The Risk of Nuclear War with North Korea -The New Yorker

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This article from the New Yorker looks at the tensions between North Korea and the United States. It provides a rare glimpse into the internal workings of the insular state. Along the way it also raises some important issues about brinksmanship as a foreign policy and the strategy of deterrence.

Quoting Thomas Shelling one of the founders of American strategic thought, brinksmanship is the art of “manipulating the shared risk of war.” It involves creating a crisis or escalating a crisis with the expectation that one’s opponent will back down. Basically, it’s a game of chicken. In theory, it is a rational game played by rational actors, making careful calculations about the other side’s interests and the level of their aversion to escalation and possibly conflict. That being said, “…they may compete to appear the more irrational, impetuous, and stubborn.” Given the nature of the two leaders involved, Donald Trump & Kim Jong Un, the article correctly goes on to ask, “what if the adversaries are irrational, impetuous, and stubborn?”

The article also raises deeper questions about brinksmanship and deterrence, though. For these strategies to be employed without producing a disaster, there has to be a clear understanding of the other side’s interests and red-lines. Regardless of the specific leaders in place, this article suggests that neither side really understands the other.

  • US on North Korea: “Experts can’t say definitively why Kim wants nuclear weapons. Are they for self-defense, as North Korea claims, or will Kim use them to achieve the unfulfilled ambition of the Korean War—forcing reunification with South Korea? A senior Administration official told me that members of Trump’s national-security team are not convinced that Kim will stop at self-protection. “There are fewer and fewer disagreements about North Korea’s capabilities now, and so then, inevitably, the question of their intentions becomes critical,” he said. “Are they pursuing these weapons in order to maintain the status quo on the Peninsula, or are they seeking to fundamentally alter the status quo?””
  • North Korea on the US: “… I asked Pak what he and other North Koreans thought of Trump. “He might be irrational—or too smart. We don’t know,” he said. They suspected that Trump’s comment about “fire and fury” might be part of a subtle strategy. “Like the Chinese ‘Art of War,’ ” he said. “If he’s not driving toward a point, then what is he doing? That is our big question.”
  • Even China struggles to understand their neighbor: “In 2008, when Kim Jong Il suffered a stroke, Randal Phillips, a senior C.I.A. officer overseeing operations in Asia, met a Chinese counterpart to share analyses, as they sometimes did. But Phillips discovered that Chinese intelligence “didn’t know what was happening,” he told me. “I think the Chinese know a hell of a lot less than people assume.” Compared with other American adversaries, North Korea is the “hardest target,” Terry said. “There’s no other country that’s like that,” she told me. “It’s just pieced together.”
  • To make things worse, the North Koreans are deliberately obtuse: “We must envelop our environment in a dense fog,” Kim Jong Il once said, “to prevent our enemies from learning anything about us.”

 

Deterrence also requires effective communication, and as the article illustrates, the two sides have not been good at messaging each other. The following discussion provides a perfect example of how not not to communicate in the context of deterrence:

“So is he going to launch them or not?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Pak said. “It depends on whether the United States sends another nuclear asset, like a B-1B, over the Korean Peninsula.”

“Does the U.S. know that’s the determining factor?” I asked.

“We haven’t told them! But they should know, because we said they should not send any further ‘nuclear provocations.’ ”

For those familiar with the 1960s Cold-War satire, Dr. Strangelove, it is eerily similar to the miscommunication that leads in the movie, to nuclear Armageddon.

 

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/09/18/the-risk-of-nuclear-war-with-north-korea

‘Why let ’em in?’ Understanding Bannon’s worldview and the policies that follow. – Washington Post

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The description of Bannon’s Islamophobia and general callousness is pretty much par for the course. There has been so much written on the Trump administration’s moral bankruptness that it is impossible to keep up with it all. This article digs a little deeper into Bannon’s psyche and his preoccupation with a particular understanding of the concept of “sovereignty”.

Bannon’s “worldview, which….laid out in interviews and speeches over the past several years, hinges largely on Bannon’s belief in American “sovereignty.” Bannon said that countries should protect their citizens and their essence by reducing immigration, legal and illegal, and pulling back from multinational agreements.”

