In Trump we trust: why continual disasters fail to shake the president’s loyalists


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Donald Trump’s overall approval ratings are low, but among his base they remain relatively strong.
Reuters/Joshua Roberts

Kumuda Simpson, La Trobe University

Who are the people who make up US President Donald Trump’s base? They are the loyalists who not only supported and voted for him, but also seem impervious to his more outrageous scandals. It’s those who continue to strongly approve of his performance despite his failure to get signature policies through Congress, his support for white supremacists in Charlottesville, and who probably won’t abandon him despite his scandalous neglect of Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

A recent article claiming that Trump was on track to win the 2020 presidential election has once again focused attention on that elusive group of voters who remain loyal to him despite everything and will provide the cornerstone of any re-election strategy.


Further reading: All the lessons Donald Trump has taught us


Among those who voted for Trump in 2016, there seem to be two categories: those who supported other Republicans but eventually voted for Trump once he won the nomination, and those who have supported him right from the beginning. Of those who voted in the election last year, about 20-25% seem to make up his base.

There is, however, something interesting happening with Trump’s approval ratings. While they have been consistently low, currently sitting at around 37%, his base – that 20-25% – has consistently “strongly approved” of his performance.

That figure has experienced two sharp declines – each one after Trump’s failure to reform health care. Trump can’t win a general election without appealing to those beyond this base, but digging deeper into the polling to understand those who still strongly support him can tell us something about the divisions in the US and what drives his behaviour.

Cultural anxiety

The FiveThirtyEight website conducted a fine-grained analysis of voting by county not long after the election. It found that a voter’s level of education was the greatest indicator of whether or not they would be likely to vote for Trump. This is particularly interesting given the earlier analysis on cultural anxiety and race relations in America.

As FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver pointed out, it’s possible that education correlates with cultural values, particularly a more progressive and inclusive outlook.

Yet in interviews with Trump supporters in rural Colorado, it was clear that economic and cultural anxiety were intertwined with feelings of exclusion and resentment towards those who lived in large cities, and were perceived to be benefiting economically in ways that they weren’t.

The fact that the partisan divide in the US is also reflected in the country’s geography is not particularly new. Rural America has traditionally voted conservative. But the overwhelming support for Trump in 2016 has focused greater attention on the ways in which this geographical divide also reflects a deep cleavage in identity and values.

Cultural anxiety can mean a lot of different things to different people, but there is also important evidence that in 2016, both racism and sexism played a key role in some people’s perceptions of the two presidential candidates.

The cultural anxiety argument is very much about race and identity, and perceptions of inclusion and exclusion.

Research conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute and The Atlantic found that when controlling for demographic variables, three factors stood out that are key in understanding what drives Republican white, working-class anxieties: cultural change, immigration, and valuing higher education.

The analysis explored the ways in which these particular voters reported feeling like strangers in their own country. They write:

Nearly seven in ten (68%) white working-class Americans – along with a majority (55%) of the public overall – [believe] the US is in danger of losing its culture and identity.

These people were more likely to support stricter immigration controls, but not necessarily deportation. They fear foreign influence on American culture, and are far less likely to believe that higher education was a good investment.

Divided they stand

So what does this tell us about Trump’s base, and whether or not he will still occupy the White House post-2020?

I’m not sure we can ever disentangle the myriad factors that inspire people to turn out on Election Day and cast their vote for a particular candidate. As the more in-depth reporting has shown, the individuals who we divide into groups based on age, gender, education level and income are invariably more complex and diverse than any survey can possibly show.

However, we can discern important patterns in how Americans identify, and the issues they feel most strongly about. We know the country is increasingly divided along ideological lines. Recent polling shows that Republicans and Democrats have become even more sharply divided on issues to do with government, race, immigration, national security, and environmental protection.

Trump’s political strategy has so far sought to exacerbate these divisions. Health care, immigration, and economic security, as well as identity and a sense of exclusion, will probably continue to be the issues that his voters care most about.

The ConversationWhether or not his continued failure to tackle those concerns will cost him his base is an open question. What is unlikely to change, however, are the deep divisions within American society – and that has seriously worrying implications for the health of American democracy.

Kumuda Simpson, Lecturer in International Relations, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Why Trump’s decertification of the Iran nuclear deal may prove a costly mistake



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Donald Trump’s justification for decertifying the Iran nuclear deal stems from his view that Iran is violating the deal’s spirit.
Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

Ben Rich, Curtin University

US President Donald Trump’s decision on Friday to decertify the Iran nuclear deal threatens the future of the landmark agreement, creates greater instability in the Middle East, and weakens America’s position in the wider global order.

Why is the agreement important?

Adopted in October 2015, the agreement was the culmination of 20 months of intense negotiations between Iran and a US-led coalition made up of the UN Security Council P5 nations (the US, the UK, Russia, France and China) as well as Germany. It significantly limited Iran’s capacity to enrich uranium and achieve a domestic nuclear weapons capability.

In exchange, a range of longstanding US and EU economic sanctions were removed against Iran. This allowed access to wider export markets for its beleaguered oil industry and permitted greater amounts of external investment – particularly from interested parties in Europe and China.

Iran was permitted to retain a civilian nuclear program for power and medical purposes. However, this was subjected to regular checks by international inspectors to ensure no nefarious activities were taking place.


Further reading: Why now? Understanding the Iranian nuclear breakthrough


The US president is required to certify that Iran is complying with the agreement every 90 days. If non-compliance is detected, the president’s decertification begins a congressional process that can end with the reimposition of sanctions.

