Deterring North Korea

Much of international security depends on maintaining credible deterrence. Effective deterrence relies on two key factors: capability and credibility. In order to prevent a hostile force from attacking, countries need to be able to show that they have the resources to respond with force, i.e. military power, alliances, and force projection capabilities. However, if a country is believed to lack the political will to respond to aggression with force, their military capabilities will not be effective in deterring hostile action. On the Korean Peninsula, the US-South Korea alliance has a mixed record of deterrence. The alliance, with its modern military might displayed in regular joint exercises, clearly has the capability to deter the North Korean threat. In addition, it has projected the necessary credibility to deter any large-scale North Korean invasion since 1953.  However, the alliance had proven to have little credibility in regards to responding to lower level provocations from North Korea, which has resulted in the current decades long cycle of North Korean brinksmanship.

North Korea has taken advantage of this situation to engage in a strategy of extortion from the international community- often demanding aid, apologies or changes in policy after each round of provocations. These small-scale aggressions over time have resulted in significant loss of US and South Korean lives. From 1953 to 2003, North Korea was responsible for 1,439 major provocations, as well as the deaths of at least 90 US and 390 ROK soldiers. Since 2010, North Korea has: sunk the Cheonan, a South Korean submarine, killing 46 seamen; shelled Yeonpyong, a South Korean Island, killing four South Koreans; and threatened to turn Seoul into a sea of fire. The cycle continued again on August 4th of this year, with South Korea blaming North Korea for planting mines in the DMZ that maimed two South Korean soldiers, and on August 20th exchanged fire across the DMZ. As this current crisis unfolds, it is important to evaluate the effectiveness of current US-South Korean strategy to stop the cycle of crises that have held South Korea hostage.

Since the Korean War, the United States has restrained its South Korean ally from responding with force to North Korea’s provocations and appeased rather than confronted Pyongyang. Two examples from 1968 demonstrate this trend. On January 21, 1968, a group of North Korean commandos infiltrated South Korea and the Presidential Blue House in an attempt to assassinate South Korean President Park Chung-hee and US Ambassador William J. Porter. Rather than responding forcefully to the attempted assassination of a US ambassador and an allied head of state, the United States, through Ambassador Porter, warned President Park that the US would strongly oppose any South Korean use of force. The second incident occurred two days later, when North Korea seized the USS Pueblo, a US Navy intelligence ship, and its crew from international waters.  North Korea held the 83 US crewmembers hostage for 11 months, and abused the men. In order to end the hostage crisis, the US Lyndon Johnson administration issued a written apology to North Korea. Both instances could have easily been considered an act of war and in both President Park wanted to respond forcefully but was restrained by its American ally, which worried about the possibility of a second Asian land war breaking out during the Vietnam War.

A second Korean War would be unquestionably devastating, and the US-South Korea alliance deserves commendation for preventing that outcome. However, as the economic and military gap increases between the South and the North, the chances of another invasion have decreased. Also, while the Kim family regime engages in behavior that many consider bizarre, its continued survival for more than seven decades, and its ability to outlast almost every other communist state, is a strong argument for its survival instinct and rationality. The US-South Korea alliance has endeavored to make it credibly clear that any large scale fighting on the Korean Peninsula will inevitably end North Korea and the Kim family’s dynastic chokehold on the North Korean people. There is no reason to expect that a proportionate response to North Korean provocations will result in all out war, or that the big deterrence will fail. However, by increasing the cost of each North Korean provocation, and refusing to give into Pyongyang’s extortionary practice with enticements, will decrease the value of North Korea’s brinksmanship strategy.

In 2011, South Korea developed a proactive deterrence policy that allowed South Korean forces to retaliate promptly and proportionately against the point of origin of North Korean attacks.  This strategy was put into place after the August 20th North Korean artillery firing across the DMZ, which resulted in South Korean forces returning fire an hour later. The South Korean response demonstrated seriousness, but was done in a manner to ensure that there would be no North Korean casualties. North Korea has responded with a show of force, mobilizing troops and artillery to the DMZ and sending out its submarine force, but has also agreed to a long series of talks with South Korean officials at Panmunjom. North Korea is an expert at raising tensions and making demands, but it is important to reassert deterrence against its provocations.

