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The Collapse of the East Asian Order

Fri, 09/20/2019 - 12:20pm

Shinzo Abe, Moon Jae-in, and Mike Pence (Wikimedia Commons)

The United States is losing its status as a Pacific power. It can no longer control developments in East Asia. It still maintains a large military footprint in the region. But that military presence no longer translates into an ability to achieve the outcomes that Washington wants.

For better or worse, the post-World War II order in East Asia is coming to an end.

China has become the dominant economic player in East Asia, and it’s acquiring a military commensurate with its economic strength. Japan has been breaking out of the restraints of its “peace constitution” to build up its own military power. South Korea recently canceled its intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan, a cornerstone of the trilateral cooperation that Washington has urged on its two East Asian allies.

In a last-ditch effort, the Obama administration tried with its much-hyped Pacific pivot to reinsert the United States into the economic and security environment of East Asia. But the pivot didn’t happen. The U.S. military remained enmeshed in the conflicts of the greater Middle East. And the Trump administration immediately canceled U.S. participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the free-trade agreement that was supposed to hitch the United States to the powerful economies of the east.

Donald Trump has further hastened the end of the post-war order with his pursuit of three primary goals in East Asia. He initiated a trade war with China to force the country to accede to U.S. demands regarding market access and other features of the Chinese economy. Beijing has not backed down.

Trump’s second imperative is to press U.S. allies to pay more for hosting U.S. troops. In early 2019, the United States and South Korea signed a one-year agreement – rather than the usual five-year agreement – in which Seoul agreed to raise its contribution by around 8 percent.  Last month, a new round of negotiations began. On his visit to Korea in August, National Security Advisor John Bolton reportedly demanded that Korea up its contributions to an astonishing $5 billion a year, a quintupling of the current amount.

Meanwhile, Trump is pushing the Abe government to increase military spending, in part to pay more for U.S. troops at bases in Japan but also for Tokyo to buy even more high-priced U.S. weapons.

Finally, Trump wants a deal with North Korea. But such a deal is not connected to any larger East Asian purpose. Trump simply wants to demonstrate that he can achieve something that his predecessors couldn’t.

None of these goals – confronting China, more allied burdensharing, a deal with North Korea – is new. All three policies have roots that go back to the 1990s. But Trump is taking more risks to achieve these goals. He is also paying little attention to the potentially high price of his actions.

The economic relationship between Beijing and Washington, for instance, may not recover, as China looks for other sources of key imports like soybeans and other markets for its exports. South Korea is not happy about the increased monetary demands from the United States. One recent sign of that unhappiness was the Blue House’s desire to expedite the return of 26 U.S. military bases to Korea.

And Trump’s on-again, off-again approach to North Korea has also complicated relations between Washington and Seoul. The cancellation of joint exercises has reduced military cooperation while the lack of sanctions relief for Pyongyang has blocked greater economic cooperation between north and south.

The United States always billed itself as a stabilizing influence in East Asia. In a region beset by longstanding rivalries, the United States intended to contain Japan by restricting it to a largely defensive military posture. Washington also worked hard to align the policies of Japan and South Korea, despite the unresolved territorial and historical disputes between the two countries. The U.S. military presence in the region was designed to prevent the rise of another hegemon.

The U.S. military remains in the region, but it no longer fulfills those goals. So, for instance, a

full-blown arms race is taking place in the region. Xi Jinping, determined to build a world-class military, will increase Chinese military spending by 7.5 percent next year. Combined with close trade relationships with the region, this improved military capacity means that China has emerged as precisely the hegemonic power that U.S. policy was intended to prevent.

Meanwhile, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, South Korea is now the tenth biggest military spender in the world, with Japan at number nine and China number two. Under Moon Jae-in, an otherwise progressive leader, South Korea increased its military budget by 8.2 percent in 2019, the largest increase since 2008, and plans increases of over 7 percent for 2020-2024.

Under Shinzo Abe, Japanese military spending has increased by 13 percent since 2013. With the military budget likely to set a new record next year, Japan is devoting a huge chunk of expenditures on U.S. weapons systems, like six new F35b, which each costs more than $130 million.

The United States, too, is increasing its military budget. But Trump seems determined to draw down U.S. forces overseas. The current burdensharing disputes may lead to a reduction of U.S. forces in Japan and South Korea.

True, the East Asian order that the United States helped build after World War II was not peaceful. It was founded on two wars – the Korean War and the Vietnam War. It relied on hundreds of military bases that increased the amount of violence in the host communities. It maintained a Cold War divide that is still strong and still justifies enormous outlays on the military.

