August 18, 2017 | By Ivo H. Daalder

This Week's Reads - It's Not Always Easy Being an Ally


It’s difficult to say how close we came to war with North Korea in the last couple of weeks. At times, the possibility of war felt too close for comfort. President Trump spoke of “fire and fury” and said the US military was “locked and loaded.” Then Pyongyang announced it was targeting the US territory of Guam, threatening to strike, which Defense Secretary James Mattis said would be "game on" for a devastating reprisal.

Yet now that North Korea has walked back its threat and the immediate danger of escalation into war seems to have passed, I’m struck when reflecting on the whole episode by how little attention the media commentariat paid to our allies South Korea and Japan. Both countries would undoubtedly feel the brunt of any conflict with Pyongyang. Ten million people in Seoul sit within range of North Korean artillery, after all. Yet both South Korea and Japan seemed almost an afterthought.

As I write in a new piece for the Financial Times, it’s not always easy being an ally of the United States, especially when your security depends on what happens in Washington rather than in your own capital. I go on to write,

The situation in north-east Asia has changed profoundly, and Tokyo and Seoul know it. Pyongyang can now threaten the US with a nuclear-tipped, long-range missile. That raises the possibility not only of a new nuclear threat to the American homeland, but also the prospect of increased instability elsewhere.

We have been here before. From 1958 to 1961, as the growing number and range of the Soviet nuclear arsenal for the first time posed a direct threat to the US, the Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev began threatening to cut western access to Berlin. Similarly, Pyongyang’s ability to strike mainland America means that Kim Jong Un may be even more emboldened, increasing the risks for miscalculation. America’s allies in Asia may soon find themselves again on the brink.

Read the entire op-ed here. As always, I welcome your comments and reflections.

Even the Most Precise Strike on North Korea Could Prompt Retaliation

Michael R. Gordon and Eric Schmitt/The New York Times

President Trump has said the US military is “locked and loaded” for North Korea. What, however, would it aim at? As this excellent report in the New York Times notes, it's not that there are few realistic, acceptable military options. It’s that there may be none. Start with the 250,000 Americans in South Korea who would have to be moved in the event of war. The bombardment of Seoul, a city of ten million, would alone be horrific -- and it would just be the start. Meanwhile, North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles remain well protected and mobile. “I can’t underscore enough how unappealing all the military options are,” Christine Wormuth, the Pentagon’s top policy official under Obama, told the Times.

We’re Holding Pyongyang to Account

Jim Mattis and Rex Tillerson/Wall Street Journal

The US secretaries of defense and state wrote this op-ed in the Wall Street Journal explaining the administration’s North Korea policy. What is notable about the piece is who the audience seems to be. Previous op-eds by administration officials have been for a domestic audience, such as the two pieces by H.R. McMaster and Gary Cohn defending against criticism of the president’s visits to Europe. However, the Mattis-Tillerson op-ed seems to be aimed at a North Korean and even Chinese audience. “The US has no interest in regime change or accelerated reunification of Korea,” Mattis and Tillerson write. “We do not seek an excuse to garrison US troops north of the Demilitarized Zone. We have no desire to inflict harm on the long-suffering North Korean people, who are distinct from the hostile regime in Pyongyang.”

Trump Threats Are Wild Card in Showdown with North Korea

Glenn Thrush and Peter Baker/The New York Times

There is a lot that is not new about the conflict with North Korea. We have seen similar events before, either with the Kim regime itself or in history with nuclear adversaries such as the USSR in the 1950s and 1960s (see my Financial Times op-ed for more on this). What is new, however, is President Trump, and the latest dust up with Pyongyang highlights his unique rhetorical flare and negotiating style. “Trump starts a negotiation with an extreme position intended to ensure that the other side meets him not just in the middle but closer to his side,” Glenn Thrush and Peter Baker explain in this smart piece for The New York Times. The approach worked for Trump in business; whether it works in diplomacy as well is still to be seen.

How to Resolve the North Korea Crisis

Henry A. Kissinger/Wall Street Journal

“An understanding between Washington and Beijing is the essential prerequisite for the denuclearization of Korea,” writes Henry Kissinger in the Wall Street Journal. No stranger to setting up US-China relations, Kissinger advises the current administration to stop treating Beijing as a kind of “subcontractor” to pressure Pyongyang and instead work with Chinese leaders. Beijing’s official position remains to see North Korea denuclearize. Giving Beijing a stake in how North Korea would denuclearize, and what the Korean peninsula would look like after, is the only workable option for Washington, Kissinger writes.

