Non-Aggression in a Nuclear Era

Cato’s Director of Foreign Policy says diplomacy and trade remain the most libertarian options for dealing with rogue states

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“I don’t get no respect.” — Rodney Dangerfield

If we trust the media, the world seems to be constantly on the brink of nuclear destruction. Since World War II, global powers have escalated the arms race to the point “Mutually Assured Destruction,” in which it would be suicidal madness for any country to initiate a nuclear attack. Some say that this logical conclusion of nuclear war has held major conflicts at bay, but the world may be getting more dangerous as nations with less to lose unlock the technology to annihilate whole cities with a single bomb.

Hawkish conservatives love to talk about “getting tough” with countries like North Korea and Iran, whose nuclear programs threaten global stability. But while it’s tempting to toughen economic sanctions or plot a pre-emptive strike to enact favorable “regime change,” this strategy does not work according to John Glaser, the Cato Institute’s associate director of foreign policy. Glaser joined the show on June 24 to break down the latest in the summits and negotiations with North Korea, and to provide some foundations for a more libertarian foreign policy in the current climate.

John Glaser is particularly focused on grand strategy and the role of prestige motivations in international politics. To read between the lines of the recent summit, he notes that we have to consider what motivates foreign dictators, and how best to defuse their feelings of insecurity. After all, they are humans with the same desire for status and respect as any of us.

Glaser’s calm and measured tone in recent TV and radio interviews has mirrored his advice to U.S. leaders and diplomats. First, he says, we have to look at historical patterns. What drives North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and aggression towards the U.S.? The evidence suggests that they mainly seek a deterrent to U.S. invasion. Given our track record in Libya and Iraq — breaking promises and toppling dictators — it’s no wonder that Kim Jong-Un seeks a stronger defense to prevent his own demise.

Second, we have to see how signals of respect — even if undeserved — may be the only way to get North Korea to make concessions in areas of human rights and nuclear de-armament. As the geniuses behind the “Bad Lip Reading” videos show, these meetings are less about specific negotiation points as they are about the surrounding theater, and the optics of a U.S. President meeting the North Korean ruler for the first time.

Despite the spin from both parties, the recent summit was neither a vindication of Trump’s tough-talk from a few months ago (as Republicans claim), nor was it a mistake. Glaser believes that the negotiations were a step in the right direction — a move towards removing some sanctions and giving North Korea some of the respect it craves on the international stage. However, he gives most of the credit to South Korean President Moon Jae-in for providing the assurances to Kim that primed him to attend the meeting.

Speaking on Fox News recently, Glaser noted that this kind of negotiation is exactly what North Korea has always wanted. President Trump hinted at reducing the join military exercises by the U.S. and South Korea, and North Korea has offered to remove long-range artillery from the border with South Korea. It’s almost as if a less aggressive stance towards countries like North Korea causes them to reciprocate and tone down their aggression.

While these are positive signs, the real progress will come in the months and years ahead, as diplomats work out the details behind closed doors. Will Trump and Kim be able to put their egos aside to continue down the path of reconciliation? Listen or read the transcripts below to find out.

Read the Transcript

North Korea and the U.S.: How We Got Here

Bob Zadek: Hello everyone. Welcome to the Bob Zadek Show, the longest running live libertarian talk radio show on all of radio. Thanks so much for listening this Sunday morning.

Day after day, the news has been talking about the relationship, which is perhaps changing, between the United States and North Korea. I got to wondering, “how in the world did we get here?” We have this country, North Korea, which is very far away and which is a rather small, economically insignificant country, which to my knowledge has never threatened the United States except quite recently.

North Korea has not declared war on us. We haven’t declared war on them. There is no ISIS. So I started to wonder, how did we get here? How did this country of all countries become so worthy of our attention?

What is going on, and how is President Donald Trump handling it? This will not be a critique of Donald Trump per se — that perhaps is for another day. But, as a country, how are we handling this relationship, and most importantly, how did we get here?

I always assumed North Korea was an enemy and they were going to bomb the heck out of us one day with their nuclear weapons, and therefore they were a threat. That was as much as I could recall.

To answer these questions for me, I’m happy to welcome back to the show John Glaser. John is the director of foreign policy studies at Cato, the premiere free market think-tank (and I underline premiere) in the United States, if not worldwide. John’s research interests include grand strategy and base positioning. John discussed foreign bases on our show last time. John also specializes in U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, the rise of China, and international studies in general. He knows all there is to know about the relationship between North Korea and the United States. So John, thank you so much for giving us some time this Sunday morning and welcome back to the show.