But this order, for all of its obvious flaws, managed to keep a lid on the worst excesses of nationalism (just as the internationalist Communist order attempted to do the same on the other side of the Cold War divide).

The waning of U.S. influence in the region coincides with a powerful resurgence in nationalism. The most obvious example is Japan, where what had once been extremist views on Japan’s wartime conduct are now, thanks to Shinzo Abe, in the very mainstream. China, too, has become a much more explicitly nationalist country under Xi Jinping. South Korean nationalism has largely been subsumed under the project of reunification. A case in point is Moon Jae-in’s assertion last month that a united North and South Korean economy could leapfrog over Japan in “one burst.”

Donald Trump’s “America first” policies are perhaps the most explicitly nationalistic of them all. There wasn’t much any president could do to prevent the loss of U.S. power in the Pacific. But Trump’s approach has kindled nationalism and accelerated the arms race in the region.

As with Europe, U.S. withdrawal from Asia could have been accompanied by a strengthening of regional institutions of peace and cooperation. Instead, the collapse of the East Asian order has generated increased rivalry and conflict. Europe has largely transcended its twentieth-century history of war. Thanks in part to the short-sighted policies of the United States, East Asia is on the verge of repeating some very unfortunate history.

The post The Collapse of the East Asian Order appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus and the author of the dystopian novel Frostlands.

Who’s Burning the Amazon?

Wed, 09/18/2019 - 2:36pm


While the world watches in horror as fires rage in the Amazon, activists are naming culprits.

“Put out the flames, we name your names — politicians, corporate vultures, you’re the ones we blame,” demonstrators chanted as they marched from the White House to the Brazilian Consulate on September 5.

The fires are no accident. Most have been set by agribusiness and mining interests hoping to make money off the land.

Much of the blame has fallen on Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who has steadily rolled back indigenous land rights and environmental protections. But the multinational companies turning a profit off the destruction of the Amazon are also coming under more scrutiny.

Amazon Watch, a California-based organization that works with indigenous and environmental groups, issued a report earlier this year documenting dozens of companies that stand to make money off the catastrophe.

The report, titled Complicity in Destruction, highlights the main drivers of deforestation — from soy and beef commodity traders like Cargill and JBS to their financiers in North America and Europe, like BlackRock, Santander, and JP Morgan Chase.

Research from Mighty Earth, another group, identified the retailers most associated with those traders, including Costco, Walmart, and Ahold Delhaize, which owns Stop & Shop, Giant, and Food Lion.

“We encourage all Americans to use their economic power to put pressure on these companies to do the right thing,” said Todd Larsen of the advocacy group Green America. His organization is encouraging Americans to shop elsewhere and move their investments away from the companies responsible.

“The only reason these companies are able to keep burning down the forest year over year is because their customers keep paying them to do so,” Brazilian activist Bárbara Amaral told the crowd in D.C. She called on the public “to show up at the front doors of Cargill headquarters and yell that it’s time to protect the Amazon.”

Others emphasize that protecting the environment requires big structural changes to keep companies from making a quick buck off climate disaster in the first place.

“I’m tired of hearing about how individual actions can address climate change, such as buying metal straws versus plastic straws,” said Gabby Rosazza, a campaigner with the International Labor Rights Forum. “I’m more interested in learning about who is profiting from climate change.”

One of the companies profiting the most? BlackRock — the largest asset manager in the world.

report released last month by Amazon Watch and Friends of the Earth found BlackRock to be a top shareholder in the 25 companies most involved in deforestation. BlackRock’s investment in these projects increased by more than $500 million between 2014 and 2018.

pressure campaign is mounting against BlackRock to stop profiting off climate destruction of all stripes.

BlackRock “is complicit in the destruction of tropical forests and violation of human rights,” said Luiz Eloy Terena, legal counsel for the National Indigenous Organization of Brazil, during BlackRock’s annual shareholders meeting this year. “BlackRock must use its significant influence over [the companies it invests in] to signal that it will not tolerate policies that violate indigenous rights and damage the climate.”

The Amazon fires are a terrible tragedy. But the worst tragedy is that companies get to make millions attacking indigenous people and burning down vital ecosystems. The damage will stop not when the fires are put out, but only when it’s no longer profitable to set them.

The post Who’s Burning the Amazon? appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

Negin Owliaei co-edits Kelsey Hawkins-Johnson is a Landau Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. This piece first ran at and was adapted by

The Threat of Bolton Has Receded — But Not the Threat of War

Wed, 09/18/2019 - 2:24pm


John Bolton tried his best. 

The national security adviser entered the Trump administration as a predictable warmonger with an unslakable thirst for power. He streamlined the national security apparatus to maximize his access to the president. At least at first, he played the role of loyal adjutant to Trump. As in his days as an arms control official in the George W. Bush administration, Bolton quietly planted IEDs on the inside rather than throw bombs from the outside.

