2009/05/27

Lack of omnipotence - some still need to get over it

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So North Korea apparently scrapped a nuke by exploding it. Diplomacy - well, the versions of diplomacy that were used on North Korea - was apparently no full success.

That's not terribly surprising or uneasy for a modest man. No tool works every time. You're not always able to win.
Most importantly: Diplomacy is no tool that promises to impose one's own will on others EVERY TIME.

Yet, some people have a serious illusion of omnipotence.

They expect their country to succeed in influencing other countries every time.

The concept of sovereignty is a strange thing, isn't it? Well, it is - at least to them.
There's just one interpretation of events for such ignorant people: Diplomacy was a failure, now let's bomb or invade! (For obvious reasons, I won't link to such diarrhoea.)

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This strain of extremism is in my opinion virulent in the USA and also alive in European nations like the UK, mostly in a minority. Many Hindu Indians, the Israeli right wing and many religious extremists seem to be infected as well. Supposedly extremist countries like Saudi-Arabia, Iran, North Korea are harmless by comparison, as their extremism is mostly limited to self-preservation.
It's no wonder that again and again supposedly civilized Western countries are in the top 10 of threats to world peace polls.

We need to learn that we cannot always have our own way. Humans are supposed to learn that at the age of about four, but too many of us apparently didn't learn it.
Several Western societies as a whole need to learn modesty and respect for ALL other nations. That's what we agreed to when we signed the Charter of the United Nations.

The way to go is to marginalize extremists - left and right, up and down. It's an effective cure for many illnesses that plague Western societies, and it's promising in this case as well.

That alone won't be enough if a lack of modesty and respect is a mainstream trait. Such countries need to grow up.


No matter how large, populous or rich your country is - you cannot always win.
You won't always win even if you're ready to compromise for win-win agreements.
There are limits to one's abilities, and grown-ups accept that.


A principle in personnel affairs, the Peter principle, says "In a Hierarchy Every Employee Tends to Rise to His Level of Incompetence." It can be observed in all organizations.

This principle seems to work in international affairs as well. States spend a lot of effort in pursuit of their interests (or the interests of their agents). They will eventually reach too far and fail.
It's entirely natural. No person and no state is omnipotent. Shit happens.
No matter how mighty you or your nation are - you can and will exceed the limit once in a while and fail.


Grown-up, modest people without delusions of grandeur can live with such a insufficiency. They are unlikely to draw wrong conclusions about the tool that failed and will instead use the experience to avoid a repetition of their error.

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10 comments:

  1. so... your words say that you believe that you cannot win all the time (which is absolutely a truth). However, and please correct me if I'm wrong, you seem to be insinuating that we should not TRY and win. I believe that not trying to deal with the issue is the opposite of pragmatic rather than being a measured and rational response. Accepting the situation is important, but giving up is not an option, especially when the stakes are so high.

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  2. That approach certainly didn't serve the Japanese well in 43-45.

    One point is that you need to accept there are limits. This means that if diplomacy fails you shouldn't conclude that diplomacy sucks, but that shit happens nd it only failed this time. Any conclusions that diplomacy is a poor tool in general is stupid if based on one or few instances (and yes, I've seen and heard such nonsense).

    And more in general:

    Imagine a wet, soft terrain. You want to cross it by car and choose a 4wd vehicle. You shouldn't even bother to try to cross the field by car if the soil condition is too bad, as getting stuck is a really bad thing.
    Maybe you try your luck and get stuck - then you should stop and try to move backwards to recover.
    If that fails - stop the engine and walk back. You would only make matters worse by pushing the accelerator pedal even more as you are already stuck.

    Those who cannot accept their limits will push for it and sink even worse.
    Those who understand a poor situation recover or at least limit the damage.
    Those with foresight and a great understanding of their limits are unlikely to fail in the first place because they avoid pushing beyond their limits.


    Indeed, giving it a try in every case is what I advice against.
    It's unreasonable to believe that anyone would advocate complete inaction, though.

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  3. Thanks for clarifying, I believe I just misinterpreted what you wrote. I agree with most of what you are saying.