Many saw the agreement as a significant and positive foreign policy legacy for former president Barack Obama. It was a rare achievement for an administration that largely fumbled in its approach to the Middle East.

Trump’s bellicosity

Consternation over Trump’s inability to effectively handle the Iran deal began long before he was sworn in as president. On the campaign trail, Trump described it as a “disaster” and “the worst deal ever negotiated” without clearly stating why.

As president, Trump has sullenly recertified the agreement twice. But he always indicated he wanted to assume a more hostile stance toward Iran.

While taking a harder line toward Iran is hardly a desire Trump holds alone among Republicans, he has offered little coherent vision on an alternative. Aside from vague threats of violence and suggestions he could “renegotiate” the agreement, Trump has provided little in the way of viable policy options.

In the case of the former, short of regime change, this would only lead to a more hostile Iran and a greater probability of nuclearisation – just as it did in similar circumstances during the Bush years.

For the latter, Trump is unlikely to be able to mobilise the necessary partners to return to the negotiating table. Nor could he entice an antagonised Iran to trust future US commitments after it feels the US has once again duped it.

The ‘spirit’ of the deal

Trump’s justification for decertification stems from his view that Iran is violating the deal’s “spirit”. This is despite other partners in the negotiations, and his own advisers, indicating that Iran remains compliant with the agreement.

Trump cites Iran’s support for militia groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen, as well as its ongoing ballistic missile program and backing of Syria’s Assad regime, as a dereliction of its commitment to the deal.

The problem with this logic is two-fold and interrelated.

First, none of these activities are included in the nuclear agreement. While they are certainly challenges to be responded to with a combination of carrots and sticks, the deal was never designed or intended to resolve them.

Second, Trump seems to expect that the agreement should act as a panacea to the wider challenge of Iran for the US. This attitude ignores the complex, slow and ongoing nature of adversarial diplomacy.

Normalising Iran within the international system – the ultimate goal of US engagement – is a process that will likely take decades. In this endeavour, an all-or-nothing attitude only serves to weaken Washington’s position in any ongoing delicate negotiations, where both parties need to walk away with some sense of accomplishment, dignity and confidence in their partners.

Obama was starkly aware of such realities. He knew that while he might not be able to curtail all of Iran’s regionally destabilising activities, discussions on the nuclear issue in isolation could offer a path forward.

Undermining multilateralism

The decertification also reinforces Trump’s disdain for multilateralism as a key tool for promoting US interests and resolving international problems.

Not only does Trump’s decision incense America’s partners in the deal, it also joins a long list of multilateral frameworks, alliances and agreements he has either abdicated, threatened or weakened. These include the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the North America Free Trade Agreement, the Paris climate accord, and NATO.

US participation and leadership in these institutions directly serves its own international interests: it helps it shape the norms and standards by which other countries engage in the global arena.

But, by undermining these same structures through such non-consultative and unilateral actions, the US disincentivises other countries from adhering to the rules-based international architecture it has sought to sculpt since 1945.

This has direct relevance for normalising Iran’s behaviour. It has viewed the international system as arrayed against it since at least the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s.

Under such conditions, getting Iran to embrace a less revisionist and disruptive approach to foreign policy through socialisation and co-operation will hardly be helped by undermining a key structure of rapprochement.

At a wider level, such unilateralism harms US relations with its more traditional allies, which view it as a less reliable and predictable partner.

Trump’s transactional worldview may put little stock in national prestige. But such qualities can be just are crucial to the long-term diplomatic relationships of international affairs as short-term material concerns.

The ConversationShould the US wish to maintain its global primacy, it cannot simply devolve into a bully power and expect others to remain in lock-step with its goals. While most US presidents have seemed to grasp this concept to varying degrees, it seems wholly beyond Trump’s neophytic views on grand strategy in foreign affairs.

Ben Rich, Lecturer in International Relations and Security Studies, Curtin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

When it comes to North Korea, China is happy to make Trump squirm



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Chinese leader Xi Jinping speaks at the BRICS summit in Xiamen.
Reuters

Pradeep Taneja, University of Melbourne

The sixth and latest nuclear test by North Korea on September 3 has once again put the spotlight on China. US President Donald Trump has repeatedly asked China to do more to rein in the nuclear weapons and missile development by its neighbour and treaty ally, but to no avail.

In fact, China may have already lost most of its direct influence on North Korea through past unsuccessful attempts to control the rogue state’s behaviour. It does still have more leverage on its neighbour than any other country because it supplies most of the oil to North Korea, which in turn fuels Kim Jong-un’s military and industrial machinery.

But China is unlikely to completely cut off crude and refined oil supplies to its troublesome ally. This is because it believes it is unlikely that North Korea would give up its nuclear weapons and delivery systems any time soon.

Russian President Vladimir Putin told the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) leaders in China this week that the North Koreans would “rather eat grass than give up their nuclear program”. This echoes former Pakistani leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, whose country defied international sanctions to develop its own nuclear weapons.

The Chinese and Russians now believe it would be almost impossible to disarm North Korea of its nuclear weapons without a comprehensive settlement with the US.

There was a time when China did enjoy considerable influence over North Korea. Special trains bearing the country’s leader frequently chugged into Beijing to a warm welcome from Chinese leaders.

Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il, was taken to China’s capitalist enclave of Shenzhen and its other bustling cities, such as Shanghai, on his seven visits to China as leader. These were intended to inspire him to take a leaf out of China’s book and launch his own market-friendly economic reforms. But he politely refused to toe the line while still accepting China’s economic and diplomatic support.

Kim Jong-un has gone a step further in rebuffing the Chinese leadership. Since becoming North Korea’s leader in 2011 he has never visited China, not even when it celebrated the 70th anniversary of the end of the second world war by hosting a grand military parade in Beijing in 2015. Not surprisingly, Chinese President Xi Jinping has also not visited Pyongyang.

Some Chinese scholars privately blame their own government for North Korea’s rapidly developing nuclear weapons program.

It is believed that, in an effort to persuade its estranged ally to desist from developing nuclear weapons, Xi had sent a senior envoy to Pyongyang with a message that China would no longer abide by the security provisions of its 1961 Treaty of Friendship, Co-operation and Mutual Assistance with North Korea. Instead of buckling under pressure, Kim Jong-un decided to accelerate his nuclear weapons program because he could no longer rely on China’s support.

Whether or not China is indirectly responsible for Pyongyang’s repeated nuclear tests in violation of UN Security Council resolutions, it is still the only permanent council member to have the ability to make life really difficult for the Kim regime. China could do so by fully enforcing UN sanctions and cutting off oil supplies.

Nevertheless, the most we can expect from China, in addition to the measures it has already taken – for example, stopping coal imports – is a reduction in oil supplies. The Chinese leadership does not want to do anything that could bring about the collapse of the North Korean regime and, in the process, provoke its leader to lash out at China.

In any case, a partial reduction in oil supplies is unlikely to have a significant impact on North Korea’s behaviour. It would probably make up the shortfall by smuggling in oil on the high seas.

No doubt China’s relations with Pyongyang have deteriorated to such an extent that China finds its behaviour unacceptable and insulting. Chinese people are also tiring of the shenanigans of Kim and his cronies. This is evident in commentary on Chinese social media, which the Chinese government is trying to suppress lest it projects its leaders as ineffective.

China has always been loath to adopt or support measures that could trigger a collapse of the North Korean regime and send millions of impoverished Koreans flooding into China’s northeast.

China also does not want to see an end to North Korea’s status as the buffer between China and the American presence in the southern Korean peninsula. It fears a premature reunification of the two Koreas under US influence. A unified Korea could bring American troops to China’s doorstep.

So, while China’s leaders probably dislike Kim Jong-un as much as the Americans do and want an end to his reckless behaviour, they are unlikely to heed Trump’s calls to help him bring the tyrant to his knees, even if they could.

The ConversationChina is happy to make Trump squirm and appear to his own people and the world as feckless. But it will be watching the American moves very carefully and do anything to avoid war on the Korean peninsula. That could have serious ramifications for the region and the world, and impede China’s own seemingly inexorable rise as a great power.

Pradeep Taneja, Lecturer in Asian Politics, School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How Trump and Hanson are damaging their brands


Adrian Beaumont, University of Melbourne

At the start of Donald Trump’s term, the FiveThirtyEight poll aggregate gave him 48% approval, 43% disapproval, for a net approval of +5. More than seven months into Trump’s term, his ratings are 37% approve, 57% disapprove, for a net of -20. As analyst Nate Silver says, overall there has been a clear downward trend in Trump’s approval since he took office.

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Since 1953, previous US presidents have benefited from large honeymoons in their first days, so Trump started at a much lower base. Yet, according to analyst Harry Enten, Trump’s decline at the six-month mark was about average for all presidents since 1953.

The white working class swung to Trump at the 2016 election, enabling him to win the Electoral College despite losing the popular vote by 2.1 percentage points. Trump appealed to this demographic as an anti-establishment populist who would improve their lives.

Rather than Draining the Swamp, Trump has appointed many people with Wall St backgrounds to senior positions in his administration, while other appointments have been very right-wing Republicans.

During the campaign, Trump promised a large infrastructure program. If Trump had told Congress to pass this program soon after he took office, he would probably have had an early legislative success with some Democratic support. Instead, Trump and Congressional Republicans have been obsessed with attempting to pass a deeply unpopular repeal of Obamacare which would harm the white working class.

Trump has antagonised Democrats so much that an attempt to pass an infrastructure program would now be opposed by almost all Democrats. As some hard right Republicans would also oppose such a program, it now appears doomed.

Trump’s tax cut plan, which is yet to go before Congress, would increase the US deficit by $US 3.5 trillion and the top 1% would receive 40% of the benefits, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center.

While Trump’s white nationalism appeals to the white working class, his economic policies have very little appeal for them. Had Trump been more centrist on economic matters, such as by implementing an infrastructure program or refusing to support any Obamacare repeal attempt that gutted Medicaid (government health care for the poor), he would have been more likely to hold onto his support.

Trump’s chaotic personnel changes, the firing of FBI director James Comey and the Trump Russian connections, also explain some of the drop in Trump’s approval. However, many of those who switched from Obama to Trump thought he would protect them economically; instead, his policies would harm them.

FiveThirtyEight’s poll aggregate for the Congressional vote shows Democrats leading Republicans by 10 points. Midterm elections, where all House seats and 1/3 of the Senate are up for election, will occur in November 2018.

Pauline Hanson follows same economic hard right path as Trump

In Australia’s Senate, there have been a total of 212 divisions in the current Parliament where Labor and the government have disagreed. In these divisions, the Greens have sided with the government 10% of the time, the Nick Xenophon Team 63% of the time, and One Nation 79% of the time. These statistics do not include abstentions or party splits in the “agrees with government” category.

