President Trump’s first address to the UN General Assembly came at a point in time when a sizable portion of world leaders have been wondering what shape America First foreign policy will take. They received an answer this morning, and as an added bonus the world was also given an brief glimpse at the pillars of a potential Trump Doctrine. The US President’s speech contained blunt language and was missing the diplospeak and doubletalk that is common in world leaders’ addresses to the General Assembly.
North Korea was the main talking point. First off, to be clear, his referring to Kim Jong Un as ‘Rocket Man’ once again did not belittle, or minimize the urgency surrounding the North Korean nuclear crisis. Trump made it clear that the US will welcome UN efforts to bring an end to North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. He followed up by letting it be known that if the crisis continues on its current trajectory, the US may be forced to “totally destroy” North Korea. Trump’s words were not an idle threat, or a rambunctious boasting of US military capabilities. Should North Korea launch an ICBM at US territory successfully, Trump will have no choice but to turn North Korea into the world’s largest sheet of glass. The North’s UN ambassador did not watch the speech in person, unfortunately. He opted to leave the chamber before the US President began speaking.
Iran was also in the crosshairs today. Trump dismissed the nuclear deal between Iran, the US and other world powers. Just as he did on the campaign trail last year, Trump blasted the deal as an embarrassment to the US and hinted that it will be revisited in the future. In fact, the Trump administration is currently reviewing the deal and next month the president plans to announce his intentions with regards to its future.
Venezuela was another target of Trump’s criticism. He hinted of a coming expansion of the already wide economic sanctions now in place on Venezuela if Nicolas Maduro continues to impose authoritarian rule. He did not repeat an earlier threat to consider military action as such a move would not receive support from most Latin American allies of the US. Nevertheless, by affording Venezuela as much attention as North Korea and Iran, Trump made it clear how important the US considers the crisis in Venezuela to be.
World leaders and journalists at home will spend the next week dissecting the speech in an attempt to determine what Trump was saying between the lines. The effort will prove to be an exercise in futility. Today’s address was clear, concise, painstakingly honest, and made an indelible impression on America’s allies and enemies alike.
Following her release from house arrest in 2010 Aung San Suu Kyi was a gold plated darling of the Western political world. Politicians from around the world journeyed to her home country of Myanmar to talk with Kyi, and of course, to be seen with her. Kyi’s name became synonymous with women’s rights, and pro-democracy movements. In April, 2016 she became the state counsellor of Myanmar, a position similar to a prime minister.
So imagine the irony when some of the same people who championed her cause in the past began accusing her of ethnic cleansing last week.
Kyi is under increasing pressure to halt the army offensive that has uprooted hundreds of thousands of Rohingya and forced them to flee across the border to Bangladesh and beyond. The Rohingya people are a minority group in Myanmar, made up of roughly 1 million men, women, and children. The majority of Rohingya are Muslims and most live in the northern Rakhine State. They have been pushing for their own nation-state for decades without success. The government has cracked down on Rohingya civilians following the start of a renewed insurgency last year.
The current crisis was sparked by attacks on police stations in northern Rakhine by Rohingya militants, which killed twelve security personnel. Myanmar responded with a military offensive that has reportedly resulted in burned out Rohingya villages and attacks on civilians. The purpose of the offensive is to drive them out of Myanmar. So far, that is what has been happening. Bangladesh is feeling the pain from a surge of refugees across its border since late August. The nation is taking steps to limit the influx of Rohingya and has placed restrictions on their ability to travel around Bangladesh. The hope of the Bangladeshi government is that the Rohingya will be permitted to return home in the near future.
Judging by events over the last week or so that does not appear as if it will happen. Myanmar has shown no signs of letting up on its efforts to drive the Rohingya out. Even with international pressure increasing, Kyi is not backing down. She will not be attending the UN General Assembly session and has blamed the global media for working to increase tensions with biased news coverage that portrays Rohingya entirely as persecuted civilians. It will be interesting to see if any resolution comes out of New York this week and whether or not Kyi will bow to international pressure and stop the military offensive.
After months of anxious speculation by Western politicians, general officers, and media outlets, the waiting is over. Zapad 17 is underway. Russia’s quadrennial strategic military exercise has attracted an overwhelming amount of scrutiny and attention. In light of past behavior on the part of Russia, some observers and analysts believe this exercise could be cover for a large scale Russian military action against NATO, or even against their erstwhile Belarussian allies. The 2008 Georgian invasion, and 2014 Crimean takeover were preceded by large scale military exercises. This fact is pointed to as cause to suspect Zapad 17 might be more than it appears. Other observers, politicians, and military officials suspect that Russia will use the exercise to permanently station large numbers of troops in Belarus, tilting the military balance in eastern and northern Europe in its favor.
