Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527, pictured) was an Italian historian and philosopher. He’s generally considered to be the founding father of what’s today called the academic discipline of “political science.” He advocated the divorce of governance and war-making from all sentimental and emotional considerations.
His only criterion for judging success in such endeavors was the survival and aggrandizement of the ruler’s power along with that of his realm. “Machiavellian” is therefore today defined as meaning “cunning, scheming and unscrupulous, especially in politics or in advancing one's career.”
What follows is a description of several Machiavellian scenarios for the resolution of the North Korean crisis, all based on unscrupulous cunning and scheming, all totally divorced from sentimental and emotional considerations, and all aimed at degrading or ending the Pyongyang regime’s power.
By stripping away the emotion and vehemence of our own political considerations – which now almost totally cloud the presentations offered on this in the media – we can more clearly see the ‘real politick’ parameters within which some resolution may have to be achieved. In short, if the current negotiations fail – and the two sides seem ever more at cross purposes and to be using different vocabularies in regard to even just the basic tenets of an agreement – the US will be left with three basic options.
First, we could settle for yet another play-pretend deal of the kind gotten in previous administrations going back to 1995. The trouble with that is, that would no longer be play-pretending at delaying the North Koreans from getting the bomb: they already have several. Further, it’s not even just that they have some bombs, it’s where some of them might end up outside Korea.
That is, Iran hasn’t been helping to fund the North Koreans’ research – to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars over the years – for any abstract or philosophical reasons. Tehran wants a bomb, as do several non-state terrorist organizations. It’s hard to see how any play-pretend agreement that otherwise left intact the North Korean atomic development program could effectively block that kind of further proliferation. That would only move the crisis from one side of Asia to the other, as the Israelis will certainly not tolerate a nuclear-armed Iran.
So the outcome of any new play-pretend agreement isn’t likely to be a long-term, or even intermediate-term, success. One might be packaged well enough in the public relations sense, though, to kick the problem down the road one more time, moving it beyond the 2020 US election cycle. Given the general approach to short “consequence horizons” in Washington these days, that might be judged to be enough by American governing elites.
A second option is preventive war. That is, the US could conduct a sudden and massive surprise aero-space strike against the military, political and scientific centers of North Korea. The danger there comes from two possible forms of international blowback, and one domestic, all of which might occur separately or in combination.
First, it’s doubtful the US could cleanly take out all North Korea’s strike-back capacity at one time. Even as the North Korean regime went down, it could pull a lot down with it. (Scroll down on this page to see the column posted here a few weeks back on that topic.)
Aside from that, or possibly on top of it, there’s no telling how China would react to having one of its few allies – and one on its geographic doorstep to boot – blown to smithereens. Even if China didn’t strike back at the US – or South Korea or Japan – immediately, there would be little doubt such a move on Washington’s part would bring the hardliners in Beijing into political ascendance. There’s a Chinese proverb: “To take revenge, 10 years is not too long.”
If the Chinese did get immediately involved, it’s then hard to imagine such a war wouldn’t expand to cover at least all of East and Southeast Asia, the Pacific and North America. Even if the violence was kept within those bounds, and was prevented from turning into a planetary Armageddon, its disruptive effects on the global economy and environment would be this century’s equivalent of the crisis of 1914-18.
The social, political and environmental efforts during the rest of this century would be no more than an extended recovery period from it. As surely as one era of world history is today commonly judged to have ended in 1914, so too would our present era be seen to have ended with the start of such a war.
Domestically in the US, it’s also hard to imagine the political fallout from a war – even in an otherwise militarily successful scenario – which begins with America launching what would amount to a ‘Pearl Harbor attack’ in reverse. The resultant turmoil would likely make that of the tumultuous years of 1860 and 1968 seem like child’s play. In one way or another, such a war would almost certainly result in ‘regime change’ in Washington as well as in Pyongyang.
The third possibility might be called the pullout scenario. That is, Washington could announce it was unable to come up with a meaningful diplomatic solution, or perhaps sign onto a play-pretend one as a temporary face saver. At the same time, it also announces there’s no longer a rationale for a US military presence on the Korean peninsula.
A final departure date is set, perhaps a year or so from that of the initial announcement, and there’s also an accompanying offer to sell to the Japanese and South Koreans any number of atomic weapons, missile defense systems, etc., which they might deem necessary for their own protection. Optionally, the US could also pull out of Japan, or stay there based on some new and highly profitable (to the US) defense agreement with Tokyo.
The pullout scenario doesn’t automatically cause an immediate war; however, at a minimum, Pyongyang would likely announce it viewed the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Seoul or Tokyo as a de facto declaration of war against it. Similarly, the Chinese wouldn’t be happy with any of it.
In considering this scenario, it’s worth noting there’s been a rumor concerning China and South Korea, which has circulated through the online analyst community ever since the North Koreans detonated their first atomic bomb. That is, the Chinese have supposedly made a secret offer (by spoken word only) to the South Koreans. By it, the Chinese pledge they would pull down the Pyongyang regime and immediately thereafter allow the political reunification of the peninsula under Southern auspices.
In return, the South would have to pledge to send home the Americans, and also sign a “non-aggression and friendship pact” with Beijing. That would mean, in effect, the Koreans giving up their foreign policy independence in return for a semi-autonomous but unified existence as a Chinese satrap.
Though war likely wouldn’t be the immediate consequence of an American pull out, such a strategy would undoubtedly set off a period of intense worldwide negotiations and diplomatic maneuvering. It would make Versailles 1919 seem like a local school board meeting in comparison, and there’s no telling the final shape of the new global order that would result from it.
In sum, there are no clean getaways guaranteed here. It’s a matter of making the best of bad choices.
Check out the latest issue of CounterFact at <ossgamescart.com>