Postmodern classic?

Saturday, October 14, 2006

The Korean situation

What the hell is going on in North Korea and what are we going to do? Was it real? What's China's move? How did we get here (HT Belmont Club)? What have we been doing? The short answer: Diplomacy's fucked.

This is not a slogan. It's taken a while for me to come to this conclusion. Conventional wisdom seems to be that Chimpy McBushitler is so inept at diplomacy he can't help but being a military bumbler with his simplified 'Axis of Evil' formulation. As you can imagine, there are a few problems with this conclusion, not just the knee-jerk, run of the mill anti-Bush rhetoric. It's certainly the case that there have been no 'diplomatic breakthroughs' on his watch; but why is that?

I was at a presentation about Afghanistan this past week, and the lady was ranting about the ineffectiveness of USAID/State in planning and all these other things. It sounded almost like Iraq! The speaker and I were definitely coming from different political perspectives, but I could see the same things she saw during my experiences abroad. Our conclusions were different- she blamed the performance on the Bush administration, not entirely undeserved, but.... it's making more sense to me if you look at it as part of a deeper, more structural problem.

I'm coming to believe that diplomacy in the post-Cold War era is doomed to ineffectual paralysis. Certainly our own State Department has not been good working alongside the Defense Department during the recent conflicts, and I don't have the background to offer anything new or original on that. I am clearly sympathetic with partisans who claim that that Department has a dominant ideological outlook of other diplomatic institutions such as the EU or UN, although I wouldn't claim to know definitively. But it seems that we have adopted some sort of 'multilateral values'- the idea of harmony in an international community, even if the nasty, dirty world is just intent on making us fall short of these vaunted ideals. A few weeks ago, New Sisyphus wrote an excellent post about welfare dependency and how that affects our relationship with Europe, although I think it can be quite revealing if you compare that to how we relate to the world in general.

A book I'm reading at the moment mentions that historically, the US has not had political success that mirrors our military prowess; this makes us a curious world hegemon. It is not inaccurate to describe our military, cultural, and economic supremacy as hegemonic, although it's important to differentiate that we have not, by any historical standard, sought imperial domination as have many others with comparable military positioning. Which kind of makes us a problem by itself; in a counterintuitive way, our goals and aspirations do become suspect (who else would be dumb enough to dominate the world but not reap the riches of their position). The hegemon must justify its dominant position, which has traditionally been the role of religion, or ideology- or in the absence of that, naked power politics. But our capitalism and world globalization don't seem to have as intense of an effect as those of our opponents, even if the effects of this globalization event are not insubstantial. In its death throes, the oppositional political philosophy of Cold War Marxist-Leninism spawns some like-minded ideologies in the guise of multi-culturalism and transnational progressivism.

I don't think it's inaccurate to call transnational progressivism the official ideology of the UN, after all, who wouldn't like the idea of all the diverse nations of the world getting together, solving problems, making the world a better place? A great idea, this 'multilateralism', but is that what really happens? Unfortunately, no. A current joke in our household is trying to name a 'success story of the UN'. Another presentation I attended a few weeks ago the UN lady tried to pass off, among other winners, East Timor, Sierra Leone and Angola as 'peacekeeping success stories'. Notably absent were Somalia, Rwanda, Cambodia (just off the top of my head).... I think the only peacekeeping that could really be called a success was Korea- but then, where are we now? Just this week, we're literally back to where we started, 56 years ago! Some success!

Yet, by virtue of it never happening, you can't prove that the UN somehow prevented the US and the USSR going to war, although I would guess this to be the case. That is logically problematic, because that would be an End of Great Importance (and well-deserved utility)- avoiding the bloodbath that might have ended the modern era if the Cold War had gone hot.

This opens an opportunity to explore the logical fallacy of '20th century peace', which I will decline, at risk of further derailing my narrative. Instead, we arrive at the present day, where the institutions of the ColdWar- NATO, the UN- still exist, without the tension (the threat of Russian expansion or invasion) to bind them together. That's not to say there are no threats to the current international order, but that they are ill-defined and ambiguous- terrorism, of course, is the best example out of many to choose from (you don't wage war on a 'tactic'- you wage war on people or countries, etc...). States have carefully built up their institutions and influence over the past half-century within this perspective, and even now, fifteen years later, have yet to adjust. Understandable, really, we haven't adjusted either (see Iraq, Afghanistan post-war planning, see Department of State performance).

You start to look back at the diplomatic events of the 90's as hollow, meaningless events- markers in the ambiguous shift characterizing the power vacuum following the disintegration of the Russia and the end of the Cold War. The Oslo Accords between Israel and Palestine? Maybe next time.... Bosnia and Yugoslavia? Europe's problem, funnily enough dealt with by the US led coalition outside of the UN.... you know, you were there. And of course, of great importance, as the beginning of this post suggests- The Agreed Framework of 1994, halting North Korea's nuclear program for international aid.

Great at the time, but all meaningless. All discredited, and according to some Bush's fault? Count me unconvinced. All the time of these 'successes' of the 90's slowly simmering, under the radar of course, was the Rwanda massacres, the Cambodian coup, Congolese Civil War, etc etc etc... and people like Robert Kaplan cataloguing the future with his prescient 'Coming Anarchy'.

In this current lawlessness, just as many nations and minorities slipped their oppression to grasp their freedom, many other groups that would have been otherwise contained due to the tension of the superpowers, are now unrestrained. This is a problem for diplomats, used to the familiar structure of representatives talking about the issues of their country... the fact is, with more countries there is less people to talk to! The people who will talk almost don't matter. In this transitional time, the traditional dictator is losing control of his lands under the current trends of liberalization. So, counterintuitively, he falls back on the tried and true methods of repression (a la Putin).

So what are the diplomats to do? Nothing. They must fall back on the Military to be the decisive factor. Not surprisingly, their definitions of success are a bit different. In the past, these kinds of missions were the main functions of a fighting force. Now our American forces are rediscovering this mode of warfare... with many pitfalls along the way. But our diplomats, and those of the debellicized Europeans, are used to the restraint and 'peace' of the Cold War.

This is the context of the arena in which Bush and his administration looked upon the Middle East and now looks upon Korea. Diplomatic options? What are they? Yeah sure, let's give the UN another go- burn out another Colin Powell on misguided intelligence presentation maybe? Should we trust in China to produce a substantial solution amenable to 'international stability' or other abstract goals (except to those concerned) like 'nuclear non-proliferation'?

Until the US figures out how to integrate it's diplomacy with it's warfighting, we can count on this situation to continue. 'Stay the Course?' Yeah, diplomacy's fucked.


  • Serve this country as an American, not as a Korean. Be proud of your past and culture but help those where you live. Sorry that I obviously offended you. I clown Kim Jong Il and not you. If I hurt you I am indeed sorry....yet I myself cannot tolerate a phony. If I'm a retard then classify me as such. I've traveled this world too. You're highly good with it!
    God bless America, Gene

    By Anonymous JihadGene, at 3:23 AM  

  • You're not a retard, and I hear you man, we're on the same side and this shit shouldn't matter. If you're American it doesn't matter where you come from. I don't mind humor, in the service you get a lot of stuff that is just all fair play. Team America was a great flick, for example. But from my experience in the service, I believe strongly that there is a time and place for everything- and I won't take certain jokes lightly for anyone, if you know what I mean. No hard feelings.

    By Blogger sunguh5307, at 6:45 AM  

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