Why did Kim Jong-Un Suddenly Bail on his Moscow Trip? B/c NK’s ‘Policy Process’ is more like a Factional Mosh-Pit

Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping watch the parade in Moscow.

You don’t see Kim Jong Un in there do you?

This is a re-post of an essay I wrote for the Lowy Institute a few weeks ago on why Kim Jong UN of North Korea suddenly decided not to go to Moscow.

Everyone wants to know why Kim Jong-Un decided, out of the blue, not to got to Moscow for the WWII Victory Day celebration despite months of it being talked up. So here’s my theory – North Korea policy process isn’t a process at all. It’s more like a mosh-pit of competing interest groups and factions trying to control major decisions like this. So randomness, like sudden cancellation of this visit or the UN Secretary-General visit this week, is just built-in. Even if North Korea wanted to be less erratic and more predictable, it probably couldn’t be, because of the way it is governed.

The rest of the argument follows the jump.

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My October Diplomat Essay: Russia between Empire and Modernity


This is a re-up of an essay I just wrote for the Diplomat (posted here). And that image to the left comes from this famous (notorious, really) tweet. If that doesn’t capture the values clash between Putin and modernity – real men have tigers as pets, while Obama is a well-dressed wus – I don’t know what would. If you ever wondered where feminism in the study of international relations came from, there you go.

Russia is a bit outside my normal purview, but I’ve always had a running interest. I studied Russian in grad school and spent a few summers there learning the language. I enjoyed it a lot and like to think I am sympathetic. Like a lot of post-Soviet analysts, I find it tragic how badly misgoverned Russia has been for so long – literally back to Ivan the Terrible. Russia has so much human capital; if only it was governed properly, it could be a serious emerging market player like China. But instead its one megalomaniac czar after another – whether they be imperial, Soviet, or Putin – wrecking the economy for their own vanity and nationalist unwillingness to accommodate the West.

Putin would rather posture and bluster like a bully on the school parking lot than whip Russia into shape. Everyone knows what’s needed – real elections, press freedom, an anti-corruption campaign, and so on. But I guess if Western analysts say these things, the ‘Russian’ way for Putin must be to do the opposite. So we’re back to 19th century ‘Dostoyevskyan’ images of Russia as an Orthodox, anti-western nationalist power with a unique mission (read it for yourself, then compare it to Alexander Nevsky). That may sate the ideological cravings for global status of Russia’s nationalists, but it won’t help Russia rival the West in the medium-term, will scare non-Russians along Russia’s borders, especially Muslims, and will not impress Beijing, which long ago learned how to profit from globalization and capitalism (while corruption is destroying Russia).

Here’s that essay after the jump:

My Diplomat Essay for May: ‘No, Crimea is Not a Model for Aggression in Asia’

The essay below is a local reprint of my essay for the Diplomat magazine this month.

The motivation was a lot of the panicky response in Asia after the Crimea annexation that something like that might happen in East Asia. I don’t really see that at all, to be honest. Sure Asia is dangerous – that China-Vietnam spat right now  is pretty hairy – but remember that East Asian conflicts are mostly over open, unpopulated sea-spaces whose economic value is minor or unproven. China taking the Paracels or Spratlys is not exactly an Anschluss. Is it bad? Of course. Should China be resisted? Absolutely. But China is not nearly as paranoid and thuggish – at least internationally – as Putin. So yes, if we have to contain China we can. I’ve argued that myself – so please don’t tell me I’m some panda-loving hippy. But we don’t need to rush to cast Crimea as some big lesson for Asia. Rising, prestige-accruing China is not declining, angry Russia, and the local circumstances – most obviously the lack of any Chinese irredentist claims – are pretty different.

Here’s that essay:

“Since the invasion of Crimea, there has been a lot of panicked talk that the annexation is re-defining international relations, violating established international law, throwing the post-WWII/post-Cold War order in Europe into chaos, and so on. Putin has been analogized to Hitler by no less than Hillary Clinton, and both Zbigniew Brzezinski and Madeleine Albright were quick to bring up the specter of the 1938 Munich conference. There has been a steady drum-beat from US conservatives that Obama is weak, appeasing, lacks resolve, and so on.

Some of this is true. Certainly ethnic irredentism smacks of Hitler’s ploy at Munich, but the implication of the ‘Munich analogy’ is that this is but a first step, unseen by weak, appeasing western statesmen, toward future invasions. This is almost certainly not true for Putin. The US and NATO are vastly more powerful than Russia, and without the rest of the old Soviet empire, there is no possible way Putin could launch a second cold war against an expanded NATO. Putin’s thuggery is more a local challenge to the European order and the European Union, a desperation move from panic and paranoia. We should not lose perspective.

So out of hand did this hawkish exaggeration of Crimea become, that a backlash set-in. Micha Zenko noted the obviously hypocrisy of US officials suddenly praising international rules and sovereign non-interference. Fred Kaplan noted how NATO does in fact retain the ability to defend itself. And Fareed Zakaria usefully reminded everyone that the ‘Long Peace’ and gradual decline in war violence are in fact real secular trends not debunked by one event.

This essay is a part of this response literature, but focused on Asia, where there has been a flurry of similarly exaggerated suggestion that Crimea could be a model of local aggression (here, here, and here – or here for the most egregious on Obama’s ‘capitulation’ in Asia). Unsurprisingly, much of this focuses on China, moving to take either the Senkaku/Diayou Islands or a strip of northern North Korea (the latter has been kicked around in the South Korean press). But much of this is hyperbole, some of it rather irresponsible. And a lot of it feels like US neoconservatives and defense hawks using Crimea as a political cudgel against a president they dislike and defense budget cuts they detest. Crimeas are apparently like Pleiku streetcars – wait long enough and you can always circle back to preferred arguments.

But it is far too early and the Crimean situation probably too unique for these conjectures. By way of illustration, consider this ‘what Crimea means for Asia’ piece by my friend Brad Glosserman of the influential Center for Strategic and International Studies. Brad argues:

1. Putin took Crimea, ergo realism is the ‘coin of realm in foreign policy’ and liberal theories on the decline of war are wrong. This is too simple. Crimea is one event; it has resulted in few casualties; it seems likely, in spite of the rigged poll, that a majority of Crimeans would prefer to belong to Russia; it is not at all clear that Russia’s army could sustain a serious occupation of even eastern Ukraine; a full-scale invasion would galvanize NATO overnight, and so on. By contrast, liberal theories of international politics continue to explain a lot – most obviously the very large democratic security community that reaches from eastern Europe all the way west and south to parts of east Asia and Australia. One event does not buck this well-documented trend.

2. ‘National identity matters’ in Asia. But few Asianists said it didn’t. It is well-known that Asian regionalism has broadly failed; that Asian elites and populations are statist and nationalist; that Asia is not going to integrate along EU lines, and so on. Realism does indeed have reasonable analytical purchase in Asia, but that does not mean realism can explain the above mentioned security community very well, or that east Asian statism means conflict. East Asia has been at peace since 1979, but realists and hawks have been predicting war there since the end of the Cold War. The Asian peace may be a ‘cold peace’ but has proven surprisingly durable. These inaccurate predictions should be admitted by those who want to ramp up the pivot and expect a major Sino-US competition.

3. China abstained on the UN Security Council Crimea vote; it is balancing the West with Russia. This is also too fast and a little slippery. China’s behavior on Senkaku is not as aggressive as the conventional wisdom suggests. China is extraordinarily dependent on Western export markets. There is little undisputed evidence that China and Russia are meaningfully working together. China probably abstained at the UN for the same reason everyone else is keeping their powder dry on Crimea: no one really knows what Putin is up to; no one knows how far he intends to push. Crimea was a big surprise to everyone, including to the hawks who are now claiming it is the natural outcome of Obama’s weakness.

4. Crimea could be a template for conflict in Asia, because it too has territorial disputes. This massages the regional differences too much. First, to even call Crimea a ‘model’ of conflict is to accord it far too much significance too soon. (To be fair, Brad does not actually use that term, but much of the Crimea-Asia writing in the last two months pushes in this direction.) Second, Asia’s territorial problems are not irredentism which underlay both the Munich and Crimean annexations. I know of no Chinese irredentist claims in East Asia; no one in China speaks of ‘liberating’ ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia, for example. (Taiwan might be considered Chinese irredentism if one really stretches the category, but that has long been a well-known issue.) Curiously, the only serious irredentist possibility in east Asia I can think of is Korean claims on northeast China. Korean history books teach that early Korean kingdoms stretched far north of the Yalu, and China and Korea have fallen into historiographic spats on this. But I know of no serious Korean politicians demanding Chinese territorial concessions there.