This goes beyond typical realist thinking in its xenophobia and the belief that the “United States and the “Judeo-Christian West” were in a war against an expansionist Islamic ideology”. Further distancing himself from traditional realism, even ultra-hawkish realism, is his belief that this cultural threat is so pressing, it takes precedent over balance of power politics and the US’ deteriorating relationship with Russia:

“However, I really believe that in this current environment, where you’re facing a potential new caliphate that is very aggressive that is really a situation — I’m not saying we can put [Russia] on a back burner — but I think we have to deal with first things first,” Bannon said.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/bannon-explained-his-worldview-well-before-it-became-official-us-policy/2017/01/31/2f4102ac-e7ca-11e6-80c2-30e57e57e05d_story.html?postshare=1711485989417561&tid=ss_mail&utm_term=.b50125428f6a

 

THE MIND OF DONALD TRUMP -The Atlantic

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The Atlantic has published a long, detailed psychological analysis of Donald Trump. All psychological profiles have to be taken with a (very) big grain of salt, especially when they are not based by direct interviews and clinical observation, which is the case here. However, it does give an interesting overview of how some political scientists and psychologists see the relationship between personality and decision making.  Don’t read it as the definitive word on Trump’s personality, but rather as an interesting example of an approach to studying political leadership.

According to the author, it attempts to “draw from well-validated concepts in the fields of personality, developmental, and social psychology” and use theories about how “fundamental features of human personality—such as extroversion and narcissism—shaped the distinctive leadership styles of past U. S. presidents, and the decisions they made. The intent is to “create a psychological portrait of the man. Who is he, really? How does his mind work? How might he go about making decisions in office, were he to become president? And what does all that suggest about the sort of president he’d be?” Along the way, it also refers to other presidents to provide contrast and comparison.

There are actually some positive comments in this article, though the overall theme is very negative. It begins by referring to an article written in the late 1990s for The New Yorker Magazine by Mark Singer, which concludes that Trump “had managed to achieve something remarkable: “an existence unmolested by the rumbling of a soul.”

The article focuses on 4 dimensions of personality. I have edited down the text to hit the main points.

  1. Disposition, which is measured in terms of 5 character traits:

Extroversion: gregariousness, social dominance, enthusiasm, reward-seeking behavior

Neuroticism: anxiety, emotional instability, depressive tendencies, negative emotions

Conscientiousness: industriousness, discipline, rule abidance, organization

Agreeableness: warmth, care for others, altruism, compassion, modesty

Openness: curiosity, unconventionality, imagination, receptivity to new ideas

  • “dispositional personality traits may provide clues to a president’s decision-making style. Research suggests that extroverts tend to take high-stakes risks and that people with low levels of openness rarely question their deepest convictions.”
  • “The psychologists Steven J. Rubenzer and Thomas R. Faschingbauer, in conjunction with about 120 historians and other experts, have rated all the former U.S. presidents, going back to George Washington, on all five of the trait dimensions. George W. Bush comes out as especially high on extroversion and low on openness to experience—a highly enthusiastic and outgoing social actor who tends to be incurious and intellectually rigid. Barack Obama is relatively introverted, at least for a politician, and almost preternaturally low on neuroticism—emotionally calm and dispassionate, perhaps to a fault.”
  • “Across his lifetime, Donald Trump has exhibited a trait profile that you would not expect of a U.S. president: sky-high extroversion combined with off-the-chart low agreeableness.”
  • “Because he is not burdened with Bush’s low level of openness (psychologists have rated Bush at the bottom of the list on this trait), Trump may be a more flexible and pragmatic decision maker, more like Bill Clinton than Bush: He may look longer and harder than Bush did before he leaps. And because he is viewed as markedly less ideological than most presidential candidates (political observers note that on some issues he seems conservative, on others liberal, and on still others nonclassifiable), Trump may be able to switch positions easily, leaving room to maneuver in negotiations with Congress and foreign leaders. But on balance, he’s unlikely to shy away from risky decisions that, should they work out, could burnish his legacy and provide him an emotional payoff.”

