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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

Monday Wake Up Call – February 11, 2019

The Daily Escape:

The Piedmont Kilns, Wyoming. They were built in 1869 to supply charcoal for the iron smelting industry in Utah. Part of a ghost town, three remain.

A wave of bankruptcies is sweeping the US Farm Belt, and Trump’s trade disputes are adding to the pain. The primary cause is low commodity prices that American farmers have experienced for the past few years. Throughout much of the Midwest, US farmers are filing for Chapter 12 bankruptcy protection at levels not seen for at least a decade.

From the WSJ:

“Bankruptcies in three regions covering major farm states last year rose to the highest level in at least 10 years. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, had double the bankruptcies in 2018 compared with 2008. In the Eighth Circuit, which includes states from North Dakota to Arkansas, bankruptcies swelled 96%. The 10th Circuit, which covers Kansas and other states, last year had 59% more bankruptcies than a decade earlier.”

Those states accounted for nearly half of all sales of US farm products in 2017, according to USDA data. Since 2000, China’s share of our agricultural exports has increased from two percent to about 19% in 2017. China has become our largest agricultural trading partner.

The rise in farm bankruptcies tracks a multi-year slump in prices for corn, soybeans and other farm commodities caused by a world-wide glut. Prices for soybeans and hogs further declined after Mexico, along with China, retaliated against US steel and aluminum tariffs by imposing duties on our AG products, and then slashing purchases.

Farmers generally supported Trump’s tariffs when he started the trade war in 2018. China’s retaliation was to virtually cease purchasing American agricultural products. As an example, China moved the sourcing of soybeans from the US to Brazil. When a low margin business like farming loses 20% of sales, only those who aren’t in debt can survive. And most US farmers owe quite a bit to their bankers.

The Trump administration recognized the potential problem, and approved funding to bridge farmers across the decline in Chinese purchases, but the trade war has gone on for longer than anticipated.

Now, bankruptcies are way up, and exports to China are way down:

Source: Econbrowser

Unfortunately, we keep importing from China. But in the past year, the Chinese have stopping buying as much of our goods. Clearly, the bull our farmers got isn’t in their barn, but in the White House.

Republicans are saying that the surge in farm bankruptcies isn’t Trump’s fault, that the problem with the farm product glut started years ago. But, if Republicans want to give Trump credit for the good employment numbers, and a still-robust stock market, they have to blame him for the bad as well.

Time to wake up America! Disruption without a strategy brings chaos. And think back to the SOTU, when Trump said how he stood between us and socialism. But Trump’s picking winners and losers with his trade wars. He’s using tax-payer money to subsidize farmers damaged by his self-imposed trade wars. That sounds eerily like socialism to Wrongo.

Wake up to the fact that farmers are pawns in Trump’s capricious tantrums against China. Those who have played chess know that most of your pawns are gone by the end of the game.

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Saturday Soother – February 9, 2019

The Daily Escape:

Coyote in Litchfield County CT – February 2019 photo by Sharon Shea

For more than 30 years, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) has been one of the cornerstones of the international security system. But, on February 1st, Trump announced that the US would suspend its obligations under the INF Treaty. Shortly thereafter, Russia’s President Putin announced that Russia will also officially suspend its treaty obligations.

Trump swings another wrecking ball! Defense One reported that Trump said that the US:

“Will move forward with developing…its own military response options and will work with NATO members and other allies to deny Russia any military advantage from its unlawful conduct.”

This means that Trump will start the development, production and deployment of formerly INF-banned weapons.

Until the treaty took effect in 1988, the US had hundreds of nuclear-tipped ground-launched cruise missiles, or GCLMs all over Europe. Today, all cruise missiles are either air or sea-launched. New GCLMs are likely to be returning soon. Contenders include converting the sea-launched Tomahawk cruise missile, and the air-launched Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile, or JASSM.

Walking away from the INF Treaty opens the door to both sides building land-based nuclear capable missiles with a range beyond 300 miles.

There are two things to think about: Cost, and Strategic necessity. Kingston Reif, a policy director at the Arms Control Association, said the cost of the new missile systems would be much higher than the $6 billion or so it cost in the 1980s.

On the subject of necessity, he says:

“The United States can already…threaten the same Russian targets that new ground-launched missiles prohibited by INF Treaty would….In addition, no European nation has agreed to host such a missile, which could take years to develop. And even if one in Eastern Europe did, such a deployment would be a significant source of division within the alliance—one Russia would be eager to try and exploit—be hugely provocative, and put missiles in a place where they would be especially vulnerable to Russian preemption…”

The downside to the US withdrawing from the treaty is that we currently have no strategy to prevent Russia from building and fielding even more and new intermediate-range missiles.

