Thursday, May 26, 2005

The acronym is “DIME” — a quick verbal coin for the four elements of national power: “Diplomatic,” “Information,” “Military” and “Economic” power.

When “policy is working,” diplomacy, economic interests, military power and information power (both the ability to communicate and to gather intelligence) complement one another. It’s a difficult ballet, but choreographing and directing this dance is the business of statesmen.

Sometimes, “policy breaks.” I recall a talk Gen. Barry McCaffrey gave to a group of aid organizations in early 1995. Gen. McCaffrey was commander of U.S. Southern Command, at the time headquartered in Panama. Another “Cuban migrant” crisis was in full swing — waves of Cubans fleeing Fidel Castro. The Clinton administration had tasked SOUTHCOM with creating temporary camps to house the refugees. Gen. McCaffrey — standing in the tropical sun near a U.S. Air Force mobile hospital — took a question from an aid director about the potential political downside of using U.S. military forces in a refugee crisis.

I’m paraphrasing, but Gen. McCaffrey’s answer was a soldier-diplomat’s primer in political science. When diplomacy fails, or other international interaction and persuasion stall, the military is the fallback position, Gen. McCaffrey replied. No other organization can respond with the needed speed and scale.

One of Gen. McCaffrey’s senior staff officers, Mick Zais, and I discussed this vignette. Brig. Gen. Zais (now retired and president of Newberry College) noted that Gen. McCaffrey’s answer illustrated how failed policies can lead to armed conflict.

When diplomacy, economics and communication fail — when a coherent, complementary DIME strategy breaks and the military becomes foremost — the prospect of armed conflict increases.

Relying on the “M” in DIME doesn’t always mean the bullets are about to fly. Consider the use of military capabilities in the 1998 Hurricane Mitch relief mission in Central America and the 2004 Southeast Asian tsunami aid effort. Of course, the opponents were natural disasters, not nation-states or terrorist organizations.

North Korea is rattling its nuclear saber — and we’re witnessing the DIME ballet as it nears the nuclear brink.

The United States has pursued a “python strategy” designed to squeeze North Korea economically, politically and diplomatically. The “six nation” talks (Russia, South Korea, North Korea, Japan, China and the U.S.) serve as the stage for exercising the diplomatic, information and economic power. Military power is explicit — North Korea with its army and its could-be nuke, South Korea with its army, the U.S. and, yes, Japan, with their ability to strike North Korean weapons sites.

China is absolutely central. The United States believes China is the only nation that can truly squeeze impoverished North Korea. For example, China supplies oil to North Korea.

But on May 10, China backed off, when Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said, “We are not in favor of exerting pressure or imposing sanctions” on North Korea. “We believe that such measure are not necessarily effective.” China undermined the “D” and “E” in U.S. North Korea policy.

So what did the Bush administration do? On May 17, the U.S. Treasury Department began discussing China’s “overvalued currency.” Treasury reported to the U.S. Congress that “Current Chinese policies are highly distortionary and pose a risk to China’s economy, its trading partners and global economic growth.” The U.S. message was delivered in what diplomats call “tough language,” marking a “change in tone.” A tone change is Information — a signal people understand in both finance ministries and honky tonks.

The trade and currency issues Treasury raises are very real. A bipartisan group on Capitol Hill argues Chinese trade and currency policy is harming their constituents.

Military security issues are intimately tied to economic issues. The Chinese know this. A North Korean nuke striking Seoul or Tokyo would instantly revalue everyone’s currency.

But you can bet DIME is at work. Bush administration free-traders are not so quietly telling China they will step back and let Congress enact trade restrictions unless China cooperates on North Korea. If China cooperates, the administration will use political capital to fight a “free trade versus protectionism” domestic battle.

Austin Bay is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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