August 10, 2017 | By Ivo H. Daalder

This Week's Reads - On North Korea, Separate What's New and What's Not


Tensions with North Korea have ratcheted up sharply in the past week. Sanctions on Pyongyang passed over the weekend by the UN Security Council were quickly followed by a North Korean threat to launch a “thousands-fold” retaliation against the United States. The next day, President Trump promised, if further provoked, "fire and fury like the world has never seen" against Kim Jong Un’s regime. The same day, the Washington Post reported that North Korea has succeeded in miniaturizing a nuclear weapon, which paired with Pyongyang’s newly tested ICBM technology, now puts the continental United States in range of a strike.

The latest polling by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, released Monday, is a revealing snapshot of American public opinion. Concern over North Korea's nuclear program has shot up, increasing 15 percentage points since 2016 and a full 20 percentage points since 2015. Yet military options lack widespread support, with just under 30 percent of Americans favoring an attack on North Korean nuclear facilities by US troops. Slightly more, 40 percent, support airstrikes alone. On the other hand, a meager 11 percent of Americans are willing to accept North Korea producing more nuclear weapons unabated.

Yet what is not new with North Korea is just as important as what has changed in the last week. After all, none of the regime’s new capabilities significantly overturns the underlying calculus on North Korea. Pyongyang retains the ability to destroy large sections of Seoul at a moment’s notice even without using nuclear weapons, as well as the capacity to target Tokyo and other major cities in the region. Both countries are home to large numbers of US troops -- so an attack on either would mean an attack on US forces and would thus be met by an overwhelmingly devastating response on North Korea. While a nuclear-fitted ICBM may indeed now give North Korea the chance to strike the continental United States, doing so remains technically difficult and strategically suicidal. Because Pyongyang cannot prevent a retaliatory strike, that would mean the end of the regime, if not of the country itself. For all of its antics and provocations, nothing so far suggests North Korean leadership is outright suicidal. Indeed, its main rationale for developing a nuclear program is not to quicken its demise, but rather to support its survival.

My own bottom line is that relying on long-standing structures of deterrence to hem in Pyongyang’s military options, while uncomfortable, can nonetheless be effective. Nor does a deterrence-based policy leave Washington without options to fight the threat further. Additional economic, diplomatic, and military pressure -- beyond simply a fusillade of hot rhetoric -- can be exerted on North Korea. And there is room for diplomacy. The coalition so well-crafted by the administration at the UN creates a united front against Pyongyang that could bolster any diplomatic effort. A firm but sober approach to the realities of the situation can ensure the security of the United States and its allies, even if it is unlikely to rid North Korea of its nuclear weapons or the ability to deliver them abroad.

As the articles in This Week’s Reads show, North Korean belligerence is just one of several thorny issues in the world today best met with a steady hand from Washington.

Can Japan Provide Answers to the West’s Economic Problems?

Robin Harding/Financial Times

It has been several decades since Japan was proclaimed the next great model for the West. Ezra Vogel’s Japan as Number One popularized the idea, but that was in 1979, before the bubble burst, debt skyrocketed, and the population peaked. Yet now, Robin Harding makes the case that the West could learn a thing or two from Japan. For supporters of Brexit, Harding writes, Japan is the country “that most resembles the low-immigration, sovereign on regulation, trade-led economy they seek.”

The Democracy Deficit: Is the US Model Still Viable?

Edward Luce/Financial Times

“What ails American democracy?” In seeking to answer this important question, Edward Luce lands on three important new books: Democracy by Condoleezza Rice, Dream Hoarders by Richard Reeves, and The Once and Future Liberal by Mark Lilla. It is an intriguing collection, with each book zeroing in on a different cause for America’s current democratic ailments. Read together, the books overcome individual shortcomings to offer a thorough examination of the US body politic. However, to round out the list, I think a fourth book should be added, Luce’s own excellent new work, The Retreat of Western Liberalism.

Trump’s Generals Are Trying to Save the World. Starting With the White House.

James Kitfield/Politico Magazine

President Trump is just like the majority of Americans. According to the latest Gallup poll, 72 percent of the US public has a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of trust in the military (compared with 32 percent in the presidency). The difference, of course, is that Trump’s trust comes with a job in his administration. The new White House chief of staff, Gen. John Kelly, joins Gen. James Mattis, Gen. Joseph Dunford, and Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster (and earlier, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn) as a “nexus of power” in an administration heavily populated with top military brass. In this Politico essay, James Kitfield explains how these military leaders see their mission now as overturning policies of the previous administration and reigning in the excesses of the current one.

