Category Archives: Cold War

Trump ought to keep his paw out of the North Korean beehive

I sometimes wonder if Donald Trump has ever picked up a history book, or one covering war or geopolitics. It wouldn’t surprise me if he hasn’t, but he ought to.

I hold out a slither of hope that his advisers are at least more intelligent than he is, because if they aren’t, the United States could be sticking its hand rather naively into a hustling North Korean beehive.

If the president knew anything about Pyongyang’s foreign policy, he would know that missile tests are neither new nor particularly threatening.

During his eighteen year tenure, Kim Jong-il carried out plenty of missile tests, including nuclear ones, and usually for the purpose of playing a little political brinkmanship.

Under Jong-un, this trend has continued, and the endgame is the same. North Korea wants concessions and reassurances, not war. It is a country that can barely feed its people and a place in which electricity shortages are commonplace.

Pyongyang’s behaviour on the international stage has always has a perversely rational tinge to it. In the early 1990s, the communist pariah state’s first missile tests lured the Clinton administration into fruitful negotiations.

A deal known as the Framework Agreement (signed in October 1994) allowed for a sensible trade-off between North Korea and Bill Clinton’s United States: no more nuclear weapons development for relief of military hostility and economic sanctions.

Then again in 2005, after President Bush’s ideological dismantling of the countries’ relationship, Pyongyang offered Washington another deal which explained:

“The D.P.R.K. committed to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs and returning, at an early date, to the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and to IAEA safeguards.”

The BBC notes in a timeline of DPRK-US nuclear talks that on December 20th 2005, “North Korea says it intends to resume building nuclear reactors, because the US had pulled out of a key deal to build it two new reactors.” The potential for progress between Jong-il and Bush was thus quashed.

There are more lengthy accounts of negotiations between the two countries available online, and given that I only intend to show that non-military avenues have not been exhausted, I do not need to reproduce them in their entirety.

The Trump administration must surely be aware of this important history. If it is, then it knows that war isn’t even close to being necessary. Without negotiations that produce a long-term agreement between Washington and Pyongyang, tensions will continuously resurface.

I have chosen thus far to remain objective about Donald Trump’s presidency, opting not to jump on nauseating pro or anti bandwagons. But Trump’s strike on the Assad regime in Khan Shaykhun the week before last and the use of a 21,000lb bomb in Afghanistan at the weekend tell me that old presidential patterns could be emerging.

A trigger happy state like the United States has employed the sledgehammer technique time and time again, often under the guise of fanciful democracy promotion.

‘Smash everything into pieces, and then when that doesn’t work and new problems spring up, smash those problems into tiny pieces too’.

It seems to me that as we move from a hegemonic world in which Washington could more or less control global affairs into a more nuanced, multi-polar world, with new threats and competing powers, the only noticeable foreign policy strategy coming out of the United States appears to be: ‘suppress any and all stability emerging on the doorsteps of our rivals’.

So in the case of North Korea, it is difficult to ignore the possibility of Trumpian pre-emptive strikes. Any missile attacks on North Korea would be both laughably unnecessary and, perhaps more importantly, intolerable in Beijing.

For China, the prospect of an unstable North Korea, shattered by military action and hollowed out by inevitable droves of fleeing refugees, must be avoided at all costs.

Donald Trump may think, based on his action in Syria, that his military endeavours are isolated incidents and that they will not have long lasting ramifications, but as ever he’d be mistaken. If he strikes Jong-un’s regime, he’ll have lost any remnant of support I ever had for him.

North Korea’s vice-foreign minister Han Song-ryol told the BBC today: “If the United States encroaches on our sovereignty, then it will provoke an immediate counter-reaction.” This seems to me reasonable. I would expect no less than if Trump were to attack Britain.

North Korea undoubtedly lacks a moral compass, but this does not make its declarations of sovereignty or its military mobilisation irrational. Pyongyang does behave outlandishly, but as a stagnant pond left after the departing tides of the Cold War, it was always going to attract unique scepticism.

I ask readers to draw inspiration from past diplomatic successes before succumbing to the appeal of yet another completely unnecessary war.

Why Richard Sakwa’s ‘Frontline Ukraine’ is a must-read


“Those who see Putin as the cause of the problem refuse to concede that he might also be a part of the solution” was perhaps my favourite line in Frontline Ukraine; an intelligent and beautifully-written summary of the Ukrainian crisis of 2013/14.

In 250 pages, Professor Richard Sakwa (lecturer at the University of Kent and probably Britain’s most interesting and articulate voice on European politics) managed to contextualise, rationalise and even simplify one of the most interesting and misrepresented conflicts of our time.

As noted in the title of the post, anybody interested in Russia, Crimea, Ukraine or foreign policy in general would benefit from reading this book. Such a well-researched and thoughtful account deserves the eyes of both the west and its misguided politicians.

Drawing on conveniently forgotten historical foundations, ruthlessly sourced statistical evidence and political meddling, sensible conclusions are arrived at relating to the causes, belligerents and development of the crisis. Yet more striking is Sakwa’s neutrality and ability to provide us with a healthily balanced and unbiased view of events which are often twisted through selective foreign media coverage.

What I found most startling about reading Frontline Ukraine was discovering the extent to which both Brussels and Washington managed, often with shocking subtlety, to significantly influence domestic Ukrainian affairs, laying the groundwork for a crisis I now know to have been an inevitable one.

Sakwa explains in rigorous and thought-provoking detail just how Russia came to annex the Crimean peninsula, how they can justify doing so, and why it was a mistake all along to externalise Ukraine’s internal demons, and frame the country’s problems as evidence of a new Cold War.

Rooted at the very core of the book is the rather accurate notion that the events of 2013 and 2014 can be explained by separating the Ukraine crisis and the Ukrainian crisis; one related to ethnic and culture divisions, the other characterised by political pointscoring and international intervention.

European Union and NATO expansion, driven by a desire to create a ‘Wider Europe’ based on western ideals and political institutions, played a huge role in the exacerbating of Ukraine’s problems. Fundamental too is the now glaring fact that through the tabling of the European Association Agreement in November 2013, the EU displayed astounding ignorance towards Russian economic interests, as well as the prominence of the existing Eurasian Customs Union.

Frontline Ukraine directly challenges the lazy argument that the European Union is a bastion of international peace and stability. It outlines crucially just how taken aback Russia was by the events of the Ukrainian revolution, and provides a powerfully contrasting case against the idea that the conflict can be frame in terms of Russian imperialism.

Furthermore, I was impressed by how acutely the inner workings of the Maidan revolution were documented. Vital distinctions were made between the two competing ideologies surrounding Ukrainian statehood; monist and pluralist. It was interesting to see just how deeply rooted social friction and tribalism were across Ukraine, and why internal sects must be diluted and managed responsibly if the country is to rebuild itself as a prosperous and productive nation.

Naive is the argument that Russia’s invasion of the Crimea is emblematic of a country seeking to re-establish the construct of the Soviet Union, and lazy too are those fronting it. For a thorough understanding of the political climate across Eurasia, Sakwa educates those reading by encompassing multiple perspectives of events throughout the book.

His summaries of American geopolitical objectives are sensible, his explanation of Russia’s annexation is rationally-argued and represents a refreshingly open-minded outlook, and his description of Ukraine’s more internal challenges (both in terms of its societal structure and its ethnic segmentation) make this book such a fascinating read.

Please do give it a go.