Show Hide image

Why is British sex education so terrible?

My solitary sex ed lesson took place when Britain had one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in Europe. The overwhelming focus was on how to avoid getting yourself knocked up.

Illustration: Michelle Thompson/Handsome Frank

My one and only sex education lesson at secondary school involved a white-haired deputy head teacher, a jumbo pack of condoms and a large bottle of baby oil. Mr Wise – by name but perhaps not by nature – felt that addressing a group of post-pubescent adolescents on the topic of sex would be less humiliating if a bit of humour was injected into proceedings, especially as rumour had it that most of the kids in the class were already engaging in acts which, for his generation, might have been considered “niche”.

Thus we were all instructed to blow up the prophylactics, which we duly did in the hyperactive, bulgy-eyed manner of those balloon animal men you encounter at children’s parties (that is, as if we were freaky cast members of The League of Gentlemen), and then slathered them with baby oil. This led to the condoms bursting and coating the already shiny, oily faces of the assembled Year Tens in a thin film of yet more shiny oil, but nonetheless it did serve as a lesson to us on the importance of never using oil-based lubricants with condoms.

My solitary sex education lesson took place when Britain had one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in Europe (as it still does). The overwhelming focus was on how to make sure you didn’t go and get yourself knocked up, which as far as we were taught meant remembering that you were not to substitute K-Y Jelly for other liquids. Getting pregnant, we were told, was The Worst Possible Thing That Could Ever Happen To You, and we believed it, even though a couple of girls in the year below seemed to be coping all right and had loads of help from their mams.

I don’t remember being told about any of the contraceptive options other than condoms (my mum took me to the doctor when the time came to go on the Pill), and abortion came up only during RE as part of a classroom discussion chaired by an extremely Christian teacher who seemed to think that an attractive wall display featuring pictures of fully developed foetuses juxtaposed with quotes from the Bible was the way to approach the subject. As for the morning-after pill, in our rural community, it was easier to get your hands on Ecstasy. The word I would use to describe my experience of sex education is “patchy”. And sadly, from talking to the generation below mine, it seems very little has changed.

The latest National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles shows that we are having more sex than ever. The average number of sexual partners for British women has risen from 3.7 in 1990-91 to 7.7 in 2010-2012, and from 8.6 to 11.7 for men. The research, based on a representative sample of over 15,000 Britons aged 16 to 74, also found that a third of men and women aged 16-24 had had underage sex, and that across all age groups one in six pregnancies is unplanned. Most shockingly, one in every ten women reported that she had been subjected to sex against her will and of these women only 42.2 per cent had told anyone about it. Just 12.9 per cent went to the police.

Despite such findings, coupled with a rising moral panic about internet pornography, slut-shaming, the sexualisation of children and sexting, a British schoolchild is still most likely to encounter the topic of sex as part of a statutory science lesson informing you that “human beings and other animals can produce offspring and those offspring grow into adults”.

Germany has had sex education on the curriculum since 1970 and it has been mandatory since 1992. This includes teaching children not just about the biology of reproduction (though the course is very thorough – some schools even give details of sex positions), but also about sexual violence, abortion, child abuse and various forms of contraception. In Sweden, sex education has been mandatory since 1956 and is usually incorporated into lessons from the age of seven onwards; some schools instruct children from age five or six. The Netherlands, which has one of the lowest teen pregnancy rates in the world, made sex education compulsory in primary and secondary schools in 2012.

In June 2013 the Labour MPs Stella Creasy, Sharon Hodgson and Lisa Nandy put forward a proposal to make sex and relationships education (SRE) part of the National Curriculum, and particularly information on the issue of sexual consent. “In a world of Snapchat, Chatroulette, sexting by ten-year-olds and UniLad, little wonder many are worried about the messages the modern world gives about what is acceptable in relationships,” Creasy wrote. She stressed that “putting sexual consent on the agenda in our schools is vital to empowering young people to make healthy and respectful choices for themselves and each other when it comes to extracurricular activities”.

Creasy said she hoped the proposed reforms would be “uncontroversial”. Disappointingly, the amendment to the Children and Families Bill which would have made sex education compulsory was defeated in both the Commons and the Lords.

Despite Creasy’s efforts, the most up-to-date legislation concerning how we are taught about reproduction is in the Education Act 1996 and the Learning and Skills Act 2000: from an era before most of the big social networks were dreamt of.