 

  1. Mental Habits:
  • “Cognitive-science research suggests that people rely on personal schemata to process new social information efficiently and effectively. By their very nature, however, schemata narrow a person’s focus to a few well-worn approaches that may have worked in the past, but may not necessarily bend to accommodate changing circumstances. A key to successful decision making is knowing what your schemata are, so that you can change them when you need to.”
  • “Trump’s focus on personal relationships and one-on-one negotiating pays respect to a venerable political tradition. For example, a contributor to Lyndon B. Johnson’s success in pushing through civil-rights legislation and other social programs in the 1960s was his unparalleled expertise in cajoling lawmakers. Obama, by contrast, has been accused of failing to put in the personal effort needed to forge close and productive relationships with individual members of Congress.”

 

  1. Motivations (Narcissism)
  • “Asked to sum up Trump’s personality for an article in Vanity Fair, Howard Gardner, a psychologist at Harvard, responded, “Remarkably narcissistic.” George Simon, a clinical psychologist who conducts seminars on manipulative behavior, says Trump is “so classic that I’m archiving video clips of him to use in workshops because there’s no better example” of narcissism. “Otherwise I would have had to hire actors and write vignettes. He’s like a dream come true.”
  • “In a 2013 Psychological Science research article, behavioral scientists ranked U.S. presidents on characteristics of what the authors called “grandiose narcissism.” Lyndon Johnson scored the highest, followed closely by Teddy Roosevelt and Andrew Jackson. Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Nixon, and Clinton were next. Millard Fillmore ranked the lowest. Correlating these ranks with objective indices of presidential performance, the researchers found that narcissism in presidents is something of a double-edged sword. On the positive side, grandiose narcissism is associated with initiating legislation, public persuasiveness, agenda setting, and historians’ ratings of “greatness.” On the negative side, it is also associated with unethical behavior and congressional impeachment resolutions.”

 

  1. Self-Conception
  • Trump’s story “is akin to what the great 20th-century scholar and psychoanalyst Carl Jung identified in myth and folklore as the archetypal warrior. According to Jung, the warrior’s greatest gifts are courage, discipline, and skill; his central life task is to fight for what matters; his typical response to a problem is to slay it or otherwise defeat it; his greatest fear is weakness or impotence. The greatest risk for the warrior is that he incites gratuitous violence in others, and brings it upon himself.”
  • “…presidents create in their minds personal life stories—or what psychologists call narrative identities—to explain how they came to be who they are. This process is often unconscious, involving the selective reinterpretation of the past and imagination of the future. A growing body of research in personality, developmental, and social psychology demonstrates that a life story provides adults with a sense of coherence, purpose, and continuity over time. Presidents’ narratives about themselves can also color their view of national identity, and influence their understanding of national priorities and progress.
  • Victories have given Trump’s life clarity and purpose. And he must relish the prospect of another big win, as the potential GOP nominee. But what principles for governing can be drawn from a narrative such as his? What guidance can such a story provide after the election, once the more nebulous challenge of actually being the president of the United States begins?”
  • “Donald Trump’s story—of himself and of America—tells us very little about what he might do as president, what philosophy of governing he might follow, what agenda he might lay out for the nation and the world, where he might direct his energy and anger. More important, Donald Trump’s story tells him very little about these same things.”

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/06/the-mind-of-donald-trump/480771/?utm_source=eb

 

A Moral Guide to Serving in the Trump Administration -War on the Rocks

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This article exams the dilemma facing many Americans involved in national security policy: boycott the Trump administration or remain engaged so policy making is not dominated by those who lack experience, competence, or reason. The question is particularly salient now under Trump. However, it is a question that many people have had ask themselves when thinking about any government: Will I make things better, or will politics make me worse?

“Some people will have no problems accepting positions in the Trump administration with nary a second thought. But there are many others out there who have deep concerns and are asking themselves questions that they may never have considered before any other newly arriving administration, regardless of party. These public servants must now pause to think about their personal moral and ethical boundaries — what administration decisions or policies would be so personally unacceptable that they would feel required to resign.

It is impossible, of course, to know exactly what President-elect Trump will do once in office….. Nevertheless, Trump’s wide array of troubling comments mean that every responsible public servant should think about just what level of affront to their principles would simply be too much to tolerate — when choosing to serve or remaining on the job means becoming an enabler to policies or actions that they find deeply unethical or immoral. And this will not be a one-time choice. It will be an ongoing calculation throughout the entire administration, a decision that must be revisited repeatedly, week after week as new policies and decisions unfold.”

