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North Korea’s ICBM

“American bastards would be not very happy with this gift sent on the July 4 anniversary,” said North Korean leader Kim Jong-un about his country’s first successful test of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on Wednesday. And indeed Americans are not happy about it, although it would be overstating the case to say that panic is sweeping the United States at the news that North Korea’s ICBMs can now reach America.

One reason for the lack of public panic is that Alaska is not a central concern for most Americans, and Alaska is the only part of the United States that North Korea’s Hwasong-14 missile can actually reach.

Another reason is that the US authorities insist that North Korea’s nuclear weapons are too big and heavy to fit on its ICBMs. (It’s not clear whether they have actual intelligence that confirms this, or are just whistling in the dark.)

And a third reason might be that Americans are secretly embarrassed by the sheer hypocrisy of their own government’s position in this affair.

Well, no, not really. The vast majority of Americans are blissfully unaware that there is any hypocrisy involved in demanding that North Korea refrain from getting what the United States has had for the past 72 years. So is the US government.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was being entirely sincere when he said that North Korea’s ICBM test “represents a new escalation of the threat to the United States, our allies and partners, the region, and the world.” Wrong, but entirely sincere.

He is obviously aware that the United States has had nuclear weapons since 1945, and has even dropped them on Asian cities. He knows that his country has had ICBMs since the 1950s, and still has hundreds ready to launch on short notice. How is the American posture different from the one that North Korea aspires to?

Two differences, really. One is that the United States has at least a hundred times as many nuclear weapons as North Korea, and delivery vehicles at least two technologcal generations further down the road. Another is that the United States has a clearly stated policy that says it might use nuclear weapons first in a conflict. Weirdly, this just makes American ICBMs sound more dangerous than North Korea’s.

That’s not really true. The United States used its first nuclear weapons as soon as it got them in 1945, but despite all the wars it has waged in the 72 years since then it has never used them again. Nuclear weapons are so terrifying that they actually force the people who possess them to think seriously about the consequences of using them.

Pyongyang has obviously been thinking hard about the grave implications of nuclear weapons too, because it never actually threatens to use North Korea’s nukes in a first strike. It’s always about deterring a nuclear attack on North Korea. And though the North Korean regime lies and blusters a lot, you can believe it about this.

North Korea will probably have ICBMs that can reach big American cities in three to five years if it keeps up the current pace of development and testing. That would buy North Korea a limited degree of safety from an American nuclear attack, because one or more of its missiles might survive a US first strike and be able to carry out a “revenge from the grave.” That is how nuclear deterrence works, at least in theory.

But even full-range nuclear-tipped ICBMs would not give the North Korean regime the ability to launch a nuclear attack on America (or Japan, or South Korea) without being exterminated in an immediate, massive nuclear counter-strike. So you can probably trust the North Korean regime not to do anything so terminally stupid – unless people like Kim Jung-un are literally crazy.

That’s why American diplomats work so hard to convince everybody else that the North Koreans really are frothing mad, impervious to logic, and not even interested in self-preservation. Only then can they argue that the North Koreans should be denied nuclear weapons, although Americans, Russians, Chinese, British, French, Israelis, Indians and Pakistanis can be trusted with them.

There is no evidence that the North Koreans really are crazy. In the 64 years since the end of the Korean War they have never risked a war, and they are extremely unlikely to do so now. And while there is a rather erratic leader in Washington at the moment, there are probably enough grown-ups around him to avoid any fatal mistakes on the American side either.

So North Korea will probably get its nuclear deterrent in the end, and we will all learn to live with it – like we learned to live with mutual US-Russian nuclear deterrence, mutual US-Chinese nuclear deterrence, and mutual Indian-Pakistani nuclear deterrence.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 13. (“Pyongyang…this”; and “That’s…them”)

An Old American Tradition

It’s not just Donald Trump. The United States has a long record of negotiating international agreements and then running away from them. The rest of the world has an equally long record of heaving a sigh of regret, telling the Americans it will be happy to have them back when they get over it, and carrying on without them. It will do it again over the Paris accord on climate change.

We have had many expressions of synthetic shock since Trump finally announced that he was abandoning the climate accord last Thursday, after wringing every last drop of drama out of his totally predictable decision. Then we had the equally predictable affirmations from everybody else that they would carry on regardless. It’s all as stylised and traditional as a Noh play.

The tradition actually dates back to the early 20th century, when the United States was the prime mover in creating a new international institution to prevent war, the League of Nations, at the end of the First World War – and then refused to join it. The League could probably not have avoided the Second World War even if the US had been a member, but its absence certainly didn’t help.

Then came a longish period, from the foundation of the United Nations in 1945 to the arms control agreements of the 1960s and 70s, when American leadership actually did make the world a safer place. But by thirty years ago it was back to the bad old ways, with the United States not signing (or signing and then “unsigning”) the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the International Criminal Court, and the Kyoto Accord on Climate Change.

In each case, the rest of the world just went ahead and put the treaty into effect anyway – and in no case did the American defection destroy the deal. It’s already clear that Trump’s decision will not sabotage this deal either. The other major powers will all stick with the commitments they made in Paris eighteen months ago, because they are all really frightened by what will happen if they don’t.

