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It’s Back to “Rocket Man”: Trump Steadily expanding risks of a Nuclear war With North Korea

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“Fools, visionaries, sufferers from delusions, neurotics and lunatics have played great roles at all times in the history of mankind, and not merely when the accident of birth had bequeathed them sovereignty. Usually, they have wreaked havoc.”-Sigmund Freud

“We fell in love” crowed Donald Trump about Kim Jung Un, after their Singapore summit back in June 2018. But this grotesquely curious romance was destined not to last. In fact, since early December 2019, it’s been consistently retrograde, back to Trump’s nonsensical recriminations; that is, to the American president’s conspicuously demeaning reliance upon childish epithets.

But to what conceivable strategic purpose? Once again, at least for the still-dissembling White House, it’s not about substantive geopolitical threats. Instead of purposefully enhancing American diplomatic leverage – which might actually make some bargaining sense – it’s just about “rocket man.”[1]

Even at this late point, objective strategic analyses are altogether necessary. Leaving aside the obvious futility of launching ad hominem insults as allegedly productive diplomacy, any upcoming crisis decision-making processes between Washington and Pyongyang will be shaped by Kim Jung Un’s unswerving commitment to personal military power. Inevitably, the flagrantly simplistic notion that this North Korean dictator would ever consider trading off the most visibly tangible implements of such power for presumptive national economic benefits is erroneous on its face.

In strategic matters, truth is always exculpatory. North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is irreversible. Prima facie, “denuclearization” remains an unrealizable goal –  a bitterly naive and conveniently distracting fiction.[2]

What next? The best case scenario available to the United States must now be a mutually acceptable relationship of stable nuclear deterrence. Still, there will be various “potholes” and recurrently unpredictable nuances. Going forward, a generally understated but particularly serious sub-risk for both the United States and North Korea will concern inadvertent nuclear war.

Oddly enough, the actual level of public concern about such prospectively grievous conflict – at least from the standpoint of palpable population fears – remains incommensurately small.

Now what? To begin, President Trump must carefully approach these complex issues at a suitably conceptual level. Then inter alia, it would become easier for Trump and his advisors to understand that the specific nuclear war risks posed by inadvertence must be carefully differentiated from the expected hazards of any deliberate nuclear war. The particular hazards of an intentional nuclear war could stem only from those Washington-Pyongyang hostilities that had been purposely initiated with nuclear weapons and/or deliberately responded to with nuclear weapons.

Moreover, this argument holds whether such unprecedented military actions were undertaken to achieve some form of strategic surprise, or as the result (expected or unexpected) of North Korean enemy irrationality.[3]

There is more. In any deliberate nuclear war scenario, and before any presidential ordering of an American preemption,[4]the expressly designated North Korean leadership would need to appear to US intelligence as(a) operationally nuclear and (b) psychologically irrational. Without this second expectation, any US preemption against an already-nuclear North Korean adversary would be irrational.

Trump, therefore, must continuously monitor not only relevant North Korean nuclear assets and capabilities, but also the substantially intangible mental health (decision-making) characteristics of Kim Jung Un. Although some might mock this second intelligence imperative as unnecessary or even impossible, it nonetheless remains conceivable that the authoritative dictator in Pyongyang could sometime choose to pretend irrationality. What then?

In fact, as we already well know, it is only Kim Jung Un’s counterpart in the White House (and not Kim himself) who has mused publicly about the potential rationality of pretended irrationality and who (until recently) took evident pleasure in claiming that the two presidents once “fell in love” back in Singapore.

When the US president and his latest batch of national security advisors consider the co-existing and fearful prospects of an inadvertent nuclear war with North Korea, their primary focus should remain oriented in institutional directions. This means attention to the expected stability and reliability of Pyongyang’s command, control and intelligence procedures. Should it 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 then feel a more compelling need to consider an appropriate preemption.

A complex factor in any such decision-making process would be the apparent advent of hypersonic weapons in North Korean arsenals, and the extent to which any such ominous emergence was being suitably paralleled in American arsenals.

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 any such defensive first-strike would be overwhelming and more-or-less “unacceptable.” Somehow, this foresee ably urgent understanding seems to have escaped Donald Trump, who has stated publicly on several worrisome occasions that North Korean tests of short-range missiles “do not worry” him. Among other shortcomings, this blithe and shallow presidential observation suggests that Trump is focused only on direct (long-range) missile threats to the United States, and somehow remains continuously unmindful of escalatory possibilities.

