Tag: nuclear weapons (page 1 of 3)

Iraq's Chemical Arsenal: Justification for War?

Yesterday, a student asked me about the recent news reports indicating that Iraq did, in fact, have “weapons of mass destruction” back in 2002 and 2003 when the U.S. was attempting to justify a “preemptive” war. The New York Times reported that American soldiers were injured in the past decade by chemically-armed munitions found in Iraq.

Already, a slew of articles in the media have debunked the claim that this vindicates George W. Bush and his Iraq misadventure. This Washington Post piece is perhaps the best since it primarily quotes Bush administration claims from the pre-war period.

The Times piece certainly does not try to claim that Bush is vindicated:

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Tweets of the week #4

This was another busy week in global politics and I’m going to highlight some of the best tweets in my Twitter feed. Before starting, however, I will acknowledge that this post is late.

I believe my excuse is pretty good as it involves lots of late night baseball. I grew up in Kansas rooting for the local team — and the Kansas City Royals are in the playoffs for the first time since winning the World Series in 1985. Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, the Royals won three consecutive extra inning games. All ended after 1 am Eastern Time. I then had to read for 30 to 45 minutes after the long and exciting games just to unwind enough to sleep.

None of those victories featured  the longest game of the week. As DC residents know, the Washington Nationals lost to the San Francisco Giants 2-1 in the 18th inning. I caught a bit of that contest:

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Doing the Stability-Instability Dance

The stability-instability paradox is a concept from nuclear deterrence land: that if two sides both have nuclear weapons that can survive a first strike, it might just create deterrence at the strategic level AND free up both sides to engage in violence at lower levels.  Sounds just like an air-headed theory that would never happen in reality because, you know, NUKES!*

* To be clear, I have not studied deterrence theory closely since grad school, so I may not have this entirely right, but I am pretty sure I have the basics.

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The Importance of Angry Letters

Editor’s Note: this is an abbreviated version of a post that originally appeared on my personal blog.

How can international institutions foster cooperation given that they lack enforcement capability? One view, quite simply, is that they can’t. This view is shared by realists and many outside the academy. HansBrix

Many would argue this critique is unfair. It is too easy to jump from “can’t control rogue states” to “completely worthless” or “false promise” or what have you. Even states that view one another as friends sometimes fail to reap all the possible benefits of international cooperation due to coordination problems, collaboration problems, etc, and institutions may help such states leave a little less money lying on the ground. There’s also pretty strong evidence that UN peacekeeping works, particularly when it has the consent of all the parties involved. Sure, that’s an important caveat, but we shouldn’t trivialize the large number of lives that have likely been saved as a result of the UN’s efforts.

But let’s set those things aside. Is the best we can say about the UN that it helps those who want to be helped but is of no real consequence to the behavior of “rogue” states? I would argue that the answer is “sort of, but only if we adopt a fairly extreme definition of ‘rogue’.” But if we don’t define “rogue” states as those that do misbehave, but those who would like to, then the answer is almost certainly no, the UN does not just allow the good guys to do a little bit better on the margins. It actually changes the intentions of those we might otherwise see as bad guys.

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What if Iran Did Get the Bomb?

Casual observation suggests that the two most common answers to the question above are: 1) there’s a very good chance that they’d start a nuclear war with Israel; and 2) there’s no real reason to think any other state would be impacted in any significant way. I find both unpersuasive for reasons I’ll discuss below.


Before I do, though, let me get something out of the way—in this post, I will argue neither for nor against the use of force to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. To answer questions of what should be done, one must not only draw upon some set of beliefs about the likely consequences of the available options, but one’s value judgments about the outcomes and the costs likely to be incurred along the way to producing them. I’m willing to try to persuade you to change your views about the likely consequences of certain outcomes, but I’m going to keep my value judgments to myself.

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Are Weapons Inspections about Information or Inconvenience?

Editor’s note: this is a guest post by William Spaniel, a doctoral candidate at the University of Rochester.  See this previous Duck post describing some of his work, and this post at his own blog providing more information about the research discussed here.

Spurred by a new International Organization article by Alexandre Debs and Nuno Monteiro (DM), the Duck of Minerva has recently hosted a debate on the cause of the Iraq War (see here, here, and here). To sum, DM argue that the United States’ imperfect knowledge of Iraq’s weapons programs led to a rational war. In contrast, speaking strictly from a unitary actor standpoint, this post argues that imperfect information cannot explain the conflict. Just prior to the start of the fighting, Saddam took credible steps to reopen negotiations with the United States. The Bush administration outright ignored these efforts. War began soon thereafter.

I divide this post into three parts, based on work from my dissertation. First, I review DM’s main theoretical contribution. Second, I briefly run down the logic of nuclear negotiations. And third, I argue that weapons inspections increase the cost burden on a potential proliferator, which in turn makes nonproliferation commitments credible. I then trace this logic in the lead up to the Iraq War.

