inflows, around US$150 billion per year. Given this economic dynamism, Asia is vitally important for the United States.

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Demographically, Asia comprises 60 per cent of the world’s population. Eight of the world’s 15 most populated nations are in Asia, including the world’s three-largest Islamic nations. Despite the impressive growth in disposable incomes and standards of living across the region in recent decades, 800 million Asians still live on less than US$1 per day.

Given rising regional tensions, the Indo-Pacific region still looks to America as the primary stabilising force

In terms of security, Asia may be the most militarised region in the world. Asia possesses five of the world’s 10 largest standing armies (China, India, North Korea, South Korea and Vietnam), and four nuclear states (China, North Korea, India and Pakistan). Five of the world’s 15 largest defence-spending nations are in Asia. Collectively, regional defence expenditure has increased by more than 60 per cent over the past decade, to US$450 billion in 2016, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, reflecting the rising tensions across Northeast, Southeast and South Asia.

The region is bristling with increasingly sophisticated weaponry as almost all militaries are modernising their forces. Given rising regional tensions, the Indo-Pacific region still looks to America as the primary stabilising force.

It will be interesting to see if Trump takes note of these regional realities in his speeches. He is expected to give three public speeches during the trip – at a joint US-Korean military base, to the South Korean national assembly, and at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum summit in Da Nang, Vietnam.

Trump inherited from Barack Obama an unprecedentedly strong position for the US in Asia. With its “pivot” policy, the Obama administration prioritised Asia as no previous US administration had – while the Trump administration has yet to “brand” its Asia policy, thus far we see prioritisation for a continued strong and influential American role in Asia.

There remain doubts about the depth of the administration’s understanding of the dynamics at work across Asia.
Nonetheless, there remain lingering doubts about America’s and Trump’s commitment to the region, and the depth of the administration’s understanding of the deep dynamics at work across Asia. China, in particular, is seen to be stealing a march on the US – in Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and across the Indian Ocean with its “Belt and Road Initiative”.


While we can expect reassuring rhetoric from Trump during his tour, the US needs to substantively increase its engagement with all Asian societies on a continual basis. Periodic “parachute” visits by US presidents and senior officials, giving reassuring speeches, is not enough. Asians have long witnessed this approach from Washington. After Trump departs, only continuing substantive engagement at both governmental and societal levels will suffice to reassure Asia that America can be counted on.

David Shambaugh is Gaston Sigur Professor of Asian Studies, Political Science & International Affairs at George Washington University in Washington, DC, and co-author of The International Relations of Asia

The Return of the Madman Theory

October 3, 2017

The Return of the Madman Theory

by Nina L. Khrushcheva

Is Donald Trump reviving the “madman theory” of diplomacy, introduced by Richard Nixon to instill fear in America’s adversaries? North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s description of Trump as “mentally deranged” suggests that such a ploy might be working – or else Kim is more right than he, or the rest of us, would like.

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The Games Nixon and Kissinger played in the Cold War Era

MOSCOW – In the 1970s, US President Richard Nixon instructed Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to convince the leaders of hostile communist countries that he could be erratic and volatile, particularly when under pressure. Kissinger, a shrewd practitioner of Realpolitik, saw the potential in this approach, which he readily implemented. With that, the “madman theory” of diplomacy was born.

Nixon was far from mad, though his heavy drinking at the height of the Watergate scandal prompted Kissinger and Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger to establish a way to monitor his control of the nuclear codes. Nixon’s goal in trumpeting his supposed erratic nature was to stoke fear among his foreign adversaries that making him angry or stressed could result in an irrational – even nuclear – response, thereby impelling them to check their own behavior.

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“Often, I will tell friends whose wives are constantly nagging them about this or that that they’re better off leaving and cutting their losses,” he wrote in The Art of the Comeback. “For a man to be successful he needs support at home, just like my father had from my mother, not someone who is always griping and bitching.” 

Today, with Donald Trump leading the United States, the madman doctrine is back with a vengeance. But, this time around, it is far less clear that it’s just an act, and that Trump would not really decide, in a fit of rage or frustration, to attack, or even nuke, his opponents.