Maintained (state) schools must teach some parts of sex education, with a focus mostly on the mechanics (for instance, the biological aspects of puberty, reproduction, the spread of viruses and so on), and no such obligation exists for academies. Michael Gove’s championing of free schools has complicated matters, the schools’ relative autonomy essentially making them a law unto themselves. In an echo of the Tories’ homophobic Section 28 legislation, the free school model funding and academy model funding agreements stipulate that the schools “ensure that children at the Academy [be] protected from inappropriate teaching materials and . . . learn the nature of marriage and its importance for family life and for bringing up children”.

In 2012, a Channel 4 sex education film for primary schools called Living and Growing, which showed cartoon characters having sex in different positions, was withdrawn following complaints that it resembled “a blue movie”. The previous year, the Daily Mail had run an article complaining about explicit teaching materials, under the headline “Is this what you want YOUR five-year-old learning about sex?”, drawing attention to several apparently objectionable and pornographic books for children. One of them (Let’s Talk About Sex by Robie Harris) explained an orgasm, quite sweetly, as “a gentle tingly sort of tickle that starts in your stomach and spreads all over”. In the same book, curiosity about members of the same sex was described as “a normal kind of exploring”.

When teaching materials are being restricted in schools where sex education is mandatory, what is the likelihood of free schools and academies tackling sex education progressively?

“The problem with free schools and academies is that we have seen how easy it is to lose oversight of them. Look at al-Madinah [the Derby free school placed in special measures in 2013],” says Melissa Benn, the journalist and author of What Should We Tell Our Daughters?. “Given that free schools and academies do not have to have trained teachers at all, it’s likely that this problem will get worse.”

State comprehensive schools are at least required to cover the scientific basics. The more general sex and relationships education, which covers the emotional aspects of sexuality, should “equip children and young people with the information, skills and values to have safe, fulfilling and enjoyable relationships and to take responsibility for their sexual health and well-being”, according to the Family Planning Association.

In practice this seldom happens, as Simon Blake of the young people’s sexual health charity Brook explains. “SRE in schools is patchy in quality and continues to be too little, too late, and too biological,” he says. Even then, it is not compulsory in state schools but is contained within the non-statutory personal, social and health education (PSHE) recommended by the National Curriculum, together with such titillating topics as “leisure and tourism” “enterprise” and “citizenship”.

Essentially, the sexual education of any British child is at the mercy of his or her individual school and the teaching professionals within it.

At my comprehensive in north Wales, it was a modular, haphazard affair, the unpredictable rotation of the subjects and teachers leaving entire classes of pupils to roam the corridors like disorientated lemmings, without a clue where they should be going or who should be supervising them. I was lucky enough to avoid the “parenting” module (an appropriate moniker, considering that by leaving age 10 per cent of my year group would be parents), which I suspect was probably intended to fulfil the SRE recommendations. This class involved an ill-fated “flour baby” experiment, an American import whereby pupils were required to draw a face on a bag of flour, name it and carry it around for an entire week as though it were a real baby. It resulted in mass infanticide.

Photo: Corbis

A schoolfriend of mine fondly recalls how she left her flour baby in the care of a classmate while she nipped to the loo during history. She returned to find the baby disembowelled: it had been stabbed repeatedly with a gel pen, and its white entrails lay liberally scattered across the desk. Another “baby” met its end by being thrown from the top deck of the double-decker school bus by its father’s mates, while another classmate returned for the final lesson having baked hers into fairy cakes stored in Tupperware (she’s now a young mum with a cake-baking business).

The experiment, during which flour fights broke out all over the building, with Year Sevens liberally coated in the stuff and drifts accumulating like snow in the maths corridor, was a lesson in how not to teach children about the consequences of unprotected sex. I had always assumed that my school, which once had to recall hundreds of out-of-date tampons that had been handed out to us in “goody bags”, was simply a little bit rubbish. It wasn’t until I started talking to other people about their own experiences of sex education that I realised mine was not an isolated case.

I’ve heard tales of stuttering and embarrassed teachers, strange anthropomorphic VHS cartoons and contradictory, often scientifically inaccurate advice about pubes – and that’s from those who, like me, were lucky enough to receive a single, 50-minute lesson. A straw poll of Twitter (what better way to reach out to the other digitally literate twenty- and thirtysomething casualties of the state education system?) uncovered hilarious and disturbing tales of inaccuracy and incompetence, ranging from a teacher who conducted an entire lesson while obscured behind a screen, through one who said that it was wrong to have more than one sexual partner in a lifetime, to another who showed assembled pupils a video that announced, “Some of your bits ain’t nice.”

