Liberty, Safety And “Smart” Power: Contradiction By Design

In recent days, we’ve looked at the “Liberaltarianizing” of the United States, and how Americans seem to be too quick to trade their freedom for safety. In what is a third part of an unintended series, we focus on foreign policy and how that affects both of the previous topics. The Obama administration as made a big hullabaloo over the use of “Smart Power” in international relations (I would argue that Obama “Smart Power” is a repackaging of “Soft Power“, with an over-reliance of soft power strategies, while generally eschewing “Hard Power”). Under the guise of “restoring America’s standing,” one could argue that the ultimate result of the Obama strategy is to reduce the United States’ international hegemony, making America “just another country” in the world stage.

Unfortunately, there is evidence that such an approach would do nothing other than to increase unrest around the globe, thereby decreasing the safety so coveted by “liberaltarians.” Nature abhors a vacuum, and in a world without a dominant United States presence, the leadership vacuum is being filled by what Robert Kaplan terms Anarchy. This is borne out historically in an example provided by Kaplan:

The problem is, however, that in geopolitics equality usually does not work  very well. For centuries Europe had a rough equality between major states that  is often referred to as the balance-of-power system. And  that led to frequent wars. East Asia, by contrast, from the 14th to the early  19th centuries, had its relations ordered by a tribute system in which China was  roughly dominant. The result, according to political scientist David C. Kang of  the University of Southern California, was a generally more peaceful climate in  Asia than in Europe.

The fact is that domination of one sort or another, tyrannical or not, has a  better chance of preventing the outbreak of war than a system in which no one is  really in charge; where no one is the top dog, so to speak. That is why Columbia  University’s Kenneth Waltz, arguably America’s pre-eminent realist, says that  the opposite of “anarchy” is not stability, but “hierarchy.”

Of course, leftists would bristle at the notion that one country should be “more equal” than others, or that this source of inequality is the thing that creates international stability and peace. Since the end of World War II (especially) the role of international hegemon has been filled by the United States, inasmuch as America emerged as the dominant world power, and through a general consensus, was expected to lead on the world stage. When the hegemon fails to lead (or “leads from behind”) it is betraying its agreed-upon position, and can be said to be acting irresponsibly. However, as Kaplan continues:

Of course, hegemony has a bad reputation in media discourse. But that is only  because journalists are confused about the terminology, even as they  sanctimoniously judge previous historical eras by the strict standards of their  own. In fact, for most of human history, periods of relative peace have been the  product of hegemony of one sort or another. And for many periods, the reigning  hegemonic or imperial power was the most liberal, according to the standards of  the age. Rome, Venice and Britain were usually more liberal than the forces  arranged against them. The empire of the Austrian Hapsburgs in Central and  Eastern Europe often protected the rights of minorities and prevented ethnic  wars to a much greater degree than did the modern states that succeeded it. The  Ottoman Empire in the Balkans and the Middle East frequently did likewise. There  are exceptions, of course, like Hapsburg Spain, with its combination of  inquisition and conquest. But the point is that hegemony does not require  tyrannical or absolutist rule.

Stability is not the natural order of things. In fact, history shows that  stability such as it exists is usually a function of imperial rule, which, in  turn, is a common form of hierarchy. To wit, there are few things messier in  geopolitics than the demise of an empire. The collapse of the Hapsburgs, of the  Ottoman Turks, of the  Soviet Empire and  the British Empire in Asia and Africa led to chronic wars and upheavals. Some  uncomprehending commentators remind us that all empires end badly. Of course  they do, but that is only after they have provided decades and centuries of  relative peace.

Obviously, not all empires are morally equivalent. For example, the Austrian  Hapsburgs were for their time infinitely more tolerant than the Soviet  Communists. Indeed, had the Romanov Dynasty in St. Petersburg not been replaced  in 1917 by Lenin’s Bolsheviks, Russia would likely have evolved far more  humanely than it did through the course of the 20th century. Therefore, I am  saying only in a general sense is order preferable to disorder. (Though  captivating subtleties abound: For example, Napoleon betrayed the ideals of the  French Revolution by creating an empire, but he also granted rights to Jews and  Protestants and created a system of merit over one of just birth and  privilege.)

In any case, such order must come from hierarchal [sic] domination.