Exhibit A in a hearing on Trump’s sanity would have to be his recent address to the United Nations General Assembly, which resembled the lunatic ramblings of Aerys Targaryen, the “mad king” in the television show “Game of Thrones.” Putting his own spin on Targaryen’s infamous line “burn them all,” Trump threatened that the US would “totally destroy” North Korea if it continues to develop its nuclear program.

In the same speech, Trump also savaged the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran. As he spoke, his chief of staff, retired US Marine Corps General John Kelly, who was appointed in July to bring order and a degree of stability to Trump’s White House sanitarium, could be seen with his head in his hands, as if in shock or despair.

Many Americans have perhaps grown desensitized to Trump’s off-the-wall tirades, having endured months of his late-night Twitter assaults on the press, his opponents and fellow Republicans, even his own cabinet members. The famously thin-skinned Trump has shown that, when provoked or insulted, he can be counted on to retaliate.

But, unlike many of Trump’s previous unhinged ramblings, the UN speech was read from a teleprompter, which means that it was vetted ahead of time. Those who thought that the “grownups” in Trump’s administration – Kelly, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster – would keep US security strategy within the bounds of reason might need to think again.

Perhaps the maddest part of all is Trump’s apparent calculation that North Korea’s boy-king Kim Jong-un might cower in the face of his threats. After President Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an “evil empire” in 1983, he was advised not to repeat it, in the interest of improving the bilateral relationship. Recognizing the importance of such an improvement for mitigating the nuclear threat, Reagan followed his advisers’ counsel. The same cannot be said of Trump, who surely has been warned of the dangers of hurling insults like “Rocket Man” at the brutal and inexperienced Kim.

When Nixon adopted his own “mad” persona, he was in some ways drawing on the example of Nikita Khrushchev, my grandfather and Nixon’s adversary during his tenure as US vice president. In the so-called “kitchen debate” of 1959 – one of the Cold War’s weirdest moments – Nixon sparred with Khrushchev in Moscow over the superiority of capitalism over socialism.

A year later, at the UN General Assembly in New York, Khrushchev made quite the appearance. Cuba’s new revolutionary leader Fidel Castro was, as was his wont, flamboyantly issuing extravagant threats. Not to be outdone, “Hurricane Nikita” used every opportunity to stir the diplomatic pot, whistling and banging his fists – and even, allegedly, his shoe – on the desk.

There was abundant evidence that Western powers had been trying to hoodwink the Soviet Union. A U-2 reconnaissance aircraft, which President Dwight Eisenhower had denied existed, had been shot down over Soviet territory. Moreover, the US had demanded that the Soviet Union respect the Monroe Doctrine, which assigned Latin America to America’s sphere of interest, but was unwilling to accept Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe. And it had dismissed a Soviet-initiated disarmament plan, the first official attempt at peaceful coexistence, out of hand.

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When Nixon adopted his own “mad” persona, he was in some ways drawing on the example of Nikita Khrushchev, my grandfather and Nixon’s adversary during his tenure as US Vice President. In the so-called “kitchen debate” of 1959 – one of the Cold War’s weirdest moments – Nixon sparred with Khrushchev in Moscow over the superiority of capitalism over socialism.

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Hurricane Nikita@ The United Nations General Assembly 1960

A year later, at the UN General Assembly in New York, Khrushchev made quite the appearance. Cuba’s new revolutionary leader Fidel Castro was, as was his wont, flamboyantly issuing extravagant threats. Not to be outdone, “Hurricane Nikita” used every opportunity to stir the diplomatic pot, whistling and banging his fists – and even, allegedly, his shoe – on the desk.

There was abundant evidence that Western powers had been trying to hoodwink the Soviet Union. A U-2 reconnaissance aircraft, which President Dwight Eisenhower had denied existed, had been shot down over Soviet territory. Moreover, the US had demanded that the Soviet Union respect the Monroe Doctrine, which assigned Latin America to America’s sphere of interest, but was unwilling to accept Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe. And it had dismissed a Soviet-initiated disarmament plan, the first official attempt at peaceful coexistence, out of hand.

