Posted in Book Summaries

The Impossible State

In The Impossible State, Georgetown professor and former White House advisor Victor Cha takes on the enigma of North Korea, the most isolated and oppressive regime in the world today. Professor Cha argues that the state’s economic failure can be attributed to the political leadership’s ideology and determination to stay in power. As North Korea possesses no stake in a stable Asia-Pacific region, the author concludes that the regime’s provocative behavior can be viewed as rational attempts to extract aid and necessary supplies from its neighbors. He concurs with the American policy view that North Korea’s collapse is inevitable and offers critical policy principles that the US must follow in dealing with the regime and preparing for unification.

One of the most fascinating aspects of The Impossible State is the author’s analysis of the relationship between North Korea and its closest neighbors, and the implications for future engagement.

First, China. Contrary to the assumptions of the Trump administration, bilateral relations are characterized by distrust and distaste. Though China does view North Korea as a buffer territory and benefit from the country’s rich mineral and metal stores, it continues to prop up the regime primarily out of fear of the destabilizing consequences of collapse. In the same manner, North Korea is resentful of China’s extractive economic policies and attempts to control it–the author vividly portrays this relationship as a “mutual hostage” situation.

Russia’s relationship with North Korea is something of a catch-22; while it has little influence over the North’s behavior, Russia is directly threatened by its missile launches and other provocative behavior. During the Six-Party Talks, it was interesting that the Russian delegation was only influential during an impasse in negotiation; once the Russians helped to smooth hostilities and resume negotiation, they would again be ignored by the other parties. In recent years, President Putin has begun to pursue engagement with North Korea, in line with his determination to establish Russia as a great Asian power and counterbalance US influence.

Professor Cha aptly describes the blatant hostility between Japan and North Korea as stemming from “emotion over reason.” Both sides would benefit from normalized relations: North Korea would gain substantial aid while Japan would address a major national security threat. Yet the North Korean leadership remains resentful of Japan’s occupation of Korea in the early 20th century. The Japanese public, meanwhile, is horrified by the North’s abduction of Japanese citizens and uniformly condemns any form of engagement with the perceived criminal regime.  

Finally, South Korea. In the post-Cold War era, calls for unification from both sides reflected the competitive politics of delegitimation, as both sides sought to absorb the other. Following the financial crisis of the 90’s, South Korea steadily realized the massive political, economic, and social costs of unification. This was one of the factors that brought about the Sunshine policy, a magnanimous and transformational policy that sought to postpone unification by gradually integrating the North into South Korean society through reform. In 2008, conservative President Lee began to emphasize engagement centered on reciprocity–economic cooperation and a more conciliatory tone would only be adopted in exchange for North Korean progress in human rights and denuclearization. With the election of liberal President Moon, it is expected that South Korea will once again prioritize engagement and conciliation over a stricter insistence on North Korean concessions as a prerequisite to negotiation.

According to Professor Cha, the impossible state will not be challenging the realms of reality for much longer. By maintaining robust counter-proliferation and financial sanctions, being open to negotiation as a means of managing escalation, pursuing information and skills campaigns that target the North Korean people, and preparing for unification during negotiations with Asian Pacific countries, the international community will be able to integrate this rogue regime.

Posted in Book Summaries

A Problem from Hell

In 500 pages, Ambassador Samantha Power reviews the haunting narrative of genocide and the US’s lacking response, a story that has repeated itself innumerous times in the 20th century. She further analyzes the ongoing fight to ratify and effectively implement the Genocide Convention in language charged with an immense sense of frustration. Though she offers recommendations for how the US should prepare for and respond to future scenarios, the author makes clear that what is required is a fundamental shift in the US’s approach to its global responsibilities.

1) Cambodia
When the Communist Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia and imposed martial rule in 1975, widespread Southeast Asia fatigue (from the Vietnam War) and mistrust of the government (Watergate scandal) meant that there was little political incentive to address the crisis. Even as reports of intellectuals, fromer government officials, and disloyal civilians being executed arose, the US was too interested in maintaining its relations with Thailand and China–close Khmer Rouge allies–to discourage the violence. Similar motivations influenced the US’s opposition to a Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia and its support for recognizing the UN credentials of the rogue regime.

2) Iraq
US political and economic interests dominated in its tepid response to the Iraq government’s systematic violence against its own citizens. When Saddam Hussein’s cousin, al-Majid, began ordering the killing of the Kurdish minority in response to Kurdish Liberation Army activities, President Bush continued to deliver aid to Iraq, purportedly to balance the two sides in the Iran-Iraq War. Despite having tremendous economic influence over Iraq, the administration rejected sanctions and other punitive measures as futile or likely to have a perverse effect. The agricultural lobby played an important role in continuing bilateral economic relations and aid. For much of the war, official condemnation only addressed the use of chemical weapons against Iraqi civilians, not the intent of genocide. Only after Iraq invaded Kuwait, thereby threatening the US’s oil supply, did Congress begin to deny Iraq import-export credit.