While One Nation’s vote has remained steady at 8-9%, evidence from other countries and the WA state election is that parties associated with Trump slump in the lead-up to an election, then underperform their polls on election day. Labor will campaign against One Nation for siding with the Coalition so often during the approach to the next election. Nick Xenophon could also have questions to answer.

These statistics use the record of all Senate divisions in the current Parliament. These divisions were analysed with Excel.

ReachTEL 52-48 to Australian Labor

A Sky News ReachTEL poll, conducted Wednesday night from a sample of 2830, had Labor leading by 52-48, a one point gain for Labor since July. Primary votes were 36.7% Labor (up 1.6), 34.5% Coalition (down 2.7), 10.4% One Nation (down 1.3) and 10.3% Greens (up 1.5).

Had last election preferences been used, this poll would have had Labor ahead by a blowout 54.5-45.5 according to the Poll Bludger. Clearly One Nation’s preferences are going towards the Coalition at a far greater rate than the 50-50 split at the 2016 election.

Respondent allocated polling from both YouGov and ReachTEL has been consistent in showing a skew to the Coalition when compared with previous election methods. This implies that the actual vote is at least a point closer than Newspoll’s figures.

Turnbull was preferred as PM to Shorten by a narrow 51.6-48.4 (54.5-45.5 in July), ReachTEL uses a forced choice for its better PM question, and this tends to give opposition leaders better results than other polls.

The ConversationBy 68-21, voters supported drug testing of people receiving welfare payments, showing the public’s disdain for perceived “dole bludgers”. By 56-31, voters supported banning the burka in public places, including 44% “strongly support”. By 50-39, voters did not think MPs before the High Court should stand down while their cases are resolved. By 46-24, voters would support investing in a missile defence system.

Adrian Beaumont, Honorary Associate, School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Kim Jong-un’s nuclear ambition: what is North Korea’s endgame?



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Reuters/Toru Hanai

Nick Bisley, La Trobe University

North Korea’s sixth nuclear test, following soon after a series of missile provocations, tells us a great deal.

Most obviously, North Korea does not feel at all constrained by US President Donald Trump’s rhetoric, and nor has it been coerced by UN sanctions. It also illustrates the acute regional tension caused by the acceleration of the isolated country’s weapons acquisition program.

While we wait for technical detail that will reveal the exact magnitude of the blast, and thus how close the regime has come to acquiring a viable nuclear weapon, it is important to try to determine just what it is that North Korea seeks in taking the risky, expensive and diplomatically fraught steps down the nuclear path.


Further reading: Q&A: what earthquake science can tell us about North Korea’s nuclear test


Determining intent in the mind of political leaders is always a fraught endeavour. Working out what the leader of a highly closed society like North Korea wants is harder still.

On this question there is little reliable information, and the best we have is educated guesswork. But discerning what Kim Jong-un wants from his nuclear gambit is necessary to determining how to respond to North Korea’s latest test.

North Korea’s nuclear program began in the early 1990s, and in its first decade or so was often thought to be a means of extorting financial and material support. The Agreed Framework, established in 1994 to manage the crisis, looks in hindsight like a reward for stopping the country from behaving badly.

Given how economically fraught North Korea’s existence had become after the Soviet Union’s collapse, nuclear blackmail as a means to remain viable had a certain logic.

The tempo and success of the various tests show that North Korea’s nuclear program is not a creative revenue-raising exercise. For one thing, the country is no longer as economically fragile as it was in the 1990s. More importantly, the program is so far down the path of weapon acquisition that this motive can be ruled out definitively.

If there were any doubts, the latest tests show North Korea is committed to acquiring a nuclear weapon that can hit the US and other targets both near and far. The reasons are as follows.

Contrary to the way it is often portrayed, North Korea is motivated by the same concerns as all country. Above all, Kim wants nuclear weapons to increase the country’s sense of security.

Due to their destructive force, nuclear weapons are thought of as the ultimate guarantee. The regime perceived that Iraq and Libya were vulnerable to regime change because they could not deter the US or other powerful countries.

As a country that believes the US and its allies pose a significant threat, nuclear weapons are increasingly seen as the only way it can protect itself. While North Korea has a very large military – its defence force is comprised of nearly 1.2 million people – its equipment is badly outdated, and would perform poorly in a fight with US or South Korean forces.

Nuclear weapons are thus a way to maximise the chances of regime survival in what North Korea thinks is a hostile international environment.

The ability to confer disproportionate power on their owners bestows nuclear weapons with considerable prestige. North Korea wants to be taken seriously as a military power of the first rank. The only way in which it can achieve that ambition is through acquiring nuclear weapons.

And while North Korea has been protected by China – it is the reclusive country’s only partner – it is also aware of the vulnerability that that dependence brings. An indigenously developed nuclear weapon promises security, status and autonomy.

Finally, Kim has made nuclear weapons a core part of North Korea’s identity under his leadership. The country’s constitution was amended in 2012 to describe North Korea as a nuclear-armed state.

This was a clear statement of intent not only about getting the weapons, but about their importance to North Korea’s political identity. They are intimately bound up with Kim’s leadership and his sense of North Korea’s place in the world.

