Saturday 7 July, 2018 Update: US-North Korea Relations Back to Square One?

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US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made an admirable effort to paint his two days of discussions with North Korean representatives in Pyongyang in the best light possible. He described the talks as ‘productive,’ and stated that progress was made on nearly all of the ‘central issues.’ The North Korean government’s take on the talks was strikingly different. Kim Yong Chol, a senior North Korean official, accused the United States of  presenting a “unilateral and gangster-like demand for denuclearization” that was “deeply regrettable.”

To make a long story short, after Pompeo’s visit, it appears US-North Korean relations may be drifting back to Square One with regards to North Korea denuclearizing.

If this turns out to be the case, the Trump administration is prepared for the contingency. From the moment Kim Jong Un made the first move towards improving relations with South Korea, and eventually the United States, the Trump administration adopted a hope-for-the-best-but-prepare-for-the-worst disposition. The US had little to lose by initiating the talks with North Korea which led to Kim Jong Un and President Trump meeting in Singapore last month. In the buildup to Singapore, the North’s comments and actions nearly derailed the summit. This was a red flag for the US regarding North Korea’s overall agenda, and intentions.

The disappointing outcome of Pompeo’s latest visit to Pyongyang places considerably more pressure on Pyongyang than on Washington. The North’s next move will be scrutinized closely. If it turns out that Kim has not been sincere about his desire to denuclearize, the Trump administration’s revised approach will become more inflexible. There’s little chance of the US relenting on its wish to see North Korea become nuclear-free. Therefore, the only real path for the US will be to tighten the screws on Pyongyang. Stiffer economic sanctions, and ramp up international pressure on North Korea. If that fails to motivate North Korea, other measures, including the use of force to force Kim’s to comply with denuclearization must be considered.

Saturday 23 June, 2018 Update: Trump-Putin Meeting In the Works

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US National Security Adviser John Bolton will be visiting Moscow in the coming week to try and lay groundwork for a meeting between President Trump and Vladimir Putin next month. Trump will be in Europe then for a NATO summit in Brussels, and then a state visit to Great Britain. The proposed mini-summit of sorts between the two leaders is the latest attempt by the White House to build a friendlier relationship with Russia. Earlier this month at the G7 Summit in Quebec, Trump tried unsuccessfully to convince the other members to readmit Russia, which was suspended in 2014 following its annexation of Crimea. Relations between the US and Russia have been cold for quite some time, though there has been a large amount of backchannel discussion between the two nations over security concerns, namely Syria.

It is worth noting that there are no plans to include European leadership in a potential July talks. The exclusion of EU members, and NATO allies sends a blunt message to Europe about the reemergence of US leadership on the global stage, and the current state of relations between the United States and Europe. The Trump administration does not intend to be encumbered by European actions and interests, or be bound by a lack of consensus among its European allies. Right now, Washington and Europe have significant disagreements on a host of issues including security, trade, and immigration. There’s little chance an overall agreement could be reached right now on how to approach Russia.

Therefore, the United States sees fit to take the lead.

Friday 15 June, 2018 Update: More US Troops Wanted in Europe

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An expanded US military presence on NATO’s Eastern Flank will be a major topic of discussion next month at the NATO summit. In recent weeks, a number of NATO member-states let it be known they would welcome additional US troops on their soil. Last Friday Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Slovakia called for a discussion on increasing the NATO military presence in the region. The hope is for talks to take place at the NATO summit.  Norway and Poland have gone beyond this. Both nations have been  vocal in their desire for US troops to be permanently based in their countries. At present, US troops are deployed in both nations on a rotational basis.

Norway intends to ask the US to double the number of troops currently on Norwegian soil.  There are 330 US Marines there at present. Oslo would like to see that number increased to 700, and for the troops to be stationed closer to the Russian border than the present rotation of troops. Russia responded sharply to the Norwegian plan, promising there will be ‘consequences’ if Oslo and Washington move forward with the plan. The Russian embassy in Oslo released a statement saying a rise in the number of US troops in Norway  “could lead to rising tensions and trigger an arms race, destabilizing the situation in northern Europe.”

