Post #118: Cowgirl Diplomacy? Foreign Policy Under Hillary Clinton

America’s mainstream media, ever attracted to the splashy rather than the serious, has a new topic to occupy the time until Election Day: President Trump.  What will he do first?  How will he translate his hazy “America First” theme into policy?  Who will be in his inner circle?  (Specifically, will he appoint people who really know something about foreign affairs?)  There’s just so much room for playful speculation about Donald Trump that something important has been lost sight of: He’s going to lose—big time, as Trump would say.

So let’s get real: We need to be thinking about another Clinton presidency.  Granted, it’s early, but then again, we already know a good deal about Hillary Clinton’s perspectives on the world, the advisers she relies on, and the policies she advocated while secretary of state. We also   know she is not going to simply carry on where Barack Obama left off.  In fact, on some important foreign-policy matters, we may look back nostalgically on Obama’s record.

Like Obama, Hillary Clinton is a liberal internationalist and a strong believer in American exceptionalism, meaning she is convinced that the world looks to America for leadership, that US involvement everywhere is unavoidable as well as desirable, that US-based multinational corporations are a positive force for global development, and that the US should be ready to commit force in support of humanitarian ideals and American values—but not necessarily in accordance with US or international laws—as much as because of concrete strategic interests.  It’s the traditional marriage of realism and idealism that we find in every president (though a Trump presidency would drop the idealism).  But each president, as Henry Kissinger once said, inclines somewhat to one side or the other, and in Hillary Clinton’s case, she is more the realist than Obama—more prepared, that is, to commit US power, unilaterally if she believes necessary, in support of a very broad conception of national security.

When Hillary Clinton was a presidential candidate, she strongly criticized George W. Bush’s unilateralism, penchant for resorting to force over diplomacy, and rejection of international treaties on nuclear nonproliferation and climate change ( But her proposed alternative—restoring US leadership—was not really a departure at all: “To reclaim our proper place in the world, the United States must be stronger, and our policies must be smarter. The next president will have a moment of opportunity to restore America’s global standing and convince the world that America can lead once again.”  After listing the multitude of threats facing the US, Clinton proclaimed: “We must return to a pragmatic willingness to look at the facts on the ground and make decisions based on evidence rather than ideology.”  Yet later in the same essay Clinton cited the need to couple pragmatism with promotion of American “values that our founders embraced as universal,” precisely the language that Condoleezza Rice was using.

In the name of “smart power,” Clinton at that time spoke confidently about withdrawing US forces from Iraq, “stabilizing” the Middle East, and creating the basis for an Israeli-Palestinian accord.  But she also thought it would be possible to “win” the war on terrorism and, with a greater military effort in Afghanistan and cooperation from Pakistan, defeat terrorists there.  She took a hard line on Iran, proposing incentives only if Iran renounced support of terrorism and ended its nuclear-weapons program.  On the other hand, she was hopeful about engaging Russia and finding common ground with China, setting a positive example on lowering carbon emissions, promoting deeper international collaboration on energy, and pressing governments on equal rights for women.  Thus, she concluded, if the US can live up to its ideals, “we can make America great again.”  Sound familiar?

As secretary of state, Clinton often took positions contrary to those she had taken while campaigning.  As is well known, during the Obama administration’s early debate over how to support anti-Assad fighters in Syria, Clinton wanted to arm the rebels and establish a no-fly zone in northern Syria.  Later, she would criticize Obama for not acting decisively, arguing that he left the field open for ISIS and enabled Assad to remain in power.  But to Obama, ever mindful of George W. Bush’s downfall, Hillary’s hawkishness violated his cardinal rule: “Don’t do stupid shit” (Jeffrey Goldberg’s interview of Obama in  But he did do “stupid shit” in Libya after the overthrow of Muammar el-Qaddafi, intervening on the unwise advice of Hillary Clinton, who saw democratic potential in a few of the feuding factions that are still feuding today (  Clinton also sided with the Pentagon in urging more troops in Afghanistan and a residual force in Iraq, drawing “likes” from defense secretary Robert Gates.  She urged against inducements to Russia and advocated a hard line on North Korea.

Writing in 2013 on Hillary’s legacy as secretary of state, Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution stated that though Hillary “cannot claim a signature accomplishment,” she can claim responsibility for the US “pivot” of naval and air power to East Asia, her “work with European leaders to hammer out tighter sanctions on Iran and a new missile defense strategy that would provide greater protection against ballistic missiles while antagonizing Russia less” (  But are these success stories?  The “pivot” to Asia was the starting point of China’s uncompromising stance on the disputed South China Sea islands.  Pushing for tighter sanctions on Iran only obstructed the difficult path to a nuclear accord.  And missile defense (against Iran) seems like quite a waste against a nonexistent threat.

Another observer writes that “Clinton does not seem particularly eager to continue Obama’s rapprochement with Iran and has generally adopted a tougher line on Iranian policies in the region” (Fahad Nazer,  But not tougher, this writer continues, when it comes to Saudi Arabia: “Clinton might thus represent an opportunity for some marginal gains in U.S.-Saudi relations; she seems to have a greater appreciation for the value of relations with Saudi Arabia than Obama.” Being too quick to use sanctions against Iran and too willing to cozy up to an unfaithful Saudi ally—not to mention maintaining the usual US support of Israel—leave no room for creating a new Middle East paradigm.