The article goes on to identify 7 seven questions any public servant needs to ask themselves before agreeing to work for the Trump administration. Here they are in an abridged form:

  • “Do you believe that your service will help improve policies and decision-making? ….or at least prevent some truly bad decisions from happening?
  • Do you believe that the policies or values that you find objectionable are rooted primarily in the new administration’s inexperience and lack of knowledge or in its core ideology? If you believe the former, then the case for serving is stronger, since you can help educate the new team. But if you believe that the administration is operating more from an ideology that fundamentally violates your deeply held beliefs (such as promoting torture or indiscriminate bombing), then the moral decision bends the other way.
  • Who specifically will you work for? …Will they act as a bulwark of decency, shielding you and your colleagues — and maybe even the country — from the worst of politics going on above your pay grade?
  • Are the people you most respect choosing not to serve for a principled reason? Or, if later in the administration, have they resigned for cause? In each case, do you know what factors shaped their decisions? How does their logic align with or differ from your thinking? Understanding their experiences can serve as useful guideposts.
  • When would choosing not to serve (or to leave government) do more to advance the ideals and values you believe in most? How will you carry your commitment to principle into action from the outside? If you elect not to serve now, what might change your mind? Who would you find sufficiently principled to work for that might convince you that serving is the right thing to do?
  • If you choose to serve (or to stay), how frequently do you plan to reassess your decision? Failing to do so runs the risk of the “boiling frog” syndrome, where every small uptick in the water temperature, or new policy that modestly erodes that which you deeply believe in, becomes slowly, inexorably acceptable until the whole is invisible and no longer objectionable.”

On a side note: the discussion not only tackles the moral dilemma, it also highlights the degree to which there has been consensus up until now in American foreign policy making circles:

“Unlike our counterparts who work on domestic policy, national security practitioners have long enjoyed a largely bipartisan consensus about the core principles of what makes America strong and secure: an open, liberal international order guaranteed by American leadership and power. Democrats and Republicans have fought long and hard about specific policies for decades, but those arguments have, for the most part, been about ways, not ends — how to best realize broadly shared principles, not whether they were the right principles in the first place.”

A Moral Guide to Serving in the Trump Administration

The Donald Trump Scenarios -Aleph Insights

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Since Donald Trump’s election there has been a great deal of uncertainty about what happens next. Most US presidents have either shared a similar understanding of politics and the presidency, or surrounded themselves with people who have that same mainstream perspective. Trump actually appears to be different. He has no experience with governance, he is mercurial, he has questioned the established pillars of US foreign policy and he has openly flirted with fringe/extremist political movements. While his cabinet is still a work in progress, many of the names being bandied around are from outside the mainstream. It therefore cannot be assumed that he will be a “regular” president, tamed by the office like so many erstwhile political mavericks before him.

This article provides a series of narrative sketches that provide possible scenarios for the future. Narrative sketches are not predictions. Rather they are ways to flesh out the way different political factors can come together to shape events. In the opinion of the authors, the key factors, or ‘drivers’ are the following:

“President Trump’s personality and leadership style, his economic policy focus, his social policy focus, his international trade policy focus, external political events and trends, domestic political events and trends, US social cohesion and unrest, and violent extremism. Yes, that’s more-or-less ‘everything’ but that’s what you might expect: the US is an important, highly-connected, country.”

based on variations in those drivers, they have arrived at the following 5 scenarios:

The focal point of each of these scenarios is of course, ‘The Donald’. But its not just about Trump’s personality. It is also about the world around Trump and how his administration reacts to it. How does the Republican establishment react to him? How does the US and global economy fair? What kind of opposition does he face outside of the Republican party? And, what kind of random events are going to pop up in the international area?

