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Struggling With the Virus on Multiple Fronts: Unseen Impacts on the Risks of Nuclear War with North Korea

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“This virus is going to disappear.”-US President Donald J Trump, February 27th, 2020

“I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”-T S Eliot, The Waste Land

Currently, our greatest challenge is a worldwide struggle against virulent pathogens. At the same time, there is no corollary reason to believe that this overriding menace could remove or preclude other significant hazards, some of them potentially existential. Though such existential threat simultaneity might seem too daunting for calmly rational consideration in these difficult days – and ought therefore to be brought up only in subtle whispers or sotto voce – there can be no reasonable argument for excluding it as a prospective national security hazard.

Now is a time for complete candor. To wit, humankind is never offered any choice in prioritizing existential threats according to any one’s subjective apprehensions or preferences. Moreover, Americans will have to deal with these variously grievous perils together; that is, as they arise, intersect and advance in bewildering tandem with one another. As to identifying significant interactions between such threats systematically, some could emerge as boldly synergistic.

In these cases, the injurious whole would be more-or-less greater than the simple sum of its relevant parts.

This fearful expectation is true by definition.

More to the point, any overlap or congruence between Covid-19 pandemic effects and those of a credible nuclear conflict with North Korea would be more consequential than any simple “adding-up” of numbers or statistics.

Far more consequential.

It follows, inter alia, that nothing could possibly be gained by approaching such galvanizing subject matter without first embracing absolute candor and a science-based precision.

How then shall we best proceed?[1]

 To begin, a core obligation for the United States should avoid basing American nuclear strategy on any flagrantly erroneous assumptions. In this regard, at least one thing is already certain: Kim  Jung Un does not see the world through the same perceptual lenses as Donald Trump. Kim is notprimarily motivated by assorted promises of expanded personal wealth or national economic improvement.
What he seeks for himself, above all and continuously, is extraordinary and stable political power.

Unsurprisingly, this rather obvious objective is tied closely to North Korea’s secure and recognizable possession of nuclear weapons and related infrastructures.

Inextricably tied.

There is more. For analysts and policy planners, the vital issues here are not dense or ambiguous. For Kim Jung Un, prima facie, “denuclearization” represents an unacceptable option in any form. As a national objective, it is anathema. Period.                

Accordingly, while US President Trump now either ignores the North Korean threat altogether or continues to rely on presumed benefits of “attitude” over “preparation,” Kim Jung Un goes ahead with substantial ballistic missile development and testing programs. While Trump continues with strategically meaningless bluster and bravado, Kim readies his nation for an always-possible “final battle.” For the United States, this all-too evident asymmetry could sometime prove to be lethal or even fatal.

We did not elect an American president to serve only on behalf of his own private interests. To properly serve US national security interests rather than his own personal and vanity-centered preferences, Trump must immediately refine and reiterate his still-amorphous North Korea strategy. Among other things, this means developing an American security posture that is more expressly analytic and history-based than are Trump’s current and disjointed orientations.

Still more precisely, it signals that the American president should begin to think systematically and realistically about creating long-term nuclear deterrence relationships with North Korea. For the United States, such creation has worked before, even if in substantially different circumstances. It will now need to work again vis-à-vis North Korea.

In the best of all possible worlds, American  (possibly also North Korean) interests would be best served by Pyongyang’s complete denuclearization. But this is not the best of all possible worlds. For  now, especially, establishing stable nuclear deterrence relationships between these two adversarial states would represent a markedly worthy and gainful American achievement.

There is more. During any still-upcoming negotiations, Trump should take scrupulous care not to exaggerate or overstate America’s military risk-taking calculus. Such imperative diplomatic caution would derive in good measure from the historical absence of any comparable nuclear crises. Because there has never been a nuclear war,[2] there could be no reliable way for this president (or anyone else, for that matter) to ascertain the true mathematical probability of any US-North Korea nuclear conflict.

None at all.

For Donald Trump, who is accustomed to making wholly unwarranted strategic extrapolations from commercial real estate bargaining or casino gaming examples, this observation could first seem exaggerated. Still, plainly and incontestably, it is a true observation,  and truth, in science, if not in US domestic politics, is always “exculpatory.”

Always.

In any logical assessment of conflict, meaningful probabilities must be drawn from one quantifiable calculus only.  This calculus references the determinable frequency of pertinent past events. When there are no such events, there can be no such extrapolation.

Period.