The West, Khrushchev thought, didn’t take him seriously. This is why he acted so outrageously at the UN. He behaved, he explained later, as the early Bolsheviks would: when you disagree with an opponent, you must make your argument loud and clear – and drown theirs with noise.

In 1962, Khrushchev took this approach a step further, testing the young President John F. Kennedy with a “mad” plan to install nuclear missiles in Cuba. The move triggered the Cuban Missile Crisis, the most dangerous standoff of the Cold War. But JFK did not cower, nor did he respond with bluster. Instead, he cleverly ignored Khrushchev’s threats, and instead responded to a letter that showed the Soviet premier as a rational leader negotiating for parity in world affairs. That cool calculation enabled JFK and Khrushchev to defuse tensions, saving the world from nuclear conflict.

The world must now hope that Trump can begin to act as coolly in assessing Kim as JFK was dealing with Khrushchev. Kim responded to Trump’s UN speech by calling him “mentally deranged” and a “dotard.” Either Trump’s madman act is working, or Kim is more right than he – or the rest of us – would like.

Nina L. Khrushcheva, the author of Imagining Nabokov: Russia Between Art and Politics and The Lost Khrushchev: A Journey into the Gulag of the Russian Mind, is Professor of International Affairs and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at The New School and a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute.


North Korea’s Nuclear Brinkmanship: When will it end?

September 26, 2017

North Korea’s Nuclear Brinkmanship: When will it end?

Vinod Saighal, New Delhi
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Analysts across the world have begun to justify North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un’s brinkmanship on the grounds that he is securing the longevity of his regime against any action that the United States (and its allies) might take. As long as Kim knows that China will not join hands with the United States in taking him out, he will keep upping the ante — thumbing his nose, so to say, at the United States.


US President Donald Trump may threaten fire and fury and an unimaginable scale of destruction, but he knows that the United States is on the horns of a dilemma. And now Russia too has come out in opposition to unilateral US action, insisting that dialogue is the only way out.

By the looks of it, Kim is not likely to stop his brinkmanship. But provoking the United States beyond a certain point is likely to invite pre-emptive action. Whatever the nature of a pre-emptive strike by the United States and its two major allies in the region — South Korea and Japan — the destruction that would ensue would, to use President Trump’s words, be unimaginable.

The scale referred to by the US president needs to be spelled out. Ira Helfand, co-President of International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War, published a paper in 2013 on the consequences of a limited nuclear exchange in South Asia. His findings: Chinese winter wheat production would fall 50 per cent in the first year and, averaged over the entire decade after the war, would be 31 per cent below baseline. More than a billion people in China would face severe food insecurity and the total number of people threatened by nuclear-war induced famine would be well over two billion.

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The prospect of a decade of widespread hunger and intense social and economic instability in the world’s largest country has immense implications for the entire global community. These figures — which remain unchallenged — do not take into account the tens of millions of casualties in the countries where the exchange would take place.

If this is the scale of destruction resulting from a limited nuclear exchange, it is not difficult to imagine the scale in a situation where the United States hits North Korea as hard as it can.

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An estimate can also be made of the effects of retaliatory action by North Korea against South Korea and Japan. Suffice to say that the casualties could be in the tens of millions in the first 24 hours and an order of magnitude of that figure, if not several orders of magnitude, over a longer period.

At the time of writing, the principal players remain the United States, North Korea, China, South Korea, Japan and now Russia. What about the remaining nations of the world? There does not seem to be any emergency planning for the survival of countries in the region that would surely be affected by the fallout and those beyond who would be affected over a longer period.

In short, practically nobody gets away unscathed. The situation described has to be taken as possible Armageddon, in worst case scenarios. Hence the ineluctable need for the major players to meet at the UN and find an immediate solution to this grave threat to humanity.

A possible way out would be for the United States, China and Russia to issue a joint ultimatum to the North Korean leader to come to the negotiating table and force him to put a cap on his country’s missile and nuclear production. This would be followed by complete dismantlement over a given period, with verification by the International Atomic Energy Agency and designated neutral country experts.

