Last month, I argued that we are in a Lukewarm War that is getting hotter by the moment. Those moments keep coming faster.
North Korea launched a missile directly over our ally Japan. That was a reckless, impermissible act. Then it got worse; North Korea announced it had tested a Hydrogen Bomb. In a month or a year they could top one of their ICBMs with a thermonuclear device. Kim Jong Ill isn’t bluffing anymore.
There are many other troubled spots on the globe. Our tit-for-tat diplomatic imbroglio with Russia keeps getting worse. NATO sweats every time Trump tweets. Putin rubs his hands with glee as our president does his job of destabilizing Europe for him.
Kurdistan votes this month on whether to secede from Iraq. Hezbollah chases ISIS over the Lebanese border into Syria. Iran makes mischief wherever it can. The Middle East shudders, always on the brink.
But the threat from North Korea is immediate and existential, it cannot be ignored. Our other problems pale by comparison.
There are times for foreign policy idealism, and times for realism. I submit this is a time to get real.
I believe the most effective, if painful, policy we can pursue today is rapprochement with China. Right now, China is happy to see us squirm while they do business. We haven’t made North Korea their problem. But we could change that in a hot minute. Picture this all-too-probable scenario.
North Korea launches another missile, this one with even greater range and accuracy than the last three, in the direction of Guam. They’ve already tested an H bomb. Our government decides this is an intolerable situation.
Once again, we ask the Chinese to do something about it. They do what they’ve always done, next to nothing.
So we make them an offer they can’t refuse. We tell the Chinese we’re going into North Korea, hard. We won’t stand nuclear blackmail from an outlaw state with delusions of grandeur.
Merely a credible threat of immanent war on the Korean peninsula would change China’s calculation about imposing draconian sanctions against Pyongyang. But sanctions may not work. We might have to make good on our threats.
We warn the Chinese that we’re about to make a preemptive strike against the North Korean regime. We tell our allies in South Korea to evacuate Seoul, knowing that the millions in that city are within range of North Korean artillery.
We know China cannot tolerate American or South Korean troops on the Yalu River, so we make them an unconditional promise. No American presence permanently in North Korea, no reunification with South Korea. Once we’re done, we withdraw. China can install a puppet regime or even occupy that landmass if they like. All we require of them is to stay out of the way until it’s over.
We might hope for a denuclearized Korean peninsula, but if the Chinese insist on putting their nukes in Pyongyang, well, that’s no worse than what China already has on its mainland. We can live with that; we have lived with that.
We can incentivize China by negotiating recognition of their infamous “nine dash line” through the South China Sea. Our terms are a “freedom of the seas” trade corridor through it, internationally recognized by all. We strike deals with our allies and China for fishing rights in selected sections inside the line.
We urge Japan and China to compromise on the disputed Senkaku islands in exchange for Japan not developing atomic weapons.
This strategy is Machiavellian, and our Asian allies might not like it. But they’d like a nuclear war in the Western Pacific a lot less.
If we pull that deal off, we not only bring stability to East Asia, keep the Iranians scared straight, and prevent nuclear proliferation by our threatened allies in Japan and South Korea, but also stop North Korea from selling nukes to anyone with pile of cash. (Does anyone think Pyongyang, desperate for money, wouldn’t proliferate like a Columbian drug cartel?)
A welcome side benefit of rapprochement with China would be a chastened Russia. Putin will know we mean business. His dreams of an anti-Western alliance with the second power in the world would be dashed. He won’t turn into a saint, but he’s old KGB, he knows how to calculate the odds. Putin is an opportunist, we should minimize his opportunities.
As a patriotic American, and I say that without a whisper of irony, I have less faith in the judgement of our president than in the president of China. Xi Jinping is a nationalist, deeply authoritarian, and not above waving the false flag to distract his populace from their domination by the Party, but I don’t think he’s stupid or reckless. I can only hope the same is true of Donald Trump.
The lukewarm war is no time for wobbly policies and braggadocio posing as strength. This is urgent, as urgent as statecraft can be. We need calm, confident leadership. Maybe we get lucky and Mike Pence can provide that. But we can’t wait for 2020. We’re nearly out of time already.