North Korea: The Costs of War, Calculated


(Photo: Shutterstock)

Donald Trump is contemplating wars that would dwarf anything that his immediate predecessors ever considered.

He has dropped the mother of all bombs in Afghanistan, and he’s considering the mother of all wars in the Middle East. He is abetting Saudi Arabia’s devastating war in Yemen. Many evangelicals are welcoming his announcement of U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel as a sign that the end of days is nigh. The conflict with Iran is about to heat up early next year when Trump, in the absence of any congressional action, will decide whether to fulfill his promise to tear up the nuclear agreement that the Obama administration worked so hard to negotiate and the peace movement backed with crucial support.

But no war has acquired quite the same apparent inevitability as the conflict with North Korea. Here in Washington, pundits and policymakers are talking about a “three-month window” within which the Trump administration can stop North Korea from acquiring the capability to strike U.S. cities with nuclear weapons.

That estimate allegedly comes from the CIA, though the messenger is the ever-unreliable John Bolton, the former flame-thrower of a U.S. ambassador to the UN. Bolton has used that estimate to make the case for a preemptive attack on North Korea, a plan that Trump has also reportedly taken very seriously.

North Korea, too, has announced that war is “an established fact.” After the most recent U.S.-South Korean military exercises in the region, a spokesperson from the Foreign Ministry in Pyongyang said, “The remaining question now is: when will the war break out?”

This aura of inevitability should put prevention of conflict with North Korea at the top of the urgent to-do list of all international institutions, engaged diplomats, and concerned citizens.

A warning about the costs of war may not convince people who want Kim Jong Un and his regime out regardless of consequences (and nearly half of Republicans already support a preemptive strike). But a preliminary estimate of the human, economic, and environmental costs of a war should make enough people think twice, lobby hard against military actions by all sides, and support legislative efforts to prevent Trump from launching a preemptive strike without congressional approval.

Such an estimate of the various impacts can also serve as a basis for three movements — anti-war, economic justice, and environmental — to come together in opposition to what would set back our causes, and the world at large, for generations to come.

It’s not the first time the United States has been on the verge of making an extraordinary mistake. Can the costs of the last war help us avoid the next one?

Doomed to Repeat?

If Americans had known how much the Iraq War was going to cost, perhaps they wouldn’t have gone along with the Bush administration’s march to war. Perhaps Congress would have put up more of a fight.

Invasion boosters predicted that the war would be a “cakewalk.” It wasn’t. About 25,000 Iraqi civilians died as a result of the initial invasion and about 2,000 coalition forces died up through 2005. But that was just the beginning. By 2013, another 100,000 Iraq civilians had died because of ongoing violence, according to the conservative estimates of the Iraq Body Count, along with another 2,800 coalition forces (mostly American).

Then there were the economic costs. Before it blundered into Iraq, the Bush administration projected that the war would only cost around $ 50 billion. That was wishful thinking. The real accounting only came later.

My colleagues at the Institute for Policy Studies estimated in 2005 that the bill for the Iraq war would ultimately come in at $ 700 billion. In their 2008 book The Three Trillion Dollar War, Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes provided an even higher estimate, which they later revised further upwards toward $ 5 trillion.

The body counts and the more accurate economic estimates had a profound impact on how Americans viewed the Iraq War. Public support for the war was around 70 percent at the time of the 2003 invasion. In 2002, the congressional resolution authorizing military force against Iraq passed the House 296 to 133 and the Senate 77-23.

By 2008, however, American voters were supporting Barack Obama’s candidacy in part because of his opposition to the invasion. Many of these people who supported the war — a majority of the Senate, former neoconservative Francis Fukuyama — were saying that if they knew in 2003 what they subsequently learned about the war, they would have taken a different position.

In 2016, not a few people supported Donald Trump for his purported skepticism about recent U.S. military campaigns. As a Republican presidential candidate, Trump declared the Iraq War a mistake and even pretended that he’d never supported the invasion. It was part of his effort to distance himself from hawks within his own party and the “globalists” in the Democratic Party. Some libertarians even supported Trump as the “anti-war” candidate.

Trump is now shaping up to be quite the opposite. He is escalating U.S. involvement in Syria, surging in Afghanistan, and expanding the use of drones in the “war on terror.”

