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The funk of politics – What the demonstrations in Brazil show us

Luísa Monteiro

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Brazilians are no longer satisfied with the current panorama of the country – at least, that is what they have been showcasing in various ways. Ultimately, on March 15th, more than a million citizens took the streets around the country and abroad to protest over issues such as corruption, weak economy and contradictory measures taken by the government of Dilma Roussef, the left-wing President re-elected at the end of 2014.

The political pressure comes at the time in which the country is shaken by the scandal of Petrobras, the Brazilian state-run oil company. It has been revealed under investigation that more than 40 politicians, some of them from the President’s Workers’ Party and the ruling coalition, including the speakers of the House and the Senate, former executives and construction companies were involved in a massive bribery scam and money-laundering case that embezzled billions of dollars. Even though the President was not accused of wrongdoing, it was during her years as Energy Minister and chairwoman of the company that the alleged corruption probe happened. The publicity of it provoked heated discussion among Brazilians – the faithful party’s supporters, the incredulous middle class and the afflicted industrialists. It is hardly shocking that such action applied this particular reaction, if anything we can be relieved that it did. Democracy is still alive and kicking.

A ‘Dilmother’ lode of opinions

The citizens are outraged not only because of the political situation – which they tend to summarize with one word, ‘corruption’, no matter what kind of scandal it is – , but also over Brazilian economy facing tough times, since it is nose-diving in one of the highest inflation rates in the last decade (7,7%) and the currency plunges. All those factors have led the President to take unpopular measures that were previously proposed by the opposition, but promptly condemned by her staff during the campaign- the ’I am in charge now‘ discrepancy, witnessed in every political system all over the world all the time.

All this instability resulted in the political dissatisfaction that gathered people in many capitals across the country. Curiously enough, the events were organised through Facebook and websites by non-partisan groups, thus following the patterns of the manifestations in 2013 and 2014, and reunited a myriad of opinions that longed for changes in the government, despite the differences amongst them.

Once again, we witnessed Brazilians absolutely and passionately divided as in a football match between the ruling parties and the opposition. Many times and regretfully enough, they were not able to understand the similarity of their demands, which is probably due to the way information is ruled and consumed in loco.

In spite of having plenty of information, people tend to absorb it in a passionate, sometimes dangerously non-critical way. In Brazil, an instructive example is that whereas some call President Dilma a ‘mother’, others tend to demonise her and her government, demonstrating that in a country where the number of magazines and newspapers greatly surpasses the number their consumers, press has its share when it offers incomplete and, sometimes, heavily biased analysis on the latest news. On top of that, citizens do not make a habit of going deep into the facts and are prone to adopt a political posture by following closely only one side of the story, deeming those who have different opinions as ‘political illiterates’. At this point, it is clear that willingness to make changes in the way the country is ruled abounds to the degree at which the process of political thinking lacks fruitful, open discussion.  

Before the rally on March 15th, about 40 thousand marched on March 13th in defence of Petrobras and the Workers’ Party. Two days later, those chanting on the street were mostly right-wing oriented, but their claims were not homogeneous and the experts would actually arrange the citizens into democratic, moderate and even ultra-conservative right-wings. Accordingly, several asked for impeachment, others for democratic changes, while some even supported military intervention and secession.

Although the demonstrations were not alike when it comes to the profile of those involved, be that for economical class or political orientation, Datafolha Institute indicates that their reasons, not their views, were convergent. In the contemporary world where 99 % of people live in a different micro cosmos than the remaining 1 %, this is not at all a surprising fact. Moreover, this fusion of views into one voice should be viewed as a positive sign towards a possible future rebellion against the current (political, economic, social and cultural) world order.

The story before March: the 20 cents that woke up the giant and the Cup that tucked him in

It would be ignorant to say this newest manifestation of dissatisfaction is an isolated episode. It has been two years since the first action took place, at that time because of the increase in bus fares, and the authoritative measures taken against the protesters stemmed a series of other protests for bigger and deeper political changes that lasts until today. The Brazilian giant was awake again, craving for changes and, in a cathartic 2013, sure of what he wanted. Today, he still has legit demands, but his voice lowers as the people cannot reach a consensus on what to protest for, which has been making him numb ever since. Hopefully, 2015 will be the wake-up call for every Brazilian to reflect on their political principles and move together towards a common objective.

The initial demonstrations in 2013 can be divided into three distinct acts, all of them organised and sponsored via social media. The first of them counted mostly with students that were outraged about the raise in the fair related to transports. In a non-violent march, those students were brutally supressed by the local police and deprived of their rights. The second phase involved representatives of the society as a whole – old people, children, teachers, workers – that were not only dissatisfied by the way the students had been treated but also demanded broader improvements, better hospitals, well-trained policemen, education for the people and the end of corruption, chanting that the Brazilian giant was finally awake. The third phase was led by a group of black blocks, who acted violently and destroyed several public and private places. This was the first time Dilma’s approval rates amongst electors have fallen significantly since her presidential inauguration.

In 2014, amid the preparation for the World Cup in the country, Brazilians found themselves in a huge scandal for misusing the public funds, corruption and overbilling for the construction of stadiums.

The general tension also mounted with the leaks about the shabbiness in public healthcare and education. As opposed to what was done in the countries that hosted the World Cup before Brazil and also in contrary to what the government announced, most part of the public money was destined for stadiums, whilst the public facilities needed for the event did not receive many investments.