Common complaints – in a real-life parody of the infamous sex education scene from Tina Fey’s film Mean Girls (“Don’t have sex, because you will get pregnant, and die”) – included being made to watch videos of women giving birth, or being shown enormous, zoom-focus slides of the pus-ridden symptoms of sexually transmitted diseases, both of which seemed to preclude any discussion of the act itself (perhaps for ever, judging by how traumatised some of the participants seemed).

With the exception of a friend of mine whose attractive young female teacher, later sacked, opened the lesson by saying, “Look, girls, I have had many, many lovers, so ask me anything you like,” almost everyone recounted sex education lessons pervaded by an air of embarrassment, most frequently on the part of the teachers.

This led me to question whether teachers are the right people to be imparting such important information to the next generation of sexually active young adults. Judging by the number of my acquaintances, past and present, who have never discussed sex with their parents, that category of grown-ups cannot be relied on, either.

But what about volunteers? The national voluntary organisation Sexpression:UK has 28 branches at universities and runs workshops for young people to talk about sex. Most of its volunteers are trainee medics. Nick Batley, who is training to become a nurse at King’s College London, thinks this is one of the most effective methods of sex education. “We are closer to the pupils’ age; it wasn’t that long ago that we were going through the same things,” he says. “Also, we’re trained to do this. At KCL, we train around 50 new volunteers a year, and having someone who is trained and clearly enthusiastic about the task is far better than an underprepared teacher who is a bit embarrassed and doesn’t really want to be there.” He adds: “I still cringe whenever I think of the fact my newly qualified English teacher had to teach me about ‘golden showers’.”

Melissa Benn agrees. “I think this whole part of the curriculum should be taught by people coming in from outside. It is not good enough to have a supply teacher or underemployed physics or PE teacher brought in to put a condom on a banana . . . This needs people trained to know how to talk about it, deal with diverse cultures [and] manage all the overt silliness that accompanies such a tricky, delicate, complex area.”

Another common complaint was that the sex education had come far too late, by the time many of the pupils were already sexually active (nowadays, the children will almost certainly have been exposed to pornography). I remember being horrified at age 13,when a girl informed me in the loos that she had been fingered by an older boy. I knew roughly what the process involved, but couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to go through such an ordeal, or what they might enjoy about it, yet some of the kids were doing it. Even the most explicit teenage magazines such as Bliss and J-17, ordinarily so vocal on such subjects as discharge or “funny feelings down there”, were silent on this topic. I remember my mother being somewhat perturbed when she found I’d been reading a magazine that explained in detail what 69’ing was, but where else would I have got the information from, save the playground? My parents were unusually open about matters of reproduction but there were still certain things I’d be too embarrassed to ask them about.

Sex had been a whispered topic of discussion at school ever since I was seven, when I was asked if I was a virgin and, imagining it was something horrible and responding with a disgusted “No!”, I was met with looks of horror. By the time I was 15 I was in the grip of my first pregnancy scare. I had been put on the Pill, but a local doctor put the fear of God into me by telling me that unless I was doubling up with condoms as well, I almost certainly would get pregnant. Thankfully I managed to pluck up the courage to speak to my lovely dad, who calmly reassured me that a pregnancy would not mean an end to my life and that he loved babies and would happily look after mine if I wanted to go to university. Eventually I went to the school nurse to find out if I was packing heat, so to speak, and discovered an orderly queue of young women in a similar predicament outside her door. I wasn’t pregnant – but any sex education at that point would have been far too late coming.

Because of this, it did not surprise me when one young woman described how, during a sex education lesson, a female classmate of hers had put the condom on the plastic penis prop using only her mouth. When you leave a generation of young women to source their sexual information from Cosmo and Eurotrash, what do you expect? Now that youngsters are turning increasingly to pornography as their main point of reference for everything sexual, it’s safe to assume that they’ll already be clued up on the mechanics, not to mention everything from “anal” to “milfs” to “cream pie”. A scene from Beeban Kidron’s 2013 documentary InRealLife shows two teenagers giving her a run-through of all the various types of porn. “Rough sex,” says one, “is like, manhandling a girl around.” Suffice to say, a lesson that stops at a diagram of a vagina just isn’t going to cut it any more.