This does not mean that Trump’s senior strategists and counselors should steer away from offering clear-eyed assessments regarding prospective nuclear costs and risks, but only that such assessments be drawn knowingly from various constantly shifting and hard-to-decipher geopolitical trends. At this time, such trends must include complex considerations of worldwide disease pandemic. But this sort of inclusion won’t be easy.

Among other concerns, some attendant problems would emerge as more complicated and steeply problematic than others. For one, world security processes must always be approached in toto, or as a totality; that is, as a more-or-less coherent system. What is happening now, in such far-flung places as India-Kashmir, China, Russia, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen, could have significant “spillover effects” in the northeast Asian theatre and beyond. This is true even while Covid-19 rages in some measure across these countries.

Rather than ignore such complex and seemingly distant effects altogether – in part, because they could appear too intellectually demanding – this American president will first have to accord them a more appropriate position of policy-making priority.

Today, military threats from an already-nuclear North Korea remain genuine, substantive and determinedly “robust.” The fact that Trump’s nuclear “button” is “bigger” than Kim’s, however, is less than determinative. In strategic deterrence relationships, a condition of relative nuclear weakness by one of the contending adversarial states need not imply any corresponding absence of power or influence.

Even the presumptively weaker party in such asymmetrical dyads could deliver “unacceptable damage” to the stronger.

 There is more. President Trump will need to bear in mind that many or all of northeast Asia’s continuously transforming developments will be impacted by “Cold War II,”[3] an oppositional stance with Russia and (somewhat comparably or derivatively) China. Similarly important will be this US leader’s willingness to acknowledge and factor-in certain consequential limits of “expert” military advice. These generally unseen limits are not based upon any presumed intellectual inadequacies of America’s generals, but only on the unassailable knowledge that no person has ever fought in a nuclear war.

Again, this all-too relevant bit of knowledge is indisputable.

By definition – and going forward with all inherently time-urgent considerations of US – North Korea policy formation – American strategic calculations will be fraught with various and utterly daunting uncertainties. Still, it will be necessary that Donald Trump and his designated counselors remain able to offer the best available war-related estimations. Among prospectively causal factors – some of them overlapping, interdependent or (again) even “synergistic”[4] – the plausible risks of a nuclear war between Washington and Pyongyang will depend upon whether such a catastrophic conflict would be intentional, unintentional or accidental.

 In principle, at least, this tripartite distinction could prove vitally important to any hoped for success in US nuclear war prediction and prevention processes.

 In facing any future North Korean negotiations, it will be necessary that competent US policy analysts systematically examine and measure all foreseeableconfigurations of relevant nuclear war risk. Expressed in the game-theoretic parlance of formal military planning, shifting configurations could present themselves singly or one-at-a-time (the expectedly best case for Washington), but they could also arise suddenly, unexpectedly, with apparent “diffusiveness,” or in multiple and overlapping “cascades” of strategic complexity.

What is to be done? To properly understand such bewildering cascades will require carefully-honed, well-developed and formidable analytic skills. This will not likely be a suitable task for a presidential political appointee or for the otherwise intellectually faint-hearted. It will require sharply refined combinations of historical acquaintance, traditional erudition and a demonstrated capacity for advanced dialectical thinking. Such disciplined thinking goes back to the dialogues of Plato, and the ancient but timeless awareness that reliable analysis calls for continuous asking and answering of key questions.

There is more. This challenging task could require American strategic thinkers who are as comfortable with classical prescriptions of Plato and Descartes as with the more narrowly technical elements of modern military theory and hardware. For the moment, these are obviously not the sorts of thinkers one finds around US President Donald Trump.

There is more. It is conceivable that neither Washington nor Pyongyang is currently paying sufficient attention to the residually specific risks of an unintentional nuclear war. To this point, each president would seem to assume the other’s complete decisional rationality. If, after all, there were no such mutual calculation, it would then make no ascertainable sense for either side to negotiate further security accommodations with the other.

None at all.

Viable nuclear deterrence (not denuclearization) must become the overriding US strategic goal with North Korea. But this complex objective is contingent upon certain basic assumptions concerning enemy rationality. Are such assumptions realistically valid in the particular case of a potential war between two already-nuclear powers? If President Donald Trump, despite once “falling in love” with Kim Jung-Un, should sometime begin to fear enemy irrationalityin Pyongyang, issuing new threats of US retaliation might then make starkly diminishing diplomatic sense.

At that literally unprecedented stage, American national security could come to depend upon some residually optimal combinations of ballistic missile defense and defensive first strikes. Again, by definition, determining such complex combinations would necessarily lack any decisional input or counsel from relevant concrete and quantifiable historical data.