What may most fundamentally separate Clinton from Obama are his much touted doubt and caution.  When Obama retreated from imposing his “red line” on Syria’s chemical weapons, he was reportedly motivated by lack of clear support from the US public, Congress, and some allies such as Germany and Britain, and by concerns that air strikes would not only fail to accomplish the job of destroying the chemical facilities but might suck the US into another long-term fight.  As Jeffrey Goldberg’s interview reports, Obama endured shock and criticism among his inner circle and abroad for deciding at the last minute not to attack, thus supposedly hurting US “credibility.”  But to this day he’s convinced he made the right choice. Hillary Clinton evidently would have gone ahead, not just in order to preserve US credibility and out of belief in the efficacy of military power, but perhaps also because of “pressure to exaggerate her foreign policy experience to establish her ‘toughness’ in the foreign policy arena” (Regina Lawrence and Melody Rose, Hillary Clinton’s Race for the White House, 2010, p. 74).

In short, Hillary is an armchair warrior, to the right of Trump when it comes to international entanglements (see Mark Landler’s piece,  Some leading conservatives who have come out against Trump, such as Eliot Cohen, the hawkish former State Department official under George W. Bush, consider Clinton the superior choice in foreign policy precisely because she “believes in the old [realist-idealist] consensus and will take tough lines on China and, increasingly, Russia” and may well return to supporting the Trans-Pacific Partnership (  There is every reason to believe he’s right, not only because Hillary Clinton has said she believes in that consensus, but also because her views closely match those of her husband, another liberal internationalist whom she has already told us will be a key economic adviser if she is elected.  Indeed, most of Hillary’s top advisers are holdovers from Bill Clinton’s administration, virtually guaranteeing no major departures from traditional foreign-policy commitments and principles.

What to make, then, of her emphasis years ago on energy and environmental cooperation, improvement of relations with China and Russia, and concern about global poverty?  What about dramatic reductions in nuclear weapons and the military budget, and raising the profile of human rights in the conduct of foreign policy?  These are worthy elements of a progressive agenda, but Clinton has had very little to say about them during the current campaign. Will they be priorities in her administration, or will she fall prey to cowgirl diplomacy?

My sense is that we have reason to doubt how much Hillary Clinton has learned from events in Syria, as well as from her vote to authorize war in Iraq and her lack of faith in engaging Iran.  That doubt leads me to think she will respond incautiously and perhaps audaciously to provocative developments such as China’s military construction in the South China Sea, incidents between Russian and US forces along Russia’s western border, North Korea’s expanding nuclear weapon arsenal, and ISIS advances in Libya.  She will also have to address a potentially even more dangerous phenomenon: the deeply disturbing popularity of the far right all across Europe (France, Austria, Hungary, Greece) as well as in Israel and here at home (;  Fascism will be a serious challenge for the next president. We’ll see how all this plays out soon enough.

Post #117: Evaluating Obama’s Foreign Policy Record

So you’re not excited by Donald Trump’s announcement of his first foreign-policy acts as president: building the Mexico Wall, the No-Muslims Wall, the End-of-NATO Wall, and the China Trade Wall.  And that’s just for starters.  The more Trump talks, the better Barack Obama looks.  As the president nears the end of his term, we might take a look at his record, keeping the Trump Doctrine of “America First” in the back of our minds.  Not that Trump is going to succeed Obama; that job will go to Hillary Clinton.  But an evaluation of Obama’s record is useful considering the choice between an incoherent and willful Donald Trump on one side and an experienced but fairly hawkish Clinton on the other.  (Note: I will discuss Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy views in the next post.)

How should we evaluate Obama’s record?  Right-wing critics will of course excoriate Obama for all the usual things—weakness against adversaries like Russia and China, negotiating with instead of subverting Cuba and Iran, eviscerating the US military, undermining relations with Israel.  On the left, Obama is already being cast as another liberal leader whose actions failed to deliver on his promises, from Guantanamo to the Middle East.  Historians will have plenty of things to quarrel about, but we need not wait.

Let’s start with the positives: two major victories for engagement of adversaries, and some progress on environmental issues.


The Positives




In his extraordinary visit to Cuba in March, Obama signaled the end of the Cold War in the Americas and, while criticizing Cuba’s human rights record, promised nonintervention: “I’ve made it clear that the United States has neither the capacity nor the intention to impose change on Cuba. What changes come will depend upon the Cuban people. We will not impose our political or economic system on you. We recognize that every country, every people must chart its own course and shape its own model” ( The speech was carried live throughout Cuba. Obama acknowledged Raul Castro’s own criticisms but argued that democratic debate and social protest in the US had resulted in major changes for the better.  Thus, to President Castro he said: “I want you to know, I believe my visit here demonstrates that you do not need to fear a threat from the United States. And given your commitment to Cuba’s sovereignty and self-determination, I’m also confident that you need not fear the different voices of the Cuban people and their capacity to speak and assemble and vote for their leaders.”  In all, it was a speech full of hope that the future would bring deeper engagement.

Engaging Iran has been much more difficult.  Some members of Congress, and right-wing groups such as United Against Nuclear Iran, continue to pressure the administration and US businesses to maintain remaining sanctions and stay away from Iran.  Iran’s economy has yet to benefit significantly from the nuclear deal, and the ayatollah is still taking potshots at the US.  Unless liberal Democrats gain the upper hand in Congress, and President Rouhani wins next year’s election in Iran, the trade embargo on Iran (and on Cuba too) will continue, endangering Obama’s engagement effort (see Roger Cohen’s article at  Still, signs are that the nuclear deal is being fulfilled.  Unfortunately, US diplomacy is not trying to build on that deal by ending the trade embargo and bringing Iran into a bold Middle East peace process that would include Iraq’s and Syria’s civil wars.


