Italy celebrate winning the World Cup in Berlin, July 2006. Photo: Getty
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The last World Cup: after Brazil 2014, is the tournament finished?

Football is a supreme instrument of soft power and can unite people as little else can. But allegations of Fifa corruption have tarnished the image of the beautiful game. Can anything be done to save it?

The imagination is always at the end of an era.

Wallace Stevens

In the spring of 2006 I was working on the Observer when, one quiet afternoon, the editor, Roger Alton, called out to me across the newsroom: “Jase, d’you fancy going to the World Cup?” This was a question to which, if you liked football, the answer could not be “no”. Alton was an inspirational editor. He combined charm with just a hint of menace. He was menacing because capricious and unpredictable. But it was his very unpredictability that made him such a good editor – this and his high intelligence, which he tried to disguise by speaking in a kind of hectic demotic. The writer Geoff Dyer once described him to me, accurately enough, as being like a “cross between an Oxford don and a London cabbie”.

There was no budget for me to go to the World Cup in Germany but Alton sent me all the same for five thrilling weeks. I’m pretty sure, in retrospect, that the amiable sports editor, Brian Oliver, whom Alton affectionately called the Gaffer, had no idea what to do with me, yet he took my being crashed into his team of reporters with grace and good humour.

This was perhaps one of the last assignments of its kind there was to be on a British Sunday newspaper. I was not required to blog or tweet or write daily reports for the website. (Nowadays I’d be told to live-blog every England press conference, or something to that effect.) Rather, my only responsibility was to write a weekly essay, travel the country (all accredited journalists were provided with a complimentary first-class rail pass) and watch football matches. My sense of good fortune was heightened by the extraordinarily warm and settled weather in Germany during those weeks of the tournament.

I rented a small apartment in Berlin, in a building just off Pariser Platz and a short walk from the Brandenburg Gate. My apartment was directly opposite the Hotel Adlon, where Fifa’s blazered officials were holed up for the duration of the tournament in five-star luxury. This was also the hotel from a high window of which Michael Jackson, in an act of demented exhibitionism, precariously dangled one of his baby children, for the amusement of himself and the world’s media. From the window of my flat, I could see Peter Eisenman’s Holocaust Memorial, a forbidding grid of grey, coffin-like concrete slabs, or stelae, occupying a five-acre site, reminding all visitors to the city of the traumas of the German past.

Each morning, if I was not travelling, I bought a selection of newspapers and international magazines from the nearby Hauptbahnhof, the magnificent redevelopment of which had been completed to coincide with the start of the World Cup. Then I’d buy a coffee from the café of a local art gallery and sit on the pavement terrace and watch football fans of all nationalities idle and loiter – you could tell which team was in town that day by the colour of the replica football shirts being worn.

It was obvious that the World Cup was having a transformative effect on Germany. A large screen, on which matches were broadcast live, was positioned near the Brandenburg Gate, the main attraction of the Berlin Fan Fest. There were public viewing areas such as this in cities across the country and they proved to be enormously popular. By the end of the tournament hundreds of thousands were gathering at the Berlin Fan Fest for Germany matches.

Yet the mood inside the country at the outset of the tournament was one of anxious self-scrutiny. Franz “the Kaiser” Beckenbauer, Germany’s greatest player and the chair of the World Cup 2006 organising committee, had spoken of how football “makes a better world, it’s a game that brings tribes together. It is our historic opportunity here now in Germany to be good hosts, to show the world who we are.” He could have added, though the subtext was obvious, “and how we have changed”.

His optimism was not altogether widely shared. Germans are understandably unsettled by ostentatious displays of patriotism. When I arrived in Munich, just before the opening game between the hosts and Costa Rica at the Allianz Arena, I was struck by the absence of German flags on public display. By contrast, in England that World Cup summer, with expectations of success inflated by the promise of Sven’s so-called golden generation of players, the flag of St George was ubiquitous.

