“They [the North Koreans] will eat grass but will not stop their program as long as they do not feel safe.”— Vladimir Putin, Beijing, China, September 5, 2017
China has put the U.S. into an existential dilemma. Its surrogate North Korea — whose nuclear arsenal is certainly in large part a product of Chinese technology and commercial ties — by any standard of international standing is a failed, fourth-world state. North Korean population, industry, culture, and politics would otherwise warrant very little attention.
Yet in late 2017 North Korea poses the chief existential threat to the United States. We fret over its daily assertions that it is apparently eager to deploy verifiable nuclear weapons against the U.S. West Coast, U.S. allies such as Japan and South Korea, or U.S. bases and territory abroad such as those in the Marianna Islands.
Even if such offensive thermonuclear threats are ultimately empty, they continue to eat up U.S. resources, demand diplomatic attention, make us spend money on deployment and military readiness, and prompt crash anti-missile programs.
Central to the strategy is China’s “plausible deniability.” The ruse almost assumes that China’s neighbor North Korea — without a modern economy or an indigenous sophisticated economic infrastructure — suddenly found some stray nukes, missiles, and delivery platforms in a vacant lot in Pyongyang. Thus China is willing to “help” resolve the issue it deliberately created.
As the U.S. obsesses over North Korea, China is in theory freed to do even more of what it already does well — intimidate its Pacific and Asian neighbors, in the passive-aggressive style of violating sovereign air, ground, and sea space of other nations. Its tactics are accompanied by implied quid pro quos along the lines of “If you would just join our Chinese Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, there would be no need for such misunderstandings.”
Beijing is following somewhat the Japanese model of imperial construction of the 1930s. Chinese aims are based on similar radical increases in naval construction and air power; massive importation of Western military technology; intimidation of neighbors; assumptions that the U.S. is a spent, has-been power in decline; and reliance on morally equivalent and circular arguments that regional hegemons have a natural right to impose regional hegemonies.
China does not want a pro-U.S. country on it borders. It does not wish reunification of the Korean Peninsula by South Korea. It does not want North Korea to give up its nuclear arsenal. It does not want another major land war on its border. It does not want Japan, South Korea, or Taiwan to have either a nuclear deterrent or a missile-defense system.
But it does favor the status quo, in which North Korea every few months upsets the world order, threatens chaos, wins concessions, and then behaves — for a while. So North Korea is an effective surrogate — it keeps the U.S. busy and distracted from China’s aggrandizing strategies while not upsetting the commercial trajectory of the Pacific.
The result of the North Korean crisis is a sort of strategic stalemate, in which both sides in the stand-off try to find advantages or new breakthroughs in technology. North Korea escalates by detonating a heretofore unknown thermonuclear weapon. South Korea responds by taking caps off its conventional missile-delivery weights. The U.S. scrambles to beef up missile defenses while ratcheting up diplomatic pressures.
In this dangerous phase of escalating tensions, the United States looks to enlist and consolidate allies, neutrals, or former enemies to help balance China and its surrogate North Korea. Aside from our accustomed non-nuclear allies Japan, South Korea, Australia, Taiwan, and the Philippines, America would like far larger international powers to check China.
India and Russia, of course, come first to mind. Neither in theory wants yet another nuclear power in their neighborhood, especially one that is a de facto surrogate of China, or an arms race that would end up with a nuclear Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.
India is already deadlocked with China on many common border “issues,” a euphemism for the Chinese doctrine that anything that they can get away with is redefined as both ethical and necessary.
Unfortunately, Russia, which shares a short border with North Korea, is of little or no help, either in applying real pressure on China and North Korea, or in the debating-style go-arounds at the United Nations. Its hostility marks a lost opportunity.
For the last year, we have heard little but venom about Russia — which is ironic, given that much of the rancor comes from the erstwhile architects and advocates of the Obama-era Russian reset.
But no wonder. For the last year, we have heard little but venom about Russia — which is ironic, given that much of the rancor comes from the erstwhile architects and advocates of the Obama-era Russian reset.
Have we forgotten, in this moment of critical missile defense, that in 2012 Barack Obama promised outgoing Russian president Medvedev that after Obama’s own successful reelection, he would be flexible — i.e., cut back on U.S. missile programs in Eastern Europe, which were advantageous in preparing for new nuclear powers’ incoming missile attacks? Such a purported concession was predicated on Putin’s behaving during Obama’s reelection campaign — i.e., Putin would project an image that the Russian reset had been yet another of Obama’s signature diplomatic triumphs and another argument for another four years of further foreign policy coups.