The Environment


On Earth Day 2016 the President, along with China’s president Xi Jinping, signed the Paris Agreement on climate change, committing the US to reduce greenhouse gas emissions between 25 and 28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025.  Whether or not that target can be achieved depends on a Supreme Court decision that will not be handed down until well after Obama leaves office: his administrative act to curb emissions from power plants, which the Court blocked in February.  Responding to environmental pressure groups, Obama has rejected the Keystone XL fracking project, imposed a three-year moratorium on coal mining on public lands, and, in a policy reversal, banned drilling along the Atlantic coast for five years.


The Negatives




The cause of peace in the Middle East has not advanced under Obama.  His decision to follow Hillary Clinton’s advice rather than his own inclinations and intervene in Libya after the overthrow of Muammar el-Qaddafi was disastrous (  Libya is fast becoming a failed state.  The civil war in Syria has emptied the country.  As many as 400,000 people have died, perhaps ten times as many have become refugees, and millions more are internally displaced.  No further military investment can make life better for the remaining population and anti-Assad fighters.  There, as well as in Iraq and Afghanistan, the peace process has collapsed and good governance is a distant dream.  Yet the administration, far from developing a strategy to extricate the US from Iraq and Afghanistan, has already stated that it will keep more than 5,000 troops in Afghanistan into 2017 and gives every indication that the US will resume a combat role in Iraq despite the endless political squabbling, corruption, and sectarian violence there.  Obama’s reliance on elite forces and drones may reduce US casualties, but it still amounts to intervention and avoidance of creative peacemaking.

The failed promise of the Arab Spring virtually everywhere has been equaled by the US failure to find faithful partners amidst extremists.  (See Liz Sly’s excellent article at  Truth is, the US has no reliable allies in the Arab Middle East.  Making matters worse, the Obama administration has followed the traditional American path of supporting anti-democratic regimes that thwart US policy goals but win US favor by proclaiming their anti-terrorism. (If this sounds familiar, it is: merely a twist on the Cold War scenario in which the US extended support to dictatorships that trumpeted their anti-communism.)  The US continues to feed the Pakistan military with billions of dollars in aid, carries out drone strikes that kill civilians (and expands drone bases in Africa), and turns the other way while Pakistan’s intelligence service cultivates ties with the Taliban operating in Afghanistan.  Saudi Arabia’s criticism of US engagement with Iran and Syria policy has not stopped the US from providing the Saudis with intelligence and material support of a horrendous bombing campaign in Yemen (  The civilian toll in death and destruction is running very high, and al-Qaeda has gained as a result.  Obama’s celebrated “rebuke” of the Saudis and his urging that they accept a “cold peace” with Iran has not fundamentally altered the US-Saudi relationship, testimony to a failure of will.

US support of authoritarian, military-backed regimes extends to other countries, such as Thailand, where the military is rewriting the constitution with what the UN human rights commissioner calls “dangerously sweeping laws and order” while the economy sinks; Egypt, where the military under President Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi has practically dismantled the constitution and conducted widespread repression; and Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is eviscerating the secular democracy step by step.

Finally, Obama has proven unwilling, not just unable, to craft a new approach to Israel based on social justice and respect for human rights. Though the Netanyahu administration is very unhappy with Obama over policy in Iran and Syria, it has nothing to complain about regarding US policy toward Israel. Obama, like every president before him, will not take the crucial step of sanctioning Israel over its expansion of settlements and denial of basic rights to the Palestinians.


Weapons Always Welcome


Nothing has changed when it comes to the Pentagon slush fund.  Instead of a breakthrough on creating Obama’s nuclear-free world, we see the continued development of new weapons of mass destruction (, including nearly $20 billion on nuclear weapons this year alone as part of a $1 trillion Pentagon plan for weapons upgrading generally.  That direction hardly improves prospects for reducing the nuclear danger, for example with regard to North Korea.  The Obama team is unwilling to come up with a new package of incentives for North Korea, “the rogue state that got away” (according to a NY Times article of May 7), which (see Post #116) continues to develop nuclear weapon capabilities: four nuclear tests so far, and a fifth likely sometime soon; a missile capable of being fired from a submarine; and probably a miniature nuclear weapon.  Why the administration has made no serious effort to engage North Korea, a move that would also help improve relations with China, and instead keeps insisting that the DPRK must first terminate its nuclear-weapons program, defies logic.


Worsening Relations with Russia and China


Relations with Russia have turned opposite of the “reset” that Obama envisaged early in his first term.  Of course, Russian behavior is half the explanation—the absorption of Crimea and the intervention in Ukraine (which continues)—but the other half is the needlessly provocative US behavior along Russia’s western frontier.  What has resulted is a dangerous cat-and-mouse game, characterized by three recent close encounters in the Baltic Sea, plans for a large-scale US-NATO military exercise, and a huge US military buildup in Europe that includes significant aid to countries bordering Russia (  The fallout of this tension may be seen in Syria, where hopes have been dashed for a reliable US-Russia agreement that might turn a cease-fire into a lasting political solution.

With China, the relationship continues to be one of “strategic mistrust.”  As with Russia, danger lurks in US and Chinese maneuvering and posturing in and around the South China Sea.  China claims sovereignty over the tiny islands and the US claims freedom of navigation, setting the stage for a confrontation as each country escalates shows of force to make its point.  (The election of a Filipino president who rivals Donald Trump for bluster and lack of foreign affairs experience adds to the potential for a miscalculation, since the US has revitalized military ties with Manila.)  Contentious US-China relations extends to many other issues, such as China’s crackdown on civil society, its military modernization, differences over trade and currency values, and most recently a new Chinese law that restricts the activities of foreign NGOs.

