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Gwynne Dyer

Gwynne Dyer has written 1495 posts for Gwynne Dyer

The Korean Crisis: Why Now?

Apart from Donald Trump’s need for a dramatic foreign policy initiative, is there any good reason why we are having a crisis over North Korea’s nuclear weapons testing now?

If the Pyongyang regime is really planning an underground nuclear test soon, as Washington alleges, it will be the sixth bomb test it has carried out, not the first. That hardly qualifies as a new development that requires urgent action. The same goes for its ballistic missile tests, which have been ongoing for many years. Nothing new is going on in North Korea.

In South Korea, on the other hand, things are about to change a lot.

The winner of Tuesday’s election and South Korea’s next president, Moon Jae-in, favours a much softer policy towards North Korea. He has even promised to re-open industrial and tourist projects in North that were financed by South Korea under the last Democratic (centre-left) government.

A decade ago, when Moon’s Democratic Party was still in power in Seoul, he was chief of staff to President Roh Moo-hyun and the so-called Sunshine Policy of reconciliation with North Korea was the order of the day. The goal was to create commercial, financial and personal ties between the two Koreas, and to that end South Korea sent aid and investment to the North.

It’s impossible to say whether that would eventually have led to a less tense and militarised situation in the Korean peninsula, because in the 2008 election the conservatives won and scrapped the Sunshine Policy. The past nine years under right-wing governments have seen North-South relations re-frozen and the investments in North Korea closed down by Seoul.

Now Moon Jae-in will be in charge, however, and he has promised to reopen economic ties with North Korea in a policy his advisers call Sunshine 2.0.

This runs directly contrary to Trump’s policy of tightening economic sanctions against the North and even threatening military action to force Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons programme. Indeed, the Trump administration may have pushed a military confrontation with North Korea to the top of its foreign policy agenda recisely in order to pre-empt Moon Jae-in’s new Sunshine policy.

Given the chaos that reigns in the Trump White House, this may not be the case. It could just be that Trump is making policy on the fly, and that he neither knows nor cares about the domestic politics of South Korea. But some recent US actions point to a deliberate attempt to get the confrontation going before Moon took office.

One clue could be the sudden rush to deploy the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) system in South Korea before the election. It’s a system designed to intercept short- and medium-range ballistic missiles of the sort that North Korea might use to deliver nuclear weapons on South Korea (and maybe Japan) if it ever managed to make its nuclear weapons small enough to fit on them.

A reasonable precaution, perhaps – but THAAD was originally scheduled to be installed in South Korea between August and October of this year. Then suddenly it arrived in the country in March, and was “operational” (at least in theory) by last month. Moon will now have great difficulty in reversing that decision, and the North Koreans are predictably waxing hysterical about it.

On the other hand, Trump shocked the South Koreans by announcing at the end of April that South Korea would have to pay $1 billion for the THAAD system, despite an existing agreement that the US would bear the cost. He also declared that he was going to renegotiate the existing free trade agreement between the two countries. Which suggests that there is no clever plan, just the usual stumbling around in the dark.

Whether the US is deliberately manipulating events or not, Moon Jae-in is in a difficult situation. He quite rightly believes that there is no need for a crisis this year to resolve a problem that has been simmering away (but never boiling over) for at least fifteen years, but unless he goes along with it he will find himself in a confrontation with Donald Trump.

Could he win it? He could if he has strong support at home. South Koreans are divided more or less evenly between a hard and a soft approach to North Korea, but they all agree that they don’t want a war in which they would be the primary victims. Trump will find the new South Korean government very reluctant to pursue his campaign – only diplomatic for the moment, but who knows? – against the North.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 9. (“Given…office”)

Washington: The Playbook is Back

It was striking, in US media coverage of Donald Trump’s first hundred days in office, that most observers noted with relief that his foreign policy has turned out to be less radical than they feared. In fact, it’s not radical at all. He has already fired cruise missiles at a Middle Eastern country, a ritual that has been observed by every American president since Bill Clinton.

The old Donald Trump was an “isolationist” who opposed US military intervention overseas unless US interests were directly threatened.. When it seemed likely in 2013 that President Obama would attack the Syrian regime over its alleged use of poison gas on civilians, Trump tweeted: “The only reason President Obama wants to attack Syria is to save face over his very dumb RED LINE statement. Do NOT attack Syria, fix U.S.A.”

And lo! Obama did not attack Syria after all, although it had crossed the “red line” he had drawn in a statement the previous year.

On sober second thought – and after being warned by James Clapper, his Director of National Intelligence, that the evidence suggesting that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s regime was responsible for the gas attack, while robust, was not a “slam dunk” – Obama decided not to launch cruise missiles at Syria. (Curiously, there was no Trump tweet praising Obama and taking credit for his change of mind.)

This was the moment when Obama broke decisively with the foreign policy orthodoxy in Washington, and the think-tank “experts” and the reigning media pundits never forgave him for it. Towards the end of his second term, he explained his decision to Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor-in-chief of The Atlantic, in the following terms.