All those reasons incensed the citizens to go to the streets once more in peaceful, yet persistent protests that took place in the first semester of the related year, including during some of the matches.

This time, however, the event was successfully executed and the aftermaths were at the same time confusing and astonishing. Besides having increased the number of tourists and, thus, the money they spent in the country, some of the work was arguably necessary, such as the Stadium in Amazonas, where there is a lack professional soccer teams and the weather is challenging.

It is paramount, therefore, to make it clear that these latest local protests did not occur out of the blue, green and yellow. They happened as a result of sequential factors that led to new political consciousness and habits that include a wider and wider range of citizens, even if this process is still ongoing. By sharing their views through social media, spreading the news in a rapid and effective way and allying themselves with potential supporters who share the same mind-sets, protesters could on the one hand hold a big event and, on the other, increase the power of pressure.

A government that is half of a kind

Now President Dilma has to deal with an ever increasing part of the population that does not feel properly represented by the government, which is especially true for the Brazilian middle class. Researches show that rejection rates achieved 62%, the highest percentage since September, 1992, right before President Fernando Collor de Mello suffered impeachment. Experts disagree on whether impeachment would be a legal or even an acceptable solution, with the population having similarly polarized opinions.

The Worker’s Party, known for its social policies, constantly relates the resistance from the middle class to wealth redistribution – hence, the desired improvement for those in need. Yet, the President now loses adepts in the lower economical layers of society, too, which evidences that her acceptance rates have decreased even among less favoured and illiterate electors.

At this point, it is as important to remember that President Dilma won re-election by a tiny margin as it is worth noting that it happened less than half a year ago. This shows us that even though social media recently played a major role in exposing the government’s weaknesses and pushing it for changes, we should also be reminded that political consciousness should have been taken seriously ages before the chants, and that is on polls.

At that tumultuous Sunday night, the government reacted to this rejection by recognizing the democratic legitimacy of demonstrations, but downplaying their suitability, claiming that the protesters were not able to win during the elections– the demonstrators responded by banging pots and pans and honking car horns.

Now it tries to put the country back on track and desperately hopes to find a magic bullet for the animosities, such as the quick sanction of an anti-corruption law that aims to penalize enterprises involved in corruption scams. Moreover, since the beginning of her new four-year term, the President has changed some of the ministers in her staff, being the newest of them the Education Minister, the philosopher and Ethics professor Renato Janine Ribeiro.

Nevertheless, the next steps in Brazilian politics remain very unclear. Despite making some changes, the government still receives heavy criticism, especially from the organisers responsible for the manifestations, who believe it did not quite understand the needs presented. They claim the government responded insufficiently, by designing fragile policies, and demand more energetic measures towards themes like corruption and the number of ministries. Even they suffer the pressure from the right-wing now, and some of them have recently adjusted the movement’s premises, consequently supporting impeachment.

Some citizens will be rallying against the government again, on April 12th. Until then, we still need to expect few shiny new moves from both sides, the governmental and the protesting part of population. Then, hopefully, the clouds will clear and we will see how much of it is just hot air in our tropical fall.

Luísa Monteiro is a bachelor in Social Communication and is currently taking a Master's degree in Communication and Politics at PUC São Paulo. Her researches are closely linked to the studies of internet as a democratic agora and her latest academic production correlates the (offline) social movements and their exposure on the net.

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Politics as Reflection: Even in an Election Year, Real Change Must Come From “Below”

Prof. Louis René Beres

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“What is the good of passing from one untenable position to another, of seeking justification always on the same plane?”-Samuel Beckett, Endgame

Again and again, in vain, Americans seek progress in politics.  But as really ought to have been learned at this point, ritualistic elections can never save the United States. Conventional wisdom notwithstanding, no president or congress can ever halt the corrosive withering of heart, body and mind that now so plainly afflicts the beleaguered nation.

 Here are some pertinent details. No matter how well intentioned and capable, whether Democrat or Republican,  a  US president’s proposed “rescue program” can only tinker at the edges of what is important. Naturally, there can always be various recognizable increments of apparent progress, but nothing that could overcome America’s growing indifference to meaningful education. If truth be candidly told, the glaring detachment of America’s current president from even a modicum of historical or scientific knowledge accrues to his political benefit.

Ironically, this detachment represents anything but a political liability.

Rather, it is a resounding political plus.

Credo quia absurdum, warned the ancient philosophers, “I believe because it is absurd.”  Today, in the United States and elsewhere, revealed ignorance has  become a tangible political asset. There is nothing intentionally “cute” or obnoxious about offering such a distressing observation about politics and “mind.”  

It is simply correct.

We should begin at the beginning. Every human society represents the sum total of individual souls seeking some form or other of “redemption.”[1] Ultimately, these searching souls must be mended “at the source,” that is, at the crucially core levels of individual human learning and personal transformation.

These souls can never be  “saved”  by narrowly self-serving institutions of any government or politics.

Never.

It’s not complicated. Like certain others, Americans now inhabit a society so numbingly false that even their most sincere melancholy is wanton and contrived. Wallowing in the mutually-reinforcing twilights of submission and conformance, the people have strayed far from any ordinary expectations of serious learning.

