Perspectives Françaises?

The caption: “While the effects of an exit from the European Union are beginning to be felt, the UK may be trying to turn around and ask for its readmission.”

Hmmm… Voeu pieux?

North Korea (contd.)

The Economist has a good leader (and an extended article) about the biggest possible catastrophe on the horizon. Sample:

The most serious danger is not that one side will suddenly try to devastate the other. It is that both sides will miscalculate, and that a spiral of escalation will lead to a catastrophe that no one wants. Our briefing this week lays out, step by step, one way that America and North Korea might blunder into a nuclear war (see article). It also lists some of the likely consequences. These include: for North Korea, the destruction of its regime and the death of hundreds of thousands of people. For South Korea, the destruction of Seoul, a city of 10m within easy range of 1,000 of the North’s conventional artillery pieces. For America, the possibility of a nuclear attack on one of its garrisons in East Asia, or even on an American city. And don’t forget the danger of an armed confrontation between America and China, the North’s neighbour and grudging ally. It seems distasteful to mention the economic effects of another Korean war, but they would of course be awful, too.

The linked article is an imaginative — and sobering — scenario on how the worst could happen.

So, if John Kelly really is an honourable man…

From Dave Winer:

Thinking about General Kelly today. Assumption — he’s an honorable person. He’s also now inside at the White House. There isn’t anything that’s secret from the Chief of Staff. So how long before the complete picture of the criminality of this White House is revealed to him? Hard to believe it hasn’t already happened. So if he’s honorable, he has to come clean, make a statement to the special prosecutor and ask for instructions. If not that, is there a backroom deal? Can’t imagine there is. Who would want to make one if they didn’t have to. Priebus was a clown, in way over his head. Kelly has had a chance to watch it from the Cabinet and he chose to go in. Puzzling….

General Kelly and the steering wheel

Lovely image in a Financial Times OpEd by David Rothkopf

“When I was a boy, my parents fixed a toy steering wheel on my car seat to allow me to pretend I was driving alongside my dad in our ageing Oldsmobile. It was a joy. I have always wondered where that seat went. Now I think I know. It has been given to John Kelly. It is the new seat from which he will try to bring order to the White House as Donald Trump’s Chief of Staff. Like me, he will spin that wheel. And like me, he may revel in the illusion of control. But in the he will discover, as I did, that someone else is really driving the car.”

Wishful thinking makes for bad policy

Wishful thinking is a dangerous addiction, for nothing warps one’s judgement like the temptation to believe that something will happen because you passionately want it to happen. And it’s true for both politics and journalism. “The desire for a turn in the narrative, says Jay Rosen, commenting on reports claiming to discern more consistency in Donald Trump’s behaviour since John Kelly’s appointment as his Chief of Staff, “is one of the more insidious forms of press bias”.1

We’re seeing wishful thinking at the moment in two interesting areas. One is the belief that Donald Trump’s presidency is simply too preposterous to endure; the other is in the widespread American conviction that North Korea will — somehow — be prevented from developing an ICBM capable of delivering a nuclear strike on the US mainland.

At home, liberals continue to be astonished, outraged and baffled by Trump’s behaviour in office. They see him as being pathologically irrational and inconsistent, and take comfort from the steady increase in the number of Americans who disapprove of what he’s doing, and how he’s doing it. They fondly imagine that there will eventually come a tipping point after which their tormentor will be impeached (or fail to be re-elected in 2020), and that those Republicans who currently support him will be punished in the 2018 mid-term elections.

I think they’re wrong. Trump has a strategy and he’s sticking to it like a barnacle. The strategy is to keep his core supporters happy, and he’s doing that brilliantly. The New York Times of August 4 reports a Gallup poll showing that his approval rating among conservative Republicans is 89 per cent — “almost exactly what it was in Inauguration Day”. The White House strategy, according to Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s counsellor and former pollster, is to make this group feel respected and listened to by the President and his staff. “So many of them look at this administration”, she said, “as a rescue in the making. “It’s not just about policy but respect. And they just haven’t felt respected.”

What’s behind the strategy is smart electoral politics. Right-wing conservative voters make up 36 per cent of the electorate according to Gallup. And the ones who are the hardest-core Trump supporters are capable of cutting up very rough if they think that their hero is being undermined by Republican lawmakers in Congress. There are mid-term elections coming soon, and many sitting Republicans who disapprove of Trump are scared of what might happen even in safe, gerrymandered seats if irate Trump supporters are moved to disrupt the primaries because they think the incumbent is insufficiently ‘on message’. So the Presidential behaviour that so riles and puzzles liberals is actually very astute. And he’s sticking to that particular playbook.