Since Russia already announced it will now build these new missiles, our NATO allies in Europe have decisions to make. They will have to pursue options to defend themselves, to mitigate the damage done by the collapse of the treaty.

We’re entering a new Cold War with Russia.

Some believe that the INF treaty is obsolete, because many nations are developing effective missiles and launching capabilities that will be outside the limitations of the INF. Since we all will continue to develop these technologies, maybe the best we can hope for is to negotiate new treaties that address this increasing lethality down the road.

OTOH, Trump and his neocons are doing everything they can to encircle Russia with missile bases while claiming the moral high ground. We should expect them to utilize Poland, the Baltic states, and possibly Ukraine (if they can get away with it), as forward missile bases.

They figure that since geography favors them, why negotiate if you can win? Russia already called our bluff. For this strategy to work, the US must threaten Russia from Europe while simultaneously putting Europe under our new missile thumb. It might work, but there are many moving parts.

Republicans of course supported Trump, cheering about the breakup of a treaty signed by Ronald Reagan. When Wrongo grew up, the threat of nuclear annihilation was real. We drilled for it in school. He then ran a nuclear missile unit in Europe at the height of the Cold War. These were formative experiences that implied very dangerous consequences.

And think about our domestic politics: If someone were to run in 2020 as anti-Cold War II, they would have to say we need to work with the Russians to find a peaceful way out of this mess. Trump will then run to their right, saying Russia must be stopped.

Scared yet? A presidency based on disruption will do that to you.

Time for your Saturday Soother. Try to unplug from all the data that are streaming into your life for a few minutes. Start by brewing up a strong cuppa Hula Daddy Kona Coffee ($45.95/half pound) from the Big Island of Hawaii. You can see their plantation here.

Now settle back and listen to Abba’s “The Winner Takes It All” performed as a guitar instrumental by Gabriella Quevedo:

For those who may have forgotten the lyric, it includes this:

The winner takes all

It’s the thrill of one more kill

The last one to fall

Will never sacrifice their will

Think there will be winners in the new Cold War?

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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Should America Intervene in Venezuela?

The Daily Escape:

Bald Eagle on the Housatonic River, CT – February, 2019 photo by JH Clery

On Sunday’s Face the Nation, Trump was asked about Venezuela and whether he’d negotiate with President Maduro to convince him to exit. Trump put military intervention squarely on the table:

“MARGARET BRENNAN: What would make you use the U.S. military in Venezuela? What’s the national security interest?

DONALD TRUMP: Well I don’t want to say that. But certainly it’s something that’s on the- it’s an option.”

This seems to be part of a larger Latin American plan. The WSJ reports that the Trump administration’s plans include regime change in Venezuela, Nicaragua and eventually Cuba. This is a multiyear neocon project that has at least some bipartisan political support. It may require military force, as Trump indicated to CBS that he’s willing to consider. One thing that the WSJ reports is this:

“US law-enforcement officials say they have evidence Mr. Maduro directed state resources to create what they allege has become one of the most powerful international narco-trafficking operations in the world, and with links to Hezbollah, the Lebanese group designated by the US as a terror organization.”

So, there you have the first Western Hemisphere argument to “fight them over there, rather than fight them here”.

As we said on Saturday, nothing unites a country like a sovereign enemy on its borders. Venezuelans may hate Maduro, but they also hate the US. China and Russia may be worried about the $50 billion and $17 billion Venezuela owes each respectively. Turkey has also supported Maduro. Although they all are Maduro’s allies, it is unclear if they would be willing to help, should the US intervene.

The consequences of all of our former interventions should be screaming at us. But, John Bolton, Mike Pompeo and Donald Trump seem deaf to the messages. Bolton said:

“We think stability and democracy in Venezuela are in the direct national interests of the United States right now…The authoritarian regime of Chávez and Maduro has allowed the penetration by adversaries of the United States, not least of which is Cuba.

Some call the country ‘Cubazuela’, reflecting the grip that Cuba’s military and security forces have on the Maduro regime. We think that is a strategic significant threat to the United States and there are others as well, including Iran’s interest in Venezuela’s uranium deposits.”

Maduro is no prize. The Economist reports: (brackets by Wrongo)

In the past five years GDP has fallen by half. Annual inflation is reckoned to be 1.7m%…which means that Bolívar savings worth $10,000 at the start of the year [will] dwindle to 59 cents by the end….People are malnourished and lack simple medicines, including antibiotics. Hospitals have become death traps for want of power and equipment. Blaming his troubles on foreign conspiracies, Mr. Maduro has rejected most offers of humanitarian aid.