5. The move into Crimea means the US should re-double the Asian pivot. In fact, it likely says the opposite – that the US might be looking at a sustained stand-off with the Russians that will pull US resources into eastern Europe. Much of the security writing on East Asia assumes that the US is a source of stability and that Chinese power is a rising threat. This may indeed turn out to be the case, but it is also true that Asia has not had a major inter-state conflict since 1979 (China’s brief invasion of Vietnam). An alternative literature notes that Asian military expenditures are not nearly as high as US hawks would have you think and that Asia is much more stable than we realize. It may be that Asia under a bland, developmentalist Chinese oligarchy is more stable than eastern Europe menaced by a clownish, paranoid, prestige-seeking Putin. Again, we should not judge so rapidly. Particularly, we must be careful not cast China too quickly into the role of the regional villain like Germany 1914 or the USSR 1945. That is not clear yet.

The realist-hawk-neocon take on east Asia may indeed turn out to be right (this is probably the best statement of that case). But it is far too early to jump to large conclusions on Crimea’s ‘demonstration effect’ in Asia. China has a very long and well-known record of defending sovereignty. It is likely that the Chinese are upset with Putin’s open violation with this principle. They likely abstained on the Crimea vote to avoid giving the West a ‘win’, but it would be an extraordinary volte-face in Chinese foreign policy if Beijing were to suddenly endorse the rewrite of borders by force. Senkaku and the South China Sea dispute are not strong counter-evidence either. Both are nearly empty maritime spaces. China’s claims on them are indeed capacious and should be resisted, but they are far less threatening than Crimea, which was the annexation of a developed, populated land-space. Again, Asia’s cold-peace, while cold, may be more stable than we usually think.

So if Crimea encourages US allies in Asia to take their own defense a little more seriously, then so much the better. But there is little evidence to date that China (or anyone else in Asia) has picked up a ‘Crimea model.’ Conversely, there is a lot of evidence that US hawks and neoconservatives deeply dislike Obama, remain strongly committed to US hegemony, and will use events to support that. Let’s go a little more slowly…”

My December Newsweek Japan Essay: Japan as a Unique Bulwark to Chinese Hegemony in Asia


I recently joined Newsweek Japan in a more official capacity as a regular contributor. I am pleased to do so, as I increasingly think that Japan is the primary bulwark to Chinese hegemony in Asia. So more and more, my research interest is drifting toward the Sino-Japanese competition as weightier than the inter-Korean competition.

In that vein, I wrote the following story for the current volume of Newsweek Japan. In brief, I argue that only Japan has the strength to really block China’s rise to hegemony in east Asia. Russia is too weak, especially out here. India just can’t seem to get its act together (I used to push India really hard as an obstacle, but it just doesn’t seem up to it.) I am a skeptic of the US pivot, and sheer distance alone means the US need not confront China unless it wants to. The US will never be under a Chinese ‘Monroe Doctrine’ as Asia might be in the future. That leaves Japan as a unique bulwark – a front-line state with the wealth and state/bureaucratic capacity to give China a real run for its money. Indeed, one way to see the current tension is as another round of Sino-Japanese competition for Asian leadership going back to the mid-19th century. (As always, I’d love to hear from the Japan mil-tech guys on all this.)

Elsewhere I have argued that China’s rise to hegemony is unlikely, in part because I think Japan will vigorously balance China. (Indeed, it probably is already.) So this essay is an expansion of that previous argument. The essay follows the jump.

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Thickening Russia-Korea Ties is a Good Move for South Korea

b00cacd510614f87ea3a79ff18f43d62f9ea1dd2I wrote a quick piece for Newsweek Korea this week on Vladimir Putin’s trip to South Korea. Find the Korean web version here. Below is the translation.

In brief, I argue that a relationship with Russia is good for South Korea. Because SK is both relatively small and encircled, its foreign policy is dominated by just a few states. The problem is that SK can’t/won’t reach out to NK or Japan, so it is basically stuck between the US and China. So pulling in the Russians is a nice way to get SK some room to maneuver in its tight neighborhood. That is sure to annoy the Americans, but if you’re a S Korean, it’s a wise choice. That is the real value of the trip for SK, while for Russia, it bolsters its fading Asian relevance. Also, while I think President Park has really blown it over Japan, this was a smart choice against the Chinese and the Americans – maybe the best thing she’s done on foreign policy yet.

If it seems like I’m emphasizing geopolitics over economics, that’s because I don’t buy this ‘New Silk Road’ bit – where SK and Russian traffic would move through a guaranteed rail/road corridor in NK – for one minute. Does anyone really believe NK will respect transit rights, giving up lucrative shake-down opportunities on the movement of fuel, goods, tourists, and so on? No way. Look at how Pyongyang uses Kaesong for whatever blackmail/hostage-taking purposes it has in mind. NK is a such a black hole for international norms, that SK and Russia might as well connect by a ‘chunnel’ before relying on NK respect for transit rights.

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My November Diplomat Essay: China & Russia are Not Displacing the US bc of the Syria Deal


This is a re-up of my monthly column for The Diplomat for November. Here is the original. I must say I don’t find the comments to be particularly helpful over there, so please give me your thoughts.

My primary argument is that the media is far too shallow in judging “US decline” on passing issues of minor relevance to the lineaments of American power. Remember two months ago, when Obama ‘had’ to act in Syria, even against Congress? That his very presidency was in peril, that American would be perceived as weak and lacking credibility? And now, no one is talking about that. Or then there was the idea that Obama missing APEC amounted to handing Asia to a bullying one-party state with a bad human rights record and no allies ‘rising China’? Good grief. Enough alarmism. Only the vanity of elites who think the very fate of the world hangs on their choices would lead one to believe that some missed meetings and airstrikes will change the balance of power. It won’t.

Always remember that Asian states need the US a lot more than the US needs them. US regional allies need us to hold back China, and even China needs us to buy all their exports and provide a savings safe haven. Sure, we benefit from cheap Asian exports and lending, but that’s a lot less important. The relationship is very asymmetric, and those who tell you otherwise are trying to cover the weakness of many Asian states and their desperation for US attention with bravado that America ‘needs’ Asia. That’s bunk. As I have been trying to argue on this blog for awhile, if they don’t want us in Asia, it’s no big deal for US security, and it’s an economic blow far worse for them than it is for us. And this is getting even more asymmetric as the US becomes energy independent because of fracking – so have fun fixing the Middle East, China! The US Founders identified the luxury of US distance from Eurasia long ago, so forgot all these hyperventilating Asian columnists (Kishore Mahbubani being the most obvious) who resent that America can be a lot more insouciant about Asia than vice versa. *natch Smile

Here’s that essay:

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USC-CSIS Conference on Korean Unification (3): DPRK ‘Sovereignty’ is a Sino-Russian Fig-Leaf to Slow Unification and Check US Power


Here are part one and part two of this post. I spoke last Tuesday at a USC-CSIS conference on Korean unification. I learned a lot, and it was very good. If you’re interested in unification, start here with the primary report on which the conference was based. The principal investigators said a final wrap-up report will come at some point, and I’ll put up that link when it arrives.

My comments below are on the papers presented on Tuesday about neighboring states’ reactions to Korean unification. These papers aren’t publicly posted yet, so all the comments might not make sense. But in the interest of completism, I’m putting this up to round out my thinking on this excellent unification project. (For my earlier thoughts on dealing with NK, try this; for my travelogue of my trip to the DPRK, try this.)

My big beef with these sorts of conferences on NK – I go to a lot – is that inevitably outsiders, especially Chinese scholars, start laying down all sorts of guidelines, restrictions, parameters, etc. for unification, as if it’s our right to muck around in this thing. I can understand the national interest in doing so. But we shouldn’t have the temerity to try to legitimate our muddying of the waters in what is really an internal family affair. It would also help a lot if the Chinese would stop talking (not so much at this conference, but definitely at others I’ve gone to) about how Korea needs to respect its wishes, because China is big and important now, post-2008 Olympics. I heard one guy once even say that China is now the ‘veto-player’ on unification. That’s true of course in realist sense, but that sorta cockiness infuriates Koreans who’ve really soured on China in the last decade. I see the same kind of emergent Chinese bullying on unification that Southeast Asian littoral states see on the South China Sea. So I try to call that out whenever it seems necessary.

Anyway, here on my thoughts on Japan, Russia, and China’s role in this thing.

It’s Time to De-Russianize the BRICS — UPDATED (twice): Response to My Critics

UPDATED, March 22, 24: This post got a lot of traffic, due to Andrew Sullivan’s citation of it. Thank you to all those readers coming for the first time; please come again. The criticisms levelled here have been similar to those made at the Duck of Minerva, where I also blog. It seems there are three main critiques, although you may wish to scroll further down to the original post first: 1. I exaggerated; Russia is still a great power. 2. I didn’t provide enough data and links. 3. I don’t really ‘get’ Russia, or I’m just recycling western propaganda.

