We need another grand bargain with North Korea

We need another grand bargain with North Korea

This article also appeared in The Diplomat and on the EastWest Institute’s blog

On Monday, the Democratic Republic of North Korea lobbed five short-range missiles into the Sea of Japan, continuing its series of provocative missile launches that began with alleged nuclear tests on January 6.

Many commentators have interpreted recent North Korean aggression as part of a pattern of provocation to attract international attention, a trend that has led some experts to call for outright regime change. Others augur that the regime will collapse under the weight of its own internal contradictions, making the Obama administration’s adoption of “strategic patience” the best alternative.

These knee-jerk reactions reflect the Bush-era pattern of slamming the brakes on the possibility of negotiations rather than incrementally managing misbehavior under existing frameworks, only to ignite wildfires of instability (like in Iraq) and return to future bargaining tables with weaker positions (like with North Korea).

They also smack of wishful thinking: predictions of collapse have attended North Korea through two successions of power, famine, and sanctions, and yet the nearly 70-year-old regime still stands. The belief in “collapsism,” as Jong Kun Choi at Yonsei University in Seoul dubs it, leads to strategic postures that demonstrably aggravate North Korean brinkmanship while producing few constructive results.

An alternative interpretation is that, for Kim Jong-un, national prestige is as much about preserving the affluence of his political cadre as it is about the elite status of possessing nuclear weapons, a view supported by his own rhetoric. On this view, he is not flouting international norms despite mounting pressure from all sides—if historical precedent has any relevance, he is likely doing so precisely because he wishes to exchange nuclear concessions with his neighbors and the US for energy, food, and money. This arrangement is exactly what his two predecessors pursued for more than a decade during both the Clinton and Bush administrations.

He doesn’t want nukes to bomb San Francisco. He wants them as bargaining chips.

Critics of engagement point to erratic North Korean behavior and past failed deals as evidence that engaging the regime is inevitably fruitless. Yet Clinton’s 1994 Agreed Framework and Bush’s 2005 Six-Party Talks led to concrete successes, like moratoria on plutonium enrichment and ballistic tests. A top official under Clinton claimed they had been “tantalizingly close” to clinching another deal ending the regime’s missile program.

Arguably, North Korean duplicity is not the only reason those attempts ultimately failed. When the US and its allies drag their feet on upholding their end of deals—like waiting five years to build promised reactors or delaying fuel shipments—it regrettably lends credence to North Korean intransigence. And when the regime exhibits appalling misbehavior, the US has historically succumbed to “shattering” deals instead of building on them.

Now that North Korea has explicitly rescinded its signatures to international nuclear nonproliferation agreements and tested four nuclear weapons to date, the challenge is to determine what constellation of conditions can coax the recalcitrant regime into rejoining the Six-Party Talks. It has vehemently refused to do so until the US drops “preconditions” about the renewal of the regime’s denuclearization commitments of 2005. How do you convince a state to hand over what it perceives to be the basis of its survival?

The latest rounds of sanctions from Congress and the UN Security Council make some ground toward making that precondition a de facto reality. And arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis recently argued in Foreign Policy that minor concessions for North Korea’s space launch program—such as agreements that launched rockets will be non-ballistic, liquid-fueled, and “peaceful”—would provide leverage for a potential nuclear deal and, at the very least, be a better alternative to helplessly watching the regime develop a highly sanctions-resistant missile program.

As Michael O’Hanlon at Brookings suggested recently, maybe it’s time to abandon morally pristine policies that are failing and rethink what is realistic. Today, the climactic international pressure incited by North Korea presents an opportunity for the United States to once again kickstart the “engine of denuclearization” by letting Kim opt for quid pro quo concessions over aggression while saving face both at home and abroad. Let him play his nuclear cards, not by blowing them up, but by surrendering them for gradual economic and political normalization. It is not an ideal approach, but it may be the best.

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Thoughts on Kissinger’s “World Order”

Thoughts on Kissinger’s “World Order”

This article also appeared in Slant News on January 14, 2016 as “This is the Book Every Serious Presidential Candidate Must Read” and in the EastWest Institute’s blog on January 20. 

