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Letter to the Editor — The Strategic Context of Regional Decision-Making: The cases of North Korea and Iran

(ROCKWALL, TX — August 2, 2017) There has been a rising awareness among US citizens in terms of the severity of the operational threat from ballistic missile development ongoing in both Iran and North Korea.  While Iran has, ostensibly, paused in its sprint to a nuclear weapons arsenal, the DPRK continues unabated posing threats to US bases in the Pacific, its allies, and, increasing, to the American homeland itself.  American policy, always mindful of a responsibility to facilitate an informed citizenry, would be well served in providing the American people with the larger, strategic context in order maximize its range of options and in solidifying support of the nation as its nation’s leaders wrestle with a growing problem of immense proportions.

The international framework or context, within which both North Korea and Iran find themselves, encompasses much more than the policy preferences of political leaders in either Pyongyang or Tehran.  They are, so to speak, pieces of a larger strategic puzzle that Americans would do well to consider.  This strategic aspect or puzzle involves the world system, a system that was created by the United States and its allies in the post-World War II era to underwrite political stability, economic growth, and development.  The system was eventually called upon to support Cold War operations in an intense but lengthy competitive struggle with the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact and their Marxist-Leninist brethren in Beijing.  The victory achieved during the Cold War may have heralded final triumph of free market democracy over command-style authoritarianism and the “end of history,” — at least to those in the West; unfortunately in Russia and China, the setback was only temporary.   A key lesson to appreciate, from the perspective of both American policymaker and citizen, is that the close of the Cold War was not the culminating final victory or even the end of a struggle, but rather a chapter in an ongoing saga.

The saga dates back centuries to Antiquity and became indelibly committed to history in the form of Thucydides, an Athenian general and writer, who argued that the primary cause of the Peloponnesian War was a reoccurring theme in the history of relations among people, city-states, and civilizations.  As such, the cause of the war was timeless and enduring and not one arising from a particular place or time.  Thus Thucydides also claimed he was writing not only for those of his generation but to inform future generations that would, undoubtedly, face the repeating theme and pattern.   While the war itself eventually proved fatal for Athens, the seminal text by Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War has, over the centuries, become a vital reference and source of knowledge within the field of security studies, international relations, and grand strategy.  Graham Allison of Harvard has recently released a well-received revisit to these classic lessons of history in Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’ Trap? (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2017).

These dynamics, repetitive over generations, are driven by uneven economic growth among competing powers serving to drive the rise of some faster than others.  An economically and militarily dominant nation and its allies in one century soon find that swift economic growth by an outside power or group of powers eventually provides the resources and capabilities to mount a viable challenge to the preexisting system.  This has manifested itself in the contemporary era as China growing at a rate of about 10 to 12 percent in terms of annual gross domestic product since the 1980s outpaced the United States which experienced growth in the range of about 3 per cent.  China’s growth has in the past few years slowed somewhat and is now running in the 7 percent range.

At the close of the Second World War, the United States believed that the dismal post-war economic conditions in both Japan and Europe were a threat to stability simultaneously posing a threat of a communist-inspired take over in both regions.  Accordingly, the Marshall Plan provided the resources, commitment, and focus for the rebuilding of European infrastructure and economic conditions.  In Japan, the United States government made a momentous decision to provide Japan with special access to the US market and Japan managed to rebuild and rise with significant assistance from an export-led model of growth with preferential treatment into US markets.

After Nixon and Kissinger made their entreaties with the Peoples’ Republic of China following secret meetings in 1971, China was slowly given access to the American market place with the hopes in Washington that this would increase engagement, influence and a desire on the part of the Chinese to work productively and cooperatively with the United States and the international system it led.  For the past quarter of century China has been able increase its market share for a range of products as it was provided access by the United States government with the aim of duplicating the Japanese model of success.  However, the jury is still out as to the success of the decades-old engagement campaign and as to the level of influence this has bought the United States in regard to the PRC.

A noticeable shift may now be occurring and perhaps reflective in US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent statements that China as well as Russia has empowered North Korea to circumvent a strong sanctions regime basically enabling Pyongyang to accelerate both its ballistic missile as well as its nuclear program.  A realization is taking hold that a policy of accommodating China’s rise in order to manage and increase its satisfaction with the international system has not met with the same success as US efforts with Japan.  One needs to be clear-eyed in terms of the comparison.  In Japan, the nation had lost a major war and the US was in military occupation.  This provided the United States the opportunity in re-forging and re-tooling Japanese authoritarian institutions while simultaneously building the foundations of representative democracy.  This grass-roots influence and building from the ground up has not been the case with Communist China.   Given the recalcitrance on the part of the PRC relative to the DPRK’s growing weapons of mass destruction arsenal, perhaps the time has come for a reappraisal of the accommodations provided to the PRC.

A study released by the National Defense University in 1998 argued that the nature of the 21st century international system in terms of peace, stability, and prosperity would be significantly affected by three key transition states: China, Russia, and India.  In terms of China and India, the massive populations and potential for economic and military effectiveness guaranteed their continuing importance to world politics in the coming century.  Russia, while not in possession of the population centers or the economic potential, would continue, these studies argued, to wield considerable influence with its military effectiveness, nuclear stockpiles, and large quantities of oil and gas.  Successfully managing the transition to free market democracy of these key nations and providing them incentives to both join and support the US-led international system was a vital task for the United States and its allies.  The jury is still out on the success of that transition management process.

About the same time as the key transition studies a discussion arose regarding what became known as the “rogue states.”  Before George W. Bush introduced his “Axis of Evil,” some state actors had been cast in the category of “rogue state” or “rogue regime.”  These included Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Muhammar Gaddafi’s Libya, the Ayatollah’s Iran, and the Kim family’s North Korea.  The policy prescription for the United States was to avoid having the rogue actors align with the key transition states in a counter-coalition aimed at undermining the US-led system.  Accordingly, Saddam’s regime eventually fell along with Gaddafi’s Libya while “rogue elements” remained in power in both Pyongyang and Tehran.  By themselves, the individual arsenals of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK-North Korea) and the Islamic Republic of Iran arise to problematic levels.  However, compounding these problems is the cooperation of weapons scientists within the DPRK and within Iran.   Thus a counter-coalition against the US-led international system has developed and according to the most recent evaluation by Secretary of State Tillerson, has been enabled by China and Russia.

The American people will be best served if they are apprised of the strategic context within which the problems with North Korea and Iran will unfold.  Done properly, this will expand the range of options available to the United States government and avoid decision-makers being penned into a corner where the only recourse is a militarily-based approach.  Further, US foreign policy will be best served if a comprehensive, global approach can be tailored to address the complexities at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels.  Thus political, economic, diplomatic, informational, policy options cannot be divorced from the very real and quite possibly the very necessary potential for the use of force.

While the lead actor of the international system cannot and should not immediately turn to the use of force in order to maintain and manage that system, it cannot wish away, as the leader of that system, the requirement of being able to expertly and adroitly apply military force when it becomes absolutely necessary.  The full range of options to effectively oppose the developing counter-coalition needs to be integrated with all elements of national capabilities and a comprehensive strategy developed.  Why actions along these lines are essential to the United States and the international system it leads needs to be shared with the American public and our allies.

Submitted by James McNabb. 

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