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Meanwhile… in Pyongyang August 26, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in International Politics.

Oh dear. The ripples spread further. It’s hard not to see today’s news that North Korea to stop disabling its nuclear facilities as anything other than the upshot of the Georgian/Russian conflict. And for those of us who were leery about the Kosovo process it would appear that our unease has been confirmed.

And what of Russia’s unseemly haste to ‘recognise’ independence of the two formerly autonomous regions in Georgia. I think it’s wrong, I think it will generate more problems for Russia than it will solve, but Medvedev was, on BBC News this afternoon, masterful in his use of the Bush play book.

Anyhow, if the stakes continue to rise there back on the Korean peninsula it’s all getting a little warm.

North Korea said today it has decided to suspend disabling its nuclear facilities and will consider restoring the Yongbyon nuclear reactor because the United States had violated a six-party disarmament deal.

In fairness to the North Koreans (an unusual phrase and one to enjoy in its own way) they are responding to the fact that:

The United States has put off taking the North off its list of state sponsors of terrorism until there is agreement on verification.

And they argue that:

“We have decided to immediately suspend disabling our nuclear facilities,” the North’s KCNA news agency quoted a foreign ministry official as saying.

Regional powers have been pressing North Korea to accept a tough verification mechanism to check Pyongyang’s declaration of its nuclear programme made in July.

Opportunism and adventurism would now appear to be the order of the day. And why shouldn’t Pyongyang play this game too. A bit more dangerous one might argue than Georgia. Actually, a lot more dangerous. But, see them pull the tigers tail. What have they got to lose? The reality is that they’re simply delaying the process at a point where Washington seems less sure footed – for better or for worse – than it has in quite some time.

None of this is catastrophe. At least not yet. But it does indicate just how easily the house of cards that we call ‘international stability’ has been tipped over this decade and perhaps how fragile it always was.


1. eamonnmcdonagh - August 26, 2008

this is not a change in behaviour for the DPRK, it’s a reversion to the pattern that has long characterised their negotiating style;make threats, withdraw them in exhange for aid, wait a while, make more threats and so on and so forth. The speed at which the cycle spins mainly depends on how many million people are starving in the north at any given momeny.

and apropos of nothing, check out this



2. WorldbyStorm - August 26, 2008

Sure, but an opportune moment nonetheless – particularly in view of the fact there is concerted pressure on them.


3. Tomaltach - August 26, 2008

In short, so far the US is chronically mismanaging its relative decline as dominant economic and military power. The Clinton regime misunderstood Russia and sowed the seeds for the current tension in the Caucuses. But under Bush as we all know – the Us really lost its way and has projected its power in ways have been for the most part counter productive. Looking at the list of America’s main enemies or antagonists, most are now considerably stronger than when Bush came to office: Iran, Syria, Russia, China, and perhaps, as we discuss Korea. Not to mention that Iraq has become quagmire with further unknown consequences and that the Taliban are resurgent in a big way in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda itself is hardly weaker than when Bush took power, and even if it is, as an organisation under pressure in some parts, it is hard to argue that US actions have diminished the fuel which feeds the threat from Islamic terror: hatred. Overall then an awful mess.

I would imagine that if America doesn’t change direction, then a sustained period of woeful strategy could accelerate America’s continuing relative decline.

I recall reading somewhere that the decline and ultimate end of the British empire was protracted because the Brits made optimum use of their resources all the way and played on the whole a clever end game – the key point was that they recognised early that the US was to be the next Great power and, after the initial confrontations, decided to row in behind them and stay in their slipstream (where they remain!)

Predicting the demise of an Empire is probably a fools game but few now deny that the Us though still preponderant, is in a state of steady relative decline. And surely a succession of big decisions on strategy can either stem or accelerate that decline.


4. WorldbyStorm - August 26, 2008

I’d broadly agree, and I think you’re right to use the word ‘relative’. The US remains extremely powerful both politically and economically. But the rise of competing states, or rather the return in some cases, is crucial. That said it’s interesting, for example, how the PRC is essentially an ally of the US (something noted on To The Point on NPR today) and listening to another US based programme the point was made that compared to the BBC coverage of the Olympics in the US has been incredibly uncritical. And interestingly both Russia and the US are constrained in what they can do to each other due to much greater commercial links, I think it was someone on Slate who noted that whereas during the Cold War ties could be cut but now the networks are too great, something that cuts both ways incidentally.