This would need to be preceded by the three big powers working out the compromises that need to take place between the US and North Korea. The broad outlines of concessions demanded from the United States before the ultimatum to the North Korean leader would include the complete withdrawal of all US forces from South Korea in stages and abrogation of the mutual defence pact with South Korea. Neutrality of the Korean peninsula would need to be guaranteed by China, Russia and the United States and endorsed at a special session of the UN Security Council. The United States would need to pledge to abjure military action against North Korea. Finally, the United States, China, South Korea and Japan would need to pledge a substantial sum, say US$50 billion, for the economic revival of North Korea. No attempt at regime change would be made by the United States or its allies.

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Kim is unlikely to agree to this even if two of his supporters were to join with the United States. Here is where compellance comes in. After authorisation by the UN Security Council, China, Russia and the United States carry out a full-scale blockade of North Korea by land, sea and air. Simultaneously, leaflets would be regularly dropped over North Korea by China and Russia (not the United States) urging the population to force their leader to come to the negotiating table, failing which the army and the people would be urged to topple the leader before complete starvation sets in.

The blockade would be lifted only when neutral observers are allowed to come into Pyongyang to monitor the agreement, and the three powers feel assured that there is no possibility of the North Korean leader reneging on the deal.

As a final step towards peace in the region, the proposal — which is amenable to sensible tweaking — for the demilitarisation of both Koreas would commence, with guarantees of military protection from the major powers.

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President Trump lashed back Friday at North Korea’s leader, calling Kim Jong Un a “madman” whose regime will be “tested like never before” amid new U. S-imposed financial sanctions.

A satisfactory outcome in North Korea would send a salutary message to any country aspiring to take the North Korean route. But the biggest take-away would be the coming-together of the leading powers to ward off the direct threats to humanity.

General Vinod Saighal is the Executive Director of Eco Monitors Society, a non-governmental organisation concerned with demography and ecology.

A version of this article was first published here on The Statesman.

Trump’s tough talk and sophomoric antics wins friends for erudite Hassan Rouhani and Iran

September 22, 2017

Trump’s tough talk and sophomoric antics win friends for Erudite Hassan Rouhani and Islamic Republic of Iran

by Robin

Image result for hassan rouhani quote at ungaIran’s Hassan Rouhani won friends with his Speech at the United Nations General Assembly

“Let me underline one thing that must be self-evident to all in the world,” she (European Union’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini) said. “In this moment, having a nuclear-non-proliferation agreement that is delivering is quite a strategic instrument in the hands of the international community. It’s not an irrelevant part of global security.” She added, “We already have one potential nuclear crisis. We definitely do not need to go into a second one. This is an agreement that prevented a nuclear program. And potentially prevented a military intervention. Let’s not forget that.”–Robin Wright

On Monday, I sat in One U.N. Plaza, the high-rise hotel across the street from the United Nations, and watched a parade of European diplomats head into meetings with Iran’s President, Hassan Rouhani. Boris Johnson, the blond-mopped British Foreign Minister, sauntered through the lobby in deep conversation with his delegation. The new French President, Emmanuel Macron, led by a military officer wearing the distinctive stovepipe kepi, and accompanied by a dozen aides and several photographers, scurried by next. One by one, the Europeans came to confer with the leader of a country that has been ostracized by the outside world, for decades, as a pariah. No longer. The outside world now comes calling on Iran.

During his campaign and since taking office, President Trump has targeted the Islamic Republic with some of his most wrathful language. At his U.N. début, on Tuesday, he called Iran “reckless” and a “corrupt dictatorship” on a “path of poverty, bloodshed, and terror.” He has repeatedly implied that he wants to walk away from the Iran nuclear deal that was negotiated by the world’s six major powers in 2015. As required by Congress, the President must certify every ninety days that Iran is complying with the deal. Trump has certified twice but has indicated that he might change course in mid-October, which would undermine the most significant (whether you like the terms or not) non-proliferation agreement in more than a quarter century.