In essence, without any real or compelling reasons, Americans have freely abandoned the once-residual elements of Jeffersonian good citizenship.

In consequence, together with the unceasing connivance of charlatans and fools, a lonely American crowd now hides without shame from even its most accurate kinds of reflection.

There will be a price to pay. Any society so clearly willing to abjure its obligations toward dignified learning – toward what American Transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson once called “high thinking” – is one that should never reasonably expect to endure. What else ought we to expect from a society that elects a president who reads nothing, absolutely nothing at all, and who then affirms with wholly undiminished pride: “I love the poorly educated?”[2]

Today, in the United States, the evidence of abject surrender to “mass” (the term embraced by the great Spanish existentialist philosopher Jose Ortega y’ Gasset and Swiss psychologist Carl G. Jung);  to “herd” (the word favored by German/Swiss philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and Austrian psychologist Sigmund Freud[3]); or “crowd” (the choice of Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard) is everywhere to be detected. Resigned, at best, to an orchestrated future of dreary work and civilizational mediocrity, Americans too often lurch foolishly from one forfeiture to the next. Now, the people  remain oddly content to wage rancorous culture wars between ideological groupings.

At the same time, treating all formal education as a narrowly instrumental obligation (“one should get better educated in order to get a better paying job”), Americans very easily accept flagrantly empty witticisms as profundities (“We will build a beautiful wall;” “Barbed wire can be beautiful;” “The moon is part of Mars;” etc.), and then consult challenging ideas only rarely.

Always, the dire result is more-or-less predictable; that is, a finely trained work force that manages to get the particular job done, but displays (simultaneously) nary a hint of  learning, compassion or worthwhile human understanding.

One never hears of any literary, artistic or cultural presence in the Trump White House, unless we should be willing to count the president’s rapper meeting with Kanye West or the humiliating appearance of Duck Dynasty as main “speaker” at Trump’s 2016 Republican Convention .

Credo quia absurdum.  Every sham can have a reinforcing patina. This president who has never even glanced at the US Constitution, might well be re-elected. How shall this glaring contradiction be explained?

Whatever the answer, The American people should never express surprise at the breadth and depth of their present and still-impending national failures. Within the currently celebrated hierarchy of collective American  values, we may conclude, and without any hesitation, “You are what you buy.” Plausibly, without ever-more frenzied buying (aka the “retail sector”), our stock markets (together with all others) could soon find themselves in irreversible peril.

What this means, inter alia, is that American economic progress is contingent upon a ceaseless American willingness to subordinate what is truly important to whatever can readily be purchased.

There is more. In the bitterly fractionated United States, an authentic American individualis now little more than a charming artifact.  Among other things, the nation’s societal “mass,”  more refractory than ever to intellect and learning, still has no discernible intentions of taking itself seriously. To the contrary, an embittered American ‘mass” or “herd” or “crowd” now marches in deferential lockstep, foolishly, toward even-greater patterns of imitation, unhappiness and starkly belligerent incivility.

Incontestably, for Americans, searching self-examinations are fully in order. Already, it is possible for We the people to be lonely in the world or lonely for the world, and – regrettably – an anti-intellectual American mindset has simultaneously spawned both remorseless forms of  lamentation. On the plus side, there is an ascertainable antidote. Before it can be “applied,” however, and before a more harmonized nation can be detached from any such bifurcated loneliness, there will first have to be an “awakening.” The pertinent message of this call to consciousness would be as follows:  A society constructed upon willfully anti-intellectual foundations must inevitably be built upon sand.

Nothing more.

The American future is not hard to fathom. More than likely, whatever might be decided in politics and elections, Americans will continue to be carried forth not by any commendable nobilities of principle or purpose, but instead, by a steady eruption of personal and collective agitation, by endlessly inane candidate repetitions and by the perpetually demeaning primacy of extended public ignorance.  At times, perhaps, We the people may be able to slow down a bit and “smell the roses,”  but their visibly compromised and degraded country now imposes upon its exhausted people the breathless rhythms of a vast and struggling machine.

Much as many might eagerly wish to deny it, the plausible end of this delirium will be to further prevent Americans from remembering who they are and (far more importantly) who they might once still have become.

 What can be done to escape the menacing pendulum of America’s own mad clockwork?  Conveniently, though the country continues to pay lip service to the high ideals of the Declaration and the Constitution  ( no one seriously presumes that the American president has taken even a few minutes to read through these musty old documents), these lofty principles are invoked only for ostentation. For the most part,  Americans now lack any more genuine sources of national cohesion than celebrity sex scandals,  sports team loyalties and the always comforting distractions of war, terrorism and genocide.[4]

Sadly, Americans inhabit the one society that could have been different. Once, we harbored a preciously unique potential to nurture individuals, that is, to encourage Americans to become more than a smugly inert mass,  herd or crowd. Then, Ralph Waldo Emerson (also fellow Transcendentalists Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau) described us optimistically as a people animated by industry and “self-reliance.” Now, however, beyond any serious contestation, we are stymied by collective paralysis, capitulation and a starkly Kierkegaardian “fear and trembling.”