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  4. Diplomacy is quite the art form in itself. I don't know if you're referring to an specific statemant made by a particular policymaker in reference to North Korea, but threats of military action may be diplomatic in their own right. Or, you know, some type of warship that happens to drift a little too close to the North Korean border. Just don't pull a stunt like SMS Panther. ;)

    Anyway, staying within your metaphor, just because you got stuck with one car doesn't mean you shouldn't try with another. What one needs to see is the limitations of the specific tool one is using. Some countries might respond to economic sanctions, others to threats, still others to deals and partnership. You just need to find that button.

    When every attempt fails, or you clearly see that the other party has no interest whatsoever in listening to you, then it's time to use force. Don't forget there's also a point where you should use force. Remember the 1930s? In the case of North Korea, I don't know whether all the options are exhausted, but then again I don't know how the regime thinks, what it wants, etc. Still we have to remember that North Korea might not look very threatening to us Europeans, but that our East Asian allies may have a very different opinion.

    Speaking of Krauts: I recently stumbled upon your blog and found it very interesting. I particularly like the fact that you don't shy away from "minor" topics such as small unit tactics, small arms, etc. Other blogs are more concerned with grand strategy and the like. Which, btw, is why I'm a bit befuddled as to why you don't write in German. Yes, you reach an international readership, but as you know we clearly need more serious security policy debate in Germany, to which I believe you could make a valuable contribution.

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  5. Historically few nations have had the luxury to treat each other with respect and restraint when they have a conflict of interest. The current lack of war between nations(American wars being a special case) is due to American/Wetsern hegemony. Most third world governments are heavily influenced by the United States and to a lesser extent Europe and pressure by these powers usually prevents war and keeps them in line. When the Pax Americana eventually ends, history will pick right up again(sorry Fukuyama).

    Anyway, to the point Because North Korea is an economic basket-case fortress state, the only real threat their regime faces is a major war against them by the US and South Korea(maybe in some scenario China). The US really has very little leverage apart from the threat of military destruction, which is less and less credible as the US continues to overextend itself militarily and financially. For North Korea, some level of nuclear deterence is extremely desirable(assuming they can attain it without provoking war with the US or their neighbors), and the total lack of diplomatic leverage against them means they will pursue nuclear capabilities all the way to the brink of war. The fact that such a war would be disastrous for all involved means that they will probably obtain a credible nuclear deterrent. Even a handful of missiles capable of delivering warheads against Japan, South Korea, and China would be all the deterrent they need. On the other side, one has to wonder whether Kim Jong Il will use his nuclear weapons for deterence only, he obviously cares nothing for the people he rules, and is perfectly capable of ensuring his own survival in the event of a nuclear war, so he could use those weapons to openly bully his neighbors. Diplomacy is obviously doomed to failure, and if a nuclear North Korea is to be prevented, some form of military confrontation is probably necessary. Unless we can find a way to knock off Kim.

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  6. Seriously - just invent a nickname, please.

    "For North Korea, some level of nuclear deterence is extremely desirable(assuming they can attain it without provoking war with the US or their neighbors), and the total lack of diplomatic leverage against them means they will pursue nuclear capabilities all the way to the brink of war."

    That regime wants to survive badly, so I give the benefit of doubt to the version that their nukes are really just for deterrence. That makes NK quite harmless unless someone attacks them.

    "When every attempt fails, or you clearly see that the other party has no interest whatsoever in listening to you, then it's time to use force. Don't forget there's also a point where you should use force. Remember the 1930s?"

    "Then" it's POSSIBLY time to use force. There's rarely a compelling reason why someone should begin to be violent just because he doesn't get what he wants with words.
    You know what happens to individuals who behave like that, and pretty much everybody agrees that it's the way how to treat such behaviour.

    I'm notoriously difficult to convince that to start a war is a good idea. You used the 30's example. That's a huge exception in human history.
    I'm still refining a personal rule set for war or not war (written in constitution style) and check it once in a while with history to see how it would work. I've yet to identify a historical example of when a more aggressive rule set would have proven to be superior.
    But that project will last for a few more years.

    By the way; about half of my readers have a German IP and geopowers linked to me a while ago, so I think my German readership is not much impaired by the choice of English as language. German security policy debates don't involve English illiterates anyway.