“There’s a playbook in Washington that presidents are supposed to follow. It’s a playbook that comes out of the foreign-policy establishment. And the playbook prescribes responses to different events, and these responses tend to be militarised responses….In the midst of an international challenge like Syria, you get judged harshly if you don’t follow the playbook, even if there are good reasons why it does not apply.”

It did not apply because destroying the Assad regime would just hand Syria over to the jihadi fanatics of Islamic State and al-Qaeda. It did not apply because the Russians might intervene to save Assad, perhaps leading to a direct US-Russian military confrontation. It did not apply because there was no support for an attack in Congress. And it did not apply because it was not even certain that the Syrian regime was to blame.

“Don’t do stupid shit” was Obama’s prime rule in foreign policy, and emulating George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in order to destroy Saddam Hussein’s non-existent “weapons of mass destruction” definitely qualified as stupid. Even treating the Middle East as a region vital to American security was stupid. With the Cold War over and the United States no longer dependent on Middle Eastern oil, it wasn’t even important any more.

Fast forward to 2016, and Obama must have been torn when he contemplated his successors. Hillary Clinton had worked for him and would preserve his legacy in domestic affairs, but she was totally orthodox in foreign policy and would follow the playbook wherever it led. Whereas Donald Trump, in his crude and simple way, actually shared Obama’s distrust of the foreign policy elite.

But with Trump it was just gut instinct, not a reasoned analysis of why the playbook was wrong. Once he was in office, and another poison gas attack in Syria landed on his desk, that instinct was swiftly overwhelmed by an even stronger urge to do something dramatic.

In politics, the Law of Mixed Motives always applies. No doubt Trump was truly horrified by the images of dead “beautiful babies”, but he was also aware that his policy successes in the first hundred days were sparse and that his popular approval numbers were way down.

So off went the cruise missiles, although the evidence that the Assad regime was responsible for the gas attack was even less certain than last time. It was purely a gesture, aimed mainly at the US domestic audience, and there has been no follow-up. But it did conform to the playbook’s rules, and the response by the “lamestream” media verged on the ecstatic.

Trump doesn’t give a fig for the playbook, but he does care about popularity. He campaigned as an isolationist, but now he has discovered that a little sabre-rattling abroad yields instant popularity at home.

He is surrounded by people who still believe in the playbook, and they now know how to press his buttons. There will probably be more “limited” military strikes with cruise missiles, not just in the Middle East but also in north-east Asia. And there may well be more wars, because sabre-rattling is not a precise science.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 8. (“Don’t…more”)

(Not Quite Universal) Basic Income

In Switzerland last June, they had a referendum on a universal basic income that would have given each adult Swiss citizen $2,500 per month. It was a truly universal basic income, because it would have gone to everybody whether they were working or not – and the horrified Swiss rejected it by a majority of more than three-to-one.

In Finland last January, the government actually launched a pilot programme for a “basic income”, but it was a timid little thing that gives the participants in the trial just $600 per month. It certainly isn’t universal: it only goes to jobless people who are receiving the lowest level of unemployment benefit.

And in Canada last Sunday, the province of Ontario launched a pilot programme that sits somewhere between the other two. It pays out more than the Finns – CAD $1,400 a month (US $1,050). Moreover, you don’t have to be unemployed to get it, just poor.

“The project will explore the effectiveness of providing a basic income to people who are currently living on low incomes, whether they are working or not,” explained Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne. But it’s still far from universal, and its supporters are keen to stress that the ultimate goal is to get people back into work. As is Finland, they believe (or at least profess to believe) that the only real solution to poverty is full employment.

In the early 21st century, this quaint belief is about as credible as the Easter Bunny, but in last November’s US presidential election campaign both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were still peddling the same sepia-tinted fantasy of crowded assembly lines and the return of the Good Old Days.

Trump was even promising to “bring back the jobs” from abroad, as if they were all now sitting in China or Mexico. He may or may not know that most of the missing jobs whose loss created the “Rust Belt” were killed by automation and simply don’t exist any more, but he certainly doesn’t mention it in public. And Clinton was equally reticent about the fact that full employment is not a realistic option for the future.

A lot of other people have finally focussed on the real future, however, because if you want to understand the rise of Trump you first have to acknowledge what automation is doing to jobs, especially in the United States. And then you have to figure out how to prevent this huge shift from causing a great political, economic and social disaster.

That is why Universal Basic Income is now a hot topic in political circles throughout the developed democratic countries: it might prevent that disaster. But the curious thing is that none of trials now being undertaken is actually universal, with everybody getting the same “basic income” regardless of what other income they may have. Why not?

UBI is not meant to be merely a more effective and less bureaucratic means of helping the poor. It is also intended to abolish the stigma of “unemployment” and the misery, anger, and political extremism it breeds. If everybody gets the basic income as a right, the argument goes, then receiving it causes neither shame nor anger. And if the anger abates, then maybe democratic political systems can survive automation.