How to calibrate the response to North Korea has to start from recognising the fundamental importance of the weapons to North Korea, and more particularly to Kim’s leadership. He cannot be bought off, and the desire to have a properly nuclear-free Korean peninsula is impossible for as long as he rules.


Further reading: Trump can’t win: the North Korea crisis is a lose-lose proposition for the US


All policy options are unpalatable but some are much worse than others.

Regime change or some other coercive effort to stop North Korea comes with the risk of horrendous loss of life as well as no clear guarantee that it would work.

Equally, cutting off the already very isolated country could cause it to collapse with millions of refugees. And more likely North Korea would figure out a way around any more strict sanction regimes, as it has done for many years already.

The best-case scenario is a negotiation in which North Korea agrees to freeze its program. It would not hand over what it has but it would stop going any further. Yet even this is difficult to envisage, and politically would be very difficult for Trump to accept.

The most important thing policymakers in the US, China, Japan and elsewhere can do now is begin to prepare for a North Korea with nuclear weapon capabilities. It is the most likely outcome given Kim’s ambitions and the very limited choices the outside world has.

But while it would be dispiriting development, it would be likely to create a more stable environment than the volatile context created by North Korea’s sprint to the finish.


The ConversationFor more on this topic, you can listen to Benjamin Habib and Nick Bisley discuss North Korea on this recent La Trobe Asia podcast.

Nick Bisley, Executive Director of La Trobe Asia and Professor of International Relations, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Trump can’t win: the North Korea crisis is a lose-lose proposition for the US



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North Korea is more likely to use nuclear weapons if backed into a corner where the perpetuation of the Kim regime was directly threatened.
Reuters/KCNA

Benjamin Habib, La Trobe University

North Korea’s sixth nuclear test confirms it is very close to perfecting a miniaturised warhead for deployment on its missile delivery systems. The 6.3 magnitude seismographic reading registered by the test blast is approximately ten times more powerful than that recorded from its nuclear test in September 2016.

There seems to be no outcome from this crisis in which US power is enhanced. This adds to the gravity of the Trump administration’s impending response to the nuclear test. Let’s walk through the possible scenarios.


Further reading: Q&A: what earthquake science can tell us about North Korea’s nuclear test


War

If the US goes to war with North Korea, it risks the lives of millions of people across the region.

US Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis responded to the latest test with a threat of an “effective and overwhelming military response”. This is the kind of rhetorical overreach that is undermining US regional standing under the Trump administration.

There are high risks in any military action against North Korea. There are essentially no good options for compelling it with force. As recently departed White House adviser Steve Bannon said:

There’s no military solution [to North Korea’s nuclear threats], forget it. Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that ten million people in Seoul don’t die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons, I don’t know what you’re talking about, there’s no military solution here, they got us.

The US loses in any war scenario, even though its combined military forces with South Korea would inevitably win such a conflict.


Further reading: Attacking North Korea: surely Donald Trump couldn’t be that foolish


Squibbing it

If the Trump administration talks tough and doesn’t follow through, it leaves America’s regional allies exposed – and gifts China pole position in shaping relations in northeast Asia.

America’s northeast Asian alliances, particularly with South Korea, will be challenged regardless of what Donald Trump does next.

North Korea’s nuclear-capable intercontinental missiles increase the risk to the US of defending South Korea and Japan in the event of war. This undermines their governments’ faith in America’s security guarantee. It does not help that the Trump administration has been slow to fill the ambassadorial roles to South Korea and Japan.

Any military action that leads to an escalation to war risks a North Korean artillery attack on Seoul, and missile strikes on other targets in South Korea, Japan and further afield.

North Korea is more likely to use nuclear weapons if backed into a corner and the perpetuation of the Kim regime was directly threatened. US alliances with South Korea and Japan would come under great stress if they were attacked, given that those alliances are in place to prevent such an occurrence.

Sanctions

If sanctions continue to be ineffectual, North Korea completes its end-run to having a deployable nuclear weapons capability.

This outcome undermines the nuclear nonproliferation regime. North Korea’s successful nuclear weapons development weakens this system by serving as an example to other would-be proliferators that they can develop nuclear weapons without any meaningful consequences – the ineffectual economic sanctions regime notwithstanding.

This outcome will also demonstrate that the US cannot prevent a determined nuclear proliferator from undermining its nuclear hegemony.

Nuclear monopoly, underpinned by the limit on the number of countries with nuclear weapons built into the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, is one of the pillars underpinning US global power. The “nuclear shadow” cast by countries with nuclear weapons provides them with greater leverage in dealing with the US and narrows America’s menu of choice for exercising power.

Trade war with China

If the US threatens to squeeze China as a path to influencing North Korea, it risks a trade war it inevitably loses.

Trump has tweeted that the US “is considering, in addition to other options, stopping all trade with any country doing business with North Korea”. This is a not-so-veiled message to China, North Korea’s largest trade partner.

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Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin doubled down on this proposition. He claimed his department was working on a sanctions package that would strangle “all trade and other business” with North Korea.

There have also been calls to urge China to embargo crude oil deliveries to North Korea to further squeeze the Kim regime.

However, the US consumes Chinese imports to the tune of US$463 billion worth of goods. As Hillary Clinton pointed out while secretary of state, China has enormous leverage over the US as its largest creditor.

Risking global recession through a foolish protectionist spiral or forcing China to drop the “dollar bomb” is not a credible strategy for soliciting Chinese assistance with handling North Korea.

Nuclear freeze

In the unlikely event that the US negotiates a nuclear freeze with North Korea, it simply kicks the can down the road.

