North Korea: Part III—Why I Already Worry About South Korea

In the aftermath of North Korea’s Sept 3 nuclear test, a Donald Trump Twitterstorm delivered its greatest disdain not to North Korea, but instead South Korea. Trump accused Seoul of being overly pacifist in the face of the North’s belligerence, as well as using a wide variety of measures to steal jobs from American workers. Later, piling on his own comments, Trump indicated that he was highly likely to soon withdraw completely from the United States’ free trade pact with South Korea.

Many found themselves head-scratching. The United States seems to be sliding towards a military confrontation with North Korea, and in any war scenario, coordination between the United States and South Korea would be key. As the New York Times editorial board summed it up,

“For Mr. Trump, the crisis lays bare how his trade agenda – the bedrock of his economic populist campaign in 2016 – is increasingly at odds with the security agenda he has pursued as president. It is largely a problem of Mr. Trump’s own making. Unlike several of his predecessors, who were able to press countries on trade issues while cooperating with them on security, Mr. Trump has explicitly linked the two…”

Unpacking all this – North Korea, South Korea, Trump and the relationship between trade and security – requires a few steps back.

American foreign policy since World War II has been based on a simple premise: the United States will create a global security structure for its allies, enabling them to access resources and markets the world over without the need to protect themselves, those resources or those markets. In exchange, those allies would allow the Americans to fight the Cold War their way. In essence the Americans bribed up an alliance via the Bretton Woods system to fight the Soviets, and in doing so not only attracted the allegiance of traditional cultural allies, but also countries with which the Americans had fought long, bitter wars – up to and including the former Axis and the U.S. own former colonial master. The end result was the strongest military alliance in human history, and also history’s longest and greatest period of peace and prosperity because nearly every imperial power of the past was on the same side (with the notable and obvious exception of the Soviet Union).

To put this in the Times‘ lexicon, trade and security were linked – with the Americans sacrificing their position on the former in order to gain deference on the latter.

The Cold War ended in 1989. The Soviet Union dissolved in 1992. And at the moment of truth when then-President George HW Bush stood poised to update America’s strategic policy, he was booted out of office in a federal election. His successor – Bill Clinton – had no time for foreign policy and so let the old system ride without a foe. The next U.S. President – George W Bush – pursued a monochromatic foreign policy completely focused on the Islamic world, and he too let the Cold War trade-for-security rubric continue, just without the trade-off. Then came Barack Obama who, in essence, didn’t have a foreign policy at all. Obama would on occasion go through the motions and say the right things about trade and allies, but actions were but rarely matched with words and the whole system atrophied. After 24 years of autopilot, the world barely resembles the bipolar alignment of 1945-1989. New power centers – think China – have emerged into what feels like a more multi-polar system.

Seoul, South Korea

This is the world the Times sees: trade and security are no longer linked. The United States negotiates on trade as an independent topic, while providing security for the global commons free-of-charge.

Everyone would do well to remember three facts:

First, throughout human history, there has never been a multipolar period in which widespread wars among constantly-shifting alliances were not the norm. If a post-American, multi-polar system really is where the world is headed, the future will be a dark, poor and war-torn place as various regional powers struggling for regional supremacy utterly overturn the global trade system that makes the world’s current safety, wealth and prosperity possible. For example, if the U.S. releases the security reins, Japan and China quickly fall into cutthroat competition over Middle Eastern oil. (Fun fact: there’s a full chapter on this “Tanker War” in The Absent Superpower.)

Second, all the powers that have arisen since 1989 are utterly dependent upon the security and trade systems the Americans created to fight the Cold War, and none of them are capable of taking up that burden from the United States. The U.S. Navy is more powerful than the combined navies of the rest of the world by a factor of ten (and that without nuclear weapons), and even if multiple powers could agree to pool their forces…whose interests would they look out for? It is hard to imagine the Chinese contributing to a force that facilitates French commercial penetration into Southeast Asia or the French navy providing the security environment required for Chinese commercial penetration into Belgium. If there is no American commitment to global order, there is no global order. That pushes every trans-national organization designed around a benevolent global security environment – that’s everything from the European Union to the Chinese Communist Party – over the brink.

Third, for the Americans, trade hasn’t been about economics – it’s been about security. Trade was the bribe to get all the world’s once-imperial powers to cooperate. Not only does an American withdrawal unleash heretofore quiescent powers as varied as Japan, the United Kingdom, and Iran to attempt to reshape their neighborhoods more to their liking, it further means that the Americans never really integrated their economy into the global whole like nearly everyone else did. And since the United States is by far the leastintegrated of the significant countries into the global trade system, it would be the one to suffer the least should that system collapse.

You might not care for Donald Trump very much, but if the United States is getting out of the global management business, you’ve got to admit that a rejiggering of the relationship between trade and security makes a lot of sense. (Whether the specifics of Trump’s preferred rejiggering make sense is, of course, an entirely different topic.)

And what about the raft of countries that did not even exist before 1945 because the various regional powers could easily subjugate them? What about places that in the intervening decades used this historic opportunity to transform themselves from backwaters to advanced economies? What happens to them when the global environment changes?

What happens to South Korea?

South Korea is a country roughly the size of Indiana with a mid-sized population and a gigantic role in global trade, currently ranking in the top ten in terms of total value of trade. Its markets span the world, with the majority not within a thousand miles. It sucks down vast volumes of raw materials – again, almost none of which are from East Asia – including over 2 million barrels of crude a day, almost all of which is sourced from the Persian Gulf. American economic sponsorship has transformed South Korea from being the world’s fifth-poorest country in 1953 to one of the richest. Remove the Americans from the world writ large, and South Korea would experience an economic crash at least twice as bad as the Great Depression.