 

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There was also the small matter of Jürgen Klinsmann, the German national team coach, who was being caricatured as the “reviled reformer”. The son of a baker, Klinsmann is a Swabian, but rather than live in Germany he was stubbornly resident in California (he is married to an American). He had enjoyed a distinguished and itinerant playing career, in Stuttgart, Milan, Monaco, London and Munich, and spoke fluent English with a North Atlantic accent. He had the calm and good manners of an experienced airline pilot. The German press didn’t like or trust him: he was too cosmopolitan, too committed to a culture of change, too confident in his own certainties.

Klinsmann wanted Germany to play in an entirely new way: a much more expansive, high-energy, attacking game. He and his assistant Joachim Löw (who succeeded Klinsmann as coach in July 2006), had spent time together in London studying Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal, the fast-paced, highly technical multinational team of many talents, the team of Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Robert Pirès and Patrick Vieira. They wanted to emulate the style of Wenger’s Arsenal, and would do so with a new generation of players, many drawn from immigrant families. “We need to question every single ritual and habit,” Klinsmann said on becoming national coach. “And we need to do it continuously – and not just in football . . . Reforms don’t happen in phases. They need to be part of an ongoing process, one that doesn’t stop when the World Cup is over.”

Germany had hosted great international sporting events before – the World Cup in 1974, the Olympic Games twice – but never fully successfully. The tournament of 1974 was played in a country divided between a free west and a communist east. Indeed, the old German Democratic Republic surprisingly beat West Germany 1-0 after they were drawn together in the same group. It was the first and only occasion the two Germanys contested an international football match. The game itself was played in Hamburg in torrential rain and it was as if that night even the gods were weeping for the divided nation.

Two years earlier, Munich had been the host city of the 1972 Olympics. But these Games will be for ever remembered for the so-called Munich Massacre, the kidnap and subsequent murder of 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team after a raid on the athletes’ village by the Palestinian militants of Black September. Once again Jews were being terrorised and murdered on German soil as the world looked on and recoiled. Before that, in 1936, the Berlin Olympics were scarred by Nazi propaganda and the grotesque posturing of Hitler.

The mood was so different in 2006. During the weeks of the tournament, as Klinsmann’s attack-minded team progressed to the semi-finals, and as the sun continued to shine and people, bashfully at first but then with much more confidence and obvious joy, began to drape themselves in the German flag, and as more and more Germans and overseas visitors began to gather each day at the Fan Fests to drink beer and watch the games in a spirit of mutual celebration, and as a sceptical press stopped worrying and began to declare the tournament a resounding success, something changed inside Germany. It was as if a nation no longer felt ashamed and suddenly began to experience a kind of relaxed patriotism. The world was watching Germany and the world liked what it saw: a tolerant country, welcoming to outsiders, and one that had become a model of benign liberal democracy. And the trains still ran on time.

By the end of the tournament – Germany were beaten 2-0 in the semi-finals by Italy, the eventual winners, in an enthralling game at Borussia Dortmund’s 80,000-capacity Westfalenstadion that I attended – Angela Merkel was pleading publicly with Klinsmann to renew his contract as coach. She understood what the World Cup had done for her country and how it had brought people together and lifted their spirits. True to his restless nature, Klinsmann accepted the applause and his nation’s gratitude, and promptly returned to America. Job done.

The Netherlands manager gives his players a pep talk in Brazil ahead of this year's World Cup. Photo: Getty

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When Franz Beckenbauer spoke of football’s potential to unite and inspire and to bring tribes together he was surely right. Talk to any Nigerian, for instance, about Nigeria, an unstable post-colonial construct of multiple rivalrous ethnic groups and more than 500 languages, and you will be told that one of the few things that can unite Africa’s most populous nation – perhaps the only thing – is the national football team, the Super Eagles. Even in a more mature democracy such as England, where some of us mourn the passing of anything resembling a common culture, football can create a sense of unity and fellow feeling of a kind that has all but disappeared from daily life in an era of zero-hour contracts, virtual friendships, declining newspaper sales and multi-channel
television: something we can all share in and talk about. This sense of togetherness, of an enlarged and enraptured imaginary community, feels never more palpable than during a World Cup summer, when it can sometimes seem as if every second person you meet is preoccupied by the football. “The imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of 11 named people,” as Eric Hobsbawm wrote.