 Surely, all must eventually acknowledge, there is more to this chanting country than viscerally-driven rallies, tsunamis of hyper-adrenalized commerce or gargantuan waves of abundantly cheap entertainments: “I celebrate myself, and sing myself,” rhapsodized the American poet Walt Whitman, but today, the American Selfhas devolved into a delicately thin shadow of true national potential. Distressingly, this Self has already become a twisting reflection of a prior authenticity.  Now it is under final assault by far-reaching  societal tastelessness and by a literally epidemic gluttony.

Regarding this expressly gastronomic debility, it’s not that we Americans have become more and more hungry, but rather that we have lost any once residual appetites for real life.

In the end, credulity is America’s worst enemy. The stubborn inclination to believe that wider social and personal redemption must lie somewhere in politics remains a potentially fatal disorder. To be fair, various social and economic issues do need to be coherently addressed by America’s political representatives, but so too must the nation’s deeper problems first be solved as a matter for individuals.

Should Americans continue to live within a hypnotizing cycle of blatantly false expectations, and thereby celebrate the vague and atrophied impulses of a primeval mass instinct, the sole remaining national ambition will be to stay alive. Surely America must be capable of sustaining substantially higher ambitions.

In the end, American politics – like politics everywhere [5]– must remain a second-order activity, a faint reflection of what is truly important. For now, it continues to thrive upon a vast personal emptiness, on an infirmity that is the always-defiling reciprocal of any genuine personal fulfillment. “Conscious of his emptiness,” warns the German philosopher Karl Jaspers in his modern classic Reason and Anti-Reason in our Time (1952), “man (human) tries to make a faith for himself (or herself) in the political realm. In Vain.”

 Only a rare few can ever redeem themselves and the American nation, but these quiet and self-effacing souls will generally remain hidden, more-or-less in “deep cover,” perhaps even from themselves. Still, America’s imperative redemption as a nation and as a people will never be found among those who chant meaningless gibberish in ritualized political chorus. We shouldn’t seek more fevered political “rallies” in America; we need a population that can take learning[6] and thinking seriously.[7]

A declining civilization compromises with its most threatening afflictions, sometimes shamelessly. To restore the United States to long-term health and “high thinking” – an Emersonian task so daunting that it could sometime become a pretext for society-wide convulsions  – Americans must look beyond their perpetually futile faith in politics. Only when such an indispensable swerve of consciousness can become an impressively conspicuous or even universal gesture – that is, when Americans finally seek their “justifications” on a different plane – can the people hope to heal a splintering and nearly-broken land.


[1] This insightful metaphor is drawn from the writings of Swiss psychologist Carl G. Jung.

[2] In a markedly similar vein, warned Joseph Goebbels, Third Reich Minister of Propaganda: “Intellect rots the brain.”

[3] Sometimes, however, Sigmund Freud used his own version of Nietzsche’s “herd,” which was “horde.” Significantly, perhaps, Freud maintained a general antipathy to all things American. In essence, he most objected, according to Bruno Bettelheim, to that country’s “shallow optimism” and its corollary commitment to a crude form of materialism. America, thought Freud, was very evidently “lacking in soul.” See: Bruno Bettelheim, Freud and Man’s Soul (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983), especially Chapter X.

[4] In terms of international law, which remains an integral part of US law, such sources represent, inter alia, a violation of this timeless jurisprudential axiom: “Rights cannot derive from wrongs,” or  Ex injuria jus non oritur. For properly jurisprudential sources of authoritative “incorporation” into US law, see: See especially The Paquete Habana, 175 U.S. 677, 678-79 (1900); The Lola, 175 U.S. 677, 700 (1900); and Tel Oren v. Libyan Arab Republic, 726 F. 2d 774, 781, 788 (D.C. Cir, 1984).

[5] Nothing in this essay is meant to suggest that the pertinent national failings are in  any way uniquely American. To the contrary, the problem being discussed is presumptively worldwide or “generic.”

[6] See, by this writer, at The Daily Princetonian: http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/article/2018/06/a-core-challenge-of-higher-education

[7] This brings to mind Bertrand Russell’s keen observation in Principles of Social Reconstruction (1916): “Men fear thought more than anything else on earth, more than ruin, more even than death.”

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Why the Weird and Uncompromising Get Elected

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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Why is it that the US and Britain have chosen weird uncompromising leaders when the essence of statesmanship is calculated compromise.  Worse, if not shocking, is that 43 percent of India’s new parliament elected in May are facing criminal charges, including rape and murder.  Out of the 303 lawmakers in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party, 116 face charges.  He himself was not considered suitable for a US visa because of the organized 2002  killings/pogrom of Muslims in Gujarat while he was leader; he was given a visa only after he became prime minister.

Trump has just fired John Bolton his third National Security Adviser in two-and-a-half years.  Ever since taking office, he has been abrogating agreements unilaterally.  Iran now refuses to talk to him, and announced that the removal of Bolton, a notorious Iran hawk, makes no difference.  This lack of trust after Trump walked out of the previous agreement, one with the imprimatur of the Security council and major world powers, is to be expected but there is also the matter of dignity.  No self-respecting nation can tie itself to the whims of an erratic leader.

Boris Johnson meanwhile is flouting the norms and traditions of parliament.  He has prorogued the current session not for two or three days as customary but for nearly five weeks until October 14.  Uproar and an appeal to the courts against this upending of democracy followed.  A Scottish judge has now ruled the prorogation illegal.  Tellingly, the 21 Tory members, who were turned out of the Tory party in parliament, joined the opposition to pass a law requiring Boris to seek an extension preventing the no-deal Brexit on October 31 if he has not come up with an agreement by October 19.  Boris’  hands have been tied, his government losing control of the parliamentary agenda.  His scheme to end debate on the issue by proroguing parliament has backfired badly, leaving commentators wondering if Boris has been the worst prime minister this century.

