North Korea’s failed rocket launch last week was an embarrassment for the country’s leadership. A regime that derives its authority from exercising total power over its people must have been shocked by the sight of its ‘satellite’ launch crumbling soon after lift-off. More shocked, for sure, than seeing millions of its civilians starving, as a result of its abhorrent, military-first, ‘communist’ policies.
Some observers, however, read even more into this. The fact that North Korea had even attempted to launch this rocket was deemed to show Barack Obama’s policy of engagement with North Korea was “in tatters.” Indeed, some speculate that in order to save face, Kim Jong-Un’s government (if ‘governing’ is indeed its primary goal) will test another nuclear device in order to show the world that it must not be laughed at. This, the narrative goes, would “represent a significant foreign policy failure for [Mr] Obama and prove a severe political embarrassment in an election year.”
Mr Obama’s policy has been characterised by an attempt to soften up the north, indicated by the promise of a massive amount of food aid in order to prevent mass starvation of innocent North Koreans (there appears to be little chance of their young leader starving anytime soon). Some hawks, in their default knee-jerk reaction to any of Mr Obama’s policies, have criticised this position, saying that it shows America to have lost its power. Indeed, in hoping that food aid might keep the North at the negotiating table, Mr Obama was described as “weak”.
This is lazy thinking. It demonstrates some rather typical errors of foreign policy thinking that have occurred since it first became a subject of study.
First is the attempt to find causal relationships in a series of events, when no such pattern exists. How much of an effect could Mr Obama’s foreign policy have really had, given the history of the Korean peninsula, and the actions of its secretive, northern state? To suggest that the delivery of food aid in exchange for good wishes fundamentally altered what might have happened otherwise is to completely ignore the context. All options were bad. The North Korean regime is as unpredictable as it is callous: note the unexpected sinking of the South Korean Cheonan vessel in 2010, or the bombardment of Yeonpyeong island later that same year, which killed four people. Moreover, those who view Mr Obama’s policies as having an effect on the North’s provocative rocket launch fail to mention the far more important factor: the instability caused by the death of Kim Jong-Il, and the ascent of his young, inexperienced son, Jong-Un, who needs to prove himself in order to cement his position.
In such volatile circumstances, Mr Obama should be applauded for doing the decent thing and providing food for the North Korean regime’s innocent, starving victims.
As might have been expected, though, Mitt Romney, the all but confirmed Republican Presidential nominee, described Mr Obama’s policy as “appeasement” and “naïve”. If North Korea does detonate a third nuclear device, he will no doubt further criticise Mr Obama for this apparent policy failure. Funny, though, that he – and many other new critics – didn’t do the same thing when George Bush was President, given that it was under his watch that North Korea first joined the nuclear club.
This incident also illustrates the prima facie acceptance of the Rational Actor Model (RAM) of foreign policy-making. RAM is a way of seeing the world in simple but comprehensible terms. A state’s actions are packaged into simple formats in which they are attributed with clear motivations, calculations and interests. The world, of course, does not work like this. As Anne-Marie Slaughter and numerous others have observed, the state is not a unitary actor, as basic Realist theories of International Relations insist. Its policies are the product of deliberation, competition and disagreement, and are influenced by a whole swathe of psychological and bureaucratic factors. Each policy or action has more than one cause, and often more than one (unclear) goal. Not all policy is thought-through, and much of it is grounded in base ideology, rather than evidence. This is a theme I have been lamenting recently, and it extends to foreign policy as well. But in this instance the worry is not that policy is being made badly, but that it is not being understood. It is too easy to make assumptions about it, without understanding the context and the many causes and consequences at play.
Blaming Mr Obama for being too soft is an easy kneejerk reaction to belligerence from North Korea. It tells us nothing.