Practically speaking, Zapad 17 is a preparation for war. After all, that is the point of a strategic exercise like this. In the absence of a hidden political agenda, the results of the exercise will be an indicator of the nation’s military capabilities and of vital importance to Moscow.
Zapad 17 will run from 14-20 September and involve units from every Russian service branch and military district. Moscow claims there are only 12,000 or so troops participating, however this number is deliberately false. In reality there are upwards of 100,000 personnel involved. Not admitting the true number is a deliberate attempt by Moscow to prevent Western observers from being allowed to monitor the exercise up close. Russia and NATO have previously agreed that exercises containing upwards of 30,000+ troops trigger an automatic attendance by observers from the other side. By cooking the numbers in this case, Russia is taking advantage of a loophole to keep as many prying eyes out of Belarus as possible.
As the week goes on and Zapad 17 unfolds, we’ll keep an eye on what is happening in and around Belarus and the Baltics.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has offered her nation’s participation in future negotiations with North Korea on its nuclear program. She took her comments a step farther by suggesting that the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran would make an excellent model for negotiations. Merkel’s intervention come at a point when she is in the midst of a reelection campaign. Even though she is widely expected to win, campaign season is traditionally a time for incumbent leaders to take the opportunity to float ideas by their constituents, as well as their neighbors and allies to see how they might play in Stuttgart or Brussels.
President Trump’s handling of the North Korea crisis has unsettled some of Washington’s European allies. For a continent that became used to the less proactive foreign policy approach of Trump’s predecessor this is understandable. During the Obama years, US policy towards states like Iran, and North Korea were centered around multi-party negotiations, and the threat of economic sanctions. A stringent effort was made to avoid discussing potential military options if the terms of any future agreement was violated. Trump’s approach is different in many respects, most notably when it comes to discussing military options. He has made it clear that the United States will retaliate should North Korea launch a missile against US territory. Trump has also made it apparent that the military option is not off the table when it comes to ending North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Talk like this is horrifying to many Europeans, especially diplomats and leaders unaccustomed to such forward non-diplospeak on sensitive matters.
However, remarks by the leader of a US ally that champion the Iran nuclear deal as a success are equally as distressing to many Americans. Contrary to what the media spins on the subject of the Iran deal, the majority of Americans remain against it. Even if this were not the case, the North Korean situation has few parallels to Iran’s. Pyongyang already has nuclear weapons, and an ability to use them against targets located on US territory. The North has also directly threatened to use these weapons against the US should economic or political pressure damage its economy and nuclear program.
Merkel fails to recognize that future negotiations with North Korea will be destined to fail. Not because of what could be perceived as aggressive posturing by the United States, but because North Korea does not want them to succeed. Pyongyang’s main goal right now is to buy the time needed for its nuclear scientists, and ballistic missile engineers to produce a hydrogen device, and a missile that it can be fitted to respectively. Kim Jong Un is interested in nothing less.
Angela Merkel and Germany do not have a dog in this fight. For that matter, neither does Europe. North Korea is not levying threats on Western Europe, and likely will not be doing so in the near future. It is threatening the US on a daily basis and given the direction that the crisis is moving in, negotiations involving Germany or other European nations are not a viable avenue to explore at the moment.
It’s 8:30 in the eastern United States and Hurricane Irma will shortly be making landfall in Florida. Like most folks around the world I’ve been tracking the progress of this storm over the past week. It has already devastated Caribbean islands and promises to deliver heavy rain, storm surge, and winds over 110 MPH to the Florida Keys and much of the state’s west coast.
I’d like to move away from foreign policy and defense topics for a moment and ask all of you to say a prayer for the people of the Caribbean who have endured Irma, and the people in Florida who are about to. This is the second major hurricane to affect the United States in two weeks and there could be another on the horizon. Every possible precaution has been taken by local, state, and federal officials. Right now all they can do is watch, wait, and stand ready to swoop in with help after the storm passes.
This is going to be a very long night for Floridians, and those of us who have friends and family down there. I’m hoping everyone comes through this story safely. My prayers are with you all.