Then there is South Korea’s military problem. The United States is South Korea’s security policy. U.S. troops not only face off against North Koreans opposite the demilitarized zone, American rapid reaction forces are stationed in Seoul, elsewhere in South Korea, Japan and throughout the Pacific to respond to any military situation the North might trigger. Remove the Americans, and the South Koreans lose air superiority, naval strike capability, ballistic missile reach, cruise missiles, missile defense and all those tough, zippy tanks. In a North-South war I firmly believe the South would emerge victorious – invasion routes through the DMZ are remarkably constrained and the South’s industrial plant and population are much larger than the North’s – but the damage to the south would be immense: North Korea has dug thousands of artillery emplacements into the hills on their side of the DMZ, most of which could target Seoul with withering fire. It isn’t something that anyone is looking forward to.

Finally, there is the overall American strategic angle:

Part and parcel of the Americans maintaining the Bretton Woods system is making the world safe and keeping the American market open for everyone. In the case of South Korea, that has come at immense cost.

As a mid-sized economy, South Korea could only develop with the direct physical and economic sponsorship of the United States. Resource-poor South Korea could have never obtained the raw materials and energy it needs without Bretton Woods. It would have never been independent without the U.S. military’s involvement in the Korean War and the decades since. It could have never grown without the American position in the Persian Gulf to ensure energy flows. It could have never built its infrastructure and industrial plant without American capital. It could have never exported its way to affluence without the American market. And there is meat to Trump’s trade accusations against South Korea: South Korea regularly uses everything from corporate welfare to state-sponsored intellectual property theft to advance corporate Korea’s interests.

The mismatch in the American mind between South Korea’s (lack of) commitment to American actions against North Korea, and the ongoing outlay of American blood and treasure for South Korea’s benefit has been an irritant in relations between Washington and Seoul since the Carter administration. The only thing that’s new about the recent criticism from the White House is that it is public. If the Americans really do back away from maintaining the global system, South Korea – as a country that cannot possibly field a navy capable of securing the markets and resources it needs – faces cataclysmic decline.

Yet while the South Koreans cannot do much about their economic exposure, they can do quite a bit about their military position. The land of Samsung, LG and Hyundai is one of the world’s most technologically advanced economies. Remove the Americans from the equation and the South will arm itself very rapidly. But tanks and planes and missiles all take time.

For a first-world country like South Korea with a lively civilian atomic power program, nukes are much easier. Delivering a ruggedized, miniaturized, thermonuclear weapon halfway around the world is hard stuff. But that’s not what South Korea would need to do. They’d just need a basic device they can lob a couple hundred kilometers. The South Koreans could probably build an explosive nuclear device in a matter of days, and mate it to a bare-bones delivery system shortly thereafter. The North Korean leadership – used to needling a Washington who views Pyongyang as a mere irritant rather than a terrified, angry sibling who knows just where to kick for the biggest effect – probably doesn’t not yet realize just how complicated their lives are about to become.

And keep in mind that North Korea is only South Korea’s danger-of-the-month. Before World War II, what is today’s South Korea tended to alternate between being an unwilling colony of Japan or China. Under most scenarios South Korea may be the runt of the neighborhood, but it will be a runt with a desperate population, a functional nuclear program and a couple million engineering doctorates used to making the impossible a functional reality. Poor, friendless, nuclear-armed, devilishly creative and testy – that is South Korea’s future.

The South Koreans won’t be alone.

Every country that was once either an imperial power or an imperial province is going to have to beef up its military simply to look after its own interests, and South Korea is hardly the only smallish country that lives in a dangerous neighborhood. A partial list of countries about to face drastically different security environments and starkly poorer economic futures while also boasting sufficient technical (and/or financial) skills to acquire a nuke include Sweden, Finland, Poland, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Japan, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. All of which have pressing security concerns now, much less after the global security architecture collapses. For those of you into international relations, you may recall that some of the personalities that have topped some of those countries make Donald Trump seem calm, prudent and patient in comparison.

Each of these countries – indeed, nearly every country likely to go nuclear in the next couple of decades – sees a very specific security threat very close to home, and in no case is that threat the United States. One of the few topics on which I agree with today’s Twitterati is that a nuclear exchange is very likely a part of the not-so-distant future. But that doesn’t mean it’ll be part of America’s.

North Korea: Part II—Why I Might Start Worrying About North Korea

The technical aspects of a fully-functioning nuclear weapons program are daunting. A warhead is useless unless it can reach your target. Intercontinental ballistic missiles must be accurate, durable enough to withstand the considerable pressures of the launch, transit (including a sub-orbital spaceflight), and re-entry. Since the distance between North Korea and its primary targets in the US are so considerable, fueling is key (solid fuels are trickier but offer more distance for a smaller volume), and you need a warhead that is small enough to fit at the tip of an ICBM without weighing it down too much but also powerful enough to pack a wallop (the so-called miniaturization stage, perhaps the trickiest of the lot).

It took the Soviet Union and United States the better part of two decades to master the complex process of physics, chemistry, metallurgy and engineering to construct reliable, intercontinental nuclear weapons arsenal. To think that North Korea can do the same with less than one percent the resources in a shorter timeframe is, to put it bluntly, paranoia. And even that assumes that the politics of North Korea are pushing the country in the direction of a hot war with the United States. In Part I of this series, I laid out just how unlikely that all is and why I’m not all that concerned about North Korea.