When we strip back the ritualised tough talk that regional leaders routinely articulate after North Korean provocations, and the inane repetition of the meme that diplomacy equates to “appeasement”, talking to North Korea may be the least-worst option forward.

The Kim regime may agree to a nuclear weapons development and production freeze, or a missile testing moratorium to buy time.

But given the importance of nuclear weapons to Kim Jong-un’s Byungjin development model (simultaneous nuclear weapons proliferation and economic development) to his domestic legitimacy, and North Korea’s long history of coercive bargaining tactics in which it engineers crises to obtain concessions in exchange for de-escalation, this could only be a postponement of North Korea’s inevitable proliferation success.

The problem with the negotiation gambit is that there is no mutually agreeable starting point. There is no outcome in which the regime willingly relinquishes its nuclear weapons program because the Kim regime is so heavily invested in nuclear weapons as the foundation of its security strategy, economic development pathway. and domestic political legitimacy.

A peace agreement

If the US sits down to negotiate a peace treaty with North Korea, its regional prestige will be forever damaged – and the raison d’être of its military presence in South Korea will evaporate.

Another avenue for negotiations to progress may arise once North Korea has perfected and deployed its nuclear weapons capability.

At this time, North Korea may call on the US to negotiate a security guarantee and a formal conclusion to the Korean War, which remains technically alive since the 1953 Armistice Agreement.

But why would North Korea want to engage in such negotiations? It will have greater leverage in these negotiations when backed by a nuclear deterrent.

Yet such an agreement might be the least worrying option available to the Trump administration, given the unpalatability of other options. It seems likely that regional countries will ultimately have to find a way to manage a nuclear North Korea.

A marker of US decline

There are no avenues for the Trump administration to demonstrate strength and resolve that do not ultimately expose the limitations of that strength.

Could current events on the Korean Peninsula represent America’s “Suez Crisis” moment? In 1956, Britain over-reached in its attempt to maintain a post-war imperial toehold in Egypt, exposing the chasm between its imperial pretensions of a bygone era and its actual power in the aftermath of the second world war.

The North Korea crisis is the most obvious face of hegemonic transition. Trump’s US is facing a set of outcomes to the current crisis that are lose-lose. They are exposing the reality of US decline and the growing limitations of its ability to shape the strategic environment in northeast Asia.


The ConversationFor more on this topic, you can listen to Benjamin Habib and Nick Bisley discuss North Korea on this recent La Trobe Asia podcast.

Benjamin Habib, Lecturer, School of Social Sciences, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

As it launches another missile, we must realise there are no easy options for dealing with North Korea



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Reuters/KCNA

Tony Walker, La Trobe University

Here’s the script accompanied by a lot of bombast, signifying not much.

  • North Korea launches another missile – its 18th for the year and 80th since Kim Jong-un assumed power in 2011. This time it travels over Japan itself.

  • The “international community” expresses outrage. Australia echoes these imprecations – at a distance.

  • Meanwhile, US-South Korean war games proceed, according to schedule, on the Korean peninsula.

  • North Korea ignores the threats, and prepares for its next missile launch.

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Clearly, a “fire and fury” strategy is not working. The question then becomes: what are the alternatives?

Back in July, the Council on Foreign Relations provided a useful primer. In that post, the author referred to a proposal by Chinese delegates to a US–China Diplomatic and Security Dialogue in Washington in June in which they advanced a two-step strategy based on previous remarks by China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi.

  • First, the US would suspend US-South Korean military exercises (the twice-yearly ones now in progress) in exchange for a freeze on North Korean missile development and testing.

  • Second, China would monitor North Korean compliance. Should North Korea infringe on such an agreement China would withhold economic benefits and security assurances.

In other words, China would have skin in the game – and perhaps, more to the point, risk losing diplomatic face if such a process faltered.

The above approach is not dissimilar from the one the Obama administration adopted in negotiations with Iran over a freeze on its nuclear program.

There was no single “big brother” standing in the wings to exert pressure on Iran. However, the involvement of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany contributed to a satisfactory – far from perfect – outcome. Under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Iran agreed to freeze its enrichment program and subject itself to stringent International Atomic Energy Agency inspections.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration has belittled the plan to such an extent that this makes it more difficult to arrive at a similar solution to the North Korean crisis.

Donald Trump himself has described the Iran agreement as the “the dumbest deal … in the history of deal-making”. This criticism is echoed by administration officials, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson – although the US continues to certify Iran’s compliance each 90 days. Such is the febrile nature of American diplomacy these days.

As things stand, no amount of huffing and puffing by the Trump administration or its allies seems to have much effect on North Korea. The rogue state appears intent on engaging in a game of brinkmanship on an almost-weekly basis, thumbing its nose at round after round of UN sanctions and other measures designed to curb its nuclear and ballistic missile ambitions.

China has backed the latest round of sanctions and applied some of its own, but it is caught between its perceived obligations as a responsible international stakeholder and its more immediate concerns about stability on the Korean peninsula.

China displays legitimate anxiety about a conflict between the two Koreas spiralling out of control, destabilising East Asia in the process and, no doubt, causing a tidal wave of refugees to cross into China itself.

From China’s perspective, maintaining relative calm on the Korean peninsula is a number-one priority. This leaves aside other considerations like its usefulness to China of a divided Korea as a buffer against a US-Japanese-South Korean security bloc in East Asia.

