Belmont Club

The Autumn Leaves

One sign that international power relationships are changing has been the increasing tendency among some countries to strike out on their own.  For a long time it was  accepted wisdom that there was no future for Britain outside of Europe.  Now there is a significant chance that the UK will leave the European Union.  London Mayor Boris Johnson and 6 cabinet ministers, including Justice Secretary Michael Gove declared they would campaign for Britain to leave the EU in a referendum to be held in the summer of 2016.

In South Korea, another reversal is taking shape.  For the first time in history major South Korean politicians are seriously considering acquiring nuclear weapons, besides taking steps to deploy an anti-ballistic missile system in response to North Korean nuclear tests and missile launches.   Old taboos are crumbling at the ground level. The New York Times notes that in “a survey conducted by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul shortly after the North’s third nuclear test in 2013, 66.5 percent of respondents supported a homegrown nuclear program.”

Two former senior military officers, one American the other Japanese, described the growing fear in Asia that Washington could no longer be counted on to extend its deterrent umbrella over allies.  Retired Admiral Dennis Blair, former CINCPAC is Chairman and Lt. Gen. Masayuki Hironaka (Ret.) former head of the Japanese air force warned “the United States, Japan and Korea must reassess whether American extended deterrence in East Asia is still strong”.

Those doubts may in part be fueled by the behavior of the Obama administration, which allowed itself to be slapped across the face by Pyongyang. “Days before North Korea’s latest nuclear-bomb test, the Obama administration secretly agreed to talks to try to formally end the Korean War, dropping a longstanding condition that Pyongyang first take steps to curtail its nuclear arsenal.”  The article explains that Obama was so eager to replicate his Iran deal with North Korea that he led with his chin which gave Kim Jong Un the opportunity to sucker-punch him.

Mr. Obama has pointed to the Iran deal to signal to North Korea that he is open to a similar track with the regime of Kim Jong Un.

Instead the U.S. called for North Korea’s atomic-weapons program to be simply part of the talks. Pyongyang declined the counter-proposal, according to U.S. officials familiar with the events. Its nuclear test on Jan. 6 ended the diplomatic gambit.

The New York Times notes that South Korean skeptics were growing doubtful that Washington would go to the wall for Seoul.

“We must ask ourselves whether the United States will save Seoul at the risk of sacrificing L.A. or San Francisco,” Chung Mong-joon, a former head of the governing party, wrote in a widely circulated blog post, warning of the North’s potential for striking the United States with a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile.

Obama was certainly not going to the wall for the rebels it sponsored in Syria. “The Obama administration is allowing moderate Syrian rebels, which the U.S. spent hundreds of millions training and equipping, to be slowly destroyed, experts warn. The groups are targeted by Russian air strikes …  The attacks have led to criticism that the administration is standing by while its allies are killed.”

“Beggars can’t be choosers,” said one former Obama official, explaining their administration’s indifference to the rebel’s fate. The lesson cannot have been lost on American allies.  With the New York Times reporting that fighting is picking up in Ukraine, many allied countries must seriously be asking themselves how far Obama would go meet multiple simultaneous challenges.

The resumption of hostilities in Ukraine, with exchanges of machine gun and mortar fire across the front line up to levels not seen since last summer, suggests a willingness by Russia, which supports the rebels in eastern Ukraine, to sustain two conflicts at once. In late September, Russia began airstrikes in Syria on behalf of the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

Putin’s strategy of focusing differential pressure on parts of the American alliance was deliberate strategy aaccording to George Will. He argued in 2014 that Putin could leverage Obama’s indecision into stress fractures that Russia could use “break up NATO … if you listen to Putin’s language and watch his body language, it’s obvious that he is having the time of his life and he thinks he is winning.”

The need by countries to defend themselves and the president’s almost perverse inclination to prevent it is putting shear forces on the alliance. That is illustrated by an International Business Times map of NATO expenditures which contrasts the double-digit defense expenditure hikes of Eastern European states with the flat or even negative military budget growth of Western European countries.  It is a map of two Europes: one determined to fight for its life, and the other according to the Slovak Prime Minister, equally determined to commit “ritual suicide”.  It is telling that the Obama administration has come out forcefully against Britain’s exit from the European Union, that is to say on behalf of suicide.

But last year, when Obama urged Britons to stay in the bloc, he drew near-universal calls for him to butt out of British domestic affairs — underlining the risk that American officials and companies face in inserting themselves into the debate.

“The British public have gone completely skeptical of the United States’ foreign policy intentions,” said Kurt Volker, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO.

That may not have put Obama off, with the president planning another attempt to sway British voters. “I know the president is planning to make a pretty big public reach-out in this regard,” Bob Corker said.

Just as everyone is trying to unshackled the anvil clamped round their legs, Obama is working feverishly to clamp them back on. But foreseeable events are likely to negate Obama’s “big public reach-out”. Events are likely to work against the Narrative. The summer and fall of 2016 will be crucial months.  The UK’s decision to stay in the EU will depend largely on whether public fears of uncontrolled immigration can be mitigated by EU pressure on Turkey to stop hundreds of thousands of refugees from reaching European borders. But with Turkey itself in an unprecedented state in crisis it will have other fish to fry and the migrant tide will probably peak in  the warm months of June, just as British voters go to the polls, and just as the wars in the Middle East move into high gear.

Obama can say what he likes, but the headlines are likely message against him.  With the American presidential elections starting to peak at around then, the last months of 2016 bids fair to be one of the more interesting periods in modern history.

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