But ultimately, like the scorpion that stings the frog halfway across the river, Bolton couldn’t betray his own nature. In his eagerness to start wars with Venezuela, North Korea, and Iran, Bolton spoke out of turn, publicly clashed with his boss, and probably leaked information to the press. By August his position had become untenable, and he suffered the fate of so many Trump collaborators: expulsion by tweet. 

Looked at another way, however, Bolton accomplished what he set out to do. He scuttled the negotiations with North Korea by referring to the Libyan example of denuclearization (Pyongyang knew full well what happened to Muammar Qaddafi’s regime). He made sure that U.S. troops remain in Syria and in Afghanistan as well. He put the fear of a coup in the heart of Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela. And he ratcheted up the pressure on Iran to the point of near-conflict. 

Now, with Trump declaring that the United States is “locked and loaded” in the wake of the attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil supplies, Bolton is no doubt pleased at the prospect of his wildest dream fulfilled: a war with Iran. He nearly pushed the president into military action against Tehran back in June when Trump self-reportedly stopped the strike 10 minutes before it was scheduled to take place. 

This time, thanks in part to the work of the not-so-dearly-departed Bolton, the president might go over the edge this time. 

Or perhaps Trump will stick to his pattern of making outlandish threats and then turning around to negotiate. The administration has more recently been dialing back its rhetoric. Maybe Bolton the scorpion has managed only to sting himself.

The Latest Incident

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has accused Iran of attacking the Aramco oil facilities in Khurais and Abqaiq in the heart of Saudi Arabia. Saudi and U.S. investigators have reportedly determined that the September 14 attacks came from an Iranian base near the border with Iraq. But the force that has claimed responsibility for the attacks are the Houthis, who have been battling a Saudi-led coalition in Yemen for more than four years. 

On the face of it, the obvious culprit would be the Houthis. Over the last month, they have repeatedly launched aerial attacks on Saudi facilities: a drone attack on the Shaybah oil field on August 16, a missile attack against Jizan airport on August 26, a drone attack against Riyadh on August 27, and a failed drone attack on September 3. 

Also, as Kate Kizer of Win Without War points out, the Saudis and the Houthis have been engaged in a tit-for-tat game of aerial bombardment. The latest attacks on Saudi oil facilities could very well be a response to the Saudi air strike on Dhamar prison, which killed 100 people two weeks ago. 

Tit-for-tat doesn’t, however, mean that it’s been an equal contest. The Saudi campaign has killed thousands and thousands of Yemenis. Houthi attacks have resulted mostly in material damage and four civilian casualties

Those who point the finger at Iran argue that this latest attack was far from the border with Yemen. But the Khurais oil field (the most recent target) and the Shaybah oil field (hit in mid-August) are both about the same distance from the Yemen border. 

The latest attacks were also remarkably successful. The pinpoint strikes forced the suspension of more than half of Saudi oil production. But the Houthis have steadily increased their offensive capabilities, attacking Saudi airports at Jizan and Abha in May and June a total of 17 times. They’ve received some weaponry from Iran but also have some Soviet-era missiles as well as some from North Korea. They are now operating air defense systems as well.

Meanwhile, it’s rather difficult to imagine the Iranian government launching such an attack just after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had talked of Trump possibly meeting Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the UN General Assembly in New York this week. Even if the Iranian authorities are reluctant to sit down with Trump, for understandable reasons, attacking Saudi Arabia on the eve of the UN meeting doesn’t make much strategic sense. 

On the other hand, Iran pledged that if it couldn’t export its own oil, it would disrupt the global market. The Trump administration has certainly hobbled Iran’s energy industry through direct sanctions and pressure on other countries to stop their imports. Meanwhile, the Saudis didn’t see the attack coming, which suggests that it didn’t originate from the south, where Saudi air defenses are focused. But the missiles and drones were flying low, so they might have evaded air defenses. They might also have come from multiple locations.

Of course, it might not be an either-or situation. Iran provides some support to the Houthis. So, even if the Houthis are responsible for this attack, they likely got the green light from Tehran for such a significant attack. Or perhaps Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, which has never much liked rapprochement with the United States, wanted to make sure that any high-level meeting on the sidelines of the UN assembly would not take place.

In any case, the Trump administration was already walking back its hostile rhetoric by Monday. The absence of Bolton might have something to do with that. More likely, however, it reflects the situation on the ground in the Gulf.

The Larger Context

When Saudi Arabia launched its war in Yemen in 2015, the architect of the campaign, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, seemed to think it would be a cakewalk. Instead, the Houthis have put up stubborn resistance. 