One of the persons Boris threw out of his party was Nicolas Soames, a grandson of Winston Churchill and a 37-year member of parliament, another was its longest serving member.  No grace in the graceless as they say. 

Trump on the other hand is fixated on golf.  Until July this year, he had spent over $105  million of taxpayers’ money on his golfing trips.  Extrapolated over his entire tenure including re-election, he could cost the taxpayer $340 million according to Forbes, which is far from a left-wing magazine. 

So why do people elect such leaders?  Perhaps the underlying cause is income stagnation for the majority (adjusted for inflation) since the late 1970s.  Yes, GDP has grown but the benefits have been skewed to the upper 20 percent quintile.  When the voters have not found an answer from mainstream Democrats and Republicans, they have resorted to mavericks like Obama and now Trump.  In the UK it is Johnson — heaven help them if his no-deal Brexit prevails for it is expected to be an economic disaster. 

When blame is focused on immigration, as in Britain, Hungary, Poland and now the US, extreme right-wingers take center stage with crude but appealing rhetoric, and often get elected.  So there we have it, while Trump denied funding by Congress is drawing funds from the defense budget to build his wall on the Mexican border.

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US-North Korea Crisis Decision- Making: Growing Risks Of Inadvertent Or Unintended Nuclear War In Asia

Prof. Louis René Beres

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“We fell in love!”-US President Donald Trump, referring to North Korean dictator Kim Jung Un after Singapore Summit (June 2018)

Credo quia absurdum, warned the ancient philosophers. “I believe because it is absurd.” While US President Donald Trump continues to express inexplicable confidence in his North Korean counterpart  (and a simultaneous lack of faith in his own intelligence community), he also fails to understand something rudimentary: The stability of any upcoming crisis decision-making process between Washington and Pyongyang will have less to do with “loving” leader relations than with Kim Jung Un’s unmistakably  core commitment to personal military power.

 In this increasingly worrisome conflict “dyad,” one of the most understated and under-referenced risks to the United States concerns inadvertent or unintended nuclear war.

On such urgent risks, words matter. Initially, in seeking to fashion a coherent security policy, President Trump and his strategic advisors should approach all pertinent issues at the primary or conceptual level. Inter alia, it will soon become necessary for Mr. Trump to understand that the various nuclear war risks[1] posed by inadvertence must be differentiated from the expected hazards of a deliberate nuclear war. These latter perils could stem only from  those Washington-Pyongyang hostilities that had been (1) intentionally initiated with nuclear weapons; and/or (2) intentionally responded to by express retaliation with nuclear weapons.

This is the case whether such unprecedented military actions were undertaken to achieve strategic surprise,[2] or instead as the result (expected or unexpected) of enemy irrationality.[3]

 Prima facie, these are distinctly  many-sided and “dense” calculations. In any deliberate nuclear war scenario, and before any presidential ordering of an American preemption,[4] the designated North Korean leadership would first need to appear(a) nuclear-capable and (b)  irrational. Without this second expectation, any US preemption against an already-nuclear adversary would be irrational on its face[5]. Washington, therefore, must continuously monitor not only tangible North Korean nuclear assets and capabilities, but also the substantially less tangible mental health characteristics of Kim Jong Un.

Although some might mock this second intelligence imperative as unnecessary or “clinically impossible,” it remains conceivable that the dictator in Pyongyang could at some point pretend irrationality.

The decipherable differences here would not be narrowly academic or entirely linguistic.

Factually, moreover, it is Kim Jong Un’s counterpart in the White House (and not Kim himself) who has publicly mused about the potential rationality of pretended irrationality, and who takes  oddly conspicuous comfort from his assessment that the two presidents “fell in love” back in Singapore.

This is not the sort of “romance” upon which to build a core US national security policy.

There is more. When the US president and his national security advisors consider the co-existing and fearful prospects of an inadvertent nuclear war with North Korea, their principal focus should remain oriented toward more institutional directions – that is, to the expected stability and reliability of Pyongyang’s command, control and intelligence procedures. Should it then be determined that these “C3I” processes display unacceptably high risks of mechanical/electrical/computer failure; indecipherable pre-delegations of nuclear launch authority; and/or unpredictable/unreliable launch-on-warning procedures (sometimes also called “launch-on-confirmed-attack”), a still-rational American president could feel the more compelling need to consider a plausibly appropriate preemption option.[6]

Another complex factor in any such prospective decision-making process would be (a) the apparent advent of hypersonic weapons in North Korean arsenals; and (b) the extent to which this emergence were paralleled in American arsenals and/or strategic calculations.

At this already advanced stage in North Korean nuclear military progress, the probable  costs to the United States and certain of its allies accruing from  a defensive first-strike would be more-or-less overwhelming and thus potentially “unacceptable.” This foreseeable understanding seems to have escaped Trump, who first stated publicly at the end of May 2019 that North Korean tests of short-range missiles “do not worry” him. This blithe and manifestly ill-conceived observation suggests that the American president (c) is erroneously focused only on direct (long-range) missile threats to the United States, and (d) is unmindful of conspicuously challenging escalatory possibilities, especially the immediate importance of shorter-range missile threats.