Juan Guaidó, head of the Maduro opposition, and President of the National Assembly, has support from the EU, and the Lima Group of 12 Western Hemisphere countries (including Argentina, Brazil and Canada). The US recognized Guaidó early.

The question is, should we intervene at all? And if the answer is yes, how should we intervene?

The US is still Venezuela’s main trading partner. Last week, we imposed curbs on purchases of the country’s crude oil, and a ban on imports from the US of the diluents that must be blended with the extra-heavy oil from the Orinoco Belt to allow it to flow through domestic pipelines. The first hits Venezuela’s oil exports, while the second curbs their production. This will reduce revenue from oil exports by more than $11 billion.

By ordering that payments for Venezuelan oil be put in bank accounts reserved for Guaidó’s government, the US hopes to asphyxiate the regime, expecting that the armed forces will then switch sides to Guaidó.

Venezuelans face the dreadful task of having to topple their own government. This primarily means persuading their army to change sides. Other nations can pledge moral support to Juan Guaidó. But sanctions and US threats may prove counterproductive.

Venezuela poses no threat to US security. Since GW Bush, we’ve found excuses to attack Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria. We’ve imposed economic sanctions on Russia, Iran and Myanmar. The gain for our security has been negligible.

Military intervention has become an occupational disease of America’s leaders.

The urge to help Venezuelans in need is natural. Doing nothing is painful and seems callous. But will intervening really help? Even states with despotic leaders are sovereign. They must make and correct their own mistakes, and ultimately, be strengthened by doing so.

Regime change in Caracas is one possible outcome of our intervention. Civil war is another.

It is a certainty is that American lives and money will be lost.

Trump must choose wisely if intervention is on the table.

Any bets on that?

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Saturday Soother – February 2, 2019

The Daily Escape:

Hoggar National Park, Algeria – 2015 photo by Amri Mohammed

The blog Political Violence @ a Glance posted an article, “Three Lessons from the History of Foreign-Imposed Regime Change” by Melissa Willard-Foster, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Vermont.

She puts the Trump Administration’s support of Venezuela’s opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, in perspective. Despite the fact that while Trump was running for president, he promised to “stop racing to topple foreign regimes,” he’s now saying Venezuela’s president Maduro must go.

According to Willard-Foster, there is a long tradition by American presidents of attempting Foreign-Imposed Regime Change, or FIRC. She lays out three FIRC lessons from our history:

Lesson #1

The more fragile a leader’s political power is, the less likely that leader will cave in to foreign pressure. Weak leaders are difficult to coerce. If a foreign power demands change, the more the incumbent fears an attack by domestic enemies. The incumbent becomes very difficult to coerce.

But politically weak leaders often seem relatively easy to overthrow, and their domestic enemies are more than happy to help the foreign power take them out. Willard-Foster’s research shows that the probability of FIRC rises by 112% for leaders with at least two predecessors taken out by a coup, or rebellion in the past ten years.

Lesson #2

America’s overthrow of Panama’s Manuel Noriega demonstrates what happens when the domestic politics in the foreign power’s country make it politically feasible for the foreign power to take military action. Like Maduro in Venezuela, Noriega railed against US imperialism and broke off relations with the US. When crises escalate, a single incident can lead to military action, and that happened in Panama. When a US service member died in December 1989 after an encounter with Noriega’s forces, the Bush administration had the domestic political cover it needed. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Colin Powell, made the case for intervention. He argued: (brackets by Wrongo)

“There will be a few dozen casualties if we go [in]…If we don’t go, there will be a few dozen casualties over the next few weeks, and we’ll still have Noriega.”

The US decided that coercing Noriega wasn’t changing anything, but regime change by force could.

The risk of a US military escalation may explain why Maduro offered to negotiate with the opposition—he wants to avoid giving Trump justification for military force.

Lesson #3

The third lesson from the history of FIRC is that no matter how disastrous the last FIRC attempt was, policymakers still believe it will work this time. From Willard-Foster:

Whatever approach failed last is usually what policymakers avoid the next time. When George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton’s indirect approach to toppling Saddam Hussein failed, George W. Bush capitalized on the post 9/11 public mood for war to launch an invasion. The lesson Obama drew from the costly Iraq occupation was to avoid using troops to oust Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi. The fallout in Libya then convinced Obama to avoid using military force in Syria, where he reluctantly funded the Syrian opposition.