3) Bosnia
During the 1992 presidential election, president-elect Clinton strongly voiced his determination to intervene militarily in the Bosnian crisis, where Serbian president Milosevic had begun violently deporting and killing non-Serbians in line with his nationalistic rhetoric. Despite active media coverage and outrage from human rights organizations, the US administration–urged on by non-interventionists such as Secretary Powell–maintained a hypocritical position; while opposing genocide in the abstract, it opposed US intervention upfront. Offering excuses that the Yugoslavian war stakes were humanitarian and did not meet the criteria for intervention (Bush) and that the estimated number of troops was impossible to meet (Clinton), the US did not take serious action until the massacre at Srebrenica. The Bosnian genocide did lead to the first genocide conviction in Europe through a UN war crimes tribunal.

4) Rwanda
From 1994-1995, Hutu militias and government soldiers targeted political enemies (proponents of a Hutu-Tutsi peace process) and Tutsi civilians in a devastating and rapid genocide. Yet the US and much of the international community refrained from any form of meaningful intervention, dismissing much of the violence as endemic tribal strife and refusing to disrupt the clearly dissolved peace process. In reality, the political costs of the recent intervention in Somalia turned politicians away from involvement; they instead called for full withdrawal of the meager UN presence, ironically, in order to defend the future viability of UN peacekeeping.

Ambassador Power argues that the US’s enlightened self-interest calls for intervention in genocide. In the above-mentioned cases, state genocide undermined regional/international stability and created militarized refugees that were susceptible to radicalization. A weak response from the international community further signaled to dictators that hate and murder were permissible tools of statecraft. Thus, she calls for the US to respond to any case of genocide with a sense of urgency. Officials must publicly identify and threaten perpetrators with prosecution while demanding the expulsion of representatives from international institutions. Punitively, the US should establish economic sanctions, freeze foreign assets, and use technical resources to disable means of hate propagation. The US should collaborate with allies to set up safe houses for refugees and protect them with armed or robustly-mandated peacekeepers. Finally, the will for military intervention must always underlie the US’s response in order to deter escalation of conflict.

The ambassador offers a poignant and well-argued case for a foreign policy that prioritizes genocide intervention as a matter of national strategic concern. Advocates of humanitarian involvement should be respected and their arguments carefully considered, instead of being dismissed as “emotional” and “sentimental.” Yet in its focused advocacy of a US that actively halts genocide, the book places less emphasis on the fact that political considerations, many of which overruled US intervention in past conflicts, are rooted in the structure of American democracy. In addition to increased media coverage of potential genocides, as the ambassador suggests, nonprofits and other humanitarian organizations should focus on genocide history education for journalists. When those responsible for shaping national dialogue are conscious of the history of genocide and the horrific effects of non-intervention, politicians will be pressured to act promptly and decisively in the face of humanitarian disaster. Bringing about a unified attitude toward genocide intervention among diverse news sources may pose a significant challenge. And this, ultimately, is the true problem from hell.

Posted in Book Summaries

The Presidents Club

presidents club
The Presidents Club (Nancy Gibbs & Michael Duffy)

The “Presidents Club” was officially founded by former presidents Truman and Hoover at the inauguration of their successor, Eisenhower. The club’s work largely depended upon the needs and choices of the sitting president, the needs and talents of former presidents, and the extent to which the political environment encouraged relations between presidents. In the next half century, the members of this exclusive club would exercise their influence over American society, politics, and foreign affairs, and in the process, shape the office of the president.

