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Time to rethink realpolitik

Henry Kissinger, once accused of war crimes, is back and working for the Obama adminstration. Is thi

Henry Kissinger, in 1982, wrote: “Blessed are the people whose leaders can look destiny in the eye without flinching but also without attempting to play God.” The former US secretary of state is an unlikely – and unfashionable – source of reassurance, but his injunction is one that the west would do well to follow in the Obama era.

The US National Intelligence Council predicted a bleak future in its most recent Global Trends Review. America's dominance will disappear by 2025, it said, and the EU will become a "hobbled giant", unable despite its economic strength to exert significant global influence. With the last superpower reduced to a "first among equals" as new giants rise in the east, the "unipolar world" will be "over". The report warns of nuclear proliferation, mass migration, environmental catastrophe. "The next 20 years," it says (just to make sure we've all got the point), "are fraught with risks." Confronted with these dangers and uncertainties, however, some western leaders are still overly tempted to "play God".

At the Munich Security Conference on 7 February, Kissinger was awarded the first Ewald von Kleist prize for his "contributions to global peace and international co-operation". At the same time reports emerged that President Barack Obama had sent the good doctor to conduct secret talks on nuclear weapons reduction with Moscow in December.

“We cannot rule out arms races, territorial expansion and military rivalries”

But the world leaders gathered in Munich also heard the first major address on the new administration's foreign policy. Although Vice-President Joe Biden spoke softly - "We'll engage. We'll listen. We'll consult" - he still carried a big stick, delivering warnings to Russia and Iran, and urging US allies to be more willing "to use force when all else fails". His remarks were consistent with Secretary of State Clinton's statement at last month's Senate confirmation hearings, when she denied reports of her country's imminent relegation to equal rank status with other world powers: "Some have argued that we have reached the end of the 'American moment' in world history. I disagree."

Hillary Clinton advocated the use of "smart power", combining "hard" military and economic with "soft" cultural and diplomatic tools. That may sound eminently reasonable, but let's note how the Bill Clinton-era diplomat Suzanne Nossel concluded the essay in which she popularised the term in 2004: "Now is the time . . . to reassert an aggressive brand of liberal internationalism . . . and fortify it through the determined, smart use of power."

Such talk of aggression is dangerously misplaced. The chaotic, uncertain world of today requires something starkly different. It is time, instead, for a new realpolitik.

In one sense, realpolitik never went away. Its cardinal principle of non-interference - that no state has the right to intervene in the internal affairs of another - is one to which over half of humankind is theoretically signed up, through the 118 countries that belong to the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). The developing-world titans who founded it in 1961 - Nasser, Nkrumah, Nehru, Tito and Sukarno - are long gone, and we in Britain may hear little of the NAM. But it goes far from unnoticed in the United States, not least because Cuba (under Raú Castro) holds the presidency of the organisation and Hugo Chávez emerged as the star of its last summit in 2006. It regularly votes as a bloc at the UN General Assembly, as do other caucuses of developing countries such as the Group of 77. In an interview late last year, Noam Chomsky dismissed suggestions that the NAM was a relic of the Cold War. "I think that it is a sign of the future," he said.

The more recently formed Shanghai Co-operation Organisation is another body of which we hear little. But perhaps we should pay more attention. Made up of Russia, China and four former Soviet central Asian republics, the SCO clearly states non-interference as a core principle in its charter - as does Asean, the ten-country Association of South-East Asian Nations, whose combined population is close to 600 million.

Admittedly, realpolitik has sometimes been used to symbolise the very opposite. In association with Kissinger, for instance, it has come to stand for all the excesses of US foreign policy during the period he served as national security adviser and secretary of state under Presidents Nixon and Ford.

This is to cast the doctrine purely (and thus falsely) in terms of the cold pursuit of national interest (often masquerading under the cover of "spreading freedom") that led some to charge Kissinger with war crimes. It obscures the great successes of his realpolitik: détente with the Soviet Union, the opening of relations with China, and the shuttle diplomacy that ended the Yom Kippur War and ultimately laid the foundations for Jimmy Carter to host the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel.