(In passing, I find it both curious/frustrating as an author that what I think is my more creative and fresh work in the last few months [this or this series] didn’t get nearly so much attention, whereas lamenting Russia’s postimperial decline, which so many have done before me [see all the links below], got an explosion of interest. Not quite sure what to make out of that…)

1. I overshot in saying Russia isn’t a great power anymore.

Ok, but not by much. I’ll agree that it was probably gratuitous to call Russia a ‘joke’ as a great power. But then again, be honest with yourself and tell me you didn’t laugh: when Putin rode around shirtless on horseback, when Putin stage-managed a discovery of ‘antiquities’ while scuba diving, when Putin claimed the State Department and Secretary Clinton were fomenting the Moscow protests, when Zhirinovsky “backed free vodka and the reconquest of Alaska,” when the president fired a minister on live TV (!), the minister refused (!!), and Medvedev responded with farcical lecture on Russia’s globally-regarded ‘constitionalism’ (!!!). Or just read this from Gawker on the Putin the crossbow-toting whaler and tell me you don’t burst out laughing – over a head of state with superpower pretensions?

These are the sorts of howlers and hijinks we expect from leaders like Qaddafi, with his retinue of female ‘bodyguards,’ or Idi Amin, with so many gold medals on his uniform you could store it in a bank vault. But modern states, desirous of global prestige, seeking to be taken seriously at the highest levels of the game, just don’t do this stuff. Could you imagine Wen Jiabao doing he-man photo-ops? You’d laugh, right? Well… Putin’s become a punchline, regardless of Russia’s other strengths, which is ultimately what motivated the original post.

As Niall Ferguson put it last December, “Russia—who cares? With its rampant voter fraud and declining population, the country is careening toward irrelevance. …Russia isn’t quite “Upper Volta with missiles”—West German chancellor Helmut Schmidt’s immortal phrase. But it’s certainly a shadow of its former Cold War self. The U.S. economy is 10 times larger than Russia’s. Per capita gross domestic product is not much higher than in Turkey. Male life expectancy is significantly lower: 63, compared with 71 on the other side of the Black Sea. And the population is shrinking. There are nearly 7 million fewer Russians today than there were in 1992. By 2055, the United Nations estimates that the population of Egypt will be larger. Remind me: why did Goldman Sachs group Russia with Brazil, India, and China as the “BRICs,” supposedly the four key economies of the 21st century? Give me Turkey or Indonesia any day.” That’s exactly right (I know people think Ferguson is a neo-victorian apologist for empire, but hold that thought),  and it should deeply worry and embarass Russians that the rest of the planet thinks this way about one of the world’s great cultures. I wrote something similar last fall when Putin announced his re-taking of the presidency, and the whole world shrugged.

Here is more from the Duck of Minerva comment section:

“My interest was more developmental than realist-theoretical. On re-reading the post, it was a bridge to far to say that Russia isn’t a great power anymore. It still is, by the skin of its teeth. Nukes compensate for other areas of decline, I suppose, as you are suggesting. De Gaulle saw this, as did N Korea.

My real goal was to developmentally differentiate between Russia and the other BRICS. That BRICS moniker is to imply some level of cosmopolitan comfort with the modern world economy and rapid growth to greater weight within that economy (hence my reference to Parag Khanna). The other 4 BRICS capture that upward trend – as do other economies like Turkey, S Korea, Mexico, or Indonesia (hence my preference for Khanna’s term ‘second world’). But Russia really doesn’t. Russia is slipping, not rising and has been, more or less, since the late 1970s. That’s quite a hegemonic decline. Its internal rot is pretty severe now. Its Transparency International score in 2011 is a staggering 143 out of 182, putting it in the company of Nigeria, Belarus, and Togo, and obviously calling into question not just its BRIC credentials, but its great power ones too. And the shirtless one’s return puts off a turn-around for another six to twelve years. Given that China rose to the ‘G-2’ in just 30 years, 20+ long years of Putinism (after 10 years of Yeltsin chaos plus late Soviet stagnation) portends a disaster for Russia. This is the real reason for the Moscow protests. They see this now.

Rotation at the top is just one marker for BRIC normalization, but other obvious red flags include the relentless xenophobia of the Putin regime, the alienation from the WTO, the huge missed opportunities of globalization, the blow-out levels corruption and state capriciousness including the murder of journalists, the third worldish reliance on carbon and weapons exports, the 19th century ‘spheres of influence’ obsession with countering the West in Eurasia, the confiscatory attitude toward private wealth most obvious displayed in the Khodorkovsky case, or Putin’s laughably ridiculous throwback-to-Kaiser-Wilhelm bravado of hunting on TV with a crossbow or fighting stage-managed martial arts contests. Does that sound like a BRIC or Khanna’s ‘second world’? Not really. It sounds like Venezuela or Iran. It sounds like an angry, Weimar-style pseudo-democracy high on petro-dollars with a ‘postimperial hangover,’ as Vice-President Biden once put it. Hence the argument that BRIC/second world is the wrong developmental category for Russia. For more of this, ‘should the R be taken out of the BRICS’ debate, try here and here. For a similar write-up on how Putin’s return will critically aggravate so many of Russia’s outstanding problems, try here.

2. I didn’t provide enough data.

Ok, so here you go. It’s pretty easy to find. Please read the links above and these below. From the Duck:

Actually there’s lots of data on this that’s pretty easy to find with Google. I suppose I should have included more links orignally, but I thought a lot of this was common knowledge at this point. But here you go; all the following links come from the last few years:

a. On demography, I was thinking of Nicolas Eberstadt’s work. He’s been writing on this for a long time now, most recently November 2011 in Foreign Affairs. His title, ‘The Dying Bear,’ is pretty blunt about the population contraction. For more, try this.

b. On corruption so high, it’s incommensurate with being a great power, here’s that Transparency International score again.

c. It is downright heroic, if not irresponsible, to suggest that alcoholism is not a huge problem in modern Russia and severely impacting men’s health and mortality: here or here. Just look at those estimates of average male lifespan – around 60! Gorbachev even thought alcoholism imperiled the very existence of the USSR and launched a major government campaign against it.

d. On the brain drain, try here.  Note the big listed reason – problems with the Putinist regime – and their profile: “vast majority of those who admitted wanting to leave were under 35 years old, lived in a major city, and spoke a foreign language.”

e. On the economic overreliance on carbon and how weak the economy really is under the hood, try this from the Financial Times just today. More generally try this and this from the Economist how post-‘reelection’ dysfunctional.

For what it’s worth, this wasn’t intended to be ‘anti-russian gloom and doom.’ I studied in Russia for a bit and spoke it reasonably well once; I’d like to think I am sympathetic. But simply denying Russia’s internal decay is not really a response – as the Moscow protestors themselves understand.”

3. I am not sympathetic enough to Russia’s unique condition/I’m just spinning western propaganda.

Maybe, but I did study there for a bit, and I could speak the language pretty well once. And none of that really changes how Putin is dragging Russia down.

From the Duck:

“On my empathy, try this, which I wrote in 2009, long before this flap. I noted how Americans vastly underestimate how much Russia did to win the Second World War and that our Spielbergian self-congratulation leads us to overlook the huge suffering of Russians at the hands of the SS: “I didn’t really realize this much until I went to Russia to learn the language and travelled around. The legacy of the ‘Great Patriotic War’ is everywhere. Everyone lost someone, and frequently in brutal circumstances Americans can’t imagine. Every Russian guide you get will tell you how Americans don’t know much about war, because we were never invaded, occupied, and exterminated. The first time I heard that, I just didn’t know what to say. You can only listen in silent horror as the guides tell you about how the SS massacred everyone with more than a grammar school degree in some village you never heard of before, or how tens of thousands of those Kiev PoWs starved or froze to death because the Wehrmacht was unprepared for such numbers and the Nazi leadership just didn’t care.” Please note that a Russian even graciously commented there about how rare it is for Americans so say stuff like that. I did study in Russia; I did have friends there; I do have some language and culture skills. So I’d like to think of myself as a sympathetic critic. My real concern is that Putin’s awful misgovernment of Russia is pushing it towards irrelevance, per Ferguson above, and as I think the protestors intuit. Putin has become a global laughingstock, and he’s pulling Russia down with it.

I don’t disagree that Russians have deep social energies that we miss by focusing on Putin and the Kremlin, but one could say that about almost any country. Most peoples like to think of themselves as proud, energetic, innovative, unique, etc. Americans love to call themselves exceptional, and Koreans regularly tell me how the ‘miracle on the Han’ proves how Korea is the most awesome, cohesive, energetic, team-work society in the world that can overcome anything. Ironically, the most consequential grassroots/civil society movement in Russia is the anti-Putin protests, which fits my argument.

Finally, you raise an interesting question about whether all the issues I discuss combine into real momentum for decline. I wonder how that could not be the case, unless the leadership changes. Russia’s traditionally been a top-down place. It’s hard to see turn-around coming from below. (Again, this is why the protests are so important; they’re trying to change that.) Russia’s been slipping for three decades now. I agree it hasn’t fallen off a cliff, like, say, the end of the Ming dynasty or something, but a generation’s worth of negative trends is slowly chewing away at Russian power. I have stepped back from the original statement that Russia is not a great power; that was overreach. But the margins are narrowing.”