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  7. Personally, I think it could be either very lucrative in the long run or very disastrous for South Korea if they annex the North. The good: look what South Korea already has. They have a very robust economy, a large and powerful military (many say more powerful than the North Korean military), and a very energetic and vibrant population with the trademark confucian work-ethic. With the capture of North Korea, the amount of resources available increases tremendously, especially in the area of uranium (indeed, North Korea was where the Japanese uranium mining effort in Korea was centered). If it goes well, it can increase even further the power of the South Korean economy (they can even upgrade and take advantage of the already established North Korean industrial base). Economics is just one area of advantage. The US benefits as well; she now has an even more powerful ally with (perhaps) one of the world's strongest economies and (perhaps) one of the world's strongest militaries right on the border with China. Therefore, Korea is now secure and the US troops can go home.

    The bad is just as negative as the good is positive. The North Korean population is a very un-energetic and brainwashed society. The twenty million North Koreans will have to be completely reintegrated with society, which creates a drag in and of itself. If they don't, they still create a drag. It would be the experience of North Koreans in South Korea times a few million (long story short: bad!). Instead of being able to reap all of the benefits, South Korea will have to spend a generation or two with this societal burden. They know how to work, but they do not know how to be creative. They do not know how to contribute to the consumer based economy through dining or going to a shopping center or anything of the sort. Indeed, they are taught that doing that is evil! So when one considers going to war with North Korea (any party, really), one must consider the consequences. There will definitely be the immediate benefit of taking out a rogue regime that is taking up a lot of foreign aid money, and there will be some economic benefit in the very long run. But what happens in between the invasion and the economic rewards? The creation of a useless sub-nation in Korea. It is very easy to be like the US circa 2002. "We will go into Iraq, destroy that damn rogue regime, and we'll be greeted as liberators!" And destroy it they did indeed. In less then a month in fact, in one of the most spectacular feats of warfare in a long time. What happened afterwards? They didn't really think about what happened AFTER they destroyed those "damn Iraqis" did they? ;)

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  8. I actually don't consider economic benefits as a legitimate reason for war.

    The U.S. troops wouldn't "go home" after a Korean unification.
    We have still thousands in Germany and a unified Korea would border on China, so there would probably stay even more U.S. troops in Korea after such a war than there are now.

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  9. Well, the economic benefit could be used as some as further impetus for war (of course it is not a good reason for war; the US would have conquered Canada by now if that was the case for its tremendous oil reserves). I was mistaken about the US troops leaving, you are certainly correct in that regard. The main point is that any attack on North Korea must have a so-called "exit strategy" as South Korea will be stuck with 20 million individual drains on Korean society and it must be prepared for that. Therefore, aside from the "normal" considerations that come before deciding to start any war, the unique situation of the Korean peninsula must be taken into account. You can try to simply destroy North Korea's military capacity, but that could result in some unpredictable and negative consequences internally (unrest, further starvation perhaps). Its a difficult dilemma.

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  10. Danger Room has an interesting piece on North Korea: what Army would the U.S. even send? :D

    By the way, I'm the first anonymous poster, I actually had an account, I just didn't bother to log in ... anyhow, concerning German. While you certainly have a point, I don't think the benefits outweigh the costs here. Personally I believe very strongly that a real democratic debate about security issues is necessary. That means including as many people as possible. Quite frankly, using English is just a means of excluding certain people, one might even call it elitism. Lack of understanding is just one problem. Others might find it strenuous to read such complex texts in English and thus simply loose interest. Well it obviously depends on who you're trying to address. And I guess you're not just trying to cover German topics but European or even transatlantic ones as well. Well, European defence is still in the making, and there's at least one good blog already covering that area. Obviously there are a lot of great blogs in English, and while I do think you're capable of matching their level of expertise, there is a gaping hole where German military blogs should be. (Yes I know there are quite a few, but none of it is revolutionary in any way, they are in fact just extensions of the old print/media enterprises with no fresh thinking and mostly plain information.) But it's your blog, I just wanted to get his one off my chest. :)

    Anyway, sorry for hijacking this post with my issue.

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