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North Korea is an ‘Upper Volta with Missiles’ who Cried Wolf Too Often

The North Korea flap seems to be calming down, so here I reprint my original essay from the Diplomat a few weeks ago on the crisis, plus a follow-up ‘response to my critics’ essay from the China Policy Institute Blog of the University of Nottingham and e-IR. Together, I think they make a nice whole, although it’s a little long for a blog-post. I would like to thank Harry Kazianas of the Diplomat, John Sullivan of Nottingham, and Max Nurnus of e-IR for soliciting me.

“North Korea is the ‘Boy who Cried Wolf’: There will be No War” (first essay, from April 10)

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Replacing Nuclear Weapons

B2This is a guest post by Jarrod Hayes. He is Assistant Professor in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs. He received his PhD in Politics and International Relations from the University of Southern California in 2009. His research broadly focuses on the social construction of foreign and security policy. 

They are complex weapons.  They are expensive.  They require high levels of engineering expertise to develop, maintain and operate.  They are the purview of the most advanced developed economies in the world.  Nuclear weapons?  Nope, modern major conventional weapons systems.

The title of this post exaggerates of course, but I think there might be something to it.  My thinking on this subject is prompted by a recent story on quiet pressure being applied by policymakers the United States to their colleagues in the United Kingdom.  The Americans want the Brits to scrap their submarine deployed nuclear weapons in favor, one assumes, of more conventional military capabilities.

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Debating the Benefits of Nuclear Superiority for Crisis Bargaining, Part IV

KroenigEditor’s Note: Back in February I riffed on a post by Erik Voeten in which Erik discussed two articles in International Organization (IO). One, by our colleague Matt Kroenig, argued that nuclear superiority gives states advantages in crisis bargaining (PDF). Another, by Todd Sechser and Matthew Fuhrmann, rejects this claim (PDF).

After the two posts sparked some interesting discussion–both on- and offline–I approached all three about doing a mini-symposium at the Duck of Minerva. They agreed.  Kroenig kicked us off with objections to Sechser and Fuhrmann, and soon after we ran Sechser’s and Fuhrmann’s critique of Kroenig’s article. Next, Sechser and Fuhrmann respond directly to Kroenig’s earlier post. This is Kroenig’s answer.

This is a guest post by Matt Kroenig. He is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Government at Georgetown University.

As I stated in my previous post, my new article, “Nuclear Superiority and the Balance of Resolve: Explaining Nuclear Crisis Outcomes,” develops the first coherent theory for why nuclear superiority matters even when both states possess second-strike capabilities.  The article then goes on to present a wide array of empirical tests demonstrating that states with a nuclear advantage are more likely to achieve their basic goals in nuclear crises.

Readers may be interested to know that when I began this research almost four years ago, I fully expected to find that nuclear superiority did not matter, but over time I became convinced by the unambiguously strong correlation between the nuclear balance of power and nuclear crisis outcomes in my empirical tests.  Turning up what was initially a surprising result, I spent several months racking my brain, and re-reading sixty-years-worth of literature on nuclear deterrence theory, until I was eventually able to develop a coherent logical explanation that accounted for these findings to my satisfaction.  I proudly present the result of these years of labor in my new article.

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Bargaining, Capabilities, and Crisis Outcomes

I have enjoyed the recent exchange between Kroenig and Sechser & Fuhrmann (see here, here, and here).  One interesting point that came up regards the role of conventional military capabilities in determining crisis outcomes.  Kroenig says that the MCT data S&F analyze must be flawed because their results indicate that conventional military capabilities don’t matter whereas we have good reason to believe that the strong do what they will while the weak suffer what they must.  S&F reply that there’s nothing odd about their non-finding because this is precisely what bargaining models predict.  They are essentially correct about that, but I think they fail to appreciate what this very argument implies about their findings regarding the impact of nuclear weapons. Continue reading

Debating the Benefits of Nuclear Superiority, Part III

Sechser and FuhrmannEditor’s Note: Back in February I riffed on a post by Erik Voeten in which Erik discussed two articles in International Organization (IO). One, by our colleague Matt Kroenig, argued that nuclear superiority gives states advantages in crisis bargaining (PDF). Another, by Todd Sechser and Matthew Fuhrmann, rejects this claim (PDF).

After the two posts sparked some interesting discussion–both on- and offline–I approached all three about doing a mini-symposium at the Duck of Minerva. They agreed.  Kroenig kicked us off with objections to Sechser and Fuhrmann, and soon after we ran Sechser’s and Fuhrmann’s critique of Kroenig’s article. In this post, Sechser and Fuhrmann respond directly to Kroenig’s earlier post.