I think that means that ten, fifteen, twenty five years down the line, probably even fifty we’re still looking at the US as the primus inter pares, but after that I’d think China, and perhaps Brazil or India might rise further. A lot depends on ideology within states. One doesn’t think in general terms of the US and Germany being in competition with each other despite the latter being a still quite powerful state economically. And I suspect that that will hold true of power relationships as other capitalist states grow larger. Nationalism may give an edge to relationships. Perhaps. But largely conflicts will be smoothed over, much as I suspect the current US/Russian one will be given time. Simply put both have too much at stake to go to the wire.

And a lot will depend on how expectations are managed particularly within the US as its pre-eminence ebbs somewhat away. But even so, a hundred years from now I thin we can safely say that the US will remain a major power (and remember opening markets work both ways with the US being able to sell into them), and perhaps still the major power in that hemisphere.

I hope I’m right thought that it will all be reasonably peaceful. I’m not counting into this equation climate change, resource conflicts, etc. That might make things very nasty indeed.


5. eamonnmcdonagh - August 26, 2008

“Looking at the list of America’s main enemies or antagonists, most are now considerably stronger than when Bush came to office: Iran, Syria, Russia, China.”

Iran: I agree, biggest beneficiaries of Iraq invasion

Syria: Is this a joke?

Russia: Russia is indeed stronger, becuase the price of energy is soaring and it has lots. How is Bush responsible for that?

China: China is also stronger but I can’t see Bush as having had anything to do with this and their armed foreces are still a shadow of those of the US


6. ejh - August 27, 2008

China is also stronger but I can’t see Bush as having had anything to do with this

Well y’see, in history when one Great Power behaves in an increasingly aggressive manner it tends to induce its rivals to do the same. This all tends to end very badly, of course, if outcomes of any any particular interest here.

Russia: Russia is indeed stronger, because the price of energy is soaring and it has lots. How is Bush responsible for that?

Well, one answer would be “by enormously destabilising the Middle East” but another answer would be that’s not particularly to do with energy prices: it’s rather connected to the fact that Russian economic recovery is connected in the minds of Russian political opinion with a reaction against the process previously in place, by which the treasury was looted and the people impoverished under governments backed strongly by the West. This has not done a great deal to convince the Russian public that what Washington and Brussels do is in their interest.

Now we could take some notice of that, or we could not. My guess is we’re going to go for “not”.


7. eamonnmcdonagh - August 27, 2008

ejh: China’s growth is a result of economic liberalisation, 1.3 billion people and an ambitious, smart and dictatorial govt. There’s nothing any US govt of any stripe can do about it.

russia is, to cite someone whose name escapes me at the moment, saudi arabia with vodka snow ands trees. I’d add to that list “a considerable military industrial base left over from communism”

It can only afford to project international power because it now has the financial resources to do so, guess where thy come from. Nothing any US govt can do is going to change the amount of oil and gas russia has or other people’s need for them

boys and girls, the US is not the sole motor of history


8. pete - August 27, 2008

I wouldn’t doubt that Syria is relatively stronger. Its surrogates are after beating the Isreal state for the first time in a long time, if ever. Don’t think it has to bad a realitionship with the Kurds at moment either and whatever internal dissent there was has not be shown a very pretty picture of getting involved with the Yanks. No matter how bad Ba’thism few sane people I think would say Iraq is in a better place now. To the best of the my knowledge the Asads where fairly decent in comparrission to Sadam anyway and not have so much problems with the restive minorities. And of course there ally Iran is in a world of a better place of recent.


9. ejh - August 27, 2008

boys and girls, the US is not the sole motor of history

You don’t say.

Nothing any US govt can do is going to change the amount of oil and gas russia has or other people’s need for them

You don’t say.

However, since the point wasn’t simply about Russia’s energy reserves – which are not perhaps the sole motor of Russian politics and policy – it might have been worthwhile to say rather less, or rather more.