The game of football has become the lingua franca of our globalisation. It is one of the supreme instruments of soft power, hence the desire of nations to host World Cups and of oligarchs and plutocrats to own great football clubs, the “superbrands” of international sport, as we have been coerced into calling them.

The top European leagues, especially the English Premier League, operate a rapacious winner-takes-all capitalism: the richest are getting richer and the rest can merely dream of catching up or go to hell. The game’s greatest players – Ronaldo, Messi, Ibrahimovic – are some of the most photographed, idolised and imitated people on the planet, their talent remarkable, their wealth stupendous, their influence reaching even into the world’s remotest towns and villages.

Absurd it may sound, but some of the most intense and emotionally draining experiences of my life have come from watching football. Even today, nearly 24 years later, I cannot think of England’s loss to West Germany in the 1990 World Cup semi-final at the Stadio delle Alpi in Turin, following an anguished penalty shoot-out, without feeling a sense of deep regret. Partly, of course, I’m mourning the person I used to be, the lost time and the lived experience that can never be recovered. I was only a year out of university back then and giddy with hope at what the future might hold but also unsettled by what seemed to me to be the sheer strangeness and wonder of the world – its randomness, its infinite variety, its essential mystery. There I was that night, a long way from Italy, gathered with friends around a television set in a rented house in the north London suburbs, watching as England tried and failed, so gloriously, to reach what would have been only their second World Cup final.

Italia ’90 – Gazza’s tears, Pavarotti’s “Nes­­sun Dorma”, Roger Milla’s dance – was when many people in England, those who had been so repelled by the violence and the hooliganism and the stadium disasters of the1980s, succumbed and began to fall in love with football again. They dared to believe that the game, so undermined by racism and the brutality of terrace culture, could be beautiful once more – something that appealed to all classes, to men and women, boys and girls: indeed, just as it does today.

The moneymen sensed the zeitgeist and seized their opportunity. Within two years the Premier League had been launched, after the leading clubs broke away from the old Football League. The new league would be bankrolled by Rupert Murdoch’s Sky Television and marketed as a “whole new ball game”. The fans were described as a “captive market”: it was correctly calculated that they would be willing to pay for satellite television subscriptions and, if the best players began playing in England, for high ticket prices, because they had no choice but to pay, prisoners of their own desires and fantasies.

There is something fundamentally irrational about fandom, about committing yourself so completely to something over which you have no control. The true fan makes that bond of allegiance to club and country in early childhood and it can never really be broken, no matter how helpless you feel or how unhappy or irritated being a supporter makes you. How to account for this? How to account for the hold sport has on the collective imagination?

An estimated 715 million people watched the 2006 World Cup final between Italy and France in Berlin, and South Africa 2010 was broadcast to 204 countries. Fifa has sold the worldwide television rights for Brazil 2014 for $1.7bn; the tournament is expected to generate $4bn in total revenue for football’s governing body. Does any other event have such global appeal?

 

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By the time you read this, the 20th World Cup in Brazil will have begun. But it takes place in the shadow of the corruption allegations over the decision to award the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to, respectively, Putin’s Russia (whose national football league is blighted by rumours of match-fixing) and the repressive pseudo-state of Qatar. Even before the Sunday Times reported the extent of the alleged bribes and bungs used to win the vote for Qatar – such an eminently sensible choice, when you think about it, with its 50° summer temperatures and its hatred of homosexuals, alcohol and liberated women – the stench of corruption hung over Fifa. We should not forget that David (Lord) Triesman was forced to resign as chairman of the Football Association and of the England 2018 World Cup bid team for stating the obvious: the right to host the World Cup can be bought.