Why so urgently important?

 In the first place, North Korea’s short-range missiles could target US allies South Korea and Japan; also, US military forces in the region. While an attack on these forces would carry a near-automatic assurance of a more or less measured American retaliation, aggression against regional US allies would almost certainly call for such a reprisal. In essence, therefore, Kim Jung Un’s short-range missiles could sometime bring the United States into a full-blown war, even though these missiles would never have been launched against the American homeland.

In the second place, it is improbable but not inconceivable that South Korea could wittingly or unwittingly initiate a conventional conflict with North Korea,  thereby realistically mandating a US military involvement in the conflict. Were this to happen, Seoul would have effectively “catalyzed” a North-Korea-US war. In any such many-sided belligerency, even nuclear weapons could be fired. Also worth studying in the unprecedented realm of catalytic nuclear war would be a narrative wherein an altogether different state or sub-state could arrange an anonymous first-strike against South Korea, Japan and/or regional US forces.

What about a US preemption? In principle, at least, certain calculable preemption options could not be dismissed out of hand in any balance-of-power world system.[7] More precisely, any residual American resort to “anticipatory self-defense”[8] could be nuclear or non-nuclear and could be indicated without any express regard for Kim Jung Un’s presumed rationality. Still, the well-reasoned cost-effectiveness of any US preemption would almost certainly be enlarged by including such carefully calculated presumptions.

What would be the most plausible reactions concerning a Trump-ordered preemption against North Korea? When all significant factors are taken into account, Pyongyang, likely having no meaningful option to launching at least some massive forms of armed response, would intentionally target certain designated American military forces in the region and/or high-value South Korean armaments and personnel. President Trump, still assuming enemy rationality, should then expect that whatever North Korea’s precise configuration of selected targets, Kim Jung Un’s retaliatory blow would  be designed to minimize or avoid any massive (including even nuclear) American counter-retaliations.

There is more. All such high-consequence calculations would involve adversarial policy intersections which could be genuinely “synergistic”[9] and assume perfect rationality on all sides. If, for example, the American president should sometime decide to strike first, the response from Kim Jung Un should then expectedly be proportionate; that is, more-or-less similarly massive. In this particular escalatory “game,” the willful introduction of nuclear weapons into any ensuing conflagration might not be dismissed out of hand by either “player.”

What then?

 Noteworthy, too, at least at that markedly uncertain and unstable point, any such a game-changing introduction would more likely originate from the American side. This sobering inference is based upon the understanding that while North Korea already has some nuclear weapons and missile delivery vehicles, it is also still rational and not yet prepared operationally to seek “escalation dominance” vis-à-vis the United States. For the moment, at least, it would seemingly be irrational for Pyongyang to launch any of its nuclear weapons first.

Sometime, at least in principle,  Mr. Trump, extending his usually favored stance of an argumentum ad bacculum (an appeal to force)  could opt rationally for a so-called “mad dog” strategy. Here, the American president, following his just-ordered preemption, would deliberately choose a strategy of pretended irrationality.

Any such determined reliance, while intuitively sensible and arguably compelling, could backfire, and thereby open up a slippery path to a now unstoppable escalation. This self-propelling competition in risk-taking could also be triggered by the North Korean president, then pretending to be a “mad dog” himself. Significantly, any feigned irrationality stance by Kim Jong Un might be undertaken exclusively by the North Korean side, or in an entirely unplanned tandem or “synergy” with the United States. In all conceivable variants of crisis bargaining between Washington and Pyongyang, even those without any synergies, the highest-level decision-making processes would be meaningfully interdependent.

This means still greater levels of complexity and still lesser significance assignable to any presumptive “love” relationship between the two presidential adversaries.[10]

Regarding complexity, in absolutely all of these plausible bargaining postures, each side would have to pay reciprocally close attention to the anticipated wishes and intentions of  Russia and China. Accordingly, one must now inquire, does President Trump actually believe that China would find it gainful to support him in any still-pending nuclear crisis with North Korea? To answer such a query, it ought to be quite plain that Mr. Trump’s ongoing and potentially accelerating trade war with China would be manifestly unhelpful.

Regarding further complexity, what transpires between Washington and Pyongyang in crisis decision-making circumstances could be impacted by certain other ongoing or escalating wars in Asia. In this connection, most portentously relevant would be any substantial escalations of the Kashmir conflict, especially those that might involve an introduction of nuclear weapons. Unquestionably, any correlative crossing of the nuclear threshold in that India-Pakistan conflict dyad would fracture a longstanding taboo in world politics, and presumptively heighten the likelihood of a US-North Korean nuclear exchange.

Notwithstanding President Donald Trump’s exaggerated confidence in basing foreign policy decision-making upon extrapolations from commerce, it is all genuinely complex, stunningly complex,[11] even bewilderingly complex. Also reasonable to assume is that in any such many-sided circumstances, the North Korean president would no longer be pretending irrationality. He could, at some point, have become authenticallyirrational. Regardless of difficulty, however, the differences here would be well worth figuring out.