But the looming conflict with North Korea is of an entirely different order of magnitude. The anticipated costs are so high that outside of Donald Trump himself, the most resolute of his hawkish followers, and a few overseas supporters like Japan’s Shinzo Abe, war remains an unpopular option. And yet, both North Korea and the United States are on a collision course, propelled by the logic of escalation and subject to the errors of miscalculation.

By making sure that the probable costs of a war with North Korea are well known, however, it is still possible to persuade the U.S. government to step back from the brink.

The Human Costs

A nuclear exchange between the United States and North Korea would go off the charts in terms of lives lost, economies wrecked, and the environment destroyed.

In his apocalyptic scenario in The Washington Post, arms control specialist Jeffrey Lewis imagines that, after widespread conventional U.S. bombing of the country, North Korea launches a dozen nuclear weapons at the United States. Despite some errant targeting and a half-effective missile defense system, the attack still manages to kill a million people in New York alone and another 300,000 around Washington, DC. Lewis concludes:

The Pentagon would make almost no effort to tally the enormous numbers of civilians killed in North Korea by the massive conventional air campaign. But in the end, officials concluded, nearly 2 million Americans, South Koreans, and Japanese had died in the completely avoidable nuclear war of 2019.

If North Korea uses nuclear weapons closer to home, the death toll would be much higher: over two million dead in Seoul and Tokyo alone, according to a detailed estimate at 38North.

The human costs of a conflict with North Korea would be staggering even if nuclear weapons never enter the picture and the U.S. homeland never comes under attack. Back in 1994, when Bill Clinton was contemplating a preemptive strike on North Korea, the commander of U.S. forces in South Korea told the president that the result would probably be a million dead in and around the Korean peninsula.

Today, the Pentagon estimates that 20,000 people would die each day of such a conventional conflict. That’s based on the fact that 25 million people live in and around Seoul, which is within distance of North Korea’s long-range artillery pieces, 1,000 of which are located just north of the Demilitarized Zone.

The casualties would not just be Korean. There are also about 38,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea, plus another 100,000 other Americans living in the country. So, a war just confined to the Korean peninsula would be the equivalent of putting at risk the number of Americans living in a city the size of Syracuse or Waco.

And this Pentagon estimate is cautious. The more common forecast is more than 100,000 dead in the first 48 hours. Even this latter number doesn’t factor in the use of chemical warheads, in which case the casualties would quickly rise into the millions (despite some overheated speculation, there is no evidence that North Korea has yet developed biological weapons).

In any such war scenario, North Korean civilians would also die in large numbers, just as huge numbers of Iraqi and Afghan civilians died during those conflicts. In a letter solicited by Reps. Ted Lieu (D-CA) and Ruben Gallego (D-A), the Joint Chiefs of Staff made clear that a ground invasion would be necessary to locate and destroy all nuclear facilities. That would increase the number of both U.S. and North Korean casualties.

Bottom line: Even a war limited to conventional weapons and to the Korean peninsula would result in, at minimum, tens of thousands dead and more likely casualties closer to a million.

Economic Costs

It’s somewhat more difficult to estimate the economic costs of any conflict on the Korean peninsula. Again, any war involving nuclear weapons would cause incalculable economic damage. So, let’s use the more conservative estimate associated with a conventional war that’s restricted to Korea alone.

Any estimates must take into account the economically advanced nature of South Korean society. According to GDP projections for 2017, South Korea is the 12th largest economy in the world, just behind Russia. Moreover, Northeast Asia is the most economically dynamic region of the world. A war on the Korean peninsula would devastate the economies of China, Japan, and Taiwan as well. The global economy would take a significant hit.

Writes Anthony Fensom in The National Interest:

A 50 percent fall in South Korea’s GDP could knock a percentage point off global GDP, while there would also be substantial disruptions to trade flows.

South Korea is heavily integrated into regional and global manufacturing supply chains, which would be severely disrupted by any major conflict. Capital Economics sees Vietnam as the worst affected, since it sources around 20 percent of its intermediate goods from South Korea, but China sources over 10 percent, while a number of other Asian neighbors would be affected.

Also consider the additional costs of the refugee flow. Germany alone spent over $ 20 billion for refugee resettlement in 2016. The outflow from North Korea, a country somewhat more populous than Syria was in 2011, could be likewise in the millions if a civil war erupts, a famine ensues, or the state collapses. China is already building refugee camps on its border with North Korea — just in case. Both China and South Korea have had difficulty accommodating the defector outflow as it is — and that’s only around 30,000 in the South and something similar in China.