On one hand, prospects for deeper US-China engagement are worsened by the structural and nationalistic relationship between a rapidly rising power and an ascendant power used to being number one.  But on the other hand, the US and China interact extensively and at multiple levels on climate change, economic issues, people-to-people exchanges, and military confidence building.  In theory, US relations with China should therefore be more manageable than relations with Russia; there is more at stake and significantly greater interaction.  But miscalculations leading to violence are entirely possible.  Mutual understanding has suffered in both cases, replaced by US recourse to sanctions against Russia and warnings to China via gunship diplomacy.  Predictably, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping have responded in kind.


Law, Secrets, and Ethics


The use of drones has dramatically expanded, and with it the unanswered question as to their effectiveness and lawfulness.  Many commentators have questioned the former on the grounds that more terrorists are created than killed by drone attacks.  As to the latter, James Downie of the Washington Post writes: “Obama’s decision to expand the drone war has led to the deaths of hundreds of civilians, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a disturbing expansion of presidential power and harm to the country’s ability to fight terrorism” (  The same conclusion applies to Obama’s reliance on Special Forces and intelligence agents; under current Pentagon planning, their use will expand from a few (Syria and Libya, for instance) to numerous locales in coming years (

Also shameful is the administration’s timid response to Europe’s refugee crisis.  Obama isn’t building walls, but he is only taking in a tiny number of Syrian and other refugees fleeing war.  The President promised to admit around 10,000 Syrians in the current fiscal year, far more than the pitifully small number in years past.  Granted, the US permanently resettles more refugees per year than any other country.  But the US can afford to be far more generous, and not only with Syrians, especially since US interventions abroad have contributed to the refugee crisis.  I suspect that election-year politics has everything to do with sharply limiting admissions from the Middle East.

Obama’s legacy on lawfulness extends to the undeclared wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq over the last eight years, and the support of Saudi Arabia’s bombing in Yemen.  At the least, he has failed to uphold his promise to support the War Powers Resolution and its 60-day requirement to seek Congressional approval of the use of force.  He’s repeating the Vietnam model of incremental intervention, using Special Forces “advisers,” “trainers,” drones, and other devices in lieu of major combat forces.  But the scale of involvement aside, US forces are still in combat, and members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are remiss in their duties by failing to challenge the President’s succumbing to mission creep.

Obama’s tough line on whistleblowers, most notably Edward Snowden, is just the tip of the iceberg.  No president in recent memory has pursued leaks with more vigor.  Occasionally, his administration has surprised us by declassifying once-sensitive material, such as US support of Argentina’s “dirty war” against leftists during the Nixon-Kissinger era.  (The National Security Archive has published quite a few other once secret documents from that era that the Obama administration has declassified: see  But that was then. Coinciding with his declassification decision was a visit to Argentina that, according to human-rights activists, lent support to an authoritarian regime that has overturned various democratic reforms (

The administration’s push to revise the infamous Patriot Act, in response to strong Congressional and public outrage over the National Security Agency’s collection of telephone metadata, resulted in passage of the USA Freedom Act in 2015.  Some privacy rights groups hailed the new law, but others are not so sure.  The Act actually shifts the data collection to the telephone giants, but gives the NSA the power to petition a secret court for approval to examine select data.  The government’s access to private Internet data, challenged in Europe, remains intact under the Act.  Thus, the balance between government surveillance and privacy still favors the former in our age of terrorism.


In Sum


Obama’s foreign policy has been long on progressive rhetoric and (engagement with Iran and Cuba excepted) short on substantive accomplishment.  To be sure, we need to make allowance for the backward-looking Congress with which he has had to contend; and we should give more than a little credit to Obama for going over its head on Iran, Cuba, and climate change.  But we had come to expect more, much more, from him, especially on issues of war and peace.  After all, he was supposed to have learned from the George W. Bush years that you “don’t do stupid shit” and get yourself bogged down in hopeless foreign adventures (  But he hasn’t learned.  A foreign-policy legacy that includes a costly and irremediable quagmire in the Middle East as well as hostile relations with Russia, considerable contention with China, and very modest advances on climate change is not much to crow about.  The most positive prediction I can make is that by 2020, another Clinton presidency will make us feel much better about Barack Obama’s foreign policy record.

Post #116: Sanctions and Defiance in North Korea (Part 2)

(This is the second of two posts; the first appeared as #115. The two together have also been published in the Asia-Pacific Journal,

Part 2: North Korea’s New Weapons: Full Speed Ahead

North Korea is on a military tear.  In response to UN sanctions, it carried out its fourth nuclear test in January and a satellite launch that had missile implications in February. Then, when new UN sanctions were imposed and the annual month-long US-ROK military exercises began, the DPRK diverged from its usual practice by openly drawing attention to a number of new weapons it claims to have.  It paraded a road-mobile intercontinental-range missile (probably not yet produced), launched five short-range missiles into the East or Japan Sea, claimed to have an indigenously produced engine that would enable an ICBM to reach the US with a nuclear weapon, claimed to have tested a miniature nuclear weapon, test-fired an intermediate-range missile (which has failed twice), and tested a missile launched from a submarine.  A fifth nuclear test may well take place before a major party congress days from now.