Relevant scenarios must soon be posited and examined dialectically. If President Donald Trump’s initial defensive first strike against North Korea were less than massive, a still rational adversary in Pyongyang would likely take steps to ensure that its own preferred reprisal were correspondingly limited. But if Trump’s consciously rational and calibrated attack upon North Korea were wittingly or unwittingly launched against an irrational enemy leadership, the response from Pyongyang could then be an all-out retaliation. This unanticipated response, whether  non-nuclear or non-nuclear-nuclear “hybrid,” would be directed at some as yet indeterminable combination of US and allied targets.

Inevitably, and by any sensible measure, this response could inflict grievous  harms.

It is now worth considering that a North Korean missile reprisal against US interests and personnel would not automatically exclude the American homeland. However, should the North Korean president maintain a determinedly rational “ladder” of available options, he would almost certainly resist targeting any vulnerable civilian portions of the United States. Still, should he remain determinably willing to strike targets in South Korea and/or Japan, he would incur very substantial risks of an American nuclear counter-retaliation.

In principle, any such US response would follow directly from this country’s assorted treaty-based obligations regarding “collective self-defense.”[12]

There is more. Such risks would be much greater if Kim’s own aggressions had extended beyond hard military assets, either intentionally or as unwitting “collateral damage” brought to various soft civilian populations and/or infrastructures.

 Even if the unimaginably complex game of nuclear brinksmanship in Northeast Asia were being played only by fully rational adversaries, the rapidly accumulating momentum of events between Washington and Pyongyang could still demand that each “contestant” strive relentlessly for escalation dominance. It is in the notably unpracticed dynamics of such an explosive rivalry that the prospect of an “Armageddon” scenario could be actualized. This outcome could be produced in unexpected increments of escalation by either or both of the dominant national players, or instead, by any sudden quantum leap in destructiveness applied by the United States and/or North Korea.[13]

Looking ahead, the only foreseeable element of the “game” that is predictable in such complicated US-North Korean calculations is the contest’s inherent and boundless unpredictability. Even under the very best or optimal assumptions of enemy rationality, all relevant decision-makers would have to concern themselves with dense or confused communications, inevitable miscalculations, cascading errors in information, unauthorized uses of strategic weapons, mechanical, electrical or computer malfunctions and certain poorly-recognized applications of cyber-defense and cyber-war.

Technically, one further analytic distinction is needed between inadvertent nuclear war and accidental nuclear war. By definition, an accidental nuclear war would be inadvertent, but reciprocally, an inadvertent nuclear war need not be accidental.[14] False warnings, for example, which could be spawned by mechanical, electrical or computer malfunction (or by hacking)[15] would not signify the origins of an inadvertent nuclear war. Instead, they would fit under clarifying narratives of an accidental nuclear war.

“Everything is very simple in war,” says Carl von Clausewitz in On War, “but the simplest thing is still difficult.” With this seemingly banal but profound observation, the classical Prussian strategist makes plain that serious military planning is always problematic. Largely, this is because of what he famously called “friction.” In essence, friction describes “the difference between war as it actually is, and war on paper.”

Unless President Trump is able to understand this core concept and prepare to manage unpredictable risks of an unintentional war with North Korea, any future “love letters” from Kim Jung Un would be beside the point. While the specific  risks of a deliberate or intentional  nuclear conflict between the United States and North Korea should remain front and center in Washington, these risks ought never be assessed apart from these closely associated hazards of crisis decision-making. All of these risks could be overlapping, mutually reinforcing or even synergistic, daunting circumstances in which the plausible “whole” of their effect would be tangibly greater than the simple sum of their constituent “parts.”

There is one last matter to be clarified. This has to do with the nature  of “superpower” relations within the underlying balance of power structure of world politics.[16] Whatever the differences in preferred nomenclature, it is apparent that we are now entering (wittingly or unwittingly) an era of “Cold War II.”[17] Depending upon the dominant configurations of this new Cold War, US-North Korea nuclear decision-making will be more-or-less destabilizing. It follows, for President Donald Trump and the United States, that Washington-Pyongyang nuclear bargaining must takes its dominant cues from two different though intersecting directions.

In the end, a great deal will depend upon the American side’s willingness to base relevant policies upon intellectual or analytic foundations.

In the end, such willingness will trump any alleged benefits of having fallen “in love.”


[1] Whatever these particular risks, they could be intersecting, “force multiplying” or even “synergistic.” Where an authentic synergy were involved, the “whole” of any attack outcome could then be greater than the tangible sum of its component “parts.”

[2] In his seminal writings, strategic theorist Herman Kahn introduced a further distinction between a surprise attack that is more-or-less unexpected, and one that arrives “out of the blue.” The former, he counseled, “…is likely to take place during a period of tension that is not so intense that the offender is fully prepared for nuclear war….” A total surprise attack, however, would be one without any immediately recognizable tension or signal. This particular subset of the surprise attack scenario would be very difficult to operationalize for national policy benefit. See: Herman Kahn, Thinking About the Unthinkable in the 1980s (Simon & Schuster, 1984).

[3] Recalling the 20th-century German philosopher, Karl Jaspers: “The rational is not thinkable without its other, the non-rational, and it never appears in reality without it.” This insight can be found in Jaspers’ “Historical Reflections” on Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.

[4] Worth noting here too is that any such ordering of a preemptive attack by an American president would be exceedingly problematic under US law (especially under pertinent US Constitutional constraints). There are, therefore, critical jurisprudential as well as strategic implications involved.