The current South Korean stance has the greatest chance of ending Pyongyang’s violence, but as North Korea raises the stakes in protest, pressure will increase to give into Kim Jong-un’s demands. The United States should stand strong with Seoul to show that North Korean actions will not intimidate it, nor will it accept violent attacks against a close ally. This is not a call for reckless retaliation that could destabilize the region, and it does require signaling to Beijing of the limited nature of any response, but for too long North Korea’s provocations have gone unanswered. Following and supporting South Korea’s proactive deterrence policy will reestablish the alliances credibility, and should not be abandoned despite North Korea’s bombastic threats.

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When People ask me what is happening in North Korea

Among several people that know me, I’ve developed a reputation as a North Korea “watcher”, so it has become common for people to ask me what is happening in North Korea, or what will happen in North Korea, or when do I think the regime will collapse, etc. This is especially common when North Korea is in the news (which is fairly often). Kim Jong Un hasn’t been seen for a month… what does it mean?

The honest answer in almost every case is simple, I do not know. I think that this is probably true for the majority of people, despite the number of stories written and theories advanced each time something happens, more often than not it is guesswork. This is not to say that North Korea is completely inscrutable, or that there are no meaningful patterns. In this sense North Korea can be understood on a macro-level far easier than in a micro one. The worst question people ask me is when I think that the regime will collapse. I think that this is inevitable, however, I do not wish to join the long list of people who made the foolish mistake of offering a number of years, a date, or a specific event that will bring the regime down. If forced, I would offer with many qualifications the guess of within 50 years, but that is just a guess and a number that sounds, but with enough time that the person who asked would forget what I said within that time frame.

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Graduation- No longer a student at Fletcher and looking for new opportunities

Greetings blog followers. You may have noticed that recently my blog posts have become more sporadic and mostly just links to outside published work. This is mostly due to the fact that I recently graduated from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Graduating is a weird mix of feelings, at first I was (and still am) extremely glad to be finished with all my final papers, tests and thesis and enjoyed the chance to relax and be lazy. Now I am in a weird transition phase where I am not a student, but am still looking for a job which creates a strange sense of ennui, anticipation, boredom and happiness that I have time to catch up on my netflix list.

My two years in graduate school were immensely rewarding intellectually. I had a chance to work with some of the top people in my field at both Harvard and Tufts, and meet many influential people. My understanding of the world has noticeably deepened. It was also a difficult time in terms of amount of work, financial issues, and working while studying. It is hard to say if it was worth it or not without knowing what kinds of opportunities it will open for me in the future. I am confident, but waiting is hard.

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Evolution of the U.S.-ROK Alliance: Abandonment Fears

Another article in my Diplomat series is up.

Throughout the history of the U.S.-ROK alliance, South Korea has faced abandonment fears stemming from the possibility that its great power sponsor would remove its troops from the Korean peninsula and end or weaken the alliance. South Korea’s fear is a reasonable reflection of historical events. In 1950, Kim Il Sung’s decision to invade South Korea depended on his belief that the United States would not come to Seoul’s rescue. Even today, South Korean fears of abandonment persist despite the current strength of the alliance. The U.S. is a global actor with an array of interests that make it difficult to maintain focus on any one relationship, no matter the importance. Since the United States has interests across the globe, it often has to react to unplanned circumstances that distract attention from declared policies and long-term strategies.

Read the rest here:

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The Evolution of the U.S.-ROK Alliance

Another Diplomat article came out today. This one is the first one in a series based on my Master’s thesis.

The United States Military has been instrumental in shaping perceptions of the United States in Korea, and has played an outsized role in the development of the South Korean state. This relationship dates back to 1945 and the end of World War II, when the U.S. military Government directly ruled South Korea under General John Hodges until 1948. The partnership has been bound in blood since the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950. During that war, 36,516 Americans died pushing North Korean troops out of the South and up to the Yalu River border with China.