Although magazines were perhaps the most helpful sources of information available to teenage girls in the 1980s and 1990s, they had their limitations. Much of their advice seemed to boil down to: “Now listen, little lady. One of these days, a man is going to try and have sex with you, and you’re not to be pressured into it. Here’s how to say no.” A useful bit of counsel, certainly, but there was no advice on what to do when really you wanted to say, “Yes, yes, yes!” And what if you wanted to consent to sexual activity with someone of the same gender?

The teaching of consent is one of the most important aspects of a young person’s sex education, and I don’t mean just implying that sex is something that men want and women acquiesce to, but teaching young people of both genders what “yes” and “no” can look like.

There are some excellent resources online showing how to tell if someone is uncomfortable with an intimate situation (for instance, if they say “I don’t like it” or “That hurts”, or if they look frightened) yet there still seems to be a great deal of confusion about what constitutes rape. A 2010 survey conducted by the sexual assault referral agency the Havens found that only 77 per cent of young men between the ages of 18 and 25 (against 92 per cent of young women) thought that having sex with someone who had said “no” constituted rape. And now that porn has taken over from teen magazines as the medium through which teenagers glean information about sex, proper education is needed more than ever, especially because in some kinds of pornography consent can seem a grey area.

It’s hard to predict what the impact on the next generation will be, but as someone who runs a frank blog for young women, The Vagenda, I am hearing, anecdotally at least, that seeing a woman struggle or resist sex constitutes “foreplay” in the minds of some boys and I hear young women expressing anxiety at being expected to mimic certain acts.

One of the lads from InRealLife, a 14-year-old called Ben, describes how the girls who agree to do such things are immediately labelled “slags”. Film footage or images of young girls stripping or performing sexual acts which were then “sexted” to their boy of choice have in some instances been distributed among the student body – or, worse, used to blackmail the girl into further sexual activity.

In the very worst cases, this leads to suicide. Teenage girls remain the group most at risk of abusive relationships; the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children found that a third of girls aged 13-17 have experienced physical or sexual violence in relationships. Women’s Aid says 18 per cent of 16-to-18-year-olds are unsure whether slapping counts as domestic violence. And in 2002 the Department of Health said that at least 750,000 children a year were witnessing domestic violence at home. Teaching both genders what a healthy relationship looks like is a matter of some urgency.

Justin Hancock, who runs the sex education website Bish Training, says that students are crying out for this. “What they really feel was lacking from their sex and relationships education was any relationships education at all,” he tells me. “They want to know how to make relationships work, how to argue, how to negotiate independence and togetherness, how to deal with big-time feelings, how to deal with friends with benefits, what a coercive or abusive relationship looks like, how to start relationships, how to end them . . . in short, they want to learn what many of us want to learn.”

Why have there been so many setbacks in making sex education a part of the National Curriculum, when young people are insisting that they need it so much? I wonder if there’s a feeling that if we don’t teach children about sex they won’t find out about it – an unrealistic hope, in a world of smartphones and internet porn.

I imagine that the hysterical right-wing newspaper articles about putting 13-year-old girls on the Pill and making toddlers watch porn are also persuasive to some people, but then neither does any minister want to champion sex ed and end up being known as Mr or Ms Banana Condom. “No government has wanted to touch it, because it’s a bit of a political hot potato,” says a source at the Department for Education. “There’s no way they can make any changes at all to it without pissing off one demographic or another. The Claire Perrys and Nadine Dorrieses of the world [both Tory MPs] seem hell-bent on keeping any desperately needed progress in that area at bay. Plus Govey’s education reforms giving schools the freedom to govern themselves mean it’s not impossible that there are children in school now who might never receive adequate sex education.”

On 28 January, the House of Lords rejected the bill amendment backed by Stella Creasy that would have made SRE – including teaching about same-sex relationships – compulsory in schools. It received the support of 142 peers but 209 voted against it after it failed to pass in the Commons. The basic Tory position is that sex education is at the discretion of individual schools: the children’s minister Liz Truss argues, “Teachers are best placed to understand the needs of their pupils and do not need additional central prescription.” Her Liberal Democrat coalition partners disagree – as Nick Clegg told a Terrence Higgins Trust event in January, “All the people around the cabinet table don’t quite see eye to eye on this, but I am absolutely clear that we haven’t modernised the guidance. We need to do so . . .” The shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, has also condemned Gove’s department for “dragging its feet”; the Education Secretary’s response is that “changing social mores” will only make any updated guidance instantly obsolete.