John Glaser: It’s my pleasure to be back. I really love coming on this show.

Bob Zadek: Now John, North Korea is a very far-away country that only recently, perhaps, has started to become publicly bombastic towards us, and has started boasting about its nuclear arsenal. That was the sort of rhetoric to the general public. Give us a brief history of the relationship between the United States and North Korea. Let us start with the very creation of North Korea after the end of World War II, as the United States and Russia divided up the spoils of victory against Japan and Germany.

John Glaser: That’s right. If you go back to the end of World War II, the U.S. and the Soviet Union sort of divied up occupation zones following the collapse of the Japanese imperial presence on the Korean Peninsula and the Soviet Union had the North and we had the South. In 1950, the communists…

Bob Zadek: Let me just interrupt you for a second. You said, as I recall, the Soviet Union got the north and we got the south. That kind of sounds like what the European countries were doing in Africa. You get the Sudan and we get Nigeria, and you get this and we get that. Of course the Koreans didn’t have very much to say about it. Before this there was only one country — the Korean peninsula — and it was only artificially divided up after the spoils of war. That strikes me as being pretty offensive and contrary to our value systems. And I wanted to just mention it because I didn’t want the audience to lose track of that very important starting point.

John Glaser: It is important, and you are right that it does bear some resemblance to past eras where there were imperial chess boards on the map and the dividing up of occupation zones between powers. As the victors in World War II, the Soviet Union and the United States did start to divvy up occupation. They drew an arbitrary line on the peninsula, the 38th parallel, where north of that would be under the domain of the Soviet Union and south of it would be under the domain of the United States. We both had a military presence there. There was some talk about giving these countries independence and letting them pursue their own interests. But nevertheless, they were still under our domain.

In 1950, the communist regime in North Korea — again backed by both China and the Soviet Union — attempted to forcibly reunite the peninsula. But before this, between the years of say 1948 and 1950, several top generals in the United States and national security advisors in the Truman administration said that we should withdraw from South Korea. They said that it was not that strategically significant and that we needed to focus on Europe. But when the war broke out, when the North started started to try to forcibly reunite the peninsula, the Truman administration decided that our credibility was at stake. There was an increasing conviction that we had to stand up to enemies everywhere. This notion was intensified by the Cold War and the developing “containment” policy against the Soviet Union.

Anyways, the United States and its allies intervened on South Korea’s behalf. They got UN Security Council approval — in part because the Soviet Union was at the time boycotting the Security Council. However, the Truman administration actually never got permission from Congress. Our involvement in the war never received the authorization from Congress as the constitution demands. It was what is called the “policing action,” and China, and to a lesser extent the Soviet Union,were on the Northern side of that conflict.

It was really nasty war. More than a million people died and tens of thousands of US soldiers lost their lives there. It was a brutal thing. And in the meantime, during the Cold War, the U.S. and the South Koreans had an alliance. It was a dictatorship until the mid- to late-eighties, when South Korea started to democratize. And now, in recent years, it has been an alliance that I have been critical of. South Korea is a rich and powerful nation that should handle its own defense, at least on the conventional side. It has twice the population of North Korea and economy it is 45 times the size of North Korea. It has a vast technological edge. There is a real question about why we are still meddling and entangled in a far-off dispute that is almost 70 years old and remote from our core interests.

Bob Zadek: You mentioned several times in that narrative the Korean War. I just want to emphasize a little bit that it was not a war. In fact, war, as you pointed out, was never declared. The Security Council was frozen because Russia had a veto. It was labeled by politicians a “police action,” so it was not a war, and therefore, did not require a declaration of war by Congress.

Does that sound familiar to anybody today? An undeclared war — a war undeclared by Congress yet bloody — and we had the loss of American fortune and lives. So we had this police action, not a war and we were fighting a war without a real purpose. What were we doing there to begin with?

