Rocket Man is back. Kim Jung Un’s North Korea has started test firing missiles again. This follows a failed Vietnam summit with U.S. president Donald Trump in Korea where the “Getting to Yes” strategy of that had been drawing the hermit nation’s leader into the open was hit with the cold water of a positional impasse over the de-nuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
A disappointed Un went through a predictable process of being spurned. He went to China and found that the Chinese have their own issues and agendas with the United States; that he’s a side show in a far grander game between two $16 trillion GDP behemoths balancing vastly differing domestic challenges while negotiating bi-lateral economic matters unique to the interests of the only true economic superpowers on the planet. Un went to Russia, the other military superpower and discovered little relief from Vladimir Putin’s tiny $1.2 trillion GDP was forthcoming. Putin knows he’s a guppy in an economic world war and is right to opt out of that fight. Kim Jung Un realized he is once again alone and isolated. When in doubt, you do what you know.
Following the Summit, the U.S. returned to a tougher Neocon stance of sanctions under the new leadership of John Bolton. Donald Trump’s world leadership signature “Art of the Deal” approach that to international policy all but disappeared.
It’s all about sanctions now. The U.S. is playing tough guy all over the planet again with predictable results; a hardening of battle lines and a lessening chance that the change the international landscape of the planet breakthroughs of the Trump rebellion will survive the establishment empire’s striking back.
Under Bolton, it’s all about compromising our enemies using economic sanctions as our spear for asymmetric warfare. At a recent conference on technology held at the FDIC, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin noted that as much as fifty-percent of his days now can be spent on sanctions. That tells me we have weaponized our economy straying far afield of the free market principles that make America great domestically and internationally.
It has rankled our allies and adversaries alike. Germany’s Andrea Merkel welcomed former president Barack Obama who basically told the European Union that he’s not sure America’s opposition party, the Democrats, have anything in the way of a useful alternative to offer.
Obama described his party’s condition akin to a circular firing squad more intent in infighting than cohesion at this junction. I doubt that offered much comfort to the Germans or any of the other socialist leaning governments in the EU.
Sanction-based international policy by the US seems to be increasing the desperation of countries like Iran whose rhetoric is becoming increasingly belligerent, albeit nonsensical. I mean how many times can you look at a side story on TV about an Iranian Revolutionary Guard general threatening to attack everything in the waters off Chah Bahar and Bandar Abbas if the US closes the Gulf, which we aren’t. What we are doing is working with other countries using our economic muscle to increase oil production elsewhere on the planet to crowd our Iranian and Venezuelan oil. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf State Sunni kingdoms, who have little love for Iran’s Shia Crescent ambitions, are more than happy to support the US in a classic the enemy of my enemy is my friend bedfellow arrangement. Meanwhile, Iran’s general’s wonder when they’ll be declared an international terrorist cell this enabling the now fully weaponized Treasury Department of Steve Mnuchin to launch a frontal assault on their bank accounts.
This is a weird world scenario where the dangers of someone going off half-cocked making a mistake are highly amplified. That’s always been the danger of establishment thinking in D.C. and it’s clearly returning to the conduct of U.S. international policy.
For instance, Venezuela’s Juan Guaido is attempting to draw the United States into taking overt action to overthrow Nicolas Maduro. This is like reading a chronicle of the Bay of Pigs all over again. Like then, the United States has little real incentive to involve itself in a shooting war between political factions in a sovereign nation to inherit a devastated economy and take on a minimum two-decade nation building project. Didn’t we just get out of one of those PTSD nightmares?
So what next?
I really think President Trump should trust his broken field innovation instincts again. It’s ok to upset the Establishment Mr. President. I offer the following observations.
First. With regards to North Korea, it’s never too late to launch a new series of incentives to bring Kim Jung Un back to the table. I believe the stick we applied at the Vietnam Summit setting the strong expectation that full denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula was the predicate for future progress was rightfully necessary. But we knew internal factions inside North Korea dissonant and we were remiss in failing to anticipate it by having a basket full of diplomatic carrot incentives ready to go even as the summit was faltering to work the problem of preventing the North Korean from going hermit. We’ve lost time and momentum that we didn’t have to. The National Security Council should be directed to come up with a comprehensive strategy to recapture that momentum that isn’t based on positional bargaining principles.
The same applies to managing places like Iran and Venezuela. Yes sir, the leadership of these rogue nations is questionable. All self-serving dictatorships are. But sanctions alone that offer no pathway out of the predicament won’t work either. Pride, even misguided pride, is a factor in global stability. These are proud and misguided people. They will apply themselves in misguided ways such as cheating on sanctions and hurting their own people to make a point of their belligerence to us. And they will find cracks in the world enough to survive almost any sanctioning regime we come up with. America is one of the lousiest empires to ever attempt siege warfare. That’s reality. We need to be more innovative.
Your administration was elected because we needed these changes in how things were done. The world needed these changes. Now is not the time to go conventional. If we do, the dream of making America great again will be lost.
And finally, we need to keep working with the Chinese. It’s tedious but the economic war between us is the world’s new Cold War. It’s fought with tariffs, trade agreements, import quotas, intellectual property as force elements instead of missile counts. But like it was with the Soviets, the global stability of the planet depends on two counter-parties working to get it right. We are much more partners in what we can do for the planet than we both realize. But the planet is depending of both of us figuring it out. We should devote ourselves to doing so.