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It’s Not (Quite) As Bad As It Seems

In a particularly bad week for wrecking behaviour, Donald Trump trashed the NATO summit, declared the European Union a “foe”, undermined Prime Minister Theresa May’s attempts to get a ‘soft’ Brexit for Britain, sucked up to the Russians and betrayed his own intelligence services. But his actions made it clear that the NATO alliance is of limited relevance and that a new military confrontation with the Russians would be pointless folly.

He didn’t actually say either of those things last week (although he has said them both in the past). But despite the usual blizzard of off-the-cuff, contradictory Trumpian statements, a couple of truths did become obvious.

One is that Trump is Russia’s man in the White House. It is not clear what kind of hold Moscow has on him, but it clearly has one. The other is that there is almost no military dimension to the ‘Russian threat’ in Europe, so NATO does not need to spend more money.

Trump likes to sound tough. “Get ready, Russia, because (American missiles) will be coming, nice and new and smart!” he tweeted over a transient crisis in Syria three months ago. After last week’s NATO summit he claimed to have bullied the Europeans into spending much more on defence (against the Russian threat, of course).

But he never fired those missiles although the Russians didn’t back down. He didn’t really get any new promises from the Europeans last week to spend more money on NATO. And when he went to Moscow on Sunday, he declared that America was to blame for the poor state of US-Russian relations.

“Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!” Trump tweeted. Three hours later the Russian Foreign Ministry replied: “We agree.” And it’s true, apart from the bit about the ‘witch hunt’.

After a two-hour meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin with only translators present, Trump announced that he accepted Putin’s denials about Russian attempts to use social media to influence the 2016 US election. “They (the US intelligence services) think it’s Russia,” Trump said. “President Putin just said it’s not Russia. I don’t see any reason why it would be.”

Well, Putin himself mentioned one plausible reason for Russia to interfere in the US election at the very same press conference: he wanted Trump to win the election. But there was a great outcry in every part of the United States about how Trump had “thrown America under the bus,” as one Fox News reporter put it.

Now, let’s pick this all apart and try to make sense of it. Trump’s betrayal of the American intelligence services was a natural and necessary part of his campaign to discredit them, because he fears that they have or will discover evidence that links him to the Russian intervention in the US election.

There was a huge backlash in the US because even Trump’s own supporters were dismayed to see him value the Russian dictator’s words more highly than those of American intelligence professionals. Within a day he had been forced to admit, for the first time, that there had indeed been Russian meddling in the US election process in 2016.

He also had to backtrack on his claim that the United States was to blame for the heightened tension with Russia, tweeting that “We’re all to blame” and that he held “both countries responsible.” But actually, he was right about that the first time.

If the United States had treated the badly wounded post-Soviet Russia less brutally in the 1990s, nurturing the fragile new Russian democracy instead of taking all the Eastern European countries into NATO and pushing the alliance’s military frontier right up to the former Soviet border, there might never have been support in Russia for an aggrieved nationalist like Putin.

It’s too late to fix that now, but Russia is still not a major military threat. It has lots of modern tanks and missiles, because that’s what nationalist leaders do, but its economy is only the size of Italy’s and it could not sustain a prolonged military confrontation with NATO. That’s why Putin concentrates on non-military initiatives like his interference in the 2016 US election (and apparently in Britain’s 2017 Brexit referendum as well).

So it makes perfectly good sense for NATO’s European members to spend 2% or less of their resources on defence. NATO is really about defending Europe, and Europe doesn’t need much defending.

It’s true, as Trump regularly points out, that the United States spends 4% of its GDP on defence, but that’s because it has military commitments all over the world. In fact, it’s unlikely that even 2% of US resources is spent on forces, weapons and tasks that are specifically related to NATO.