But the battle isn’t over. The forces ranged against Gove are varied, and strong. As Maggie Jones, a shadow education spokeswoman in the Lords, told me: “The Girl Guides, Mumsnet, the head teachers, the Mothers’ Union and many other campaign groups [are] calling for the education guidance on sex and relationships education to be updated.” She adds, “We are failing young people if we don’t give them the insight and skills to navigate the internet, social media and smartphones safely. It seems that Michael Gove and [the schools minister] Lord Nash are stuck in the last century and increasingly isolated on this issue.”

I am inclined to agree. Gove, a man who seems to embody the “some of your bits ain’t nice” sex ed philosophy more than any other minister, may want teenagers to send love poems to one another rather than sexy selfies, but what about fingering, or the morning-after pill, or even the dangers of using baby oil as lubricant? If children don’t get their information about sex from school, they won’t magically lose all their curiosity; they’ll just find out in the playground, or from porn. All of a sudden Mr Wise, with his condom balloons, is starting to seem quite the revolutionary.

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is the co-author of “The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media” (Square Peg, £12.99)

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a writer for the New Statesman and the Guardian. She co-founded The Vagenda blog and is co-author of The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Peak Ukip

Edel Rodriguez for New Statesman
Show Hide image

Rehearsing for war

From the Middle East to North Korea, Donald Trump is reasserting US military strength and intensifying the rivalry among the great powers.

As Vice-President Mike Pence arrived in South Korea from Washington on Sunday, he announced that the “era of strategic patience”, in which the US sought to monitor and manage the nuclear threat from North Korea without pushing the matter for fear of escalation, was over. “President Trump has made it clear that the patience of the United States and our allies in this region has run out and we want to see change,” Pence declared. The heat under a crisis that had already been bubbling ominously was turned up another notch.

Much has been written in recent years about the stability provided by the post-1945 world order and the dangers of letting it crumble. The conflict in Korea provided the first big test of that order almost 70 years ago, but the difficulty was never really resolved. It remains the proverbial “wicked problem” in international affairs, “frozen” in an obsessively monitored and deeply uneasy stalemate, demarcated by the Demilitarised Zone: a line 160 miles long and roughly two and a half miles wide scored across the middle of the Korean Peninsula, drawn with superpower supervision in 1953. Partition has allowed a strong and ­successful state to flourish in the South while the North has survived in a state of ­arrested development.

The problem has been passed down from generation to generation because attempting to solve the issue risked opening a Pandora’s box. The risks included the unleashing of huge military force, potential world war and a refugee crisis on a scale that could severely destabilise even China. By the 1990s, it was clear that the North Korean regime had fastened upon another strategy for survival as the Cold War passed into history and its sponsors in Beijing and Moscow began to question the value of such an ally: the acquisition of nuclear warheads. Pyongyang has long had the firepower to flatten Seoul in a matter of hours. The mission since has been to develop its missile technology to carry that material as far as possible – certainly to Japan, but ideally also to the west coast of the United States.

The day after Pence’s announcement, the US and South Korea undertook a joint air and army exercise to ensure readiness in the event of an attack from the North. This followed a joint naval war game earlier in the week and the US decision to send a navy group led by the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, which Donald Trump described as an “armada”, to the region. No sooner had the fleet appeared than Japanese sources reported that it had been followed by Chinese and Russian submarines as it entered North Korean waters. Such are the great-power manoeuvres of the 21st century – whether on air, sea or land – in which the world’s most potent military machines shadow the moves of their competitors, and openly rehearse for war.

***

Asia has not had a major inter-state war since the 1970s but it is not immune from the tragedies of power politics that have beset other rapidly developing parts of the world. Across the region, military spending is rising fast as states jostle in anticipation of a changing balance of power.

The purpose of Pence’s Asia-Pacific tour is to offer reassurance to America’s allies in the region, which have been watching the rise of China, in particular, with trepidation. The stark change of tone emanating from the White House – and change of gear – has been noted. After years of steady consistency in US grand strategy, there is a sense of a building crisis and the Americans are being watched in anticipation of their next move more closely than they have been scrutinised in many years.