Now let’s look at the specific costs to the United States. The cost of military operations in Iraq — Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn — was $ 815 billion from 2003 though 2015, which includes military operations, reconstruction, training, foreign aid, and veterans’ health benefits.

In terms of military operations, the United States is up against, on paper, a North Korean army three times what Saddam Hussein fielded in 2003. Again, on paper, North Korea has more sophisticated weaponry as well. The soldiers, however, are malnourished, there’s a shortage of fuel for the bombers and tanks, and many systems lack spare parts. Pyongyang has pursued a nuclear deterrent in part because it is now at such a disadvantage in terms of conventional weapons compared to South Korea (not to mention U.S. forces in the Pacific). It’s therefore possible that an initial assault might yield the same results as the first salvo in the Iraq War.

But however brutal the Kim Jong Un regime is, the population would not likely welcome American soldiers with open arms. An insurgency comparable to what took place after the Iraq War would likely arise, which would end up costing the United States even further loss of life and money.

But even in the absence of an insurgency, the costs of the military operation will be dwarfed by the costs of reconstruction. Reconstruction costs for South Korea, a major industrialized country, would be much higher than in Iraq or certainly Afghanistan. The United States spent about $ 60 billion initially for post-war reconstruction in Iraq (much of it wasted through corruption), and the bill for liberating the country from the Islamic State runs closer to $ 150 billion.

Add to that the monumental costs of rehabilitating North Korea, which under the best circumstances would cost at least $ 1 trillion (the estimated costs of reunification) but which would balloon up to $ 3 trillion in the aftermath of a devastating war. Ordinarily, South Korea would be expected to cover these costs, but not if that country too had been devastated by war.

Spending on the military campaign and on post-conflict reconstruction would push U.S. federal debt into the stratosphere. The opportunity costs — the funds that could have been spent on infrastructure, education, health care — would be enormous as well. The war would likely put America into receivership.

Bottom line: Even a limited war with North Korea would directly cost the United States more than $ 1 trillion in terms of military operations and reconstruction, and considerably more indirectly because of setbacks to the global economy.

Environmental Costs

In terms of environmental impact, a nuclear war would be catastrophic. Even a relatively limited nuclear exchange could trigger a significant drop in global temperatures — because of debris and soot thrown into the air that blocks the sun — which would throw global food production into crisis.

If the United States tries to take out North Korea’s nuclear weapons and facilities, particularly those buried beneath the ground, it will be sorely tempted to use nuclear weapons first. “The ability to take out the North Korean nuclear program is limited, with conventional weapons,” explains retired U.S. Air Force General Sam Gardiner. Instead, the Trump administration would turn to “hard-target-kill” weapons fired from nuclear submarines near the Korean peninsula.

Even if North Korea is unable to retaliate, these preemptive strikes carry their own risks of mass casualties. The release of radiation — or lethal agents, in the case of strikes on chemical weapons repositories — could kill millions and render large tracts of land uninhabitable depending on a number of factors (yield, depth of explosion, weather conditions), according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Even a conventional war fought exclusively on the Korean peninsula would have devastating environmental consequences. A conventional aerial attack on North Korea, followed by retaliatory strikes against South Korea, would end up contaminating large tracts of territory around energy and chemical complexes and destroy fragile ecosystems (such as the bio-diverse Demilitarized Zone). If North Korea managed to hit any of the 24 nuclear reactors in the south, the radiation effects would be considerable even if meltdown didn’t occur (and catastrophic if it did). The use of depleted uranium weapons by the United States, as it did in 2003, would also cause widespread environmental and health damage.

Bottom line: Any war on the Korean peninsula would have a devastating impact on the environment, but efforts to take out North Korea’s nuclear complex or South Korea’s nuclear reactors would be potentially catastrophic.

Preventing War

There would be other costs of war associated with an attack on North Korea. Given the opposition to war of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, the United States would strain its alliance with that country to the breaking point. The Trump administration would deal a blow to international law as well as international institutions such as the United Nations. It would encourage other countries to push diplomacy aside and pursue military “solutions” in their regions of the world.

Even before the Trump administration took office, the costs of war worldwide were unacceptably high. According to the Institute for Economics and Peace, the world spends over $ 13 trillion a year on conflict, which works out to about 13 percent of global GDP.

If the United States goes to war with North Korea, it will throw all of those calculations out the window. There has never been a war between nuclear powers. There hasn’t been an all-out war in such an economically prosperous region for decades. The human, economic, and environmental costs will be staggering.