The good news is that though the populists and ultra-nationalists are on the rise in the West (including Russia), raw military power still plays a minor role in the relations of the great powers. Hacking and the other digital dark arts are playing a much bigger role, and it is proving hard to get them under control. But which would you prefer?
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6, 8 and 15. (“Our…hunt”; “Well…it”; and “It’s…NATO”)

The Singapore Summit

If the Singapore meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un had been a zero-sum game, then Trump definitely lost. But maybe it wasn’t.

Kim got a meeting with Trump on terms of strict equality right down to the number of flags on display, which is a huge boost for his regime’s claim to legitimacy. He persuaded Trump to end America’s annual joint military exercises with South Korea (and even got Trump to call them ‘war games’ and say they were ‘provocative’, which no US spokesperson has ever done before).

And he got Trump to accept North Korea’s deliberately vague language about the “denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula”, with no specific reference to North Korea’s nuclear weapons, let alone any talk of dismantling them. In fact, the agreement they signed talked about “re-affirming” North Korea’s denuclearisation pledge, so obviously no progress there.

This is several light-years distant from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s pre-summit definition of the US goal as “permanent, verifiable, irreversible dismantling of North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction,” which must happen “without delay.”

There’s no cause for surprise here. Trump is not a great deal-maker; he’s a man who is accomplished at playing the role of a great deal-maker. The reality is more like the contract he signed with Tony Schwartz, who ghost-wrote ‘The Art of the Deal’, the book that made him famous: 50% of the advance, 50% of royalties, and equal billing on the cover. Schwartz was as surprised and pleased then as Kim undoubtedly is now.

If Trump had had a little more time in Singapore, he could have bought a T-shirt saying ‘My president went to Singapore and all I got was this lousy T-shirt’ and taken it home to give to the American people.

He would have needed a bigger apology-gift for the South Korean government, which was blindsided by Trump’s spur-of-the-moment promise to stop the joint military exercises. “We need to find out the exact meaning or intention behind his comments at this point,” Seoul said in an unmistakably sulky tone of voice. (Seoul’s mistake is to assume that Trump himself knew his “exact meaning or intention.”)

But this was not really a negotiation. It was a show, staged for the benefit of the two main participants, and they both got what they came for. They were bound to get it, since they had the power to define the meeting as either a success or a failure. Naturally, they said it was a success – but that doesn’t mean it was actually a failure.

All this zero-sum game nonsense is irrelevant to what is really happening here, or at least could happen in the months to come: the gradual acceptance by the United States that North Korea is irreversibly a nuclear weapons power, although a small one, and the negotiation of some basic rules for this new relationship between two nuclear powers of radically different size.

Diplomatic and military experts have been saying for years that there is no way that North Korea will ever give up its nuclear weapons. The whole country lived on short rations for a generation to get them, and Kim is well aware of what happened to dictators who didn’t have nukes, like Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi.

The experts are right, but they do not see this situation as necessarily a cause for panic. After all, more evenly matched pairs of nuclear powers, like India and Pakistan, or the United States and Russia, have managed to avoid nuclear war for decades. Nuclear deterrence, as Bernard Brodie pointed out more than 70 years ago, works even when there is a huge disparity in the number of weapons possessed by the two sides.

If North Korea has even a marginal ability to destroy one US city with a nuclear weapon, the United States is effectively deterred from using nuclear weapons against it. (Except if the US could count on destroying every one of Kim’s nuclear-tipped missiles in a surprise first strike – but that’s why North Korea will move them around or dig them in deep.)

North Korea is and will remain totally deterred from attacking the United States, because it would be utterly destroyed in a massive American counter-strike. So the deterrence is mutual and relatively stable, barring huge technological surprises or crazy or suicidal leaders.

That is the destination the US-North Korean relationship is heading for, because it is the only one that reality permits. Kim is almost certainly seeking it quite consciously, although it’s unlikely that Trump has ever thought of it in these terms. Indeed, there is some evidence that he is not even clear on the basic concept of deterrence.