This week, Trump has taunted the press and tantalized other heads of state with hints about his intentions. On Wednesday, he told reporters (three times), “I have decided.” Asked for details, he said (twice), “I’ll let you know.” Not even the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, could get him to share his decision, the Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, told reporters.

Trump’s tough talk and sophomoric antics may have had the opposite effect of what he intended, however. Across the board, the world’s other major powers, most of America’s closest allies, and the vast majority of governments at the United Nations this week made clear that they favor the deal. They are siding with Iran this time.

Image result for donald trump and benjamin netanyahu at the United Nations

Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu working hand and glove to scuttle to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or J.C.P.O.A deal with Iran. As far as Trump is concerned, all Obama deals are useless. He feels he can do better. Really?–Din Merican

The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, hosted a meeting of the foreign ministers of Iran and the six signatories to the deal—formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or J.C.P.O.A.—late Wednesday. It was the first time that Tillerson had met his Iranian counterpart, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

Afterward, Mogherini was blunt. “The nuclear agreement is working. It’s delivering. It’s functioning,” she told a press conference at the United Nations. Eight reports by the U.N. nuclear watchdog—the most recent of which was released earlier this month—have verified Iran’s full compliance, she said. The consequences of abandoning or scrapping the deal would be costly.

“Let me underline one thing that must be self-evident to all in the world,” she said. “In this moment, having a nuclear-non-proliferation agreement that is delivering is quite a strategic instrument in the hands of the international community. It’s not an irrelevant part of global security.” She added, “We already have one potential nuclear crisis. We definitely do not need to go into a second one. This is an agreement that prevented a nuclear program. And potentially prevented a military intervention. Let’s not forget that.”

Image result for European Union’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini

High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini

In an indirect jibe at Trump, Mogherini noted that the agreement, forged after two years of often tortuous diplomacy, “doesn’t belong to one country.” It was endorsed by a Security Council resolution. “As such, all member states of the United Nations are considered to be bound to the implementation,” she said. “It belongs to the international community.”

In his U.N. address, President Macron also rejected Trump’s view of the Iran deal. “Renouncing it would be a grave error, not respecting it would be irresponsible, because it is a good accord that is essential to peace at a time where the risk of a conflagration cannot be excluded,” he said.

Macron also told a group of journalists in New York that he had been “extremely direct” with Trump when they talked, on Tuesday. “You want to kill it because it is an Obama agreement,” Macron said he argued. “But what else do we have? Nothing. We would be put in the North Korea situation.” During her meeting with Trump, Prime Minister May also reaffirmed Britain’s “strong commitment to the deal” as “vitally important for regional security,” according to a British press release.

Russia and China, which both have strategic, diplomatic, or commercial alliances with Tehran, are two of the signatories, and have long favored making a deal with Iran. The Europeans, who account for all the other major players, are important because they have been in sync with the United States since the Iranian Revolution, in 1979. European nations and the U.S. have been repeatedly burned by Iran in the past, and have similar serious, ongoing issues: Iran’s missile tests, its support for extremists, its human-rights abuses, its detentions of their citizens, and a growing pattern of Iranian intervention in Middle Eastern conflicts, notably in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Yet, for the first time in almost four decades, the Europeans appear willing to break from Washington.

Tillerson said that his first encounter with Iran was “a good opportunity to meet, shake hands.” He added, “There was no yelling. We didn’t throw shoes at one another. It was not an angry tone at all. It was a very, very matter-of-fact exchange of how we see this agreement very, very differently.” Tillerson even offered up a compliment. Iranians, he said, “are a very well-educated, very sophisticated population, so their leaders similarly are well educated, very sophisticated. And Foreign Minister Zarif certainly is in that category.”

Trump’s conflict with Iran boils down to differing interpretations of the second sentence in the preface to the deal—which is to say, it is over eighteen words in a document totaling a hundred and fifty-nine pages. That sentence says that the six major powers and Iran “anticipate that full implementation of this JCPOA will positively contribute to regional and international peace and security.” The Trump Administration charges that Iran has repeatedly violated this sentence in the accord—and, thus, the whole deal.