It is this pragmatic aspect of Kissinger's foreign policy that should inform a new realpolitik. Yes, the human rights records of many of these states was lamentable and scruples were understandable. Yet the outcome was increased peace and stability. Was that not a greater prize than a salved conscience?

"What the realist fears is the consequences of idealism." The words belong to Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser under the first President Bush and a disciple of Kissinger. Their conservative provenance should not stop us from recognising that if only they had been engraved in brass and placed on the desk of every foreign minister in the west we might have been spared much dangerous posturing over the past decade.

It was foolish idealism that led to Nato's eastward expansion into the new democracies of the old Soviet bloc. (One assumes so, since no Nato partner rests more easily in his bed knowing that the might of Latvia and Lithuania is now at his disposal.) The realist would have pointed out that this humiliation of Russia, in the process encircling its Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad, was perhaps not the best way to build friendlier relations with the possessor of the world's largest natural gas reserves. Nor that announcing plans to instal interceptor missile bases in Poland and the Czech Republic would be taken in particularly good part.

Russia's reactions, both in Georgia and to the missile bases, should have been expected. Dmitry Medvedev will not be the last occupier of the Kremlin to defend his country's "privileged interests" in neighbouring states: the demise of the USSR did not excise centuries of Russian domination from the history books, nor from that nation's sense of self.

Idealism of a different hue bedevils the west's relations with China. Today, Hollywood film stars in thrall to a media-savvy old monk have encouraged many to regard the patient diplomacy that led to Richard Nixon's breakthrough as pusillanimous gradualism; public pressure and face-shaming demonstrations are seen as the way to persuade Beijing to act over Tibet. (Not having the benefit of such good-looking advocates, other regions with equally worthy claims to greater autonomy are apparently of little concern.) Barack Obama's voice was raised in the idealistic campaign to boycott the Beijing Olympics last year. Reality has since bitten, and he must hope the Chinese are willing to overlook his part in that shouty chorus, now he needs them to bail out the US economy.

Go to Riyadh, Singapore or St Petersburg, and you will find populations deeply convinced of differing value systems. Idealistic liberal internationalists, however, see superficial similarities – a Norman Foster building in Shanghai, a McDonald’s in Cairo – and assume that sharing consumer culture leads to a common political culture. We are entitled to hope that that will happen, though we would be wise to follow Scowcroft’s advice about how to help the process: “You encourage democracy over time, with assistance, and aid, the traditional way. Not how the neocons do it.” We have no reason, however, to shade our hope into certainty.

We should also acknowledge that in the past 30 years Wahhabist Islam has been far more successful at exporting itself, at the expense of pre-existing, liberal political cultures in Muslim countries, and often through the precise means Scowcroft suggests: funding hospitals, schools and the like.

If anything, our era is marked by the reassertion of older, less globally unifying impulses. "We cannot rule out a 19th-century-like scenario of arms races, territorial expansion and military rivalries," concludes the NIC report, which also suggests that several African countries may become completely ungovernable.

Such forecasts bode ill for the inevitable progress of liberal universalism. Yet so does the unacknowledged reality of the present. You do not have to share Chomsky's optimism about the Non-Aligned Movement as an organisation, for instance, to appreciate the long-term significance of its support for Iranian nuclear enrichment. "The fact of the matter is that the majority of the world supports Iran," he pointed out. "But they are not part of the world, from the US point of view." It is a view that can be sustained as long as the west has overwhelming superiority in wealth and weapons. What happens when it doesn't?

Sooner or later China, Russia and that "rest of the world" we ignore, except to luxuriate on its beaches or to shed a tear for its natural disasters, will demand that we meet them on their terms, and not just ours. This will be no surprise to Kissinger-era diplomats, who knew that history's arc was uncertain and quite possibly endless, and that there are many painful questions to which there are no satisfying answers, just a series of "least worst" options.

Realpolitik may not offer the comfort of doing the "right thing". However, until we can agree on what the "right thing" is, that is a moral discomfort we must learn to bear. If the alternative requires shackling, or bribing, or threatening our fellow man to concur, there is nothing "smart" about it.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The New Depression

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.

***

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

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