On January 6, the DPRK claimed to have conducted its first thermonuclear weapons test, a military exercise that would be its fourth nuclear test since its withdrawal from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 2003. Perhaps ironically, North Korea justified its actions with references to national sovereignty, the central premise of the very Westphalian world order it defies. “This test is a measure for self-defence the DPRK has taken to firmly protect the sovereignty of the country,” the government announced afterward. Yet the ruling family’s Communist trappings obviously contradict the very notion of statehood.

North Korea is not alone, of course. As Kissinger points out in World Order, major nations such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and China repeatedly invoke Westphalian principles in a subterfuge undermining the international system. Russia and China seek to rebuild their historical empires while rhetorically trafficking in the language of raison d’état. Saudi Arabia and Iran foster jihadist projects with civilizational aspirations while fully leveraging their political status as nation-states to do so, whether covertly or overtly.

And, as Kissinger points out, the United States itself paradoxically joins the ranks of Westphalia’s critics. From a US perspective, the genius and success of the Westphalian system—its procedural, almost amoral pluralism—stands quite at odds with the American liberal philosophical inheritance and unique historical experience. The US has struggled from its conception with an ambivalence about world order: which takes precedence, a pluralism of states with divergent political systems or the seemingly self-evident universalism of democracy and human rights? US foreign policy is a pendulum swinging between answers to the dilemma.

This fundamental ambivalence defines the US position in the contemporary open, rules-based international order, of which the US is both the chief architect and great skeptic. G. John Ikenberry at Princeton argues that the US resembles an Hobbesian sovereign with Lockean characteristics—the arbiter of the post-1945 world order because of its power but the world’s champion of freedom because of its history. For Ikenberry’s “liberal Leviathan,” or what Jefferson called the “empire of liberty,” multilateral institutions are indeed instruments for American hegemonic interest. But unlike other empires, the American interest pulses with respect for human dignity. The result is a world order based on a conception of legitimacy forever teetering between national sovereignty and individual freedom.

As North Korea’s test demonstrates, that order is changing. While the post-Soviet unipolar world evolves into a multipolar one with competing centers of gravity, the Western notion of legitimacy—and Western power—no longer dominates the international system. The so-called emerging BRIC nations, the “Asian Tigers,” the Arab Islamic world, and other global regions with little or no philosophically liberal roots pose, at best, alternatives to the American liberal order. At worst, they seek to directly subvert it.

The great political project of the twenty-first century will be, not conquering those systems, but cooperating with them to avert deadly great-power competition and to pursue common goals of security, peace and prosperity. As Kissinger remarks,

A reconstruction of the international system is the ultimate challenge to statesmanship in our time. … The contemporary quest for world order will require a coherent strategy to establish a concept of order within the various [global] regions, and to relate those regional orders to one another. … The goal of our era must be to achieve that equilibrium while restraining the dogs of war.

Perhaps President Obama’s defense on Tuesday of liberal internationalist achievements, such as the Iranian nuclear deal and TPP, is exactly what the President of the United States of America should be saying. Whoever takes his place next January, the world will be a better place if the myopic strongmen dominating the public debate today take a backseat to wise statesmen who, in the spirit of Kissinger, try to balance competing visions of world order to make the world a safer place.

Human rights advocates cannot call for military intervention

Human rights advocates cannot call for military intervention

As the threats of civil war deepen in central and eastern Africa, Libya, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, the question of military intervention to stop or prevent mass atrocities looms as large as ever in the public debate. The US-led coalition against ISIL has already conducted more than 9000 airstrikes against the terrorist statelet, the US military is reversing its military drawback from Afghanistan, and the UN has more than 40,000 uniformed peacekeepers in sub-Saharan Africa.

For human rights advocates, these military engagements—which range from peacekeeping to coercive peace enforcement to outright belligerent intervention—present thorny moral quandaries. Can organizations dedicated to peace take sides in an armed conflict? Can they trust that Western governments and intergovernmental organizations will actually wage war (or enforce rule of law) on the global periphery with sufficiently humanitarian goals? Can they ever set atrocity thresholds to trigger such military interventions? Can they responsibly endorse particular military operations over others? Can they realistically anticipate the potential costs and benefits of such interventions? Can they identify the local voices actually representing victims threatened by mass atrocities? Can they really determine that all plausible non-military alternatives have been exhausted?