“Regrettably, since the agreement was confirmed, we have seen anything but a more peaceful, stable region,” Tillerson said, on Wednesday. “The technical aspects” may have been honored by Tehran, he said, “but, in the broader context, the aspiration has not.” That’s the legal framework behind Trump’s “decision of whether we find the JCPOA to continue to serve the security interests of the American people or not.”

The President is also concerned with sunset clauses that allow Iran to eventually resume some activities, ranging from a decade to a quarter century. Mogherini countered that argument, too. She pulled out her copy of the blue-bound text and read the third sentence of the preface, which follows the phrase the U.S. disputes: “Iran reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons.”

I saw Rouhani twice during his three-day stay. The first time was after the parade of visiting foreign leaders finished and he settled in for a session with former U.S. officials, including a former congressman, U.S. think tanks, and journalists. The second was at a press conference after his own speech to the General Assembly, on Wednesday. At both, he was provided U.S. Secret Service protection as a visiting head of state. It was a striking scene—with the agents in their colorful ties and the Iranian delegation tie-less, a symbol of their rejection of Western influence.

Rouhani, a cleric and political centrist who did his doctorate in Scotland, was recently reëlected, in May, with seventy-three per cent of the vote—more than a million votes more than he won in his first election, in 2013. The current Iranian leadership clearly feels more confident in its dealings with the world, after years of officially shunning both East and West—and being shunned in return.

On the U.N.’s global stage, clothed in the white turban and robes of a cleric, Rouhani threw his own zingers back at Trump. “It will be a great pity if this agreement were to be destroyed by rogue newcomers to the world of politics,” he said. “The ignorant, absurd, and hateful rhetoric, filled with ridiculously baseless allegations, that was uttered before this august body yesterday didn’t befit an organization established to promote peace and respect among nations.” He vowed that Iran would not be the first to breach the nuclear agreement.

In mini-summits among leaders in New York this week, there has been a lot of talk about possible compromises, such as keeping the deal but launching new negotiations to extend the timelines of the sunset clauses. On Wednesday, I asked Rouhani if Iran would be willing to change any of the deal’s terms. “The J.C.P.O.A. has been finalized and there’s going to be no return, renegotiation, or changes vis-a-vis this agreement,” he told me. “Most of the time was taken—days and weeks and months of negotiations and dialogue—was spent on dates. Of course the dates we insisted be the shortest possible, and the other side insisted be as long as possible, but in fact we came up with a rational time frame that was agreed upon by both sides. So this agreement is not something that someone can touch. This is a building from the frame of which, if you take out a single brick, the entire building will collapse.”

Rouhani, a former national-security adviser and nuclear negotiator, warned that a U.S. exit from the deal would mean “that our hand is completely open to take any action that we see as beneficial to our country,” including enriching uranium. Given Trump’s language of late, he said, the options are already being intensely debated in Tehran. Iran has long wanted to produce its own fuel for nuclear reactors, as it diversifies its energy sources. The world’s major powers have never trusted Iran’s pledge not to develop a nuclear bomb, whatever its promises. One of the deal’s primary goals is to prevent Iran from transferring its enriched uranium to fuel a bomb.

Rouhani also warned that Trump would pay the bigger price if he officially challenges the deal, noting Washington has the support of only one other leader—Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. More than a hundred and ninety countries stand by the nuclear accord. “If the new officials in the United States believe that the violation of the J.C.P.O.A. will bring pressure on Iran, they are completely and absolutely mistaken,” Rouhani said in the press conference. Globally, he predicted, U.S. diplomacy would become suspect if the Americans walked away from an accord that they had the largest hand in crafting.

Instead, the Iranian leader told a packed press conference, “The position of Iran throughout the world will be stronger and better than before.” That may be a gross overstatement, given the country’s many other policies that are widely considered dangerous for both Iran’s people and the outside world. The regime still holds several American citizens and green-card holders; some, including a former U.N. staffer, have been sentenced to long prison terms for espionage. But Iran was certainly getting a sympathetic ear at the United Nations, where America’s allies were making Iran’s case to the Trump Administration.