This is a guest post by Todd Sechser and Matthew Fuhrmann. Sechser is an Assistant Professor in the Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics at the University of Virginia. Fuhrmann is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Texas A&M University.

First, we want to thank Dan Nexon and the folks at the Duck of Minerva for the opportunity to participate in this important exchange.

The key question in our debate with Matthew Kroenig is whether nuclear weapons (or nuclear superiority) are credible and effective tools of coercion.  Nuclear weapons may be useful for deterrence, but can they also coerce?  Our theories reach opposite conclusions: we say no; Kroenig says yes.  Both sides marshal evidence to support their arguments.  So who is right?  Our goal in this post is to evaluate Kroenig’s empirical results and respond to his critique of our article.

We begin with Kroenig’s response. We appreciate his engagement with our research, but his harsh criticisms generate more heat than light.  Kroenig’s critique of our article boils down to two basic points:

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Debating the Benefits of Nuclear Superiority for Crisis Bargaining, Part II

Sechser and FuhrmannEditor’s Note: Back in February I riffed on a post by Erik Voeten in which Erik discussed two articles in International Organization (IO). One, by our colleague Matt Kroenig, argued that nuclear superiority gives states advantages in crisis bargaining (PDF). Another, by Todd Sechser and Matthew Fuhrmann, rejects this claim (PDF).

After the two posts sparked some interesting discussion–both on- and offline–I approached all three about doing a mini-symposium at the Duck of Minerva. They agreed.  Earlier we ran Kroenig’s piece. In this post, Sechser and Fuhrmann critique the claims he made in his IO article. Both sides will have an opportunity to respond.

This is a guest post by Todd Sechser and Matthew Fuhrmann. Sechser is an Assistant Professor in the Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics at the University of Virginia. Fuhrmann is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Texas A&M University.

Iran’s nuclear program has been a source of international concern for a long time. Some observers in Israel and the United States are now pushing for war, arguing that a nuclear Iran would brandish its capability like a club, waving it around recklessly and bullying neighbors and rivals into submission with nuclear threats.

This fear stems from a common belief that nuclear weapons are more than just weapons of self-defense and deterrence – they are offensive diplomatic tools as well.  But is this view correct?  Are nuclear weapons useful for coercion and intimidation?

We recently conducted a study that found a surprising answer.  Our study, published in the journal International Organization, investigated whether nuclear states enjoy more coercive success than other states. We found that they do not: nuclear weapons have little impact on the effectiveness of coercive threats.  (Note that we use the term “coercive” to refer to attempts to persuade an adversary to change its behavior or give up something valuable.  This is distinct from deterrence, where the goal is to preserve the status quo, not change it.)

Our conclusion challenges conventional thinking about nuclear weapons, which holds that nuclear weapons are useful for coercion – and not just deterrence – simply because they are so destructive.  This view argues that nuclear-armed states can more easily compel others to make concessions in international crises – and that they can do so without actually going to war.  But the conventional view fails to fully appreciate two important limitations of nuclear weapons.

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Debating the Benefits Nuclear Superiority for Crisis Bargaining, Part I

Kroenig Editor’s Note: Back in February I riffed on a post by Erik Voeten in which Erik discussed two articles in International Organization. One, by our colleague Matt Kroenig, argued that nuclear superiority gives states advantages in crisis bargaining (PDF). Another, by Todd Sechser and Matthew Fuhrmann, rejects this claim (PDF).

After the two posts sparked some interesting discussion–both on- and offline–I approached all three about doing a mini-symposium at the Duck of Minerva. They agreed. In this post, Kroenig critiques the claims made by Sechser and Fuhrmann. Seschser’s and Fuhrmann’s piece follows later today.

This is a guest post by Matt Kroenig. He is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Government at Georgetown University. Todd Sescher’s and Matthew Fuhrman’s piece will appear tomorrow.

What determines the outcomes of nuclear crises? For decades scholars have debated whether nuclear superiority (an advantage in the size of a state’s nuclear arsenal relative to an opponent) or the balance of resolve (the relative willingness to run a risk of nuclear war), determines which state achieves its goals in high-stakes nuclear crises, like the Cuban Missile Crisis.  In my new article, “Nuclear Superiority and the Balance of Resolve: Explaining Nuclear Crisis Outcomes” (PDF), published in the current (Jan 2013) issue of International Organization (IO), I synthesize these arguments to create a new theory of nuclear crisis outcomes. I demonstrate that nuclear superiority reduces a state’s expected cost of nuclear war, permitting it to run a greater risk of nuclear war in a crisis, and, therefore, improving its prospects for victory. In so doing, I also provide the first, coherent, rationalist account for why nuclear superiority matters even when both states possess secure, second-strike capabilities.  This is an important theoretical contribution and also has implications for other related debates, such as whether nuclear arms racing is rational under certain conditions.

