In his State of the Union address, Donald Trump said that the United States is “waging a campaign of maximum pressure to prevent” North Korea from threatening “our homeland” by its “reckless pursuit of nuclear weapons.”
But the Trump administration’s goal of sanctioning North Korea back to the Stone Age has yet to bring the nuclear-arming regime to the negotiating table for the purpose of suspending its atomic threat. However, the fault is not President TrumpDonald TrumpJulian Castro knocks Biden administration over refugee policy Overnight Energy & Environment — League of Conservation Voters — Climate summit chief says US needs to 'show progress' on environment Five takeaways from Arizona's audit results MORE’s decision to wage a non-war approach to resolving the inherited crisis.
No, the blame lies with Russia and China for extending economic lifelines that keep the Democratic People’s Republic Korea afloat. Oil shipments to North Korea and coal purchases from the isolated communist country contribute to its survival. Companies carry the nefarious transfers, but the governments in Moscow and Beijing do nothing to curtail them.
The Sino-Russian culpability in America’s woes is at the forefront of their great-power competition with the United States, as recognized in the Pentagon’s recently released National Defense Strategy.
The 11-page unclassified summary of the strategy states that, “The central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security is the reemergence of long-term, strategic competition by” the revisionist powers of Russia and China.
The new defense strategy notes China’s tactics of “leveraging military modernization, influence operations and predatory economics to coerce neighboring countries.” Similarly, Russia pursues “veto authority over nations on its periphery in terms of their government, economic and diplomatic decisions.”
These strong-arm tactics represent a return to the great-power politics of the Cold War or even pre-World War I, with imperial spheres of influence and quasi-colonies to do the bidding of their respective political masters. The Pentagon’s new strategy perceives this changed world order.
The Trump administration deserves kudos for shaking off the cloak of complacency that hung so long on American policy of the last decade. The United States no longer enjoys its unrivaled global preeminence as after the collapse of the Soviet Union and before economic reforms transformed China from a backward agrarian nation to a state-guided economic powerhouse.
Now both authoritarian adversaries seek to displace America and its allies from their respective geographic peripheries and to re-order the world according to their dictates.
North Korea, despite its willful behavior, serves China’s and, to a lesser degree, Russia’s ends. The throbbing DPRK sore demands Washington’s attention, even military defensive readiness. Efforts that would be better reserved for checking China’s aggressiveness in the South China Sea must be expended on countering the North’s provocations.
Moreover, by artfully dangling the possibility of help in halting Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile tests, China induces the United States to seek its intercession with North Korea. In short, America needs China’s entrée with the North Koreans. To curry China’s intercession, Washington must court China’s favor.
Hence, President Obama’s Pentagon accommodated China’s growing SCS military presence on its man-made islands, which encroach on international law as well as international waters.
Washington’s accommodationist policy toward China over the last decade has whetted Beijing’s geopolitical ambitions in the Horn of Africa, Indian Ocean, the Arctic and the South China Sea.
For the last decades, Republican and Democratic administrations have advanced the belief that a prosperous China, which they abetted with favorable trade deals and by backing China’s membership in the World Trade Organization, would become a democratic and peaceful country. Instead, China’s astounding economic development has led to a stronger and more militarily assertive power.
Similarly, Russia has been emboldened by NATO’s complacency, by the West’s tepid response to its aggression in the Crimea and eastern Ukraine and by Obama’s lack of resolve in Syria when his “red line” was crossed with impunity.
Trump’s sometimes blunt criticism of NATO’s practice of underfunding its military forces has raised hackles in European capitals. But the president is right.
A few of the NATO partners, such as France and Britain, have met the requirement of 2 percent of their gross domestic product for defense. But others, such as wealthy Germany, shrug off the treaty obligation, leaving the United States, which spends 3.6 percent of GDP on defense, to shoulder the burden of their security against a revanchist Russia.
Neither China nor Russia have any deep interest in crimping the DPRK’s nuclear and missile threat, for it will not launch nuclear bombs at its two benefactors. The two near-peer competitors, in fact, can watch gleefully how North Korea preoccupies Washington and divides Americans on how best to respond.
The whole North Korean conundrum is largely attributable to Beijing and Moscow, for over many years they supplied not only material aid but also technology and difficult-to-produce components necessary for missile launches and nuclear tests.
Cynically, both non-democratic regimes signed off on the United Nation’s sanctions against Pyongyang. But under-handedly, the dictatorial governments turned a blind eye to shipments of vital goods to the DPRK by entities within their control.
By surreptitiously bailing out Pyongyang, the Russians and Chinese have utilized the small militant nation as weapon against the United States.
This utilization of dangerous proxies has more to do with the Cold War era, when Moscow employed Cuba as the Hessians of the Soviet Union. Moscow deployed 20,000 Cuban troops in Angola during the mid-1970s to spread Marxist-Leninism in sub-Saharan Africa.
During the early post-Cold War period, North Korea, Iraq, Libya and Syria functioned as genuine rogue states, with no military assistance or diplomatic cover from a defunct Soviet Union. Now, North Korea, Syria and even Iran look to anti-American powers like Russia and China to back them up.
When their interests align, as in Syria, Iran and Russia closely cooperated to preserve Bashar al-Assad’s beleaguered regime with military forces.
The new National Defense Strategy recognizes the changed-world circumstances of strategic competition from China and Russia. Where it needs further refining is awareness that North Korea and Iran have slipped from being genuine rogue states, footloose from any restraints by big powers, to a semi-rogue status.
This new relationship takes into account that Pyongyang and Tehran benefit from their shelter under the eaves of world powers like China and Russia.
In turn, Moscow and Beijing reciprocally derive advantages from the semi-allied states. Still, the Pentagon’s strategy goes a long way in awakening Americans to our dangerous world.
Thomas Henriksen is a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and the author of "Cycles in U.S. Foreign Policy since the Cold War" (Palgrave, 2017).