This war isn’t inevitable.

The North Korean leadership knows that, because it faces overwhelming force, any conflict is literally suicidal. The Pentagon also recognizes that, because the risk of casualties to U.S. troops and U.S. allies is so high, a war is not in the U.S. national interest. Secretary of Defense James Mattis acknowledges that a war with North Korea would be no cakewalk and, indeed, would be “catastrophic.”

Even the Trump administration’s own strategic review of the North Korean problem didn’t include military intervention or regime change as recommendations alongside maximum pressure and diplomatic engagement. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has recently said that Washington is open to talks with Pyongyang “without preconditions,” an important shift in negotiating tactics.

Perhaps during this holiday season, Donald Trump will be visited by the ghosts of Christmas Past and Christmas Future. The ghost from the past will remind him once again of the avoidable tragedies of the Iraq War. The ghost from the future will show him the ruined landscape of the Korean peninsula, the vast cemeteries of the dead, the devastated U.S. economy, and the compromised global environment.

As for the ghost of Christmas Present, the ghost who carries an empty and rusted scabbard and who represents peace on earth, we are that ghost. It is incumbent on the peace, economic justice, and environmental movements to make ourselves heard, to remind the U.S. president and his hawkish supporters of the costs of any future conflict, to press for diplomatic solutions, and to throw sand in the gears of the war machine.

We tried and failed to prevent the Iraq War. We still have a chance to prevent a second Korean War.

The post North Korea: The Costs of War, Calculated appeared first on Institute for Policy Studies.


A Closer Look At Evictions Caused By Increased Housing Costs


(Photo: Flickr/ Caelie Frampton)

If you’ve never been forced out of your home by a county sheriff while movers carry all of your earthly possessions out onto the curb, knowing what that experience feels like can be almost impossible. Matthew Desmond’s brilliant book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, provides a small window into the lives of families who know that feeling all too well.

Desmond, a just-named Pulitzer Prize winner for his work, spent five years “embedded” in Milwaukee, building the trust of tenants and landlords alike. They shared a level of detail and intrigue that sometimes seems more fitting for a novel than a wonky social policy book.

Three out of four families who qualify for housing assistance, Desmond points out, do not currently receive it. One reason: Public funding has trickled away from housing, leaving the supply of affordable housing miniscule compared to the need. But Desmond, a Harvard sociologist and MacArthur Genius award winner, also has all the numbers behind his engaging stories. Evicted manages to fit in mountains of data.

“If we want to erase poverty,” Desmond claims, “we need to do something about affordable housing. Without stable shelter, everything else falls apart.”

Why do we need to subsidize housing in the first place? Simple. Housing costs have soared, incomes have not. Not a single major city in the United States has a minimum wage in effect that could cover the basic cost of living for an adult, much less a family with children. And the subsidies required to make up the difference remain pitifully inadequate.

Evictions don’t so much reflect poverty, Desmond argues, they cause it. Evicted families lose their homes, their communities, their schools, and even their jobs and possessions. To add insult to injury, many end up with court records because they can’t afford the fees associated with their evictions, a record that can later block access to affordable housing.

Evictions used to be rather rare. Crowds sometimes came out to watch and to protest. Evictions have now become a way of life for thousands of families who bounce between temporary shelters, short-term leases, and unstable nomadic lifestyles.

Some cities now have sheriff squads that concentrate solely on evicting families. Moving companies also specialize in evictions — and profit off the pain.

Evictions hurt just everyone else — the families involved, the neighborhood, and the community. Yet until we collectively find the public will to address runaway inequality and the affordable housing crisis, evictions will continue on.

Evicted gives this ongoing crisis the spotlight that has been missing for far too long.


Remembering the Costs of the Iraq War in the Age of Trump

(Photo: Flickr / Duncan Rawlinson)

(Photo: Flickr / Duncan Rawlinson)

About 54 cents of every discretionary dollar in the federal budget goes to the military. And that’s been true for a very long time.

Despite his claimed opposition to current wars, President-elect Donald Trump has promised to end limits on Pentagon spending, increase the size of the U.S. military, and even to expand the US nuclear arsenal. Military budgets will likely go up over the next four years, not down.

Now more than ever, it is important for us to remember what past wars have cost — all the costs. George W. Bush’s Iraq War continues today, though U.S. military involvement is different and it’s morphed into the “global war on terror.”

And the costs continue to rise.

