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Transparency Report: Denuclearization

In a speech delivered at Brandenburg Gate in Berlin yesterday, President Obama outlined many of his global ambitions for his second term. Among those was a renewed global push for nuclear disarmament:

“President Obama plans to use a speech in Berlin on Wednesday to outline plans for further reductions in the American nuclear arsenal if Russia agrees to pare back its weapons at the same time, administration officials said Tuesday.”

“Mr. Obama will propose trimming the number of strategic warheads that each of the two big nuclear powers still maintains by up to a third, taking them below the 1,550 permitted in the treaty he signed with Russia in his first term, a senior administration official said. That would leave each country with just over 1,000 weapons.”

“Mr. Obama will also declare that he will work with NATO allies to develop proposals for major cuts in tactical nuclear weapons, which are not covered by the existing treaty. Russia, which has far more tactical nuclear weapons deployed than the United States and Europe do, has firmly resisted such cuts. There are fears that its tactical weapons are in parts of Russia where they risk being seized by terrorist groups.”
“The president, who once talked about eventually ridding the world of nuclear weapons, faces enormous obstacles to any further reductions, both in Moscow and in Washington. President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia has demanded further concessions on missile defense before entertaining deeper nuclear cuts, and Republicans in the Senate have made clear they would resist any treaty that went beyond the New Start pact ratified in 2010.”

Despite obstacles, it is heartening to see President Obama placing nuclear disarmament on his second term agenda. It is important if the U.S. seeks legitimacy in talks with Iran and North Korea; both countries, in a recent change of tone, seem ready to begin talks with the U.S.

North Korea:

“North Korea’s powerful National Defense Commission announced on Sunday that Pyongyang was ready to hold ‘broad and in-depth discussions’ with the US on a range of issues, including the building of ’a world without nuclear weapons.’”

“The country warned, however, that talks cannot take place if the US continues to set preconditions for direct dialogue. Washington has repeatedly said that North Korea must take concrete steps to abandon its nuclear weapons program before negotiations can take place.”

“The Obama administration said Sunday it was receptive to North Korea’s proposal for high-level talks, but wanted “credible negotiations” that would lead to a nuclear-free North.”

“National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said in a statement: ‘Our desire is to have credible negotiations with the North Koreans, but those talks must involve North Korea living up to its obligations to the world,’ including UN resolutions, and ‘ultimately result in denuclearization.’”

The U.S., preempting an obvious North Korean objection of America’s vast nuclear program, is taking the first step towards realizing a “world without nuclear weapons”. The issue remains whether Kim Jong-Un’s North Korea can be a credible negotiating partner.

China will have a key role to play in such negotiations, which it is hopefully ready to do after Presidents Obama and Xi summit meeting in early June. There are reasons to be optimistic, China has signed onto UN sanctions against North Korean in response to nuclear testing, frozen North Korean assets in major Chinese banks, and generally taking a much firmer tone than usual on the issue of North Korean denuclearization.

Iran:

“The election of Hassan Rowhani as Iran’s next president creates an opportunity to move forward on a negotiated agreement to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program and to begin to repair three decades of hostility with the United States.”

“During his first news conference on Monday, Mr. Rowhani promised to “follow the path of moderation” and allow greater openness over the nuclear program. But he also restated Iran’s refusal to halt uranium enrichment as the United Nations Security Council has demanded.”

“Iran is ready to suspend enrichment of uranium to 20 percent, a key demand of world powers at talks over its disputed nuclear program, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.

In return, the Persian Gulf nation must be offered “weighty reciprocal steps,” including a gradual lifting of unilateral and United Nations sanctions, Lavrov said in an interview with the Kuwaiti news service Kuna posted today on the Foreign Ministry’s website.”

“‘This could become a breakthrough agreement that could largely remove the tension surrounding the existing problems, including concern about enrichment rising to weapons level,’ he said. ‘It would be unforgivable not to use this opportunity.’”