But things may be changing.

Recent changes to such outside assessments are why I’ve broken with my normal policy of ignoring North Korea to give my view on where North Korea is today, and what could well be about to happen.

Throughout August there have been rafts of leaks out of U.S. intelligence institutions and a great deal of propaganda out of North Korea on the status of the North Korean nuclear and missile programs. All point to a sharp increase in the speed of technical achievement of said programs: longer range missiles, different materials that enable for stable missile reentry, progress in miniaturizing nuclear devices to make them missile-mountable, indications of changes to the device geometry that would increase both yield and stability, and so on.

Seoul, South Korea

On September 3, North Korea tested what Pyongyang claims to have been a “thermonuclear” device rather than simply a mere “nuclear” device, which serves as a case in point. A run-of-the-mill nuclear device uses conventional explosives to split unstable uranium atoms in a process called fission: as the atoms split they unleash additional energy, magnifying the destructive potential of the initial blast. A more advanced thermonuclear device instead uses a smaller atomic device to combine light elements (typically hydrogen) to make heavier elements in a process called fusion: hydrogen atoms are smooshed together (scientific term), knocking off protons and again unleashing a devastating amount of energy. Both generate a massive amount of energy and will generally ruin your day even if you are blissfully ignorant to the difference between the two, but a fusion device requires less fuel and a smaller assembly and so is easier to mount on a missile making it the more problematic weapons system from the American point of view.

Considering how tightly-closed the North Korean system is – particularly when it comes to weapon specs – I find the near-simultaneous release of all this information a bit… convenient. On the American side, leaks about advances in miniaturization have the feel of a bureau’s carefully-crafted effort to attain more funding. On the NorK side of things, some of the propaganda is just stupid – for example the claim that Pyongyang’s new device is yield-adjustable (that it can be preprogrammed to detonate at variable explosive power levels). Such a technological advance would make North Korean nuke tech equal to current Russian and American nuke tech.

Yet too much has changed too fast for me to simply dismiss the lot. If several of the items leaked and proclaimed the past five weeks are true, then the entire balance of the region and American policy towards it change dramatically. It is one thing to toy around with nukes in your basement, quite another to mount them onto missiles, put them on your lawn and point them at people.

A meaningful, deployed North Korean nuclear weapon would leave the Americans with only two options.

Option one would be a pre-emptive strike – and not the sort of pinpoint conventional strike that gets bandied about on Fox and CNN. Since anyone who can build one nuclear weapon can build more than one, all a conventional strike would do is piss Pyongyang off and force them into a use-it-or-lose-it position. No, any preemptive strike designed to eliminate the North Korea nuclear program would need to be nuclear itself, and would need to hit at least a dozen different targets.

Option two is containment. The Americans would make sure that no weapon launched from North Korea could ever hit any American landmass. That means radically expanded missile-interception assets, on land, in the air and on the water. Putting American hardware at multiple points on every flight path for any conceivable delivery system to any possible American landmass. And backing those assets up with strike capability so that any North Korean asset even tangentially related to any missile launch facility could be eliminated within an hour of any North Korean launch.

The big loser from either option (aside from North Korea) is China. It’s hard to imagine anything that would focus minds in Beijing more on whatever Washington wants to talk about than the American carpet-nuking of China’s only real ally.

Yet if anything, containment is worse for Beijing than even North Korea’s vaporization. Any American missile defense system that can intercept missiles from North Korea to the United States could also intercept missiles from China to the United States. One way or another, North Korea’s recent evolutions make China look weak and hugely shrink China’s strategic room to maneuver.

This all, of course, assumes the Americans continue with their weird obsession with North Korea. The real hilarity of all this is that North Korea is a strategic relic of a time three decades in the past. A much more relevant discussion is about what’s about to happen in South Korea and beyond.

In the immediate aftermath of North Korea’s Sept 1 (thermo)nuclear test, U.S. President Donald Trump reserved his harshest criticism not for Pyongyang or Beijing, but instead Seoul.

From a traditional national security point of view such vitriol seems…unwise. North Korea is a foe. South Korea is an ally. Lambasting an ally you would need to combat a foe is idiotic. Right?

Well, the problem here isn’t with the Trump White House, the Kim family, or either of the Koreas – but instead with the word “traditional”…

Continued in Part III

North Korea: Part I—Why I Don’t Worry About North Korea

I’ve been in the foreign affairs, intelligence, analysis and context business for two decades now, and there are few things that annoy me more than North Korea.

It is a small, perennially poor, backwards and deliberately dysfunctional regime. Its economic heft is below negligible. It could not sustain a hot war for more than a few days as its entire population has lived on insufficient rations for years, its military equipment was antiquated thirty years ago, and all its fuels are imported so its military has little staying power. It couldn’t win a military conflict with any of its neighbors. It is so politically isolated that it simply cannot shape anything in any sphere beyond its immediate region.

North Korea is in such a sad state that its strategic policy has no real tools other than bluff and propaganda, and I don’t have a lot of respect for blowhards – particularly when they never back up their words with action – and North Korea is perhaps the most blowhardy country in the history of language. To give you an idea of just how strongly I feel about North Korea’s lack of strength, my brother is of South Korean descent and I don’t believe he has been in one whit of danger in all these past four years he’s been living in South Korea.

