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For keen analysts of the ebbs and flows of American power, the most important aspect of America’s response to the latest North Korean missile test was that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called for Russia and China to take “direct action”. His words almost passed without further analysis but they represent a curious attempt to outsource America’s global hegemony. Why, after all, should Tillerson reflexively suggest that Moscow had as much of a global responsibility as the US?

 This is probably a question being debated in Tehran, Beijing and Moscow, not to mention in the capitals of US allies in Asia. If America cannot prevent nuclear proliferation and is commanded by a president who has substituted rhetoric for policy, what is the value of its security alliances?

America is suddenly faced by another direct nuclear threat, hitherto only coming from either Russia and China. This makes the US something of a liability to its alliance members, not least the European Nato members. None of them would want to be drawn into an extra-territorial conflict in Asia. Suddenly the Hermit Kingdom has become the most significant threat to US security, fulfilling Obama’s national security warning to his successor.

The most succinct geopolitical analysis of the situation has come from an unexpected source — Vladimir Putin. In a recent press conference he suggested that the core of US policy under Trump, Obama and Bush, attempting to apply pressure to North Korea to give up its nuclear programme, had comprehensively failed. Putin does of course have a vested interest in undermining US power and his view is not shared by the Trump administration. US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley called instead for “the strongest sanctions” to pressure North Korea into abandoning its nuclear programme before “it’s too late”. Nonetheless, Putin may well be correct: it probably is too late. There seems little that the US could do to offset the obvious deterrence and disruptive value of its nuclear programme to North Korea, a state driven by the quest for survival by its ruling dynasty. Pyongyang cannot have failed to notice that Moammar Gaddafi was toppled by US proxies a few years after agreeing to abandon his missile and nuclear programmes. Obama’s ill-conceived and poorly-executed Libya strategy was an illustrative lesson for dictators that if you give up your military capability, you shouldn’t be surprised if you subsequently pay with your life.

The problem in Asia extends far beyond the possibility of North Korea targeting US territory with nuclear weapons. The reconfigured strategic situation has the potential to quickly escalate into great power conflict, despite the reluctance of the two principal powers involved, China and the US. The scholar Graham Allison recently reminded us of the so-called “Thucydides trap”. Thucydides described the dangerous dynamic between rising Athens and ruling Sparta, who were ultimately dragged to war by otherwise inconsequential small powers. Although America is probably North Korea’s only real intended target, the regional situation is complicated by the competing interests of a large number of states. It was strange that Defense Secretary James Mattis’s testimony before the House Armed Services Committee in June made no mention of China’s role in any possible conflict on the Korean Peninsula. China already sees US dealings with North Korea as part of a larger strategic threat in her backyard. Most importantly, China views the US provision of THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) and Aegis missile defence to South Korea and Japan as an attempt to erode its nuclear deterrent against the US. This is a deliberate US “hedging” strategy that now takes on a different dimension in protecting her allies from North Korea. Therein lies an unfortunate paradox. While America will face greater pressure to provide a defensive shield, doing so will exacerbate tensions with China and increase regional instability.

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