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The Politics of “Political Science”: Mushroom Cloud Edition

Mushroom CloudErik Voeten has a nice piece up about recent research on the benefits of nuclear superiority. Does nuclear superiority provide an advantage to states engaged in crisis bargaining?

In the most recent issue of International Organization (ungated version) my colleague Matthew Kroenig argues that in a crisis between two nuclear powers, the state that enjoys a nuclear advantage is willing to run more risk than its opponent. This gives the nuclear superior state greater “effective resolve,” meaning that the other state is less likely to think that the state with nuclear superiority will back down.


The same issue of International Organization contains an article (ungated version) by Todd Sechser and Matthew Fuhrman, who claim that nuclear weapons are of no use in increasing the credibility of threats to seize territory or another asset. Moreover, using nuclear weapons is costly. Thus, they find that while nuclear weapons are extremely useful for deterrence, they do little for “compellence” (making a threat to force an opponent to take some desirable action). They show with a different data set of crisis bargaining that threats from nuclear states are not more likely to succeed than threats from non-nuclear states.

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Trans-Partisan Challenge

My daughter is very anxious that Mitt Romney might win the election. Before that she was worried about the European monetary crisis and what might happen if Greece defaults. This suggest that the problem is less one of our partisanship than of growing up the kid of international-affairs specialists who listen to the news during the morning commute.

Regardless, her anxiety suggested it was time for “the talk.” We’d already had the “Republicans are good people” talk. It went something like this: “your grandfather is a Republican, and he’s a wonderful human being. We just disagree on what’s best for the country. And whether your schoolfriend’s mommies can choose to get married.” So this time we explained that the parties periodically switch control over various branches of government, they do good things and bad things, and life goes on.

Anyway, this got me thinking about the “good things and bad things” part of the discussion. So here’s my challenge:  can you identify a policy where the “other side” is likely to do better?

In other words, if you’re pro-Obama, tell us about a positive change that a Romney administration is likely to make in US policy. If you’re pro-Romney, identify something that Obama did right and that Romney would mess up. If you’re one of those third-party types, probably best to skip this one.

My answer is below the fold.

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Explaining Butter for Bombs Agreements

In 1963, JFK predicted that there would be as many 25 nuclear powers by the 1970s.  Yet here we are, some 70 years later, and the number of states believed to possess nuclear weapons has grown from 4 to 9.  Why haven’t more states joined the club?

A variety of factors are undoubtedly at work (see this piece by Gartzke and Joon for a good attempt at bring systematic evidence to bear on this question). In this post, I am going to discuss one in particular: what William Spaniel refers to as “butter-for-bombs” agreements, wherein one state makes concessions to another in attempt to dissuade them from proliferating.

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Observations from Day One of 3MSP-CMC

At multilateral “Meetings of States Parties (MSP)” conferences, delegates are there to review progress made since the establishment of some treaty standard or another – in this case the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CMC) three years ago (3). In the plenaries, therefore, diplomats praise one another’s efforts to implement the treaty with fancy prepared speeches, congratulate their hosts for a beautifully organized event, call on non-signatories to join the treaty, and generally take stock of how to strengthen adherence to the rules.  But just like at academic conferences, all the really interesting stuff happens outside the plenary, in the corridors, in the bars or in “side events” organized by NGOs. In these informal mini-panel discussions, civil society pitches its ideas about how to trouble-shoot the implementation process, but also – importantly for my research – they incubate ideas for new norm campaigns in related areas.

These conversations are very early steps on a road that may (though won’t always) lead to later multilateral framework conferences designed to create rather than implement international norms. At the 3MSP-CMC Conference this week in Oslo, 80% of the side events have to do with implementing provisions of the CMC, particularly the victim assistance provisions. But the other 20% has to do with other, emerging weapons issues. (I include here break-out sessions at the pre-conference Youth Seminar as well as a side event in the regular conference entitled “Looking Back to Look Forward: The CCM and What it Means for Limiting the Impact of Other Weapons Systems.”) The latter will cover the new explosive violence campaign as well as the now very-much percolating issue of autonomous weapons. In the Youth Seminar the topics covered included nuclear weapons, explosive weapons, and incendiary weapons. The nuclear weapons group drew by far the most youth participants, though whether this was due to the issue’s relative salience or to the fact that it was the only session to be held in Norwegian is unclear. Explosives drew a medium-sized crowd and the incendiary weapons workshop, which I attended, drew the smallest. This variation in salience of these emergent issues is interesting to me because of these three campaigns incendiaries has in objective terms the most ingredients of agenda-setting success, including a) prior adoption by a human security “heavyweight” (Human Rights Watch), b) grounding in existing international law (the Incendiary Weapons Protocol to the Convention on Conventional Weapons), c) ample documented historical evidence of human suffering and d) a recent “trigger event” provided by Israel’s use of white phosphorus in Gaza. (These four factors together seem strong indicators of the likelihood that a civil society campaign has legs.) The other two campaigns each have some of these ingredients but neither yet has all four, yet both are also causing a buzz at the conference.

