Departure of Bossert Reveals “Boltonization” of National Security Council

On April 10, 2018, Thomas P. Bossert, the President’s Homeland Security Advisor, abruptly resigned from his post. It came as a surprise to homeland security observers and to Bossert himself. Speaking at the Cipher Brief’s 2018 Threat Conference in Sea Island, Georgia, Bossert gave no hint that his departure was mere hours away. What the Bossert exit represents is a rapid move by Bolton to put his own imprimatur upon the National Security Council.

As a fellow member of the George W. Bush administration, I worked homeland security issues with Bossert although we did not work closely together. He was a denizen of the West Wing in those days, while I worked domestic intelligence matters on Nebraska Avenue at the Department of Homeland Security. Lawyerly and thoughtful, Tom was respected for his work ethic and notably his ability to master the chaos that was the Hurricane Katrina crisis of 2005.

Unlike many other veterans of Bush 43, Tom was able to shed those “scarlet numbers” and join the Trump administration. By all accounts, he and President Trump got on well. Bossert’s relations with H.R. McMaster, Trump’s second National Security Advisor, were a bit more complicated. Beset by a Byzantine chain of command conundrum, McMaster and Bossert feuded over NSC seniority and who reported to whom. Besides their “who’s on first arguments,” the two sparred over other matters of national security policy as well as often engaging in shouting matches that reverberated through the black and white marbled halls of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. 

A number of NSC staffers also complained that Bossert was a bit of a foot dragger when it came to execution on policies relating to counterterrorism and especially cybersecurity. The Trump administration’s failure to, as yet, delineate a cogent national cybersecurity strategy has been a criticism that has been laid at Bossert’s feet. In defense to Tom, counterterrorism and cybersecurity are both extremely complex issues, involving many stakeholders in government, the private sector, and with our allies abroad. Getting these issues right and crafting a workable strategy should take time and be subject to a great deal of thought and discussion.

Of course, the more important story here is the alacrity with which National Security Advisor John Bolton moved to replace Bossert. Bolton, assuredly not a shrinking violet in the hard-elbowed politics of bureaucratic Washington, has in one scythe-like move begun the process which will result in the “Boltonization” of the National Security Council. Firings did occur after McMaster took over as NSA, the most high-profile example being Ezra Cohen Watnick, but not at the scale currently occurring during Bolton’s first week as NSA. Bolton represents the geopolitical hard, hard line of the Republican party. Indeed, many would contend that he is not of the GOP at all, holding a worldview that is so combative and reactionary that he remains an outlier among more traditional Republican foreign policy thinkers.

Expect Bolton to bring in his own people who share his worldview in the coming weeks. Most of the new recruits will come with street creds that will label them as hardline foreign policy reactionaries who will dismiss globalism and unity of action among the Western allies in favor of American “go it aloneism.”

Since the Trump administration came into office, the NSC has been roiled with the hirings and firings of two National Security Advisors, the departures of now three Deputy National Security Advisors and several senior departmental directors as well as a slew of rank and file staffers. Morale among council employees is said not to be robust.

Another changeover at the NSC could not come at a more inconvenient time.  If Bolton is going to look for a new and tougher staff at NSC, one that reflects his own vision of U.S. national security, the real test for them will be decidedly immediate with the U.S. now facing an instant decision on whether to undertake military action to punish Syria’s Assad regime for yet again dropping chemical weapons on its own citizens, more challenges from Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the looming summit between President Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.   

With varsity level competition facing him, let’s see if John Bolton’s attempt to re-make his NSC team in his own image will be successful or will result in just a bunch of ideologue scrubs taking the field in possibly the biggest game of their untested careers.

While it is understandable that Bolton will seek to populate his NSC with like-minded thinkers, it is also important to ensure that national security policy-making enjoys the rigorous give-and-take that will be needed to examine all facets of a projected course of action. Indeed, within the Intelligence Community where I served, contrarians are highly valued for the leavening they provide to any intelligence policy decision. Without examining and valuing the opinions of “the loyal opposition” in foreign policy decision-making, we run the risk of following policies untested. When the stakes are as high as North Korean missiles or strikes against Syrian (and Russian) targets, National Security Advisor Bolton would be well-served by a few dissenting voices in the EOB.  


Jack Thomas Tomarchio is former Principal Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security for Intelligence and a Senior Fellow at the George Washington University Center for Cyber and Homeland Security and the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He can be reached at [email protected]

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Comrade Kim Goes to China, but What Does That Really Mean?

At a time when “ordinary” doesn’t seem to exist in Korean affairs, Kim Jong-un’s recent visit to China affirmed that for all the change, some fundamentals remain the same on the Korean peninsula. Not that the trip was clearly or easily foreseen. The visit was Kim’s first public one to a foreign country since he came to power in late 2011. The first concrete signs that a high official was travelling from North Korea to China came in the shape of added security along the railway route from Pyongyang to Beijing, at Dandong station in China, across from the North Korean border town of Sinuiju. Both North Korean and Chinese authorities kept the visit secret, and it was only confirmed when the countries’ media outlets reported it after it happened.

On March 26, a source described to Daily NK how local police rehearsed rapid deployment of protective metal road barriers the day before. Kim Jong-il, the father of current leader Kim Jong-un, was known for taking his train rather than flying, over fears of safety. The mode of transportation was only one of several continuities in tradition. With two summits planned with national leaders—one on April 27 with President Moon Jae-in of South Korea, and a slightly more spectacular (and uncertain) one with U.S. President Donald Trump set for late May—it would have been a notable break of tradition had Kim Jong-un met with either of these two leaders before North Korea’s only nominal ally, China.

As leader, Kim Jong-il’s first two foreign visits went to China, where he met with then-President Jiang Zemin. For his third visit, Kim the elder went to Moscow where he met President Vladimir Putin. The relationship between North Korea and China may be more fraught than in the past several decades, with China enforcing international sanctions on North Korea with greater force than it has ever has before. But some traditions are heavier than others. Kim Jong-il, too, only ventured abroad after he had consolidated his power internally.