These are all complex calculations made more so by Kim’s personality. Perhaps even more than his father and grandfather, he appears willing to push the limits of what the rest of the world – including China – might tolerate.

The Kim personality contributes to understandable alarm about risks involved in a game of bluff on the Korean peninsula, given the near-certainty of the annihilation of thousands if conflict erupted. There is no more potentially destructive and volatile corner of the world.

Among challenges for the international community in its dealings with North Korea is that country’s apparent imperviousness to sanctions – or, at least, its ability to withstand what are now four rounds of UN sanctions resolutions since 2006.

The Council on Foreign Relations writer makes the point that unlike oil-dependent Iran – which yielded eventually to international pressures, including sanctions against imports of Iranian crude – North Korea remains adept at exploiting loopholes in a sanctions regime. It lives with its isolation.

Each new round of missile tests, accompanied by further evidence of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, should be prompting a searching review of options beyond hyperbolic threats detached from reality.

What’s required is a new approach that would draw on experience in dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions. China would be a critical component of such a diplomatic offensive whose aim would be to freeze North Korea’s nuclear program and place limits on its missile development.

The point is that where North Korea is concerned there are no easy options, simply ones that are less bad. Policymakers in the US and among its allies, including principally Japan and South Korea, should be resisting the temptation to grandstand.

The existing approach is not working. A military option does not exist, except in the minds of less rational players.

The ConversationIn any solution, China remains the gatekeeper.

Tony Walker, Adjunct Professor, School of Communications, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

On North Korea, Turnbull locks Australia into the unpredictability of unpredictable players



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Donald Trump’s presidency is unlike any of its modern predecessors.
Michael Reynolds/EPA

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

A week ago, the leaked transcript of the January telephone call between Malcolm Turnbull and Donald Trump revealed Turnbull had told the president, “You can count on me. I will be there again and again.”

Now, as the US-North Korea verbal war intensifies, with fears it could run into a military conflict, Turnbull has made specific that general pledge.

In extended comments on Melbourne’s 3AW on Friday, Turnbull declared: “Be under no misapprehension – in terms of defence we [Australia and US] are joined at the hip”.

“Let’s be very clear … If there is an attack on the United States by North Korea, then the ANZUS treaty will be invoked and Australia will come to the aid of the United States, just as if there was an attack on Australia, the United States would come to our aid.”

Asked what would happen in the event of an attack on the US territory of Guam, Turnbull said: “We would come to the aid of the United States. Now, how that manifests itself will obviously depend on the circumstances and the consultations with our allies.”

North Korea is threatening to launch missiles not at Guam itself but in the ocean nearby.

Ahead of a Friday briefing from military chiefs and intelligence and foreign policy experts, Turnbull underlined his point: “We stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the United States”. The worsening crisis was among topics discussed in a Thursday night telephone conversation between Turnbull and US vice-president Mike Pence.

The 1951 ANZUS treaty says: “The Parties will consult together whenever in the opinion of any of them the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened in the Pacific”. (Article III)

“Each Party recognizes that an armed attack in the Pacific Area on any of the Parties would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional processes.” (Article IV)

Despite the tight alliance, only once has ANZUS been invoked – by John Howard after the September 11 2001 attacks.

Mostly, when Australia has stood with the US militarily, the treaty has been not relevant or not needed.

Nor has ANZUS or the wider American alliance meant the US automatically supports Australia. Australian efforts to get America involved in regional clashes, notably Indonesia’s claims to West New Guinea, and the Indonesia-Malaysia confrontation of the 1960s, were met with resistance.

Geoffrey Barker wrote in 2015, “In fact the US commitment to ANZUS has never been as strong as the Australian commitment”.

While Turnbull has trumpeted the message that Australia would support the US in a conflict with North Korea, Hugh White, professor of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University, believes he has given a narrow, literal interpretation of the treaty and gone further than he had to.

“He’s missed the point that we have the right to judge our interests”, White says.
“Under article IV there is an obligation to act – there’s no obligation to act by contributing military forces. It’s always acknowledged that each side has the right to make a judgement about the kind of response it makes.”

The judgement, White argues, would depend on the particular circumstances. He outlines four scenarios of military conflict.

– an attack by the United States on North Korea, which some believed Trump was building up to in his words earlier this week, when he said continued threats to the US "will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen";

– an attack by North Korea on the US;

– North Korea firing its missiles to near Guam, but not on Guam;

– A pre-emptive strike by the US to prevent North Korea completing the development of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capability.

White says that Turnbull has walked past the complexities of what might happen, and asks: “Is it in Australia’s interests to encourage the US by saying we’d support it unconditionally”?

Foreign minister Julie Bishop had been more circumspect. When it was put to her this week that we would be in the fight, if it came to that, given both ANZUS and Australia’s being a party to the Korean War ceasefire, she said: “In fact we were not a party in the legal sense to the armistice so there is no automatic trigger for Australia to be involved. As far as the ANZUS alliance is concerned, that is an obligation to consult. But of course we have been in constant discussion with our friends in the United States”.

Bishop carefully kept options open.

It is worth noting, however, that Kim Beazley, a former defence minister, has a different view of the ceasefire agreement. He wrote in The Strategist: “At the signing of the armistice in Korea in 1953 we agreed, with South Korea’s allies, that we would defend the South in the event of an attack by the North.”

If Australia became involved in a military conflict, it would be a limited contribution. It would be presence, rather than capability, that (as usual) would be important to the Americans.