These inherently bewildering prospects include the profoundly destabilizing impact of shorter-range missiles upon US regional allies.

In principle, at least, certain calculable preemption options cannot be dismissed out of hand. More precisely, any residual American resort to “anticipatory self-defense” could be nuclear or non-nuclear and could even 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 any 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 analytic account, Pyongyang, likely having no meaningful option to launching at least some massive forms of armed response, would intentionally target designated American military forces in the region and/or certain high-value South Korean armaments/personnel. President Trump, still assuming enemy rationality, should then expect that whatever its precise configuration of selected targets, North Korea’s retaliatory blow would be designed in part to avoid any massive (including nuclear) American counter-retaliations.

All such high-consequence calculations would involve multiple adversarial policy intersections, some which could be genuinely “synergistic”[5] and would assume perfect rationality on all sides. If, for example, the American president should decide to strike first, the response from Kim Jung Un should then be expectedly proportionate,[6] that is, similarly massive. In this heuristic escalatory “game, “the willful introduction of nuclear weapons into any ensuing conflagration might not be dismissed by either “player.”

What happens next?

As Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt has written, perhaps prophetically in this US-North Korea war scenario, “Sometimes, the worst does happen.”

 Noteworthy, too, at least at such a markedly uncertain and unprecedented point of prospective belligerency, any such game-changing introduction would more likely originate from the American side. This singular but all-embracing inference is based upon the understanding that while North Korea already has nuclear weapons and missile delivery vehicles (consequential weapons and delivery vehicles by definition), it is not yet prepared to seek “escalation dominance” vis-à-vis the United States. More precisely, for the moment, at least, it would seemingly be irrational for Pyongyang to launch its nuclear weapons first.

 Sometime, at least in principle, Trump, extending his usually favored stance of an argumentum ad bacculum (an illegitimate appeal to force) could opt rationally for a “mad dog” strategy.[7]Here, the American president, following his just-ordered preemption, would deliberately choose a strategy of pretended irrationality.

There is more. Any such determined reliance, while intuitively sensible and expectedly compelling, could backfire, thereby opening up a slippery path to various unstoppable escalations. Such a 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 unplanned “synergy” with the United States.

In all conceivable variants of crisis bargaining situations between Washington and Pyongyang, and even without any calculable synergies, highest-level decision-making processes would be resoundingly and meaningfully interdependent.

All this means, inter alia, greater levels of complexity for decision-makers to unravel and a measurably lesser significance assigned to any once-presumptive “love” relationship between the two adversarial presidents.

Regarding complexity, and in absolutely all possible bargaining postures, each side would have to pay reciprocally close attention to the anticipated wishes and intentions of Russia (Cold War II[8]) and China. Aptly, one must now inquire, does President Trump genuinely believe that China would find it gainful to support him in any pending nuclear crisis with North Korea? To answer such a query, it ought to become plain that Trump’s still-ongoing and largely incoherent trade war with China will prove manifestly “unhelpful.”

Immediately, relevant scenarios must be explicitly posited and dialectically examined.[9]If President Donald Trump’s initial defensive first strike against North Korea were observably less than massive, for example, a still rational adversary in Pyongyang would likely take steps to ensure that its optimal reprisal was 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 bean all-out retaliation.

This unanticipated response, whether a non-nuclear or non-nuclear-nuclear “hybrid” response, would be directed at some as yet indeterminable combination of US and allied targets.

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

It is now also 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 strategic options, he would almost certainly resist targeting any vulnerable civilian portions of the United States. Should he remain determinably willing to strike targets in South Korea and/or Japan, he would still incur very substantial risks of an American nuclear counter-retaliation.

In principle, at least, any such US response would follow directly from this country’s assorted treaty-based obligations regarding “collective self-defense.”[10]

Such risks would be much greater if Kim’s own aggressions[11]had already extended beyond hard military assets, either intentionally or as “collateral damage” brought unwittingly to soft civilian populations and/or infrastructures.