And lastly, remember what John said a second ago, the North invaded the South for the purpose of reunification. Now one can say to oneself, “What’s wrong with a country that was split in half against its will by other countries wanting to undo that split and reunite and reunify?” Putting aside the fact of what the resulting government would be like, since that is a different issue, but on the core issue of reunification, it seems to me, John, that the North was on the right track. Why not try to reunify your country? You didn’t participate in the splitting in half, so what is wrong with trying to undo the damage? Forgetting that they were encouraged and supported by the Soviet Union, our arch-cold war enemy, and by China — another arch-cold war enemy — the principle seems to me to be okay with us.

John Glaser: That is a perfectly solid argument. I mean, there was no threat emanating from the Korean Peninsula in terms of our physical security or our economic well-being, and as a libertarian that is the baseline for what you need to demonstrate in order to justify the use of military force abroad. On the other hand, in the context of the time, the justification was that we could not give a win to the communists. If the whole Korean Peninsula falls to communists, then maybe Japan will be next, and maybe the rest of Asia will fall to communism.

So there was this idea in that in those years that we needed to try to contain the Soviet Union’s expansion and we needed to try to contain the influence of communist regimes everywhere, even in parts of the world that are not terribly important to us strategically. And so that was part of the ideological engine behind us getting involved.

Bob Zadek: The world would be such a safer place if the game of dominos hadn’t been invented.

John Glaser: I was going to say that actually presents us exactly what with we are dealing with now, because these problems continued to manifest. Our relationship with South Korea over the decades has been very close. As this containment strategy moved along, we started making the North Korean problem worse and worse. North Korea has a lot of anger leftover from the conflict. In fact, they built this ideology against the United States because we intervened and we were the sole superpower in the world and allied with their sworn enemy — who, by the way, they are technically still at war with or belligerent with, because they only signed an armistice and not a peace treaty. Our military presence is in South Korea and we are constantly engaging in provocative military exercises along their borders, there is talk with some frequency in Washington DC about regime change, etc.

So, we have been impacting the Kim regimes incentive structure all these years. The lesson that Pyongyang takes from all of this, particularly in regards to the Iraq War and Libya, is that rogue regimes that don’t have a nuclear deterrent get overthrown by the United States. And so we really pushed them and incentivized them to proliferate nuclear weapons, and that brings us to the problem that we are in today.

Bob Zadek: They were looking at Gaddafi in Libya, which was a very belligerent country that was moving towards nuclear power. Gaddafi agreed to get rid of any nuclear visions that he might have had so we would not take him down. Now he is dead. Libya is taken over. So, the lesson to third world countries who feel threatened by the US, which is probably justified, is that denuclearization is a path to ruination. So that is the clear lesson in the world at this point.

John Glaser: That is exactly right. You know, they started their nuclear weapons program prior to the Obama Administration’s 2014 intervention into Libya, but they really didn’t start it in earnest until after the Bush administration’s war in Iraq, which signaled to them that they really needed to get nuclear weapons. However, if you go back even further during the nineties and the Clinton administration, it is an interesting case study and informs what is going on now with the Trump administration’s negotiations. So in the 1994 agreed framework that was reached by the Clinton administration in Korea, they engaged in diplomacy. On our side, we promised sanctions relief and a security guarantee, and from their side the North Koreans said they would stop developing a plutonium path to the bomb and would dismantle their reactors. In this agreement we said that while they dismantled their reactors we would give them fuel and light water reactors that they can continue to use for civilian power and not nuclear weapons.

However, we really didn’t follow through with our commitments on that agreement. We gave them the fuel very, very late, and it turned out to be a bad quality that rusted their infrastructure and they thought this was deliberate sabotage. We never ended up giving them the light water reactors we promised. The sanctions release occurred about six years later from when we said we would do them. So this created a real souring of the relationship which in 1994 had a lot of potential. Towards the end of the 90s and the early 2000s, North Korea started building up its uranium production, which is kind of a violation of the spirit but not the letter of the 1994 framework. And so things just fell apart.

Bob Zadek: The reason we didn’t follow through on the negotiated and agreed framework was that Clinton didn’t have adequate control of Congress, and Congress refused to appropriate the funds necessary to do it. So, the Clinton administration negotiated in good faith, but because of our structure of government, he couldn’t follow through. I think that’s a fair summary, isn’t it?

John Glaser: Yes. The Republicans were in power in Congress and they criticized the Clinton administration for rewarding bad behavior from Pyongyang by meeting with them and doing diplomacy with them. It’s kind of the inverse of the political dynamics that we are watching today, where that is what the Democrats are saying and the Republicans are saying that we can trust Kim Jong Un now. It is funny how the parties just flip flop on themselves like that repeatedly over the decades.