Even Trump Supporters Say Trade Is Good for the US, New Survey Shows

Ana Swanson/Washington Post

The latest polling by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs on what Americans think of trade is the centerpiece of this sharp article by Ana Swanson in the Washington Post. The results are surprising, not least to anyone who might think the US public has soured on globalization. As Swanson writes, “72 percent of respondents said trade is good for the US economy, while 78 percent said it is good for US consumers, both record highs in the survey's history.” Look at NAFTA, which is currently being renegotiated. Then-candidate Donald Trump called it the “worst trade deal in history,” yet it is more favorable among Americans now than it was a decade ago. After the Washington Post article, read the full report on US attitudes toward trade by the Council’s Dina Smeltz and Karen Whisler.

The Death of the Internal Combustion Engine

The Economist

Rows of rapid explosions connected to a tank of flammable liquid, all hurtling along at breakneck speed -- on paper, the internal combustion engine is ridiculous. But for over a hundred years it has been the most important instrument in human mobility. No more. “It had a good run,” says the Economist. “But the end is in sight for the machine that changed the world.” Electric engines and batteries are quickly gaining on -- and look to overtake in the coming decades -- pistons and gasoline. The switch will have far-reaching consequences, with lithium-rich countries such as Chile possibly poised to become the next Saudi Arabia.

Putin’s Goal: Revenge and Restoration

Leon Aron/Wall Street Journal

What does Vladimir Putin want? It’s a question that many have sought to answer since the largely unknown FSB office first became president of Russia at the turn of the century. Now, writes Leon Aron in the Wall Street Journal, we know. Putin’s “overarching foreign-policy objective is to weaken Western democratic institutions and alliances by relentlessly chipping away at their legitimacy and popular support.” In Ukraine, in Syria, and during the 2016 US presidential election, the connecting thread of Russian meddling has been a “zero-sum game of revenge and restoration” for Putin.

Why Russia Is Foolish Not to Invite NATO Observers to Its War Games

The Economist

In 2009, there was a nuclear strike on Warsaw. That was the fictional scenario concluding Russia's Zapad military exercise that year. Held every four years, Zapad is expected this year to include as many as 100,000 troops. It will, as the Economist notes, “be the biggest military exercise in Europe since the end of the Cold War.” Not that Russia would claim such as distinction. The Kremlin routinely insists far fewer troops are involved in the Zapad exercises. The deception is a transparent flouting of international agreements to include outside observers in larger military exercises. Russia, the Economist article says, could easily invite observers, just as it could work to improve military-to-military relations with NATO countries. That Russia does not amounts to nothing less than an intention to intimidate and bully other countries in Europe with its military exercises.

Orban’s Vision of a New Europe Will Struggle to Succeed

Ivan Krastev/Financial Times

Populism, nationalism, reactionary politics, illiberalism -- all come to a head in Viktor Orban’s Hungary. Yet as Ivan Krastev writes in the Financial Times, Orban’s sights go beyond Hungary’s borders, all the way to Brussels, where he is seeking to marshal support to push Europe’s politics rightward. “The Orban plan is to use the anxiety caused by the refugee crisis to push the European People’s party grouping of center-right parties in the European Parliament to adopt positions usually associated with the far right.” But even in his own country, to say nothing of the rest of Europe, Orban faces strong pushback.

The Danger from Low-Skilled Immigrants: Not Having Them

Eduardo Porter/The New York Times

A surge of low-skilled workers coming into the United States increases competition with the under- and unemployed workers already here, driving down wages. There’s a mechanical simplicity to this logic, writes Eduardo Porter in The New York Times. There’s only one problem. It’s largely wrong, especially when you look at the big picture. Here Porter makes the case that immigration “often leads to the creation of new jobs -- at better wages -- for natives, too. Notably, it can help many Americans to move up the income ladder.” Just as important, the article is a persuasive case for approaching this often divisive and emotional issue with nuance and facts.


The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. We convene leading global voices and conduct independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization. All statements of fact and expressions of opinion in blog posts are the sole responsibility of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Council.


| By Ian Klaus

Did the UNSG Say “Revolution”?

While there is nothing convenient about 2020, the upcoming Pritzker Forum on Global Cities has been helpfully anticipated by a series of publications that speak to the high stakes currently in play in cities around the world and the urgent need - from the perspective of both efficacy and equity - to adapt governance practices.

| By Laurence Ralph, Thomas Abt, Brian Hanson

Deep Dish: Police Reform Lessons from Around the World

Princeton University’s Laurence Ralph and the Council on Criminal Justice’s Thomas Abt join Deep Dish to explain why police brutality is not a uniquely American phenomenon and argue the strongest examples of successful police reform come from outside the United States.