Kelly’s Rules for Trump’s West Wing: Stop Bickering, Get in Early, Make an Appointment

Michael C. Bender and Rebecca Ballhaus/Wall Street Journal

One door has closed and another has opened. The appointment of John Kelly as White House chief of staff has already yielded new rules and procedures. One is the closing of the Oval Office door to prevent advisers from loitering just outside to get the president’s attention. To get to President Trump now, you have to go through Kelly -- a rule that even extends to Trump’s family. The new structure is a welcome and encouraging change, but will it last in an administration that has put such a high premium on its disruptive and unpredictable qualities? As one insider quoted in the article pessimistically sums up, “I give General Kelly four months.”

Vladimir Putin’s Russia Goes Global

Eugene Rumer and Andrew S. Weiss/Wall Street Journal

Putin’s ambitions go well beyond causing turmoil in Ukraine and propping up the Assad regime in Syria. From Nicaragua to Libya, and from Turkey to South Africa, the Kremlin is making concerning moves abroad argue Eugene Rumer and Andrew S. Weiss in this smart op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. Nor are the maneuvers by Moscow isolated or random. “The thread connecting Russia’s agenda. . .” Rumer and Weiss write, “is its aim of pulling as many international actors as possible away from the rules-based institutions and security arrangements that the US has worked so diligently to build over the past several generations.”

US Troops Train in Eastern Europe to Echoes of the Cold War

Eric Schmitt/The New York Times

Avoid fighting the last war. That advice, while always true, is even more appropriate when the last war and the next potential conflict take place in very different settings and under vastly different circumstances. This essay by Eric Schmitt in the New York Times follows 25,000 American and allied forces on a 10-day exercise across Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. The militaries have been tasked with unlearning the lessons accrued from years fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and relearning how to fight an army like Russia’s on a European front. As this report expertly details, it requires much more than simply swapping out desert camo for forest camo.

Brussels Fears Britain’s “Brexit Chaos” Part of Cunning Plan

Jakob Hanke and David M. Herszenhorn/Politico

All conspiracy theories share one important trait: the belief in near-perfect competence and execution by the actors perpetrating the conspiracy. In Brussels, write Jakob Hanke and David M. Herszenhorn in Politico, the apparent incompetency of Britain’s exit negotiations from the European Union is stirring up the theory that it’s all a rouse. European diplomats now suspect that the United Kingdom has adopted “a strategy of pretending not to have a strategy.” On some level, it’s comforting to believe that apparent chaos is actually an intended strategy, but in reality the simplest explanation is most often the correct one.

On Irish Border, Worries That ‘Brexit’ Will Undo a Hard-Won Peace

Sarah Lyall/The New York Times

Some 300 miles long, with more than 200 crossings, the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic could quickly find itself at the center of Brexit fallout. “In an instant,” writes Sarah Lyall in the New York Times, “one part of the island would be in Europe, and the other would not.” Today, people on both sides are wary, just as peace has taken hold in this once restive area, of constructing a “hard border” where the movement of people and goods now moves largely unimpeded.

Why the Middle East Hated Obama But Loves Trump

Susan B. Glasser/Politico Magazine

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri recently visited Washington and, after visiting the White House, spoke with Politico’s Susan B. Glasser. His country of six million is surrounded by problems, not to mention its own internal struggles. While Hariri’s discussion with Glasser was measured and diplomatic, she writes, “taken together his comments amount to a striking and stark indictment of Obama and much recent US policy in the Middle East.” The entire essay, with its accompanying audio interview, offers a revealing look into how the leadership of a key player in the Middle East thinks.

Departing AP Reporter Looks back at Venezuela’s Slide

Hannah Dreier/AP

Since 2014, Hannah Dreier has witnessed the spread of Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis as the AP’s point person in Caracas. “There was no war or natural disaster,” she writes. “Just ruinous mismanagement that turned the collapse of prices for the country’s oil in 2015 into a national catastrophe.” In this parting essay for the AP, Dreier tells the terrifying story of being kidnapped by masked men, interspersed with equally horrific vignettes about the catastrophic results of mismanagement by the socialist government of Nicolas Maduro. There is little in this must-read report from which to draw optimism about the immediate future of the country.


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