But you are absolutely right. The Republicans slow-walked ther fulfillment of the agreed framework, they disagreed with Clinton administration’s outreach, they didn’t provide the funds, there were all kinds of efficiency problems with getting light water reactors there, so it just turned into a mess. And when the Bush administration got in power it immediately started to take a harder line against North Korea that led them to pull out of the nonproliferation agreements, which led them to eventually abandon the 1994 agreed framework altogether, as did the Bush administration. And so that just fell apart. And it was about three years after the Bush administration invaded Iraq that the North Koreans tested their first nuclear weapon. So, this has a history in the post-cold war era of constant screw-ups that actually incentivized North Korea to obtain nuclear weapons as opposed to the opposite.

Bob Zadek: What is important is that from the outset, at each stage at this story you have told us so far, I think it’s fair to say, although somewhat of a generalization, that as far as it goes, that there have been diplomatic failures after diplomatic failures after on the part of the U.S. There have been foreign policy mistakes and bad acting by the United States, much more so than North Korea, which simply responds in a way so it can survive, which is quite rational. It was the United States throughout this story which was unpredictable and North Korea’s behavior was, as a reaction, quite predictable. Even when North Korea started to build its nuclear arsenal, it did so because North Korea correctly appreciated the fact that they were toast without a nuclear arsenal. They were totally vulnerable. They had the enemy right across the DMZ, staring at them, supported by the U.S., and their only hope for survival was nuclear weapons.

Never did they have nuclear weapons because they planned on landing troops on Manhattan. They did so for their survival. So, notice the story that John is telling us. North Korea is behaving predictably and rationally and we are behaving unpredictably and irrationally.

John Glaser: I think that is perfectly right. There is this caricature that we see in the media, in headlines and in the newspaper, of a kind of cartoonish image of every leader of North Korea. They have goofy smiles and funny haircuts and they act kind of mercurial, and they are consumed with simple brutality for its own sake, and they don’t have any rational self-interest that drives them, and so on, but that is clearly wrong. They have proven themselves to be rather shrewd in the way that they have built up their nuclear deterrent in order to prevent any kind of U.S. action against them and pursue their interests and they are showing this now. I think that this cartoonish image is starting to fade because of the greater prominence of Kim Jong Un in our national media following Trump’s summit.

Bob Zadek: I had a very painful mind association when I saw, as you said, the cartoon-like depiction of North Korea. I thought back to when we started excluding the Chinese in the Chinese Exclusion Act when we criminalized opium in 1913. The caricature of the Chinese was almost the same. We depicted people who had physical differences from us in a way that was almost subhuman. And it was when I recognized that parallel in my brain, it was painful — dare I say racist — it all is. Just because they look differently, and, as you said, just because they have a goofy hairstyle, we make them subhuman and irrational. It was painful to me to reach the realization that this exists in a country that I love.

John Glaser: They are an “other” to which we can point and ridicule and be fearful of. And the fear is important here because I think the political class and the foreign policy community in Washington DC has a tendency to inflate threats. So the depiction is that not only is this guy mercurial and irrational, brutal, and willing to commit national suicide by using a nuclear weapon, etc. But they inflate the threat of nuclear weapons in general. The reality is the scholarship doesn’t really demonstrate that. Scholarship shows in the field of international relations and academia that states that possess nuclear weapons don’t get any utility out of them beyond the deterrent value. They are just big dumb bombs that can prevent another country from attacking you. They don’t give any offensive capability or added coercive leverage in negotiations, and they don’t cause countries to more frequently used their military forces in a lower level and this kind of thing. It is just not true that we need to fear a North Korea with a nuclear deterrent in a way that is more intense if we were to just back away, contain it as a nuclear power and mind our own business.

Bob Zadek: It seems to me that this is almost a “do it yourself nuclear enemy.” The United States, through a series of diplomatic, political and military errors, created a nuclear enemy from scratch. Had we not made so many mistakes, North Korea would probably simply be another country in the world, maybe with a different political system, maybe not — who knows. They would not have nuclear weapons and they would not be what appears to be — and you have explained they probably are not — but what appears to be a threat. So we built our own nuclear enemy from scratch. Is that a fair summary?

John Glaser: I’m fine with that.