Reports from the meetings between the two leaders also carried few surprises. The mandatory and regular talk of their historical friendship, sealed in blood and forged through ideological union, has been as present as tradition commands in both Chinese and North Korean state media reports of the visit. Given the current tensions and uncertainties surrounding the Korean peninsula, emphasizing that continuity is an important message in its own right.

The diplomatic developments of late have taken place largely without much of a clear part for China, at least not what the outside world has been able to see. As the Chinese government news agency Xinhua emphasized, Kim’s visit was a way to loop in China and give the country its due recognition as a key player in the process:

At present, the Korean Peninsula situation is developing rapidly and many important changes have taken place, Kim said, adding that he felt he should come in time to inform Comrade General Secretary Xi Jinping in person the situation out of comradeship and moral responsibility.

Xinhua also reported that Kim mentioned denuclearization several times, but none of what he said gave evidence of a change of policy or even a new North Korean attitude to the nuclear issue. To grasp the full context of these citations, they are worth quoting in full (my own emphasis):

Kim said that the situation on the Korean Peninsula is starting to get better, as the DPRK has taken the initiative to ease tensions and put forward proposals for peace talks.

It is our consistent stand to be committed to denuclearization on the peninsula, in accordance with the will of late President Kim Il Sung and late General Secretary Kim Jong Il,” he said.

Kim said that the DPRK is determined to transform the inter-Korean ties into a relationship of reconciliation and cooperation and hold summit between the heads of the two sides.

The DPRK is willing to have dialogue with the United States and hold a summit of the two countries, he said.

The issue of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula can be resolved, if south Korea and the United States respond to our efforts with goodwill, create an atmosphere of peace and stability while taking progressive and synchronous measures for the realization of peace,” said Kim.

This is not the first time over the past few weeks that other outlets or channels than North Korean ones claim that Kim has made statements positive to denuclearization. When North Korea communicated to the United States that it wanted to meet, a South Korean envoy relayed the message that Kim wanted to talk denuclearization. North Korean media is yet to acknowledge or even mention this or even that Kim is scheduled to meet with Trump. The same is true for Kim’s comments in Beijing: North Korean reports of what was said there do not mention denuclearization.

Even if they had, “denuclearization” can mean a whole number of things to North Korea, and it almost certainly does not entail a one-sided capitulation of its nukes to the United States. Take the following piece from the excerpt above of Kim’s statements: “It is our consistent stand to be committed to denuclearization on the peninsula, in accordance with the will of late President Kim Il Sung and late General Secretary Kim Jong Il.”

Note: consistent stand. In other words, nothing has really changed in North Korea’s line on the nukes. Despite what some media outlets have speculated, this was not a promise by Kim to give up his nuclear weapons in future negotiations. North Korea is still prepared to denuclearize—as long as the U.S., South Korea, and maybe the rest of the world takes steps that are still yet to be defined. We don’t actually know what North Korea demands in exchange for denuclearization, and North Korea’s definition of “denuclearization” may be so wide as to be meaningless because what it will demand in return are things that its negotiating partners cannot or will not give.

Despite their tense relationship, North Korea and China need each other for a variety of reasons, many of which have to do with strategic conditions in the region. These have not changed. The visit was a way for China and North Korea to close ranks before North Korea’s upcoming negotiations, and they’ve shown that for all the bad blood between them, they remain allies, albeit uncomfortable ones.

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What Do Trump’s Tariffs Mean for the World Trade Organization?

It’s not unusual for U.S. politicians on the campaign trail to decry free trade. Most voters will be happy to hear that they can blame other countries for their own economic problems. And most politicians know that it’s safe to talk tough on trade before an election, but then they quietly reverse course once in office. Republicans, of course, usually don’t have to distance themselves from market liberalization; their constituencies usually favor free trade and preferential trade agreements.

But now, we have an announcement of major tariffs being imposed on imports of steel and aluminum by President Donald Trump—tariffs from which NAFTA members Canada and Mexico will be exempt, leaving the most vulnerable parties as the European Union, South Korea, and Brazil. This announcement has led to a scramble for bilateral talks, as countries rush to set up meetings in DC in the hopes of procuring a place on the exemption list.

Of course, the World Trade Organization (WTO) is meant to prevent these situations: both the unilateral raising of tariffs and the need for countries to strike side deals. The WTO, and its predecessor the GATT, came into existence for three primary reasons. The first was to ensure that its member states enjoyed the same preferential status in terms of their exports. Second, it gives countries a forum to discuss and prevent potential disagreements in terms of trade, so that matters could be resolved without resorting to unilateral tariff increases. Third, it provides formal adjudication if countries can’t settle their disputes amicably.

The announcement of the steel and aluminum tariffs, and the subsequent flurry of possible exemptions, already shook the first two of these pillars of the WTO. Although raising tariffs can at times be permissible under WTO rules, the scale and suddenness of these tariff increases is unusual. Furthermore, if countries race to strike private deals with one another, it undermines the whole point of a multilateral system of negotiations existing to produce consistent trade rules.

Do Trump’s tariffs and the international community’s response spell the end of the WTO and of the multilateral regime for global and liberalized trade? Or is it just further evidence that the system was already in decline?

After all, when the organization was founded in 1995, WTO members meant to move forward quickly to negotiate a new round of trade liberalization, with an ambitious schedule that was meant to level the playing field between developing countries and the rich world. But even its first attempt to set the agenda, in 1999, was stillborn, and subsequent efforts have stalled after a negotiating impasse. Additionally, although the WTO is meant to be the dominant institution in terms of trade rules, there are now around 600 preferential trade agreements (PTAs) notified to the organization. Although these PTAs are permissible under WTO rules, they create a maelstrom of overlapping rules, schedules of liberalization, and dispute settlement mechanisms that complicate the global regime for trade. Furthermore, if trade negotiators are focused on carving out preferential deals such as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (the new moniker for the Trans-Pacific Partnership after the U.S. withdrew), it diverts their efforts from crafting a more inclusive global playing field for trade under WTO auspices.