“Iranian chief negotiator Saeed Jalili said that while his country would consider the step of suspending enrichment at 20 percent levels, ‘we must know upon what foundations it rests.’ Recognition of Iran’s right to enrich uranium for peaceful use under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty would move the talks forward, he said.”

The interesting issue here is Iran’s continued insistence that its uranium enrichment is for peaceful means. As an American of Jewish decent, I have many reservations about legitimizing the nuclear capacity of a nation that has a history of promoting both anti-Western and anti-Israeli values.

However, the development economist and human rights advocate in me agrees with Mr. Jalili than Iran has a “right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes”. The fact that it is expressly stipulated in the NPT gives legal backing to the human rights implications of nuclear capability.

Enriched uranium can be used for peaceful purposes, such as nuclear energy and medical isotopes. Is it not the right for Iran’s citizens to have access to cheaper electricity and advances in medical care as the nation modernizes, unlocking resources for further modernization?

Further complicating matters is that nuclear energy has virtually zero GHG emissions; it is hypocritical to promote sustainable development (as Obama has done and continues to do) and at the same time disallow Iran from using nuclear energy. Nuclear energy is part of a “comprehensive energy portfolio” needed to combat climate change.

The issue comes down to transparency, accountability, and ultimately governance. Can countries without the traditional checks and balances present in Western democracies be credible partners? Can they actually uphold their promises, or are they merely trying to buy time / have sanctions eased until it is beneficial to renege on their commitments?

The burden of proof falls on Iran and North Korea on this one. If either country wishes to be allowed to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes without dealing with crippling international sanctions, certain conditions must be met. Most notably, independent international inspectors must be given unrestricted access to known / suspected uranium enrichment facilities; if either country can fulfill this condition, then it will have earned the right to enhance uranium for peaceful purposes. 

What do my readers think? Are nuclear capabilities a “right”? Can either Iran or NK (or both) be credible negotiating partners? Does nuclear energy have a role to play n combating climate change? Global denuclearization is the definition of a long-term normative goal, but we must start somewhere. To paraphrase Voltaire, we should not let perfection impede progress.

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Conflict Watch: Arm the “Good Guys”, Disarm the “Bad Guys”

On April second, the U.N. passed a historic Arms Trade Treaty:

“The U.N. assembly voted 154 in favor of the treaty, three against and 23 abstentions (U.N. officials said the actual vote should have been 155-3-22; Angola was recorded as having abstained, though it had attempted to vote yes.) Iran, Syria and North Korea cast the sole votes against the treaty.

Major arms producers China and Russia joined Bolivia, Nicaragua and India — the world’s largest importer of arms — in abstaining. Significantly, the United States reversed its decades-long policy of opposition to such measures and voted in favor of the treaty.”

There are questions as to whether the vote will pass the senate, as the gun lobby in America is expected to fight it tooth and nail (even though a direct stipulation of Obama’s support was that the treaty would not undermine second amendment rights, but the gun lobby in this country has proven itself to be amazingly resilient to facts and policy wording).

The treaty centers on human rights abuses. It requires arms deals to be reviewed based on the recipient of the weapons. If the recipient has a questionable human rights background, or there is any evidence the weapons may be used to perpetuate human rights violations, the deal will be deemed in violation of the treaty.

Regardless of U.S. passage, the treaty is a good thing. The U.S. has proven to be quite reserved with its weapons sales to questionable recipients, evidenced by the fact that we still will not provide arms to the Syrian opposition. “’We [the U.S.] license all imports and all exports of weapons, and we monitor where they’re coming from and who they’re going to when we’re in the business of exporting them externally.’

In a sense, the treaty attempts to bring the rest of the world up to this “gold standard” of trade control.”

While it would certainly strengthen the treaty to have the world’s largest arms exporter on board, it is not a make or break vote. If the NRA and gun lobby in America really want to throw their support behind Iran, Syria, and North Korea, so be it—it would truly highlight how backwards and irrational such organizations are.    