And then there’s the strategic angle. During the Cold War the Americans committed themselves to protecting the territories and economies of all the allies – of which South Korea was one – in order to form a cordon sanitaire around the Soviets. A large military presence in South Korea was part of that process. But the Cold War is long over, the Americans are getting out of the global management business, and the ongoing American military footprint in South Korea is the very definition of policy inertia. The inter-Korean border may still be a flashpoint, but it is no longer a flashpoint that serves any broader strategic purpose for the United States. For the Americans it is exposure and risk without any conceivable benefit, and it is high time for the American military position in the region to shift – and shift sharply.

Seoul, South Korea

And that despite all the nuclear bric-a-brac. Yes, the nuclear question for North Korea is a big one, and honestly it is the only reason that Washington should care about the country at all. But even here, I’m not impressed. My lack of concern falls into two general categories.

First, the technicalities of a nuclear program.

A nuclear weapons program isn’t easy, but the easiest part is building the explosive device itself. Obtaining the uranium, turning it into weapons grade uranium or plutonium, building an implosion device to trigger a runaway atomic explosion – this was all first done in the 1940s and to think a people as inventive as the Koreans (North and South) couldn’t achieve nuclear fission is simply silly. The NorKs did so back in the 1990s and there is no recapturing that genie.

But that’s only the first step. Now you need to deliver it. Back in World War II the Americans delivered the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nukes by high-altitude bomber – something that was possible because of the lack of surface-to-air missile defenses and absolute American mastery of islands near Japan. That option is firmly off the table for the NorKs as the United States is far too distant and far too militarily advanced for a large, slow moving aircraft to penetrate its defenses.

That leaves missiles. The obvious obstacle is range. The NorKs can currently claim accurately to be able to strike in the vicinity of Hawaii and ongoing experiments with missiles are clearly aiming for the American mainland. That is likely some time off still, but in years – not decades. It may (literally) be rocket science – and remain one of the most technically challenging military fields – but the NorKs have been working on this very hard for a very long time.

Yet even a sufficiently-ranged and designed missile isn’t enough, because a missile cannot carry a big, bulky, delicate device. Primitive nuclear devices weigh tons, and rockets can only carry hundreds of pounds. There’s also the massive issue of reentry. Falling from orbit makes everything more than a bit shaky, which is more than enough to break into irrelevance a newbie nuke.

And of course, it would be nice to actually hit your target. Early ballistic missiles were notoriously inaccurate. There’s a reason NASA – not only the world’s best rocket nerds as well as the nerds with the greatest interest in accuracy – aims for the Pacific Ocean when its rockets need to make splashdown. It is sorta hard to miss the world’s biggest body of water. North Korea’s missiles probably can only be relied upon to strike within 15 miles of their targets. As of September 2 high-end estimates for a North Korean nuclear device (not deliverable weapon, device) were “only” 30 kilotons. That’s “only” enough to generate a thermal pulse 3 miles across. For comparison, in the early 1980s American ICBMs had an accuracy of +/- of 2 miles which was a big reason they opted for the big booms provided by the MX program. (If you enjoy day-dreaming of nuclear Armageddon I’m pleased to point you to the Stevens Institute of Technology’s Nukemap where you can dial up and down the kilotons and see the effects on the city of your choice.)

Bottom line: Just as the technologies required to make a missile capable of descending through the atmosphere without shaking itself or its cargo apart are more difficult than getting the missile to its destination, the technologies required to ruggedize and miniaturize a nuke so that it can fit on a missile are more difficult than “simply” making a nuclear device in the first place.

Put it together and, while the NorKs clearly are making progress, I don’t believe they are all that close to having a deliverable weapon, much less a broader deterrent. And even that assumes that the NorKs’ nuclear program is about the United States – something I’m not convinced on. This brings us to the second why-North-Korea-doesn’t-worry-me category: internal North Korean politics.

Kim Jong Un via the Korean Central News Agency

Let’s start with the obvious:

Anyone who claims they have a good picture of what is going on in North Korea is lying to you. The isolationist country has a wickedly effective internal security system and pretty much everyone’s spies are rooted out on a regular basis. Operational intelligence, particularly within the political-military space that is so crucial to informing American decisionmakers, is simply not possible with North Korea. The only thing an intelligence professional can do in such circumstances is infer and induce, something that pretty much all of us hate doing because there is no way to prove any particular theory correct or incorrect. What I’m about to share is little more than a guess, but it is an educated guess guided by some of the smartest thinkers I know.

North Korea’s bombast is not about the United States. It is about a family dinner table squabble.

Kim Il Sung is the guy who founded the modern North Korean state after World War II. He built his legitimacy fighting the Japanese during their generation-long occupation of the peninsula. He created the paranoid, ultra-poor, Stalinist backwater we know as North Korea and ruled it through the end of the Cold War. However, come 1993 the Soviet Union had disintegrated, the Chinese had agreed to join the capitalist world, and North Korea found itself utterly alone. Kim Il Sung was far from inane; he realized that his country in its current form was unsustainable, and the talk of the time was how to open negotiations with South Korea on unification.

And then, unexpectedly, he died. (Insert your favorite conspiracy here.)

The remaining ruling elites of Kim Il Sung’s First generation did the only thing they could. They helped pass the torch to the Second generation, led by Kim Il Sung’s son, Kim Jong Il. But whereas Kim Il Sung was a competent autocrat, a savvy negotiator and had the gravitas that comes from decades of rulership, Kim Jong Il was an arrogant, inept, unfeeling prick shaped by an environment of isolation and paranoia.