But the third pillar of the WTO—dispute settlement—is probably the most vibrant part of the organization. Countries have brought over 500 cases to the WTO since the organization’s inception. The U.S. has brought over 115 complaints to the WTO; it has been the target of disputes in another 136; and it has sat as a third party to 142 cases. 

And while delegates from some countries affected by the steel and aluminum tariffs rush to Washington for meetings, others are likely gathering legal counsel to explore the option of bringing a complaint against the U.S. to the WTO’s court.

So even if the WTO cannot prevent the tariff increases and the bilateral talks, dispute settlement is meant to at least provide a backstop to countries’ actions in the global system of trade. But this process is lengthy and slow, and will probably not kick in until after countries, companies, and consumers have already felt the pain of rising prices.

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What Will Kim and Trump Actually Talk About?

The news that North Korea’s Kim Jong-un has invited Donald Trump for talks, and that Trump has accepted, is surely a breakthrough given the past months of sky-high tensions over North Korea’s nuclear and missiles program. The two are tentatively set to meet in May of this year, but there is still a long way to go: talks could falter at the planning stage over issues such as what should be on the table, or where the parties should meet (or who should represent the countries). But for now, this is at least a step back from the brink that the world looked to be standing at only a few weeks or months ago.

Still – and I hate to rain on the negotiation parade – it remains unclear precisely what the two are likely to talk about, or what the possibilities and limits are to any progress. A meeting resolves nothing in its own right, and neither the US nor North Korea has changed its most fundamental stances: the US still sees North Korean denuclearization as the ultimate goal of talks, while North Korea still seems unlikely to abolish its nuclear weapons.

Both North Korea and the US appear to be flexible enough in their positions to think it worthwhile to meet. That is a good thing. After the past months of war bluster, much of the world is probably already breathing a collective sigh of relief.

When Kim Jong-un met with a South Korean delegation in Pyongyang a few days ago, he stated that North Korea would hold back on any nuclear or missile tests while engaged in talks with the US, even if the US and South Korea go through with military exercises that North Korea sees as provocations and rehearsals for war on the peninsula. Perhaps, most importantly, South Korean President Moon’s envoy who met with Kim Jong-un, Chung Eui-yong, said Kim had stated that North Korea was prepared to denuclearize in exchange for “security guarantees.”

At the face of it, that all sounds very promising. The problem is, however, that it has never been fully clear what the US and North Korea, respectively, really expect and hope for through talks. For North Korea, “security guarantees” could mean a whole range of things. Withdrawal of US troops from South Korea may just be the beginning. After all, the US does not need to have ground troops present in South Korea to be able to target North Korea militarily should it wish to do so. What if North Korea’s demands turn out to be much more ambitious – such as US withdrawal from the region entirely, or even reciprocal curtailments of the US’s own nuclear arsenal?

In short, North Korea may come to make demands that the US would be highly unlikely to meet. For now, no one knows for sure exactly what North Korea wants in terms of security guarantees, and having seen what happened to dictators such as Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, or Libya’s Muammar Ghaddafi, Kim Jong-un is unlikely to put his faith in a peace treaty or the like.

Moreover, Kim Jong-un’s initiative for negotiations should not be seen merely as a sign that sanctions and “maximum pressure” are taking such a toll on the regime that it has no choice but to negotiate. Rather, it may be because Kim feels so confident in the credibility of North Korea’s nuclear deterrent that he is willing to sit down and talk. Kim’s action is likely the result of a mix of factors, from the pinch of outside pressure to confidence in North Korea’s position. After all, Kim Jong-un’s strategic situation is much stronger than that of his father was during the Six Party Talks, North Korea now having conducted successful tests of ballistic missiles that many observers believe demonstrate a capacity to strike at the US mainland. No matter what North Korea’s reasoning behind the overture may be, it would be a mistake to see it merely as a sign of weakness. For the past few months, ever since Kim Jong-un reached out to Moon Jae-in over the Olympics, developments on the Korean peninsula have been driven by North Korean actions. Moon Jae-in has proved himself a highly skilled diplomat in getting the US and North Korea to a position where both are willing to talk, but it’s important to remember that for most of the developments throughout this current crisis, North Korea has held the initiative.

The news of an upcoming meeting is progress – for now. The hardest part – actual negotiations – still lies ahead.  

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Compete and Cooperate to Make U.S. National Security Strategies Great Again

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. government. This article is written in response to History Begins (Again) for the Pentagon by John R. Deni, R. Evan Ellis, Nathan P. Freier, and Sumit Ganguly published on February 22, 2018.

Colleagues at the U.S. Army War College recently published a piece making important arguments that largely echo the competitive approach emphasized in the Trump administration’s new National Defense Strategy (NDS). They correctly argue that U.S. strategy since 9/11 has been obsessively focused on counterterrorism and that U.S. military power has been drained by exhausting and largely unproductive deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their conclusion, however, that this has left the United States at a distinct disadvantage with respect to the revisionist powers of Russia and China, is exaggerated. Moreover, an imbalanced U.S. strategy that is excessively reliant on military force fails to capitalize on America’s significant advantages in the non-military instruments of power. Furthermore, an overemphasis on building ever more offensive military capacity risks provoking even more aggressive counterbalancing by adversaries that will ultimately lead to a self-fulfilling and dangerous security dilemma, in which the international system and the United States will actually be less secure. Finally, a more muscular military strategy will do little to address the central challenges posed by Russia and China as they expressly avoid directly confronting U.S. military strengths and instead seek asymmetric advantages in the “gray zone” below the threshold of open military conflict.

America’s comparative advantage since World War II has been, and continues to be, in the realm of values, enduring beliefs, and the perception that the United States is the key to a more cooperative and peaceful world. In erecting this institutional and intellectual framework, the United States committed itself to underwriting and supporting a rules-based international system and providing the global public goods that were necessary to promote greater prosperity, cooperation, and peace. This edifice was built upon and effectively reinforced and extended U.S. dominance in diplomatic and informational power, economic strength and vitality, and military might. Indeed, the U.S. today retains the most lethal and globally deployable military force on the planet. Even before the Trump administration’s call for a larger defense budget, the U.S. spent more on defense than the next eight countries combined. Economically, the U.S. still accounts for nearly 25% of global economic output with less than 5% of the global population. Moreover, it boasted the fastest recovering economy in the wake of 2008 global financial collapse and maintains significant advantages in technological developments and innovation. Finally, the United States enjoys the advantages of an unparalleled network of political and military alliances and extensive economic partnerships spanning the globe.