No matter. That’s what Trump is heading for, and by the time he gets there he will undoubtedly think that it was his goal all along. There will be more meetings, probably including a Kim visit to the White House, and the two countries will move, slowly and crabwise, towards the mutual deterrence that will define their future relationship.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 7. (“There’s…now”; and “He would…intention”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Korea: The Real Deal

The summit is on, it’s off, it’s sort of on again. It’s amateur night every night at the White House, and the fate of the US-North Korean summit scheduled for Singapore on 12 June will be decided by the coin Donald Trump flips each day: heads three days in a row means ‘yes’, tails three days in a row and the meeting stays cancelled.

So let’s not waste time speculating on the unknowable. Let us just assume that the meeting between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un actually goes ahead in the end. What would be a good outcome that stays within the bounds of plausibility?

One that avoids a nuclear war, obviously, but it’s equally obvious that neither party is going to abandon its nuclear weapons. The United States, as the first country to build nuclear bombs and the only country ever to use them, sees having thousands of them as its birthright and would never consider giving them up. North Korea’s regime has only a few, but sees them as the only real guarantee of its survival.

But that can’t be entirely true, because North Korea had already survived for 57 years before it tested its first nuclear explosive device in 2006. It was another dozen years before it built a very small but theoretically effective force of nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles that could, on a good day and with a tail-wind, reach the United States. Only now has Pyongyang
achieved nuclear deterrence against the US. What protected it before that?

What served North Korea as deterrence until 2017 was a very big army (twice the size of South Korea’s army PLUS the American troops stationed in South Korea), and the ability to destroy Seoul within a day or two using only conventional artillery and rockets.

Seoul’s northern suburbs are only 50 km from the North Korean border, well within the range of many thousands of North Korean artillery pieces, and the metropolitan area is home to half of South Korea’s 50 million people. As the capital, it also contains almost all the government ministries and military headquarters. Not even US nuclear weapons could save it from destruction in a North-South war.

So forget about both sides’ nuclear weapons and concentrate on the conventional balance. South Korea has twice North Korea’s population but only half as many soldiers on active service, because Seoul would rather save money and rely on (American-supplied) nuclear deterrence. Now that North Korea has nukes of its own, it too can afford to shrink its army by at least half. In fact, it can’t really afford not to.

Kim Jong-un would gain a lot if the summit actually happens. Just by sitting down with a US president as an equal he would win the kind of international legitimacy that always eluded his father and grandfather. If he also got an American promise not to try to overthrow him and a suspension of US economic sanctions, his success would be complete. But what could he offer the US and South Korea in return?

Kim has already unilaterally suspended both nuclear weapons testing and further ballistic missile flight tests in order to attract Trump to the table, but he must come up with some other concessions to get the rest of what he wants. How about a deal that commits him to reduce North Korea’s army to the same size as South Korea’s, and an agreement by both sides to move their artillery at least 50 km back from the inter-Korean border?

That sort of deal would save Kim a lot of money without exposing him to any serious risk: it’s his secret police, not the army, that keeps his population in line. South Korea would still have no credible ability to attack the North, and Kim’s own ability to threaten Seoul with a “sea of fire” would evaporate because he would first have to move his artillery back to the border area along roads totally exposed to US and South Korean air power.

This is what successful diplomatic deals actually look like. They are often asymmetric in some details, but they are more or less balanced overall and they give both parties what they really need.

What Trump needs is a diplomatic triumph that feeds his ego and maybe gets him the Nobel Peace Prize, while giving him a plausible excuse not to insist on the unattainable goal of eliminating North Korea’s rudimentary nukes and ICBMs.

Kim can afford to give him concessions on other military issues, because even a 10% chance that one North Korean ICBM could deliver one nuclear weapon on an American city is deterrent enough to preclude any US attack on North Korea. In return, North Korea gets an end to sanctions and huge savings on its bloated military spending.