Unlike their co-ethnics in South Korea, the North Korean educational system is seeped less in engineering than in ideology – and not even a globally interesting ideology, but instead a homegrown one that preached that a country with no resources or friends or trade or money was somehow magically a world power. Kim Il Jong and his entire generation were raised wholly within North Korea, and they all grew up drinking the proverbial Kool-Aid. Upon becoming the Dear Leader, Kim Il Jong launched a series of economic “reforms” that inadvertently gutted the country’s agricultural capacity, causing a famine that killed between one million and three million people out of a population of roughly 20 million.

The First generation was horrified, and soon took steps to limit the damage. Ditching Kim Il Sung and the Second generation wasn’t perceived as an option, so instead the First generation sent the Third generation abroad so that they could learn how the world really worked. The goal was to, in time, bring the Thirds back to relaunch the country into the modern world. Kim Jong Un, the future North Korean leader, attended studies in Switzerland, far from the less-than-worthless educational system back in North Korea.  (I have it on good authority from the guy who sat next to Kim in class that while the younger Kim certainly has impulse control issues, “insane” is not an accurate descriptor.)

There was a problem with the Firsts’ new plan: Kim Jong Il died before the Thirds’ studies were complete. But rather than risk an unstable transition period in which no one was in control, the Firsts thought it best to recall Kim Jong Un, put him in charge at the tender age of 27, and shove the entire ruling Second generation to the side for being wastes of skin.

Now, put yourself in Kim Jung Un’s shoes.

Your grandfather’s generation – the Firsts – are now in their nineties and are dying out in dribs and drabs. But these are the guys that fought Imperial Japan and resisted the Soviets, Chinese and Americans. They are no slouches. They want you to overhaul the country, but not until they are gone – and they still control much of the sharp end of state power. Your father’s generation – the Seconds – is bat-shit crazy, and the First generation just shunted them from power, prestige and privilege in favor of… you. The Seconds are angry, bitter and want back what was taken from them.

You are trapped between a group that wants you to move, but not too quickly, and one that simply wants you dead. So what do you do? You appear erratic. Unpredictable. You launch the odd missile. Test the odd nuke. Shell the odd South Korean city. You make the Firsts think you are strong but respectful of their position, and the Seconds think you are crazier than you are. And whenever the opportunity presents itself, you purge a few Seconds. Including your relations.

Especially your relations. This is, after all, a dynastic system.

If this is true, then North Korea is a Twitter account in a teapot. All the smoke and sound is simply what domestic politics looks like, and there isn’t much to be concerned about. The biggest argument that this is true is the simple fact that the NorKs haven’t done much of strategic significance since the armistice that ended the Korean War in 1953. Six decades is a looooong time to do absolutely nothing if you really are a country full of nuclear-armed madmen. If this is true, then the Trump administration can totally lean on Pyongyang without risk of a military conflict because at the end of the day the drama is for internal consumption – it is not about the United States. If anything, Trump matching North Korea’s propaganda invective tweet for tweet is actually an effective strategy because it makes it clear that Pyongyang is firmly on the American radar and the North Korea domestic management strategy could have consequences. (Trump’s tweeting has certainly had an impact on Venezuela, but that’s a topic for another day.)

So between technical questions and political insecurity, instability and bombast, I don’t worry all that much.

Or at least I haven’t. That may now be changing.

(to be continued in Part II)

The Turning Point

I’m on a mid-term break in my annual Unplug&Recharge effort, and am taking stock of what’s changed while I was out of cell phone range, and therefore blissfully ignorant of everything from CNN to Fox to Facebook to the Journal. The loudest development in my opinion seems to be what I’ll refer to as the Scaramucci Interregnum. Before I left for backpacking in Wyoming on July 13 Sean Spicer was the White House Communications Director, and Reince Priebus was the Trump administration’s chief of staff. While I was gone, Anthony Scaramucci rode into town, Spicer and Priebus left, and Scaramucci himself was dismissed shortly thereafter. Trump now has a new chief of staff in John Kelly, who served previously as the Secretary of Homeland Security.

Let’s break down what this all means.

First, an in-your-face personality like Anthony Scaramucci (aka “The Mooch”) was a horrible choice for a position that is all about smoothing ruffled feathers and keeping people – including  those hostile to the administration’s views and policies – informed. But his presence did present us with something very useful. His profanity-laden tirades demonstrated that Donald Trump has opinions on how much is too much. Considering the president’s own, shall we say, disinterest in self-censoring, this in and of itself is a notable discovery.

Second, the Interregnum has signposted a sharp change in the administration’s domestic political capacity. The departure of Spicer and Priebus removes two of the three “mainstream” domestically-focused Republican personalities from the administration. The only one remaining is Vice President Mike Pence. While the Veep is hardly a wilting flower, historically the Vice Presidency is only as powerful as the Presidency enables it to be. Trump may be many things, but “enabler” isn’t the word I typically reach for when I try to describe him.

Without any “establishment” personalities left, the leading advisor to Trump on all things domestic is now Steve Bannon, a nationalistic populist who has some rather… eclectic and non-standard views on how everything should be. Many were critical of the “adults” in the Trump administration for their mixed record on guiding the president to a more conventional path. On domestic politics, there are no longer any adults left. Expect things to get lively.