Syria is in a civil war, and North Korea has regularly threatened nuclear strikes on America and its allies. Iran is a suspected hub for destabilizing arms trade throughout the African continent. The fact that these 3 countries are the only ones who voted no to the treaty should tell you something about the level of support the treaty has globally.

This effort to take weapons out of the hands of “bad guys” has been bolstered by America’s decision to sell weapons to the “good guys”:

“The Defense Department is expected to finalize a $10 billion arms deal with Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates next week that will provide missiles, warplanes and troop transports to help them counter any future threat from Iran.”

“The objective, one senior administration official said, was “not just to boost Israel’s capabilities, but also to boost the capabilities of our Persian Gulf partners so they, too, would be able to address the Iranian threat — and also provide a greater network of coordinated assets around the region to handle a range of contingencies.”

Those other security risks, officials said, include the roiling civil war in Syria — a country with chemical weapons that could be used by the Assad government or seized by rebels — and militant violence in the Sinai Peninsula.”

The U.S. has bolstered its military capacity in Asia and put pressure on China to counter the North Korean threat. It has signed the UN ATT in an attempt to help keep arms out of the hands of human rights violators and terrorists. It has doubled down on its strategic presence in the Middle-East by further arming its allies in the region.

The U.S. arms deal with Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates may also be an attempt to show how the treaty works, based on its timing. Weapons manufacturers need not fear that their sales will drop due to the treaty—as long as weapons are going to responsible recipients, the treaty has been in no way violated.  

I like this two sided approach to helping ensure global security. The shortcomings of overt military action have been highlighted by “the war on terror”. America must rely on its strategic allies, as well as Europe, in order to ensure global security in a financially sustainable way—the U.S. simply cannot afford to continue playing “Team America, World Police”.

Obama has continued to impress with his foreign affairs record. He is following Teddy Roosevelt’s famous words “speak softly, and carry a big stick”, with the added provision that he will also supply big sticks to America’s allies and do his best to take big sticks away from our enemies.

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Conflict Watch: The Obama Ultimatum


To say North Korea’s recent actions and rhetoric have been anti-American would be an understatement. Within the past few months Kim Jong-Un has launched a nuclear test strike, cutoff phone lines with the U.S. and South Korea, barred South Korean workers from entering an industrial complex bordering the two Koreas, stepped up its military capacity, suggested countries shut down their North Korean embassies for the safety of their diplomats, and vowed nuclear strikes on the U.S. and its allies.

Much of this is just tough rhetoric, a young leader trying to show he can “rule with an iron fist”, that he is able to rebuff “western interests”, and will not have his national sovereignty challenged.

Experts agree that North Korea could not strike the U.S. mainland with nuclear weapons. More immediately at risk would be South Korea, Japan, and other pacific island allied states. This is alarming for the U.S. as well, who operates a close to 30,000 troop force in South Korea. South Korean has responded with it’s own stern warnings to North Korea, that it will “strike back quickly” if the North attacks. Japan has recently begun ramping up its military capabilities partially in response to North Korean rhetoric. Factor in China’s proposed military expansion, and we have a full blown arms race in Asia.

This is not an issue of China versus Japan, as both sides are essentially on the same side. The Chinese government has recently expressed dismay towards its allies in Pyongyang, agreeing in principle to tougher U.N. sanctions after North Korea’s most recent nuclear test strike.

The U.S., seizing onto this opportunity, has proposed what I call “the Obama ultimatum”:

“The Obama administration, detecting what it sees as a shift in decades of Chinese support for North Korea, is pressuring China’s new president, Xi Jinping, to crack down on the regime in Pyongyang or face a heightened American military presence in its region.”

“’The timing of this is important,’ Tom Donilon, Mr. Obama’s national security adviser, said in an interview. ‘It will be an important early exercise between the United States and China, early in the term of Xi Jinping and early in the second term of President Obama.’”