  • Hoover & Truman (1945-52): When President Roosevelt passed away, Truman relied heavily on Hoover’s experience in international food aid and politics to bring about a smooth transition into a post-WWII society. Hoover’s leadership in averting a humanitarian crisis and his work in reorganizing the executive department repaired the poor reputation with which he’d left the presidency.
  • Truman & Eisenhower (1952-1960): Despite initially warm relations and Truman’s early support for Eisenhower’s political career, partisan conflict embittered the two and obstructed collaboration during Eisenhower’s presidency. The need to protect the office of the presidency and national unity after JFK’s death brought the two former presidents closer together.
  • Eisenhower & JFK (1960-1963): The young president relied heavily on the prestige and experience of his elderly predecessor to guide the US through a tumultuous period in its foreign relations. He looked to Eisenhower for advice following the disastrous Bay of Pigs, guidance which contributed to his more successful handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
  • Eisenhower/Truman & LBJ (1963-1968): Crippled by the lack of confidence that came from his sudden ascendancy to the presidency, Johnson frequently consulted with the former presidents in determining the best policy actions. For instance, the tendency of former presidents (Truman & Eisenhower) to advocate stronger policy actions influenced Johnson’s decision to expand the US’s involvement in the Vietnam War.
  • Johnson & Nixon (~1964-1972): Although the pair conspired together in the lead-up to the 1968 election, Nixon’s politically-motivated interference in Vietnam peace negotiations harmed the partnership and national security. Sitting President Johnson’s decision to protect the office of the president rather than reveal damaging evidence regarding the Nixon campaign’s duplicitous activities allowed for Nixon’s election win.
    • During his presidency, President Nixon’s relationship with former President Johnson was based on the careful balancing of two factors: President Johnson’s importance as a political ally (particularly his influence over the Democratic Congress) and his knowledge of Nixon’s shocking interference in the 1968 Vietnam peace negotiations.
  • Nixon & Ford (1972-1976): Despite his best efforts to distance himself from the actions of his predecessor, President Ford was doomed by his selfless decision to pardon Nixon and move forward with his own presidency.
  • Nixon, Ford & Carter (1976-1980): Ford and Carter formed an unlikely but lasting partnership during their trip to Anwar Sadat’s funeral as President Reagan’s envoys.
  • Nixon & Reagan (P1, 1980-1988): Nixon regained his influence in the White House under the Reagan administration, during which he became a trusted, private advisor on all matters (Reagan followed Nixon’s suggestion to appoint Alexander Haig—Nixon’s “spear carrier”—as secretary of state, providing the latter with a direct line to US decision making. In Nixon’s words, “I am yours to command.”). Perhaps the most dominant issue was US-Soviet relations; he took it upon himself to guide the direction of bilateral arms reduction negotiation and later offered advice on how to help Vice President Bush win the 1988 election.
  • Nixon, Carter, & Bush (1988-1992): Although a loyal Nixon protégé, Bush maintained his independence from the former president on foreign policy issues; this frustrated Nixon, to say the least, and incited him to publicly oppose the administration’s Russia policy. (He suggested in op-eds that the US should look beyond Gorbachev in its relations with the USSR and brazenly announced, during the 1992 election, that the US needed to pour foreign aid into Russia.)
    • Former President Carter served as a sometimes helpful, but highly unpredictable agent for his successors. He successfully advanced democratic governance in Nicaragua and Panama; yet he directly undermined Bush administration efforts to use force to expel Hussein from Kuwait.
  • 6 presidents (1992-2000): Under Clinton, Nixon’s role could be likened to that of a foreign policy advisor, so direct was Clinton’s reliance on Nixon’s advice. Clinton sent Carter as his envoy to crisis situations in North Korea and Haiti; in North Korea, Carter overstepped his mandate by single-handedly negotiating a deal with Kim Il Sung and announcing it on media. In Haiti, Carter adeptly negotiated military dictator Cedras’s peaceful descent from power; he again infuriated the administration when he offered his own remarks on the incident on media, prior to briefing the White House. Ford and Carter both played a role in bringing about Clinton’s acquittal, thus preserving the sacredness of the office.
  • Bush & Bush (2000-2008): The Bushes represented two irreconcilable approaches to foreign policy: while the former advocated a more traditional, quiet diplomacy, the latter urged for a new, global, and public “freedom agenda.” Yet above all, they consistently maintained their supporting father-son relationship. During his son’s presidency, Bush Sr. worked closely and became very good friends with Clinton, a friendship that he would pass on to his son. (Bush Sr. and Clinton traveled and raised money together after the Sumatra tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, becoming a model for bipartisan harmony)
  • The Club & Obama (2008-2016): The Presidents Club, during Obama’s presidency, resembled a “sprawling, modern, blended family,” as political rifts healed and Obama came to rely on his predecessors in critical situations (e.g. rescuing American reporters from North Korea).

I was fascinated by the extent to which converging incentives drew current and former presidents together: the incentive of the sitting president to make use of the experience and reputation of his predecessors, the incentive of past presidents to leave a positive legacy, the incentive on both sides to preserve the sacredness of the office. Particularly in the cases of Hoover or Eisenhower, it appears that these men were able to make truly meaningful contributions to America’s foreign policy once distanced from the pressures and political considerations of being in office. Reading about the 1968 election and in the context of the most recent election, I am particularly concerned by the effect that presidential campaigns can have on the execution of effective foreign policy. Due to the global reach of news and social media, it is inevitable that any foreign policy proposal by a presidential candidate will be heard and considered by foreign governments. In order to minimize obstructions to US international engagements caused by presidential campaigns that deviate from the administration’s position, Congress should issue stricter restrictions on the activities of presidential candidates.