Where We Are Now: Trump’s Approach

Bob Zadek: So now we have North Korea, which has built a nuclear arsenal. Everybody would agree they have one or are close to having one. They have done so because they have rationally and accurately determined that without a nuclear arsenal as a deterrent, they are simply too vulnerable. The biggest, most powerful country on the world has a military presence right across the street in South Korea. So the only way they see themselves as surviving is with the powerful bargaining chip of a nuclear arsenal. That is where we are at the present. Now, in comes the Trump administration to try to solve the Korean problem, a problem which we built from scratch. How are we doing and what is the status of the negotiations now?

John Glaser: That is a good question. So much has happened to overturn conventional wisdom in the past several weeks that we kind of forget what the background to the Trump administration’s approach was. So, the Trump administration came in with very harsh rhetoric towards North Korea. A policy of what is called “maximum pressure,” involving harsher economic sanctions to try and squeeze Pyongyang — plus rhetorical threats, including over Twitter. You know, Trump was saying “my nuclear button is bigger than yours,” and was threatening nuclear holocaust across Twitter and social media. So there was this appearance of preparation for war. Potentially, preventive war — going to war against someone in another country that does not present a clear threat to you — which is the worst kind of war and is a war crime under international law. This is obviously problematic.

John Glaser: But there was talk of the Trump administration not needing Congress’s authority or permission to go to war with North Korea. There were talks of the administration and White House requesting war plans and contingency options from the Department of Defense, which actually, the Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, slow-walked to the White House. He created a process where it would go very slowly so that they wouldn’t get those war options too early. And that emphasizes what the Pentagon definitely knows, because it does war games on the Korean Peninsula all the time. It knows how bad a war between North Korea and and the United States would be. It would be, as Mattis says, the worst kind of fighting since World War II. North Korea has thousands of artillery along the demilitarized, within the shooting range of the capital of South Korea, Seoul. We’re talking about hundreds and thousands of people dead within the first few days of conflict, and that is if it does not go nuclear, which it inevitably would.

So, the approach that Trump had, of maximum pressure and threats and preparing for military options was extremely risky. However, what the Trump administration said was that this led to North Korea’s offer to meet with us, and led them to want to capitulate and surrender on this central issue of nuclear weapons. I have been trying to push back hard against that because it tends to crowd out other crucial factors that are equally relevant. It was only recently that North Korea developed its nuclear deterrent and its ballistic missiles and delivery systems into a viable deterrent in a way that gave them bargaining leverage. It gave them more confidence to sit at the table with the United States because it now has the ultimate deterrent in the nuclear weapon that is viable and can be shot across long distances.

The Trump administration deserves credit for at least saying “yes” to the North Koreans’ offer to meet, but it wasn’t unprecedented, because they had offered to meet previous presidents as well.

The other thing is that this narrative from the Trump administration has done is discount the relevance of South Korea. So, the South Korean President Moon Jae-in came into office talking about conciliation and making concessions, doing diplomacy — peace as opposed to a kind of hard line policy. It was almost the opposite of the Trump administration’s approach of maximum pressure. And that also went a long way towards orchestrating this diplomatic overture between the United States and North Korea. And that background is important. I don’t think it is fair to say that it was Trump’s toughness and his maximum pressure that brought North Korea to the table. There are other factors. So that brings us to the summit itself.

It seems like Trump is more interested in this for the sake of stagecraft rather than statecraft. He loves the pageantry of it. He is a reality TV show guy who likes prime-time television. He is really laudatory of his own efforts here, but the nuts and bolts of the summit itself are just not as substantive as Trump is trying to lead on. Essentially, it is a set of big promises and aspirations, the details of which have to be worked out at lower levels in the months and years to come.

But in some ways this is good. What I was saying in the lead-up to the summit was that we should just lower our expectations as much as possible, because if we go in there with high expectations, anything less than that is going to mean a failed summit and the hawks in Washington will get to claim afterwards that we tried diplomacy and we would have to take a harder line.

Even if Trump’s talk sounds strange because of how obsequious it is towards the Kim regime — about how much he trusts him and such, which is something that Obama never could have said because he would get canned in the media and by Republicans for being naive or chamberlain — it is good that Trump is on this path, where wants to do a deal with North Korea. He is willing to do diplomacy. He is talking about peace. He did bring us to a dangerous brink, the risk of a catastrophic conflict between the United States and North Korea, so you can’t give him full credit, but he is on a different path now and that is emphasizing peace and diplomacy, so that is good. We should continue to hope that works.

