Some comment exchange and the bigger picture


Someone commented on a naval-themed blog

Kim Jong-un is really a "chip off the old block (Kim Jong-il's)" who, no doubt, warned him to maintain the longstanding course that appears and occasionally behaves "insanely". Otherwise, DPRK's leader would lose the respect of his equally belligerant and behaviorally unbalanced allies. Then, North Korea's reputation as one of the world's most problematic states would deny its only claim to fame, and its populace might eventually revolt.
Regardless, Insanity should grant no leader, whether or not a signatory a pass from violating the world's strategic arms limitations,. He will have to be confronted if he actually commits an "insane" act of war. Why postpone the confrontation until he actually has thermonuclear weapons?

My answer was

Some serious analysis with a non-bullshit mind actually reveals that North Korea's behaviour since 1990 makes almost perfect sense from a regime survival point of view.
Backing by the USSR and PRC have become unreliable if not irrelevant as protection against South Korea and the USA. The conventional forces would not survive a conventional campaign either (even NK light infantry was badly devalued by night sight advances).
Thus North Korea emphasised
- ballistic missiles, understood as scary to Westerners since the Scud show of 1991
- a few nukes, the ultimate deterrent and scare device
- conventional artillery in range of Seoul. Incapable of surviving for long, but still scary to Seoul and South Korea
- creating and polishing an erratic madman image, inherited by successive dynastic leaders
There are of course people who are superficial enough to fall for this show and actually believe all the stuff. And other people who may or may not be true believers whip up fear with fearmongering about North Korea in order to funnel more money to the military that's not important regarding NK because South Korea itself has much more military power than necessary to defeat and occupy North Korea, and doing it alone is their only chance of keeping the PRC out if there's a Korean War II sometime. A U.S. participation would be about the dumbest thing imaginable in the region, for it would draw the PRC into that conflict. AGAIN.

Remember the "axis of evil" nonsense? Such primitive fearmongering devices are being used to enable (and promote) aggressive policies and resource re-allocation in support of these confrontational foreign policies. There are industries, bureaucracies and other groups (often even foreign countries) who benefit from such but the nation as a whole hardly ever does. Top the nation, expenses in support of confrontational foreign policy are government consumption that yields no public goods, essentially no benefits. Repairing bridges, cleaning up poisoned areas, investing in research and paying down public debt would be much better alternatives.
There are essentially no benefits from confrontational foreign policy. it's entertaining for stupid people in some ways, but entertainment can be had much cheaper, without thousands getting killed, disabled or disfigured.

What was the benefit to the West from the Iraq War, for example? Point at it, I dare you. Iraq was no threat at all, and anybody not too stupid to look at a globe or map knew that. Particularly with all that "WMD" stuff being easily visible lies (seriously, most of it was debunked before the war already, showing that the liars were liars!) and Iraq's conventional military having received hardly any repairs, spares or upgrades after 1990 and having suffered the loss of the huge majority of its heavy weapons and combat aircraft during 1991. Well, that and the successful disarmament regarding ballistic missiles and stuff through the inspections till 1996.
So there was absolutely nothing to be gained for Western nations by attacking Iraq, but a few warmongers, a few industries and in a strange way the subsequently funds-flooded armed bureaucracies did benefit at the expense of all others.

The fearmongering and confrontational attitude are hurting the infected nations. It's wasteful activity, self-harming and even more harmful to others, with no net benefit for any country.

Foreign leaders are perceived as caricatures, foreign countries are being perceived as comic story-like empires of evil instead of as countries, and the aversions and idiocy spills over into domestic affairs, with discrimination against people from the vilified regions or countries or even only their majority religions.

Defence policy should be about deterrence and defence for the own nation and if applicable, alliance.
Security policy may be about a bit more, but whatever "more" is being added on top of actual defence policy should be subjected to a cost/benefit test, with the burden of proof being on those who want to spend more on it. Those benefits should be identified rationally, not by hysterical idiots, irrational military fanbois or paid political shills. 

For example, German troops were in a mission to Congo for peacekeeping during elections there. Most Germans didn't even notice, and I'm sure that almost no German whatsoever had any benefit (save for those who received extra pay) from this operation. This isn't even an example about confrontational foreign policy, but it suffers from the same defect: No justification. Congo is the business of the African Union, not ours.



