Photo: iStock/Getty
Photo: iStock/Getty

Franz Kafka’s unfinished novel The Castle tells of a palace perched above a Bohemian village. Ineffable emissaries leave and enter in sealed coaches. The townspeople barely glimpse the denizens of the Castle, who govern the town by mysterious means. A telephone connects to the Castle, but the villagers can only speak to whomever might be listening on the other end of the line, without hearing a word of reply. It is interpreted variously as an allegory for the relation of the divine to the human, or as a satire on the Imperial Austrian bureaucracy.

An appropriate ending would be a visit to the Castle, where the inscrutable beings would sit in cavernous offices and complain about their inability to influence events. It would resemble the Executive Office Building adjacent to the White House, where the tyros of the Trump administration are learning how little influence America has in the world after eight years of Barack Obama (not to mention eight years of George W Bush), and how difficult it is to change a game in which America no longer sets the rules.

There is very little the United States can do about the Levant and Mesopotamia, and nothing it can do about the Korean Peninsula – not, in any case, without a long-term effort to change the game.

America has no European partner except for German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the European Union, whether we like it or not. The press chatter about personalities is irrelevant. The problem is not a “Wall Street” group (Gary Cohn, Steven Mnuchin, Jared Kushner) versus the “nationalists” (Steve Bannon, Kellyanne Conway). The problem is that no matter which adviser has the president’s ear, or whether the president acts on his own impulses, there are no good short-term outcomes.

Among Trump’s inner circle, the one individual whose star has risen fastest belongs to neither the “Wall Street” nor the “nationalist” wing of the administration. That is Wilbur Ross, the most influential Secretary of Commerce since Herbert Hoover and a billionaire investor who rescued Korean and Japanese banks after the 1997 Asian financial crisis. A past president of the Japan Society, Ross is Trump’s key man for Asian trade issues.

Japan is not only an American ally; it is a credible counterweight to China’s rising economic influence in Asia, where the US$100 billion One Belt, One Road infrastructure scheme is winning influence for Beijing among former American allies such as Thailand and the Philippines. There is a great deal of scope for Japanese-American collaboration in Asia, but that is a sole bright spot in an otherwise dismal world picture.

Probing Washington’s resolve

The sarin gas attack in Syria’s Idlib province earlier this month perplexed many America analysts: Why would the Assad regime, and its Russian and Iranian backers, subject itself to global condemnation, just after UN Ambassador Nikki Haley allowed that Washington was not focused on removing Assad? The plain facts, as I understand them, show that the Assad government ordered the attack at the highest level, and that Russia was aware of it beforehand and therefore complicit. US officials believe that they can establish these facts with virtual certainty, which means that the Russians knew that Washington would learn what occurred. I conclude that the Syrian government and its Russian ally used poison gas because they could, and wanted to probe Washington’s resolve.

That required a sharp American response, which came in the form of a cruise missile attack on Syria’s Al Shayrat airfield on April 6. There was no follow-up to the American gesture. Nor could there be.
Iran cannot be forced out of Syria. As I reported on March 14, Iran is arming tens of thousands of South Asian Shi’ites to join Hezbollah in its Levantine International Brigade. It can draw on practically inexhaustible resources of manpower from the oppressed Shia minorities of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and its objective is to replace the Syrian Sunni majority with Shi’ite settlers. It has the backing of Moscow and Beijing, who have to contend with Sunni rather than Shi’ite jihadists in their own territories (and, in the case of China, on its Asian periphery). Saudi-funded madrassas are proliferating through East Asia, as Asia Times warned a year ago.

In Syria itself, the US is caught between its allies in the Kurdish YPG, the most effective force fighting ISIS on the ground, and the Turkish government, which hates the YPG more than ISIS (which it has alternately supported and suppressed depending on circumstances). The “moderate Syrian rebels” supported by the Obama administration are al-Qaeda and al-Nusra front Sunni jihadists with an alternate business card.

If the US hasn’t ceded influence in Europe to Moscow, it is despite, rather than because of, American policy

The meat grinder on the ground is fed by foreign fighters, much like Spain in 1936-1939 when Germany and Russia rehearsed their eventual confrontation in World War II. On the Sunni side, there are Chechens and others from the Russian Caucasus, Chinese Uzbeks, Afghans, some European-born Muslims, and a sprinkling of South and Southeast Asians who take the skills they acquire in Syria back to their home countries. They are fighting the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, Lebanese Hezbollah troops, and South Asian Shi’ites armed and organized by Iran. It resembles Europe’s Thirty Years War of 1618-1648, when entire provinces were depopulated by foreign mercenary armies.