Steps Towards Denuclearization

Bob Zadek: What I don’t understand and what is missing in the narrative so far is the question of what we want from North Korea? Immediately we want them to stand down and to denuclearize, whatever that even looks like when it is carried out. But they nuclearized only in reaction to our bellicose foreign policy against them. We chose to support their sworn enemy. We placed troops in South Korea. Just imagine how the United States would feel if an enemy had troops across the Mississippi River! Would we just ignore them? Well, of course we would do everything possible to survive. So in the short run, it seems that what victory looks like is denuclearization, but we have to remove the threat.

Why are we threatening them to begin with? What would happen if we simply said, okay, peace-treaty, you were our enemy but now let’s start trading. We will enjoy your cheap labor, you can sell us flat screen tvs, United States citizens will get more cheap stuff. We mean no harm and do not mind if you want to live as a communist dictatorships. We trade with lots of dictatorships in the world, as we should. We trade with lots of communist countries, as we should. So what if we took the big step back and simply treated them like any other country?

John Glaser: There is certainly an argument, especially a libertarian one, to wash our hands of this and start to treat North Korea like a normal nation. To stop being directly entangled in a 70-plus year civil war that doesn’t affect our core national security interests. That would go along way to erasing in our minds at least this alleged threat from a nuclear North Korea. But now that we are in these negotiations, now that the politics have presented us with an opportunity to pacify relations in a way that lasts and can sustain itself across whoever comes after Trump as president, there is a way forward.

I think that denuclearization is still a really high expectation. It would be nice if we can obtain that, but I don’t see it as all that likely because you would be asking North Koreans to make themselves more vulnerable to American force without concessions in return. The North Koreans have so far made a few concessions that you or your listeners might have seen in the news. They released three hostages they had that were U.S. citizens and they agreed to deliver the remains of roughly 250 soldiers that were killed in the Korean conflict. They destroyed some of the tunnels associated with one of their nuclear test sites and they might have done the same for one of their ballistic missile test sites.

So, they have made some of these confidence-building measures. But they haven’t made any concrete steps towards denuclearization. In the short term I think that what we want to do is formalize the “nuclear freeze,” which is where they agree not to continue to test nuclear and ballistic missiles. And on our side, we will agree to stop engaging in these provocative U.S. military exercises with South Korea that make North Korea jittery. We figure out an inspections regime to have international monitors go in there and determine North Korea’s denuclearization. We figure out a timeline and we clearly identify what concessions we are going to offer. And in the longer term, I really think that has to mean no more what the North Koreans call “hostile policy.” We need to offer real security guarantees and real sanctions relief in return for some actions on the North Korean side. We need to possibly end the war and draw out a peace treaty.

And also, we shouldn’t leave China and South Korea out in the cold here. America has this tendency when engaging in these diplomatic overtures to think we are number one as the lead superpower and are in charge, such that anyone else that wants to take part is persona non grata. I think that’s the wrong way to go. China and South Korea have an interest in what happens on the Korean Peninsula as well, and in order to make this deal that comes out of the Trump administration’s negotiations here sustainable, in a way that transcends administrations and works for the countries in the region of Northeast Asia in order to come to some arrangement that is sustainable over the long term.

American Exceptionalism and the “Switzerland Test”

Bob Zadek: I’m sorry to do this because this is something we haven’t discussed and is not directly on the agenda, but you mentioned how important it is for our country to be the leader and to be the force for good and to keep China out of the mix and Russia out of the mix, and all these other countries out of the mix because we are the U.S. and we are the world’s cops.

I often find myself kind of fantasizing about how good it would be if the U.S. simply stepped down from its role as the leader in anything other than a model of how a free country might operate, and — in the vision of our founders — offer ourselves as a model and help other people to achieve our model, but otherwise be disinterested in the affairs of other countries and therefore the affairs of the planet, except to build a strong defense and have the message be clear that we will use everything we have in our defense, defense interpreted narrowly.

How wonderful it would be if we just weren’t all that self-important and we just went about our business! I found myself getting into my fantasy world of how nice that would be.