The Triumph of Liberal Internationalism?

Robert Golan-Viella reflects on a tectonic shift in partisan foreign-policy debate, i.e., the fact that the Democrats have the upper hand. He chalks this up to campaign politics: the key to a Republican victory runs through the economy. I agree that there are “strong critiques” of Obama foreign policy and that “leading Republicans aren’t making them.” But I don’t think this is “politically smart,” insofar as leading Republicans are making attacks on Obama foreign policy–just not very good ones.

As Blake Hounshell noted on twitter of the latest broadside from the Romney campaign:

I expect that I will return to this theme on a number of future occasions, but I should note that this is something quite similar to what’s been happening on the domestic politics front.

While there’s plenty of room to eviscerate Obama, the Republicans have painted themselves into an ideological corner from which they’re forced to make a lot of deeply questionable claims. This is what happens when you’ve convinced your base that the label “socialist” is broad enough to include a center-right President whose major domestic initiatives – national Romneycare, a tax-cut and infrastructure oriented stimulus, a cap-and-trade approach to reducing carbon emissions — were mainstream Republican positions only four years ago.

Indeed, the fact is that Obama foreign policy doesn’t look that much different from what Bush was doing in the later part of his second term. Sure, the Obama Administration cancelled an inferior BMD program and replaced it with a better one (props to Sean Kay for that phrasing). But on Iraq and Afghanistan Obama largely followed the path developed toward the end of the Bush administration. Even its position on Iran is evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Obama’s more explicit offer to engage with Iran  highlighted Teheran’s intransigence; to the extent that it “worked,” it did so by generating greater international support for tougher sanctions — it convinced other countries to get behind preexisting US policy. Even the “Israel” issue is often more about style than substance (cf. Erik Voeten on the status of Jerusalem).
In that sense, it isn’t surprising that Russia has become a focal point. The “reset” policy really was a break from Bush foreign policy. On the one hand, though, that “break” has worked to secure Bush administration objectives, such as expanded transit routes to Afghanistan via Russian territory. On the other hand, we can imagine that McCain administration might have been much more aggressive on Georgia and not have pursued New START. I can see a case for recalibration of the US policy toward Tbilisi, but August 2008 pretty much revealed the limitations of full-throttle support for Georgia.
Nuclear-weapons policy, however, provides an opening for real attack on the Obama Administration. But once again, we’re not getting substantive criticism about nuclear doctrine but rather blog-serious level discourse about selling out US interests to Moscow on BMD and the aggregate size of the US nuclear arsenal. Recall that US-Russians relations have deteriorated lately precisely because Washington won’t capitulate to Moscow on matters such as Syria policy or EPAA.

One lesson of this, I think, was that we didn’t need all of that “security Democrat” handwringing during the first five years after 9/11. Remember all those people who were in a tizzy about how liberals and progressives needed to come up with “new thinking” to respond to the neoconservative challenge? That all looks pretty silly now. The Obama Administration’s foreign policy fits pretty squarely within the broad liberal-internationalist tradition, albeit with, on some issues, a significant lean toward its “pragmatic realist” variant. Indeed, with a few exceptions — such as the aforementioned disaster that was US policy toward Georgia — the Bush administration basically abandoned neo-conservativism after the 2006 midterms.

That’s not to say that we won’t get another taste of neoconservative crusading bluster if Romney wins. My guess is that his impulses aren’t in that direction, but foreign-policy novices often go where their advisors take them. But I think what the record of the past two decades suggests is pretty clear: Republican and Democratic foreign-policy centrists never needed to “rethink” anything. Their ideas have acquitted themselves quite well. Neo-Reaganite foreign policy? Not so much. 

Why N Korea Gets Away with its Stunts: a Response to Jennifer Lind

NKl trajectory
Jennifer Lind has a good piece up on Foreign Affairs this week on why NK seems to regularly get away with with hijinks like last week’s rocket test (which directly contravenes UN Resolution 1874). She notes, correctly, that NK has been pulling unanswered, wild stunts like this for years – shootouts in the Yellow Sea, nuclear tests, kidnappings, etc. Further, the US particularly tends to hit back when hit. Indeed, looking at the GWoT, America’s problem is over-reaction rather than passivity. If we look at the Israelis, it’s similar. They have a well-established reputation of hitting back, hard, when provoked. So why don’t the democracies of the Six Party Talks (Korea, Japan, US) do the same here? They easily out weigh NK.