How to Address the Challenges Posed by Russia and China

First, U.S. policymakers should be careful not to exaggerate the hard power or global influence of Russia or China. The NDS correctly observes that both countries are revisionist powers intent on undermining U.S. dominance in Europe and the Pacific regions, respectively. Yet, both states confront external and internal challenges that will place practical limits on their ability to exert decisive influence beyond their immediate vicinities. Russia is a much diminished political, economic, and military power when compared to the Soviet Union. President Vladimir Putin resides over a shrinking Russian population and oil-dominated economy that is suffering under low oil prices at a time when the U.S. will surpass both Russia and Saudi Arabia as the world’s number one producer of oil. Meanwhile, even as President Xi Jinping consolidates his power in Beijing, China faces serious environmental degradation, and satiating China’s growing middle class will pose enormous economic and political challenges to his leadership abroad and at home. Moreover, the U.S. already enjoys strong and enduring political, economic, and security alliances with regional powers including Japan, South Korea, and India who will serve as natural checks to Chinese power and influence in the Pacific. This is not to say that Russian or Chinese goals and ambitions do not represent challenges to the U.S., but rather to remind policymakers that Moscow and Beijing—like all actors—will face important constraints and limitations on their ability to extend their influence to far-flung regions of the globe.

Second, U.S. policymakers must be sensitive to the risks of an overly ambitious strategy that is principally dependent on military superiority. There is little doubt in Moscow or Beijing that the U.S. would be the ultimate victor in any military confrontation. This is precisely why they pursue strategic advantages through asymmetric competition with the United States in their respective regions. The risks of U.S. military overreach are particularly acute with Russia. In Syria, the prospect of direct U.S.-Russian military confrontation—something that was avoided during the entirety of the Cold War—is a concrete reality as U.S. military strikes recently killed dozens of Russian military contractors. But recent suggestions to arm Ukraine with more lethal weapons, in a geographical area where Moscow enjoys escalation dominance, only feeds Russia’s paranoia and fears of NATO encroachment, increasing prospects for retaliation that risks direct U.S.-Russian conflict. Similarly, in addition to the perennial risks of conflict with China over American military support to Taiwan, regional analysts have warned of a growing risk of military confrontation in the East China Sea as the U.S. and its allies move to contest Chinese construction of artificial islands intended to solidify Beijing’s expansive territorial claims in these resource-rich waters.

Third, the primary gap in U.S. strategy is not a deficiency in military capability, but rather, it is the need to re-build the diplomatic, economic, and informational tools that have atrophied in the glow of U.S. military primacy. Certainly, there is a role for U.S. military actions designed to contain and restrain Russian and Chinese activities that genuinely endanger vital U.S. national interests. For instance, the United States and NATO have smartly bolstered military deployments and exercises in Europe in order to underscore America’s commitment to the defense of NATO allies. It has similarly increased so-called freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea to demonstrate America’s willingness to guarantee access to the global commons.

However, the challenge for U.S. policymakers will be to place these military activities within a broader strategy that maximizes the contributions of diplomacy, economics, and informational measures. With Russia, this should include enforcing the punishing set of sanctions that have already been imposed by the U.S. Congress in response to Russia’s occupation of Crimea and its destabilizing activities in Ukraine. Additionally, the United States can simply not tolerate Russian efforts to undermine its democratic process and exacerbate existing societal and political divides in the country. This will certainly require defensive measures to protect electoral systems and minimize the ability of any foreign power to infiltrate and manipulate U.S. social networks and information sharing platforms. Additionally, U.S. policymakers must also consider offensive cyber actions to punish and cripple the foreign officials, institutions, and individuals that participate in these malicious activities.

With respect to China, U.S. policymakers should focus efforts on building diplomatic support for regional institutions that will foster economic and commercial growth consistent within existing international trading norms and rules. For instance, the U.S. should support the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (formed after U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership), which builds a multilateral framework supporting and amplifying existing economic and security cooperation efforts in Asia.

Moreover, U.S. policymakers should be confident in the moral case for U.S. global leadership. The U.S. Information Agency once played a vital role in articulating American values, trumpeting the benefits of American political and economic models, and promoting cultural and educational exchanges. Those capabilities need to be restored and programs robustly funded. Francis Fukuyama was certainly overly optimistic when he assessed that America’s victory at the end of the Cold War represented the end of history. But neither Russia nor Moscow has offered a better political, economic, or ideological alternative to the unmatched successes of the American story.

Finally, U.S. policy should not be wholly confrontational. It is also important for U.S. policymakers to recognize that cooperation with both Moscow and China will be essential to achieving American security objectives in battling terrorism; rolling back nuclear and missile programs in North Korea and Iran that threaten regional and global stability; adhering to arms control agreements that reduce the risk of nuclear confrontation; and facilitating a political resolution to the civil wars plaguing the Middle East. Moreover, the United States need not necessarily fear Chinese investment in Africa, Latin America, or the Middle East as these regions are in desperate need of developmental assistance that the United States is both unwilling and unable to provide on its own. Rising to the challenge of better integrating both carrot and stick into a coherent U.S. national security strategy will require a much deeper investment in the non-military instruments of power. Prioritizing the filling of key senior diplomatic posts such as U.S. ambassadors to South Korea and Saudi Arabia is a minimal prerequisite. In a complex and increasingly integrated world, U.S. policymakers should be seeking to bolster investment in American diplomacy and foreign aid programs quite in contrast to the budget reductions proposed by the Trump administration.

While the United States must be cognizant of the competition posed by Russia and China, it should also be careful not to create a self-fulfilling prophecy of conflict with those countries if it wishes to promote international stability and maintain its comparative advantage as the largely benign leader of the liberal international order.