So it was appropriate, indeed necessary, that the Iraq war — its lies and its costs — was the subject of an important tribunal coordinated by the antiwar activist group Code Pink in Washington, DC, in early December.

It’s easier these days to talk about the lies. That part of the war’s origins has become part of the acceptable discourse of mainstream U.S. politics, culture, and history. At the People’s Tribunal on the Iraq War, scores of Iraqi and American witnesses — academics and analysts, U.S. veterans and Iraqi health workers, journalists, diplomats, peace activists, and more — described the sordid chronicle of lies that set the political stage for the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Among the witnesses was the heroic Barbara Lee of California, the sole member of Congress to vote against Bush’s Authorization for the Use of Military Force two days after the 9/11 attacks, an authority quickly extended beyond Afghanistan to justify the illegal war in Iraq.

Other witnesses included retired colonel Ann Wright, a former ambassador who was the first foreign service officer to resign her position in protest of the invasion of Iraq. Inder Comar, the plaintiffs’ attorney in Saleh v. Bush, a class-action lawsuit against Bush and other top administration officials, testified about the illegality of the Iraq War, how it constituted a war of aggression.

The roster of witnesses, in person and by video, went on. From military historian Andrew Bacevich to antiwar activist and Iraqi businessman Andy Shallal, from Center for Constitutional Rights director Vince Warren to antiwar poet Sarah Browning, from Pentagon Papers whistle-blower Dan Ellsberg to Jeremy Corbyn, the longtime antiwar activist and leader of Britain’s Labor Party.

There was little that was new to most of those watching, yet the parade of four-minute testimonies provided a staggering reminder of the lies that had been asserted, reported, repeated, and left unchallenged except by a brave, initially small, but ultimately majority-reflecting antiwar movement. It was a reminder for history.

Read the rest at

The post Remembering the Costs of the Iraq War in the Age of Trump appeared first on Institute for Policy Studies.

Middle East expert Phyllis Bennis directs the New Internationalism project at the Institute for Policy Studies.


“A kilogram of rice now costs around $250 there” – UN Dispatch

UN Dispatch
“A kilogram of rice now costs around $ 250 there”
UN Dispatch
Uganda's main opposition said police violence against the opposition is part of a plan to subvert February's national election and help President Yoweri Museveni's remain in power. (VOA Somalia's … A prominent charity in India

and more »


“A kilogram of rice now costs around $250 there” – UN Dispatch

“A kilogram of rice now costs around $ 250 there”
UN Dispatch
Uganda's main opposition said police violence against the opposition is part of a plan to subvert February's national election and help President Yoweri Museveni's remain in power. (VOA Somalia's … A prominent charity in India

and more »


“A kilogram of rice now costs around $250 there” – UN Dispatch

UN Dispatch
“A kilogram of rice now costs around $ 250 there”
UN Dispatch
Uganda's main opposition said police violence against the opposition is part of a plan to subvert February's national election and help President Yoweri Museveni's remain in power. (VOA Somalia's … A prominent charity in India

and more »


China and the Opportunity Costs of September 11

“The upcoming summit between China and the United States will feature a major plan for reducing the military arsenals of the two countries, an initiative to stabilize and grow the global economy, a follow-up effort to further reduce carbon emissions, and a brand new proposal to address global poverty and health pandemics.”

Oops, wrong press release. Let me see, ah, here it is:

“The summit between China and the United States, scheduled for the end of September, has been cancelled at the insistence of the Republican Party.”

Ah, that wasn’t it either. Okay, finally, here’s the right one:

“The much-anticipated meeting between President Barack Obama and Chinese Premier Xi Jinping in Washington will be business as usual, as boring as an unseasoned beanburger, and contribute very little to solving any of the pressing issues of the day.”

That, alas, is closer to the truth.

Both China and the United States face enormous challenges at home, common security problems, and an array of international crises that could really use the coordinated efforts of two superpowers. But the United States and China have about as much capacity to work together at the moment as Donald Trump and Jeb Bush.

As we near the 14th anniversary of September 11, the painful truth is that the United States is still trying to dig itself out from under the wreckage of the Bush years.

Our national security policy remains fixated on terrorism threats that only proliferated after the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Our military budget, an enormous drain on the economy, is still up in the stratosphere. Even the greatest diplomatic success of the Obama administration — the recent nuclear deal with Iran — should have been concluded more than a decade ago, when Tehran was as freaked out as the United States was by the Sunni extremism of al-Qaeda.