The U.S. military helped build the foundations for the Republic of Korea and has had a physical presence in the country for almost all of its history. Underscoring the importance of the relationship, it was during the short period after U.S. forces left Korea in 1949 that North Korea invaded the ROK and started the Korean War. North Korea remains a threat to both South Korea and American interests in Pacific Asia. From 1953 to 2003, North Korea was responsible for 1,439 major provocations, as well as for the deaths of at least 90 U.S. and 390 ROK soldiers.

Read more here:

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U.S.-China: Mutually Assured Economic Destruction?

My new article is out on the Diplomat today

In 1910, Englishman Norman Angell wrote the bookThe Great Illusion to address the myth that nations could economically benefit from war. At the time that Angell was writing, popular and elite opinion assumed that a nation’s political power determined its prosperity, and that countries with preponderate military strength would have the greatest advantage. Angell acknowledges that this belief had validity in the past, however by the 1900s a country’s wealth became dependent on credit and commercial contract provided by the international financial system. Because of the delicate working of this system, if country A invades country B, than the chaos caused by the invasion would damage A’s access to credit. Moreover, country A would be unable to confiscate country B’s wealth without damaging its own economic well-being, and would destroy country B’s citizen’s will to do the work that is responsible for wealth creation. Through this reasoning, Angell argues that conquest and military power have become economically futile.

Angell’s work can provide insight into the possibility of conflict between the United States and China. According to a 2011 RAND study, conflict between the United States and China would likely lead to a global contraction greater than the one that occurred in 2008. For the United States, the economic losses would likely be even higher given the interdependent nature of the U.S.-Chinese economies. In 2014, total U.S.-China trade was worth $592 billion, China was the United State’s second largest trading partner, third largest export market, biggest source of imports, and the largest foreign holder of American debt, with $1.24 trillion worth of U.S. Treasury bonds in December 2014.

Read the rest here

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China’s Grand Strategy

China is a large country with more than a billion people, but as Ross Terrill observed, when we ask what China wants, we are really attempting to discern the goals of the nine male engineers that make up the Standing Committee of the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party.[1]  This clarification makes the answer straightforward, like any bureaucracy or interest group, the CCP wants to ensure their own survival. However, despite the authoritarian nature of the CCP, they depend on legitimacy to maintain control over the Chinese state. The CCP currently derives much of their legitimacy on economic performance, but as the economy is starting to slow down, maintaining a strong foreign policy is increasingly important. The CCP bases their foreign policy around the two concepts of “core interests” and building a “new type of great power relations” with the United States.  Both of these goals involve China taking a more assertive stance in Asia to ensure that other states are unable to interfere with China’s domestic policies, including their relationship with Taiwan and other territorial claims, as well as playing a more authoritative regional role. In order to meet these goals, the CCP will increase their political strength through economic ties and their role in multi-lateral organizations as well as a military buildup designed to provide a credible deterrence to any other power seeking to interfere. In order to deter a stronger or more sophisticated military, such as the United States, China will develop asymmetrical capabilities that will allow it to deny access to strategic areas long enough to complete its goals and present the international community with a fait accompli.

China’s Long Term Goals

The CCP considers foreign policy directly related to maintaining domestic stability and regime survival. Throughout Chinese history, external invasions have often overthrown ruling regimes during times of internal unrest.[2] As the Chinese people become more vocally nationalistic, the CCP’s foreign policy choices will become more constrained, and will need to take on more hard-line stances to maintain their legitimacy with the public. Collective memories of China’s role at the top of the hierarchy of Asian states under China’s tributary system fuel Chinese nationalists. Chinese Scholar Ye Zicheng expresses this nationalist sentiment by writing “If China does not become a world power, the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation will be incomplete. Only when it becomes a world power can we say that the total rejuvenation of the Chinese nation has been achieved.”[3] As China continues to rise economically and militarily, this viewpoint has become widely accepted among both common and elite Chinese citizens.[4] In order to maintain control of nationalism, and to channel it as a source of legitimacy for the regime, the CCP has established the two concepts of ‘core interests’ and a ‘new type of great power relationship’ with the United States.