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What’s in a Name?: Strategy Behind the “Indo-Pacific”

Throughout his tour of Asia in November 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump repeatedly referred to the region through which he travelled not as the “Asia-Pacific,” but rather as the “Indo-Pacific.”  While other American presidents have spoken of the “Indo Pacific” before, they did so infrequently. Trump’s continuous use of the term prompted some to speculate whether it offered a clue to the future of American strategy in the region.

Only a week later, Australia released a new white paper that embedded the term “Indo-Pacific” into its broad foreign policy objectives. The white paper made mention of the “Indo-Pacific” 74 times and the “Asia-Pacific” only four times. In contrast, Australia’s prior foreign-policy white paper, published in 2003, mentioned the “Asia-Pacific” 26 times and the “Indo-Pacific” not at all. Clearly, policymakers have intended the term to hold some deeper meaning.[1]

You Say “Asia-Pacific,” I Say “Indo-Pacific”

What does the term “Indo-Pacific” convey that the term “Asia-Pacific” does not? It conveys a wider view of the region to include the Indian subcontinent and, specifically, India. Why include India? Most likely it is because incorporating a country of India’s size and significance into the traditional conception of the Asia-Pacific region would help to balance the growing economic and military heft of China in it.

That makes sense, given that Australia, Japan, and the United States have already brought India into their Asian security discussions. Back in 2007, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe first suggested formalizing such a multilateral collaboration through what he called the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. He hoped to bring together Asia’s four liberal democracies to promote their shared security goals. At the time, the concept fizzled for fear of alienating China. But that apparently is less of a concern today. With the rise of Chinese assertiveness, the four countries have begun to participate in joint military exercises all along Asia’s periphery. Since 2014, India, Japan, and the United States have conducted annual naval exercises from the Bay of Bengal to the Western Pacific. And, since 2015, Japan has joined the biennial Australia-U.S. military exercise called Talisman Saber.

Indo-Pacific Security Relationships

Still, for the moment the Indo-Pacific region’s only formal security alliances are the bilateral ones that link the United States with Australia, Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea in what some have described as a “hub-and-spokes” arrangement. The United States also has long-standing security relationships with Singapore, Taiwan, and until recently, Thailand. All other regional security ties are fairly nascent, including the one between Australia and Japan. Though both countries seem drawn to one another, their bond is not yet strong. Seen in that light, Australia’s recent decision to abandon a Japanese design for its future submarine fleet was probably a missed opportunity to reinforce that bond.

Meanwhile, India, which leaned towards the Soviet Union for much of the Cold War, has a relatively new security relationship with the United States. It was not until President George W. Bush orchestrated a civil nuclear deal with India, which implicitly recognized its nuclear weapons status in 2005, did that relationship really start. And even then, it did not grow quickly. Many Indians, including former National Security Council military advisor Prakash Menon and the former foreign secretary Shyam Saran, had reservations. In 2012, they, along with some notable Indian security experts, penned a strategy paper entitled Nonalignment 2.0 that downplayed the importance of stronger ties with the United States.[2]

Since then, however, China’s growing pressure on India’s borders and influence among India’s neighbors have made Indian leaders less concerned about India’s distance from the United States and more interested in finding common cause. As a reflection of that, India—once an exclusive Russian arms importer—has begun to acquire American military equipment and to consider Japanese ones, too. Australia specifically cited its interest in “much closer” ties with India in its recent foreign policy white paper.[3]

Indo-Pacific Encirclement of China?

For years, Chinese strategists have chafed at what they regarded as the geopolitical encirclement of China. But the number of such commentaries seems to have fallen over the last year or so. Perhaps that is because China has strengthened its relationship with Russia and made diplomatic headway in Southeast Asia. Or perhaps that is simply because China feels more powerful than it was. Ironically, China would have more reason to feel encircled today, if the other major Indo-Pacific powers choose to revive something akin to the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue.

What’s in the name “Indo-Pacific?” The answer, in this case, might be a strategy for balancing Chinese power in the region.


[1] Australia Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, The Commonwealth of Australia’s 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper, Nov. 2017; and Australia Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australia’s Foreign and Trade Policy White Paper, 2003.

[2] Sunil Khilnani, Rajiv Kumar, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Prakash Menon, Nandan Nilekani, Srinath Raghavan, Shyam Saran, and Siddharth Varadarajan, Nonalignment 2.0: A Foreign and Strategic Policy for India in the Twenty First Century (New Delhi: Centre for Policy Research, 2012).

[3] Australia Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, The Commonwealth of Australia’s 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper, Nov. 2017, p. 42.

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Trump’s Seoul Speech: All the Right Points, Still No Way Forward

President Trump’s speech in South Korea’s National Assembly on Wednesday, November 8, 2017 was likely the best foreign policy speech he has ever given. And that is not only because expectations were low. It would be more accurate, perhaps, to say that fears were high. After months of unpredictable diplomacy-by-Twitter—calling Kim Jong-un names, making seemingly off-the-cuff-threats, undermining diplomatic efforts by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson—many feared that Trump’s speech would be yet another moment of this sort.

But rhetorical strength is no replacement for policy. Even though Trump’s speech largely checked all the necessary boxes for what a U.S. president should say during a state visit in South Korea, a fundamental divide remains between him and South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in over how to deal with North Korea, and whether military strikes should really be on the table. Trump expressed a will to talk, but also continued to push North Korean denuclearization as a precondition for improved relations. North Korea has repeated time and time again that its nuclear weapons are non-negotiable. President Moon, on the other hand, has expressed several times a will to engage with North Korea despite (or perhaps because) of its nuclear progress. This is a policy difference about as big as they get and though symbolically important, Trump’s speech did little to change matters.

First, let us look at some of the good parts of the speech, of which there were many. Some have criticized Trump’s speech for being akin to a Wikipedia page on South Korean history. Such criticisms miss the genre, context, and point of speeches such as this one. Trump did not go to Seoul to lay out new, ground-breaking policy lines. This state visit was highly symbolic, especially after all the ups and downs of U.S.-Korea relations over the past few months. By speaking on South Korea’s history, and the history of U.S.-Korean relations, Trump tried, and succeeded, in affirming American respect and recognition of both.