10. eamonnmcdonagh - August 27, 2008

syria has no resources and one friend, Iran. Its position has improved solely as a function of the very real improvement of that of its sugar daddy, Iran

If Obama wins and a deal is made with israel on the golan heights, expect a rapid change in sugar daddy.


11. WorldbyStorm - August 27, 2008

Of course the US isn’t the sole motor of history, but it is fair to say that it has had a pre-eminent role over the past seven years in particular. And its aptitude to destabilise elements of international law as with Kosovo (and let me be clear that I supported intervention to uphold Kosovo’s autonomy, but not to detach it unilaterally from Serbia), Iraq (where there were other options available in the lead up to the war and occupation, Israel where it has given uncritical support to profoundly destabilising actions by Israeli governments – and for more read the review of Benny Morris’s latest book by Shlomo Ben-Ami in the current issue of Foreign Affairs magazine which yet again lays out the obvious parameters of a two state solution and yet which curiously is only expressed clearly and unambiguously when, as with Ben-Ami who was Foreign Minister, people leave office. That’s three areas which are essentially cliches, but none the less true for it.

And the obvious corollary of the argument about these powers all being ‘smaller’ is that the US retain that pre-eminence on a global level while they are more accurately regional powers. That may not be the worst thing in that the US is at least amenable to both internal and external political pressures that other states – to date – manage to evade, but in the long term if the US isn’t willing to live by the codes it demands others adhere to…

As for Syria, well, true to a point, but it has managed to retain its territorial and political integrity in a particularly fractious part of the world over a considerable length of time. I’m no fan of the regime, but it’s not as Pete says Iraq under Saddam, and really never was.


12. ejh - August 27, 2008

Unless you’re an Islamist, in which case the resemblances are quite striking. Have you ever read an account of the mass executions in underground prisons after the revolt in (I think) Dawa? Grim beyond belief.


13. Tomaltach - August 27, 2008

I deliberately used the qualifier ‘relative’ to describe America’s decline. The Us is certain to remain the worlds most powerful nation by far for a long long time. I would agree with those who argue that Russia’s economy is in fact hollow and is standing on the single pillar of energy. I don’t think Russia is about to resume superpower status. But the fact remains that it is an assertive, even agressive, Nuclear power with considerable military might. It also has a permanent seat on the UN security council. And it has a considerable sphere of influence from the Balkans, the Caucasus, to Central Asia. All of this in combination leaves it in a position to cause serious headaches to Western ambitions in these sensitive areas.

Perhaps it was not possible to draw Russia into the Western sphere quickly, but the policy of pushing Nato right up under its nose is both risky and probably counter productive. Did the West consider the Cold war as having ended with the Soviet Union or is it looking for outright ‘victory’ by further humiliating Russia? That at least is how Russians might see it. Whether we like it or not some of the areas of recent conflict are very sensitive in Russian eyes and the meddling by the West in what Russia considers her back yard draws the same response as Russian meddling would in Mexico.

eamonnmcdonagh mentioned the fact that China’s military is still miniscule beside that of the US. True. And so is every other military. As we’ve said, the US will remain the greatest power for a long time. It is not simply the rise of China that is challenging US dominance. It happens to be the belated but rapid spread of the industrial revolution in its modern guise to some of the biggest countries in the world. The economic rise of Brazil, India, and China, say, rapidly and simultaneously is diluting US power. It doesn’t mean that the massive influence of the US across the globe – in economic, military and cultural terms, is going to disappear over night. But there is a realignment going on which will over time pose more and more constraints to US power.


14. WorldbyStorm - August 27, 2008

Completely agree. If I can extend your point re ‘back yard’, which is fair enough, one of the biggest mistakes was not to pull Russia into a much closer relationship with both NATO and the EU. I’m no cheerleader for NATO but if people were serious about making a more stable international structure that was the obvious route – or if not NATO, then a successor body.


15. WorldbyStorm - August 27, 2008

Fair point ejh and my mistake for omitting that. That said the fearfulness of the Iraqi regime, and the sense that it would eat any of its children (so to speak) however highly placed, wasn’t quite there.


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