  1. Speaking as an American who has watched these tragic policies I can only agree.

    The basic problem is that World War 2 and the Cold War created a permanent mindset that we must police the entire world. This is exploited by rent-seeking factions wishing to enhance their own power, and scaring people is often a good way to win elections. We also have malign actors in our political scene who privilege Israel's perceived interests over our own.

    I'm not sure why we should be defending South Korea at all. In addition to South Korea being a rich country that can defend itself, we derive zero benefit from it. South Korea aggressively exports its goods to our market, while closing its own market to our goods. The presence of so many American soldiers in Asia also threatens China, which creates dangerous catastrophic risks.

    Things may finally be changing. I am part of the right and have long been an anti-interventionist. Traditionally my associates always supported them out of misguided patriotism. Things began to change in the Obama administration (in part since he's in the other party). Everyone agreed Libya was a disaster, and most thought it best to sit Syria out (though they consider Assad a monster). Unfortunately the older ones are easily manipulated into wishing to fight Russia due to Cold War memories.

    This election cycle augurs possible change. There are prominent dissident candidates running for President in both parties who openly question our past 20 years of foreign policy blundering.

    I do have to disagree with you on one thing--that paying down debt is a good idea.

    Debt is money, so paying down debt is deflationary and reduces real demand. It can be necessary to fight inflation, but with long-term interest rates at 2% and no consumer price inflation that's quite unnecessary today. All new federal debt created has the effect of adding a new financial asset to the private sector.

    What should be done, instead, is to use that debt as you suggest: invest in infrastructure and research instead of colonial wars. As the economy nears full employment it is time to move the budget into surplus.

    The debt we should be concerned about is rather our trade deficit. We have the opposite problem of your country here.

    1. There's a time to make debt because sudden high demand for public goods and services (such as costs of war or economic crisis) cannot be matched with revenues and there's a time for paying back the debt.

      Public debt is mostly deferred taxation on those parts of the population that are either influential or above-average able to evade taxation.

      The time to pay the bills can only be delayed (unles there's a bankruptcy), though. In the U.S. the 50's were the time of high taxes on the high income earners to pay for WW2 and Korean War debts while investing in highways and education.

      BTW, Bacevich may be your kind of guy:

      And seriously, "20 years"?
      I'd either begin with the support for the coup in Iran 1953, with April 1961 (Bay of Pigs, Vietnam escalation) or with September 1982 (deployment of troops to Beirut).

  2. Public goods aren't so much demanded (except by bureaucrats and to a lesser extent voters) as provided. The scenarios you envision are political choices. It's possible to engage in austerity during an economic crisis (not that I recommend it), and the United States is so overwhelmingly secure that any war we get into is of our own choosing.

    It's not 2007-2008 anymore, but in many respects the US economy (and many other industrialized countries) is in a permanent crisis. Workforce participation ratios are at an all time low, wages for blue collar workers have been declining for 40 years, our infrastructure is crumbling, and manufacturing as a share of our GDP is 50% lower than it is in your country.

    I view those factors as a highly compelling reason to INCREASE deficit spending, though of course it would be somewhat wasteful if not coupled with other reforms intended to accelerate economic growth.

    We have no foreign currency borrowings whatsoever nor any need to issue, so the only risk is that surplus countries stop recycling their surpluses into our capital markets. That is a big risk, but they know we could strike back by simply defaulting.

    It's true that the top marginal tax rate on personal income in the 1950s was 91%, but total tax revenue collected by the federal government as a share of GDP has been more or less constant since the late 1940s--about 20% of GDP. In the 1950s there was no Federal Department of Education, though there was the Montgomery GI Bill (this partly paid for war veterans' higher education) as well as some science education funding related bills after the Sputnik shock. About 70% of federal spending in the 1950s was in fact for defense and defense spending was around 10% of GDP--both far more than today.

    Bacevich is great and I've been reading him for the past 5 years.

    We could project back into time endlessly on foreign policy mistakes if we so chose. For instance, the War of 1812 was a disastrous blunder (though it had beneficial long-term effects on our industrialization).

    I cited the past 20 years because the contemporary pattern of pointless, self-destructive, and possibly illegal wars began with the NATO attack on Serbia and has only gotten worse since then.