The whole opaque process by which Fifa’s 24-man politburo selects the host nation is open to continuous abuse and manipulation, and the English FA has not been a blameless bystander. It was all too willing to play the game rather than attempt to rewrite the rules. It was unedifying to witness the elaborate dance of seduction with which the FA and its associates attempted to woo Jack Warner, the now-disgraced Trinidadian politician who was then vice-president of Fifa. David Beckham and Prince William (aka the Duke of Cambridge) were among the useful idiots the FA took to Trinidad in an attempt to secure the support of Warner who, as president of the Concacaf federation, controlled three votes. In the event, England received only two votes, from Japan and the representative of the English FA, and was eliminated in the first round of voting for 2018. It was as if Warner had accepted their hospitality and favours and then spat at them.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to bring the World Cup to the world’s emerging powers – 2010 was a dull tournament but the South Africans were deserving hosts, even if that country of poverty and mass illiteracy paid billions of pounds it could not afford for the “privilege”. Brazil, the self-mythologising samba nation, is reported so far to have spent £11bn on new stadiums and transport infrastructure. But the people are not yet in the mood to party: Brazil has been destabilised by riots, strikes and street protests and just this past week 10,000 marched on Arena Corinthians, the stadium in São Paulo that will be the venue for the opening game between Brazil and Croatia, to protest against World Cup excess and government indifference. Meanwhile, Qatar has said that it would spend more than £200bn on its World Cup project, and so the decadence and extravagance become more extreme with each tournament.

Yet the greater problem resides less with those wishing to act as hosts than with Fifa. Under the long rule of the megalomaniacal Sepp Blatter, football’s governing body has allowed the World Cup to become ever bigger and more bloated, which suits Fifa just fine. For Fifa, the World Cup is a well-oiled engine of cash generation. It brings prestige and the world’s attention to the hosts, for a transient period – but at what ultimate cost, especially when, as in the case of Qatar, the country has no football culture to speak of and impoverished migrant workers are dying needlessly there as they labour in the horrific heat to build Fifa’s air-conditioned stadiums in the desert?

“It’s a money machine, World Cup after World Cup. For them, that’s more important than serious and clean governance,” said Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, chairman of Bayern Munich and the European Club Association, long before the Sunday Times revelations appeared. “I will give them a chance [to clean up] but I’m ready for a revolution.”

Europe’s leading clubs – Bayern, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United, Juventus, AC Milan – resent having to lend their players to national associations for matches and tournaments, only to have them returned injured or fatigued. The clubs understand that history is moving in their direction; that club football, at the very highest level, is superior to the international game, with its round of meaningless friendlies and tedious, one-sided qualifying matches against the likes of San Marino and Moldova. The clubs naturally despise Blatter and also resent the machinations of Michel Platini, the former player-turned-head of Uefa, which from 2016, in another act of grandiose expansionism, will increase from 16 to 24 the number of countries playing in the finals of the European Championship (the tournament was at its best when the finals comprised just eight nations).

Perhaps only the clubs and the corporate sponsors have the power and the will to blow Fifa apart and effect the necessary change. Led by Sony, five of the six main Fifa sponsors have expressed public concern so far about the Qatar corruption allegations.

On 14 June, England play their opening group game of the World Cup against Italy in Manaus, capital city of the state of Amazonas in northern Brazil. Many millions of us in this country will be watching on television, despite the match kicking off at 11pm BST. For a while at least, we shall forget, or try to forget, all about how football is administered and sold around the world and allow ourselves to become absorbed by what is happening on the field of play, by the drama or otherwise of the game itself.

But this time, for me at least, it feels different. It fells like the end of something. It feels like the end of an era. After Brazil 2014, unless there is urgent and fundamental reform of a kind that would seem unlikely, the tournament is finished. In Vladimir Putin and the secretive autocrats of Qatar, Fifa has the partners it deserves – and the world should turn away in disgust.

Jason Cowley, editor of the New Statesman, is the author of a memoir, “The Last Game: Love, Death and Football” (Simon & Schuster, £7.99)

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Now listen to Jason Cowley discussing this article on the New Statesman podcast:

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The last World Cup

Edel Rodriguez for New Statesman
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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