———————–  ORIGINAL POST ——————————————-

With Putin’s ‘return’ to the presidency, Russia is now officially a joke as a serious great power state. True, Putin has been ridiculous for awhile, what with those shirtless photo-ops that came across like desperate, bizarre geopolitical ‘ads’ that Russia is still a superpower. But this is different. Not even Chinese elites play the sorts of merry-go-round games at the top that Putin has engineered in the last 6 months. To their great credit, Chinese presidents and premiers serve and go. Russia is now the only one of the BRICS in which power does not rotate. Instead, Putin is starting to look like one of those oil-rich Arab dictators who never leaves, continually gimmicking the the ‘institutions’ and ‘constitution’ to justify how, mirabile dictu, he keeps staying in power. In the meantime, the real power structure morphs into an oil-dependent, rent-seeking, cronyistic despotism. And like those Arab dictators, Putin is facing a local resistance that increasingly realizes that Putinism is taking their country nowhere but nest-feathering. To paraphrase Helmut Schmidt, Russia’s pretty much a petro-state with nukes at this point.

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Russia is so Discounted that Putin Re-Takes the Prez & No One Cares…

Medvedev channels Donald Trump – ‘You’re Fired!’ – and fails



If you haven’t seen this, watch it. Jump to 2:20 for the fireworks. President Medvedev fires his finance minister, on live TV no less. But even more over-the-top, and a super clue to Russia’s parlous state today, is Kudrin’s ‘you’re not in command’ response. Even after Medvedev lectures him about the constitution and governing in accord with it, Kudrin replies that he won’t resign until the prime minister (Putin) tells him to. Hah! In the clash of Russian bureaucratic machismo, the head of state loses! That had me laughing even more than Medvedev’s preening about Russia’s commitment to democratic rule and the constitution, as well as his control-freak, Al Haig ‘I’m in charge here,’ firing of a minister on TV. Those three things together in just 3 minutes make US tea party-driven political dysfunction look normal. If we’re in decline, at least the Russians are declining faster.

This vid is pretty much ‘smoking gun’ evidence that the real power in Russia is Putin, and that its ‘institutions’ are a joke. Medvedev took a huge chance axing a finance minister (normally one of the most important positions in a cabinet) in such a public venue. It all but invited pushback if Medvedev is just a figurehead.(Maybe that’s why Medvedev did it; just to see if his suspicions were true.) Kudrin probably figured he had nothing to lose, so why not go to mattresses by invoking the godfather? I imagine Putin was livid when Kudrin let the cat out of the bag so publicly – although actually, maybe Putin just doesn’t give a d— anymore. We all strongly suspected it was a faux-constitutional charade with Medvedev anyway, but this is probably the most public sign from within the government that Putin reigns.

In any reasonably normal presidential system, the cabinet, including the PM, serves at the president’s discretion. If you get fired, you go.  And if you get axed on TV no less, then it’s just about your national duty to immediately say ok and then apologize in shame. Instead Kudrin humiliated Medvedev and revealed to all the sham authority of his faux-presidency. In fact, Medvedev should be so embarrassed that I wonder why he would want to stay on as PM when Putin re-takes the presidency next year. He just looks like a lackey. He could actually be a decent contender for the presidency in a post-Putin Russia if he can avoid the taint. Too bad, because he genuinely seems to want to change Russia for the better.

If this wasn’t enough, did anyone notice how little outrage or even comment followed Putin’s announcement he would ‘run for’ (i.e., assume) the presidency again in 2012? I get a whole bunch of daily news feeds – Foreign Policy, the Council of Foreign Relations, the New York Times, Slate, the Financial Times, etc. – and there was barely a peep from them. No outraged articles claiming that Putin has just proven Russian democracy to be a sham; no op-eds from Russia hands calling him the ‘new czar;’ no retrospective time-lines on the decline of Russian democracy from Yeltsin through today’s rigged kleptocracy. I did like this, but I really didn’t see much else from the usual suspects. Even the Economist, which I think has been (wonderfully) relentless in exposing the fraudulent, sivoliki non-democracy of the Kremlin, didn’t cough up a top-line cover story on its webpage. (Read this and this, for the minimalist, we-all-knew-this-was-coming-so-what’s-the-point-in-covering-it-that-much-anymore Economist coverage.) Like the Economist, the National Interest (which writes a lot and well on Russia, IMO) didn’t even bother with outrage or dirges for Russian democracy; instead it was just corruption-as-usual.

As with Kudrin’s insolent response to his nominal boss, this journalistic silence says a lot actually. We all have such low expectations of Russia now, that this sort of constitutional gimmickry – which would produce global headlines if it happened in a real democracy – is just written off as more of the same. We discount Russia so much, we so expect fatuous nationalist posturing and neoczarism, that no one even bothers to care. Russians should take note of this. The Kremlin is desperate for global attention and status recognition. Yet the clownish ‘bromance’ and secrecy at the top tells everyone its just more buffonery; what investor will take her cash to Russia when even the president can side-step the constitution? Russia is astonishly badly governed. Everyone knows it desperately needs to clean government, a circulation of elites, real elections, and economic diversification. This has just been delayed by another 8 years of strut, posturing, corruption, and foreign policy hijinks.

I say this with some sympathy too. I studied Russian for several years and completed summer language programs there. I had a great time, and Russia clearly has deep human capital resources from a very serious education system. But this is being squandered, and Putin has just guaranteed yet another rough, stagnant, erratic 12 years (!) for Russian consumers and foreign partners. Russia will fall further behind China; Americans will remain hostile; the much-sought visa-free travel for Russians to the EU won’t materialize. Russia’s position in the BRICS will be less and less tenable as Russia emerges more fully as a ‘oil-rentier state with nukes.’ (Helmust Schmidt once famously described the Soviet Union as ‘Upper Volta with missiles.’) This is why I scarcely even write about Russia; there’s just not that much to be said. Too bad.

Turkey’s ‘neo-Ottoman’ Rise (3): Why I am Wrong…

turkish flag

This is the continuation of a Wikistrat (where I consult a bit) game scenario on Turkey’s economic and possibly military rise. Readers are counseled to start with parts one and two.

The following are responses to criticism, mostly that I didn’t flesh out the reasons why Turkey is likely to hold broadly western course:

1. Turkey’s rise unbalances the region more than I admit, and I don’t muster enough evidence.

My sense is that Turkey’s growth is pretty good, but I don’t see any particular reason that it should be labeled stratospheric or ‘neo-Ottoman’ or something like that. By the standards of a dysfunctional region – Greece, Iran, Syria, Egypt – it is great. But compared to the old and new cores, or even other middle powers, it is a middle power. Even compared to tiny Israel, Turkey is probably a generation behind in state-development, the translation of economic power into military capability, functional political parties, trustworthy courts, and the many other attributes of thick, cohesive, functional state-ness. The CIA lists Turkey’s growth in 2008 at 0.7%; 2009 at (negative) -4.7%; and 2010 at 7.3%. The IMF’s numbers are 2010: 7.8%; 2011: 3.6%. I don’t see that as revolutionary, nor justifying big rhetoric. However, if the argument is more limited, that Turkey will play a greater role in the Middle East and central Asia, I agree. The big losers will be Greece (further unbalanced competition), Israel (yet another headache) and Egypt and Iran (lost prestige as potential regional leaders).

Turkey faces tough structural constraints that do not really mark it out from other second-world risers. No talks about major Brazilian or South African shockwaves, so why is Turkey’s fairly standard modernization-developmentalist growth arc that much different? I am open-minded about this. My thinking is hardly set. I guess I am just not convinced yet.

Finally, my sense is that the tectonic plates of international politics move terribly slowly. Hence I note the stability of Turkey’s foreign policy. Really deep shifts take a long time, like East Asia’s rise, so I am not convinced that a decade or so of choppy albeit healthy growth, coupled pushy, semi-Islamist rhetoric is enough.

2. “The demographic growth in Turkey is all in populations less likely to be EU/West friendly, i.e, the eastern, more rural hinterlands. What’s Turkey’s motivation?”

I think the motivation is primarily economic. A significant turn from the West would reduce critical inward foreign direct investment flows and tourism dollars, and damage links that military and business cherish (easier visa rules; access to Wall Street, western universities, and the international financial institutions; etc.). Turkish elites are aware of this. Like most late, second world developers, Turkey needs continued access to old (West) & new (East Asia) Core dollars, markets, and technologies. This is why I originally said ‘neo-Ottoman’ rhetoric might be more justified in 20 years. For a comparison, look at Indonesia or Malaysia. They too have populations that rankle at Western dominance, want more international stature and maneuvering room, and have populist, entrepreneurial, Islamist politicians. But these tendencies have been held in check by the huge economic incentive of continuing, decent relations with OECD states. I see this in Turkey too – hence my list of institutions and relationships Turkey has retained.