Meanwhile, on a broader canvas there is the ‘problem’ of North Korea. Conventional wisdom in the US — which appears to be shared by Trump — is that Kim Jong-Un’s determination to develop a nuclear weapon to deter US intervention in the Korean Peninsula and extract concessions from the international community is (a) irrational and (b) so unacceptable to the US that it won’t be tolerated. Exactly how Kim’s plans will be thwarted is however totally unclear because the risks for South Korea of a US pre-emptive strike on the North are incalculable. So at the moment, wishful thinking appears to characterise US official policy towards Kim Jong-Un.

Funnily enough, we have been here before, as Max Fisher explains in a terrific New York Times piece. The key to understanding North Korea’s strategy, he argues, may lie in the recent past of another Asian nuclear state: China.

Mao Zedong’s China began, in the 1950s, as a pariah state, isolated and threatened by the United States. It became, in the 1960s, a rogue nuclear power. And then it rose, through the 1970s, into an accepted member of the international community, embraced even by its onetime adversary.

North Korea appears bent on following that progression. A nuclear program that can threaten the United States, making war unthinkable, would be only step one — and may, with the missile tests this summer, now be complete.

China ultimately won acceptance by playing the United States against the Soviet Union, not by rattling nuclear sabers. Its size and power also made it impossible for other nations to ignore it, advantages that North Korea lacks.

But North Korea’s desperation, as well as its longtime obsession with China, may have led it to see the possibility, however misguided, of achieving success by following Beijing’s script.

Looked at it this way, the next logical step for North Korea would be the removal of the US forces which police the demarcation zone between it and South Korea, followed by the eventual ‘reunification’ of North and South. Here again the template is what happened with China.

Most people nowadays forget that, following the Chinese revolution, in 1949 the ousted regime fled to an offshore island — Taiwan — and this tinpot regime (the ‘Republic of China’) was internationally recognised as ‘China’ and actually occupied the country’s seat on the UN Security Council.

“For years”, writes Mr Fisher,

the United States recognized Taiwan, where it based troops, as the rightful Chinese government. But that relationship flipped in 1979, when the United States normalized ties with Beijing and broke its alliance with Taiwan.

North Korea may hope to use a similar playbook, splitting the United States from South Korea. The break would not need to be so drastic to fulfill the North’s goals; official neutrality would do.

The current Chinese government — representing the People’s Republic of China — has always maintained a claim to Taiwan (now a prosperous high-tech economy) but has to date shown no inclination to enforce the claim and thereby ‘unify’ the Chinese state. If this is indeed the model that Kim Jong-Un is working towards, then ‘normalisation’ of relations with the United States is the logical first step. And — who knows? — in the end a rational government in Washington might reach the same conclusion as Richard Nixon did when he decided in 1971 that he would make an official visit to China: best to acknowledge reality and act on that realisation. If a future US administration does decide to abandon wishful thinking about North Korea, then maybe Kim will get his handshake one day.2


  1. And, en passant, it glosses over the fact that the US is becoming dependent on military figures to keep the President under some kind of control. 

  2. It’s worth noting, though, that Nixon was using the about-turn to drive a wedge between the Chinese Communist regime and the Soviet Union. One problem with Kim’s policy (if that is indeed what it is) is that it’s difficult to see what the analogous motive would be for the US recognising his regime. 

Commedia dell’arte at the White House

Nice scholarly column by Roger Cohen on how Trump’s White House is straight out of commedia dell’arte:

The commedia featured larger-than-life stock characters like the Scaramouch. They included deluded old men, devious servants, craven braggarts and starry-eyed lovers. The president, at 71, is clearly a “vecchio,” or elder. He is probably best imagined as the miserly Venetian known as Pantalone wandering around in red breeches with the oversized codpiece of the would-be womanizer.

Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, fits the bill as the “Dottore,” who, as Jennifer Meagher writes in an essay, is “usually depicted as obese and red-cheeked from drinking.” I’m tempted to offer the role of the belligerent, windy “Il Capitano,” or Captain, to Sebastian Gorka, a deputy assistant to Trump, who recently told the BBC that, “The military is not a microcosm of civilian society. They are not there to reflect America. They are there to kill people and blow stuff up.”