Again these are not predictions, but they are food for thought.

http://blog.alephinsights.com/2016/11/the-donald-trump-scenarios.html

Iran’s Guards using Trump victory to claw back power -Reuters

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This article makes a common argument. Hardliners on one side of a rivalry are good thing for the hardliners on the other side -at least as long as things don’t get totally out of hand. Although I don’t think the IRGC lost quite as much power after the nuclear deal as this article suggests, I do agree with its basic premise:

“Trump and the Islamic State militants were gifts from God to the IRGC,” said a senior official within the Iranian government, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity like other figures contacted within Iran.

“If Trump adopts a hostile policy towards Iran or scraps the deal, hard-liners and particularly the IRGC will benefit from it,” a former reformist official said.

This article also marks the creation of a new tag on this blog: “Trump”….

http://www.reuters.com/article/us-iran-politics-guards-idUSKBN13G1NB

Trump versus the Iranian nuclear deal -Middle East Monitor

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This is a short article I wrote about Donald Trump’s promises to change the US’ position on the nuclear deal with Iran. To make a long story short, its not a good idea.

Trump versus the Iranian nuclear deal

What American Credibility Myth? How and Why Reputation Matters -War on the Rocks

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The concept of reputation is central to classical realist thought. States are not just judged by their capabilities but also their willingness to use them. Demonstrating resolve was therefore considered to be a key part of deterrence during the Cold War, for example. The threat of using nuclear weapons was only credible if the state and its leaders had a reputation for keeping their word. Similarly, alliances only worked, it was believed, if a state’s promise to protect its friends was reliable. If not, one’s allies would quickly look for new friends.

The issue of cost is also something to be considered when discussing reputation. Reputation was particularly important when it came to making costly or unpopular decisions. It is one thing to keep your word when it does not cost anything or if its the popular thing to do, but what about when it is not. Will a leader walk the walk when the price is “blood and treasure”?

The reputation question has been raised several times under the Obama presidency. First, he drew a line in the sand, so to speak, in Syria. He promised to intervene if the Syrian government used chemical weapons. When they did, Obama did not follow through. He allowed the Russians to broker a deal in which the chemical weapons were removed from Syria, but no punishment was levied against that Assad regime. Second, Obama struck a deal with Iran concerning the latter’s nuclear program. The problem here, Obama’s critics claim, is that undermined the US’ reputation among its allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Neither state feels it can continue to trust Washington, and the Saudi’s in particular have builyt up their military and become much more assertive in the region. Clearly they are no longer willing to trust the US to bail them out, or at least, so its argued.

The reputation argument however, is more complex. This article argues that reputation is often overstated and used for partisan rhetorical purposes, such as the criticisms levied at Obama. However it also argues that reputation should not be dismissed. Rather, context needs to be considered.

  • “…..the idea that Americans can safely discount reputation remains equally problematic. The importance of reputation varies for different countries and is most important for those that possess widespread commitments and interests, such as the United States. American leaders must worry about potential challenges in multiple theaters: Asia, the Middle East, and even Europe. Like Britain before it, the United States has the ability to concentrate its military at many points to deter aggression by, for example, Russia against the Baltics, North Korea against South Korea, China against Japan, and Iran against Israel. It cannot concentrate forces everywhere simultaneously, however. A strong reputation that deters initial challenges thus reduces the probability that the United States ends up confronting more simultaneous challenges than it can hope to manage, as Britain did as its empire dissolved.”
  • “At the same time, this conclusion implies that we should expect to see leaders vary in the importance that they attach to reputations for resolve. In an ongoing research effort, one of us found significant variations among American presidents in their concern about reputation for resolve. While President Carter resisted repeated calls from National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski to fight for reputation, President Clinton repeatedly invoked reputational considerations in his decision-making during crises. In contrast, President Obama said that “dropping bombs on someone to prove that you’re willing to drop bombs on someone is just about the worst reason to use force.” To explain this variation in leaders’ concern for reputation for resolve, one must look beyond situational or strategic factors to focus instead on the psychological dispositions and beliefs of national leaders.”