Poland has taken it a step farther. Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak has held discussions with US officials about a permanent US military presence in Poland. The present US military setup there is centered on the periodic rotation of a US armored brigade. Warsaw wants to build on that and have an entire US armored division permanently based in Poland. In the view of Poland’s senior military officials, and politicians, having a US armored division stationed on Polish territory would be the ultimate hedge against future Russian aggression. As a sign of their willingness to bring a deal together, the Polish government is offering $2 billion to be placed towards building an infrastructure for a permanent US military presence.

The View From Singapore

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‘Too big to fail’ is a phrase which gained mainstream popularity during the late 2000s financial crisis. It was used to describe a business that had become so large that should it fail, the resulting ripple effect would be disastrous to the economy. In the past two months, the phrase has been batted around by many of my peers, politicians, the talking heads on the cable news channels, and political scientists around the world. The Singapore summit between President Trump, and Kim Jong Un  has been labeled, fairly or not, ‘too big to fail.’ There is some truth to the label for the summit, however, not in the manner that many people would think.

To borrow another phrase, the outlook of most observers, and journalists can best be described as ‘too ignorant to comprehend.’ It is generally understood that the stakes are incredibly high for the summit scheduled to begin here in less than twenty-four hours. Identifying just what those stakes include is where the trouble begins. Journalists, as well as nearly everyone else, continually overlook the reality that unless an agreement is reached on eventual North Korean denuclearization, the US-North Korea standoff is likely to escalate. The ripple effect of a failed summit could very well lead to US military action to neutralize the North’s nuclear weapons in coming months.

North Korea’s nuclear weapons are a clear and present danger to the United States. The singular purpose of this summit, contrary to what is said in front of the cameras, has always been removing nuclear weapons from Pyongyang’s control. If it turns out to be impossible to do through diplomacy, negotiation, and economic incentive, the US has to consider a kinetic alternative.

To be sure, nobody wants that to happen. Unfortunately, the desires of peaceful people around the world pale in comparison to the crucial interests, and security concerns of sovereign nation states.

President Trump has said that the Singapore meeting will be a one-shot deal for North Korea. Let’s hope Kim Jong Un will understand this and negotiate in good faith.

Thirty-six hours from now we will have a fairly good take on whether or not the summit was successful. In short, a successful summit will see concrete steps towards denuclearization laid down. An unsuccessful meeting places all parties back at square one with little incentive to try the negotiation route again.

Sunday 3 June, 2018 Update: Italy and US Tariffs Will Dominate the G7 Summit This Week

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Not surprisingly, the new Italian government’s calls for debt relief from the European Central Bank (ECB) appear to be falling upon deaf ears. The ECB has released a statement saying current treaties in place forbid such a move. German Chancellor Angela Merkel ruled out the possibility. In an interview published today in Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung Merkel said the eurozone should not be transformed into a ‘debt union.’ These dismissals set the stage for a potential showdown between the EU and Italy’s populist government over the future of Italy’s place in the eurozone. Giuseppe Conte, the new Italian prime minister, is expected to meet with Merkel, and French President Emmanuel Macron at this week’s G7 summit in Canada.

Italy will not be the only major point of discussion in Quebec later this week. US trade tariffs, and their potential impact will be discussed at length. At midnight on Friday tariffs on steel, and aluminum imports from the EU, Canada, and Mexico were put into effect. The US has been negotiating with all parties involved. Progress has been slow in coming, however, prompting the US to take unilateral action. The EU has promised strong countermeasures in response.

Fears of a global trade war have been looming for some time. Negotiations between the US and China appeared to have pushed much of the concern to the background for some time. Markets had stabilized, and investors seemed to be getting over their jitters. If the EU, Canada, and Mexico are unable to reach some sort of compromise with the US this week, those fears could spiral out of control and have an adverse effect on global markets, and the global economy as a whole.

This promises to be a busy upcoming week in Quebec.