Trump’s current Venezuelan approach is an indirect strategy, relying on economic and diplomatic pressure. Whether Maduro stays in power largely depends on the Venezuelan military. If Russia and China can blunt Trump’s economic pressure, Maduro may keep the military’s loyalty.

If China and Russia succeed in propping up Venezuela’s economy, Trump will have two options: Continue calling for regime change, while doing nothing about it, (as he’s doing with Iran) or employ military force. If protests grow, this will suggest Maduro’s position is weakening, which could cause Maduro to lash out, and possibly provide political cover for Trump choosing military force.

In supporting Guaidó, it’s unclear what path Trump will take. If, like Noriega, Maduro believes caving in to US demands will imperil his political (and personal survival), he’ll dig in.

But, a weakened Maduro appears, and still digs in further, the more likely it becomes that Trump will continue the tradition of forcibly toppling foreign regimes.

Time to move on from another week of “All Trump, all the time” to the anticipation of gorging ourselves during the halftime show of Sunday’s Super Bowl. You need to prepare for the chili, nachos, dips, chips and alcohol by relaxing today with a Saturday Soother.

Start by brewing up a strong cup of Honduras Las Flores Parainema ($22/12oz.). It is sourced by the Brooklyn NY-based Café Grumpy, an aptly-named vendor for our times.

Now settle back in a comfy chair, and take a few minutes to listen to Sarah Chang play Elgar’s888 composition, “Salut d’Amour, Op.12”, accompanied by Andrew von Oeyen, on piano. Chang is American, born in US, and raised in New Jersey:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here:

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Intelligence Chiefs Contradict Trump

The Daily Escape:

Edworthy Falls, Elbow Pass, Kananaskis, Alberta, CN – 2018 photo by sluis0717

Just when Wrongo was beginning to think we would make it to 2020 alive and in one piece, testimony by the US Intelligence Chiefs had quite a bit to say about how the world could still blow up. This from Booman: (Brackets by Wrongo)

“In a written report and [subsequent] congressional testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday, the senior members of the United States intelligence community had some interesting things to say. The most important arguments they made directly contradicted their boss, the president.”

They said that North Korea is unlikely to give up their nuclear program, and that Iran is not currently pursuing their nuclear program. Trump is holding a second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in late February. Last week, Trump said that the two sides are making progress in efforts to fully denuclearize the Korean peninsula.

The Intelligence Chiefs assess that Russia will continue to interfere in our politics and our elections. They think that ISIS is far from defeated. They reiterated what a report released to Congress last week by the Pentagon said, that climate change is a national security threat.

Now, the intelligence community doesn’t always get it right, but Trump is on the opposite side of each of these assertions. More from Booman:

“We’re supposed to have a chief executive and commander in chief who is a customer for this kind of intelligence. Our president is supposed to be the primary customer for these types of assessments.  But that’s not the situation we have in this country right now. At the moment, our president has taken public positions contrary to every one of the assessments…and he’s simply not interested in contrary evidence. He is certainly not interested in being contradicted.”

It’s a huge problem when Trump, who makes the final decisions on what we’re doing geopolitically, is fact-free when it comes to threats to our security. Fortunately, the Intelligence Chiefs seem willing to provide honest threat assessments, and testify about them before Congress.

But, there are people within the administration who support whatever Trump wants. Some are even willing to slant the information they provide to the press and to Congress if it supports the president’s stated position. Trump’s position has been that disruption is at the heart of his geopolitics.

In just the past few weeks, we’ve gotten quite a few things wrong. (h/t Arms Control Wonk)

  • On December 6th, the United Nations General Assembly rejected a US resolution to condemn the Islamic militant group Hamas for violence against Israel. The embarrassing vote, which required a two-thirds majority, was 87 in favor to 58 opposed, with 32 abstentions.
  • On December 12th, Secretary of State Pompeo blasted Iran at the UN Security Council and received no support from US allies for walking away from the nuclear deal. In fact, US allies Britain, France and Germany praised Iran for holding up its end of the bargain.
  • On December 21st, the US barely rounded up more votes than Russia on a Russian resolution at the UN calling for the preservation of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty. The vote was 46 against to 43 in favor, with 78 abstentions.
  • On January 10th, Pompeo, speaking in Cairo, declared, “Let me be clear, America will not retreat until the terror fight is over.” The next day, the front-page headline in the New York Times was “U.S. Begins Syria Withdrawal, Amid Uncertainty Over Strategy.”
  • On January 14th, en route to Saudi Arabia, Pompeo declared he was “confident” and “optimistic” that he was nearing a deal with Turkey on a mutually agreeable exit plan from Syria. Later, Trump tweeted that he would “devastate Turkey economically if they hit Kurds.”