Third, expect them to get chaotic too. John Kelly was a fine Marine general and seemed quite capable and at home in Homeland Security. I have no problem with senior military personnel serving in civilian administrations and have written before about my support of and respect for people like Defense Secretary James Mattis and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster. In foreign and strategic affairs, the top-down model of management that is typical of military minds works. After all, you don’t want some low-level bureaucrat making strategic policy without supervision, or even with much wiggle room on the specifics of implementation.

But chief of staff is a political job. It is about balancing dozens of competing players, many of whom by design are attempting to manipulate or deceive the president, and yet still must be considered. It is a position that is a combination of gatekeeper, ego juggler, reality-checker, cat-herder, and selective censor. The military isn’t exactly known for cranking out such people. Solid chiefs of staff have broad exposure, deep expertise and/or cut-throat political instincts: Jim Baker, Josh Bolten, Rahm Emanuel. Kelly is smart as a whip and good at what he knows, but this isn’t the job for him. Which leaves Trump both under the influence of Bannon and lacking someone who can capably manage the chief executive’s affairs. Get ready for not just press reports by Twitter, but policy by Twitter.

Speaking of Twitter, a Twitter follower recently asked me for confirmation that despite all the… activity in the White House these days, does a functional plan still exist to promulgate American power in the long run? It’s a reasonable question. I’ve long taken the view that American power will grow in both absolute and relative terms for at least the rest of this century. That, in a nutshell, is the theme of The Accidental Superpower.

Let me be clear: there is no plan. The Americans have hardly ever had a plan. From an international and strategic viewpoint, America’s strengths are not and never have been in its governing system in general or any administration in specific. Instead, America’s strengths come from a balance of factors which exist entirely outside of the political realm:

  • Geography: The United States occupies the world’s best lands interlaced with the world’s best naturally-occurring transport system, the Greater Mississippi system. In addition, any potential invaders are separated from the United States by the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. That leaves the Americans free to develop without fear of outside interference, yet gives them the capacity to intervene across the world at times and places of their choosing. And should things get dicey, the Americans can always just head home. For them – and them alone – defeat doesn’t mean someone is parking their tanks in your lawn.
  • Demography: Countries that survive in the long-term have a population balance between mature workers to invest and pay taxes, and young workers to raise children and whose consumption powers the economy. Most of the world’s countries have run out of young workers already: Germany, Japan and Italy are the worst – all are rapidly aging into national oblivion – while Russia, China and Brazil aren’t far behind. The United States is one of the (very) few advanced countries where the balance is even remotely stable and sustainable.
  • Energy: Love it or hate it, energy is a requirement of modern life. For the last several decades, global politics was heavily colored by the need to bring energy from far-flung locations in the Middle East and Siberia to East Asia, Europe and the United States. No more. America’s shale revolution has already transformed the United States into a net energy exporter, and by 2020 it will likely even be an oil exporter in absolute terms. And if you’re of the Green persuasion, the United States is the First World power closest to the equator, making it the only one that can actually harness solar energy in meaningful volumes.

These are things that no president can screw up. The United States survived Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. The ride may often be wild, but the United States will survive post-Interregnum Donald Trump as well.

Other countries, not so much.

The three factors of geography, demography and energy enabled the United States to impose a global Order during the Cold War that, in essence, outlawed conflict among the allied powers. Maintaining that Order was difficult – it required constant consultation and coordination. Falling from Order to Disorder, in contrast, is eeeeeasy. The Cold War is over, and the American president no longer has a functional executive staff that is capable of consulting and coordinating. All it requires is not a goddam thing.

Since America’s strengths are natural and apolitical, the United States will broadly be fine. For countries that lack geographic strength and isolation, demographic heft and stability, and energy access or independence, however, life outside of the Order is looking mighty scary.

Which makes it absolutely critical for other countries to have their own plans if they are to survive the Disorder to come. Unfortunately, most of them are slipping into narcissistic populism, bald denial, deer-in-the-headlights panic, or some terrifying combination of the three. There are exceedingly few countries that boast the combination of factors required to even attempt to chart their own destinies in a sustainable manner.

I’m certain that in a few years domestic pundits will (correctly) use the Scaramucci Interregnum to signpost the beginning of a (more) volatile and unpredictable Trump White House, but there’s more at stake than that. The real issue of the day is that the transition from global Order to Disorder just accelerated from a slide into a free-fall.

And now we get to see what happens next: Now we can begin to witness the rise of the New Orders. The – ultimately successful – efforts of four specific countries to reshape their neighborhoods in the wake of the American withdrawal from the world.

As for who those four countries are, how they’ll do it – and above all else – why they’ll be the only four to succeed, you’ll have to wait a bit. You see, the next book isn’t done yet.

But I do have a cover to share…

Qatar, PACOM, and the Absence of US Foreign Policy

So, two things that happened in the past week that were of interest to me.

First, Saudi Arabia issued its official demands that the Qatari government would need to meet for the Saudis and their allies to end their diplomatic, political and economic blockade. With deep conditions ranging from the shuttering of the al Jazeera news service to a complete realignment of the country’s foreign policy from one of independent stances to something more appropriate to a province of Saudi Arabia.

Second, I spoke at PACOM in Hawaii about the changing nature of American power. The subsequent discussion focused heavily on the evolving role of the U.S. military as the country’s geopolitical priorities shift. The two neatly dovetail and highlight one of the deepening challenges the U.S. government faces in the next few years.

Let’s start with the background.

