I have an awful feeling of dèja vu when I scan the headlines today. The so-called Cuban missile crisis in 1962 was similar, but in several key respects different.
First of all, the context was the Cold War, when fear and suspicion were the background to every international event. 2017 has been relatively calm diplomatically. Second, the protagonists were schooled in the politics of the time: fear and suspicion! Third, the media and even, one suspects, the leaders of the USA and the USSR were dependent on relatively primitive intelligence-gathering. Nothing was certain.
Lastly, the current leaders might both be classified as mentally defective. Both rely on a supreme sense of superiority and power, neither, it seems, relying on the support of their people.
I can only hope a peaceful solution can be found this time, as it was in 1962.
5 thoughts on “Back to the future”
Soviet leaders were sane. The USSR, socialist rhetoric aside, was a Russian empire. The Warsaw Pact was designed to give Russia — which suffered two horrific invasions in less than 50 years — a buffer zone. Everything they did was designed to prevent a conflict from breaking out, hence the doctrine of mutually assured destruction. Proxy wars could be waged with minimal loss of blood and treasure. American leadership at that time was sane. They sought to protect and expand their interests, both sides did. Soviet and American leaders had a degree of respect for each other. They fought on the same side during the Second World War. Even if they became rivals, they knew each other and respected each other. The rivalry was a carefully choreographed dance.
North Korea is a pariah state. There is no reason for its existence. It is, even more than East Germany was, a relic, a remnant of an ideological rivalry long gone. It is only a question of when, not if, it collapses. Unlike China or Vietnam, it cannot exist without the “leadership” — to use that term loosely — of the Kim clan. That clan is growing ever weaker, ever more underwhelming, with each generation. The current Gronk in Chief seems dedicated to confirming all the world’s worst suspicions of the USA — that they’ll create a mess wherever they go with no need to suffer the consequences, however dire, because of their geographic isolation.
China has said it will not support règime change in NK – perhaps not surprisingly, given its practice of ensuring the ‘neutrality’ of its immediate neighbours wherever possible. That statement alone underlines the dangers inherent in Trump’s gung-ho tactics.
China’s Dongbei (North East) region is infamously difficult to control. It’s still very much a frontier. North Korea has some 27 million residents. Should the North Korean regime precipitously implode, millions of desperate and hungry refugees spilling across the Yalu River is more likely a consequence than not. This would overwhelm the provincial governments’ ability to respond and, as there is a sizeable Korean minority living in the region already, the chances of citizens and refugees getting mixed up is far too high. Whatever their reputation in the media, the Chinese don’t actually enjoy cracking their citizens over the head. Nor do they want people starving and freezing to death in their territory. The Chinese are very keen on regime change in North Korea — in the same way that China and Vietnam experienced regime changes. That is, by having reformist factions take over the government and implementing economic and social reforms leading to a de facto new government without any wild instability. They’re also not keen on having the US military on its border — no more than Russia.
Yes, we forget that feeding their billions remains a priority! And change is fine – if it means conformity with Beijing’s policies.
The Chinese disdain true chaos. They’ve suffered enough of that. Traditional Chinese statecraft and diplomacy was predicated on maintaining peaceful relations with its neighbours. This was done two ways. The first was that the supremacy of China had to be recognised in many symbolic ways. This included sending crown princes to China for their education, addressing the Chinese on their terms and using their imperial calendar, recognising the supremacy of the Chinese “emperor” over their “kings” and the giving of tribute. In exchange, crown princes received the best education available, the Chinese would assure peace as much as possible, extremely lucrative financial arrangements were made for tributary states and whatever tribute was given was returned many-fold. The Chinese would, naturally, not intervene with domestic politics — they had no interest in that, and within their own states they could carry on as they bloody well pleased. It was symbolic, both sides knew that. For most, this was palatable as the benefits outweighed the costs. The only country that could — and did — frequently work outside this system was Japan. What Beijing is doing is little different to what Western states are doing. So long as Turkey was toeing the European line, relations were warm. As soon as Erdogan started to make his madness so obvious that it could no longer be ignored, relations soured. The same applies to North Africa. So long as Mexico and other Latin American states do the USA’s bidding, relations could be worse. It’s when they start to stand up for themselves that relations turn sour. It is only natural that great powers would seek to exert their influence over their weaker neighbours and try to ensure their national security.