In an imaginably worst case scenario, the offensive military element could entail a situational or comprehensive preemption – a defensive first strike by the United States – but at that manifestly late stage, all previous hopes for bilateral reconciliation would already have become moot. There would then obtain no “ordinary” circumstances wherein a preemptive strike against a North Korean nuclear adversary could still be considered “rational.”

None of these difficult strategic decisions should be reached casually or easily. With the steadily expanding development of “hypersonic” nuclear weapons, figuring out optimal US policy combinations from one North Korean crisis to another could quickly become overwhelming. Though counterintuitive amid such prominently intersecting complications, the fact that one “player” (the US) was recognizably “more powerful” than the other (North Korea) could quickly prove irrelevant.

 In all foreseeable circumstances, there would obtain certain overlapping issues of law and strategy. Under international law, which remains an integral part of US law,[5] the option of a selective or comprehensive defensive first-strike might be correctly characterized as “anticipatory self-defense.” But this would be the case only if the American side could also argue coherently and persuasively that the “danger posed” by North Korea was recognizably “imminent in point of time.” Such discernible “imminence” is required by the authoritative standards of international law; that is, by the formal criteria established after an 1837 naval incident famously called “The Caroline.”[6]

Now, in the expanding nuclear age, offering aptly precise characterizations of “imminence” could prove sorely abstract and densely problematic. For example, in  justifying his earlier assassination of Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani, Trump used the term “imminence” incorrectly (sometimes even confusing “imminence” with “eminence”) and without any convincing factual evidence.

For the moment, especially in the  midst of a worldwide  biological crisis, it seems reasonable that Kim Jung Un would value his own personal life and that of his nation above every other imaginable preference or combination of preferences. In any corresponding scenario, Kim is visibly and technically rational, and must remain subject to US nuclear deterrence.[7]But it could still become important for a negotiating American president to sometime distinguish between authentic instances of enemy irrationality and contrived or pretended irrationality.[8]

Is US President Donald Trump – a self-declared “very stable genius” – up to meeting such a challenging task?

This is no longer a silly question.

In the past, Trump has praised pretended irrationality as a potentially useful US national security strategy. Apropos of this problematic praise, his earlier “fire and fury” warnings (issued before he “fell in love” with Kim Jung Un)[9] might have reflected a prospective “rationality of pretended irrationality” posture for the United States. Ultimately, such a posture could be adopted by either one or both sides.

What happens next?

This particular prospect adds yet another layer of complexity to the subject at hand, one that could sometime include certain force-multiplying biological synergies. These would be interactive outcomes where the “whole” was effectively greater than the mere sum of its apparent “parts.”

Although neither side would likely seek a shooting war, either or both heads of state could still commit assorted errors in the course of their respective strategic calculations. Such errors could represent an unintended consequence of jointly competitive searches for “escalation dominance.” Arguably, these errors are more apt to occur in those circumstances where one or both presidents had first chosen to reignite hyperbolic verbal rhetoric.

Even when the two leaders were reportedly once “in love.”

Portentously, even in reassuringly calm periods of polite and congenial diplomatic discourse, major miscalculations, accidents or “cyber-confusions” could accumulate. Again, such ill-fated accumulation could sometime be hastened by the unpredictable effects of disease pandemics.

What then?

In certain expectedly worst case scenarios, negotiations gone wrong could result in a nuclear war.[10] This ought never to be overlooked, In the words of Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt, “The worst does sometimes happen.”

 There is more. An inadvertent nuclear war between Washington and Pyongyang could take place not only as the result of various misunderstandings or miscalculations between fully rational national leaders, but also as the unintended consequence (singly or synergistically) of mechanical, electrical, computer malfunctions or of “hacking”-type interventions. Going forward, these interventions could even include the clandestine intrusions of “cyber-mercenaries.”

In any still-impending crisis between Washington and Pyongyang, each side will inevitably strive to maximize two critical goals simultaneously. These are (1) to dominate the dynamic and largely unpredictable process of nuclear crisis escalation; and (2) to achieve desired “escalation dominance” without sacrificing vital national security obligations. In the final analysis, this second objective means preventing one’s own state and society from suffering catastrophic or even existential harms.