No promises, but this actually could happen. And if Trump and Kim did get the Nobel Peace Prize for it, so what? It’s meant as a reward for saints, but it works just as well as bait for scoundrels.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 8. (“Seoul’s…war”; and “Kim Jong-un…return”)

By Gwynne Dyer

The summit is on, it’s off, it’s sort of on again. It’s amateur night every night at the White House, and the fate of the US-North Korean summit scheduled for Singapore on 12 June will be decided by the coin Donald Trump flips each day: heads three days in a row means ‘yes’, tails three days in a row and the meeting stays cancelled.

So let’s not waste time speculating on the unknowable. Let us just assume that the meeting between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un actually goes ahead in the end. What would be a good outcome that stays within the bounds of plausibility?

One that avoids a nuclear war, obviously, but it’s equally obvious that neither party is going to abandon its nuclear weapons. The United States, as the first country to build nuclear bombs and the only country ever to use them, sees having thousands of them as its birthright and would never consider giving them up. North Korea’s regime has only a few, but sees them as the only real guarantee of its survival.

But that can’t be entirely true, because North Korea had already survived for 57 years before it tested its first nuclear explosive device in 2006. It was another dozen years before it built a very small but theoretically effective force of nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles that could, on a good day and with a tail-wind, reach the United States. Only now has Pyongyang
achieved nuclear deterrence against the US. What protected it before that?

What served North Korea as deterrence until 2017 was a very big army (twice the size of South Korea’s army PLUS the American troops stationed in South Korea), and the ability to destroy Seoul within a day or two using only conventional artillery and rockets.

Seoul’s northern suburbs are only 50 km from the North Korean border, well within the range of many thousands of North Korean artillery pieces, and the metropolitan area is home to half of South Korea’s 50 million people. As the capital, it also contains almost all the government ministries and military headquarters. Not even US nuclear weapons could save it from destruction in a North-South war.

So forget about both sides’ nuclear weapons and concentrate on the conventional balance. South Korea has twice North Korea’s population but only half as many soldiers on active service, because Seoul would rather save money and rely on (American-supplied) nuclear deterrence. Now that North Korea has nukes of its own, it too can afford to shrink its army by at least half. In fact, it can’t really afford not to.

Kim Jong-un would gain a lot if the summit actually happens. Just by sitting down with a US president as an equal he would win the kind of international legitimacy that always eluded his father and grandfather. If he also got an American promise not to try to overthrow him and a suspension of US economic sanctions, his success would be complete. But what could he offer the US and South Korea in return?

Kim has already unilaterally suspended both nuclear weapons testing and further ballistic missile flight tests in order to attract Trump to the table, but he must come up with some other concessions to get the rest of what he wants. How about a deal that commits him to reduce North Korea’s army to the same size as South Korea’s, and an agreement by both sides to move their artillery at least 50 km back from the inter-Korean border?

That sort of deal would save Kim a lot of money without exposing him to any serious risk: it’s his secret police, not the army, that keeps his population in line. South Korea would still have no credible ability to attack the North, and Kim’s own ability to threaten Seoul with a “sea of fire” would evaporate because he would first have to move his artillery back to the border area along roads totally exposed to US and South Korean air power.

This is what successful diplomatic deals actually look like. They are often asymmetric in some details, but they are more or less balanced overall and they give both parties what they really need.

What Trump needs is a diplomatic triumph that feeds his ego and maybe gets him the Nobel Peace Prize, while giving him a plausible excuse not to insist on the unattainable goal of eliminating North Korea’s rudimentary nukes and ICBMs.

Kim can afford to give him concessions on other military issues, because even a 10% chance that one North Korean ICBM could deliver one nuclear weapon on an American city is deterrent enough to preclude any US attack on North Korea. In return, North Korea gets an end to sanctions and huge savings on its bloated military spending.

No promises, but this actually could happen. And if Trump and Kim did get the Nobel Peace Prize for it, so what? It’s meant as a reward for saints, but it works just as well as bait for scoundrels.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 8. (“Seoul’s…war”; and “Kim Jong-un…return”)

Iran Deal: A Bird in the Hand…

It is generally agreed that a bird in the hand is worth two (or three, or more) in the bush. President Trump, however, does not see it that way.