Before he left South Korea, Pence also visited Panmunjom, where the 1953 armistice was signed at the end of the Korean War, as well as Camp Bonifas, a UN military compound near the Demilitarised Zone, set up to monitor the ceasefire that followed. It is an eerie echo from the past that Pence’s own father served in the war that divided the country. Edward Pence was awarded the Bronze Star on 15 April 1953 for heroic service. The vice-president proudly displays the medal, and a photo of his father receiving it, in his office. He is no doubt aware of the costs of a conflict in which an estimated 36,000 of his countrymen were killed.

Just over a thousand British soldiers also lost their lives in the Korean War after being sent to fight in a joint UN force. But it was far more deadly still for the peoples of the Korean Peninsula, killing more than a million people, including 400,000 troops for the People’s Volunteer Army, among whom was Mao Anying, the eldest son of Chairman Mao, the leader of the Communist Party of China and protector of the North.

History throws up strange parallels. When the Korean War began in 1950 it was understood to be the first serious test of the international system established after the Second World War. It is striking just how many of the same ingredients remain, including the identity of some of the main protagonists. On 25 June 1950, a border conflict between North and South Korea escalated into full-scale war when Kim Il-sung’s Korean People’s Army – backed by China, and with the tacit support of the Soviet Union – invaded the Republic of Korea in the south, claiming that it represented the legitimate government of all Korea. This is a claim that the regime of his grandson Kim Jong-un has not abandoned to this day.

Two days after the invasion, on 27 June, the UN Security Council voted to send a joint force, under General Douglas MacArthur of the US, the former supreme commander of Allied forces in the south-west Pacific area, to protect the sovereignty of the South and repel the invaders. Much more was at stake than the question of territorial integrity or preserving international law. By bringing the Americans into confrontation with the Chinese – and with the Russians seen to be the steering hand in the background – the conflict had all the ingredients for rapid escalation.

From the start, there were concerns that the Americans might overdo the brinkmanship, even under the cautious leadership of Harry Truman. Fears that the self-confident MacArthur would exceed his brief were confirmed when the UN forces pushed back into North Korea in October. In response, the Chinese Communists, who believed that MacArthur had designs on China itself, flooded across the Yalu River in their tens of thousands.

It was in the autumn of 1950 that the danger of another world war, this one involving nuclear weapons, reached its peak. On 28 November, after a grave reverse for the UN forces, MacArthur stated that the advent of 200,000 Chinese had created “an entirely new war”, with much higher stakes than before. Suddenly, the prospect that the US might resort to using an atomic bomb against the North Koreans, or even the Chinese forces, seemed plausible.

While the nuclear scare passed, the war rumbled on towards an ugly stalemate over the next three years. A temporary solution of sorts was found with the 1953 armistice. But there was no resolution to Korea’s frozen war. In a way that no other totalitarian state has managed, the North zipped itself into a hermetically sealed chamber, preserving a three-generation dictatorship that is both comically anachronistic and frighteningly modern in its missile technology.

***

Some of this complicated backstory was explained to Donald Trump by China’s president, Xi Jinping, during his recent visit to the United States. Trump – who had been pressuring China to do more to deal with the North Korean regime – appears to have been receptive to what he heard.

“After listening for ten minutes,” he said, “I realised it’s not so easy.”

This is the first critical test of the “new era in great-power relations” which Xi has been floating for a number of years, but Trump has now decided to put to the test. According to Trump’s most recent tweets, Beijing has continued to work with the US on the North Korea problem. He has welcomed its contribution but insisted that America’s own willingness to deal with the problem does not depend on China. In other words, there is no master plan being played out here, even if – as seems credible – America did hack North Korea’s latest missile launch to make it a damp squib.

The Trump administration is not creating the conditions for a new long game, building a fresh multilateral consensus to contain the North Korean threat. Instead, with a newfound sense of momentum serving as a tail wind, it senses a moment to “solve” one of the longest-running and most treacherous problems in international affairs. It has decided, at the very least, to severely clip the wings of Kim Jong-un’s regime. And in doing so, it has set out to demonstrate that when America speaks, it speaks with effect.

Like much current presidential policy, “the Trump doctrine” is being made on the hoof. Much of the hyperactivity of the past month or so was not scripted but emerged in response to overt challenges – beginning in Damascus and panning to Pyongyang – to the United States and the “red lines” it has laid down in the past. One foundation stone of Trump’s approach to the world is firmly in place, however: the willingness to reassert US military power with swift and decisive effect. The idea that the “America First” slogan implied anything resembling isolationism is crumbling. The growing sense that it does imply unsentimental and unvarnished power politics in the name of the US interest rather than multilateral niceties is closer to the truth.