The 2011 Chinese White Paper “China’s Peaceful Development,” lists the six core Chinese interests as 1) state sovereignty; 2) national security; 3) territorial integrity; 4) national reunification; 5) China’s political system established by the Constitution and overall social stability; 6) basic safeguards for ensuring sustainable economic and social development.[5] The concept of core interests is how the CCP defines its priorities, and signals issues it is willing to go to war over.[6] In the past, Chinese spokespeople have referred to both contested South and East China Sea territorial claims as core interests, but officially, the CCP has maintained ambiguity about their status.[7] However, despite the ambiguity, the CCP has been clear that it considers its territorial claims to be sovereign Chinese territory, so maintaining these claims would fall under the core interests of state sovereignty and territorial integrity. In addition, unlike the strategic ambiguity of its maritime claims, the CCP has been clear that Taiwan is a core interest, and that the CCP is unwilling to rule out the use of force to reunify China.[8]

Despite being included in a document about peaceful development, China’s pursuit of its core interests has the potential for great power rivalry or conflict with the United States and other regional powers. This is why in 2010 Chinese president Hu Jintao told U.S. president Obama “China and the United States should respect each other’s core interests and major concerns. This is key to the healthy and stable development of bilateral ties.”[9] Current Chinese president Xi Jinping has articulated a similar concept in his vision for a “new type of great-power relations” between China and the United States. As part of this vision, Xi insists that respect for each other’s ‘core interests’ was a vital part of this new relationship. This slogan has now become commonplace in Chinese official speeches and media when describing the U.S-Chinese relationship.[10] Together, the concepts of ‘core interests’ and a ‘new type of great power relationships,’ demonstrate the CCP’s vision of China’s future. In this vision, China and the United States will enjoy an equal relationship with clearly defined core interests that the other will not interfere with. This will result in China assuming a preeminent place in Asia, with a large sphere of influence encompassing much of the South and East China Seas, and a reunification with Taiwan.

Chinese Grand Strategy

            In order for China to achieve its world power vision, it needs to change the balance of power with the United States. The United States, through maintaining bases and alliances along China’s periphery and through extending its nuclear umbrella and weapons sells to Taiwan, stands in the way of China reunifying or consolidating its maritime claims. In addition, the United States has demonstrated its ability to interfere in what China considers its domestic affairs, such as applying economic sanctions in 1989 after the Tiananmen incident or sending in 1996 sending two aircraft carrier battle groups through the Taiwan Straits. In order to prevent more humiliating U.S. interference, and to balance the U.S.-China relationship, the CCP has developed a grand strategy that focuses on strengthening Chinese political power as well as developing an effective military deterrent.

Chinese political scientist Yan Xuetong has developed a formula to measure a country’s strength based on the concept of comprehensive national power. This formula is derived from the sum of a country’s military, economic, and soft power multiplied by its political power (CP=(M+E+C)xP).[11] This concept demonstrates the importance of a countries political power as compared to economics or military might, for example if political power is zero it does not matter how high any of the other inputs to the formula are. Yan’s conception of political power relates to humane authority, or the ability of a country to win friends and allies through moral leadership.[12] This idea of the attractive power of moral leadership has a long history in Chinese thought, for example, Confucius wrote, “If distant people do not submit, then cultivate benevolent virtue so as to attract them.”[13]

Currently the United States and other western powers run the international order and benefit by creating the rules. The United State’s manifests this control through its powerful global alliance networks and through its influence over international institutions such as the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO. The United States also uses ideas like human rights to interfere in other states internal affairs, such as its many humanitarian interventions in places like Yugoslavia and Libya. China is currently a rule-taker in this international system, but has developed a new ideal for international relations based on non-interference in other state’s affairs. President Xi has articulated this new vision of international relations as part of China’s peaceful development strategy, saying China should “abide by the principle of non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs, respect the independent choice of development path and social system by people of other countries, promote peaceful resolution of differences and disputes between countries through dialogue and consultation, and oppose the willful use or threat of force.”[14]

