Small Wars Journal

Missing the Big Picture, US Policy on North Korea Could Bring Disaster

Wed, 03/09/2016 - 1:22pm

Missing the Big Picture, US Policy on North Korea Could Bring Disaster by Paul Bracken, Yale Global

Watching North Korea again test an atomic bomb and long-range missile within four weeks of each other is like a repeat visit to a movie. The UN Security Council slaps enhanced sanctions on Pyongyang, actions that won't be implemented or observed, much like New Year's resolutions. China's disapproval is spun as a new "turning point" by the United States, supposedly because Beijing has finally lost patience with its ally.

The real intent of these moves is to get the North Korean tests out of the media spotlight -- thereby removing pressure to come to grips with what is developing in Northeast Asia.

Yet it would be a mistake to think that a "same old, same old" policy is playing out again. In my book on The Second Nuclear Age (Times Books, 2012) I emphasized the need for distinguishing between urgent problems, and those that were important but not necessarily urgent. Seen this way, the Middle East and ISIS are urgent challenges. They are immediate, play into the news cycle, and frankly, are what the vast majority of US attention focuses on.

Then there are important issues that are less urgent. North Korea could go on for a long time before something dire happens. The likelihood of an attack on South Korea or Japan appears no greater today than it did one year ago, or five years ago. We could be wrong, but it is reasonable to judge that while North Korea's nuclear missile buildup isn't good, it also isn't urgent. Most likely the problem will be passed on to the next administration, or kicked down the road beyond that…

Read on.


Dave Maxwell

Wed, 03/09/2016 - 2:31pm

Wisdom from Paul Bracken in these words. And without putting words in his mouth I think what he might be saying is that we no longer know how to act as a superpower.


“Yet these important but not necessarily urgent problems contain the seeds of a potentially larger disaster and can grow into a deadly menace that is ultimately impossible to ignore,” explains Paul Bracken, author and Yale professor of political science and management. “One danger of being the sole superpower is getting overwhelmed by immediate, urgent issues while other important issues are repeatedly kicked down the road.“

Real policy is a mixture of urgent crises, and the intuitions of the moment when they arrive. Short-term concern drives out the long-term thinking every time.
This is what's happened with North Korea, and more broadly in the Pacific. There are statements about the new power centers, China and India, as well as the return of Russia. There was the so-called pivot to Asia. Then, the overwhelming attention and intelligence returns to the urgency of the Middle East.
The US will get whipsawed by its approach of attending to each challenge in terms of immediate urgency. If Washington, for example, continues its naval guerilla war in the South China Sea, Beijing will tolerate more outrageous North Korean behavior. It will build more missiles against Taiwan, conventional and nuclear, to keep the United States off balance.
Focusing on the urgent misses the bigger picture. Understanding the big picture was how the United States won the Cold War without it turning hot. The United States understood the rules of the game. New rules for a second nuclear age are forming now, and understanding them is the important lesson of North Korea's recent tests.