By anchoring the U.S.-Korea alliance in the Korean War (1950–1953), the speech signaled that the countries’ relationship is about more than strategy and geopolitics. Take, for example, the following lines, almost right at the beginning (my emphasis):

“Almost 67 years ago, in the spring of 1951, they recaptured what remained of this city, where we are gathered so proudly today. It was the second time in a year that our combined forces took on steep casualties to retake this capital from the Communists. Over the next weeks and months, the men soldiered through steep mountains and bloody, bloody battles. Driven back at times, they willed their way north to form the line that today divides the oppressed and the free. And there, American and South Korean troops have remained together holding that line for nearly seven decades.”

In other words, the alliance is steeped in shared sacrifices on the battlefield. South Korea’s war—for the Korean War was never formally ended, fighting only stopped following an armistice—remains America’s, too.

Trump also dedicated significant time to extolling South Korea’s economic and political development. This part of his speech served an important purpose: it gave recognition to a national narrative of modern South Korea that is an important source of pride for many. This narrative obscures a great deal of suffering and oppression at the hands of the country’s military dictators, but you can’t demand full and perfect academic nuance from a presidential speech during a foreign visit. The success story, next to the failed, oppressive and poor hermit kingdom, is a powerful story.

But Trump repeated the same policy the U.S. has held onto for decades, and in very clear terms. Complete and verifiable denuclearization is the beginning of better relations, and not even a guarantee (my emphasis):

“And to those nations that choose to ignore this threat—or worse still, to enable it—the weight of this crisis is on your conscience. I also have come here to this peninsula to deliver a message directly to the leader of the North Korean dictatorship. The weapons you are acquiring are not making you safer. They are putting your regime in grave danger. Every step you take down this dark path increases the peril you face. North Korea is not the paradise your grandfather envisioned. It is a hell that no person deserves. Yet despite every crime you have committed against God and man, you are ready to offer—and we will do that—we will offer a path to a much better future. It begins with an end to the aggression of your regime, a stop to your development of ballistic missiles, and complete, verifiable, and total denuclearization.”

The leadership in Pyongyang sees things differently, to put it mildly. They see the nuclear weapons as the reason they haven’t met the same destiny as leaders like Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi. Moreover, while Trump’s “message directly to the leader of the North Korean dictatorship” was at least in part meant to reassure South Korea that the U.S. stands behind it, South Koreans know full well that they, and not the U.S. president or population, are the ones in greatest risk should tensions escalate into armed clashes or nuclear war. This difference underlies the basic but crucial tension between the U.S. and South Korean administrations, where there has been little visible coordination of statements and measures during the last months’ tensions around North Korea’s nuclear program.

Of course, there is probably more flexibility in reality than can be gleaned from major speeches. Secretary of State Tillerson, when talking to reporters in Vietnam on Friday, seemed to imply that the U.S. is open to talks with relatively few preconditions. He would look for a “relative period of quiet and an indication from Kim Jong Un himself that they would like to have some type of a meeting,” reported Bloomberg. Trump’s emphasis on the U.S. being open to talking to North Korea, under the right conditions, was also a change of nuance, if not of words, from his usual tone against the North Korean regime. Perhaps more is going on under the surface. But as of now, the deadlock remains.

For other articles related to the Korean Peninsula, see Russia-North Korea Economic Ties: Is There More Than Meets the Eye? and Time for Decisions on North Korea.

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What North Korea’s Statement against Trump Really Means

It would be hard to deny that rhetoric on and around the Korean peninsula is at a high mark. United States President Donald Trump’s words about “fire and fury” aimed at North Korea sounded almost like the typical rhetoric coming from North Korea. North Korea’s response, seemingly implying a threat of bombing Guam, was unusually direct and concrete.

Still, it is important to remember one key fact that has gotten lost in the bluster and chatter: Neither Trump’s statement, nor North Korea’s response, imply any change of the status quo.

Trump’s words were dangerously crude, and struck a tone that previous American presidents have not taken toward North Korea. At the end of the day, however, striking North Korea has never not been an option for the Unites States. Within the strategic confines of the North Korean nuclear issue, it has always been implied that the U.S. would consider striking North Korea should it sense serious, imminent and tangible threats against itself or its allies. That is what overflights of bombers over the Korean peninsula—which the U.S. has often conducted after North Korean provocations and did only a few days ago—intends to signal. Trump’s statement was reportedly spontaneous, rather than a result of newly calculated U.S. language or new red lines. In other words, it was not intended to signal a change of policy. 

Similarly, North Korea’s threat against Guam was not a shift of position. The whole point of North Korea demonstrating its ICBM-capacities is to show the U.S. that it has the capacity to strike its mainland, or islands such as Guam. It is worth re-reading the central passages in full:

The KPA Strategic Force is now carefully examining the operational plan for making an enveloping fire at the areas around Guam with medium-to-long-range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-12 in order to contain the U.S. major military bases on Guam including the Anderson Air Force Base in which the U.S. strategic bombers, which get on the nerves of the DPRK and threaten and blackmail it through their frequent visits to the sky above south Korea, are stationed and to send a serious warning signal to the U.S.

The plan is to be soon reported to the Supreme Command soon after going through full examination and completion and will be put into practice in a multi-concurrent and consecutive way any moment once Kim Jong Un, supreme commander of the nuclear force of the DPRK, makes a decision.