There is more. Even if the unimaginably complex game of nuclear brinksmanshipin Northeast Asia were being played exclusively by fully rational adversaries, the rapidly accumulating momentum of events between Washington and Pyongyang could still demand each “contestant” to strive relentlessly for escalation dominance. It is in the notably unpracticed dynamics of such an explosive rivalry that the prospect of an actual “Armageddon” scenario could plausibly be actualized.

“Sometimes,” reminds Friedrich Durrenmatt, “the worst does happen.”

This unprecedented outcome could be produced in unexpected increments of escalation by either or both dominant national players, or instead, by some sudden quantum leap in destructiveness undertaken by the United States and/or North Korea.

Looking ahead, the only predictable element of this foreseeable US-North Korea strategic game is this situation’s irremediable and boundless unpredictability. Even under the very best or optimal assumptions of enemy rationality, all relevant decision-makers would have to concern themselves with potentially dense or confused communications, inevitable miscalculations, cascading errors in information, unauthorized uses of strategic weapons, mechanical, electrical or computer malfunctions and 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 necessarily be accidental. False warnings, which could be spawned by mechanical, electrical or computer malfunction, or by hacking,[12]would best fit under the clarifying narratives of an accidental nuclear war. Most worrisome, however, for all concerned, would be those forms of inadvertent nuclear war occasioned not by accident, but by confusion and/or miscalculation.

Irony is applicable. Such prospectively irremediable outcomes could be expressed though neither side had actually wanted war.

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

Unless US President Donald Trump is able to better understand this core concept and prepare to meticulously manage all unpredictable risks of an unintentional war with North Korea, any future warnings about “rocket man” would prove operationally immaterial or blatantly injurious. While the specific identifiable risks of any deliberate or intentional nuclear conflict between the United States and North Korea should remain front and center in Washington, such formidable risks ought never be assessed apart from these other hazards of crisis decision-making. Significantly, all of these strategic risks could be overlapping, mutually reinforcing and/or synergistic. In at least some suchdaunting circumstances, the palpable “whole” of cumulative risk effects would be greater than the simple additive sum of constituent “parts.”

At that point, recalling US President Trump’s earlier inversion of what is actually true, it will be too late to purposefully understand what is most important: Nuclear crisis bargaining between adversarial states should be based not on “attitude,” but on “preparation.” Further, such inevitable bargaining ought never be founded upon any presumptive “love” relationships between the relevant adversaries or on any demeaning epithets drawn whimsically from contemporary musical compositions (e.g. “Rocket man”).

To meaningfully reduce the steadily-cascading risks of a nuclear war with North Korea, Donald Trump should immediately cease his caricatural personalizations of world politics, and focus instead upon far more serious policy considerations of intellectual substance.


[1]https://news.yahoo.com/trump-revives-threat-force-against-023727996.html

[2]https://www.cnn.com/2019/12/07/us/north-korea-denuclearization-off-table/index.html Also, see earlier, by this writer, at Yale Global Online:  Louis René Beres, https://yaleglobal.yale.edu/content/too-late-north-korea-denuclearization

[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 (defensive first strike) by an American president would be problematic under US law (especially underUS Constitutional constraints). Always, there are critical jurisprudential as well as strategic implications involved.

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

[6]In legal terms, the principle of proportionality is contained in both the rules governing the resort to armed conflict (jus ad bellum) and in the rules governing the actual conduct of hostilities (jus in bello).  Regarding the former, proportionality relates to self-defense.  In the latter, it relates to conduct of belligerency. Proportionality is itself derivative from the more basic principle that belligerent rights are not unlimited (See notably Hague Convention No. IV (1907), Annex to the Convention, Section II (Hostilities), Art. 22: “The right of belligerents to adopt means of injuring the enemy is not unlimited”).

[7] This term has certain historical roots in former Israeli Minister of Defense (General) Moshe Dayan’s remark about his own country’s strategic vulnerabilities: “Israel must be seen as a `mad dog,’ too dangerous to bother.” (See discussion by this writer, Louis René Beres, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Rowman and Littlefield, 2016; 2nd ed., 20180.

[8]In political science terms, positing the expansion of “Cold War II” means expecting that the world system is becoming increasingly bipolar. For early writings, by this author, on the global security implications of just 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.