Populism may work for electoral reasons, but does Turkey want to become Venezuela? Perhaps the the AKP (Justice and Welfare Party) really wants to push in this direction, but resistance from the revenue-generating (western and westernized) parts of the country would be strong. This is the counter to the eastern demographic growth you mention. Perhaps this is why Huntington referred to Turkey years ago as a ‘torn’ country. I did not think so much about the demographic evolution though. Point taken.

A second motive is national security. If Turkey drifts from the West, to whom will it go – Iran and Syria? If so, it faces balancing and isolation by some combination of Israel, the US and the EU, and possible exclusion from NATO and the WTO. I suppose Russia is a possible patron/ally/friend, but what does Russia gain? The reset is important for Russia, as well as WTO entry, and, most importantly, being perceived as a great power by the West. Siding with a semi-islamized, somewhat unpredictable ‘new Turkey’ might be useful to poke the West in the eye – certainly a Putin proclivity – but how much does it advance Russia’s great power pretension? Not much I think, but I admit this question requires more research. Next, Turkey might reach to Central Asia – hence the neo-Ottoman moniker I think. But again, how much is there to gain? Those regimes are terribly poor, with weak state apparatuses, and repressions that have alienated investors. The cost-benefit analysis of the ‘stans vs the core is quite one-sided IMO.

The best chances for a real turn would be some kind of alignment with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) against the West. This would effectively split the new core, between China and the Asian democratic periphery. In so far as China has propped up some nasty regimes for the last decade or so, a genuinely independent Turkish line that alienated the old core could still find some succor with Sino-Russian assistance. This SCO strategy strikes me as far more viable than reaching out to local ME nasties like Iran or Syria. I will admit that I haven’t thought through this likelihood, but the SCO doesn’t seem so much like a club or alliance, but just a gang united by ‘anti-hegmonism.’ I am not sure if it represents a coherent enough alternative. But this too requires more scenario thinking.

Finally, I would say that my argument flows directly from Barnett’s general core-gap analysis. I believe it fits rather well actually. Late developers’ future is with the core. The gap represents what they are leaving behind, and what they so very often, so desperately don’t want to be perceived as in the eyes of global public opinion – backward, third-world, irrelevant. Maintaining those newly emergent links to the core – its money, trade, professionalism, geopolitical clout, and general seriousness – weighs heavily in the cost-benefit analysis and motivates important domestic actors – youth, business, military – who will resist populism.

BONUS: Here is the Wall Street Journal on ‘neo-Ottomanism,’ including Erdogan’s appalling refusal to support a no fly-zone over Libya.

2011 Asia Predictions (2): Middle East, South Asia, Russia

Russia to the World – Bite me!


For my 2011 East Asia predictions (predictions 1-3), try here.

Last year, I put up 2010 predictions for Asia and Korea. Last week, I evaluated those predictions. This week come my 2011 predictions. It’s a fun exercise, if only to see how bad you blow it 12 months from now…

4. The Middle East peace process will go nowhere.

Why: Ok, this is not a particularly challenging prediction. Yet, we can always hope, but my guess is our hopes will once again be dashed. There are no elections coming up which might open possible policy shifts, and none of the big players seem to be rethinking much. Indeed, everyone seems fairly comfortable with the status quo, the current mix of intransigence and inaction. Particularly the Israelis seem to be fairly comfortable with the drifting-toward-apartheid status quo. And Obama, like so many POTUS before him, seems burned out with trying to resolve this tangle. So I don’t see anything suggesting real movement by anybody. Indeed, I increasing think that the two-state solution is pretty much gone; as Pillar says, wth are the Israelis thinking? So the status quo is pretty much the future: stasis.

5. India will back off on Afghanistan to give some room for US success and less Pakistani paranoia.

Why: This prediction is a little gutsier. If India continues to intervene in Afghanistan to encircle Pakistan, then Pakistan will never properly democratize, nation-build itself, or repress its Islamist-Taliban buddies, because they will remain a tool to use against India and to control Afghanistan after we leave. My sense is that there is growing recognition of this ‘AfPak’ logic. Increasingly it is clear that the Afghan war is irresolvable without some kind of Indo-Pakistan rapprochement. That is not likely and not my prediction, but I do increasingly see the Indians talking as if they are already a great power. If so, then Pakistan isn’t that important anymore. If India is just a regional power, then Pakistan is big trouble. But if India is a great power, then Pakistan is just a sideshow. So if India is growing up as a great power – they got Obama to support a UNSC seat for them last year – then Pakistan is the past. Far more important for India is the relationship with China and America, and Indian moves to encircle Pakistan in Afghanistan ultimately harm the US and aid China (by pushing Pakistan toward China) – exactly the opposite of its preferred outcome if it is a global power. Yes, India wants to reduce and humiliate Pakistan as it has Bangladesh, but I reckon the Indians increasingly see the costs of such pointless ideological satisfactions. India cannot retake Pakistan. Even without Pakistan’s nukes in the way, an Indian reabsorption would be colossal expensive and permanently delegitimize it as a great power. In short, global India has increasingly little to gain by provoking regional Pakistan. Even Kashmir isn’t really worth it: poverty, mountains, and fanatics – why bother? India has already won the Indo-Pak competition, as just about everyone knows. Pakistan is a paranoid faux-democracy riven by militarism, religious fanaticism, and terrorism. India is none of those things, so it can just savor Pakistan’s implosion and move on. Pakistan to India today is less like East Germany to West Germany, and more like Mexico to the US.

6. Russia will stay a Corrupt Mess, and Putin will genuinely reemerge.

Why: For several years now we have all been hoping that Putin might actually recede from the spotlight, that Medvedev might actually become a meaningful figure, that law might slowly push back corruption there, etc. All this was captured by the Obama administration expression ‘the reset.’ By 2011, it is time to admit this is over. The signal moment for me last year was the open farce of the Khodorkovsky trial – rather than the various gas tricks with Eastern Europe, stomping on local NGOs, or journalist murders (awful as all that is) – because ending ‘legal nihilism’ (ie, corruption) was Medvedev’s signal political promise. Well here was the big chance to show that with just a bit of movement on the biggest court case in Russia in a decade, one the world was watching. A little restraint might have convinced people that Medvedev wasn’t wholly a marionette of the old man. Instead, as Ioffe notes, Putin didn’t even both trying to cover up the sham. If I were an investor, I’d dump my rubles today. Putin just gave Wall Street (and the West) the finger. So I predict in 2011, that it will become widely acknowledged that Putin is still the chief, that he will be yet more public in preparation for reassuming the Russian presidency in 2012, that Russo-US cooperation will therefore slide, and that Russia’s political economy will stay a black market nightmare. To be sure, these aren’t exactly gutsy predictions, but it does seem to me that 2010 was an important year regarding the direction of the Putin-Medvedev tag-team, and the year’s events clearly downgraded the latter for all the world to see. We now know that Medvedev is a joke. So in 2011, given the looming presidential election and Putin’s consequent need to reassert himself for it, Medvedev will fade to black.

Japan is an EU Country Trapped in Asia


The Council of Foreign Relations blog, Asia Unbound, is quite good. If you don’t read it, you probably should before you read my stuff. To be sure, CFR is establishment; indeed, it is the very definition of the foreign policy establishment in the US. So it is not exactly the font of challenging new ideas. But still, they are linked into power in way that lonely academic bloggers will never be. And this week’s bit on Japan really got me thinking about how Japan is basically stuck with the American alliance indefinitely, whether they like it or not.

Recall a year ago when the LDP got whipped in the election, that there was lots of talk about how Hatoyama was going to create distance between Japan and the US, how this was a new dawn in the relationship, how the Japanese left would be so much more prickly with the US than the old boys network of the LDP. I was fairly skeptical of this at the time, and I think the recent flap with China over the islands has done a lot to confirm that skepticism.

Japan really has nowhere else to go but the US. It is stuck with us, primarily because it is geographically fixed in a neighborhood where it has no friends. And this opens all sorts of room for the US to push and bully Japan, which leads to regular Japanese outbursts that Japan needs to be independent of the US. (For the most famous, read this.) In fact, Japan is like a post-modern EU country in the wrong place. It should be comfortably ensconced in a post-national intergovernmental framework like the EU, where it could promptly forget about history and defense spending, and worry about how to care for its rapidly aging population – like Germany is morphing into ‘Greater Switzerland.’ But it’s not. Instead, Japan is trapped in modernist-nationalist-historical Asia, surrounded by states that don’t trust it and who want a lot from it that it doesn’t really want to give (historical apologies, imports, engagement, development aid, territorial compromises).