This recalls a prior point concerning obligatory assessments of relative military power. When President Trump, in an earlier verbal competition with Kim Jung Un, stated that the North Korean president may have his own nuclear “button,” but that his was “bigger,” the US leader revealed a major military misunderstanding. It is that today, in the still advancing nuclear age, atomic superiority is potentially per se insignificant, and could lead the presumptively stronger nuclear adversary toward certain potentially lethal expressions of overconfidence.

In such paradoxical circumstances, having had the “bigger button” would have become the dominant source not of strength, but of weakness. Here, size would actually matter, but only in a starkly unexpected or counter-intuitive way.

 As Donald Trump should better understand, even an enemy with a smaller “nuclear button” could inflict grave harms upon the “stronger” United States and/or its close allies in Japan, South Korea or elsewhere. It follows that to take any discernible comfort from the observation that North Korea has been testing “only” shorter-range ballistic missiles is to miss the main analytic point entirely. To clarify, several of North Korea’s nuclear test firings expressed a yield at least 16X larger than the Hiroshima bomb. That 14KT WW II bomb produced almost 100,000 immediate fatalities.

Such vital understandings about nuclear “button size” must obtain as long as Kim Jung Un’s “inferior” nuclear arms are seemingly invulnerable to any American preemptions and seemingly capable of penetrating ballistic missile defenses deployed in the United States, Japan or South Korea. Because of the extraordinary harms generated by even low-yield nuclear weapons, a small percentage or tiny fraction of Kim’s “inferior” nuclear arsenal could and should still appear unacceptably destructive in Washington, Tokyo or Seoul. Worth noting, too, is that in all of these critical dimensions of strategic judgment, the only reality that would figure in ongoing adversarial calculations would be perceived reality.

The bottom line of all such informed assessments concerning a possible US – North Korea nuclear war is that the underlying issues of contention and calculation are enormously complicated and well-nigh indecipherable. Faced with challenging measures of complexity, both operational and legal, each side must proceed warily, in a fashion that is both suitably purposeful and appropriately risk-averse. Although such prudent counsel may at first seem to run counter to assorted inter-linking obligations of “escalation dominance,” any still-upcoming Trump-Kim negotiations would necessarily involve very deep and variously uncharted “waters.”

All this is especially worrisome in the midst of Corona virus pandemic.

Looking ahead, any aggressive over-confidence (or what the ancient Greeks called “hubris” in theatrical drama) by President Trump or President Kim will have to be scrupulously avoided. Although everything at some upcoming negotiation might at first appear simple and calculable, history calls to mind Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz’s sobering observations about “friction.” This element represents “the difference between war on paper, and war as it actually is.”

In certain plausible cases, this difference could mean total war.

To avoid any such intolerable outcome between the United States and North Korea, a prudent and informed nuclear posture must be fashioned, not with barren clichés and empty witticisms, but with refined intellect and cultivated erudition. Much earlier, the ancient Greeks and Macedonians had already understood that war planning must be treated as a continuously disciplined matter of “mind over mind,” rather than just one of “mind over matter.”[11] Today, in more specific regard to US-North Korea nuclear negotiations and rivalry, a similar understanding should promptly obtain in Washington.

It would be far better for the United States to plan carefully for all strategic eventualities than to somehow stumble into a nuclear war with North Korea. The plain fact that such a “stumble” could take place without any ill will or bad intention should provide little tangible consolation for the millions of prospective victims. Assuredly, for these victims, any ounce of diplomatic prevention would have been well worth avoiding an unstoppable nightmare.

Nightmare. According to the etymologists, the root is niht mare, or niht maere, the demon of the night. Dr. Johnson’s famous Dictionary claims this corresponds to Nordic mythology, which identifies all nightmare as some unholy product of demons. This would make it a play on the Greek ephialtes or the Latin incubus. In any event, in all of these fearful interpretations of nightmare, the idea of demonic origin is absolutely integral and indispensable.

But our current worries are of a very different and more secular sort. Recalling the earlier-cited warning of 18th century philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau concerning diligent scholarship, there are certain inherent complexities in problem solving that must always be accepted, understood and overcome. At a time when our planet is imperiled by the simultaneous and potentially intersecting threats of disease pandemic and nuclear war, there can be no suitable alternative to herculean intellectual efforts.

None at all.


[1] As part of any answer to this question, it will be vital to understand that these are not easy problems to solve, and that meaningful remedies will need to be studied with extraordinary care. In this connection, I am reminded of philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau’s timeless observation in The Social Contract, a 1762 work familiar to America’s Founding Fathers: “I warn the reader that this essay requires to be read very seriously, and that I am unacquainted with any art which can make the subject clear to those who will not bestow on it their serious attention.”