On January 22nd Pompeo spoke to the assembled billionaires at Davos:

“Is this pattern of disruption a force for good or not? I’d argue this disruption is a positive development.”

Most of us would say that’s crazy talk.

The Intelligence Chiefs have done everything except sound an air raid siren about this administration’s foreign policy bungling. There’s no indication that the Senate Republicans have mustered the gumption to act on their alarm.

And now, John Bolton tells everybody that Trump wants to send 5,000 troops to Columbia as part of its failing Venezuela strategy.

In another ominous sign, Pompeo added Elliott Abrams, a neocon who was an actor in the Iran-Contra mess, as a Trump administration special envoy overseeing policy toward Venezuela. Maybe you remember that Abrams was pardoned for his Iran-Contra role.

Just two more neocons, completely lacking in principle, but flush with Trump’s authority to disrupt another part of the world.

Read the report, and then think about how it squares with Trump’s policy.

You’ll agree that this will all end perfectly.

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Grading Wrongo’s 2018 Predictions

The Daily Escape:

Military parade in Kremlin – October, 2018 photo by Wrongo

Wrongo dusted off his 2018 predictions and took a look at how he did. In the 23 categories, Wrongo had 16 substantially correct, and 7 incorrect for a 69.5% average. That would have been a “D” at his university. Of course, some grades could have been weighted more heavily than others, but we’re not grading on a curve here at Wrong U.

What follows are the 2018 prediction, followed by the 2018 result:

The US economy as measured by GDP will grow at greater than 2% for 2018.

  • Wrongo wins! The economy grew at an average rate of 3.65% in the four quarters through Sept. 30, 2018.

The US stock market as measured by the S&P 500 Index will end 2018 with little or no growth over year-end 2017.

  • Wrongo loses. Heading into Friday’s trading session, the Dow was down 6.4% in 2018, and the S&P 500 was off 6.9% for the year.

The Trump tax cuts will increase the deficit, and despite Paul Ryan’s best (or worst) efforts to push the country into austerity, that can will be kicked down the road for a few more years.

  • Wrongo wins! The Trump tax cuts increased the deficit to $1 trillion on an annual basis. Paul Ryan leaves office without destroying the social safety net.

The Democrats will not take control of either the House or the Senate in the 2018 mid-term elections.

  • Wrongo happily loses. The Dems took the House by winning 40 seats. They lost a net of two seats in the Senate to the Republicans.

Cyber and other forms of meddling by people who wish our democracy harm will continue in the 2018 elections, to broader effect than in 2016.

  • Wrongo loses. There is no real evidence that cyber meddling had a greater effect on the 2018 election.

Facebook and Google will be held to account for their failure to tamp down disinformation.

  • Wrongo wins! Both are under scrutiny for both their actions and failures to act in 2018.

Trump will continue to flounder as the leader of the Free World, while his “frenemies” in the GOP will continue to try to thwart him on domestic economic legislation.

  • Wrongo loses. The Trump tax cut was a big deal for Republicans, despite the fact that few of them felt that they could run on it in the mid-terms.

There will be some form of bi-partisan accommodation on DACA.

  • Wrongo lost, and so did the nation.

Trump’s public-private infrastructure deal will not pass the Senate.

  • Wrongo wins!

The House will pass legislation that messes with Medicaid, but the Senate will not.

  • Wrongo loses. Trump’s 2019 budget proposal called for a $1.5 trillion cut in Medicaid, but it didn’t pass.

Trump will have the opportunity to appoint another Supreme Court Justice.

  • Wrongo wins, but America lost. We got Kavanaugh ‘ed.

Trump will have a serious medical issue in 2018, but will not leave office, or be temporarily replaced by Pence.

  • Wrongo loses. Trump’s health seems unchanged.

Mueller: By March, MAGA will mean “Mueller Ain’t Going Away”. The storm will crest, a Russiagate conspiracy will be exposed, and crud will fly everywhere. This could lead to the Democrats taking control of one or both Houses.

  • Wrongo wins! It looks like conspiracy, not the collusion Trump talks about.

A few additional Trumpets will go to jail, or be tied up in court. Trump will not be impeached by the 2018 Republicans. 2019 might bring a different calculus.

  • Wrongo wins! Mueller’s team has indicted or gotten guilty pleas from 33 people and three companies that we know of.

Tillerson and possibly other cabinet members will resign to “spend more time with family”.