“In Beijing, officials said Mr. Kerry also wants to reinvigorate the dialogue with China on climate change… A week after Mr. Kerry’s visit, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will spend four days in China to try to improve communication between the American and Chinese militaries.”

“’What we have seen is a subtle change in Chinese thinking,’ Kurt M. Campbell, a former assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs, said in a speech Thursday at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. The Chinese now believe North Korea’s actions are “antithetical” to their national security interests, he said.”

This article seizes on many issues brought up at Normative Narratives involving U.S. and Chinese cooperation on issues concerning the “global commons” (environmental, security, etc.). It also highlights the potential for closer Washington-Beijing relations as two supposedly progressive leaders take the helm of the first and second largest economies in the world.

But there are some issues holding back U.S.-Chinese relations. Issues of trust between the two superpowers exist; cyber-attack accusations have flown from both governments in recent months. Also, there are factions within China who believe it is in China’s best interest to have an anti-Western power in the Korean Peninsula. Some believe that if China came down hard on North Korea, even so far as to push for a reunification of the Korean Peninsula at some point in the future, this would bolster U.S. influence in the region and diminish Chinese influence.

And it is exactly because of this point that I like “the Obama ultimatum”. If China’s greatest fear is increased American military capacity in the Asian Pacific, Obama has just offered Xi Jinping a surefire way to check U.S. military capacity in the region.

Obama has essentially put the ball in Jinping’s court. The next move belongs to China. Will they rebuff the American offer in an attempt to show solidarity with North Korea and protect the interest of “national sovereignty”?

It makes little sense to think they would; when you consider the growth and development of China, there is no question as to which country, between the U.S. and North Korea, is a more important partner. Factoring in Japan’s stance and it makes little economic or military sense for China not to align itself with “western interests”.

Nothing should be taken for granted; historically nations have been known to do things against their economic interests in the pursuit of strengthening their political ideology. But in today’s globalized economy, where the political economy intersection is so prevalent in mainstream political thinking, it would be very surprising to see China not at least attempt to comply with Obama’s offer.

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Conflict Watch: Obama Gets Tough on Chinese Cyber-Attacks

The Obama administration ramped up its rhetoric yesterday, calling out China for the first time by name to stop its cyber-attacks “and agree to ‘acceptable norms of behavior in cyberspace.’”:

“The White House, Mr. Donilon [Obama’s national security advisor] said, is seeking three things from Beijing: public recognition of the urgency of the problem; a commitment to crack down on hackers in China; and an agreement to take part in a dialogue to establish global standards.

“Increasingly, U.S. businesses are speaking out about their serious concerns about sophisticated, targeted theft of confidential business information and proprietary technologies through cyber-intrusions emanating from China on an unprecedented scale,” Mr. Donilon said in a wide-ranging address to the Asia Society in New York.”

Just for comparisons sake, here’s what Obama said in his State of the Union address:

“America must also face the rapidly growing threat from cyber attacks.

Now, we know hackers steal people’s identities and infiltrate private e-mails. We know foreign countries and companies swipe our corporate secrets. Now our enemies are also seeking the ability to sabotage our power grid, our financial institutions, our air traffic control systems.

We cannot look back years from now and wonder why we did nothing in the face of real threats to our security and our economy. That’s why, earlier today, I signed a new executive order that will strengthen our cyber defenses by increasing information-sharing and developing standards to protect our national security, our jobs, and our privacy.”

So the Obama administration is certainly focusing more specifically on China, after mounting evidence that the vast majority of cyber-attacks come from a single building in China, which houses Chinese military activities.