This strategy of non-interference has the benefit of attracting developing countries that are wary of western interference in their domestic affairs. For example, China, unlike the United States, is often willing to give aid to countries without attaching political conditions such as human rights or anti-corruption requirements. A recent example of this is President Xi’s trip to Pakistan and his pledge of $46 billion dollars in aid, more than the United States has ever given to Pakistan during decades of a troubled alliance.[15] Despite Yan and Xi’s rhetoric about peace and moral authority, Xi also articulated the strategic intent behind the aid and the visit, saying “China appreciates Pakistan’s consistent support on issues related to Taiwan, Xinjiang, Tibet and South China Sea,” and “China will continue to staunchly support Pakistan for its sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity.”[16] Xi’s diplomatic aid is not limited to Pakistan, but within the same week, China extended a $5 billion loan to the United State’s main irritant in Latin America, Venezuela. This new loan comes on top of an already existing $70 billion worth of risky Chinese loans, but ensures that China will have a foothold in Latin America.[17] Currently China is far behind the United States in terms of friends and allies, as Yan notes, the United States has more than 50 formal military allies, whereas China has none, and counts among its friends unstable states like North Korea, Pakistan, and Venezuela. However, President Xi seems determined to change this calculus and expand his vision of a new form of international relations.

Problems with this grand strategy- America has more than 50 formal military allies, while China has none. North Korea and Pakistan are only quasi-allies of China.

Luttwaks theory and the current balancing against China

[1] Ross Terrill, “What Does China Want?,” The Wilson Quarterly, Autumn 2005,

[2] Wang Jisi, “China’s Search for a Grand Strategy: A Rising Power Finds Its Way,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2011, 69.

[3] Ye Zicheng, Inside China’s Grand Strategy: The Perspective from the People’s Republic (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2011), 74.

[4] Swaine, Michael D. and Ashley J. Tellis. Interpreting China’s Grand Strategy: Past, Present, and Future. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2000, 14.

[5] Feng Zhaokui, “What Are China’s Core Interests?,” China-US Focus, October 21, 2014,

[6] “China’s Evolving ‘Core Interests’,” The New York Times, May 11, 2013,

[7] Caitlin Campbell, Ethan Meick, Kimberly Hsu, and Craig Murray, “China’s “Core Interests” and the East China Sea,” U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, May 10, 2013,

[8] Wang Jisi, 70.

[9] Wu Xinbo, “China and the United States: Core Interests, Common Interests, and Partnership,” United States Institute of Peace, June 2011,

[10] Andrew S. Erickson and Adam P. Liff, “Not-So-Empty Talk

The Danger of China’s “New Type of Great-Power Relations” Slogan,” Foreign Affairs, October 1, 2014,

[11] Yan Xuetong, Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), 101.

[12] Yan Xuetong, “How China Can Defeat America,” New York Times, November 20, 2011,

[13] Yan Xuetong, 37.

[14] “Xi eyes more enabling int’l environment for China’s peaceful development,” Xinhuanet, November 30, 2014,

[15] Jane Perlez, “Xi Jinping Heads to Pakistan, Bearing Billions in Infrastructure Aid,” New York Times, April 19, 2015,

[16] “China, Pakistan elevate relations, commit to long-lasting friendship,” Xinhuanet, April 21, 2015,

[17] Shannon Tiezzi, “Maduro: China Gives $5 Billion Loan to Venezuela,” The Diplomat, April 21, 2015,