Consider that Japan, like China or Russia, has no friends or allies (save the US), and lots of semi-hostile neighbors:

Russia: Neither side has much interest in the other. There is an island dispute that has blocked normalization for decades. And, of course, Russia has been an erratic partner for just about everyone, not just Japan, since the end of the Cold War. So there is nothing to gain there.

Korea: There is also an island dispute with South Korea, over which even North Korea (!) has supported the SK position. NK kidnapped Japanese citizens in the 70s, and this has remained a permanent fixture in Japanese politics. For the North, Japan is high-up on the hit list; the North has launched missiles over it. Relations with the South are possibly even worse. S Koreans are intensely japanophic. The island dispute (Dokdo) rouses extraordinary passions here. Finally, of course, both Koreas are furious with Japan over its invasion and colonization from 1910-1945 and feel that Japan has never properly apologized.  Given how much S Korea and Japan share – democracy, concern over China’s rise, a US alliance, fear of NK, Confucian-Buddhist culture – they should should be natural allies, but Koreans will tell you with a straight face that Japan wants to invade it again. So forget that.

China: Yet another island dispute plagues the relationship from the start. And like Korea, so does history. The Japanese were even harsher in China than they were in Korea. The Rape of Nanking was brutality on par with the Nazis, and the Japanese used biological warfare against the Chinese as well. As the CFR post linked above notes, anti-Japanese street protests are becoming a regular part of Chinese politics now. A Sino-Japanese reconciliation would require astonishing, Willy Brandt-style statesmanship that the immobilist Japanese political system is wholly incapable of delivering.

Southeast Asia/India: Things get a little easier here, if only because it is further afield. But the ASEAN states too suffered under Japan in WWII, and like China and Korea, don’t feel that Japan has engaged in the appropriate historical reckoning. Only India is a possible serious Asian ally of the future because of mutual concern for China and the lack of historical-territorial problems.

Bonus problem – Economic Decline: As if this unhappy neighborhood weren’t trouble enough, add in Japan’s bizarre economic malaise. When China, Korea and the Soviet Union/Russia were a mess a generation ago, Japan could strut in Asia, but now these competitors are closing the gap while Japan stagnates. That just makes all the frictions that much harder to manage. China is so big, it can afford to miff the neighbors, but Japan no longer has this luxury.

In short, a weakening Japan so infuriates it neighborhood, that the US is all its got left. Given Japan’s paucity of options, the US has lots of room to bully and push Japan. But it must ultimately give in, because it’s position in Asia alone would be terrible – isolated, suspected, friendless. So bad is Japan’s position, that the US could effectively bring down the Hatoyama administration over something as minor as Futenma.

This is not meant to be an endorsement of US wedge politics against Japan. But it should certainly explain why its 20-year old complaint about US dominance has led to nothing, just like Gaulle’s petulant withdrawal from NATO ended in ignominy when the French finally gave up on ‘expectionalism’ and rejoined last year. It’s nice to be two oceans away from the competitions of Eurasia…

The Six-Party Talks as a Game Theoretic ‘Stag-Hunt’ (2): China Likes the Rabbit Too Much


Part one of this post is here.

In the formal language of game theory (GT), here is the pay-off matrix for the hunters (SK, PRC, Japan, Russia, US) if they capture the stag (NK’s better behavior in the region):

1. SK: SK is the most obvious winner from taking the stag because NK is an existential threat to the South – both physically and constitutionally.

2. Japan: Japan is the second big winner, because the NK nuclear and missile program increasingly represent a major physical threat to its cities, and perhaps even an existential threat if the North can put enough nukes on missiles.

3. US: The US is a weaker winner, because it is far less threatened by the North directly. The big pay-off from NK change (the stag) would be the reduction in troops and other expense from keeping USFK in Korea. Another benefit would be the reduction in the post-9/11 concern for proliferation of missile and WMD technology to terrorists and rogue states. But this is still far less critical than SK and Japan’s benefit. To the US, NK is more a troublesome, throwback-from-the-Cold-War headache when it would rather concentrate on salafism and the rise China.

4. Russia: Russia has essentially no stake in Northeast Asian security, given that it has basically retrenched from the region to focus on Central Asia and Eastern Europe. However, the Six Party talks are a prestige-generator for a country desperate to still look like a great power even as its lineaments erode. So Russia doesn’t get much from the stag.

5. China: The PRC’s portion of the stag is the smallest, while its rabbit is the biggest. A more docile NK would almost certainly fall heavily under the influence of its southern twin. The more ‘southernized’ NK becomes, the less sinified it will be. (This of course is the whole point from the Korean perspective – reunification.) And the PRC almost certainly reads greater southern influence in the North as greater American influence. So the Chinese rabbit is the long-term survival of a separate NK state to act as a buffer against the democracy, American influence, liberalism, and Korean nationalism that would all flood into NK were an inter-Korean settlement (the stag) finally struck. (A friend at the Renmin University of Beijing all but says this here, and I generally find Chinese scholars will openly tell you why the PRC props up the DRPK even though the PRC’s official policy is reunification.)

What to do then? How do the other hunters get China to stop defecting and start cooperating? The most obvious way is to equalize the pay-offs more, i.e., make it more valuable for China to coordinate by increasing China’s portion of the stag. Here is where strategic restraint on the Cheonan sinking may be useful. If SK holds its fire over the incident, it may be able to ‘sell’ this restraint to China as a hitherto unrecognized benefit. The SK claim to China would be:

See how small your rabbit really is? NK is so unpredictable, so erratic, so uncontrollable, that the stag is more beneficial than you think. Without a long-term settlement, NK’s erratic behavior could eventually generate a crisis the SK population will no longer choose to overlook. Next time this happens, SK government may be forced by popular outrage into coercive retaliation that could pull everyone in northeast Asia into the vortex.

Recall in early 1991 that Israel demonstrated similar strategic restraint as Saddam Hussein shelled it with Scuds before Desert Storm. This helped convince Saddam’s Arab neighbors that Saddam really was a danger to everyone. SK might be able to do the same here.

However, this is unlikely to be enough. China will probably as for a higher concession – a promise for the removal of USFK after unification. It is not clear to me if a unified Korea would need USFK, so this may be an option to explore.

Russian Imperial Paranoia Update – Putin Thinks He’s Rambo!

















Ah, the entertaining hysteria of Russian imperial decline. A few months ago, it was Stalin battling aliens to save the world. Today, it is another machoismo photo-op by the Pootie-Poot (George W Bush’s nickname for Putin). Now he’s shirtless in Siberia. Cuttin’ brush just like W! I bet the ladies just love this sorta stuff…

I’ve written before about the psychology of resentful post-imperial Russia. Vice-President Biden basically nailed it this summer when he said the Russians were suffering from a severe postimperial “hangover,” and Philip Stevens at the FT gets it right too, that endless, tiresome Russian bitterness has made it friendless. Another FT op-ed basically tells you why 20 years after the USSR, eastern Europeans still want NATO as a bulwark against Russian neo-imperialism.

Old glories die hard – although ‘glory’ hardly defines gray, dingy Soviet imperialism – and in Russia’s case the ‘hangover’ has been more severe than normal because the fall from imperial greatness happened so fast – less than 5 years. This rapid fall followed by a consequently more extreme nationalist reaction characterized Weimar Germany too, so this is pretty worrisome actually. At least Britain had a long time to retrench from empire, so Britain’s public and elites could slowly adjust to its declining power. Even Enoch Powell, who loathed the Americans during WWII for their secret intention to break up the Empire by releasing India, came to advocate no further British commitments east of the Suez.

By contrast no figure in Russian political life speaks this way. It is competitive, macho, one-upsmanship in foreign policy. Bullying and bitterness are the order of the day, and national ideology is Weimar-esque resentment. Even as Russia is depopulating, the strut and overconfidence insecure powers require in IR now dominates Russian foreign policy. This is the route to national suicide, and given how unhelpful Russia has been for 15 years on everything from NK to Chechnya to Iran, I guess we should be ‘happy’ they’re on this kamikaze course. Still, they are one of the great cultures on the planet, having produced Dostoyevsky, Shostakovich and the rest, so it is disturbing and tragic to watch them destroy themselves. Sad…

Theorizing Russian Decline (Reviewing an IR paper for a Journal)

A lot of what we do in IR is peer review of others work. This is a useful exercise and displaying an anonymous one on a blog is a good glimpse into what we do. This paper was written about Russian foreign policy toward Korea. For my collected thoughts on Russia, try here.

“1. The English is excellent. Most of the suggestions I made are stylistic not grammatical. Well done. I recommend however, that you follow my edits before you submit. They will make it easier for anglophone reviewers to read. Also, I think the paper is far too long for most journals. Finally, it is unclear to what kind of journal you want to submit this. It feels like you are aiming for a policy journal like the Far East Economic Review, but it is too long for that.

