Progressive International Arms, Part 1 (North Korea)

The guiding light of any progressive foreign policy must be the continued advancement and self-determination of both American and foreign working people, and it must be used to check the global influence of predator multinational corporations and the states that use those corporations as unaccountable and anti-democratic proxies for diplomacy. Towards this end, we must be realistic about a competitive arms strategy: in a well-armed world, with opposition interests attempting to use those arms to defend the interests of ExxonMobil and Aramco, we cannot afford to let our entire arms strategy be pure isolation. We must engage the reality of the global use of force, and develop a strategy for how we can use both our own inherent capacity for force projection as well as the geopolitical facts created by competitor threats of force.

To begin sketching what that could mean, we can develop a progressive analysis and proposals for some of the most high-profile current global arms issues. Under the Trump Administration, a series of agreements have become highlights of public debate. Progressives must develop consistent and coherent positions on these issues to be able to contribute to this public conversation. With this post, I’ll be beginning an exploration of four key arms debates: North Korean nuclearization, the JCPOA or the so-called “Iran Deal”, the INF, and New START. For all four, I’ll be attempting to first lay down an analysis of the power relations and motivators that are involved in the current debates, and to put forward a proposal for how progressives should respond and what a progressive response can accomplish.

North Korea

Arguably the most visible armament issue of the past decade—and certainly of the Trump administration—is North Korea’s growing nuclear and missile capacity. There’s been much hemming and hawing about North Korean willingness to attack South Korea, Japan, or the West coast of the United States, with one camp claiming that the Kim dynasty is actively interested in harming those nations, and others saying that there’s no chance they would so recklessly risk annihilation. The reality is the same that it has been for essentially every nuclear state since the end of World War II: North Korea’s goal is to not use nuclear weapons so that their strategic non-use can extract policy concessions from the world. But for to extract those concessions, North Korea must make credible threats of a willingness to use the weapons over some boundary condition.

Much of the debate around North Korea centers around exactly this credibility issue: is the threat credible, or is it all blustering? If it is credible, then is our duty to disarm North Korea by force, or to give in to what amounts to an act of extortion and try to broker a disarmament agreement? Or should we leave the issue to regional actors—China, South Korea, and Japan most obviously—and simply support our allies. If the threat is not credible, should we act at all? Should we work to denuclearize North Korea before the threat ever becomes credible?

This is where having a clear progressive foreign policy framework becomes clear, because we can reduce that dizzying array of questions into one simple issue: what is the best course of action to protect working people? The active prosecution of a war always hurts working people more than any other segment of society, competing with North Korea through force of threat display only helps the military-industrial complex that builds our weapons, leaving regional actors to deal with the issue alone allows neoliberal forces within those countries to dominate the conversation and risks the lives of working people through East and Southeast Asia.

The only solution that makes any kind of sense whatsoever is to come to the negotiating table with the Kims and to advocate the kinds of policies that will advance the causes of North Korea’s working classes: we can offer them access to the world commodities market if their workers are given the right to assemble and associate and if North Korea stands down its missile program. We can give them a place in regional and global diplomatic organizations if they agree to end the nuclear arm of their development program and open up for rule of law monitoring.

The United States and her allies will always be walking to the negotiation table with the superior position: nuclear missiles are not a dominating threat, they’re the desperate threat of self-destruction. If North Korea had any other tools to force bargaining, they would use them. US allies match North Korea’s nuclear power a thousand-fold, and we hold the keys to the castle that North Korea so desperately wants access to. Progressives should acknowledge that and exploit North Korea’s desperate bargaining position in order to articulate policy options that will alleviate suffering within North Korea, strengthen our foreign policy legitimacy within the US conversation, and attack corporate power globally.

William Byatt