How and when any of the weapons the North claims to have might actually be operational is open to speculation.  Some US military officers, as well as South Korean specialists, now accept that the North already has the capability to reach the US with a nuclear-tipped missile, while experts who dispute that view nevertheless believe the North will soon have that capability (

What does seem clear is that Kim Jong-un is pressing his weapons specialists to produce a reliable deterrent that will force the issue of direct talks with the US.  Meeting with nuclear specialists in early March, he praised their work and, according to the North Korean press, specifically cited “research conducted to tip various type tactical and strategic ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads,” meaning a miniaturized nuclear weapon.  Kim is quoted as saying that it “is very gratifying to see the nuclear warheads with the structure of mixed charge adequate for prompt thermo-nuclear reaction.  The nuclear warheads have been standardized to be fit for ballistic missiles by miniaturizing them . . . this can be called [a] true nuclear deterrent . . . Koreans can do anything if they have a will” (

South Korean sources are convinced the North can now put a nuclear warhead on a medium-range (800 miles) Rodong missile capable of reaching all of the ROK and Japan. These are the the North launched in a test in March (  Whether the North has actually fitted such a missile is unknown; nor is it known whether the North will be able to do the same once it possesses an ICBM.

North Korea has a long history of militant nationalism in response to external threats, reflected in Kim Jong-un’s quoted remark above and concretely in the speed with which it is developing a sophisticated nuclear and missile capability.  (For background, see  Like the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War, the DPRK is not going to take orders from foreign powers, friends and adversaries alike, least of all when its leaders believe US military exercises and nuclear weapons pose a threat.  Predictably, therefore, Pyongyang treats international sanctions, intended to punish it, as incentives to push ahead with development and production of new weapons for deterrence. It may only be a matter of time before a North Korean missile will be able to reach the US mainland, but Kim Jong-un, like his father and grandfather, is ever mindful of the fact that North Korea is surrounded by the overwhelming strategic power of the US and its South Korean and Japanese partners.  The DPRK also faces a US president who once upon a time called for eliminating nuclear weapons but now is presiding over their significant upgrading, in competition with Russia and China (Post #113 and  That upgrading includes miniaturization, which from one angle—the one most likely to have the North Korean military’s attention—increases the possible use of a nuclear weapon in warfare.  North Korea’s evident work on miniaturization may hardly be coincidental.

The best and only chance of dissuading Kim Jong-un from continuing on the path of weapons modernization, which is both dangerous and ruinous in terms of human development, is to put before him a package of alternative incentives— a peace treaty to end the Korean War, security guarantees, sustainable energy options, and meaningful economic aid. A joint US-China initiative that, within the context of a revived Six-Party Talks, incorporates such a package would be a welcome development indeed, as much for improving their bilateral relations as for deescalating tensions with the DPRK. An interim step would have been Washington’s acceptance of a proposal put forth by DPRK foreign minister Ri Su-yong, who told the Associated Press on April 23 that if the US “stops the nuclear war exercises in the Korean peninsula, then we should also cease our nuclear tests.”  (President Obama rejected the idea.)  I have also put forth the idea of creating a Northeast Asia Security Dialogue Mechanism (  Its agenda would ultimately include multilateral denuclearization, but would start with discussion of other security-related topics on which it might be easier to find common ground, the aim being trust building.

Hence, what is often referred to as “the North Korean nuclear issue” is much more than that.  The heart of the matter is peace and security in Northeast Asia, which involves a host of interlinked issues: strategic mistrust between the US and China, territorial disputes, increasing military spending and basing agreements, cross-border environmental problems, and nuclear weapons possessed by four countries today and possibly two more (Japan and South Korea) tomorrow.  Decision makers in Washington, though overwhelmed by problems in the Middle East, need to pay attention to the Korean peninsula and think outside the box.


Post #115: Sanctions and Defiance in North Korea

Part 1: Sanctions—A Failed Strategy

(Note: This is the first of a two-part commentary on North Korea.  The second part will discuss the North’s latest weapons programs, which have evidently accelerated in response to pressure from the UN and US.)

North Korea has now been sanctioned five times by the United Nations Security Council for its nuclear and missile tests: resolutions 1718 (2006), 1874 (2009), 2087 (2013), 2094 (2013) and 2270 (2016).  UNSC Resolution 2270 is the strongest one yet, spelling out in great detail the proscribed goods and requiring that all parties neither import them from nor export them to North Korea.  Each resolution obliges the members to carry out the terms of the sanctions and (as the April 15 press statement of the UNSC says) “facilitate a peaceful and comprehensive solution through dialogue.” This is a case of mission impossible for two fundamental reasons: the sanctions will not work, and the fact of them impedes any chance for a “peaceful and comprehensive solution.”

Foremost among the obstacles to an effective North Korea sanctions regime is smuggling along the China-DPRK (North Korea) border.  Military items disguised as ordinary goods seem easily able to evade detection thanks to inconsistent inspection by border guards, bribery, false declarations, and North Korean firms based in China that actually belong to military-run trading companies (  Since these practices are surely well known to the Chinese authorities, it seems fair to assume they have no strong interest in preventing or at least substantially reducing it—something they could accomplish with a more intensive border inspection process.  That China is not doing so no doubt reflects its oft-stated position that the North Korean nuclear issue is the result of other countries’ policies, not China’s, hence that resolving it is others’ responsibility, mainly the US.