The execution of this plan will offer an occasion for the Yankees to be the first to experience the might of the strategic weapons of the DPRK closest.[1]

Note the following:

  1. The KPA (Korea People’s Army, North Korea’s military) is, according to KCNA, “carefully examining the operational plan” for striking Guam. That’s not exactly a threat of imminent bombing. Rather, it is simply stating that North Korea has plans readily available for how it would attack Guam, should it choose to do so. Anything else would be surprising given North Korea’s tense relationship with the United States, and its heavy emphasis on missiles in its strategic doctrine.
  2. That the plan is to be reported to Kim Jong-un, and will be put into practice if Kim Jong-un decides it should be, is also not a change of policy. Remember: Kim Jong-un is the supreme commander of the North Korean military. He could order any attack he wants at any time. This fact was true yesterday, and will likely be true tomorrow as well. Of course, the wording of the statement makes it sound as if though North Korea might launch an attack in the near future. But North Korea threatens its neighbors and adversaries in regular intervals. Consider the following paragraph from a news report in the spring of 2013, another time when tensions ran high between North Korea and the U.S., citing a North Korean statement:

“We formally inform the White House and Pentagon that the ever-escalating U.S. hostile policy toward the DPRK and its reckless nuclear threat will be smashed by the strong will of all the united service personnel and people and cutting-edge smaller, lighter and diversified nuclear strike means of the DPRK and that the merciless operation of its revolutionary armed forces in this regard has been finally examined and ratified,” it said. “The U.S. had better ponder over the prevailing grave situation.”

In other words, North Korea regularly makes it a point to remind its adversaries of its capabilities. In terms of pure language, this time appears to be no different.

None of this is to say that the current tensions are not dangerous. Words eventually need to be backed up by action for them to carry any meaning. In situations like this one, the danger of escalation beyond the point of no return, and of miscalculation, is grave and serious. That is precisely why words and rhetoric must not be overblown, and understood in their proper context. 


[1] Source: Korean Central News Agency, “U.S. Should Be Prudent under Present Acute Situation: Spokesman for KPA Strategic Force,” August 9, 2017. North Korean outlets always write Kim Jong Un’s name in bold, and in a larger font.

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Why We Must Recognize North Korea

The reason that negotiations over North Korea have never achieved anything is simple. Their avowed goal is impossible to achieve. It is well-past time to accept that no means, political or military, exists to eliminate North Korean nuclear weapons. Their continued existence is certain, as will be explained. That being the case, it is time for the United States in particular to adopt a new approach.

This approach would be to recognize North Korea diplomatically, as a state, and as one having nuclear capability. Washington and Pyongyang should each build embassies and exchange ambassadors. This is the best alternative now available. It will not restore peace to Asia but it will bring partial progress that is real, rather than the total solution on which all agree, but that is simply impossible.

On June 21. 2017  United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated that Washington and Beijing agreed to “a complete and irreversible denuclearization of Korean Peninsula.” [1] Two weeks later, on July 7, 2017 it was reported that Mr. Putin and Mr. Trump had also agreed on such“ a complete and irreversible denuclearization.”[2] South Korea has already agreed repeatedly to this idea.

But how could such a situation ever be created? No country possessing nuclear weapons is ever again going to give them up. Ukraine did so, trusting to the pledges of the Budapest Memorandum (4 December 2004) in which “The Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America reaffirm their commitment to Ukraine, in accordance with the principles of the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine” That was proven a worthless scrap of paper when Russia invaded (2014-present) and annexed Crimea.

No one could miss the lesson nor will North Korea: keep your nuclear weapons and no one will dare invade you. Give them up and your position is vulnerable.

Suppose, however that North Korea solemnly agreed to denuclearize under treaty provisions, perhaps similar to those of Budapest. Proving that Pyongyang had complied would be impossible. North Korea is 48,000 square miles; under her surface are labyrinths of tunnels, factories, and military facilities of which we have no clue. To hold back and conceal  a substantial nuclear strike force would be easy, nor could any inspection regime, up to and including a military occupation, detect it if the concealment were competently done. Even a military holocaust over the country would not surely eliminate such weapons.

Note too that even a residual North Korean nuclear force would probably range from 49 to 100 (author’s estimate), as compared to 7,000 Russian bombs, China’s perhaps 1,000 (author’s estimate), India’s 130, Pakistan’s 140, Israel’s 80, France’s 300, Britain’s 215, and the United State’s 6,600. Her threat is deeply concerning, but the region is far more worried by China.[3]

At worst North Korea will flatly turn down our offer of recognition, in which case we should state that it remains open. If embassies having secure conference facilities, and able ambassadors are created, then for the first time the United States and Pyongyang will have a secure means of communicating ideas, however sensitive. This too may lead nowhere. But as the advantages of closer ties with the United States and her world of allies become clear, it is equally possible that Pyongyang will come to see that they can offer much more than their current shaky alignment with Russia and China.

No quid pro quo should be offered for this standard diplomatic procedure. Nor should anyone imagine that, if successfully accomplished, it will bring peace to hand. The greatest threat to Asia is not North Korea but China’s illegal expansion and militarization over millions of square miles into territories to which she has no claim, seas to her east and mountains of or near north India.

This fact of Chinese aggression means that the U.S. and her allies must continue to be strong; indeed stronger than they are at present. If a recognized North Korea continues to develop weapons of mass destruction, our only option will be further to increase the armaments and missile defenses of our Asian allies.  My own view is that if South Korea finds the North unresponsive to her peace overtures, she will develop her own nuclear weapons, regardless of American opinion. The same is almost certainly true for Japan, which China is forcing into a remilitarization that she does not want. When the Japanese do things, though, they tend to do them well, so we may assume that, if China does not change the situation radically, she will soon face a Japan possessing a nuclear deterrent—I argue only for minimal nuclear deterrents for our allies, perhaps no more than nuclear tipped torpedoes or nuclear cruise missiles that can be launched near shore—as well as and an air force as good as any.

Finally, what of North Korea? She will no longer be glued in place, attached to China of which she is not fond. With her independent forces she will also be too strong for China to intimidate. lest she cause nuclear attack. By the same token, North Korea will no longer be forced to ally only with  rogue nations.  She will have the option of moving into a more central and multipolar position globally, both diplomatically and economically. The possibility of trading in real world markets may afford her the opportunity to change.

These are only hopes. For now we extend our hand of formal recognition. But we offer nothing in return, nor do we diminish our relations with South Korea and other allies. Not a trail whose terminus is visible. But a rail at least that we can begin to walk.