However, as I alluded to above, these days seem to be behind us; not only is a hegemonic role for the United States antithetical to Obama’s world view and political philosophy, but after two lengthy wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans in general seem to have a case of battle-fatigue. Obama’s strategy is playing directly into it: outside of some special-ops personnel to carry out surgical drone-strikes on individuals, there is a reluctance to put “boots on the ground” to right wrongs in places such as Libya, Syria. Granted, since Korea, presidents in general have been reluctant to use force; it wasn’t until George W. Bush after 9/11 (and to a lesser extent, George H.W. Bush in Kuwait) that U.S. force was employed en masse. However, Obama seems to have accelerated a shift:

In a world of strong states — a world characterized by hierarchy, that is —  the United States often enforced the rules of the road or competed with another  hegemon, the Soviet Union, to do so. Such enforcement came in the form of robust  diplomacy, often backed by a threat to use military power. Richard Nixon, Ronald  Reagan and George H.W. Bush were noted for American leadership and an effective,  sometimes ruthless foreign policy. Since the Cold War ended and Bill Clinton  became president, American leadership has often seemed to be either unserious,  inexpertly and crudely applied or relatively absent. And this has transpired  even as states themselves in the Greater Middle East have become feebler.

In other words, both the hegemon and the many states it influences are  weaker. Hierarchy is dissolving on all levels. [emphasis mine]

Thus, the exact kind of international policies that “liberaltarians” are asking for in order to preserve their ability to safely exercise their personal pleasure license could be creating the conditions that directly threaten that safety. As we’ve noted, as safety is threatened, Americans are tending to not think twice about giving up their liberty to the state in order to protect them (again, from the situations they’re directly creating. Of course, in an imperial presidency, the surrender of freedom is not a problem and is even welcomed. However, to those that value our civil and political liberty, it is increasingly problematic. As Kaplan concludes:

Unless some force can, against considerable odds, reinstitute hierarchy — be it  an American hegemon acting globally, or an international organization acting  regionally or, say, an Egyptian military acting internally — we will have more  fluidity, more equality and therefore more anarchy to look forward to. This is  profoundly disturbing, because civilization abjures anarchy.

Anarchy and Hegemony is republished with permission of Stratfor.”

A Possible Ulterior Motive To North Korea’s Bluster

Every few years it seems, North Korea gets restless and starts making wild threats and proclamations. Mostlyt (and this is my own personal assessement) all the chest-beating and attention they get from countries with legimate international power is simply just to make ruling class feel important and good about themselves. Recently, North Korea has gone off on another round of showmanship; however, this time the rhetoric has been escalating to the point where in the past month they have threatened a pre-emptive nuclear war on the U.S., nullified the joint declaration of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and nullified the 1953 Armistice that ended the Korean War. Just today, they threatened to restart nuclear reactors and facilities in an effort to expand their nuclear arsenal.

As the threats from North Korea have escalated, the U.S. has been forced to recognize them and respond. For that reason, the Navy has moved a destroyer (USS McCain, capable of intercepting missiles) off the Korean Peninsula, and four F-22 stealth fighters have been deployed for joint exercises with South Korea, in addition to the B-2 stealth bombers previously deployed. Given these threats, and the U.S. response, one has to wonder if Kim Jong Un is serious about his rhetoric, or given the timing of these threats, if there is something more going on.

Given the current unrest in the Middle East, specifically Iran’s nuclear ambitions and aggression towards Israel, and the ongoing attempts to overthrow the Assad regime in Syria, could North Korea’s actions be merely a smokescreen designed to drawn American interest (and military attention) away from that area? To answer the question, one has to examine the relations between these countries and their connections to Russia and China.

First, the relationship between Iran and China Has been well documented. According to a Rand Corporation analysis

    • The Iranian regime views China as a potential ally against the United States, and Beijing views Iran as a potential partner for limiting U.S. influence in the Middle East.
    • The foundations of the economic partnership between Iran and China are Iran’s abundant energy resources and China’s growing energy needs, but China is not overwhelmingly dependent on the Islamic Republic for its energy needs; in contrast, the Iranian regime now depends on China as its chief diplomatic protector.

 In addition, as noted in the Stratfor video below, China and North Korea may be openly working together, or have a tacit agreement regarding recent actions, and that if Beijing was truly concerned, it could bring a great deal more concrete pressure down on Pyongyang:

China’s Role in North Korea’s Nuclear Strategy is republished with permission of Stratfor.”

Regarding the other link in this chain of nations, the Syrian-Russian relationship is just as well documented as that between China and Iran., and with a shrinking list of allies, Syria represents Russia’s only influence in the region. It’s no wonder, then that Russia would want to limit U. S. involvement in Syria, much like China would like to limit U. S. involvement with Iran; any U. S. involement would be seen limiting their regional influence.

That being said, is there enough of a relationship between Russia and both North Korea and China to provide for collusion against the United States?