This is not to say that China is refusing to follow the UNSC’s latest resolution (UNSCR 2270).  Beijing’s criticism of North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests has become increasingly harsh and open over the last few years, and voting to approve UN sanctions is one way to underscore its criticism.  Reports indicate, for example, that China has closed its ports to North Korean coal and iron ore exports (;  But the Chinese have created a large loophole.  At their insistence, 2270 allows for humanitarian trade affecting people’s “livelihood.”  Thus, as China’s foreign ministry spokesperson said on March 4, “We will earnestly observe the UNSCR 2270. The resolution prohibits the DPRK’s export of coal, iron ore and iron, but those that are deemed essential for people’s livelihood and have no connection with the funding of the DPRK’s nuclear and missile programs will not be affected” (  As a result, China’s exports to North Korea actually rose about 15 percent in the first 3 months of 2016 compared with 2015, and Chinese imports rose nearly 11 percent (

These figures come from a Chinese customs official.  They may underplay the actual trade figures, which are said to have been deleted from official PRC trade reports in order to hide the volume and character of the trade (

China is hardly alone when it comes to evading sanctions on North Korea. The DPRK operates numerous entities that do business abroad in illicit goods.  Namibia, Iran, and Russia are usually mentioned in this regard.  Two specialists call these trading entities “North Korea, Inc.”  Their research concludes that “sanctions have actually improved North Korea’s ability to procure components for its nuclear and missile programs”

( The reason is that the trading firms, mainly in China and Hong Kong, have been willing and able to pay a higher price for these goods to middlemen, who in turn are willing to take greater risks to sell.  The writers acknowledge the great difficulty in getting ahead of the curve when it comes to identifying the North Korean firms and finding ways to put them out of business.  In the end, they say, only diplomacy will resolve the problem.

Reflagging and renaming North Korean ships is another common tactic, as is falsely claiming a ship’s destination as (for example) China rather than the DPRK.  (Andrea Berger provides a comprehensive picture of the sanctions issues at  For example, an unpublished UN report describes how the North Koreans used a Singapore branch of a Chinese bank to pay for their ships to transport weapons through the Panama Canal (  Then there is the story of a British banker who, according to the Panama Papers (see my Post #114), set up a front company in Pyongyang, registered in the British Virgin Islands, to sell and procure arms (

North Korea’s military program also benefits from the fine line that often exists between civilian and military items.  Commercial trucks, for example, can be used to mount a variety of weapons.  A Chinese-made truck used in both China and North Korea for mining operations has reportedly been adapted by the North Korean military for its new mobile rocket-propelled artillery system (  Six mobile intercontinental missiles (possibly fakes or mock-ups) paraded in Pyongyang in April 2012 likewise were mounted on Chinese-made trucks (

When all is said and done, the most likely scenario is that the new round of sanctions will produce no better results than previous rounds.  This is so not only because North Korea has many ways to procure items needed for its military purposes, and plenty of willing private sellers.  China, as North Korea’s principal trade partner for many years, is not going to watch the North disintegrate in spite of Beijing’s discomfort over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs.  China’s leaders will do more than previously to enforce sanctions, such as inspection of cargo bound for and incoming from North Korea; but they will do a good deal less than the US wants, especially when it comes to border inspections.  For just as President Obama has hawkish advisers who want to turn the screws on North Korea even tighter in hopes of regime change, President Xi has people around him who think resisting US pressure is strategically more important to China than undermining Kim Jong-un.  Secretary of State John Kerry may well say that China’s approach “has not worked, and we cannot continue business as usual.”  But the Chinese have a perfectly good comeback, namely, that Washington and Pyongyang must find a way back to the negotiating table.

Post #114: The Panama Papers and the 1%

One of the many tools at the disposal of multinational corporations (MNCs) for maximizing profits and undermining state sovereignty is moving operations to low-tax countries.  Global companies do not simply “go abroad”; they shift capital, as well as labor and technology, to wherever the advantages are greatest.  This reality of globalization is well known, and it is matched by the similar behavior of powerful, wealthy individuals, including present and former top government officials.  Like the MNCs, wealthy individuals are not content to make tons of money at home if they can make even more by finding tax shelters abroad, where their money is completely hidden from public view.  It’s what the 1 percent do.

Thus, the revelations of the so-called Panama Papers are hardly surprising.  The Papers, leaked by a consortium of investigative journalists from the records of the Mossack Fonseca law firm in Panama City, merely expose standard operating procedures for multinationals and the super-wealthy.  (Over 200,000 corporations and 14,000 clients of the law firm are mentioned in the documents.)  As explained by Max Bearak of the Washington Post (April 8, 2016) in one of the few articles that goes to the heart of this large-scale deceit, corporate investments are driven at least as much by the lure of “offshore” tax havens as by revenue from production.  Foreign direct investment (FDI) is always touted as being a boon to the receiving country’s economy—and, for developing countries, a savior—but the Panama Papers remind us that FDI is often meant to evade tax collection of both the home and host countries, to the tune of hundreds of billions (perhaps trillions) of dollars.

Mainstream media have had little to say about the tax evasions of global corporations, choosing instead to focus on world leaders who, personally or via family and cronies, have moved funds into companies abroad to avoid paying taxes—for instance, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, David Cameron, Nawaz Sharif, and Iceland’s Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson (the only one to step down).  Naturally, they all reject criticism, saying that what they did isn’t illegal (Britain, Pakistan, and Iceland), or the leaks are a Western attempt to undermine their rule (Russia), or the news isn’t fit to print (China).  Largely missing from the discussion is the consequences of tax avoidance: it robs the poor—countries and people—to further enrich the wealthy.  Unpaid taxes skew government budgets, reduce spending on social well-being, and, for a poor country, force reliance on foreign loans that typically come with strings attached.  In countries with widespread official corruption, the poor are doubly cheated.