But nobody really thinks we should introduce UBI at a national scale today. We will need a majority of people to go on working for a long time to come, and we don’t even know whether enough people would choose to do so after they start receiving the basic income. That is one of the questions that the current pilot programmes are designed to answer.

However, these UBI test programmes are being smuggled in disguised as anti-poverty projects, with the announced objectives of streamlining the system and encouraging people to re-enter the job market. That’s because the public really isn’t ready for full-blooded UBI. There is a very strong popular belief that people should work for a living, even if the society as a whole is very rich and the work doesn’t actually need to be done.

This prejudice applies especially strongly to the poor. As Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith once put it, “Leisure is very good for the rich, quite good for Harvard professors – and very bad for the poor. The wealthier you are, the more you are thought to be entitled to leisure. For anyone on welfare, leisure is a bad thing.”

So these early experiments with guaranteed income pretend to be aimed solely at getting people back into work. But meantime they will be gathering valuable data about the actual behaviour of people who have a guaranteed basic income.

When the supporters of UBI come back with concrete proposals for national systems in five or ten years’ time, they may have much more solid arguments than they do now.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 6. (“Trump…future”).

So Much for the Populist Wave

In his victory speech on Sunday night Emmanuel Macron, the next president of France, said: “I want to become…the president of the patriots in the face of the threat from the nationalists.” The distinction would be lost on most Trump supporters in the United States and on the “Little Englanders” who voted for Brexit in Britain, but it’s absolutely clear to the French, and indeed to most Europeans.

In the United States the preferred word is “patriot”, but it usually just means “nationalist”, with flags flaunted and slogans chanted. “America First” says Trump, and the crowd replies “USA all the way!”

You can’t imagine a British election rally doing that – the United Kingdom is too close to mainland Europe, where that sort of thing ended very badly – but the English nationalism behind Brexit was painfully obvious. For some in both countries it’s actually “white nationalism”, but even the many non-racists who voted for Trump or Brexit draw the line at the border or the water’s edge. There’s “us”, and on the far side there’s “them”.

Whereas the French men and women who voted for Macron understand the difference between patriotism and nationalism very well. They will have to vote for Macron again in the run-off election on 7 May, when his opponent will be the neo-fascist candidate, Marine Le Pen, but in that round they will be joined by almost all the people who voted for other presidential candidates in the first round. She is a nationalist; they are patriots.

In Europe, nationalism is linked in the collective memory with the catastrophe of the last century’s great wars, and the racism that is often associated with it triggers images of Nazi extermination camps. Not all Europeans are immune to that kind of nationalism or political phenomena like Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Beppo Grillo in Italy could not exist, but they remain a minority almost everywhere.

That was not obvious four months ago. After the Brexit vote last June and Trump’s election in November, Europe’s ultra-nationalists were convinced that their moment had finally come – and many observers feared that they were right. Brexit seemed like the first step towards the break-up of the European Union, and from the Netherlands to Austria it felt like the fascists were at the door.

Not so. Wilders’s party gained only a few seats in last month’s Dutch election and remains very much a minority taste. Marine Le Pen is no closer to the French presidency than her openly fascist father was fifteen years ago: the National Front vote never breaks through the 25 percent ceiling. And the hard-right, anti-immigrant, anti-EU “Alternative for Germany” party has lost its leader and one-third of its popular support in the past month.

Some of this is simply disillusionment. Significant numbers of Europeans were initially tempted to back local populist parties by the sheer flamboyance of Trump’s US electoral campaign. After all, Europeans also worry about immigration and terrorism and unemployment, and his rude and crude rhetoric seemed to validate the similar language of their own populist leaders.

But the reality of the dysfunctional Trump White House has turned off most of those recent European converts to populist politics. By and large the hard-right parties of Europe are back where they were before The Donald burst upon the scene, with almost no chance of gaining real political power. It was a false alarm.

The “populist wave” that seemed to be sweeping through Western politics turns out to be merely a storm in the much smaller teacup known as the “Anglosphere”. It’s only known this way to Europeans, who use the word, often tinged with contempt, to describe the deregulated economies and market-obsessed politics of the post-Reagan United States and post-Thatcher United Kingdom. (Australia occasionally gets an honourable mention too.)

For a quarter of a century the politics of the Anglosphere has been consistently subservient to “the market” even when purportedly left-wing leaders like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair were in power. The result, as you would expect, has been somewhat higher economic growth rates, and a rapidly widening gulf between the incomes of the rich and the rest.

The rest of the West has not been immune to this political fashion, but it has been far less prominent in the countries of the European Union (and even in deviant anglophone countries like Canada and New Zealand). Now the disparity in incomes between the 1 percent and the 99 percent has grown so great in the heartlands of the Anglosphere that the political chickens are coming home to roost.

The response in both the United States and the United Kingdom is not real populism, which for all its faults does at least try to shrink income inequalities. It is standard right-wing politics in a populist style, using nationalism to distract the victims from the fact that these governments actually serve the rich.

Move along, please. There’s nothing new to see here.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“Some…alarm”)