[9] The base term, “dialectic,” originates from the Greek expression for the art of conversation. A common contemporary meaning is method of seeking truth by correct reasoning. From the standpoint of shaping Israel’s nuclear strategy, the following representative operations could be regarded as essential but nonexclusive components: (1)a method of refutation conducted by examining logical consequences; (2) a method of division or repeated logical analysis of genera into species; (3) logical reasoning using premises that are probable or generally accepted; (4) formal logic; and (5) the logical development of thought through thesis and antithesis to fruitful synthesis of these opposites.

[10] 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).

[11] Since World War II, aggression has typically been defined as a military attack, not justified by international law, when directed against the territory of another state. The question of defining aggression first acquired legal significance with the Draft Treaty of Mutual Assistance of 1923. One year later, the Geneva Protocol of 1924 provided that any state that failed to comply with the obligation to employ procedures of peaceful settlement in the Protocol or the Covenant was an aggressor. Much later, an authoritative definition of aggression was adopted without vote by the UN General Assembly on December 14, 1974.

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

LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth and most recent book is Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel's Nuclear Strategy (2016) (2nd ed., 2018) https://paw.princeton.edu/new-books/surviving-amid-chaos-israel%E2%80%99s-nuclear-strategy Some of his principal strategic writings have appeared in Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Security (Harvard University); Yale Global Online (Yale University); Oxford University Press (Oxford University); Oxford Yearbook of International Law (Oxford University Press); Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College (Pentagon); Special Warfare (Pentagon); Modern War Institute (Pentagon); The War Room (Pentagon); World Politics (Princeton); INSS (The Institute for National Security Studies)(Tel Aviv); Israel Defense (Tel Aviv); BESA Perspectives (Israel); International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; The Atlantic; The New York Times and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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Transition 2021: How Biden is likely to approach the Middle East

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In terms of foreign policy, the new President of the United States, Joe Biden,is likely to face numerous challenges, especially when it comes to the Middle East because of the disastrous policies of the former President, Donald Trump, in the region. Even in his inauguration speech, Biden made it clear that it was going to be testing time. Some of the challenges that the new administration would be facing includethe nuclear deal with Iran, the ongoing war in Yemen, issues of human rights issues and the current deadlock between Israel and Palestine. There is some possibility that Biden’s foreign policy towards the Middle East would either be a revival of Barack Obama’s former policies or new strategies would be formulated based on the nature of the challenges faced. However, it is certain that Biden will address or undo Trump’s terrible policies in the region. 

The Biden administration’s top foreign policy agenda is the policy towards Iran. The Iran nuclear deal (2015) or JCOPA was considered to be a milestone in multilateral diplomacy that was irresponsibly abandoned by Trump in 2018. Trump’s “maximum pressure campaign” of sanctions against Iran aimed to please the traditional allies as they faced a common enemy in Iran. Biden has promised to return to the 2015 JCPOA agreement, and he would also discuss Iran’s nuclear program and exchange for sanctions relief. In this process, it is expected that Washington might pressure Iran to withdraw its support for regional proxies in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. Moreover, the US would also seek to curb Iran’s export of precision guided missiles to her regional allies. Iran though, has already made it clear that these issues would not be discussed in the event of a renegotiated JCPOA. Furthermore, this plan may be complicated by the recent assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist, which was not condemned by the White House that Iran blames on Israel. Public outrage had not even subdued at the point due to the assassination of Qasim Sulemani. Currently, the architecture of the Middle Eastern region is even more complex and challenging than it was four years ago butthe fact is that Iran cannot afford military conflict at this point when its economy is already crippling amidst the COVID-19 pandemic along with the sanctions imposed by the US.

Trump administration’s “Israel-first” approach in the region brought severe criticism at the global level. The Abraham Accord, signed in September of last year,which normalized Israel’s relations with UAE & Bahrain, is widely seen as Donald Trump’s most significant foreign policy achievement. This Accord altered the decades long regional perception that Arab-Israel peace could not be achieved without first addressing the issue of statehood for Palestinians. Biden has said that he supports more countries recognizing Israel but at the same time Israel needs to work towards genuine solutions between the two states. Moreover, the new administration at the White House will not show the same tolerance for Israel’s settler expansionism as its predecessor. However, there are certain foreign policies by the Trump administration that the new US leadership does not want to renew. The normalization of Arab-Israel relations is something that enjoys bipartisan support. And also, the shift of the US embassy to Jerusalem seems unlikely to be undone.