It has been a busy week in Washington as first French President Emmanuel Macron and then German Chancellor Angela Merkel dropped in to try to persuade Trump not to pull out of the 2015 deal that prevented Iran from developing nuclear weapons for the next ten years. They failed.

As Macron said: “My view is that [Trump] will get rid of this deal on his own, for domestic reasons.” The response of America’s three most important allies has been to break decisively with the United States on the issue: on Sunday Macron and Merkel joined with British Prime Minister Theresa May in declaring that the Iran nuclear deal is “the best way of neutralising the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran.”

This is the most dramatic split in the Western alliance since Germany and France refused to go along with the foolish and illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003 (but Britain went along with it to preserve its imaginary influence in Washington). Indeed, the only American allies that have been urging Trump to pull the plug on the nuclear deal are Israel and the conservative Arab states, which hope to draw the US into a war with Iran.

They are the exceptions because they are the only countries that actually feel threatened by Iranian nuclear weapons. Well, maybe Pakistan too, since that country’s six nuclear explosions in 1998 were the catalyst that set Iran’s nuclear weapons programme in motion. On the other hand, Israel already has hundreds of nuclear weapons and shouldn’t worry so much. Deterrence works.

A nuclear-armed Iran would certainly pose no threat to any of the six countries that signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the 2015 deal that put Iran’s nuclear weapons programme on hold. The US, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China all have far more nuclear weapons than Iran would ever possess (or, in Germany’s case, belongs to an alliance that does). Deterrence still works.

So why did they all bother? Probably because they prefer an Israeli monopoly on nuclear weapons in the Middle East. They don’t all love Israel, but if more countries in the region had nukes, the Middle East’s endless wars might one day lead to a local nuclear exchange. Maybe that could be contained in the region, but maybe not; some of the major regional powers have outside allies.

So there was general support on the United Nations Security Council for stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons, and UN economic sanctions were placed on Iran from 2006 onwards. US sanctions were far older, but the deal that was signed in 2015 ended all UN sanctions and the most severe US sanctions, which targeted Iranian banks and oil exports.

Unfortunately for Iran, the country remained largely excluded from the world banking system because banks feared the re-imposition of the sanctions, and so much of the economic relief Iran expected from the end of sanctions never arrived. There is therefore growing hostility in Iran to the JCPOA deal, but why is it even stronger in the White House?

Trump talks about Iran “cheating” on the deal. (International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors have certified eleven times since 2016 that Iran is meeting its obligations.)

He calls the deal “insane” and the “worst ever”, complaining that it imposed only a ten-year ban on Iran’s suspect nuclear activities, did not stop the country from testing ballistic missiles, and did not stop Iran from interfering in other countries. “They should have made a deal that covered Yemen, that covered Syria, that covered other parts of the Middle East,” he said.

These are birds in the bush, and they were never within reach. It took two years of negotiation just to get a deal for 10 years of restrictions on the Iranian nuclear programme in return for an end to UN economic sanctions. There was no way that Iran was going to place its foreign, military and energy policies under UN supervision forever. The deal accepted by Obama in 2015 was realistic; Trump’s preferred substitute is pure fantasy.

What really drives Trump’s hatred of the deal, in all likelihood, is simply the fact that it was one of Obama’s major successes – what Macron referred to as “domestic reasons”. It fits a pattern: Trump’s cancellation of the trans-Pacific trade deal, the US withdrawal from the climate pact, the largely unsuccessful assault on health care (‘Obamacare’), and now the attack on the Iran nuclear deal.

So Trump will repudiate the Iran deal on 12 May, or maybe a little later. It will probably then die (although the other five countries will try to keep it going), because Iranians’ pride will not let them stay in a deal whose benefits, in terms of access to world trade, have evaporated. And in Pyongyang, Kim Jong-un will draw his conclusions about the reliability of the United States as a negotiating partner.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“This…works”)