One of the many opportunity costs of the Bush response to September 11 was Washington’s reluctance to sit down with Beijing to work out a post-post-Cold War world that could accommodate China’s economic rise without its bitter military aftertaste. The U.S. reliance on full-spectrum military dominance to deal with a full spectrum of problems sent a powerful message to China: bulk up or stay home. The upcoming summit will be the last chance to bolster the fragile partnership before the ritual China-bashing of the presidential election cycle once again strains the ties between Washington and Beijing.

Can President Obama make a real pivot to Asia that engages rather than contains China — and, just as importantly, harnesses the power of the two global behemoths to change the world?

Duopoly: Not in the Cards

Gone are the days when big thinkers like Zbigniew Brzezinski , Niall Ferguson, and Fred Bergsten urged the United States and China to form a Group of Two to sort out the world’s problems. It was a Brady Bunch proposal: Since mother and father had their hands full trying to manage their unruly children, why not join forces to bring order to an unharmonious world?

Four years ago, Richard Bush published his epitaph for the Brady Bunch idea:

It is fair to say…that people outside the United States paid far more attention to Brzezinski’s and Bergsten’s G-2 idea than did Americans themselves. The proposal sank like a stone in Washington but caused great ferment overseas, particularly among countries that would be unhappy if Beijing and Washington acted upon the idea.

Today, little remains of the mutual enthusiasm that Obama and Hu Jintao expressed in their first Strategic and Economic Dialogue in 2009. It’s not quite as moribund as the “reset” with Russia, but that flirtation between China and the United States certainly didn’t produce the marriage that Brzezinski and Bergsten imagined.

Indeed, this summer President Obama even began to consider a round of economic sanctions against China for a range of alleged hacks, including the theft of data from more than 20 million people at the U.S. government’s Office of Personnel Management (OPM).

Mind you, the president was not overly vocal about the issue, and it looks like the Obama administration is reconsidering. The sanctions will likely target companies, not countries. “That’s because the Obama administration is wary of imposing sanctions for normal state-sponsored intelligence gathering tactics the U.S. government itself employs on an ongoing basis,” writes Katie Bo Williams in The Hill.

That’s putting it mildly. No less than James Clapper, the director of national intelligence,admitted in regard to the OPM theft: “If we had the opportunity to do the same thing, we’d probably do it.”

Remember: This is an administration that taps into the cell phones of the leaders of allied countries, sucks up all manner of data from foreigners, and uses computer viruses to disrupt the infrastructure of U.S. adversaries. What is the National Security Agency but Hacker Central?

It turns out that the other major points of friction in the U.S.-China relationship are similarly complicated. Yes, China sent a couple of military ships up around the Arctic Circle recently, but they were in international waters. If the Obama administration complained, which it didn’t, China would point to all those surveillance flights that the United States conducts near Chinese territory.

Or consider China’s effort to claim as much of the South China Sea as it can get away with, much to the consternation of the other countries bordering that body of water. The United States is not engaged in any similar contest over territory, on land or sea, at least not explicitly. But we long ago turned the Pacific into an “American lake,” and we’ve expended lives and money in the Middle East to, among other things, preserve access to the energy we need for our economy.

And then there’s the whole currency manipulation “scandal.”

Yuan Fight?

Let’s see if I’ve gotten this straight about China and its currency.

Over the summer, the largest and only remaining significant Communist country in the world allowed the yuan to fall in value in response to market forces. This move by a Communist country to allow global capitalism to have more impact on its currency received praise from none other than the International Monetary Fund.

But one of the most prominent billionaire capitalists in the United States, who has made at least some of his lucre from dealing with China, blasted his erstwhile trade partner for its financial manipulations. Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump argued that China was “making it absolutely impossible for the United States to compete.”

The ironies here are many. But even if we take Trump out of the equation — and god knows, many people would like to see just that happen — the United States can’t really complain about what China is doing. The dollar floats, so the U.S. government can’t intervene directly to manipulate its value relative to other currencies — for instance, by lowering it to make U.S. exports cheaper. But it can do a number of indirect things. The Federal Reserve, for instance, has kept the interest rate low— well, specifically the fed funds rate — since 2009 to stimulate the economy.

China could conceivably complain about such “manipulations.” But it knows that a sick U.S. economy would infect China immediately. So, from Beijing’s point of view, the United States should “manipulate” as much as it can to help keep the global economy afloat.