  • Wrongo wins! At least 40 senior people including 18 who were cabinet-level, resigned.

Middle East:

Syria – by this time next year, the war will be essentially over. Assad will still be in power, and the US will be out of the picture. The Syrian Kurds will switch sides, and collaborate with the Assad regime.

  • Wrongo Wins! We’re pulling out, and the Kurds have switched sides.

Iran – the current protest movement will fizzle out. Neo-cons in Trump’s administration will try to bring us close to war with Iran, but cooler heads at the Pentagon will prevail.

  • Wrongo wins! The protest movement did fizzle. Trump ended our participation in the Nuclear Deal and we re-introduced sanctions. We’re no longer on speaking terms with Iran.

Famine and death in Yemen will continue to be ignored by everyone in the US.

  • Wrongo won, but the Yemenis and world lost.

Russia, China, and Iran will have a “come together” moment, possibly resulting in an agreement for mutual economic cooperation.

  • Wrongo wins! Russia and China are indeed closer together, what with Trump as a common enemy.

Russia will continue to face ongoing battles with the US, but Putin will persist.

  • Wrongo wins! Putin persisted.

Ukraine: The US delivery of anti-tank missiles to the Ukrainian army will not cause them to begin military operations in the east.

  • Wrongo wins! We provided the weapons, they avoided attacks in the east.

Europe: The right-wing authoritarian movements in the Eurozone and England will become a larger factor in their domestic politics. Brexit will occur, and no one in the UK will be happy about the outcome.

  • Wrongo wins! Right-wing political parties are a bigger threat than ever throughout Europe. Brexit happened, with the final outcome still unclear, but no one is happy.

Will there be a war or “incident” with North Korea? Despite the scary politics, the Seoul Winter Olympics will keep the situation from escalating through June. The second half of 2018 could lead to some kind of incident between the US and NorKo, but will not be a nuclear incident.

  • Wrongo wins! There was no scary incident, in fact, relations have been slightly improved.

The year is almost ended, and we can’t pretend that America slid by with more than a D itself. Early in the New Year, we will make a series of predictions for 2019.

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Monday Wake Up Call – October 22, 2018, Treaty Withdrawal Edition

The Daily Escape:

Autumn near Walpole, NH – October 2018 photo by knale

Happy Monday. Over the weekend, Trump announced that the US will be exiting the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, which Reagan and Gorbachev signed in 1987. The INF banned all US and Soviet land-based ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. The weapons ban resulted in the destruction of 2,692 missiles. Washington demolished 846, and Moscow 1,846.

From the NYT:

But the pact has also constrained the United States from deploying new weapons to respond to China’s efforts to cement a dominant position in the Western Pacific and to keep American naval forces at bay. Because China was not a signatory to the treaty, it has faced no limits on developing intermediate-range nuclear missiles, which can travel thousands of miles.

While the treaty was seen as effective, it’s hard to argue that the US is somehow obligated to remain in the INF treaty since we know that Russia has been pushing the edge of envelope for the last few years.

But, Russia’s behavior is just part of Trump’s calculation: His administration would like to develop a larger and more diverse portfolio of nuclear capabilities. It also has concerns about China, which isn’t subject to any arms control agreement, and they specifically rejected joining the INF.

As a result, Beijing has deployed a large number of intermediate and short-range conventional ballistic missiles, pointing them at US allies, including Taiwan.

Washington has focused on ballistic-missile defenses, but it seems that the Trump administration would prefer to respond with next-generation intermediate and short-range weapons. The US has done preliminary work on a new intermediate-range nuclear missile, and if deployed, it would also violate the INF.

It’s also far from clear where such new land-based weapons might be deployed. None of our European allies appear willing to accept them.

And there isn’t enthusiasm for US land-based missiles among our Asian allies. Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, India, and Vietnam all are unlikely to host new US intermediate range missiles. That would leave Guam, which sits 2,400 miles from Beijing and 1,800 miles from Shanghai, not a decisive strategic counter-move.

The only argument for Guam is that those missiles would reach targets in China much faster than weapons sent via Guam-based bombers, but they would still be slower than sea-based cruise missiles.

Walking away from weapons treaties has had adverse diplomatic and strategic consequences in the past. When the GW Bush administration announced its withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2001, the Kremlin responded by withdrawing from the second Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and its prohibition on land-based missiles carrying multiple warheads.

The Kremlin is now moving forward with deployments of new “heavy” land-based missiles that can carry ten or more warheads. Their purpose is to defeat US missile defenses. Likewise, the demise of the INF Treaty would only reinforce the current nuclear competition.