To allow the Syrian war to metastasize raises the prospect of a jihad stretching from Birmingham to Borneo and beyond. To stop the war would require an agreement between the US, Russia and China to draw lines between denominational and ethnic zones along the lines of the separation of the former Yugoslavia and to arrange population transfers to stabilize these lines. But Russia is in no mood to talk reasonably to the US about a settlement. It perceives American weakness and irresolution, and wants to see what it can get from stirring the pot a while longer. That is how I read the meaning of the sarin gas attack.

Russia also hopes that the rise of anti-establishment parties in Europe will enhance its influence. Marine Le Pen in France, the Five-Star Movement in Italy, and the anti-Merkel coalition in Germany all promise greater sympathy for Russian interests. President Trump appeared to endorse Le Pen, who polled the second most votes in Sunday’s first round of the French national elections. Fortunately for Washington, the president won’t get what he seems to wish for: Le Pen almost certainly will lose the second round to the pro-European “centrist” candidate Emmanuel Macron.

In Berlin, after an initial surge of support for a Social Democratic candidate allied to the former East German Communist Party, Angela Merkel’s ruling coalition seems likely to remain in power after next September’s national election. If the US hasn’t ceded influence in Europe to Moscow, it is despite, rather than because of, American policy.

Inadequate defenses

America is in what chess players call zugzwang in the Middle East: any move it makes loses. The situation in the Korean Peninsula is even more dismal. The North Korean outlaw regime has thousands of artillery tubes aimed at Seoul, just 35 miles from the border, and could destroy the city in an hour of bombardment without recourse to its nuclear arsenal. The nuclear weapons are there to threaten Japan and perhaps the US after the outbreak of conventional war. America has some missile defense in the region but none reliable enough to reassure the Japanese that one Korean nuclear weapon couldn’t find its way to Tokyo.

There is no way to confront the Norks in the short term, and President Trump’s “armada” sailing toward or away from the Korean Peninsula has only rhetorical significance. Installing anti-missile systems in South Korea also was an empty gesture. They are inadequate to defend against a Chinese attack, and useless against North Korean artillery. The poison toad of Pyongyang can only be boiled slowly. If the US (and perhaps also Japan) introduced a far more reliable missile defense system that neutralized the North Korean nuclear threat, Pyongyang would fear Washington. For the time being it does not. China can help contain it, but only that.

In contrast to his election rhetoric, President Trump is focused on trade negotiations with China with concrete objectives. It is well that the prospect of trade war has receded, but that is cold comfort for the US. China’s burgeoning economic influence has the effect of a virtual tractor beam on a geopolitical death star. From Turkey to Thailand, former American allies are aligning their economies with China, and making strategic concessions as well.

If relative growth rates continue (China at 7% and the US at 2.5%), China’s economy will be double the size of America’s by some time in the late 2020s. The shift in influence will be comparable to the ascendance of America at the expense of Britain between 1900 and 1945, except it will happen in a mere decade.

Japan’s continued influence in Asia can mitigate the problem for a while. Japanese foreign direct investment on the Asian littoral is still larger than China’s, and it is in many ways more effective. Japanese companies emphasize domestic content from countries where they build facilities and generate more good will than the imperious Chinese.

A Reagan-style technology driver comparable to the Strategic Defense Initiative is required to restore American supremacy

China’s ascendancy seems inevitable, minus an internal crisis, and American analysts have grown old and poor waiting for such an internal crisis. But it is far from inevitable. America’s capacity to innovate remains much stronger than China’s. All of the products whose manufacture and trade China now dominates were invented in America, from the microchip to solar cells to flat-panel displays to sensors. China is a giant tortoise creeping past the American hare, which has been asleep for more than 20 years.

America needs a game-changer. In the inaugural issue of the Journal of American Affairs earlier this year, I argued that a Reagan-style technology driver comparable to the Strategic Defense Initiative is required to restore American supremacy in military as well as dual-use technology. Allies such as Israel and Japan might become part of such an effort. China’s elephantine GDP would look less consequential if the content of respective GDPs changed dramatically over the next 10 years. After all, America’s GDP in 1980 contained a lot of rotary-dial telephones, vacuum-tube televisions, manually operated machine tools, mainframe computers, and other soon-to-be constituents of the junkyard. Russia’s enormous GDP vanished into smoke when Communism fell.

Innovation is the most destructive force known to man. If America can restore the parts of its innovation economy that it has neglected during the past 20 years, it will be China’s turn to worry.

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