Under Barack Obama, the US sought to withdraw from those areas in which he felt that the US had overstretched itself under his predecessor. Obama opted for a more rapier-like and cost-effective form of power projection. He drew down from formal military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, while presiding over a huge uptick in drone warfare, cyber capabilities and selective but deadly use of special operations. Much of the full range of US power was submerged in various “secret wars”, and the diplomatic compass was reset to pivot east. This was because, as a legacy of the 9/11 attacks, national security was geared towards the containment of an elusive and amorphous enemy – various offshoots of the global jihad movement – that operated on the periphery of America’s radar.

But the real metrics of great power are those now on display off the coast of North Korea. For all the advances in drone technology, the missiles that cause the gravest threats to humanity are those on the scale that the North Korean regime is attempting to build. Trump’s test was one that a president of the United States would have to face sooner rather than later.

Not since Ronald Reagan has the US been so willing to engage in naked displays of its own military potency in quick succession – and seek to gather diplomatic yields from them as swiftly as possible. The past fortnight brought a missile attack on an airbase manned by the Assad regime – changing the tenor of US-Russian relations overnight – and the dropping of the so-called Moab (“mother of all bombs”) on an Isis affiliate in Afghanistan. The latter was a far cry from the “clear, hold, build” counterinsurgency operations in vogue half a decade ago. But it did fit with a campaign promise by the new president that he would “bomb the shit out of Isis” should the opportunity arise.

Does this fit into a wider pattern or constitute a new approach? The Trump administration is eager to leverage any opening that might have been created. In Seoul, Pence wasted no time in joining the dots: “the world witnessed the strength and resolve of our new president in actions taken in Syria and Afghanistan”. North Korea, he continued, “would do well not to test his resolve, or the strength of the armed forces of the United States in this region”.

It is the generals who have increasingly set the tone for Trump’s foreign policy. During the 2016 election campaign, he promised to give the Pentagon more leeway than it had under Obama to focus on “winning”. The new national security adviser, H R McMaster, and the defence secretary, General James Mattis, are now the steering hands.

Neither man has followed the rather crass and short-sighted fashion for running down diplomacy. Mattis once said that if the state department budget was cut, he would need more ammunition. McMaster is an urbane thinker who knows that the use of force must always be carefully calibrated and is just one tool in a continuum of factors. In this respect, it is a problem that so many jobs in the state department remain unfilled. Now that muscle has been flexed, the experienced negotiators and diplomats should be flooding through the door.

***

The policy of “strategic patience” was based on an understandable calculation. But, in hindsight, it does appear that North Korea has suffered from neglect. Mitchell B Reiss, one of the most experienced diplomats who led efforts on North Korea in the 1990s, notes that, despite unprecedented co-operation between the US and China in recent weeks, including open threats of economic pressure and military action, they were still unable to prevent North Korea from testing ballistic missiles on 16 April. Even though the missiles exploded immediately after lift off, “The failure of Washington and Beijing to stop the test in the first place has important implications for the Trump administration’s future policy options and for stability in north-east Asia.”

In Reiss’s view, it is “highly unlikely that the North can be cajoled, threatened or given incentives to surrender its nuclear weapons”. The uncomfortable truth is that “short of regime change, which could inflame the entire Korean Peninsula in war”, the US cannot halt the North’s nuclear weapons programme. But that does not mean there are no options. Slowing the pace and raising the costs would be “prudent steps”. More, too, could be done, Reiss says, to “interdict imports of sensitive technologies, to sanction Chinese and other nationals who act as purchasing agents for the nuclear and missile programmes, and to punish Chinese banks that help finance these programmes through so-called secondary sanctions”.

In the end, so much comes down to US-China relations. Could this be the basis for a reset and a new accommodation between Beijing and Washington? How much further is China willing to go to use its leverage on the North, which depends on it for energy and food? And how patient will the Trump administration be if its new strategy does not yield tangible results of the sort that are sometimes elusive in the long and often open-ended game of deterrence? 

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer and the author of “Realpolitik: a History” (Oxford University Press)

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book, Realpolitik: A History, is published by Oxford University Press.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

0800 7318496