Regarding North Korea, it is important to note that there is a historical connection dating back to the Soviet era and the Cold War:

After the Korean War, the USSR emerged as the main trading partner and sponsor of North Korea. Ninety three North Korean factories were built with Russian technical assistance, forging the country’s heavy-industrial backbone. Moreover, hundreds of thousands of North Koreans were educated in the USSR.

After a somewhat rocky relationship through the late Gorbachev years and then the post-soviet years of the late 1980s and 90s, the relationship has once again warmed and been strengthened:

It is commonly perceived by international media outlets that China is the only state able to persuade Pyongyang to participate in the multilateral talks. Of course, there are grounds for such an assertion. However, this perception is also a result of Washington’s multi-sided strategy, which is aimed at drawing Beijing to its side and away from Pyongyang, while simultaneously attempting to push the Russian Federation out of Korean affairs. Western media sources often ignore the fact that the strength and intensity of high-level Russian-North Korean dialogue is unmatched by any other country’s influence in Pyongyang.

So, how does that impact Russia’s current stance on the North Korean threats? According to the Brookings Institute paper:

Above all, it should be stressed that Moscow’s policies toward the Korean peninsula are determined by Russia’s serious and legitimate strategic interests in Korea. The fundamental goal of the preservation of peace and stability on the Korean peninsula defines Russia’s policy toward Korea, and by extension its position on any settlement of the North Korean nuclear crisis. Russia stands firmly behind a peaceful resolution of the crisis, achieved through diplomacy and negotiation.

Russia has sunk considerable amounts of capital in to numerous large-scale, long-term international infrastructure projects involving the Korean peninsula, such as oil and gas pipelines and Trans-Korean and Trans-Siberian railroads junctions. These projects are of crucial importance to the economic revitalization of the Russian Far East. Needless to say, in the case of a new Korean War, these projects—and Russian economic interests—would be severely damaged.

Therefore, one could conclude that if the current threats out of Pyonyang of a new Korean War were serious, there would be more pressure placed on North Korea by the Russians. Since that hasn’t been the case, it appears that much as with China, Russia doesn’t see the current rhetoric as a substantial threat. It is therefore not a wild leap in logic to infer that there may be some tacit level of cooperation between the two countries in regards to North Korea’s actions.

Now that a relationship has been established between China and the minor players as well as between Russia and thos countries, the final issue is whether there is enough of a relationship between the two major players (Russia and China) to indicate that such collusion is likely, or even possible. In that vein, it is important to note that Russia and China formed a “strategic cooperative partnership” in 1996, and signed the Treaty of Good-Neighbourliness and Friendly Cooperation in 2001. These two pacts indicate that despite many obstacles to their relationship both countries recognize the importance of working together to spread their influence, and oppose a U. S. dominated globe. According to a paper by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the relationship is built upon several convergent interests:

    • Neither China nor Russia wants an international order dominated by the USA alone. On a number of significant global issues, Chinese and Russian diplomats cooperate in opposition to US positions. However, both insist that their partnership is not anti-US but rather a move towards a multipolar world.
    • Both China and Russia oppose expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which Russia views as encroaching on its sphere of influence. Chinese opposition to NATO expansion is partly out of solidarity for what is viewed as a major strategic interest of Russia but is also driven by its own fundamental security concerns. Some in China believe that NATO expansion isemblematic of a broader US strategy to contain rivals through alliances, including with Japan and the Republic of Korea (South Korea).
    • China and Russia also hold similar positions on international initiatives to curb the spread of WMD. Both view non-proliferation efforts as important, but China and Russia do not share what they perceive as ‘Westerners’ obsession’ with nonproliferation.
    • China and Russia maintain and assert the right of a sovereign state to determine its own political system. For example, China and Russia dismiss any criticism of their human rights records as meddling in the internal affairs of a sovereign state. They view Western governments’ concern with social and political liberties in other countries as ‘an intrusion at best, an ideological offensive at worst’.

Given the above similarity of interests between Russia and China, and how they apply to the current conflict in the Middle East, it certainly seems possible that at least one of the two has made an agreement with Kim Jong Un to create a distraction for the United States, drawing our attention away from Syria and Iran so that events (both regime change and nuclear capability) can play out and be influenced by their world views, rather that that of the U. S. Of course, both Russia and China would have to be aware of the plan (which could explain why neither is putting more pressure on Pyonyang as of late).

It seems likely (at least hopefully) that the administration and military is aware of this possibility, and while they cannot simply ignore North Korea, it may be best not to divert too many resources to the peninsula and lose sight of what is happening in the Middle East (especially considering that the North Korean regime is little more than a shell that would collapse if it ever faced a serious military threat).