Is Trump doing a smart thing?

The INF Treaty was less about hobbling the US than it was about hobbling Russia. The treaty only covered land- and air-based systems. So the US and NATO held a strategic advantage with its navies.

The only advantage Russia had, and still maintains, is its large land mass that can hide huge numbers of mobile launchers. By withdrawing from the treaty, the US actually plays right into Moscow’s hands. Mobile launchers are notoriously difficult to track down. We can’t do it in North Korea, and we couldn’t do it in Iraq.

Trump thinks he’s playing hardball, but Wrongo thinks his business acumen has been sadly overplayed. Exiting the INF isn’t so good for the Americans. Republicans used to think that fewer international entanglements would allow the US to keep its defense budgets low.

The Trump-Bolton idea turns this on its head. In fact, when it comes to American military security, Trump’s idea relies on magical thinking. It’s not just that his plan isn’t good for national security, it’s also that the Trump administration aims to make the US a military powerhouse while cutting taxes.

Bolton’s aim seems to be to create the conditions that could lead to war, an extraordinarily dangerous game, considering the flakiness of his boss.

Wake up America! Here’s another reason why turning out to vote in November, and then voting to turn out as many of these Republican chicken hawks in DC as we can, is of ultimate importance.

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Japan Re-thinks Role of Its Military

The Daily Escape:

Unusual cloud formations, pre-dawn at Mt. Fuji, Japan – photo by Takashi Yasui

Wrongo lived in Japan while working for the big multinational bank, back in the days when dinosaurs roamed the earth. During his three-year stay, he learned enough Japanese to navigate in business meetings, and bars. When he was there, it had only been 30 years since the end of WWII, and the nuclear-ravaged parts of Japan still had scars, some of which intentionally remain visible today.

One impact of losing the war was that Japan got a new constitution, helpfully provided by us, the conquerors. Enacted in 1947, it made the Emperor a constitutional monarch, where before the war, the Emperor was an absolute ruler. Japan’s constitution is known to some as the “Peace Constitution“. It is best known for Article 9, by which Japan renounced its right to wage war.

No amendment has been made to it since its adoption, but that could be about to change.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has announced that his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is seeking to revise the constitution in the very near future, including changing Article 9. In May, Abe announced that he wanted to add Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) to Article 9. The Nikki Asian Review quoted Abe: (brackets by Wrongo)

Over the past year, discussion of [constitutional] revisions has grown much livelier and more specific….The document currently includes absolutely no provision for our self-defense….We must put an end to debate over [the JSDF’s] constitutionality…

This is on top of evolutionary changes to the use of the JSDF over the past two years. Revised laws authorized military action that previously would have been unconstitutional, including actions in response to “an infringement that does not amount to an armed attack”, or actions outside of Japan, such as minesweeping in the Straits of Hormuz, near Iran.

The key point is that the new changes lower the threshold for the use of force outside Japan.

Robert Farley writes in The Diplomat: (brackets by Wrongo)

Nevertheless, even these [recent] changes allow Japan to act more assertively as a coalition partner in its region. This means acting in either a direct or supportive role for allies or coalition partners threatened by China (or some other international actor). The reasons for such a shift lay in both the increasing power of China, and in uncertainty about the United States.

The world’s power balance is changing. It is totally unclear if the US can be counted as a reliable partner in mutual defense for Europe, or in Asia. Our allies fear that moves towards isolation by the current or any future administration, could leave Japan swinging in the wind.

Add to this the looming threat from North Korea. Japan’s total reliance on the US to blunt that threat, means that Japan feels it must look at a more assertive ability to use military force. Japan has recently purchased the Ageis Ashore system from Lockheed Martin to help partially protect it against North Korea.

Another consideration is Japan’s rapidly shrinking population. The birthrate in Japan is just over 1.3. It needs to be 2.1 to maintain its current population. The Japanese skew quite old, but Japan also refuses to allow immigration. Estimates are that its population will drop from 130 million today to 80 million by 2050.

Japan is likely to become very insecure about the declining population and the increasing regional threats. And that insecurity will be reflected in their next-generation military strategies.

In fact, today’s JSDF is sort of legal fiction. It is said to be an extension of the national police force. But the JSDF has several hundred tanks, 26 destroyers and 19 submarines. Since they already have a military, it doesn’t seem like changing the constitution to allow them to have and use its military should really matter.

OTOH, there is a residual fear of a militarized Japan in Asia and in the West. Some think that Japan, like Germany, is among the countries that shouldn’t be taking on expanded military roles. This is why the US has large, permanent bases in both countries.

