Opinion

The Great Debate

Why Russia won’t deal on NATO missile defense

President Barack Obama meets with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in Mexico, June 18, 2012. REUTERS/Jason Reed

President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin are expected to discuss missile defense, their thorniest bilateral problem, at the G8 summit in Ireland on June 17 and 18. Previous talks between Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have floundered over the alliance’s refusal to give Moscow legal guarantees that the system would not undermine Russian nuclear forces.

But the diplomatic dance around missile defense cooperation has always been like Kabuki theater — with officials playing out their designated roles. There is only the illusion of real engagement.

Thirty years after President Ronald Reagan’s famous “Star Wars” speech, Washington is still light years away from developing technology capable of distinguishing missile decoys from real warheads. Yet the United States is again talking about this expensive missile defense program as a viable system.

To allay Moscow’s concerns, Washington has invited Russia to participate in the defensive system, helping NATO guard against Iran. But Moscow is unlikely to cooperate on a flawed system against a threat it doesn’t see as imminent.

Drone coalition: Key to U.S. security

The Pentagon’s biggest, most high-tech spy drone aircraft — one of the hottest items on the international arms market — is the key to a burgeoning robotic alliance among the United States, Japan, South Korea and Australia.

The RQ-4 Global Hawk, a $215 million, airliner-size Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) built by Northrop Grumman, could help this four-nation coalition monitor both China, as it increasingly flexes its military muscles, and North Korea, as it develops ever more sophisticated nuclear weapons.

If, and when, Canberra, Tokyo and Seoul acquire their Global Hawks — all three sales negotiations are still at an early stage — they could all share intelligence with Washington and vice versa. For all would be using the same hardware and software system. The resulting network could monitor millions of square miles of land and sea around the clock and in real time.

China as peacemaker

Nuclear escalation on the Korean Peninsula demands creative solutions. With a 2,200-year history of non-aggression, China is in the best position to take the lead — and relieve the United States of a burden it has shouldered for too long.

In fact, no other nation  has had as stable a pattern of world citizenship. Over two millennia, China has not attempted to conquer its neighbors or spread its system of government on any scale remotely comparable to the Romans, Mongols, British, Germans, French, Spanish, Russians, Japanese or even Americans. China does brutally resist the secession of Tibet, which it considers part of its ancient patrimony. But it has not grasped for lands beyond its historical borders.

There is no reason to think the Middle Kingdom has merely been biding its time. Indeed, if any nation can be said to have a long-term strategy, it is China. Premier Zhou Enlai, when asked what he thought of the French Revolution of 1789, allegedly replied, “It’s too soon to tell.”

Responding to North Korea

Now that Pyongyang has conducted its third nuclear test, the international community must accept what it cannot change: North Korea is a nuclear-arming state.

No sanctions, no carrots, no rhetoric, no threat, no military act is likely to change this fact. The question now is how to minimize risks. First, we need to take a deep breath before we leap to any new policy.

The impulse to push the North’s nuclear toothpaste back into the tube will remain. But sanctions have repeatedly failed. For reasons known only to itself, China — the one country that can effectively pinch North Korea both economically and politically — continues to provide Pyongyang with energy and foodstuffs. Beijing’s policy will likely continue.

Syria as dress rehearsal: Securing WMD in midst of civil war

As Syria’s civil war spirals into mounting violence, the Assad regime’s chemical weapons stockpile is generating increased anxiety throughout the Middle East and beyond.  Taking precautionary measures, the United States has reportedly placed 150 “planners and other specialists” in Jordan to work on contingencies — including the chemical weapons threat.

As odd as it may seem, however, we are lucky that Syria’s chemical stockpile marks Damascus’s most serious weapons of mass destruction risk.  Had Israel not bombed the country’s weapons reactor in 2007, the embattled nation — and the rest of us – could have been staring at the globe’s first civil war with a nuclear dimension.

Consider the domestic and international panic that could ensue if rebel factions, terrorists, government insiders or looters in civil war got control of nuclear weapons or their feedstock, or strike at a nuclear reactor to release radioactive contents.  Yet this is what we could indeed face if any one of three relatively unstable countries with nuclear infrastructures–Pakistan, North Korea or Iran– were to suffer the violent political disintegration we see in Syria today.  Equally disturbing — the international community does not have a reliable plan to cope.