Her argument is that NK manages to deter counter-strikes through a bizarre mixture of the ‘madman theory’ (what will the loopy, hard-drinking, megalomaniacal Kim family do next? so let’s just not provoke them), regional fear of what would follow a NK implosion (après moi le déluge), and traditional nuclear deterrence (if Saddam and Gaddafi had nukes, they’d still be alive, so we’ll never give them up!).

None of that is wrong, but I think she’s missing the big factor – SK domestic politics. Lots of countries and other international actors do wacky, crazy stuff; the question is whether the target wants to counterstrike and risk escalation. So it is SK ultimately (not the US or Japan) that decides whether or not to hit back. And SK doesn’t want to, because 1) South Korean population centers are extremely vulnerable to Northern aggression, and 2) South Koreans just don’t care that much about NK anymore.

I’ve written a lot before on the issue of SK’s extreme vulnerability and how this ties the Korean military’s hands (here is the full write-up, also here; this, picked up on Lawyers, Guns, and Money, is a long discussion thread of my argument). 50% of South Korea’s population lives northwestern SK, in the extremely dense Seoul-Kyeonggi-Incheon corridor. The southern most tip of this massive agglomeration is less than 70 miles from the DMZ. The extreme demographic concentration of the Seoul area is worsening too. Busan, the second city, where I live, is shrinking, even though we are a paltry 3.5 milllion, and Incheon, the site of a super-fancy new airport, is growing. This corridor is huge, proximate, defenseless city-hostage to the North. NK does not need nuclear weapons to jeopardize these inhabitants, which is why I remain skeptical of the hawk/neocon line that NK’s nukes change the balance in big way. (Lind herself has a made a similar point.)

I have brought this point up again and again at conferences here, and I have gotten no real response. Does it make any sense to hyper-centralize a country in a direct competition with a dangerous neighbor and place the grossly overpopulated national capital just 40 miles from the border? Who thought that would be a good idea? Look at what the West Germans did. But decentralization never happens because of the cost and resistance of Seoul-based elites who like the convenience.

Remember how Cold War planners used to say that the US had an advantage over the USSR, because its many federal layers of government and widely dispersed population meant it could absorb a Soviet strike better? By contrast, because the Soviets centralized everything in Moscow, they were very vulnerable to a decapitation strike. The logic is the same here. The ROK is extremely centralized (a legacy of the Park Chung Hee dictatorship), not just politically, but in just about every way – culturally, economically, demographically. And it’s all but impossible to shield these people from a NK rocket and artillery bombardment (even non-nuclear). That Korean urbanites live in towering apartment blocks vulnerable to World Trade Center-style collapse if bombarded only worsens the vulnerability. This dramatically ties the hands of the SK government. Even if none of Lind’s three variables applied, this huge risk alone is enough to prevent SK escalation/response (as is likely the case in the foregone retaliation after the Yeonpyeong incident in 2010).

Next, Lind does not address the growing disinterest in SK for retaliation, or even otherwise engaging NK. Several Korea-based western analysts (me, Brian Myers, Brendan Howe) have made this point. In a post-Yeonpyeong analysis for the Korean National Defense University, I argued that the most likely way to end the Korean stalemate is get greater South Korean commitment to ‘win’ rather than simply manage-when-necessary-and-ignore-when-possible, today’s current ‘strategy.’ And at the Korean Institute for Defense Analysis last year, I argued for a significant effort to ‘harden’ South Korea to withstand this competition. When Brendan and I suggested raising SK defense spending, which is a paltry 2.3% of GDP, the room roundly said it’s politically impossible.

In IR lingo, SK is not really a revisionist anymore; it is a status quo power. De jure, (i.e., in its constitution), the ROK is committed to unity, but as anyone who’s lived here for just a little while can tell you, most South Koreans are genuinely frightened of NK’s collapse – not of NK, mind you, but of its collapse: the huge amount of money it will cost, the massive, generations-spanning reconstruction it will require, internal ‘refugees’ from the north decamping in southern cities, loss of the hard-won OECD lifestyle in the name of national sacrifice, etc. South Koreans would much rather buy iPhones, travel, study in the West, move to Seoul, and get a cool job with Samsung.

I see this in my students all the time. We talk about reunification in class a lot naturally. It’s an unnerving abstraction to them; they certainly don’t get fired up about it. I have never seen a Korean get passionate, angry, or intensely patriotic about unification, even though they are a very nationalistic as a people. In my experience, South Koreans get more angry and emotional over the Liancourt Rocks dispute with Japanor or the Dongbei/Mt. Baektu flap with China than over NK . Just look at the lack of interest and care shown to North Koreans who make it here (a terrible moral failing, IMO). Or, I’ve had students tell me that my discussion of the 1990s famine in NK that killed maybe half a million people was just American propaganda I picked up from the US military in Korea.