Agenda, Interrupted

Expectations are low for the upcoming U.S.-China summit.

The only commitment of any value that might come of the meeting would be a follow-up on climate change ahead of the big UN conference in December. There’s plenty room for improvement. For instance, last year’s accord between Obama and Xi only signaled only theintent of both sides: the United States to reduce carbon emissions 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 and China to up the non-fossil fuels in its energy use to 20 percent by 2030.

Of course, there’s a good reason for the two sides stopping at “intent.” An actual agreement would constitute a treaty, and then the Senate would have to weigh in. And what the two sides agreed to is not inconsequential, as The Washington Post notes:

The scale of construction for China to meet its goals is huge even by Chinese standards. It must add 800 to 1,000 gigawatts of nuclear, wind, solar, and other zero-emission generating capacity by 2030 — more than all the coal-fired power plants that exist in China today and close to the total electricity generating capacity of the United States.

As for the United States:

…to meet its target, the United States will need to double the pace of carbon pollution reduction from 1.2 percent per year on average from 2005 to 2020 to 2.3 to 2.8 percent per year between 2020 and 2025.

There isn’t much more to discuss on these proposals; both sides just have to implement the necessary domestic changes to meet these goals. They can also strategize on how to bring other major countries on board, as they did recently with Brazil.

Good as these initiatives are, they’re just not good enough. Cue the authoritative voice of The New York Times:

It is increasingly evident that the policy actions by these countries and others will not be enough to stave off a rise in the atmospheric temperature of 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. At that point, scientists say, the planet will be locked into a future of extreme storms, droughts, food and water shortages, and rising sea levels.

Put another way: Despite all the meetings, promises, and apocalyptic threats, global carbon emissions have risen from the Kyoto Protocol of 1997 until today — from around 6.5 billion metric tons per year to nearly 10 billion. If both China and the United States had tackled this issue back in 2001, perhaps we wouldn’t currently be in this pickle. Chalk that up as another opportunity cost (which might just cost us the planet).

Instead of haggling over currency, hacking, and sea-lanes, the two superpowers should be thinking big. Between them, the United States and China account for nearly one-third of the global economy, nearly one-quarter of the world’s population, and more than two-fifths of the world’s carbon emissions. What these two countries do by definition has an enormous global impact.

So, let’s go back to that first imaginary press release to reconsider the challenges of the post-post-Cold War era and turn them into some bullet points:

  • The United States and China need to restart their discussions of nuclear arms control, begin to address conventional forces in the Pacific, support the Arms Trade Treaty and more significant restraints on arms sales, and together address the woeful amount of money that not only the two countries but the entire world spends on armaments. This conversation would also benefit, of course, from the inclusion of Russia and the EU (as well as, eventually, major arms importers like Saudi Arabia and India).
  • The global economy needs more than some quick fixes on the margin. It needs, as many have argued, a “global new deal.” Such a new approach would learn from the errors of both the finance-led globalization that the United States favors and the state-led extraction model of China. Such “development-led globalization,” as imagined by economists Richard Kozul-Wright and Jayati Ghosh, would “follow an expansionary macroeconomic path based on productive employment generation and shifting labor to higher value-added activities in developing countries,” regulate financial markets more sensibly, and adopt policies of redistribution that would lift up the poorest countries and the poorest of the world’s citizens.
  • And finally, China and the United States have to raise their game even more on the climate change front. They have to lead the international community in tying people’s livelihoods — their jobs — to sustainable energy. The only way to grow the global economy in a sustainable way is if the new jobs created are in the sustainable energy sector. Sweden has shown the way by cutting its emissions by 23 percent in the last 25 years and yet growing its economy over the same period by 55 percent. The Green Climate Fund is supposed to have $ 100 billion to help poorer countries to shift to sustainable energy, but the richer countries have only ponied up $ 10 billion, and nothing has yet been disbursed. Here is where Barack Obama and Xi Jinping can make a difference, by pushing this initiative forward.

This is the agenda interrupted by September 11. It’s not too late for the United States and China to get together and lead the conversation back to these critical issues. But it’s not going to happen by either cancelling the upcoming summit or treating it like just another obligatory photo op.

It’s no time for a bunch of bickering children to control the agenda. The adults have to retake control, beginning with Barack and Jinping Brady.

The post China and the Opportunity Costs of September 11 appeared first on Institute for Policy Studies.

John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus, a project of the Institute for Policy Studies. 


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