“We need the Paris agreement to protect all of creation,” said Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel. Then she, President Emmanuel Macron of France and Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni of Italy issued a joint statement saying “We firmly believe that the Paris agreement cannot be renegotiated since it is a vital instrument for our planet, societies and economies.”

“As far as the Paris accord is concerned… our government is committed, irrespective of the stand of anyone, anywhere in the world,” said Japan’s Finance Minister, Taro Aso. “I’m not just disappointed, but also feel anger.” And China’s President Xi Jinping modestly explained that his country has only become the world’s leader on climate change by default. “It’s because the original front-runners suddenly fell back and pushed China to the front.”

The absence of the US government will not derail the project. The commitments of American states, cities, organisations and individuals on reducing US greenhouse gas emissions will continue to provide at least half of the cuts promised by ex-president Barack Obama. Since those promised cuts were to be spread over ten years, the damage may be even less if Trump turns out to be a one-term president.

The commitments made at Paris in 2015 were voluntary national promises. There were no negotiations about how big the contributions of various countries should actually be: Trump only talks about “renegotiating” the deal because he never actually read it.

The sad fact is that all the cuts promised by all the countries at the Paris conference were not enough to keep global warming from going past the never-exceed level of plus 2 degrees C. When the United Nations added the numbers up, the world was still heading for plus 2.7 degrees.

Take all the promised American cuts out of the equation and the world will be heading for around plus 3.0 degrees instead, but it doesn’t make a huge difference. Either way, we cross the threshold and tumble into runaway, irreversible warming.

However, the world still has twenty years or so before we pass through plus 2 degrees. Everybody at the Paris talks understood that they would have to hold another conference in around five years’ time and come up with bigger cuts then. It’s salami tactics, which is bad science but good politics, and it could still deliver the goods.

By five years from now, Trump may no longer be a problem. Even if he’s not impeached or dead, he might lose the 2020 election. He might even choose not to run again; he’s already complaining about how hard the job is.

So the US might rejoin the rest of the world in 2020 – or it might not, but the rest of the world still has to go on trying to save itself even if the United States chooses to be a free rider.

The other hundred and ninety-odd governments of the planet understand how very bad it will for everybody if we break through the two-degree boundary. They are obliged to act with or without the United States.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“We need…front”)

Robot Take-Over?

Wittenberg is the German city where Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door 500 years ago and launched the Protestant Reformation. To mark the anniversary, the local Protestant authorities have installed a robot called BlessU-2 to deliver blessings in 5 languages.

The robot priest has a touchscreen chest, two arms and a head. After you have chosen your language the robot raises its arms, recites a verse from the Bible, and says “God bless and protect you.” It also beams light from its hands.

Just what we needed – and it comes with the full support of the Protestant Church in Hesse and Nassau. “We wanted people to consider if it is possible to be blessed by a machine, or if a human being is needed,” explained spokesman Stephan Krebs to the The Guardian’s religion correspondent, Harriet Sherwood. “The idea is to provoke debate.”

When pressed, Krebs admits that they are not planning to replace human pastors with machines: “We don’t want to robotise our church work, but see if we can bring a theological perspective to a machine.” Good luck with that, then – but most people will just see this as another, rather comical example of robots taking over what used to be human jobs.

There’s been much talk about the “robot revolution” in the media recently. Automation has already killed millions of jobs, we are warned, and cannot be stopped. To former assembly-line workers and bank tellers whose jobs were automated out of existence two decades ago, that has the ring of truth. Ten years from now, it will probably also ring true to millions of former taxi-, bus- and long-distance truck-drivers.

And automation may also be bringing us a political revolution. Many people suspect that shocking polical events like Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, and a 30 percent vote for the ultra-nationalist Marine Le Pen in France’s recent presidential election are linked to the growing numbers of angry, jobless people in the Western industrialised countries.

But wait a minute. What “growing number of jobless people”? The official unemployment rate in the United States is now down to 4.5 percent. That statistic, however, only counts those who are actively looking for work. It does not count those who have given up looking for work.

If you include all those who are not working and not just the job-seekers, then 17.5 percent of American men of prime working age (24-55) are, to use the old word, “unemployed”. The last time US unemployment was at that level was in 1936, in the middle of the Great Depression.

Moreover, this hidden reef of unemployed people is biggest in the former industrial heartland of the United States, now known as the Rust Belt, where a critical number of ex-Democratic voters were so angry that they switched to Trump and put him into the White House.

This new reality is partly hidden by the fact that so many of these unemployed people have managed to wangle their way into disability benefits: one American worker in sixteen is now certified as disabled, whereas in 1960 (when health and safety standards were far lower) only one worker in 134 was. But back then the official statistics on unemployment were pretty close to the truth.

Exactly the same applies to the United Kingdom, where unemployment is officially only 4.8 percent. But Sheffield Hallam University’s Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research reckons that almost one-third of the people on incapacity benefits in Britain would actually be working in a full-employment economy, and that the true jobless rate in some northern post-industrial areas reaches 17 percent.