Wrongo thinks that this is a superficial reading of today’s issues. Obviously Japan hasn’t fully apologized for its actions in WWII, or earlier, and both the Koreans and Chinese work to ensure that we never forget.

In the real world, Japan is an amazingly under-defended country. It has traditionally relied on the US to fund its defense, and make most of the hard choices about its defense.

Well, now that we’re no longer totally reliable, they really have no plan at all.

We shouldn’t have a particular problem if Japan or Germany decide they want to avail themselves of the full range of diplomatic and yes, the military options available to sovereign nation-states.

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Trump’s Tariffs Unite China and Russia

The Daily Escape:

Detail of the Peacock Gate, the City Palace, Jaipur India – photo by Miya.m – CC BY-SA 3.0

Do you know about the Eastern Economic Forum (EEF)? The EEF was started by Russia in 2015, as part of Moscow’s push to revitalize its ties with Asia after its relations with the West began to sour. The US doesn’t attend, although CA governor Jerry Brown attended in 2017.

Now, it attracts heads of state from around the East Asian region. President Xi of China attended this year for the first time. It was the third time that Xi and Putin have met in 2018, and the outcome of the EEF meetings could have significant implications for the US.

The Diplomat reported that according to Li Hui, China’s ambassador to Russia:

At present, China-Russia relations are at their best in history…the two heads of state attending significant events held by each other are important manifestations of the high-level bilateral relations.

So, why now? What’s behind China’s and Russia’s fast-developing relationship? It seems to be the US tariff war. The Asia Times says:

Xi defines the partnership as the best mechanism to ‘jointly neutralize the external risks and challenges’. For Putin, ‘our relations are crucial, not only for our countries, but for the world as well.’

At the EEF, Putin and Xi agreed to keep increasing bilateral trade payable in yuan and rubles, bypassing the US dollar. Putin also swiped at Trump’s tariff policies:

The world and global economy are coming up against new forms of protectionism today with different kinds of barriers which are increasing….basic principles of trade — competition and mutual economic benefit — are depreciated and unfortunately undermined, they’re becoming hostages of ideological and fleeting political situations, in that we see a serious challenge for all of the global economy, especially for the dynamically-growing Asia-Pacific and its leadership…

Reuters reported that Xi also appeared keen to foster closer relations with Russia:

Together with our Russian colleagues, we will increase fruitful co-operation in international affairs and intensify co-ordination…to oppose the policy of unilateral actions and trade protectionism…

Their relationship will continue to improve, since the Trump administration plans to continue ratcheting up its trade war. Trump recently threatened placing tariffs on all Chinese exports to the US.

And, on the same day as Xi arrived for the EEF, Russia kicked off its Vostok 2018 military exercises, with China taking part for the first time.

All of this is largely a giant signal to the US, since Russia can’t come close to replacing the US as a major trade partner for China. Sino-Russian trade is less than $100 billion per year, while trade between the US and China was more than $630 billion last year.

China’s strategy is to start by reducing its dependence on US agricultural imports. One example is soybeans. Econbrowser reports:

The Chinese plan is — in addition to relying on Brazil and Argentina — to switch to other sources, like palm mill, rapeseed, sunflower seed, and other countries, such as Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan, for soybeans. Obviously, the development of other countries’ ability to grow soybeans will take time. But that was also true for Brazil.

More broadly, attending the EEF gave Xi another platform from which to attack the US trade war, and pledge to defend rules-based trade. Our partners, the presidents of South Korea and Japan, also are watching closely. South Korea is looking to build a rail connection across Siberia, which requires help from China and Russia. The South China Post reported on Japan’s Prime Minister Abe, who attended the conference, and agreed to a summit with Russia:

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed Monday on further details of joint economic activities on disputed islands off Japan’s northernmost main island of Hokkaido

They also confirmed their close cooperation toward the denuclearization of North Korea ahead of the third summit between North and South Korea, scheduled for September 18.

The message is that the nations of Asia no longer see us as a reliable partner, and are walking toward forging new alliances with both China and Russia.

Our walking away from the Trans Pacific Partnership, which included all Asian countries except China in a free trade zone, seems to have been a geopolitical error. Trump’s tariff war seems to be another.

The US is alienated from Russia over US election interference, cyber warfare, Ukraine, Crimea and Syria. We have responded with sanctions, and truculence.

The US is alienated from China over trade, and the Trump administration’s perception that China isn’t helping our negotiations with North Korea.

We are at risk of being sidelined in Asia, and our allies are watching.

What’s this administration’s plan to succeed on all of these fronts in Asia?

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