2. I think the paper lacks a concrete thesis to tie it together. It seemed more like a history of Russian SK foreign policy from Gorby to Putin. You introduced realism and IR theory early in the paper, but they never came back. I didn’t find much theoretical connective tissue between the sections, especially between the presidencies, nor any theoretical wrap-up at the end of the paper. I think you need to tell me a theoretical story that all this data about Russian-Korean interaction can explain. For example, the shift in Russian foreign policy toward SK from ideological opposition to pragmatic realism could illustrate the ‘normalization’ of Russian foreign policy. Most states pursue an interest-based foreign policy, but the USSR allowed ideology to dictate alliance picks. By the mid-80s that was no longer sustainable; the percent of global GDP of the Soviet alliance network was half that of the US network. The USSR was losing the Cold War. So a good IR theory story here is the corrosive effects of great power politics on foreign policy ideology. Or you could tell a story about post-imperial foreign policy. How do former empires or superpowers try to restore their influence , respect, or likeability, especially among wary neighbors? Yeltsin tried to be nice to the neighbors after 75 years of belligerence. Putin decided Yeltsin was a wimp, so he has bullied in Eastern Europe (gas-shut offs, Georgia) and spoiled in East Asia (trouble-making in the 6-party process through an informal tilt toward the North).

3. I think you are far too generous and political in your interpretation of Putin’s behavior. Putin has claimed the collapse of the USSR was the greatest catastrophe of the 20th C and that Russia needs to be a respected ‘player’ again, complete with a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and its ‘near abroad.’ This is why EE and former Soviet republics all want to join NATO. I recommend you look at the mainstream western foreign policy literature, like Foreign Affairs, the Economist, Foreign Policy, International Security, or Security Studies. I think you dramatically underrate the strategic value of Russia’s energy diplomacy, the importance of Kremlin control of Russian energy firms, the wariness of states to become Russian energy clients after Georgia, and NK’s extremely erratic behavior (and so the low likelihood of energy or rail projects involving the DPRK). Finally, you didn’t even mention the Georgian invasion. This was the first move the Russian army outside its established borders since the Afghan invasion in 1979. Then as now, the invasion has shifted western attitudes (which means SK and Japan will reconsider too). Putin looks a lot more like a revisionist with semi-hegemonic Russian nationalist aspirations in EE and Central Asia, than a pragmatist looking for investment. How much has the Russian stock market dropped since Georgia?

4. I think your evidence of Putin’s SK diplomacy is weak. Most of the projects in energy and rail you discuss are speculative, not actual, nor do you calculate the impact of the Georgian war on SK’s likelihood to proceed, nor do you account for NK’s behavior on any trans-Korean projects. Also, you don’t provide SK FDI data for the Far East region, which is purportedly the reason that Russia is reaching out to SK. Is there a huge boom of SK investment in Vladivostok or Sakhalin? I don’t believe so. SK-Russian air traffic does not reflect a huge investment boom. My understanding is that most of the investment in Russia’s maritime provinces has been under western oil company and World Bank auspices. The Russian-SK space cooperation is nice, but hardly crucial. Worse, Russian visits to NK have propped up the regime’s international profile, probably making it harder to push for a final status deal with the North. This is not mediating tension, but enabling bad behavior. Russia helped block further UN sanction after the recent missile launch. That is not mediating either, but spoiling. Informal tolerance of NK by Russia (and China) helps NK wriggle free from the punishment of UNSC sanctions, cheat on agreements like the Kaesong deal (now NK wants to change the land rents), etc. Unless the other 5 parties to the 6 party talks close ranks, NK will continue to play one off the other for a better deal. Putin is doing this for the obvious reason that he wants to make life hard for the US, which he sees as a hegemon intent on blocking Russian aspirations. So clouding the issue in Korea is useful way to needle the US and keep it off balance. I don’t believe Putin cares one bit about K unification. The DPRK is a wedge against the US, and SK is a hoped-for investor.”

Remember the Russians on D-Day

Every five years, D-Day celebrations unnerve me a bit. The heroism and gallantry are unquestioned, but the historical significance for the course of WWII and scale of sacrifice are always exaggerated. I feel like we overcelebreate this war, because we are somewhat uncomfortable with the morality of so many others we have fought – not just Vietnam of course, but the Indian Wars, the Spanish-American War, or Iraq 2. Indeed I bet Americans know more about Hitler than George III. For a good examination, try here. Consider also:

1. The staggering size of the Eastern Front is too often overlooked by Americans. Estimates vary, but somewhere around 20 million Soviet citizens died fighting (or otherwise being butchered by) the Nazis. That is about 14% of the Soviet population of the time. By contrast about 200 thousand Americans died in Europe, about .15% of the US population at the time. That means 100 times as many Soviets died fighting the Nazis as Americans. Something like 70 thousand Soviet villages were torched or otherwise eradicated as the Nazis conquered around 20% of the Soviet land mass. Consider that in a one month battle at Kiev in 1941, over 600,000 Soviet soldiers were killed or captured; had anything like this happened to American ground forces in North Africa or Western Europe, the domestic cry for a separate peace would have been irresistible. Conflict on a such as scale hadn’t been seen since the high days of the Golden Horde, and the US was a late and minor participant. It dwarfs even the one US experience of massive combat on US territory – the civil war.

2. The USSR had essentially stopped the Nazi drive by the fall of 1943. Stalingrad, the turning point, was over by February of 1943 (as was El Alamein, a British victory, in late 1942). The last major German offensive around Kursk in the summer of 1943 was halted. The enormous Soviet offensive of 1944 dwarfed anything the Western allies could put on the continent that same year. This event would have proceeded without the Allied invasion. To be sure, an unknown counterfactual is how the USSR would have fared if the Wehrmacht had not been forced to prepare for a western landing. Furthermore, allied bombing obviously took its toll. But nonetheless, the FDR administration was quite content to allow the Nazi and Soviet totalitarians to exhaust each other.

3. The anglophone leadership (Canada, Britain and the US) realized by 1943, that this war, as Stalin famously said, was unlike any other in that the victor’s political ideology would imposed as far as his tanks could get. Patton knew this, which is why he wanted to drive on Berlin in 1945 and agitated to provoke a postwar conflict with the USSR while it was still exhausted. Hence, the allies waited to land. Stalin wanted a second front as early as 1942, but the English-speaking powers were content to play off-shore balancer – allowing the USSR to exhaust itself (so its postwar power would be that much weaker) and the Nazis to exhaust themselves too (so that the eventual Allied landing and eastward push would be that much easier).

This was excellent strategy. It husbanded Allied resources and allowed to two potential opponents to weaken each other. Churchill, Ike, Bradley and others were under no illusions about the brutality of Soviet governance and were willing to allow the Nazis to bleed the Soviets white. It also kept American casualties low, insuring a continued US domestic consensus to stay in the war. But this intelligent realpolitik clashes badly with the moral imperative of fighting fascism and the overtly moral way we celebrate US involvement against the Nazis. Watch Band of Brothers or Saving Private Ryan, and contrast that with the strategic logic of waiting to land until mid-1944 so that the western land war war would be easier and Stalin wouldn’t be able to march to the Atlantic.

4. I didn’t really realize this much until I went to Russia to learn the language and travelled around. The legacy of the ‘Great Patriotic War’ is everywhere. Everyone lost someone, and frequently in brutal circumstances Americans can’t imagine. Every Russian guide you get will tell you how Americans don’t know much about war, because we were never invaded, occupied, and exterminated. The first time I heard that, I just didn’t know what to say. You can only listen in silent horror as the guides tell you about how the SS massacred everyone with more than a grammar school degree in some village you never heard of before, or how tens of thousands of those Kiev PoWs starved or froze to death because the Wehrmacht was unprepared for such numbers and the Nazi leadership just didn’t care. Just because Stalin was awful, that does not mitigate the enormity of Soviet suffering or their contribution. Remember that the next time you hear about how America saved Europe from itself, or watch some movie lionizing the average GI, or play a video game depicting the relatively minor Battle of the Bulge as a turning point. If Speilberg really wants to make a great WWII epic, how about one about the eastern front?

“Paris would not support Tibetan independence,” or the Importance of Self-Importance in IR

Pity Sarkozy. He leads a former great power slowly sliding into second tier status. France is stuck with: a small population, normal economy (ie, ok, but not drawing any particular positive excitement or attention), seemingly immovably high unemployment for an OECD country, a seemingly permanent domestic ‘social fracture’ of reinforcing race and class cleavages which damage France’s reputation, a tepid, inward-looking Germany that simultaneously outweighs and burdens it, a constant struggle with Amero-philic Britain and Eastern Europe, and the long shadow of the French military’s dismal record in the last 100 years. In short, outside of Europe and its near periphery, why would anyone give a d— what Sarkozy thinks?