The “angry men” (and angry women) who make up this hidden reef are the key group who voted for Trump (and Brexit, and the National Front). The Americans among them have been told by Trump that their jobs were stolen by foreigners, but both in the United States and elsewhere they were actually mostly taken by automation.

Not all the jobs will go, of course, but a study released in March by financial services firm PwC (PricewaterhouseCoopers) predicted 38 percent job losses to automation in the United States in the next fifteen years.

The risk is not just mass unemployment, but the political radicalisation that comes with it. We’re not going to stop the automation, so we will have to redistribute the remaining work. We also have to find ways of putting real money into the pockets of those who have no work, or else the whole capitalist business model will collapse. (Not enough customers.)

And we have to find ways of subsidising people without treating them like “losers”, because that’s what really drove the the anger that put Trump in office. Otherwise, the populist demagogues who get elected in twenty years’ time may make us look back fondly on the Trump years.

But cheer up. We won’t really have robot priests.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 11. (“When…jobs”; and “Exactly…percent”)

Iran’s Election

The six-week campaign is over, and 55 million Iranians will vote in the first round of the presidential election on Friday. Or rather, most of those 55 million people will vote, but many will not, because there is great disillusionment with President Hassan Rouhani’s promises to improve the economy – and therefore also with the international treaty on curbing Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions that was supposed to bring back prosperity.

Donald Trump (who calls the treaty “one of the worst deals ever signed”) is not alone in seeing it as a failure. Although Rouhani’s main challenger in this election, hardline cleric Ebrahim Raisi, does not formally reject the deal, his whole campaign is focussed on the fact that the end of foreign economic sanctions did not bring Iranians the rapid economic relief that Rouhani had promised

Iran has a big, middle-income economy with a large industralised sector, but largely because of those sanctions it has been in the doldrums for the past decade. Incomes have stagnated or fallen, youth unemployment is 26 percent, and many people have lost faith in Rouhani.

Forty-three per cent of Iranians “strongly approved” of the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” (JCPOA), as the deal is called, when it was signed two years ago. Now only 21 per cent “strongly approve”. Yet nothing has actually changed with the deal. Rouhani’s problem is that nothing much has changed in the economy either.

The Western partners in the JCPOA, the so-called “Five plus One” (the United States, Russia, Britain, Germany, France and the European Union) have been slow to remove the sanctions, mainly because of foot-dragging in Washington – although the US government was quick enough to grant a waiver when Boeing wanted to sign a $16.6 deal to sell 80 passenger aircraft to Iran Air last December.

The bigger problem for Iran is that major international banks have been reluctant to re-engage with Iran because they fear being caught out if the US reneges on the deal and reimposes sanctions. So the Iranian economy continues to bump along the bottom, and a lot of people who voted for Rouhani last time say they will sit this election out.

Ebrahim Raisi is capitalising on this disillusionment by running a populist campaign promising “work and dignity”. He is thought to have the tacit backing of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is the final authority in Iran’s peculiar blend of democracy and theocracy.

Khamenei has not given his public backing to any candidate in this election (there are also two less well-known candidates running for the presidency). It is generally assumed, however, that he supports Raisi, who is best known as one of the four Islamic judges who ordered the execution of thousands of political prisoners in 1988.

As a result, Raisi is doing well with his target audiences, the poor, the devout and the ill-educated. If they turn out to vote in large numbers, while more urban, more sophisticated voters express their disappointment with Rouhani’s failure to work miracles by staying home, it is entirely possible that he will beat Rouhani and become the next president.

This would plunge the country’s relations with the West back into the deep freeze, but Raisi says he doesn’t care about that: Iran doesn’t need outside help, and his goal is to restore the values of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. But it certainly wouldn’t improve Iran’s prospects for prosperity, or the entire region’s prospects for peace.

Rouhani is trapped between two fires in this election. At home he faces a conservative backlash that condemns his opening to the West and (implicitly) his nuclear deal. And on election day the voters who might come out to support him are likely to hear Donald Trump just across the Gulf in Saudi Arabia, spouting anti-Iranian rhetoric to a summit meeting of Arab countries.

It’s not just Trump. Hillary Clinton, while giving the nuclear deal her tepid approval, was just as negative about Iran in general, and Barack Obama regularly recited the misleading mantra about Iran being the “leading state sponsor of terrorism”. As did his predecessors in the US presidency all the way back to Ronald Reagan.

Iran is no worse than many of America’s allies in the region (and better than some) in its treatment of its own citizens. It is no more prone to interfering in its neighbours than they are. Yet it is routinely treated by US administrations of both parties as a rogue state that poses a huge and unique threat to the peace of the Middle East. Why?

Because it defied the United States and got away with it. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 overthrew Washington’s puppet ruler, the Shah of Iran, and just as in the case of Castro’s revolution in Cuba, the United States has never forgiven it for that crime. Whereas by now Iranians have more or less forgiven the US for the CIA-backed coup in 1953 that destroyed Iranian democracy and gave the Shah supreme power in the first place.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“The Western…out”)