On September 30th, 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returned to London in the belief that he had secured “peace for our time” by negotiating a deal in which the German speaking areas in Czechoslovakia were ceded to Hitler in return for a promise that he would make no more territorial demands. The ink on the Munch Agreement had hardly had time to dry before Hitler broke his word and occupied the whole of Czechoslovakia – the government of which had not been party to the agreement that assigned it to its doom – before turning his eyes on the Klaipėda Region of Lithuania and the city of Danzig in Poland. By the time September 30th, 1939 rolled around, the Second World War had been underway for almost a month.
Chamberlain has been severely judged ever since – not primarily for giving away part of somebody else’s country but for failing to observe one of the basic lessons of the schoolyard, i.e., that giving a bully what he demands is more likely to increase his demands than to satisfy him. After World War II the Western world, now led by the United States of America, determined never to make this mistake again. Unfortunately, it seems to be a failing of human nature that when we have learned one lesson thoroughly it tends to drive other lessons that are just as important out of our heads.
Let us consider two other lessons that pertain to dealings with other nations.
One such lesson is that you should not threaten the use of force unless you have both the ability and the willpower to follow through with your threat. The reasoning behind this should be self-evident. Bluffing, if you know what you are doing, can work as a strategy in poker but in international relations the moment someone calls your bluff you are exposed as an impotent buffoon.
The other lesson is that if you have the strength and the willpower to back up a threat of force you should still hold that threat in reserve to be used only when all reasonable efforts to find a diplomatic solution have failed. War is destructive, awful, and costly and should only ever be entered into as a means of last resort. This is a lesson that those who are on a constant lookout for the next Hitler that they might not appease him are especially prone to neglect. Diplomacy involves talking, negotiation, and compromise and these things smack of appeasement to those for whom the lesson of Munich overrides all other considerations. Diplomacy and appeasement are not the same thing, however, and if, in your determination to stand up to bullies, you bypass the diplomatic process altogether and lead with threats, you will yourself have become the bully.
Need I go further and point out the compounded folly of leading with empty threats that are no more than bluffs?
It becomes much easier to forget these lessons the closer the “Hitler of the month” comes to resembling his archetype. For the last month the world has been treated to yet another round of the dark comedy stylings of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un who dresses, talks and acts like a supervillain who has somehow escaped the confines of a Hollywood film version of an Ian Fleming novel to wreak havoc on the world stage. From shooting missiles over Japan and threatening to sink the island nation to apparently detonating a 120 kiloton hydrogen bomb and threatening to reduce North America to ashes and darkness he has been hamming up his bad guy act with real panache.
Governments around the world have responded to these shenanigans by condemning North Korea’s actions and hoping that somebody else would do something about it. The designated somebody else for most of the world, the government of the United States of America, has itself been trying all year to pawn the North Korean problem off on yet another somebody else, the People’s Republic of China. The reasoning behind this was that since China is North Korea’s neighbour as well as the regional power it is their responsibility to make Kim toe the line. The problem with that reasoning, of course, is that Red China is the power behind North Korea. North Korea demands that the United States withdraw its military presence from the region where it is protecting South Korea and Japan. Some see Kim’s motivation as aggressive – that he wishes to complete what his grandfather Kim Il Sung started in 1950 and to subjugate the entire Korean peninsula to his despotic regime. Others see his motivation as defensive – that he fears, and not without reason, that the Americans have targeted him for regime change. Whatever may or may not be going on in Kim’s head, it is certainly the case that Beijing regards America’s ongoing military presence as standing in the way of its regional hegemony and it has been playing Kim as a pawn against the United States. To expect China to pressure Kim into behaving is like expecting an opponent in chess to sacrifice a piece that is threatening your queen but which you cannot remove without placing your king into check. It is not going to happen.
As the American government has come to realize what they ought to have known from the get go, they have turned to other strategies for dealing with Kim. President Trump has been attempting to match Kim rhetoric for rhetoric, but what he hopes to accomplish by this is unclear. As Kim has responded to each of Trump’s Mr. Tough Guy tweets with yet more defiance it would seem to be a counterproductive strategy. Then, last week, the Americans convinced the UN Security Council to impose economic sanctions on North Korea. This too is a dubious strategy. It worked well enough for FDR when he imposed an oil embargo on the Japanese Empire but this is because his intention was not to pressure Tokyo into abandoning its militarism and expansionism so much as to provoke an attack that would give him a casus belli for entering World War II. It failed JFK, however, when he embargoed Cuba to try and bring down the Castro regime. Most often it is nothing more than a particularly perverse form of virtue signalling – a gesture that demonstrates our disapproval of a government by punishing that government’s people.
American UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and Defense Secretary James Mattis both maintain that there is a military option for dealing with North Korea. Sunday’s training exercise, in which American bombers from Guam, accompanied by South Korean and Japanese fighters, dropped live bombs on a range a short distance from the 38th Parallel, was obviously designed to give credence to this threat. China and Russia have also stepped up their military presence in the region, however, and unless the Americans have completely lost their minds and are actually willing to sacrifice millions of people on the altar of Mars in order to take out one petty tyrant, this is all bluff.
There is no realistic military solution here. The only solution – if one exists – is to be found through diplomacy which ought to have been turned to long before this escalating war of threatening rhetoric began. This means that the distinction is going to have to be drawn between what is non-negotiable and what is merely desirable. The security of the United States and her allies against the threat posed by North Korea – and more importantly, the Red China behind North Korea – is non-negotiable. A non-nuclear North Korea or a North Korea with a better regime than the neo-Stalinist Kim junta may both be desirable, but they are not realistically attainable as the security of the Kim regime and the nuclear program that protects it are North Korea’s non-negotiables. Therefore, enter into talks – real talks, mind you, not petulant, “my way or the highway”, unyielding bombastic demands – with Pyongyang, with the firm resolution to never compromise the former, but prepared to give way on the latter. Drop the hubris and the Manicheanism and enter into negotiations. Back up your bargaining position with strength, as Reagan and Thatcher did when negotiating with Gorbachev, but follow their example by going to the table and talking.
That is the only sane approach to this mess.
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