As I was reading about Sarkozy’s embarrassing effort to get China to pretend it cares what he thinks about Tibet, it made me think about how frustrating it must be for former great powers to live with their declining relevance. Someone really needs to write this dissertation, because you could argue that French foreign policy since WWII or Russia’s since the Cold War has been primarily focused on trying to get others to take them seriously – to listen to them and accord them ‘weight’ as a ‘player.’ National glory, or rather its recognition by others, not national interest is the foremost driver of these resentful former great powers’ foreign policy. The psychology here is fascinating, because the deep aching for peer recognition, for ‘respect,’ is so obvious. I recall reading some article about how Spain, another middle power with a burden of past imperial greatness, was so desperate to get invited to the G-20 – to make the global top 20 cut – that Zapatero actually begged G Brown for an invitation.

I am trying to imagine Hu Jintao wondering why he is even listening to the French at all on East Asian questions. Who gives a hoot out here what the EU or its member states think? Honestly, no one.

It seems to me there are at least 2 good strategies to make others think you matter when you really don’t.

1. French: Bluff.

Act like you still matter and maybe you will. DeGaulle, Chirac, and Sarkozy were masters of this. Act with all the obnoxious swagger of a viceroy of New Spain or the British Raj. Go to general conferences, but have side conferences with others and make ostentatiously sure that the non-invited know you are having a meeting and they weren’t invited. Give press conferences talking about ‘core players’, ‘contact groups,’ ‘main actors,’ ‘critical relationships,’ etc. Obscure worsening power balances behind a cloud of pop-IR jargon about ‘new structures,’ ‘changing regional orders,’ ‘a revised international architecture,’ ‘dynamic forces of globalization,’ etc. When desperate, pull a Chirac and just tell rising powers to shut up.

2. Russia: Make as Much Trouble as You Can.

Crises you help keep boiling will always ensure your ‘relevance.’ Putin is a master at this. Putin’s goal is restoration not growth. Once Gorby and Yeltsin became collaborative, Russia’s ‘relevance’ declined, even as its ‘normality’ rose – a rich irony. Russian cooperation helped make Eastern Europe a happier, freer place, isolate the DPRK, tame Saddam, open Central Asia to gas export and growth, pacify the Balkans. But this Russian good behavior threatened to make Russia into something like Germany, France or Japan – a power of moderate strength with a limited ‘greatness,’ generally cooperating in liberal-minded efforts led by the US. This is what Russia should be for awhile, and it’s not so bad to be normal.

Ironically, such cooperation is in Russia’s national interest, traditionally defined. A wealthier, unified Korea might trade more with Russia (especially its backward Far East), as E Europe now can. A quieter Middle East would certainly relieve secessionist fears in Russia’s Muslim fringe. A nuclear-armed Iran is hardly in Russia’s interest, nor is a bizarre, erratic DPRK.

However, by stirring up trouble, obfuscating issues, and obstructing progress and breakthroughs, Russia maintains its importance.If Korea or Iran were solved, everyone else would promptly forget about Russian opinion. That is ultimately the great fear of the Kremlin. Russia doesn’t care a shred for about Korean unification or the Shiite awakening. Rather, as long as these issues remain unresolved, Russians will get invited to important conferences, can posture in front of TV cameras at the UN, issue foreign policy statements about Russia’s importance that will get western attention, etc. Take the Balkan example of the 1990s. Russia had no national interest at stake in the Balkan wars. There was no critical national resource or long-standing Russian interest. Nothing was going to return the Serbs, much less the other Yugoslav ethnic groups to a Russian sphere of influence. (They’d left under Tito long ago.) Russian backing of Serbia was solely to defend Russian relevance for its own sake. Orthodoxy was not the issue, but Russia’s right to be called up – to have the ‘red phone’ on its desk ring too – when the big boys work out problems. As long as the Balkans was a mess and Russia had influence with some of the actors, then the west worried about Russian opinion.

In IR we usually worry about managing rising powers. How do we integrate China, perhaps later, India and Brazil, into global rules? But the converse is pretty interesting too. How do former imperial or great powers learn to live with their diminished importance? Germany and Japan required cataclysmic defeats and humiliation to become good global citizens living within their means. But not even the full awfulness of Stalinism seems to have convinced Russia that the rest of the world would like it to play a less obstructive, tedious role.

Russian Paranoia Update: Stalin Saved the Earth from Alien Invasion


This video takes the cake for sheer goofiness and bizarreness as a cultural marker of Russia’s decline from superpowerdom to paranoia and dysfunction. Sure American videogames have used the USSR in similarly ridiculous ways (especially the uber-campy Red Alert series), but Russia is a far more controlled society than the US. It seems reasonable to assume that video games, as media, are informally censored along with the serious press. So why not make a video game lionizing Stalin!

Just make sure you watch the trailer. Watching Stalin dance to vanilla techno will be the surreal moment of your day. Enjoy!

Medvedev & Russia’s Hankering to be a ‘Player’

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev wrote an op-ed in yesterday’s WaPo on the so-called reset on relations with Russia. It wasn’t ground-breaking but at least he tried. As best I can remember, Putin never even bothered to try to solicit western opinion with something like this.

Most of it is boilerplate, but a few remarks stood out.

1. Medvedev is, rightfully, worried about American treaty behavior. Thank W for this unhelpful legacy. One quick and easy change Obama could make would be to firm up the US general commitment to abide by its treaty obligations and to generally look to make such deals where they work in the national interest and accord with our values. Differently put, the Constitution requires that treaty obligations supercede US law. Everyone knows this. So let’s get back to honoring the required commitments already. Further, there are a number of easy treaties to clinch with the Russians, especially on conventional forces in Europe and nukes. Let’s get to it already.

2. The op-ed smacks of a hankering for the US to take Russia seriously. Perhaps the most important line in the piece was the oblique reference to lost status by invoking concern for ‘all influential players’ to help on Afghanistan. Like France, Russia seems obsessed with lost ‘relevance.’ The importance of prestige and stature is know in IR theory, but not as well researched as it probably should be. (Maybe because it seems more about psychology than interest.) It is tough to be a power in decline, or otherwise demoted from great to middle power status. It must be humiliating to hope that the US, China, India, the EU, and other states we look to for the future of the global economy, increasingly ignore Russian opinion, unless the Russians make a fuss. So hijinks like the Georgian war, gas-shut-offs, and nose-tweaking on Iran steal the stage from more constructive Russia foreign policy needs – like peace with its Muslim periphery,  WTO membership and more FDI, export markets beyond oil and weapons, etc. Like the Soviet Union, Russia would rather be poor and relevant than rich and normalized. Korea is a good contrast. Koreans for the most part seem to realize that, even after unification, they will never be more than a middle power, and they have made their peace with that. China too seems to realize that being ‘a player’ means growth, prosperity, some seriousness in foreign policy (although the Chinese are likely to free-ride as long as they can – see below), etc. But Medvedev made sure to include a pointless reference to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization – a club of dictators like the old OAU – to suggest Russian weight on Afghanistan. There is a dark irony in the loser of the last Afghan war counseling others how to win there. And he must know that no one in the US really cares much about or thinks much of the SCO. Even the Chinese hardly mention it. And for good measure, he threw in remarks about a new reserve currency and the even stranger “diplomatic support provided by Russia to the United States at critical points of America’s development.” I must say I haven’t the slightest clue what that means. Did some czar once say something nice about the US, or does he mean the turnover of Alaska?

3. The flap over the Chinese interest in another reserve currency is echoed here. Medvedev even talks about regional reserve currencies. But again, who takes this seriously from Russians? The ruble is far too unstable to play such a role, even regionally. It is not counted in the SDR basket, and Russia is a partially dollarized economy anyway. When they Chinese say such things, people will listen, but the Russians? And, by the way, what is a regional reserve currency anyway? The whole idea of a reserve currency is its role as a shadow global currency. Regional reserve currencies would be nearly impossible in a thickening global economy. Inevitably, global trade would push toward one standard. So serious regional currencies really would mean regionalization of the global economy. Maybe that is a route to the multipolarity the French and Russians seem to want to so much.

Recommendation: Missile defense is a white-elephant that doesn’t work. Trade it for something we need – help with Iran would best. But on a lot of the rest of the portfolio, the Russians want to play old-style great power politics that Obama should eschew. Eastern Europe and the former Soviet states are desperate for western interest and protection against Russian neo-imperialism. It would be a great shame if the west sold out Ukraine over gas contracts, and there will be blowback when eventually those areas claw their way out from under Russian power.

Prediction: The re-set will go nowhere. The Russians will overplay their hand by pushing the US all over EEurope and the Middle East – human rights, Ukraine, Iran, Georgia. Call it a redux of Kruschev’s contempt for Kennedy. Obama will get annoyed and push-back. US-Russian relations will return to the stalemate of the Bush years. And this is not such a bad thing actually. The Putin regime in charge has made it pretty clear they aren’t interested in liberalism and democracy, so right now there isn’t to much middle ground that doesn’t seriously compromise western values.