[2] The atomic bombings of Japan in August 1945 do not properly constitute a nuclear war, but “only” the use of nuclear weapons in an otherwise conventional conflict. Significantly, too, following Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there were no other atomic bombs still available anywhere on earth.

[3] In essence, hypothesizing the emergence 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 any such 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.

[4] See, by this writer, at Harvard Law School:  Louis René Beres,  https://harvardnsj.org/2015/06/core-synergies-in-israels-strategic-planning-when-the-adversarial-whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts/  See also, by this writer, at West Point:  Louis René  Beres https://mwi.usma.edu/threat-convergence-adversarial-whole-greater-sum-parts/

[5] See especially art. 6 of the US Constitution (“The Supremacy Clause”) and the Pacquete Habana (1900). In the words used by the U.S. Supreme Court in The Paquete Habana, “International law is part of our law, and must be ascertained by the courts of justice of appropriate jurisdiction, as often as questions of right depending upon it are duly presented for their determination.  For this purpose, where there is no treaty, and no controlling executive or legislative act or judicial decision, resort must be had to the customs and usages of civilized nations.”  See The Paquete Habana, 175 U.S. 677, 678-79 (1900).  See also:  The Lola,  175 U.S. 677 (1900);  Tel-Oren v. Libyan Arab Republic, 726 F. 2d 774,  781, 788 (D.C. Cir. 1984)(per curiam)(Edwards, J. concurring)(dismissing the action, but making several references to domestic jurisdiction over extraterritorial offenses), cert. denied,  470 U.S. 1003 (1985)(“concept of extraordinary judicial jurisdiction over acts in violation of significant international standards…embodied in the principle of `universal violations of international law.'”).

[6] See Beth Polebau,National Self-Defense in International Law:  An Emerging Standard for a Nuclear Age, 59 N.Y.U. L. REV. 187, 190-191 (noting that the Caroline case transformed the right to self-defense from an excuse for armed intervention into a customary legal doctrine).

[7] Even before the nuclear age, ancient Chinese military theorist, Sun-Tzu, counseled, inThe Art of War:“Subjugating the enemy’s army without fighting is the true pinnacle of excellence.” (See: Chapter 3, “Planning Offensives”).

[8] Expressions of decisional irrationality in US dealings with North Korea could take different and overlapping forms. These include a disorderly or inconsistent value system; computational errors in calculation; an incapacity to communicate efficiently; random or haphazard influences in the making or transmittal of particular decisions; and the internal dissonance generated by any structure of collective decision-making (i.e., assemblies of pertinent individuals who lack identical value systems and/or whose organizational arrangements impact their willing capacity to act as a single or unitary national decision maker).

[9] Upon returning to Washington DC  after the Singapore Summit, President Trump made the following statement: “Everybody can now feel much safer than the day I took office. There is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea.”

[10] There is now a substantial literature that deals with the expected consequences of a nuclear war.  For earlier works by this author, see, for example:  APOCALYPSE: NUCLEAR CATASTROPHE IN WORLD POLITICS (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1980); MIMICKING SISYPHUS:  AMERICA’S COUNTERVAILING NUCLEAR STRATEGY (Lexington Books, 1983); REASON AND REALPOLITIK: U.S. FOREIGN POLICY AND WORLD ORDER (Lexington, MA:  Lexington Books, 1984); and SECURITY OR ARMAGEDDON:  ISRAEL’S NUCLEAR STRATEGY (Lexington, MA:  Lexington Books, 1986).

[11] See: F.E. Adcock, The Greek and Macedonian Art of War(Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1962), p. 63.

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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Biden Revises US Sanctions Policy

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Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

In the United States, a revision of the sanctions policy is in full swing. Joe Biden’s administration strives to make sanctions instruments more effective in achieving his political goals and, at the same time, reducing political and economic costs. The coordination of restrictive measures with allies is also seen as an important task. Biden is cautiously but consistently abandoning the sanctions paradigm that emerged during Donald Trump’s presidency.

The US sanctions policy under Trump was characterised by several elements. First, Washington applied them quite harshly. In all key areas (China, Iran, Russia, Venezuela, etc.), the United States used economic and financial restrictions without hesitation, and sometimes in unprecedented volumes. Of course, the Trump administration acted rationally and rigidity was not an end in itself. In a number of episodes, the American authorities acted prudently (for example, regarding sanctions on Russian sovereign debt in 2019). The Trump-led executives stifled excess Congressional enthusiasm for “draconian sanctions” against Russia and even some initiatives against China. However, the harshness of other measures sometimes shocked allies and opponents alike. These include the 6 April 2014 sanctions against a group of Russian businessmen and their assets, or bans on some Chinese telecommunications services in the United States, or sanctions blocking the International Criminal Court.