The European Union may soon vote on a proposal to force MNCs based in Europe, such as Apple and Starbucks, to report their tax information—their pre-tax profits, taxes paid, and transactions between branch plants (  The presumption is that this information would shed light on shell companies and other tax shelters.  As critics are already charging, the EU proposal would leave untouched the activities of these same MNCs in countries outside the EU—all those developing countries that lack the legal and political punch of the EU.

What the Panama Papers really do is to buttress the argument (see my Post #9) on the urgent need to reduce the stark and growing inequality within and between countries—“An Economy for the 1%,” as an Oxfam study puts it (  Closing tax loopholes is just one element; compelling tax payments by corporations that pay little or nothing is another; and preventing government officials, celebrities, and others among the super-rich from hiding their money in offshore accounts is a third.  For even as reduction of extreme poverty worldwide has made some progress, Oxfam reports, “just 62 individuals had the same wealth as 3.6 billion people—the bottom half of humanity”; and “since the turn of the century, the poorest half of the world’s population has received just 1% of the total increase in global wealth, while half of that increase has gone to the top 1%”.  The distortions of the global distribution of wealth are, in a word, obscene.

Even the One-Percenters who meet annually at Davos (see Posts #4 and 63) recognize that growing inequality is one of the leading threats to the global order that overwhelmingly benefits them.  But how many of them would be willing to end tax havens, secret overseas accounts, and corporate tax evasion practices?  How many would acknowledge that tax evasion by the super-rich is a tax on the poor? Very few, of course; those who attend the Davos meetings are concerned about economic “growth,” not social equity.  Gandhi’s words are worth remembering: “There is enough for every person’s need, but not enough for every person’s greed.”


Post #113: Nuclear Insecurity

The fourth Nuclear Security Summit, hosted by President Obama, has just ended.  The focus was on terrorism, a perfectly reasonable topic.  But the larger question, not taken up by the conference, is why the US, Russia (which did not attend), and seven other countries still regard nuclear weapons as central to their national-security strategies, especially when they have no role in deterring or fighting terrorists.

Obama did comment on his administration’s achievements toward creating a nuclear-free world, he said:

The United States and Russia remain on track to meet our New Start Treaty obligations so that by 2018 the number of deployed American and Russian nuclear warheads will be at their lowest levels since the 1950s. Even as the United States maintains a safe, secure and effective nuclear arsenal to deter any adversary and ensure the security of our allies, I’ve reduced the number and role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy. I also have ruled out developing new nuclear warheads and narrowed the contingencies under which the United States would ever use or threaten to use nuclear weapons (

At best, this claim distorts the reality of nuclear weapons in our time and probably in our children’s time.  The truth is that the US and other nuclear-weapon states have failed to reduce nuclear arsenals to a bare minimum, reach agreement to confine and reduce the roughly 2,000 pounds of fissile materials now held worldwide, or find meaningful common ground on nuclear security issues.  There remain well over 15,000 nuclear weapons in the world, more than 14,000 of them under US and Russian control.  Just when we thought otherwise, nuclear winter is back in the news. Two specialists who were among the first to identify the nuclear winter phenomenon recently pointed out that if war were to break out between India and Pakistan, use of just 100 of their combined 250 nuclear bombs would have catastrophic effects on global temperatures, the global food supply, and the ozone layer (  In other words, a US-Russia nuclear war is not needed to produce nuclear winter worldwide.

Instead of working toward nuclear abolition, as these two writers propose, we have the United States investing (contrary to Obama’s statement) in a new nuclear weapon, the B-61-12, that will, according to its supporters, result in less radiation and fewer lives lost than existing nuclear weapons.  At nearly $29 million apiece, and $11.5 billion in total program spending, it’s the most expensive weapon in the US arsenal—part of a $19 billion modernization of nuclear weapons in Obama’s 2017 defense budget that also includes funding of two more nuclear submarines.  To the president, this is a matter of “striking the proper balance” between arms reductions and a “safe and reliable” nuclear stockpile.  Some balance!

The B-61 is being presented as a more responsible force for deterrence.  Where?  In Europe, of all places, where the B-61 would upgrade some 200 nuclear weapons still stationed in Germany and elsewhere (  The weapons will be available to theater commanders for use “as a last resort.”  Such thinking takes us all the way back to the Eisenhower years, when nuclear weapons were considered to represent “more bang for the buck” and usable in warfare.  I’m also reminded of the rationale behind another “economical” weapon, the neutron bomb, which was supposed to leave buildings alone and merely “take out” people.

The Obama administration has also missed opportunities to reduce the proliferation danger presented by highly enriched uranium (  To be sure, since 2009 several countries have entirely given up their civilian HEU, starting with Ukraine; and the nuclear deal with Iran is praiseworthy indeed.  Moreover, the number of countries with bomb-capable nuclear fuel has dropped from 52 in 1991 to 25 in 2014 (  But even as some countries have upgraded their nuclear security, the possibility of theft by a terror group remains strong—witness Belgium, which was praised in the above report for improving nuclear security, only to have a few nuclear plant workers defect to ISIS, raising the risk of vulnerability.