[5] Nonetheless, the American president could conceivably still benefit from a preemption against an already nuclear North Korea if refraining from striking first would allow North Korea to implement certain additional protective measures. Designed to guard against preemption, these measures could involve the attachment of “hair trigger” launch mechanisms to nuclear weapon systems and/or the adoption of “launch on warning” policies, possibly coupled with identifiable pre-delegations of launch authority. This means, increasingly, that the US could be incrementally endangered by steps taken by Pyongyang to prevent a preemption. Optimally, this country would do everything possible to prevent such steps, especially because of the expanded risks of accidental or unauthorized attacks against its own or allied armaments and populations. But if such steps were to become a fait accompli, Washington might still calculate correctly that a preemptive strike would be both legal and cost-effective. This is because the expected enemy retaliation, however damaging, could still appear more tolerable than the expected consequences of enemy first-strikes  –  strikes likely occasioned by the failure of “anti-preemption” protocols.

[6] From the standpoint of international law, it is necessary to distinguish preemptive attacks from “preventive ones.” Preemption is a military strategy of striking first in the expectation that the only foreseeable alternative is to be struck first oneself.  A preemptive attack is launched by a state that believes enemy forces are about to attack.  A preventive attack, however, is launched not out of any genuine concern about “imminent” hostilities, but rather for fear of a longer-term deterioration in a pertinent military balance.  In a preemptive attack, the length of time by which the enemy’s action is anticipated is presumptively very short; in a preventive strike, the anticipated interval is considerably longer. A related problem here for the United States is not only the practical difficulty of accurately determining imminence, but also that delaying a defensive strike until appropriately ascertained imminence can be acknowledged could prove “fatal” or existential.

[7] The core concept of a balance of power – an idea of which the nuclear-age balance of terror is a particular variant – has never been more than a facile metaphor. Significantly, it has never had anything to do with creating or ascertaining “equilibrium.” Moreover, as such balance is always a matter of individual and subjective perceptions, adversary states can never be sufficiently confident that pertinent strategic circumstances are actually “balanced” in their favor. In consequence, inter alia, each side to any conflict must “normally” fear that it will be left behind; accordingly, the perpetual search for balance generally produces ever-wider patterns of national insecurity and global disequilibrium.

[8] This term is drawn from customary international law, an authoritative source of world legal norms identified at Art. 38 of the UN’s Statute of the International Court of Justice.  Already, international law, an integral part of the legal system of all states in world politics, assumes a general obligation to supply benefits to one another, and to avoid war at all costs. This core assumption of jurisprudential solidarity is known formally as a “peremptory” or jus cogens expectation, that is, one that is not even subject to question. It can be found in Justinian, Corpus Juris Civilis, Hugo Grotius, The Law of War and Peace (1625) and Emmerich de Vattel, The Law of Nations or Principles of Natural Law (1758).

[9] In any synergistic intersection – whether in chemistry, medicine or war – the “whole” of any result would exceed the simple sum of its policy-determining “parts.”

[10] Pertinent synergies could clarify or elucidate the world political system’s current state of disorder (a view that would reflect what the physicists prefer to call “entropic” conditions), and could themselves be dependent upon each national decision-maker’s own subjective metaphysics of time. For an early article by this author dealing with interesting linkages between such a subjective metaphysics and national decision-making (linkages that could shed additional light on growing risks of a US-North Korea nuclear war), see: Louis René Beres, “Time, Consciousness and Decision-Making in Theories of International Relations,” The Journal of Value Inquiry, Vol. VIII, No.3., Fall 1974, pp. 175-186.

[11] Reciprocally, of course, the White House has been seeking to persuade Americans and others by way of very deliberate simplifications.  See, on the plausible consequences of any such deceptive measures, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s pertinent observation in On Certainty:  “Remember that one is sometimes convinced of the correctness of a view by its simplicity or symmetry….”

[12] For the differences between “collective self defense” and “collective security,” see this writer’s early book: Louis René Beres, The Management of World Power: A Theoretical Analysis (University of Denver Monograph Series in World Affairs)( (1973).

[13] This brings to mind the philosophical query by Irish playwright Samuel Beckett in Endgame: “What is the good of passing from one untenable position to another, of seeking justification always on the same plane?”

[14] Reminds Herman Kahn in his On Escalation (1965): “All accidental wars are inadvertent and unintended, but not vice-versa.”

[15] This prospect now includes the plausible advent of so-called “cyber- mercenaries.”

[16] For a related conceptual argument by this author concerning Israel’s security in the Middle East, see: Louis René Beres: https://besacenter.org/mideast-security-and-policy-studies/israeli-nuclear-deterrence/

[17] In essence, postulating the emergence of “Cold War II” means expecting the world system to become once again bipolar. For early writings, by this author, on the global security implications of such an expanding bipolarity, see: Louis René Beres, “Bipolarity, Multipolarity, and the Reliability of Alliance Commitments,” Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 25, No.4., December 1972, pp. 702-710; Louis René Beres, “Bipolarity, Multipolarity, and the Tragedy of the Commons,” Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 26, No.4., December 1973, pp, 649-658; and Louis René Beres, “Guerillas, Terrorists, and Polarity: New Structural Models of World Politics,” Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 27, No.4., December 1974, pp. 624-636.

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