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North Korea- Threat Profile

Although the alliance has changed substantially since its Cold War origins, it is still grounded in protecting the ROK from DPRK attacks or invasion. While most U.S. Cold War adversaries have abandoned communism, or in the case of the PRC an ideological commitment to conflict with imperial powers, North Korea has not changed its ideology or hostile stance to the outside world. Even while North Korean citizens suffer from hunger and privation, the Kim regime spends an estimated 22.9% of their GDP on defense, the highest percentage in the world.[i] In addition, despite North Korea’s relatively small size, it has one of the largest military forces in the world, with an estimated 1,190,000 troops in 2012 as compared to the 639,000 ROK troops.[ii]   While it is true that many North Korean troops are less well nourished, trained, or equipped than their ROK or U.S. counterparts, North Korea maintains a 100,000+ large detachment of Special Operations forces trained to infiltrate into South Korea, attack strategic infrastructure, carry out assassinations, and potentially act as a delivery mechanism for a biological or chemical attack against the ROK.[iii] Making the DPRK threat more acute, the DPRK has positioned most of its forces and artillery south of Pyongyang and in close proximity to the DMZ, meaning that a DPRK attack could occur with little warning.[iv]

Beyond conventional forces, North Korea’s missile and nuclear program is a major threat to South Korea, as well as Japan and others in the region. According to the Nautilus Institute, an artillery attack against Seoul would likely result in 3,000 deaths in the first few minutes, and up to 30,000 deaths in a short amount of time, along with massive damage to infrastructure.[v] Aside from the short-range missile threat, North Korea possesses medium range missiles, such as the Nodong missile, that can hit all of South Korea and most of Japan.[vi] Importantly, the Nodong missile is believed to be able to carry a small nuclear weapon. The nuclear threat is the most prominent reason for worldwide concern about North Korea, which currently is believed to have between six and eight nuclear weapons. This problem directly affects the United States. In 2015, Army General Curtis Scaparrotti, the current U.S. commander in South Korea told the Senate Armed Service Committee that he believes that North Korea has the capability to place a nuclear warhead on a long-range missile that could hit the United States.[vii]  The sophistication of North Korean nuclear weapons capabilities has been increasing. North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006 resulted in a yield of less than 1,000 tons of TNT, however by the third test in 2013 was estimated to have a yield of 6-40 Kilotons.[viii] Beyond nuclear weapons, Joseph Bermudez Jr. estimates North Korea to have between 2,500-5,000 tons of chemical weapons agents such as chlorine and mustard gas, hydrogen cyanide, and sarin.[ix]

Expert estimates vary about the effectiveness of the DPRK military, however given the short distance between the front line DMZ forces and the 25 million plus residents of Seoul, as well as the numerous asymmetric capabilities that the DPRK possess, the DPRK has the potential to wreak devastating human and economic damage on South Korea. Since the end of the Korean War and the signing of the armistice in 1953, a state of mutual deterrence has existed, but this state has depended on the strength of the U.S.-ROK alliance. However, despite this deterrence, the DPRK has proven willing to commit violent provocations resulting in U.S. and South Korean casualties. The two most recent examples of this tendency is the 2010 North Korean sinking of the Cheonan that killed 46 ROK seamen, and the 2010 North Korean shelling of the ROK Yeonpyeong Island that killed four ROK citizens as well as wounding an additional three civilians and fifteen soldiers.[x] Many North Korean provocations do not result in physical damage, but are intended to register displeasure with the U.S.-ROK alliance and to increase tension on the Korean Peninsula and the region, such as firing missiles into coastal waters during joint U.S.-ROK military exercises, or most recently firing two short range missiles off of its western coast two days before U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter visited Seoul.[xi] While some dismiss U.S. East Asian alliances as a holdover from the Cold War, in the case of the U.S.-ROK alliance it is clear that the original purpose has not lost meaning, because even as ROK capabilities have grown, the DPRK still has manifest hostile intent and large conventional and asymmetrical capabilities that are more than a paper tiger threat to South Korea and the region.[xii]

[i] Percent of GDP: Countries Compared, (accessed April 7, 2015); available from

[ii] Ho Jun Kim, “‘NLL = De Facto Maritime Boundary Line,’ Officially Affirms the Government (Ministry of National Defense),” Yonhap News, December 21, 2012,

[iii] Bruce W. Bennett, Preparing for the Possibility of a North Korean Collapse (Santa Monica: Rand, 2013), 72.