The US policy inthe Middle East under the new leadership will be less ideological and would be more based on fundamental principles.  These principles will greatly focus on human rights as some analysts view human rights as the core foreign policy agenda of the Biden administration. Thus, it does not seem not to be good news for the traditional allies of the US including the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Israel. There are a variety of issues in addition to the human rights issues: the KSA intervention in Yemen, arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the lingering mistrust, the jailing of activists and Jamall Khashoggi’s murder case, which are creating uncertainties between the Washington and Riyadh. Hence, KSA is going to have a very difficult time with the Biden administration. Similarly, the new administration can also be expected to take a less tolerant view towards Moscow and Ankara because of the extraterritorial activities in the Middle Eastern region.

Certainly, returning to the Iran nuclear dealofficially, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action-will take a longer time to review because of the complexity of the issue and the domestic problems that the US is currently facing. There is also a possibility of a dangerous escalation without a nuclear deal due to Iran’s aims of buildingmilitary scenarios. Therefore, multilateral diplomacy is the best option for regional peace and security, which has been tried in the previous years.Even the JCPOA was a result of such diplomacy. The US ending its support to Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen might turn away the traditional allies for some time but not permanently due to the common interests in the region. Biden is also likely to alter Trump’s decision to withdraw US forces from the region as it would decrease US influence in the region. The top priority of the US administration in the Middle East would be to try and manage Iran’s problems and to maintain reasonable relations with Israel. Traditional allies of the US in the Middle East were content and supportive of Trump’s policies in the region but they view Biden, not as a President, but Vice President of the Obama Administration. Trump’s bilateral relations were often based on personal ties with the foreign leaders while Biden is expected to adopt a more multilateral approach in engaging with the allies. Still, scholars believe that there would be no fundamental change in the US foreign policy towards the Middle East, especially when it comes to protecting its vested interests in the region.

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Rejoining the UNHRC will be the State Department’s first diplomatic mistake

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As over the last days US Vice President Harris swore in Linda Thomas-Greenfield as the new US Ambassador to the UN, US Secretary of State Blinken announced in parallel that the US is now seeking election to the UN Human Rights Council, in an attempt to rejoin the UN system. But that’s not the right first move back at the UN that the US should be making. And that’s not what the progressive left had in mind when the real left groups put in office the new Biden Administration.

My perspective comes from having worked in the UN human rights system and as a finalist for UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of speech last year – but also as a progressive left voice.

The days when UN engagement defined Democrats vis-a-vis Republicans are over.

Shunning the UN has always been a Republican hallmark but backing and pouring so much funding into an old style, corrupt bureaucracy that has little to do with “diplomacy” is not what the new, awaken progressive left wants either.

Several weeks ago, I made the estimate that the 10bln dollars which the US government pours into the black hole called the UN equals the Covid relief that 16mln struggling American people could be getting now. The Biden Administration’s State Department diplomats have to remember who put them in office.

Democrat centrist diplomats have more in common with the UN in terms of ways, goals, style and world view than they do with the progressive left. Backing the UN means backing the old, corrupt ways, which the real progressive left voted to break last year.

The decision to announce the US’s goal to rejoin the UN Human Rights Council comes in the same week when President Biden finally announced his real stance on the Black Lives Matter ‘defund the police’ goals. Biden, it turns out, unsurprisingly does not support that. That’s not what the progressive left signed up for, either.

The UN institutional funding inertia by the US government does not define the Democratic Party anymore. That’s not what the left voters want. 

The left’s reasons for not embracing the UN and the UN Human Rights Council have little to do with the usual Republican ‘go it alone’ at the international stage.

Yes to diplomacy and multilateralism. No to the corrupt, faceless UN. “International diplomacy” is no longer the same thing as the UN system.

The wave that rose across American political life last year, with so many young black activists and so many people voting for the first time, signaled a big resounding No to old ways and old institutions, which have little concern for the actual needs of the people.

The new US Ambassador to the UN, Thomas-Greenfield, will have the tough job of reforming the UN, and in my opinion, even defunding the UN.