If you’re wondering if this really strange, yes, it is. North Korea has probably the worst long-term human rights record of any country in the world, yet South Koreans don’t want to talk about it. I guess a parallel is Germans under 40 years old by the mid-1980s. They too increasingly saw the inter-German border as a real border, not a temporary division. Divide a community long enough, and I guess it slowly becomes two. That’s not too surprising. It’s rather uncomfortable that outsiders, usually Americans, are the ones who seem to push the NK issue and worry about NK human rights and nutrition. I am continuously mystified and moral discomforted that NK doesn’t dominate SK politics.

But that’s how it is. And if we believe in democracy and self-determination, we have to respect Southern public opinion. We can’t get in front our own ally who will carry most of the costs if there’s a war or collapse. When I came to SK I shared the typical American hawk/neocon thinking regarding NK – on the axis of evil, the worst country on earth, run by power-mad lunatics, deserved to get punched in the face at the earliest opportunity, etc. All of that is still true of course, but the longer I live here, the more I have moderated on what that means for policy. South Koreans really don’t want a war or escalation, no matter how many times western IR and think-tank types tell them that NK is dangerous, erratic, terrifying, etc. (I’ve seen this so debate so many times here); they don’t want to risk much for regime change; they don’t want to ally with democratic Japan against communist NK and China, regardless of what structural realism and democratic peace liberalism say; SK is very vulnerable and neocon-John Boltonism looks reckless and scary to them; most don’t really believe in their hearts that their ethnic compatriots to the north will nuke them. Yes, there are demonstrations sometimes against NK, but look closely and you’ll notice that most of the demonstrations are small and the participants elderly. Washington may not like this (I don’t either), and it may feel morally uncomfortable, in that it effectively abandons North Koreans to the brutal status quo, but this is where Southern public opinion is.

So South Koreans seem increasingly comfortable letting NK go its own, bizarre way. I think this is why the conservative, anti-communist press here comes off so unhinged; they’re terrified that South Korea is effectively a status quo power now (which is true). President Lee’s post-Sunshine Policy return to confrontation is very unpopular here (even though lots of western analysts I meet here [me included] think it was a good idea to give it up). Even the conservatives in this year’s elections here are running as doves now. Lots of Koreas thought that the 2010 Cheonan sinking was a plot by the government or the even Americans, or that it illustrated the incompetence of the Lee administration; there was no post-9/11-style national outburst against NK. And a similar shrug greeted the 2010 Yeonpyeong shelling; there was no nation-wide outburst for war or even counterstrikes comparable to how, say, Americans would have responded to such an attack.  In the parliamentary elections that just concluded, NK wasn’t an issue, even though the rocket launch preparation was making global news during the campaign.

I don’t think I would call this appeasement of Lind’s ‘madman.’ That would imply a level of interest, if only to duck or hide from the North, that isn’t there. Appeasement would also suggest that SK would eventually spend more on defense so that it would have more choices against the madman next time. But as Brendan noted, SK isn’t doing any of this. The military is shrinking, the defense budget is astonishingly, irresponsibly low, and there’s no effort to generate force totals with the requisite skills even close to what Lind says is needed to pacify a unified Korea. And that’s because a unified Korea isn’t really on the public radar.

To my mind, the real reason SK doesn’t respond is simple disinterest; they don’t want to make the sacrifices and run the risks.  K-pop, climbing the social ladder, learning English, moving ‘up to Seoul,’ reducing the Gini-coefficient, going to school in the US, playing golf, Yuna Kim, the scandals of the Lee administration, etc. are far more common topics of conversation with my students, family, and colleagues. I am the one who brings up NK, and the answers just aren’t that passionate.

More than anything else, South Koreans just want NK to go away. The most scary implication of this is that if NK can hang on a few more decades, the South won’t even want unity.

Cross-posted on Asian Security Blog.

Seoul 2012 Nuclear Security Summit

This week is the big nuclear security summit in Seoul, with something like 60 attending countries and over 40 heads of state or government. A friend from a Korean expat magazine here in town asked me for a brief write-up. Here are the issues as I see them from Korean IR and the local media. For full-blown think-tankery on the summit, try here.

1. Obama’s personal commitment to de-nuclearization: I can’t think of any president since Reagan who seems as personally offended by nuclear weapons as Obama. Back in the day, Reagan watched ‘The Day After,’ ‘Wargames’ and other nuclear war movies and came to dramatically oppose mutually assured destruction as it had underpinned US policy since flexible response. This helped Reagan achieve the first nuclear stockpile  reduction in history (the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty – a point anti-New Start neocons conveniently forget). But Obama is going beyond that, talking about ‘global zero’ – the complete elimination of all nuclear weapons everywhere. Wow. This is why there have been two of these summits in three years, but nothing like this under Bush. To be honest, I don’t think the complete elimination of the American nuclear deterrent is probably not a good idea (although we can go pretty low); nuclear weapons are the ultimate guarantor of US sovereignty and democracy, and many US allies, like SK, rely on our extended deterrence. In any case, Obama’s personal interest in this issue is a major driver for this thing.