Near the end of World War II at the Bretton Woods conference the United States struck a deal with the allies. In the post-war order, the United States will defend not just your countries, but all your trade. You will no longer need to fight one another to access raw materials or markets. Furthermore, the American market — the only one of size to survive the war — will be open to you. All you have to do is side with America against the Soviets. Put simply, the United States pledged its military and economy to subsidize history’s largest alliance network.

By 1992, however, the Cold War had ended and — caught up in the transition from the Bush Sr administration to Clinton — the Americans neglected to craft a replacement strategy. The world changed, but U.S. strategic overwatch and subsidization of the alliance did not. All the various Cold War allies — ranging from the Germans to the Koreans to the Chinese to the Greeks — continued to benefit economically, but the Americans no longer received the strategic deference that was part of the original Bretton Woods deal.

Twenty-five years later, the economic cost of such an outdated strategy has led to the perception in many Americans’ minds that the world is freeloading on American security commitments. This isn’t intolerance or a fit of pique, it is a reasonable response to Washington’s inability to craft a replacement for a security policy that is a generation out of date. Such perceptions heavily colored the populist nature of the 2016 presidential election, and of course the election of Donald Trump — and now the American retrenchment is in full swing.

Yet it hardly started with Trump. American strategic policy has been on autopilot since 1992. The Clinton, W Bush and Obama administrations were too distracted, disinterested and/or unaware of the intricacies of the international system to meaningfully update the original Bretton Woods deal. In Donald Trump the Americans now have a leader just as distracted, disinterested and/or unaware as his three immediate predecessors. What is different about Trump is that as a populist he feels no attachment to the Bretton Woods system, so there is no natural inclination to just let-it-ride. Consequently, there are a growing number of breaches as the freshmen president, by action and inaction, peels away bits of the old system — but doesn’t replace them with anything new.

Such peeling is on full display with U.S. policy to the Persian Gulf. Trump’s first overseas visit wasn’t to traditional partners like Canada or Mexico or traditional allies like the United Kingdom or Japan, but instead to Saudi Arabia where Trump was quickly sucked into a gilded flattery fest of Trumpian proportions. The Saudis emerged from the visit-glow thinking they had the White House’s stamp of approval to restructure their region in whatever way they saw fit. Their first act wasn’t to move against ISIS or Iran, but Qatar — a tiny country the Saudis have long viewed as unnecessarily close to Iran, unnecessarily promiscuous when it comes to sponsoring political groups opposed to Saudi goals, and in general unnecessarily free-willed.

Qatar, however, didn’t buckle — and that brings us to PACOM.

The U.S. military apparatus is charged with dispensing and enforcing U.S. strategic policy. As part of such duties, the military must constantly interact with allies and rivals around the world. That takes soldiers. Sailors. Marines. Airmen. Bases — and those bases require commitments to local and regional security concerns. That takes engagement, reliability, consistency. Every. Single. Day. By far the Americans’ largest overseas base these days is in Doha…the capital of Qatar. The CENTCOM base there has been the nerve-center for all US operations in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan for some 15 years now.

The Qataris believe — correctly — that the U.S. military has their back and so there is no need for them to back down to the Saudis. The Saudis believe — correctly — that the Trump administration has green-lit their desire to restructure their region more to their liking. The Trump administration believes — correctly — that the U.S. strategic policy it inherited needs an overhaul, but has yet to craft that replacement policy.

The result in the U.S. military and diplomatic community is an overriding sense of confusion and frustration. Their standing orders are clear, but the shifts out of the White House are equally clear. And increasingly, the two contradict. The folks at PACOM can’t figure out, for example, whether they are supposed to treat China as a threat, a partner, a rising power who should be engaged…or given space. And mixed messages aren’t the best things when dealing with multiple aircraft carrier battle groups.

The issue is not so much Trump’s tendency to make policy via Twitter (although that obviously doesn’t help), but instead that ever since the Cold War ended the Americans have not had a goal.

Until the Americans select a new one they cannot have a coherent strategy. Until they have the national conversation required to select that goal, these deepening splits between needs and actions will only widen, leaving allies new and old not just in a lurch, but often acting against one another — as Saudi Arabia and Qatar are now.

There are plenty of places where this disconnect between emerging strategic interests and outdated policy will grind. Some of the louder ones include NATO, where it is no longer clearly in America’s interests to defend Europe against Russia. At the DMZ, where North Korea is far more a threat to South Korea, Japan and even China than it is to the United States. In the South China Sea where Chinese aggression is less a threat to American interests than to Taiwanese and Japanese. In Kuwait where America’s lack of oil import needs staggeringly reduces the Americans’ interest while staggeringly increasing Saudi belligerence. America’s use of Turkey’s Incirlik airbase will likely evaporate for a mix of reasons ranging from disenchantment with the evolution of the Turkish political space to a general feeling that the refugee issue is Europe’s problem, while Syria is Turkey’s problem.

Other places generate a lot less heartburn and — even without some new overarching strategy — are likely to keep their current levels of American involvement regardless. The UK, Canada and Australia have been and will remain America’s closest allies under almost any reasonable scenario. Morocco and Algeria are reliable partners in the struggle against Islamic militancy. Proximity and economic centrality will keep the Americans involved in Panamanian affairs for as long as water transport is a thing. Singapore sits on the world’s most strategically located real estate and is likely to be a valued partner until the end of time itself.

Perhaps the quirkiest aspect of all this are the countries likely to suffer the most from the policy discombobulation.