It is good that the Obama administration is taking a tougher stance on China. If you remember back to the 2012 presidential campaign season, Obama was generally seen as “soft on China” compared to Mitt Romney, who was “tough on China”. But like most of Mitt’s ideas, his ideas on China we’re outdated. As I highlighted in a previous post, there is no “being soft” or “being tough” on China. China is one of our largest trade partners and an increasingly important partner in issues that require global coordination. Romney wanted the U.S. to be harder on China for currency manipulation, which is simply no longer a legitimate issue.

We must work with China, and that means picking our battles. We need China to come together and work on global environmental and security issues. China has done a good job so far dealing with its wayward ally North Korea, agreeing with the U.N. to strengthen sanctions following North Korea’s third nuclear test this past February.

China must also play fair in trade relations. Lack of transparency makes it difficult to determine when China is “dumping” goods (or over-subsidizing certain goods past what is considered acceptable by international standards) into other countries and when it is simply taking advantage of a more efficient production process. Luckily the W.T.O. exists to handle such trade disputes, so the U.S. and China do not have to have a direct political face-off when addressing such issues (there is an impartial dispute settlement process).

But cyber-attacks, either perpetuated by or simply ignored by the Chinese government, are unacceptable:

“The nation’s top intelligence official [James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence] warned Congress on Tuesday that a cyber-attack could cripple America’s infrastructure and economy and suggested that such attacks pose the most dangerous immediate threat to the United States, more pressing than an attack by global terrorist networks.”

America is generally insulated by physical attacks due to geography and military technology. 9/11 also served as a wakeup call, leading to much stricter counter-terrorism security measures. America is a safer place today from physical attacks, but remains vulnerable to cyber-attacks.

Safeguarding American economic and infrastructure information will come to be a defining issue in Obama’s legacy. As Obama said in his State of the Union address, “we cannot look back years from now and wonder why we did nothing”. Countering cyber-attacks will take a mixed approach of better security at home and tougher penalties to deter those who would seek to steal our intellectual property / national security secrets.    

This also highlights why Obama was prudent in not addressing China as a currency manipulator. Chinese-American relations are always a sensitive matter; had Obama taken a hard stance on Chinese currency manipulation, he would have used a considerable amount of diplomatic capital on a non-issue, and would not have been able to be so assertive on the much more important issue of cyber-security.

Getting tough on China is the right thing to do, as long as we’re getting tough on the right issues.

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Conflict Watch: Nuclear North Korea

There was a bit of optimism when North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong-un, came to power follow his father’s (Kim Jong-il) death late in 2011. Those hopes have all but faded from memory, as it has become abundantly clear that Kim Jong-un is no more of a friend to the West than his father was. Kim Jong-un’s rule has been marked with the same lack of transparency, human rights violations, and anti-western rhetoric that came to define his father’s rule.

Kim Jong-un has been arguably even more aggressive than his father when it comes to shows of military power. Despite warnings against further nuclear testing (after 2006 and 2009 nuclear tests drew economic sanctions from the UN), Kim Jong-un authorized and conducted a third nuclear test on February 12th, 2013.

The third test has drawn the attention of the international community. Even North Korea’s largest ally, China, has condemned such tests. Kim Jong-un seems undeterred, and has vowed for further nuclear test strikes and other shows of military power in the future unless UN sanctions are suspended.

The international community is not caving the King Jong-un’s demands to stop sanctions against North Korean. To the contrary, yesterday it was reported that the U.S., China, and the U.N. had “struck a tentative deal on a draft U.N. Security Council sanctions resolution that would punish North Korea for its third nuclear test, which it conducted last month.” These sanctions are expected to be a strengthening of previously imposed sanctions following the 2006 and 2009 nuclear tests.

North Korea has replied to such threats, unsurprisingly, with more aggressive military rhetoric:

 “‘We will completely nullify the Korean armistice,’ the North’s KCNA news agency said, quoting the Korean People’s Army (KPA) Supreme Command spokesman.

The two Koreas remain technically at war since the 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce rather than a peace treaty.