In keeping with the double standard that often appears in discussion of nuclear weapons, the US is reportedly disturbed about Pakistan’s development of small nuclear weapons—as though US weapons such as the B-61 are under perfect control.  US safeguards are in fact suspect, as reports come in throughout the year of loose surveillance at power plants.  A “60 Minutes” program that aired on July 13, 2014 found several deficiencies on nuclear safety following a reporter’s visit to an underground missile site.  Even the telephones don’t work properly, the soldiers said; it’s hard to hear commands.  Alcoholism, cheating on tests, and psychological problems among military personnel have been uncovered at several US nuclear bases.  The Associated Press documented these since 2013; the incidents, which probably represent only a portion of the actual number, have led to the removal of officers and men—the most recent just last month at a base in Wyoming where fourteen airmen came under investigation for drug abuse (

In previous posts (see #32 and 33) I have talked about several dimensions of the nuclear danger: the possibility of accidents, the potential for miscalculation in “the fog of war,” the reliance on hair-trigger alert status, the excessive numbers, and the ongoing refinements of the weapons to make them ever more accurate, reliable, and invulnerable.  In July 1961, just several months into his presidency, John F. Kennedy received his first briefing on nuclear weapons.  It described the likely consequences of a Soviet preemptive strike on the US, followed by a US retaliatory strike.  Tens of millions of people would be killed instantly and then by radiation, Kennedy was told.  He turned to his secretary of state, Dean Rusk, and said: “And we call ourselves the human race.”  (The National Security Archive published this and other formerly classified documents on nuclear weapons at

As I’ve noted before, every US president in the nuclear era has found, on assuming office, that a nuclear-weapon exchange would be inconceivably horrific. Yet all of them wound up adding to the weapon arsenal, if not in numbers than in refinements of targeting, weapons capabilities, and deployment.

Nothing quite explains as well as the concept of the military-industrial complex why presidents have been unable to reverse these trends.  The B-61 has actually been around since the 1960s, and has survived by being constantly adapted to replace retired nuclear weapons.  Since 2002 the Pentagon has argued the need for revitalizing the US nuclear weapons program, and now, as Joe Cirincione of the Ploughshares Fund reports, “The Obama administration is planning to spend over $1 trillion in the next 30 years on an entire new generation of nuclear bombs, bombers, missiles and submarines to replace those built during the Reagan years” (  Not only does this planning give new life to the B-61; it also provides for a new generation of strategic bombers, cruise missiles, and submarines, all armed with nuclear weapons.  The Russians, of course, are not standing still either: among the new nuclear weapons in their plans is a hydrogen bomb torpedo!  So much for the end of the Cold War.

The President spoke in 2009 of the country’s “moral responsibility” to work for a nuclear-free world, but evidently that is no match for the military-industrial complex’s bureaucratic mission to keep developing new nuclear weapons, even if they meet no plausible strategic need.


RUSSIA 7,300 | Download report

USA 6,970 | Download report

FRANCE 300 | Download report

CHINA 260 | Download report

UK 215 | Download report

PAKISTAN 130 | Download report

INDIA 120 | Download report

ISRAEL 80 | Download report


RUSSIA 7,300 | Download report

USA 6,970 | Download report

FRANCE 300 | Download report

CHINA 260 | Download report

UK 215 | Download report

PAKISTAN 130 | Download report

INDIA 120 | Download report

ISRAEL 80 | Download report



Post #112—The Republicans: Cowardice in High Places

Jeb Bush endorses Ted Cruz.  So do Marco Rubio and Mitt Romney. Chris Christie endorses—in fact, practically fawns all over—Donald Trump. Ben Carson suddenly thinks Trump would make a great president, in agreement with Vladimir Putin of all people. Paul Ryan bemoans the sorry state of his party’s campaign, but refuses to name names and implies he’ll endorse whoever wins the nomination.  The national chairman of the Republican Party likewise indicates unhappiness with the candidates, but says he’ll endorse whoever wins.  John Kasich appeals to reason, but nobody is listening. Who will he endorse when he finally drops out?

These guys are cowards, pure and simple.  They have no principles, no scruples, only a skewed sense of party loyalty that communist party apparatchiks would surely appreciate.  Rather than refuse to endorse either of the two frontrunners, they abide by a bizarre tradition of accepting their fate, holding their noses, and supporting candidates they have called—and who have called them—every name in the book.  Sure, they say, Trump and Cruz are “con artists,” bigots, bullies—but at least they are our terrible people. And, oh yes, they’re loyal conservatives.

Now I’m not so naïve as to believe that the endorsers really mean what they say in support of their suddenly wonderful candidate.  Nor do I believe the fence-sitters like Paul Ryan when they say (as Ryan did say) that we need to “raise our gaze and aim for a brighter horizon.”  All of them are self-serving, jockeying for position, probably with an eye on winning or keeping a job in the next Republican administration.  They are desperately trying to show that even though they have some problem with Trump and Cruz—hey, nobody’s perfect—they have an even bigger problem with Hillary Clinton. So they content themselves with supporting the “lesser evil,” or opting (like Ryan) for neutrality.

Let’s not leave this sorry lot without also noting that Trump and Cruz are cowards too, though they mask their insecurities with bravado.  They will never acknowledge their race- and gender-based hatreds, their moral deficits, their constant lying, or the real impact of their policies (or what passes for policies) on everything from military strategy to social programs and the environment.

History will record that when the Republican Party disintegrated, undone by two demagogues who represented depraved values and dangerous ideas, no one in the party dared to directly challenge and repudiate them.  Instead, party leaders pretended that the demagogues’ views might somehow be toned down by wiser advisers or by the realities of power.  Now that’s naïveté!

Critical appraisals of foreign affairs from a global-citizen perspective.


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