 

What American Credibility Myth? How and Why Reputation Matters

Shimon Peres -Various

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Shimon Peres died at age 93 this week. He was one of the founding fathers of the Israel state and held virtually every key government post at one time or another, President, Prime Minister, Minister of Defense, Foreign Minister and the list goes on. There are links to two articles below, one positive from the Globe and Mail, and one negative written by Robert Fisk. They are not included in an effort to produce balance. More so, they are included to provide a glimpse into the man’s complex and at times contradictory career. He has been one of Israel’s most consistent advocates for a political solution to Israel’s conflict with the Arabs and the Palestinians. He is also widely praised for his role in the 1990s peace process and he was critical of the violence that followed its failure. However, his views were ‘hawkish’ when he was young and he supported the settlement project in the 1970s. He also ordered the 1996 invasion of Southern Lebanon (Operation Grapes of Wrath) and presided over the shelling of civilians in the UN compound of Qana. Observers tend to focus on on dimension of his career or the other, but both sides were integral to who he was.

Shimon Peres, guiding hand behind Israel-PLO peace pact, dies at 93

“…the middling politician and accidental prime minister was a true champion in another arena that shaped the history of modern Israel. Mr. Peres was the guiding hand behind the historic peace agreement signed between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization in 1993. And while that agreement so far has failed to lead to an independent Palestinian state and a peace treaty between it and Israel, the Oslo Accords, as it is known, remains the starting point for any two-state solution to this long-standing conflict.”

“As early as 1980, his “Gaza first” solution proposed returning the Gaza Strip to Arab control. And he had conceived a grand outline that would see the Middle East remodelled on the European Community, complete with a common market.

He also recognized that in the early 1990s, following the Gulf War, there was a real opening. In his book The New Middle East, he wrote: “We had reached one of those rare critical junctures that enable discerning statesmen to make a quantum leap in their thinking – and perhaps turn the tide of history.”…”

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/former-israeli-pm-shimon-peres-dies-at-93/article32097484/

 

Shimon Peres was no peacemaker. I’ll never forget the sight of pouring blood and burning bodies at Qana

“When the world heard that Shimon Peres had died, it shouted “Peacemaker!” But when I heard that Peres was dead, I thought of blood and fire and slaughter.

I saw the results: babies torn apart, shrieking refugees, smouldering bodies. It was a place called Qana and most of the 106 bodies – half of them children – now lie beneath the UN camp where they were torn to pieces by Israeli shells in 1996. I had been on a UN aid convoy just outside the south Lebanese village. Those shells swished right over our heads and into the refugees packed below us. It lasted for 17 minutes.

Shimon Peres, standing for election as Israel’s prime minister – a post he inherited when his predecessor Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated – decided to increase his military credentials before polling day by assaulting Lebanon. The joint Nobel Peace Prize holder used as an excuse the firing of Katyusha rockets over the Lebanese border by the Hezbollah. In fact, their rockets were retaliation for the killing of a small Lebanese boy by a booby-trap bomb they suspected had been left by an Israeli patrol. It mattered not.”

http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/shimon-peres-dies-israel-qana-massacre-never-forget-no-peacemaker-robert-fisk-a7334656.html

Syria ceasefire deal explained -al Jazeera

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Here is a basic rundown of the September 2016 ceasefire deal in the Syrian conflict, courtesy of Al Jazeera:

  • “A nationwide ceasefire by Assad’s forces and the US-backed opposition is set to begin across Syria at sundown on Monday.
  • That sets off a seven-day period that will allow for humanitarian aid and civilian traffic into Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, which has faced a recent onslaught.
  • Fighting forces are to also pull back from the Castello Road, a key thoroughfare and access route into Aleppo, and create a “demilitarised zone” around it.
  • Also on Monday, the US and Russia will begin preparations for the creation of a Joint Implementation Centre that will involve information sharing needed to define areas controlled by the Jabhat Fateh al-Sham group (formerly known as al-Nusra Front) and opposition groups in areas “of active hostilities”.
  • The centre is expected to be established a week later, and is to launch a broader effort towards delineating other territories in control of various groups.
  • As part of the arrangement, Russia is expected to keep Syrian air force planes from bombing areas controlled by the opposition. The US has committed to help weaken Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, an al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria that has intermingled with the US-backed opposition in several places.
  • A resumption of political dialogue between the government and opposition under UN mediation, which was halted amid an upsurge in fighting in April, will be sought over the longer term.”

For more details on the deal see: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/09/syria-ceasefire-deal-explained-160910111132967.html