Second, Trump clearly ignored the views of US allies. The unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran in 2018 forced European businesses to leave Iran, resulting in losses. Even some of the nation’s closest allies were annoyed. Another irritant was the tenacity with which Trump (with Congressional backing) threw a wrench in the wheels of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project. Despite the complicated relations between Moscow and the European Union, the latter defended the right to independently determine what was in its interests and what was not.

Third, concerns about sanctions have emerged among American business as well. Fears have grown in financial circles that the excessive use of sanctions will provoke the unnecessary politicisation of the global financial system. In the short term, a radical decline in the global role of the dollar is hardly possible. But political risks are forcing many governments to seriously consider it. Both rivals (Moscow and Beijing) and allies (Brussels) have begun to implement corresponding plans. Trade sanctions against China have affected a number of US companies in the telecommunications and high-tech sectors.

Finally, on some issues, the Trump administration has been inconsistent or simply made mistakes. For example, Trump enthusiastically criticised China for human rights violations, supporting relevant legislative initiatives. But at the same time, it almost closed its eyes to the events in Belarus in 2020. Congress was also extremely unhappy with the delay in the reaction on the “Navalny case” in Russia. As for mistakes, the past administration missed the moment for humanitarian exemptions for sanctions regimes in connection with the COVID-19 epidemic. Even cosmetic indulgences could have won points for US “soft power”. Instead, the US Treasury has published a list of pre-existing exceptions.

The preconditions for a revision of the sanctions policy arose even before Joe Biden came to power. First of all, a lot of analytical work was done by American think tanks—nongovernmental research centers. They provided a completely sober and unbiased analysis of bothха! achievements and mistakes. In addition, the US Government Accountability Office has done serious work; in 2019 it prepared two reports for Congress on the institutions of the American sanctions policy. However, Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election significantly accelerated the revision of the sanctions instruments. Both the ideological preferences of the Democrats (for example, the emphasis on human rights) and the political experience of Biden himself played a role.

The new guidelines for the US sanctions policy can be summarised as follows. First, the development of targeted sanctions and a more serious analysis of their economic costs for American business, as well as business from allied and partner countries. Second, closer coordination with allies. Here, Biden has already sent a number of encouraging signals by introducing temporary sanctions exemptions on Nord Stream 2. Although a number of Russian organisations and ships were included in the US sanctions lists, Nord Stream 2 itself and its leadership were not affected. Third, we are talking about closer attention to the subject of human rights. Biden has already reacted with sanctions both to the “Navalny case” and to the situation in Belarus. Human rights will be an irritant in relations with China. Fourth, the administration is working towards overturning Trump’s most controversial decisions. The 2020 decrees on Chinese telecoms were cancelled, the decree on sanctions against the International Criminal Court was cancelled, the decree on Chinese military-industrial companies was modified; negotiations are also underway with Iran.

The US Treasury, one of the key US sanctions agencies, will also undergo personnel updates. Elisabeth Rosenberg, a prominent sanctions expert who previously worked at the Center for a New American Security, may take the post of Assistant Treasury Secretary. She will oversee the subject of sanctions. Thus, the principle of “revolving doors”, which is familiar to Americans, is being implemented, when the civil service is replenished with personnel from the expert community and business, and then “returns” them back.

At the same time, the revision of the sanctions policy by the new administration cannot be called a revolution. The institutional arrangement will remain unchanged. It is a combination of the functions of various departments—the Treasury, the Department of Trade, the Department of Justice, the State Department, etc. The experience of their interagency coordination has accumulated over the years. The system worked flawlessly both under Trump and under his predecessors. Rather, it will be about changing the political directives.

For Russia, the revision is unlikely to bring radical changes. A withdrawal from the carpet bombing of Russian business, such as the incident on 6 April 2018 hint that good news can be considered a possibility. However, the legal mechanisms of sanctions against Russia will continue to operate. The emphasis on human rights will lead to an increase in sanctions against government structures. Against this background, regular political crises are possible in relations between the two countries.