A rare glimpse into the North Korean soul

In April, I joined hundreds of intrepid tourists heading to Pyongyang for Kim Il-sung’s centenary birthday celebration. Most were seeking adventure. I was doing research for my next novel, which uses the ideological conflict between the U.S. and North Korea to explore the construction of national identity.

Every nation has its mythology – a reason why it is uniquely destined for greatness. For many in the United States, that reason is our Constitution and the liberties guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. I grew up believing that my country is a symbol of freedom for the world. The North Koreans also believe in their country’s greatness. Central to their myth is the Great Leader, Kim Il-sung and Juche, his philosophy of militant self-reliance. In North Korea, leader-worship is not a cult of personality – it’s a full-fledged religion. Images of Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il are everywhere. Going to the annual art show is like following the Stations of the Cross: Kim Il-sung as a child, Kim Il-sung fighting the Japanese, Kim Jong-il at the factory with the workers. Around the country, their words – common-sense platitudes like “Plant more crops, harvest more rice” – are inscribed like the Ten Commandments on two-ton slabs of rock.

Judging from her offhand remarks, our local guide, Miss Song, is a true believer. When I question her in private about the repressiveness of the government, she flatly disagrees. Intelligent, educated, friendly, she is not a robot, and she certainly doesn’t act like she is afraid. Trying to put myself in her place, I imagine what it must be like to have your country occupied for 40 years, to be forced to speak another language, even to take a different name. Then the oppressor (Japan) leaves, and two other countries (the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.) come in, and literally divide your country in two.

from Ian Bremmer:

Fallout is just beginning in North Korea

By Ian Bremmer
The opinions expressed are his own.

There are many surprising things about Kim Jong-il’s sudden death, not the least of which is that it took two days for the rest of the world to hear about it. Yet most surprising is the sanguine reaction of the global and especially the Asian markets. On Monday, or actually Sunday as we now know, the world woke up to its first leaderless nuclear power. Coming as close as anyone could to filling his seat was his youngest son, who is in his late twenties. There’s no way these facts were accurately priced into markets that took just a relatively minor dip as a first response. The news from North Korea appears to have been taken far too lightly, and just a few days out, it’s disappearing from the front pages.

While Kim Jong-un’s status as heir apparent seems to tie a nice bow around the situation, let’s get real for a moment. The son of the elder Kim only appeared on the North Korean stage after a stroke necessitated succession planning in Kim Jong-il’s regime in 2008. Consider that founder of the country Kim Il-sung put his son, Kim Jong-il, in front of the citizenry as his heir for more than a decade before his 1994 death. That decade was precious time; time Kim Jong-il spent consolidating power and putting his own people into high government office— and he was over 50 years old when his father passed away. Kim Jong-un has been deprived of that head start; he’s got to rely on whatever ground his dead father managed to clear for him since his 2008 stroke. A couple of years at his father’s side -- and a promotion to four star general -- is scant time for the younger Kim to have developed a real plan for ruling, or real allies in government.

That said, don’t expect Kim Jong-un to be deposed. There won’t be a North Korean spring -- for real or for show -- anytime soon. The country is too backward and too brainwashed to mount any sort of populist opposition to the ruling regime, and its people have little if any knowledge of the outside world. Even if Kim Jong-un proves unable to consolidate and retain power, all that would replace him as the head of state is a military junta or strongman; there’s no democracy on the horizon, given the country’s current sorry state of affairs.

First 100 days: Grading Obama’s foreign policy

Michael O'Hanlon– Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. The views expressed are his own. –

It’s no great surprise in American politics these days, but already a great partisan debate has broken out about President Obama’s foreign policy effectiveness to date. For his enthusiasts, the United States has hit the “reset” button and is reclaiming its place as not only a strong country, but a respected leader among nations. For his detractors, Obama is making the world dangerous by apologizing for America’s alleged misdeeds of the past, naively talking with dictators, and cutting the defense budget.

And as usual, the truth is neither of these polar positions. But as a past critic of Obama, especially during his days of promising a rapid and unconditional exit from Iraq during the presidential campaign, I would nonetheless argue that he has done a good job overall, and that his supporters have the stronger case to date. Still, making too much of provisionally good decisions in the first 100 days verges on playing a silly game of Potomac Jeopardy that only the evening talk shows and political junkies really care about. The bottom line is that Obama is just getting started. But he is off to a more solid start than almost any of his recent predecessors.

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