As of now, progressives have found no verifiable evidence that Russian skullduggery swung the election to Trump. And recall that Russia’s interference was once largely ignored by Obama himself, who later reminded the nation that the 2016 election (i.e., the inevitable Clinton win) could not be corrupted by successful foreign intervention.
Even the once sure-thing charge that Russia “hacked” the Democratic National Committee emails seems increasingly problematic, given the strangeness of former DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schulz’s continuing refusal to let the FBI examine the DNC server — she insisted on outsourcing the investigation to private investigators paid by the DNC. Also problematic are Wasserman Schulz’s inexplicable efforts to shield her IT team from ongoing Capitol Police and FBI pursuit, and the numerous statements by WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange, who received the hacked (or leaked) DNC emails, that Russia was not his source.
The left-wing about-face on Russia marks one of the stranger political turnabouts in recent political history. Long forgotten is the plastic-reset-button ceremony in Geneva, or the invitation to Russia to reenter the Middle East after a 40-year hiatus, or the relative exemption given periodic Russian-associated cyberattacks on U.S. concerns.
Apoplexy over Hillary Clinton’s loss justified not only the abrupt rejection of the Obama rush to embrace Putin, but also a schizophrenic second reset making him into Satan incarnate.
What could Russia do for the U.S. in the North Korean crisis?
Not a lot — but in this crisis “not a lot” matters.
It could vote along with the U.S. to reimpose sanctions against North Korea. It could itself stop all trade with North Korea. It could stay neutral and out of the way from U.S. ships in the region. It could defect from what is now a Russia-China alliance of convenient mutual loathing of the U.S. It could unilaterally warn North Korea not to detonate another thermonuclear bomb just a few hundred miles from Russian territory. And in a Dr. Strangelovian calculus of global nuclear power, it could remove the largest deployable nuclear arsenal in the world from the anti-U.S. ledger. Psychologically, that is quite a lot.
What would Putin wish in return for rebalancing and triangulating?
Probably an informal guarantee that the U.S. would not humiliate Russia in the Middle East by seeking to bomb Bashar al-Assad out of power (which we are not likely to do). He might angle for an informal understanding not to arm Ukrainians, with an acceptance of Russian control of eastern Ukraine, and recognition that Crimea is now de facto Russian.
The Trump doctrine of avoiding optional interventions probably precluded doing much anyway on Russia’s borders, or another campaign in the Middle East. And the idea that we would go to war over Crimea — this year is the 75th anniversary of the Nazi capture of Sevastopol and the horrific destruction of the Russian garrison — is as if Russia would face us down over our own opposition to a move by Puerto Rico for independence (promises, promises).
Or alternatively, on the stick side, we could remind Putin that the nuclearization of Asia and the Pacific on its borders — a potentially thermonuclear Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan — is less in Russia’s interest than our own, given that all three nations are democratic, pro-American, and proximate to Russia.
In any case, the prior schizophrenic approach to Russia from 2009 has been disastrous diplomatically. If it was a mistake to cozy up to Putin in 2009 on the mythology that a cowboyish George W. Bush had inordinately alienated Russia after its Ossetian intervention, then it has been an even greater error to go in the opposite direction and demonize Russia as some sort of uniquely evil state that allegedly prevented Hillary Clinton’s sure-thing election victory.
The key to dictatorial Russia is to neither love nor hate it. Rather, the U.S. should win its respect — and fear — by quiet shows of strength in protecting our interests.
The result in both cases has been that domestic politics hampered foreign policy. We’ve lost access to the realist avenue of balancing nuclear powers to prevent the current de facto alliance of China and Russia, now united in their support for the provocative thermonuclear-bomb agendas of North Korea.
The key to dictatorial Russia is to neither love nor hate it. Rather, the U.S. should win its respect — and fear — by quiet shows of strength in protecting our interests. And we should seek areas — like the menace of North Korea — where our big-power interests might merge and where we each can show China that its behavior will earn it as many worries for itself as its North Korean client now poses to others.
— NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author of The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won, to appear in October from Basic Books.