RICHARD BUTLER. The US/DPRK Summit: War or Peace?

Mar 16, 2018

The planned Trump/Kim Summit has a clear choice between a negotiated solution, or war. There is a choice, whatever both sides may say. War is not unavoidable and if it were to occur it would be devastating.  

US foreign policy machinery has been in disarray, from the beginning of the Trump administration.

The sources of this have been multiple, including: flawed appointments of key personnel, followed by their prompt departure and now, dismissal of a Secretary of State; failure to make a score of essential professional diplomatic and policy advisory appointments; opaque roles assigned to members of Trump’s family, the skill and authority of whom is deeply dubious; open public combat between competing sources of advice; and, not least policy made or implied by Trump’s tweets.

It’s virtually impossible to encapsulate the meaning of these circumstances, but a good start would be to note that the idea has now gained widespread currency that: a new Cold War between, at least the US and Russia and maybe China, is upon us; and, Trump’s summary announcement that he will hold a Summit with Kim Jong Un, by the end of May.

Nothing underscores the disarray more sharply than the fact that apparently no one in the machinery knew this Summit announcement was coming and no one yet knows, with any degree of certainty, the form and objective of the meeting. The scramble is now on, to answer these questions, within just 6-8 weeks.

It is relevant to note that some key sources within the Administration have let it be known that they are less than certain, to put it mildly, about how to prepare for the Summit. This, together with what might come out of DPRK signaling what its red lines are, or in further weapons tests, could result in the Summit failing to materialize.

There is also the hidden question of whether or not some sources within the US may not, in fact, prefer war.

Two important observers have written about the problems posed by the DPRK’s weapons programmes, and the proposed Summit, (Kim Beazley, former Ambassador to the US and, Gordon L Flake: Australian Foreign Affairs 2, Trump in Asia: The New World Disorder. Their article was reproduced in the US journal; The Conversation, entitled, War with North Korea: From unthinkable to unavoidable.)

Beazley and Flake do discuss the now widely accepted dreadful consequences of the US taking military action against DPRK, but they do accept that such action is seriously contemplated by Trump. Among other reasons for this view, they assert that Trump’s “own sense of legitimacy is bound up in North Korea having no ICBM’s”.

So, if they are right, we are asked to accept that this need would justify a major war and possibly millions dead in both Koreas, and possibly beyond.

Their analysis of Trump’s motives may have credibility given what we know to be his obsession with differentiating himself from all things Obama. We saw an instance of this in his massive missile attack on the Al Shayrat airbase in Northern Syria, following the use of chemical weapons near there, in Al Shekoun, in 2017. This  was intended to provide a contrast with Obama’s failure to implement his red line on any CW use by Syria in, 2016.

The critical factor in any search for a diplomatic solution to the DPRK weapons programme is to discern, accurately, DPRK’s motives for it; and, thus their bottom line. Beazley and Flake seem to recognize this when they ask: “Does North Korea desire a nuclear capability simply for deterrence and regime survival, or does it have a more aggressive ambition to use that capability to try to reunify the peninsula?”

This is an encouragingly rational analysis, especially as it leaves aside the bombast that has characterized Trump/Kim rhetorical exchanges: “Rocket Man”, “fire and fury”; and, “my button is bigger than yours, and works” and from Kim: the boast that we can turn the US to ashes. Instead, it posits that there are reasons for the DPRK programme and, it is within them that a negotiated solution can be identified.

But, Trump has made the search for such a solution very difficult by repeatedly declaring publicly, that nothing less than the elimination of the DPRK nuclear programme will be acceptable.

Few believe that this will be achievable, or achievable on terms Trump will accept; because it may include a demand by the DPRK for the overall denuclearization of the peninsula, including not just an end to its nuclear and missile programme but also the removal of US bases there and the discontinuation of US military flights over the peninsula which are, rightly, assumed to be nuclear capable.

Accordingly, Beazley and Flake conclude, pessimistically, that US military action is, to use their term, almost certainly, unavoidable. This, is plainly not true.

The US can avoid it if it choose to. But, this would involve it in recognizing, among other facts, the untenable and unstable hypocrisy of endorsing a world in which some states, not all of whom are their friends, may hold nuclear weapons for deterrence or defense while others, their perceived enemies, may not. They can work out a modus vivendi with the latter, one which contains safeguards; again, if they choose to.

I leave aside the imperialist notion that all of these things are within the US’ exclusive right to determine, a view shared by virtually no relevant power, with the possible exception of the Turnbull government. It’s a view with which Beazely and Flake seem comfortable.

To assert a passive notion of unavoidability; we had no choice etc., when what is at issue is to launch what could become a devastating war would be the height of deception. And, in this particular instance, contrary to Trump’s fantasies of his and the US’ incomparable potency, it would declare the US morally bankrupt.

There is a disturbing similarity between all of this and the slide towards the First World War: the merely desultory conduct of diplomacy; national pride and posturing; fantastic miscalculation by main actors – the circumstance described in Christopher Clark’s fine book of the same title, as: “The Sleepwalkers”.

Richard Butler AC former Ambassador to the United Nations.

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