The rebel group, which adheres to a variant of Shi’ite Islam in contrast to the predominantly Sunni Saudis and their Sunni proxies in Yemen, continues to control the capital of Sana’a as well as the northern highlands and a stretch of the Red Sea coast. It has felt confident enough in the past weeks to start setting up a diplomatic corps, with its first envoy dispatched to Iran.

But the most influential development in recent weeks has been a split in the anti-Houthi coalition between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The UAE is focused more on containing Iranian influence rather than rolling it back — and it certainly doesn’t want a war with Tehran.

Back in July, the UAE announced that it would withdraw its troops from Yemen. It continued to support a group of southern separatists who, in mid-August, took over the port of Aden from the Saudi-backed faction.

As if Yemen hasn’t suffered enough — famine, drought, cholera — its civil war now threatens to spiral into a multi-party dispute even more resistant to mediation.

In this situation, the Houthis may feel more confident that they can force the Saudis into following the example of the UAE. It’s not like Mohammed bin Salman to cut his losses, but the war is threatening his larger plans to transform the Saudi economy. 

It’s one thing for Riyadh to pour money into the quagmire next door (with the help of U.S. taxpayers). It’s quite another to put its cash cow — oil and gas represent 50 percent of Saudi GDP and 70 percent of export earnings — within range of enemy fire. Also, having failed so miserably to subdue one of the poorest countries in the world, Saudi Arabia may be having second thoughts about confronting a country with considerable economic and military power. 

Meanwhile, Donald Trump is finding it ever more difficult to end U.S. involvement in wars in the region. Negotiations with the Taliban have stalled, so now U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan is no longer in the offing. Not only are U.S. troops remaining in Syria but more will soon be heading that way. And even though Congress wants the United States out of Yemen, the president keeps vetoing the legislation.

Even the thick-headed Trump should be able to get the message: war with Iran would make these conflicts look like a walk in the woods. His advisers are also warning him that such a war would tank the U.S. economy and doom his reelection chances. That’s probably the only warning that Trump can understand.

After Bolton

Mike Pompeo is no less a warmonger than John Bolton. He also had far more doubts than Bolton ever did about Trump’s suitability as president, which the future secretary of state revealed as he was campaigning for Marco Rubio in the 2016 presidential primaries. 

But those doubts are now gone. As Susan Glasser discusses in her recent New Yorker profile, “The Secretary of Trump,” Pompeo is the quintessential company man, striving to align his views with that of his president. 

If Trump decides not to attack Iran, in other words, Pompeo will go along without a protest.

Meanwhile, the president has chosen his new national security adviser. It would be hard to come up with someone as relentlessly militaristic as Bolton, yet Trump dug deep into his barrel of hawks to come up with someone with that special combination of ruthless craziness and devoted servility. 

His short list included Fred Fleitz, Bolton’s previous chief of staff, who heads up the Center for Security Policy, a fiercely Islamophobic think tank devoted to spreading conspiracy theories. Then there was Gen. Keith Kellogg, the vice president’s national security adviser, who’s been central to the effort to provoke regime change in Venezuela and also had the dubious distinction of having served as Paul Bremer’s chief of staff in the U.S. occupation authority in Iraq.

But the nod went to hostage envoy Robert O’Brien. This would seem to be a safe, diplomatic choice. O’Brien is a lawyer who once worked at the UN Security Council. 

On the other hand, O’Brien is also a fierce opponent of the Iranian nuclear deal, which he has called “rank appeasement.” On the appointment of his former colleague John Bolton to the position of national security adviser, he had this to say:

The person, if you’re the president of the United States, that you want sitting on your team to negotiate, the best lawyer in the house, the best foreign policy professional in the house, is John Bolton. He’s going to bring a level of seriousness, experience, depth of knowledge, but also hard-nosed, tough negotiation skills. 

I mean, you know, the Iranians are very good negotiators. They took us to the cleaners with the Iran deal. The North Koreans have been doing this for many years, and have taken a number of presidents to the cleaners. No one is going to take John Bolton to the cleaners in a negotiation.

With O’Brien on board, the Trump administration can be counted on to continue its overwhelmingly hostile policy toward a select group of outcasts like Iran, toward allies that don’t toe the U.S. line, and toward multilateralism more generally. Bolton will no longer be holding the reins of national security, trying to nudge the president one way or another. 

But Bolton’s bellicose worldview, which both O’Brien and Pompeo share, is the basic operating system of the Trump administration. 

Remember: this president is always 10 minutes away from war with someone.


The post The Threat of Bolton Has Receded — But Not the Threat of War appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus and author of the dystopian novel Frostlands.