    Certainly there were many errors made during the Cold War, though I am not a strict non-interventionist like you. I view the coup against Mossadegh as a good thing as I oppose Third World countries nationalizing resources owned by Western capital. Similarly I think the US should've invaded Mexico in 1938 over this instead of just boycotting the country.

    I would rather prefer a foreign policy more like what we pursued before the Wilson Administration, which was commercially oriented, regional in focus, and primarily aimed at securing commercial advantage.

    1. The Kosovo War was only in 1999. The Sudan cruise missile strike of 1998
      is another possible starting point.

      And seriously, countries have and deserve their sovereignty. To say nationalising of foreign-owned industries is an excuse for invasion is about the same as saying that the U.S. freezing Iranian-owned bank accounts a couple years ago would have justified an Iranian attack on the United States. It's utter nonsense. Such policies are mere rule of force policies, and thus undermine rules-based international relations which are a gazillion times more useful than anything you could get out of interventions these days. Moreover, wars and coups over the ownership of some mines or oil fields is a racket that usually benefited but a few thousand people in total. It's banana wars nonsense.

    2. While there was no good reason for the Sudan missile strike, I can't really identify harm coming from it either. Sudan has close to zero strategic relevance. That said any decision-making process in which leads to randomly bombing another country in order to reduce legal scrutiny of the President is a very, very bad one.

      We're going to have to agree to disagree on the sovereignty issue.

      I sort countries into four tiers. I do not think countries are or should be equal or held to the same standards. What is or ought to be permissible for a great power is not the same as what is allowed for a weak state.

      First tier are great or potentially powers like USA, Russia, China, Japan, Germany, India, France, UK, etc.

      These countries have the absolute means (or the means to rapidly acquire said means) to defend their sovereignty aggressively and inflict massive pain on an antagonist.

      First tier countries should be accorded a sphere of influence and treated cautiously. One of the most dangerous features of American foreign policy is not according a sphere of influence to Russia or China.

      Second tier countries are highly industrialized countries which are not large enough to easily develop great military power. These countries should be treated respectfully but be pushed, cajoled, and even bullied to accommodate the strategic interests of a great power.

      Examples of such countries would be all of Western Europe outside of the four or five largest countries and Taiwan (which in my model should be accorded to the PRC's sphere of influence).

      Third tier countries are states with functioning bureaucratic, military, and economic machinery but not particularly advanced or civilized.

      Countries like these should fall in line with the nearest great power. As these countries are somewhat capable of resisting great powers, care should be taken to avoid excessively alienating them. Their de jure sovereignty should be preserved in most cases. The main way to shape their actions should be by buying off local elites and threatening isolation from the world economic system if they don't comply. Coup d'etats and bombing are on the table for severe malfeasance, but invasion should be avoided except as a last resort. Occupations should be avoided unless the great power invader in question has a ruthless disrespect for human rights (e.g. China). If the second tier country is sufficiently small then occupation by even a civilized power can be workable. For instance if the US were to occupy Nicaragua again this would not be a big deal.

      A third tier country of sufficient size can become effectively second tier simply because of sheer mass. Iran and Pakistan are third-tier style countries which deserve second tier status. India is a case of a third tier style country that's so large it must be treated as a first tier country.

      In the fourth tier are uncivilized basket cases which can't govern themselves. These countries carved up by the great powers and colonized.

      This basically describes most of sub-Saharan Africa. There should be a new Berlin Conference to divide up Africa between the United States, the EU, China, Japan, India, and maybe South Korea. Russia should be invited but they would likely decline to attend just as in the first Berlin Conference.

      So in this framework, saying that the US freezing Iranian-owned bank accounts justifies an Iranian attack on the United States does not follow.

      Such an Iranian move would be completely out of place with its position in the global hierarchy.

      Of course, the US is not treating Iran fairly as a second tier state either.

      I agree that we need rules-based international relations, but the current rules are based on false and appalling notions of equality.

      We need new rules which are based on real power realities, not the cackbrained ideals of starry eyed 1940s New Dealers.

    3. I think you fall for the same erroneous assumptions as do so many Americans; the belief that there weren't, aren't and will not be repercussions for bad manners of the government There are plenty sanctions and undesirable consequences, they're just not as obvious as a UN embargo or getting bombed by another alliance.
      Furthermore, I don't agree with your tier system in any way.