2. NK, always and again: It takes absolutely no imagination to realize that NK is, inevitably, the big focus on these sorts of gatherings. The placement of the summit in SK is to make that pretty clear. NK is easily the most dangerous nuclear-weapons state in the world. (Even Israel’s most dire opponents would probably accept that; well, ok, maybe they wouldn’t.)  Not only is its policy process incredibly opaque and its leadership capricious, NK has no declaratory policy on use (such as NATO’s ‘no first-strike, but reserved first-use’). So we have no idea what NK’s redlines are (which is probably one reason why no further retaliation for Yeonpyeong was approved). Beyond that, NK is a well-established proliferator with known involvement in the programs of Iran, Syria, and Pakistan. To boot, it is a delivery system (i.e., missile) proliferator too. They’re so desperate for cash, it seems like they’ll sell anything. With Kim Jong Il deceased, a new push to move NK toward denuclearization is likely, and this summit is part of the pressure to get NK back into the Six Party Talks to deal for real this time. Similarly, it is likely that the Summit will strengthen the Proliferation Security Initiative, which is also aimed primarily at NK. (On the problem of retaliation and the risk of out-of-control escalation in Korea after Yeonpyeong-style incidents, try here; on nuclear first-use in a Korean war scenario, try here.)

3. Heading off a Nuclear Arms Race in the Middle East: To everyone’s relief, India and (less so) Pakistan are managing their nuclear stockpiles pretty well. There will be little pressure on South Asia. The US interest in nuclear materials safety within Pakistan probably won’t be mentioned publicly, because we so desperately need Pakistani cooperation in the war on terror. Instead, the geographic focus, after NK, is almost certain to be Iran, and possible cascading Sunni nuclearization (Saudi Arabia and Egypt particularly) if Iran weaponizes. As Obama noted at AIPAC, there is a lot of ‘loose talk’ floating around about war with Iran. So this summit will probably be yet another venue for the administration to blunt the Likud-neocon demand for airstrikes. If Obama can get some global commitment, particularly from Asian states like Japan and Korea, for sanctions against Iran, that buys him time to defuse the war he’s partially backed himself into.

4. Materials Security: In the early post-9/11 years, there was a lot of talk at the conferences about the so-called ‘hand-off’ – a rogue state would hand-off a nuke to a Qaeda-style group who would then use it in a western city. This threat thankfully seems to have been overblown, but there’s a lot of nuclear material floating around. About 2,000 tons to be precise. That’s actually pretty terrifying if even just one-third of that were in corrupt, semi-dysfunctional states like Russia, NK, and Pakistan. In fact, I gotta agree with Graham Allison that it’s fairly amazing there’s no been nuclear use since the Cold War’s end, given how much processed plutonium and uranium there is in weak Eurasian states and how big the black market for it is now. Inevitably, the conference will emphasize security at the source. It’s obviously far easier to prevent proliferation than to rein it in once material is out the door. This also means more funding and inspection capabilities (also informally pointed at NK) for the International Atomic Energy Agency.

5. Fukushima and Nuclear Power: This isn’t technically a weaponization issue but a production one. And under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, states have the right to pursue nuclear power for energy (weaponization is a different story). But clearly the catastrophe of last year hangs over all this. In East Asia, it’s gotten, lots of press as you might imagine. Ironically, nuclear power is fairly safe, but the public has taken an especial fear to it. (My guess is that this fear comes from too many scary images in movies and TV and because if nuclear plants do meltdown, the potential catastrophe is enormous and unusually unpredictable because of the fallout). So there will be long-term commitments to find alternative energy sources.

Bonus Silliness: Finally, it wouldn’t be a global conference of consequence in Korea without some cringe-inducing, gratuitously inappropriate K-pop addendum to trivialize it all. Really, who vets this stuff? ‘Enjoy’ that uber-cheese vid above if you can actually make it through to the end. I sure wish the ROKG would stop looking at these sorts of conferences as a marketing gimmick for Korea (don’t miss the daily countdown marker in the top left corner of all Arirang broadcasts now and the relentless advertising blitz) and stay focused on the weighty issues at hand. Just as CNN International blew its credibility by re-cycling Demi Moore (?), complete with drug problems, as a wholly unconvincing ‘anti-slavery campaigner,’ I can think of no better way to drain the gravity of nuclear disarmament than to pointlessly shoehorn in a Korean soap opera actress and boyband with orange hair. Good grief – who thought that would raise the level of discussion? Just a few more rads of gamma rays, boyo, and that hair really will be orange. God save us from Hallyu shallowness…

Cross-posted at Asian Security Blog and Busan Haps.

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