On the surface the Qatari-Saudi spat seems like it would deliver the Persian Gulf to Iran on a silver platter. But no. Within the first week of the argument, Turkey had deployed troops to its airbase in Qatar. Nothing is easy in the Middle East, even (especially!) for powers inhabiting the region. Turkey’s push to support Qatar is a clear indication to Tehran (and Riyadh) that even if US troops left the region tomorrow, Iran gets to look forward to facing off against yet another superior economic and military power. Unlike the United States, however, Turkey has a bevy of permanent regional interests directly opposed to Iran’s own, and occupies prime real estate in the neighborhood.

Trump’s wobbling on NATO seems like it gives the Russians everything they want — a Europe without the American security umbrella. But no. With the Americans out, the Germans have no choice but to rearm — and every time that has happened, it hasn’t turned out well for Moscow.

Loosening security ties with the East Asian rim seems like a dream come true for the Chinese. But no. Not only does that force Japan, Korea and Taiwan to massively bulk up their defense capacities (and perhaps go nuclear), but China’s extensive international economic position is utterly dependent upon the Americans keeping markets open and sea lanes safe on a global scale. Without America, there is no Chinese economic miracle — and most likely a naval war with Japan that China simply cannot win.

What will the Americans decide they want out of all of this? What will their new goal be? No clue. American politics are loud and messy and amped up with righteous indignation at present. Even if Americans could start the national conversation on finding that elusive goal today, I doubt they’d come up with the final answer in this presidency.

Curious About Cuba

Last week President Donald Trump announced a partial revocation of his predecessor’s diplomatic opening to Cuba, reinstating pieces of the decades-long embargo impacting financial transfers, trade and transport.

As a rule, I don’t get too worked up about this or that president’s policies on this or that country. It is a big world. As a massive, domestically-focused economy with immense strategic depth and insulation, the United States has enormous wiggle room to both make mistakes and take the long view. Even presidents as aggressive as FDR during times as tumultuous as World War II can afford to sit back and watch things unfold. The bar for what actually impacts the homeland is pretty high.

Cuba isn’t one of those things – or more to the point, the Caribbean isn’t one of those places.

The reason is movement. Moving things by water is less than one-tenth the cost of moving them by land, making rivers among the most strategic economic assets on the planet. The interconnected rivers of the Greater Mississippi system have more miles of navigable waterway than the rest of the world’s internal waterways combined. That is the core reason the United States is a superpower.

But rivers have one mission-critical downside: they have to end somewhere. If a foe can threaten the river’s mouth, then trade possibilities face a pretty brutal cap. Securing river mouths and keeping them free of foes was a leading topic of much of Europe’s genocidal centuries.

For the Americans, the problematic bit isn’t just New Orleans, the last stop on the Mississippi’s course to the Gulf of Mexico, but also the island of Cuba which truncates access between the Gulf of Mexico and the wider Atlantic. And even if the Americans can get past Cuba, they still need to neutralize all maritime choke points in the Greater Caribbean region.

If anything, it is more serious than it sounds. For the United States has more waterways than “merely” the Mississippi. The Intracoastal Waterway lies behind a series of barrier islands that broadly parallel the East and Gulf Coasts. One of those Cuban-pinch points is the Florida Strait, which could enable a hostile Cuba-based power to not just block American trade in and out of the Gulf of Mexico and Mississippi, but also disrupt internal maritime transport from New York, Richmond, Savannah and Miami from reaching New Orleans, St Louis, Louisville and Minneapolis.

Any extra-hemispheric power that is able to partner with any spot in the region could turn the Americans from an outward-projecting superpower to one whose own internal transport systems are in question.

There’s more to the Caribbean than Cuba, more to Panama than cheap shipping, more to Venezuela than cheap oil, more to the Bahamas than beaches, and more to Grenada than cheap medical school. These places and more are the collective garage door to the United States. A hostile Caribbean threatens the United States in a way that a robust China, a war-drum-beating Soviet Union or German-dominated Europe cannot. As such, American strategic policy since roughly 1800 has been borderline neurotic about forcing the Caribbean into a shape that works for the United States. Just how neurotic? What was truly scary about the Cuban Missile Crisis wasn’t just how discombobulated the Americans were, but how logical it was for them to risk nuclear war to keep the Soviets out of Cuba.

At its core, Obama’s sunshine policy was about putting the Cuban bit of the Caribbean puzzle on the path to bed – permanently. It wasn’t like Cuba had been a threat to the Americans since 1992. Left with just its own resources, Cuba is merely an irritant. Yet as a geopolitical strategist I did find it nice to shift the country firmly out of the “watch closely” category with Iran and Ukraine on my wall map, and lump it in with the “meh” column that serves as home to Belgium, Belarus and Bangladesh.

Does this mean Trump’s decision is foolhardy? Not at all. Trump is at least partially right: the Obama administration really didn’t play hardball with Havana – the bilateral warming put next to no pressure on the Castro regime to liberalize, much less stand down. To use the president’s terms, a better deal can certainly be had. Trump holds most of the cards here, and there are plenty of options: everything ranging from a firmer diplomatic stance to economic sanctions that target other investors in Cuba to the threat (or use) of (para)military force. And since at present there is no extra-hemispheric power that seems interested in making Cuba its local military footprint, there is no time pressure either.

But that doesn’t mean that Cuba will remain in its post-Soviet no-man’s-land forever. Trump’s actions must have follow up. For if all this backtrack does is buy time and space for someone else to insert themselves into Cuban affairs, then much of what gives the Americans all that strategic insulation, economic power and room to maneuver – much of what makes the United States a global superpower –could be in doubt.