John Glaser: I have been writing about this recently. We are obsessed with this status that we have of the indispensable nation, and it leads us not only to go abroad in search of monsters to destroy, but it leads us also to be extremely reluctant to a back out of existing commitments that we have. It is something called “prospect theory” in psychological research that has applications in math and economics, but also in international politics. Prospect theory is that idea that what you currently have is harder to give up than the prospect of future gains. And so we are reluctant to give up this role of local cop because it is psychologically deflating. One of my favorite blog posts at the Cato Institute website ever is a blog post by my colleague Trevor Thrall in which he says we should apply the “Switzerland test” to any foreign policy initiative that we want to engage in.

Essentially, that is, if Switzerland does it, maybe we should think about doing it, and if Switzerland doesn’t do it, we should avoid it. And, that is, because Switzerland has a foreign policy that is essentially robust diplomacy, free trade, a cultural exchange with the world but no military commitments abroad. They don’t guarantee the defense of other countries, they don’t insert themselves into the center of far-off conflicts like in North Korea. They don’t have bases all over the world, they don’t engage in preventive warfare, et cetera.

That is the kind of foreign policy I think the United States should have, which is one that emphasizes robust diplomacy where it can be useful, that emphasizes free trade and cultural exchange and immigration, but not one that is militarist in its disposition. We should stop trying to solve every problem in the world, recognize that the world is peaceful and stable and rich for reasons having to do with other things than a U.S. grand strategy. We are really, really safe. We are geographically isolated. We have a nuclear deterrent, we are rich and powerful. Its not connected to our security, specifically, that we go abroad in search of monsters to destroy as a matter of routine.

Bob Zadek: As you were speaking, I thought about the often used phrase “American exceptionalism,” and I kind of buy into the phrase, but I would prefer if it was never spoken by our country and was only spoken by the rest of the world in admiration of our efforts. Too often has it become a self-promotional phrase used to justify our aggressive and forceful foreign policy, rather than an explanation of how we are in our relation to the world. I am starting to wince at it because it is overused and misused. It seems to me that in our relationship to North Korea, we find ourselves here today only because of one mistake after another, starting with our colonialism after World War II.

“I would prefer if [American exceptionalism] was never spoken by our country and was only spoken by the rest of the world in admiration of our efforts. Too often has it become a self-promotional phrase used to justify our aggressive and forceful foreign policy, rather than an explanation of how we are in our relation to the world.”

John’s Predictions: A Hopeful Future

Bob Zadek: I like to end on a positive note if I can. What do you think of the likelihood, in your opinion, your prognosis, about the likely outcome of current interactions between the United States and North Korea?

John Glaser: I think the likeliest outcome now is that the nuts and bolts of the joint communicae that Trump and Kim signed at the summit earlier last month, will start to be hashed out by lower levels. The secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, is supposed to lead the effort, but we are supposed to get some tangible concessions from their side.

We are supposed to plan out when we give concessions from our side, and that should be worked out in the coming months and years. What I think is probably likely is that this extends beyond the first term of the Trump administration, and that therefore, they don’t get a final deal, something that can be concrete and sustainable over the years hence, before Trump has to face reelection, which might present some problems.

Remember, the North Koreans have an interest in keeping negotiations going as long as possible. They are going to look for short steps in order to get in the right direction as opposed to a full denuclearization right away. What they are going to do is maintain their nuclear weapons, and make small steps that please the United States in the meantime, They are going to get some sanctions relief, particularly on their northern borders with China, and they will draw this out as long as possible, because that gains them international status and they continue to have peaceful prospects. It also gains them some economic benefits if they do these baby steps, and it draws the United States into a long negotiation. That negotiation has to happen but I think you’re going to see small steps in the right direction before we get a final deal that denuclearizes the Korean Peninsula and changes the posture there. I think we are looking at many, many years before that kind of thing happens.

Bob Zadek: We have this absurd dichotomy in our country of make-believe, where we have two political parties with different belief systems. Neither political party has any belief system, whatever, except for self-preservation and aggrandisement of your team against the other team. In the history of the relationship between the United States and North Korea, has either party shown itself to be particularly adept or maladroit at negotiation? Or am I being too unfair with characterizing it all as a monumental, many-generational diplomatic failure on the part of our country?

John Glaser: It is true that there have been a succession of failures, but I don’t think it is impossible to envision a scenario in which we smarten up and start to do it right. I have continuously been struck throughout this process by the difference in approach between the Obama administration towards Iran and the Trump administration towards North Korea.



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