Arthur Waldron is a Senior Fellow in FPRI’s Asia Program and is the Lauder Professor of International Relations in the Department of History at the University of Pennsylvania.


[1] http://www.teletrader.com/news/details/39290551?ts=1499882856534

[2] https://koreas.liveuamap.com/en/2017/7-july-tillerson-says-trump–and–putin-had-a-pretty-good

[3] https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/Nuclearweaponswhohaswhat  This is the source for all figures save those labeled “author’s estimate”.

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Of Modi and Trump: A Case of Continuity?

Indo-U.S. relations, despite some inevitable vicissitudes, had been mostly on an upswing since the second Clinton administration. After dramatic progress on multiple fronts during the two terms of George W. Bush, it had briefly appeared to be in the doldrums during the first Obama administration. Two issues in particular had vexed New Delhi. The administration had been overly solicitous of India’s long-standing and long-term adversary, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and had sought to link the Kashmir dispute with Pakistan with the U.S. role in Afghanistan. India had responded coolly toward the first overture and had expressed outright hostility toward the second. The administration, after its initial flirtation with the PRC did not play out well, changed tack. Also, faced with a blunt and unyielding stance from India on the other matter, it backtracked from linking the two issues.

Indeed following Obama’s visit to India in October 2010, the relationship had undergone a significant course correction. Among other matters, Obama was the first U.S. president to publicly, if in a qualified fashion, endorse India’s quest to join the United Nations as a Permanent Member. This gesture, though hedged with suitable qualifications, was of extraordinary significance to the Indian foreign policy elite, for whom the goal is of talismanic dimensions.

President Trump’s assumption of office came as a surprise to India’s policymakers. To compound matters, Trump had railed against the India’s use of the H-1B visas during the campaign—an issue of no trivial significance to India’s multi-billion dollar information technology industry. Apart from this populist rant, he had expressed scant interest in India and shortly after getting elected had lauded the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, in a phone call. Subsequently, earlier this year, Trump had publicly accused India of seeking billions of dollars from advanced industrial countries in exchange for its support for the Paris climate change accords.

All these statements had been of cold comfort to India’s foreign policy establishment. Nor had the administration sought to reassure India that it would pursue policy continuity in other areas such as defense cooperation or regional security through high-level diplomatic contacts. In fact, the only official of any consequence who visited India was the National Security Adviser, H.R. McMaster. Based upon press reports, much of his time in New Delhi had been devoted to discussions about the future of Afghanistan.

Consequently, as Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Washington, D.C. loomed, many within India’s foreign policy circles fretted about how Modi’s first state visit to the United States following Trump’s election would play out. Fortunately, for the most part, press reports and the detailed joint communiqué suggest that the Indo-U.S. relationship is in no imminent danger of being derailed. What are the indicators that the visit was at least a modest success and that it presages continuity in American policy toward India? Also, might there be any possible pitfalls that still lurk over the horizon? Are there issues that were left unaddressed that could come back to disturb the seeming bonhomie that the two leaders have established?

At the outset, it might be desirable to highlight what most Indian foreign policy commentators deem to be the achievements of the trip. Virtually all of them have taken note of the decision of the Trump administration to declare well-known terrorist, Syed Salauddin, the leader of the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist.” Under the terms of this label, any of his financial assets in the United States will be subject to seizure, and no U.S. citizen can have contact with the individual. The practical consequences of this listing may be limited as Salauddin is unlikely to possess significant financial resources in the United States, and few Americans would be desirous of establishing contact with him anyway. That said, the designation is nevertheless important as it helps India put pressure on Pakistan, his base of operations.

Barring this decision, even a casual glance at the joint communiqué reveals that a number of subjects that had been under consideration under the Obama administration will still be pursued. In the defense arena, the previous administration had granted India the status of a Major Defense Partner. Under its aegis, India was granted access to a range of dual-use technologies. The joint statement affirmed India’s status and revealed that the U.S. has now offered India new drone technology. It has also emphasized the significance of on-going bilateral naval cooperation and an interest in its deepening and expansion.

Also, in a striking departure from past precedent, India affirmed American efforts to curb North Korea’s nuclear and missile pursuits. Previous Indian regimes had shied away from taking such bold and unequivocal stances on matters that did not directly impinge on India’s national security concerns. Similarly, without explicitly alluding to the PRC, the statement underscored the importance of the freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific. In many ways, these are important signs that India now envisages a wider role for itself on matters of regional security across Asia.

Some potentially contentious issues, however, seem to have been set aside. There is no mention of the nettlesome issue of H-1B visas; the matter of divergent views on climate change seem to have been mostly papered over; and there is no reference to Iran’s role in the Gulf. The final issue deserves a bit of discussion. India, for a variety of compelling reasons seeks to preserve a cordial relationship with Iran. Among other matters, it has a very substantial Shia population in northern India and values their political quiescence. It is also dependent on Iran for access to natural gas. Finally, it has invested much in the development of a port facility at Chabahar in Iran to counter the PRC’s growing presence in Pakistan and to obtain land access to Afghanistan. Consequently, it would be loath to dilute this critical relationship.

The Trump administration with its fixation on Iran is no doubt aware of India’s ties to Iran. The fact that this issue in a concluding public statement has been neatly sidestepped suggests that it is not an area where there is mutual understanding. Nevertheless, it is not a matter that can be swept under a rug. At some point, the two sides will be compelled to grasp this particular nettle and not allow it to damage the overall fabric of the relationship.

A few analysts in India have suggested that the visit did not yield significant new achievements barring the U.S. decision to isolate Syed Salauddin and to nudge forward the process of defense cooperation. Such a characterization, though seemingly accurate, misses a critical point. Modi’s visit and Trump’s affirmation of a range of past policies suggests that there is no rupture in the relationship. With the significant ballast that it has acquired over the past decade and a half, the absence of any dramatic turns under the Trump administration demonstrates that it can withstand a significant shift in the overarching orientation of U.S. foreign policy.


Sumit Ganguly is a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia and holds the Rabindranath Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilizations at Indiana University, Bloomington.

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