A Stable Korean Peninsula: Is a Deal Possible?

Commentary No. 469, March 15, 2018

Two extremely unexpected events occurred regarding the Korean Peninsula in the first week of March 2018. North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, offered to meet with President Trump, withdrawing some previous conditions. And President Trump agreed to meet with Leader Kim, withdrawing some previous conditions.

Maybe someone somewhere predicted this would happen. But, if so, I never read it. Now that it has occurred, everyone everywhere is scrambling to interpret it and then to counsel how to react to it. The pundits and politicians are debating: (1) why the two leaders did it, (2) what are its consequences, and (3) will the meeting actually take place?

In the world outside North Korea, some say Kim retreated before Trump’s many voluble threats. A smaller number say the opposite, that Trump retreated before Kim’s many voluble threats. And quite a large number say the threats played at most a secondary role because the real reasons are different.

Some suggest that Kim felt strong enough to reduce his preconditions in order to gain the legitimation his regime has sought and that a meeting would give him. Some suggest that Trump felt strong enough to reduce his preconditions in order to gain him the worldwide recognition as a statesman and great president that he has sought and that a meeting would be likely to gain him.

Of course, some say simply that each thinks he will be able to con the other and has no intention of being serious about a deal. These are views of persons outside North Korea. We really do not know what kind of internal debate is going on in North Korea. I suspect that it is more or less the same debate.

The debate about consequences depends very much on the answers as to the motivations of Kim and Trump. Some see it as the tactical genius of Kim. For these analysts the consequences are negative for the United States because Trump would have surrendered his biggest card to play, non-recognition. Some see it as the tactical genius of Trump. For these analysts the consequences are very positive because they would reduce the opposition of other countries and movements to further punitive actions by Trump.

Finally, the debate on whether the meeting will take place at all depends on the answers given to the previous two questions. If one or the other or both are not serious, then one or the other will call off the meeting. Even if one or the other or both are serious, the meeting still might not take place, as one or the other realizes the tactical errors he has made.

Of course, even if the meeting does take place, there is no guarantee whatsoever that the two sides could reduce significantly their very wide differences such that a deal would be consummated. And even if a deal were signed formally by the two, it would remain to be seen how one would verify that the other side was living up to the terms of the deal. Many persons who have been involved in previous negotiations have pointed out how immensely difficult it is to verify compliance.

President Ronald Reagan famously said of a deal with President Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union “trust but verify.” But there is virtually zero trust between the United States and North Korea. And if on top of that one can’t verify, a so-called deal would be a fool’s paradise.

I have written this text using parallel phrases for Kim and Trump because I believe they are behaving in mirror image of each other. My own guess is that a meeting is unlikely to come to pass, and that each side will draw negative conclusions from this fact.

In that case, this process would then have made the quest for stability of the Korean peninsula more difficult, not less. In my view this would be disastrous, as it might well lead to the war most of us do truly fear.

I do not however think a nuclear war is inevitable by any means. An increased stability (a more accurate phrase than peace) of the Korean peninsula is most likely to result from pressures from below, from all the rest of us. Such pressures need desperately to be organized, which is not yet happening on a large enough scale.

There is in addition one other element that might work in the same direction – the very unpredictable personal decisions of Kim and Trump. They have surprised us this month, and frequently before this. Maybe they will surprise us again.


Olympic Diplomacy: Winners and Losers at Pyeongchang

Commentary No. 468, March 1, 2018

The idea of holding the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea seemed destined to fail. The interests of three key actors – the United States, South Korea, and North Korea – were so different that it seemed impossible to find working compromises between them.

And yet it was an unexpected relative success. Diplomacy won out. This was very largely due to the remarkable and unsuspected diplomatic skills of one person: President Moon Jae-in of South Korea. Let us review the issues about which there was deep disagreement, and spell out the positions of the three governments as of the beginning of the year 2018.

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Twenty-First-Century Geopolitics: Fluidity Everywhere

Commentary Number 467, February 15, 2018

The most fluid arena in the modern world-system, which is in structural crisis, is arguably the geopolitical arena. No country comes even near to dominating this arena. The last hegemonic power, the United States, has long acted like a helpless giant. It is able to destroy but not to control the situation. It still proclaims rules that others are expected to follow, but it can be and is ignored.