‘We will be suspending the activities of the KPA representative office at Panmunjom (truce village) that had been tentatively operated by our army as the negotiating body to establish a peace regime on the Korean peninsula,’ KCNA quoted the spokesman as saying.

‘Related to that, we will be making the decision in parallel to cut off the Panmunjom DPRK-U.S. military hotline.’”

While the hotline has never been used during times of diplomatic tension, it’s suspension is a symbolic move to cut off communication with the United States. By cutting off communication, Kim Jong-un is making it clear that he has no intentions of negotiating a nuclear disarmament with the United States or the “Western world”. (The U.S. is currently working on similar negotiations with Iran as well, who at least on the surface appears to be a more willing negotiating partner than North Korea).

Less symbolic, and more overtly aggressive, is the claim that North Korea will nullify the Korean armistice in response to more severe UNSC sanctions. If the armistice is nullified, North and South Korea would technically be at war, meaning that even the smallest act of aggression by either side could explode into all-out war on the Korean peninsula. The Korean peninsula is currently a “powder-keg”, but even more alarmingly, it is a “nuclear powder-keg”.

Such a war would have serious geopolitical implications, as the U.S. is an ally of South Korea while China is an ally of North Korea.

China has, so far, played the role the international community would hope it plays in the current Korea situation. By openly condemning North Korean nuclear tests, and apparently agreeing to stricter sanctions against North Korea, China has signaled it is willing to put pressure on its ally to ensure regional stability.

The issue with China, as always, is can we take China at its word? China’s own lack of transparency continues to hinder its own accession as a true world power, while simultaneously depressing the standard of living for the average Chinese citizen. China has talked the talk, but will it walk the walk? Will China really remain tough on North Korea, or is it simply telling both sides what they want to hear?

China has openly defended tyrannical dictators, such as Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad, on grounds of “national sovereignty”. While this does not amount to a lack of transparency (as China along with Russia have openly vetoed UNSC intervention in the Syrian civil war), it does show that Chinese leaders allow themselves a certain amount of moral flexibility when deciding who to align themselves with.

China’s lack of transparency, and history of supporting questionable leaders (in the spirit of fairness, the U.S. has backed some questionable leaders in the past as well), casts doubt on whether China means what it says regarding North Korea. Chinese weaponry was recently found on board an Iranian ship; if China is supplying Iran weapons, then China is directly responsible for subverting UNSC sanctions against Iran. If this is the case, why should we believe that China will remain true to its word on sanctions against North Korea? (Not to mention that Iran has become a known supplier of arms to African and Middle-Eastern conflicts, meaning China could be playing a prominent if indirect role in regional instability in these volatile regions).

Perhaps China is for real in its condemnation and proposed sanctions against North Korea. Perhaps the idea of a nuclear power so close to China’s own borders has prompted China to take a tough stance against North Korea in order to protect regional stability as well as its own national security interests.

One thing is certain—the U.S. and the “Western world” need China to take a leading role in demilitarizing North Korea. China, as an ally to North Korea, has the means to influence Kim Jong-un’s decisions in a way that Western powers cannot.

China is at a bit of a crossroads itself. With new leaders coming into power, there is hope for greater transparency, economic reform, and a more responsible foreign policy that could help China gain legitimacy in the international community. China is not North Korea; its economic growth is much more dependent on international trade and therefore global security. China has signaled it will increase its military capabilities going forward; hopefully it will use its military and diplomatic position to promote global security along with its own interests.

The lack of transparency by The People’s Republic of China has made its words cheap—we must see through China’s actions that it is serious in its stance against a nuclear North Korea. China’s opponents will point to subversion of the Iranian sanctions as a reason that China cannot be trusted as a world power. Tension in North Korea provides China with an opportunity to change its image and position in the world.  How China performs in de-militarizing North Korea will go a long way in determining its role in the international community going forward.

In a recurring theme here at Normative Narratives, we will continue to discuss Chinese-American relations. Is China a friend or foe?–time will tell.

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