The days when love for the UN defined Democrats are certainly over. It’s time for the Biden Administration to do what it was elected for, which is to not simply go back to the same old, same old corrupt, faceless bureaucratic institutions swimming in money. This is not what we want. The progressive left voted for change and now that also includes the UN.

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U.S. Climate Policy Could Break the Ice with Russia

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Photo: Fiona Paton/ flickr

“In the midst of every crisis, lies great opportunity” — Albert Einstein

Within the climate crisis lies strategic opportunity for the United States. Climate change offers the chance to earn back the good will of allies, to prepare American cities for an urgently needed increase in immigration, and to reinvent U.S.-led institutions that have gone stale. Perhaps most of all, foreign policymakers should remain cognizant of how climate action can help the U.S. navigate relations with the other great powers.

As a recent report from the Center for a New American Security details, synergy between China and Russia is more problematic for U.S. interests than the sum of the challenges that each nation poses individually. Similarly, a recent Atlantic Council publication observed that “allowing Russia to drift fully into China’s strategic embrace over the last decade will go down as the single greatest geostrategic error.” Chinese and Russian interests do currently align on defense, economics, and the degradation of the U.S.-designed world order, but the nature of their alignment does not constitute an alliance.

In characterizing the relationship, this distinction is paramount. For as long as China and Russia remain merely convenient partners, rather than ideologically kindred allies, it is possible to keep these neighbors at arm’s length. To this end, the U.S. must reorient its approach to Russia. It is the Russian perception that world politics are rigged to benefit the U.S. at Russia’s expense that has prompted its support for China.

Russia’s national interests are rooted in the desire for respect. With this in mind, Russia could pull back from synergy with China if a better opportunity to advance these interests presented itself. Ultimately, the ability of the U.S. to offer a mutually acceptable alternative will hinge on two related factors: the Arctic and NATO. Critically, the issue of climate change is central to both of these factors.

In the Arctic, rapid warming removes barriers to resource exploitation, shipping activity, and great power competition. This has drawn many non-Arctic states to the region. Yet, even with China inserting itself as a “Near-Arctic State,” Russia has expressed the need for a hierarchy of regional influence in which the interests of Arctic states are prioritized over non-Arctic states. On this, American and Russian interests align.

Russian distrust of the U.S. complicates matters, however. Arctic military assertiveness from Russia is evidence of its sensitivity to the NATO alliance. In response, U.S. military branches have been releasing strategies for Arctic-specific forward defense. Such militarism is not conducive to improving relations, securing sovereign influence, or addressing climate change. 

In order to limit undue Chinese influence in the region and stabilize its relations with Russia by securing a multilateral agreement that formalizes an Arctic hierarchy, the U.S. will need to alter its foreign policy so that Russia perceives it to be a viable partner. The alteration should be sufficient for reducing friction with Russia’s core interests, but not so extreme that liberal values or American security are put in jeopardy. Such transactional considerations should include fashioning a new climate-positive role for the U.S. in NATO. After all, the permanent physical presence of roughly 76,000 U.S. troops on the European continent not only irks Russia, but this posture is also expensive, carbon-intensive, and perhaps not even the most effective approach to conflict deterrence. 

Indeed, research has shown that rapid deployment of new forces is significantly more likely to stymie aggression. This suggests that the U.S. should reduce its troop levels in Europe by at least 75 percent while bolstering rapid deployment readiness. This would allow the U.S. to simultaneously reduce its military’s fuel demand and greenhouse gas emissions, earn the good will necessary for stronger diplomacy with Russia, and still honor its security commitment to NATO in the event of a crisis. Moreover, the U.S. could then reinvest the potential savings into both Arctic sustainability and NATO’s capacity to manage climate insecurity.

Through the establishment of a bounded Arctic order and the greening of American leadership in NATO, the U.S. can dispel Sino-Russian synergy in the region and help maintain balance between the great powers. Specifically, these actions would both politically distance China from Russia and give the Kremlin substantial reason to begin feeling more optimistic about its relations with the West. To be sure, similar measures will be necessary in other regions to fully assure balance. However, the Arctic is a natural place for the U.S. to begin this endeavor. Usefully, the themes of climate mitigation and adaptation provide a blueprint for what countering Sino-Russian synergy elsewhere ought to generally entail.

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