[iv] Park Ji-won “Former Joints Chief of Staff Warns North Korea Could Wage All-out War with South Korea,” Arirang, May 24, 2014,

[v] Roger Cavazos, “”Mind the Gap Between Rhetoric and Reality,” Nautilus Institute, June 26, 2012,

[vi] Kyle Mizokami, “5 North Korean Weapons South Korea (and the World) Should Fear,” The National Interest, December 28, 2014,

[vii] Richard Sisk, “US General Tells Senate North Korea Can Hit US With Nuclear ICBM,” Military.Com News, April 16, 2015,

[viii] Kyle Mizokami.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Mark McDonald, “‘Crisis Status’ in South Korea After North Shells Island,” The New York Times, November 23, 2010,

[xi] Helene Cooper, “U.S. Defense Chief Arrives in South Korea Amid News of North’s Missile Launches,” The New York Times, April 9, 2015,

[xii] For example, Ivan Eland argues that the U.S. alliances are a holdover from the Cold War and the U.S. should grant China a sphere of influence: Ivan Eland, “The United States Should Give China Breathing Room to Rise Peacefully,” Huffington Post, November 11, 2014,; also this article articulates a common view that since the ROK is much richer than the DPRK it should not rely on the U.S. for security: Christopher Lee, “Time for U.S. Forces to Leave South Korea,” War on the Rocks, July 24, 2014,

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Robert Gilpin, Hegemonic Transition and China

Robert Gilpin and Thucydides both wrote about the problems of hegemonic transition, however, unlike Thucydides, Gilpin’s work presents a systematic theory instead of a historical account. Gilpin wrote his book War and Change in World Politics in 1981 during the Cold War when the United States and the Soviet Union were in a great power ideological struggle that had the potential to break out into hegemonic warfare. In 1981, Gilpin saw the United States as a declining power, The Soviet Union as a potential hegemonic challenger and China as a backwards state.[1] Thirty-four years later, the United States is the sole superpower, the Soviet Union has broken up, and China has undergone reforms and rapid military and economic growth making it the only potential peer competitor of the United States. Despite these changes, Gilpin’s framework can guide U.S. policymakers dealing with the rise of China.

A fundamental assumption of War and Change in World Politics is that the international system is stable if no states wish to change the status quo, however if a state believes that the expected benefits of changing the system outweighs the expected costs it will attempt to do so.[2] The United States, as the dominant world power, sets the rules for the international system through its alliance networks and its influence over international institutions such as the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO. When the creation of this system started after WWII in 1945, China was weak and isolated, so it did not participate in making the rules of the current order. As China continues to grow economically and militarily, not only its incentives, but also its capabilities to challenge the current order will increase. As Gilpin states, “a more powerful state can afford to pay a higher cost than a weaker state…as the power of a state increases, so does the probability of its willingness to seek a change in the system.”[3] President Xi has frequently articulated the need for a new international system based on political non-interference and a new type of great power relations with the United States based on respect for each countries core interests, including China’s core interests of reunification with Taiwan.[4]

As a country rises and the balance of power shifts in its favor, it will often seek to extend territorial control, political influence, and domination of the international economy.[5] China is currently asserting a stronger role in the world economic system, builds new diplomatic ties, and is aggressively pursuing a wide range of new maritime claims. Chinese actions in each of these three areas can undermine or threaten U.S. influence and interests. For example, China’s recently created Asia Infrastructure Investment bank, a new international economic institution with more than 40 member countries, is widely seen as a competitor to U.S. led financial institutions like the IMF or the World Bank. In order to prevent this competition, the United States unsuccessfully urged allies like Australia, South Korea, Germany and the United Kingdom not to join the AIIB.[6] In diplomacy, President Xi traveled to Pakistan in April 2015 and pledged $46 billion dollars in aid, more than the United States has ever given to Pakistan during decades of a troubled alliance. In addition, within the same week, China extended a $5 billion loan to the United State’s main irritant in Latin America, Venezuela. This new loan comes on top of an already existing $70 billion worth of risky Chinese loans, but ensures that China will have a foothold in Latin America.[7] Lastly, China’s increasingly expansive territorial claims in the South and East China Seas threatens United States interest in maintaining freedom of navigation, and since China’s claims are contested by U.S. allies, such as Japan and the Philippines, any Chinese use of force could drag the United States into the conflict.