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Sea Breeze 2021: U.S. is worryingly heading closer to conflict with Russia in the Black Sea

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On July 10th, the 2021 iteration of the joint military exercise, Sea Breeze, concluded in the Black Sea. This exercise, which began on June 28th was co-hosted by the Ukrainian Navy and the United States Navy’s Sixth Fleet. According to the U.S. Navy, the annual Exercise Sea Breeze consists of joint naval, land, and air trainings and operations centered around building increased shared capabilities in the Black Sea.

This year’s Sea Breeze included participation from 32 countries, including NATO members and other countries that border the Black Sea, making it the largest Sea Breeze exercise since its inception in 1997. All other countries bordering the Black Sea were included in participating in the joint drills, except Russia.

Russia’s exclusion from these exercises is not unsurprising, due to its current tensions with Ukraine and its historical relationship with NATO. However, it signals to Moscow and the rest of the world that the NATO views Russia as an opponent in a future conflict. At the opening ceremony of Sea Breeze 2021 in Odessa, it was made clear that the intention of the exercise was to prepare for future conflict in the region when the Defense Minister of Ukraine, reported that the drills “contain a powerful message – support of stability and peace in our region.”

These exercises and provocations do anything but bring peace and stability to the region. In fact, they draw the United States and NATO dangerously close to the brink of conflict with Russia.

Even though Sea Breeze 2021 has only recently concluded, it has already had a marked impact on tensions between NATO countries and Moscow. U.S. Navy Commander Daniel Marzluff recently explained that the Sea Breeze drills in the Black Sea are essential deterrents to Russian assertions in region. However, these drills have consisted of increasingly provocative maneuvers that ultimately provoke conflict in the region.

These drills have done anything but act as a deterrent for conflict in the Black Sea. In response to the Sea Breeze drills, Russia conducted its own drills in the Black Sea, including the simulation of firing advanced missile systems against enemy aircraft. As the Black Sea is of utmost importance to Russia’s trade and military stature, it follows that Russia would signal its displacement if it perceives its claims are being threatened.   

Sea Breeze followed another rise in tensions in the Black Sea, when just a week prior to the beginning of the exercise, a clash occurred between Russia and Britain. In response to the British destroyer ship, the HMS Defender, patrolling inside Crimean territorial waters, Russia claimed it fired warning shots and ordered two bombers to drop bombs in the path of the ship. When asked about the HMS Defender, Russian President Vladimir Putin described the ship’s actions as a “provocation” that was a “blatant violation” of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Putin also went on to claim that Moscow believes U.S. reconnaissance aircraft were a part of the operation as well. Despite this, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson responded with a denial of any wrongdoing.

Russia’s actions to provocations by the United States-led Sea Breeze and interaction with the HMS Defender in the Black Sea signal its resolve to retaliate if it feels as its sovereignty and its territorial claim on Crimea is being impeded on. Despite Russia signaling its commitment to defending its territorial claims in the Black Sea, the United States still willingly took actions during Sea Breeze that would bring the United States closer to a clash with Russia.  

Provoking conflict in the Black Sea does not align with the national security interests of the United States. In fact, it only puts the United States in the position to be involved in a costly clash that only would harm its diplomatic relationships.  

As Russia has signaled its commitment to its resolve and scope of its military response in a possible conflict, any potential conflict in the Black Sea would be costly for the United States. Over the past few years, Russia has increased the size and capabilities of its fleet in the Black Sea. Two of these improvements would especially pose a challenging threat to the U.S. and NATO – Russia’s drastically improved anti-access/area-denial capabilities and its new Tsirkon hypersonic cruise missile. This would mean any conflict in the Black Sea would not be a quick and decisive victory for U.S. and NATO forces, and would instead likely become costly and extensive.  

A conflict with Russia in the Black Sea would not only be costly for the U.S. and its allies in the region, but could irreparably damage its fragile, but strategically valuable relationship with Russia. If the United States continues to escalate tensions in the Black Sea, it risks closing the limited window for bilateral cooperation with Russia that was opened through increased willingness to collaborate on areas of common interests, as evidenced by the recent summit that took place in Geneva. After a period of the highest levels of tension between the U.S. and Russia since the Cold War, this progress made towards improving bilateral relations must not be taken for granted. Even if the U.S. and NATO’s maneuvers in the Black Sea do not ultimately materialize into a full-scale conflict with Russia, they will most likely damage not just recent diplomatic momentum, but future opportunities for a relationship between the two powers.

In such a critical time for the relationship between the United States and Russia, it is counterproductive for the United States to take actions that it can predict will drive Russia even further away. Entering into a conflict with Russia in the Black Sea would not only engage the U.S. in a costly conflict but would damage its security and diplomatic interests.  