The lovers, of course, have to be Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner — they of the almost bloodless perfection — whose doting father complicates their sumptuous lives by bestowing upon them titles and tasks for which they are unqualified. The lovers grow quieter and quieter but are so pale they are unable to blush.

Behind Trump’s war on the LGBT community

From Masha Gessen in the New York Review of Books:

July 26, 2017, was a personal anniversary for me: one year earlier I had written a piece in which I argued for setting aside the idea of a Trump-Russia conspiracy (yes, this idea was with us a year ago) for the much more important task of imagining what a Trump presidency might bring. I wrote that Trump would unleash a war at home and while it was difficult to predict the target, “my money is actually on the LGBT community because its acceptance is the most clear and drastic social change in America of the last decade, so an antigay campaign would capture the desire to return to a time in which Trump’s constituency felt comfortable.” This was a thought exercise; even as I made an argument that I believed to be logical, I could not believe my own words. On Wednesday of this week, one year to the day since I made that prediction, President Trump announced, by tweet, that transgender people would no longer be allowed to serve in the US military—a policy reversal that would directly and immediately affect thousands of people.

Like many others I thought that this move was a distraction — a classic way of appealing to his base — policy by tweeting. The Pentagon announced that it had received no instruction from the President and so things would remain as they were, at least for the time being. Gessen, however, sees it as part of a bigger trend.

Trump got elected on the promise of a return to an imaginary past—a time we don’t remember because it never actually was, but one when America was a kind of great that Trump has promised to restore. Trumps shares this brand of nostalgia with Vladimir Putin, who has spent the last five years talking about Russian “traditional values,” with Hungarian president Viktor Orbán, who has warned LGBT people against becoming “provocative,” and with any number of European populists who promise a return to a mythical “traditional” past.

With few exceptions, countries that have grown less democratic in recent years have drawn a battle line on the issue of LGBT rights…

The appeal of autocracy, Gessen says,

lies in its promise of radical simplicity, an absence of choice. In Trump’s imaginary past, every person had his place and a securely circumscribed future, everyone and everything was exactly as it seemed, and government was run by one man issuing orders that could not and need not be questioned. The very existence of queer people—and especially transgender people—is an affront to this vision. Trans people complicate things, throw the future into question by shaping their own, add layers of interpretation to appearances, and challenge the logic of any one man decreeing the fate of people and country. lies in its promise of radical simplicity, an absence of choice. In Trump’s imaginary past, every person had his place and a securely circumscribed future, everyone and everything was exactly as it seemed, and government was run by one man issuing orders that could not and need not be questioned. The very existence of queer people—and especially transgender people—is an affront to this vision. Trans people complicate things, throw the future into question by shaping their own, add layers of interpretation to appearances, and challenge the logic of any one man decreeing the fate of people and country.

This is very perceptive stuff IMHO. What most liberals (like me) underestimate is Trump’s intuitive understanding of the prejudices and longings of his core supporters. In a strange way, he’s a gifted populist.

The EU problem that nobody seems to be talking about

My big question about the EU has nothing to do about Brexit, but about why Hungary — and now Poland — have not already been expelled from the Union. Neither country now meets the criteria for a functioning liberal democracy. As Jacek Rostowski (a former Deputy Prime Minister of Poland) points out in a sobering essay:

The EU … faces not just an “illiberal democracy” in its midst, as it does with Victor Orbán’s Hungary. For the first time in its history, the EU must confront the prospect of a member state that is a non-democracy, in the fundamental sense of lacking free, unrigged elections. And Kaczyński can count on Orbán to provide him cover (in the expectation of reciprocation when needed), by vetoing any attempt at depriving the PiS government of its vote within the EU, a move that would require member states’ unanimous support.

If Kaczyński succeeds in controlling Poland’s Supreme Court, or if he finds another way to rig Polish elections, the implications for the EU will be profound and far-reaching. Unless Hungary’s veto can be circumvented, a non-democratic state will participate in legislating for the populations of the remaining democratic member states for many years.

Quote of the Day

“More than two years ago, soon after Donald Trump entered the presidential race, I noted online that no one like him—with no political, military, judicial, or public-service experience, with no known expertise on policy matters, with a trail of financial and personal complications—had ever before become president. Therefore, I said, it wasn’t going to happen this time. Quite obviously that was wrong. Penitent and determined to learn from my errors, I’ve avoided any predictions involving Trump and his circles ever since.”

James Fallows