There is now a long list of countries that act as they deem fit despite pressures from other countries to perform in specified ways. A look around the globe will readily confirm the inability of the United States to get its way.

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Who is President Macron of France?

Commentary No. 466, February 1, 2018

(updated on February 10, 2018)

Politicians everywhere have hidden parts of their political and personal itinerary. Sometimes the exposing of such “secrets” causes disillusionment and/or reduced support of voters who had supported this person. What varies is the extent to which the politicians can keep such secrets obscure.

The recently elected president of France, Emmanuel Macron, has managed maintaining the obscurity better than most. It is therefore useful to try to answer the question of who he (really) is. For one thing, there is a lot of disagreement about the answer. This difference is not only one between supporters and antagonists but also within each of the two.
What do we know about his background? He studied at two of France’s elite institutions – Sciences Po and the École Nationale d’Administration (ENA) – where he performed brilliantly.

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A Discreet Capitalist Collapse?’ The Onset of Pre-Panics

Commentary No. 465, January 15, 2018

The New York Times has been suggesting that major bondholders – both national and private banks – are discreetly reducing their bond holdings, out of a fear of nominal inflation. How discreet can it be if it is discussed in The New York Times?

Everyone is hoping that no one panics and sells too rapidly. And if someone does that they do it one mega-instant after my discreet withdrawals. Of course, no one wants to withdraw too soon – and not too late. So, when one arrives at a pre-panic moment, no one can be sure, which more or less guarantees the sudden collapse of the bond market.

We know we’re in a pre-panic moment when we are discussing it. But why now and not before? Because so much paper money has been earned in runaway market profits based on no real increase in surplus-value that the market has caught up with the bond market, and therefore one discreetly withdraws from the bond market.

In addition, the paid workers seek higher wages, everywhere. So many workers have been forced out of the labor market that there is now a labor-available shortage. And this makes bonds still a safe haven. Confusion, confusion!

Everyone becomes more protective – of self, of country. And it is self-reinforcing. Even countries using strong anti-protectionist rhetoric like Canada practice it nonetheless or suffer internal political loss.

All this is what happens in a structural crisis of the world-system, in which wild swings of everything is the reality. Pre-panics are one of these wild swings.


Note: A correction was made on January 20, 2018.

Trump, Thump, Trump, Thump, Trump

Commentary No. 464, January 1, 2018

I was going to write either about the elections in Catalonia, or about debates in Australia on what they should do as a result of U.S.‑Chinese rivalries in southeast Asia. I consider both topics of compelling importance for the immediate future of our capitalist world‑system. But what everyone wants to discuss, it seems, is Mr. Trump ‑ what will he say next, and does it matter?

The question people are asking, friends and foes, is “Can he last?” I didn’t used to think so, but now I do, and here’s why. What is it we know about the present situation? Trump is vastly unpopular and his poll ratings, already extremely low, may well go even lower soon.

Trump claims that the low poll ratings are fake news. And he even seems to believe this himself. Trump acts to satisfy his ego. He measures his success by his ability to stay in office now, win re‑election in 2020, and stay in office until 2024.

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Trump Loses in Alabama: How Important?

Commentary No. 463, December 15, 2017

By now, the whole world knows that in one of the most conservative states in the United States, a Democrat, Doug Jones, defeated Judge Roy Moore, the Republican candidate, in a special election for a vacant seat.

In the analyses almost everyone is making of the election result, it is being called “stunning,” “a surprise,” and “a miracle,” among a long list of similar summary judgments.

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Left Social Movements: What Electoral Tactics?

Commentary No. 462, December 1, 2017

The central difficulty for left social movements is determining electoral tactics that will enable them to win both in the short run and in the middle run. On the surface, it seems that winning in the short run conflicts with winning in the middle run.

In the short run, the primary objective of a left movement must be to defend the urgent needs for survival of all the so-called 99% of the population, but especially those of the poorest strata. In order to do this, they have to control state institutions at all levels. This means participating in elections.

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