Ultimately, the gravest danger in the U.S.-China relationship is the threat of hegemonic war. According to Gilpin, hegemonic war occurs when a rising power seeks to change the international system and the current dominant power is unable to restore the international system to a state of equilibrium through changes in its policies.[8] A hegemonic war is a total war fought to reorder the international system, where the victor sets the rules and the distribution of territory and power. Because of the totality of this goal, it includes participation of all major states and many minor states as well, and effective limits of the means employed weaken resulting in high levels of violence and treachery.[9] Regardless of the outcome of a hegemonic war with China, the United States would suffer tremendous loss in human life and prosperity, and could lose its preeminent position in the world system, leading to a new set of international rules and norms that do not serve its interests.

Gilpin offers the United States a way to avoid hegemonic war through the route of national revitalization. If the current dominant power, in this case the United States, can change its policies to increase or retain its power it will increase the cost for the rising country to challenge the existing system, restoring equilibrium.[10] This is a challenging solution. Gilpin characterizes an aging or declining society as one where there is a lack of cooperation, an emphasis on individual rights instead of collective duty, and decreasing productivity. Furthermore, this solution requires the rejuvenation of the United States military, economic, and political institutions to be successful. The United States is increasingly matching Gilpin’s description of a declining power as domestic partisanship and American lack of faith reduces American authority and effectiveness abroad.[11] However, now that the United States’ economy is recovering from the 2008 financial crisis there is no reason to believe that an American decline is inevitable.

In order to prevent decline relative to China, and create lasting prosperity, Gilpin would suggest that the United States should find an optimal way to allocate scarce resources across the conflicting needs for protection, consumption, and investment.[12] One way to meet this goal would be a foreign policy that avoids costly wars of choice, such as the Iraq War, and instead used scarce resources to fund the Strategic Rebalance to Asia policy that would strengthen our security posture in East Asia, thus raising the cost for China to challenge the existing system. However, it will not be enough to change foreign policy, but will require political reconciliation at home and political bravery to address issues like national debt, tax policy and other changes necessary to rejuvenate the United States in the long-term.

[1] Robert Gilpin, War and Change in World Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 235.

[2] Ibid, 11.

[3] Ibid, 95.

[4] Andrew S. Erickson and Adam P. Liff, “Not-So-Empty Talk The Danger of China’s “New Type of Great-Power Relations” Slogan,” Foreign Affairs, October 1, 2014,

[5] Robert Gilpin, 106.

[6] Nicole Gaouette and Andrew Mayeda, “U.S. Failure to Stop China Bank Unmasks World Finance Fight,” Bloomberg Business, April 7, 2015,

[7] Shannon Tiezzi, “Maduro: China Gives $5 Billion Loan to Venezuela,” The Diplomat, April 21, 2015,

[8] Robert Gilpin, 187.

[9] Robert Gilpin, 197-200.

[10] Ibid, 187.

[11] Francis Fukuyama, “American Power Is Waning Because Washington Won’t Stop Quarreling,” New Republic, March 10, 2014,

[12] Robert Gilpin, 190.

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The Real Thucydides’ Trap

My article was just published at the Diplomat.

Professor Graham Allison of the Harvard Kennedy School has popularized the phrase “Thucydides’ trap,” to explain the likelihood of conflict between a rising power and a currently dominant one. This is based on the famous quote from Thucydides: “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this inspired in Sparta that made war inevitable.” This usage has even spread to Chinese President Xi Jinping who said “We all need to work together to avoid the Thucydides trap – destructive tensions between an emerging power and established powers … Our aim is to foster a new model of major country relations.” However, those like Graham Allison who talk about a Thucydides trap only capture half the meaning of the History of The Peloponnesian War. The true trap is countries going into, and continuing, war clouded by passions like fear, hubris and honor.

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