As has become evident, Trump’s presidency presents Australia with serious management challenges in the alliance relationship, which is built into the foundations of Australian security policy.

This presidency is unlike any of its modern predecessors, and judging how to handle it is extremely difficult for the government. It’s interesting to note the new administration hasn’t yet even posted an ambassador to Australia.

Turnbull, with his personalised style of operating, has chosen to try to get up close and personal, talking as one businessman to another. Hence the “you can count on me” sort of line.

The ConversationTurnbull may later nuance his Friday comments, but as they stand, they lock Australia into the unpredictability of unpredictable players. They also reflect, unvarnished, the reality that Australia always answers America’s call.

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Turnbull’s North Korea intervention could be his own ‘all the way with LBJ’ moment



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EPA/How Hwee Young

Tony Walker, La Trobe University

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has dealt Australia into the argument over how to respond to North Korea’s brinkmanship over its nuclear weapons program.

Speaking on Melbourne radio on Friday morning Turnbull invoked the ANZUS Treaty, which obliges Australia and the US to come to each other’s defence in the event either is attacked.

Debate persists over whether this is an absolute guarantee, but Turnbull left no wiggle room in his declaration that Australia would regard an attack on the US as a casus belli. He said:

America stands by its allies, including Australia, and we stand by the United States. So be very clear on that. If there’s an attack on the US, the ANZUS Treaty would be invoked and Australia would come to the aid of the United States, as America would come to our aid if we were attacked.

Turnbull’s forthright intervention might be regarded as fairly unexceptional were it not for the fact it aligns Australia with a US president untested in a crisis, and one who has shown a predisposition to shoot from the lip.

In effect, Turnbull is mortgaging Australian security policy to an unpredictable commander-in-chief whose instincts may be to take the safety catch off first and ask questions later.

Turnbull should remind himself that recent experience in which an Australian predecessor followed the US precipitately into the sands of Mesopotamia did not end well.

In his interview Turnbull might have calibrated his remarks more carefully when he said that: “In terms of defence, we are joined at the hip”.

This recalls unfortunate prime ministerial contributions such as Harold Holt’s “all the way with LBJ” at the time of Vietnam, or John Howard’s characterisation of Australia as America’s “deputy sheriff” in the Asia-Pacific. We can do without these sorts of glib statements.

Turnbull’s undertaking to apply the ANZUS Treaty should the US be attacked recalls Howard’s decision in September 2001 to invoke the treaty’s mutual defence elements after the al-Qaeda terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

This activation of Australia’s security obligations under ANZUS was largely pro forma. No follow-up ensued that could be described as action under the treaty itself. Australia’s support for the US in Afghanistan was part of a NATO deployment.

The question then becomes: how seriously should we regard an escalating war of words between a US president and North Korea in which Donald Trump has doubled down on his earlier “fire and fury” threats?

No-one should make light of the risks involved of a conflagration on the Korean Peninsula, which remains potentially the epicentre of the world’s most-destructive conflict. Nor should threats by North Korea’s idiosyncratic leader Kim Jong-un to fire a missile toward the American Pacific territory of Guam be dismissed as a stunt.

Where the real risks lie in a volatile environment is a miscalculation that could precipitate conflict that spirals out of control with unpredictable – possibly terrible – consequences.

South Korea’s vulnerability to a North Korea first – or retaliatory – strike cannot be overstated. The South Korean capital, Seoul, is within range of North Korean artillery, leaving aside a nuclear threat.

This raises the question of the extent to which North Korea has acquired the ability to arm its missile systems with a nuclear warhead, and whether intelligence reports of its development of a “miniaturised” nuclear device are correct.

It is not clear that North Korea has achieved this level of sophistication. However, no responsible leader can afford to exclude the possibility that North Korea is further advanced in its nuclear program than had been assumed.

In an analysis on the war of words that has erupted between Trump and Kim, the Council on Foreign Relations put it this way:

The war of words underscores both the American rejection of the idea of vulnerability to a nuclear-armed Kim and the increasing dangers of miscalculation that would accompany a North Korean capability to follow through on its past offensive threats to strike the United States with a nuclear weapon.

The intensity of the rhetorical escalation underscores the fact that North Korea is on a trajectory of confrontation with Washington that Defence Secretary James Mattis characterised as “catastrophic”.

Since there is no chance of Kim giving up his nuclear capability short of ironclad US guarantees of his regime’s survival, the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear pretensions will likely remain intractable. What represents the best outcome is a de-escalation of tensions, an end to the war of words, and some prospect of negotiations that would rein in North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

If there is a model for such an arrangement it lies in the Obama administration’s agreement with Iran that led to an effective freezing of its nuclear program. Unhelpfully, the Trump administration persists in claiming Iran is breaching this agreement – without supporting evidence.

This is especially destructive at a moment when the US and its allies need to reduce tensions, not add to them.

In all of this, the best outcome is for North Korea to be drawn back into negotiations on its nuclear program under the threat of escalating sanctions to which China and Russia are party.

In the meantime, as the Council on Foreign Relations puts it:

The more the crisis escalates, the greater the dangers of miscalculation, and the harder it will be for either side to find an exit ramp from a high-stakes crisis.

The ConversationTalk of the next Cuban missile crisis may be premature, but the risks of a destructive conflict in which nuclear weapons are deployed cannot be disregarded. This is shaping as the Trump administration’s first big security policy crisis.

Tony Walker, Adjunct Professor, School of Communications, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.