Answering these questions may be impossible, yet their urgency is irresistible when countless lives hang in the balance. Military intervention, as blunt and unwieldy a cudgel as it is, may in certain circumstances be the only way to bring war criminals to their knees and mass atrocities to a grinding halt. At the same time, such intervention is also almost certain to set in motion a chain of unintended consequences for which human rights NGOs hardly wish to take responsibility, such as counter-ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and anarchic disintegration in Libya.

These theoretical difficulties are virtually insurmountable. In fact, they suggest that the very formulation of the question is wrong. It is not an agonizing dilemma. It is an absurd one.

Bill Keller, former executive editor of the New York Times, drove straight to the heart of the problem in an op-ed following the international controversy surrounding Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng in 2012. Human rights advocates are “heroic,” he lauds—but they are also frustratingly difficult. “They moralize. They don’t compromise. They don’t know when to shut up. They don’t see the Big Picture.” His classically realist critique of the human rights movement is worth quoting at length:

But the most expert of these advocates understand (at least when the microphones are off) that America operates in the real world: that our influence over the internal abuses of other countries is limited; that it’s easier to condemn a relatively inconsequential regime than one that provides us with oil or military bases; that humiliating leaders of countries like China may strengthen the hand of hard-liners; that sometimes quiet diplomacy is more effective than a public rebuke.

Keller’s candid assessment illuminates some of the fundamental limits of the modus operandi popular in the human rights community. Naming, shaming, calls for economic and political sanctions, and threats of international criminal prosecution are its traditional tools. These have one element in common: punishment. From embarrassment to outright judicial conviction, leading human rights NGOs seek to curb violations of international human rights and humanitarian law through exclusively punitive advocacy.

Yet a much wider range of measures exist to prevent deadly conflict, some of which involve elements expressly antithetical to the human-rights ethic, such as amnesty for war criminals or economic and political incentives aimed at oppressive governments. Human rights NGOs nearly universally reject any non-punitive measures as forms of acquiescence to oppression.

And military intervention is, by definition, the epitome of punishment. Inherent in their very methodology is a dark logic that compels human rights organizations dedicated to peace to travel down the spectrum of punitive advocacy until they arrive at full-blown war.

The Libya campaign in 2011 demonstrated this paradox with tragic clarity. As many commentators have noted, the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya rapidly morphed from a minimal civilian-protection mission into an outright seven-month campaign for regime change.  Writing in July of that year, journalist David Rieff characterized the Obama administration’s justification for intervention as moralistic posturing that belied its true goals. It was not simply a “humanitarian intervention,” Rieff argued. It was war. And war “is not police work, not armed humanitarianism, not human rights activism with an air force.” NATO’s elected means (ousting Gaddafi) and its purported ends (protecting civilians) were simply incompatible.

Rieff indicates the obvious contradiction at the heart of so-called humanitarian intervention. Humanitarian ends are, in a basic sense, fundamentally at odds with war. War by its nature has certain goals incongruent with the humanitarian goals of saving lives, providing relief, rehabilitating the displaced, and rebuilding institutions. War aims to subdue the enemy by destroying lives and property. Inevitably, pairing such ill-suited means and ends generates absurdities such as killing innocent people, allying with dubious armed rebel groups, destroying infrastructure, violently polarizing political communities, and toppling governments wholesale in the name of “human rights.”

Regardless, it is possible that such measures are sometimes warranted. But if the propensity to support violent intervention is built to such an alarming extent into the DNA of human rights organizations, there is a strong case that they lack the moral credentials to advocate for such interventions at all. For human rights professionals primarily committed to shaming, sanctioning, and prosecuting, using the protection of human life to justify military intervention is inherently disingenuous. Abandoning the bulk of the peacebuilding toolkit a priori on the basis of a punitive methodology ironically forces the sword into the hand of the human rights activist while robbing her of the credibility to wield it.