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Americas

Maximizing Biden’s Plan to Combat Corruption and Promote Good Governance in Central America

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Authors: Lauren Mooney and Eguiar Lizundia*

To tackle enduring political, economic and security challenges in the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, the Biden administration is attempting to revitalize its commitment to the region, including through a four-year, $4 billion plan submitted in a bill to Congress.

In its plan, the White House has rightly identified the root causes of migration, including limited economic opportunity, climate change, inequality, and violence. Systemic corruption resulting from the weak rule of law connects and entrenches the root causes of migration, while the increased devastation brought about by climate change exacerbates economic hardship and citizen insecurity. 

The renewed investment holds promise: previous foreign assistance in the Northern Triangle has shown results, including by contributing to a reduction in the expected level of violence. As the Biden Administration finalizes and begins implementing its Central America strategy, it should include three pillars—rooted in lessons learned from within and outside the region—to maximize the probability that the proposed spending in U.S. taxpayer funds has its intended impact. 

First, the Biden administration should deliver on its promise to make the fight against corruption its number one priority in Central America by supporting local anti-graft actors. The sanctions against officials which the United States is considering  are a step in the right direction, but lasting reform is best accomplished through a partnership involving regional or multilateral organizations. Guatemala’s international commission against impunity (CICIG) model was relatively successful until internal pushback and dwindling U.S. advocacy resulted in its dismantlement in 2019. Though Honduras’ equivalent was largely ineffective, and El Salvador’s recently launched version is marred by President Bukele’s campaign against judicial independence, there is room for learning from past mistakes and propose a more robust and mutually beneficial arrangement. The experience of Ukraine shows that while external engagement is no silver bullet in eliminating corruption, the role of foreign actors can lead to tangible improvements in the anti-corruption ecosystem, including more transparent public procurement and increased accountability for corrupt politicians.

In tandem with direct diplomatic pressure and helping stand up CICIG-like structures, the U.S. can harness lessons from prior anticorruption efforts to fund programs that address other aspects of graft in each country. This should involve empowering civil society in each country to monitor government compliance with anti-corruption laws and putting pressure on elected officials to uphold their commitments. While reducing impunity and improving transparency might not automatically persuade Central Americans to stay, better democratic governance will allow the three Northern Triangle nations to pursue policies that will end up expanding economic opportunities for residents. As Vice President Harris recently noted, any progress on addressing violence or food insecurity would be undermined if the environment for enabling corruption remains unchanged.

Second, the United States should support local initiatives to help reverse the deterioration of the social fabric in the region by expanding access to community decision-making. Given the high levels of mistrust of government institutions, any efforts to support reform-minded actors and stamp out corruption at the national level must be paired with efforts to promote social cohesion and revitalize confidence in subnational leaders and opportunities. In the Northern Triangle countries, violence and economic deprivation erode social cohesion and undermine trust in democratic institutions. The U.S. government and practitioners should support civic efforts to build trust among community members and open opportunities for collective action, particularly in marginalized areas. A key component of this is expanding sociopolitical reintegration opportunities for returning migrants. In so doing, it is possible to help improve perceptions of quality of life, sense of belonging, and vision for the future. While evidence should underpin all elements of a U.S. Strategy for Central America, it is particularly important to ensure social cohesion initiatives are locally-owned, respond to the most salient issues, and are systematically evaluated in order to understand their effects on migration.

Lastly, the U.S. should take a human-rights based approach to managing migration and learn from the pitfalls associated with hardline approaches to stem migration. Policies rooted in a securitized vision have a demonstrable bad record. For example, since 2015, the European Union undertook significant measures to prevent irregular migration from Niger, including by criminalizing many previously legitimate businesses associated with migration and enforced the imposition of legal restrictions to dissuade open and legal migration. Not only did this violate freedom of movement and create adverse economic consequences, but it also pushed migration underground, with individuals still making the journey and encountering significant threats to their lives, security and human rights.

A welcome realignment

Acknowledging the role of push factors is key to responding to migration effectively. Most importantly, putting political inclusion and responsive governance at the center is critical for ensuring vulnerable populations feel rooted in their community. A more secure, prosperous, and democratic Central America will pay dividends to the United States not only in terms of border security, but also in the form of improved cooperation to tackle global challenges, from climate change to the rise of China. 

*Eguiar Lizundia is the Deputy Director for Technical Advancement and Governance Advisor at IRI

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