Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Thanks Rob Ford: For Putting Toronto in touch with its Inner Detroit

Thanks to Rob, we’re an internal combustion city again, a city of the Great Lakes, up there with Buffalo and Cleveland, humming on the wheels of motor town, twinned with Detroit, our inner Detroit.

Thanks to Rob, we’ve abandoned our Amsterdam cycling perversion.

Thanks to Rob, from coast to coast to coast, let the word go forth that we have no elitist culture in this big town of banks. You’ve done more for national unity by taking away any reason for Canadians to hate us than the National Ballet of Canada ever could.

Thanks to Rob, we don’t have to aspire to the dreams of Jane Jacobs, let alone those of David Crombie, and John Sewell.

Transit City’s burning, thanks to Rob.

Thank you Rob, for easing the pressure on us to be Alphaville. Best of the Betas, an Indytown is who we are.

Long live the Gardiner Expressway, Toronto’s carbon emission belt, belt that keeps us chaste from water, cafes, theatre, and learning. Thanks Rob.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Harper’s Christmas Special: The Myth of How Fortress North America will boost Canadian Exports to the U.S.

Over the past quarter century, it has been a commonplace for right-wing continentalists to insist that without binding agreements between Canada and the United States, Canadian exports will be shut out of the American market.

In the mid 1980s, members of the Conservative government of Brian Mulroney and business lobbyists, who supported free trade with the U.S., insisted that day by day, week by week, rising protectionism in the United States was shutting Canadian goods out of American markets. In truth, only about five per cent of Canadian exports were the subject of trade disputes. More than half of Canadian exports to the U.S. took the form of internal transfers within American owned firms.

With a short list of exceptions, the U.S. government and regional American political heavy weights were not interested in retarding shipments of raw materials, including oil and natural gas, and semi-fabricated products to the United States, mostly by U.S. firms. And Washington did not want to block exports of assembled automobiles and auto parts (overwhelmingly by U.S. companies) to the U.S. Besides, this trade was conducted under the terms of the Canada-U.S. Auto Pact.

The outcome of that critical debate---which big business and the Tories lost----54 per cent of voters opted for the anti-free trade Liberals and New Democrats in the 1988 federal election, while 43 per cent voted for the pro-free trade Conservatives, was the signing of the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement. With fewer voters but a majority of seats in the House of Commons, the Conservatives carried the day.

The treaty to which the Conservatives appended their imprimatur was a puzzler. It stipulated that U.S. firms would be accorded equal treatment in Canada with Canadian firms when it came to subsidies or tax incentives. It further stipulated that Canada was barred from reducing its petroleum exports to the U.S. below the level of a rolling average of exports over the previous three years. And it also barred Canada from establishing a two price system for Canadian petroleum---with a lower price for the Canadian domestic market while Americans were charged the world price.

With the above provisions which made it very difficult for Canada to establish an industrial policy and which gave Washington considerable authority over Canadian energy policy, how did the Mulroney government do on the matter of guaranteeing access for Canadian exports to the U.S. market?

Not well, at all. While the relatively low tariffs between the two countries were quickly removed, both the U.S. and Canada kept their own trade laws. No set of common rules, or code, was agreed on to govern allowable subsidies or tax incentives for companies involved in trans-border trade. While bi-national panels were to be set up to adjudicate trade disputes when they arose, the panels were only empowered to rule on whether each country had correctly applied its own trade laws. Each country was permitted to mount countervailing duties on goods imported from its partner when its authorities concluded that the other party was seeking an undue advantage for itself in a particular sector.

Thus there has been a string of cases in which the U.S. has mounted duties on Canadian exports since the FTA, and its successor NAFTA, went into effect. The most noteworthy of the disputes has involved softwood lumber, but the U.S. has also charged Canadian exporters of baby food, steel, copper pipe and other products with dumping their products into the American market.

Absurdly trade disputes between Canada and the U.S. have continued under so-called free trade. While most trade between the two countries flows freely, it did so before the FTA and NAFTA were implemented. One thing that the “free trade” regime does not guarantee is free trade.

There is a simple, and critically important, reason why despite the huge concessions made by the Mulroney government in negotiating the trade treaties, Canada did not obtain secure access to the U.S. market. The United States is unwilling to pool sovereignty with Canada or Mexico even in the narrowest of ways. The U.S. government, therefore, has never been prepared to replace U.S. trade law with a common North American trade law whose highest court of appeal would be a common North American court, with members drawn from the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Pooling sovereignty is the essence of the trade arrangements in the European Union. The Americans were totally unwilling to pool sovereignty with other countries when the FTA and NAFTA were being negotiated. And they remain as implacably unwilling to do so today.

And that takes us to today’s bid by the Harper government to deepen the Canada-U.S. relationship in a so-called Fortress North America deal. Just as Conservatives were prepared to give away the farm in return for nothing a generation ago, they want to do more of the same today. We can call this the Harper government’s Christmas Special. The plan is to negotiate a deal with Washington and to lock it in place over the holidays and in January before the House of Commons resumes sitting.

The Harperites are making the case that the Canada-U.S. border needs to be “thinned” so that the recent dramatic decline in Canadian exports to the U.S. can be reversed.

It is true that Canadian exports dropped dramatically following the economic crash in 2008. Indeed, Canadian exports to the United States plunged by $50 billion in a single year. Why? The Harperites would have us believe that this dramatic and worrying development can be addressed by negotiating a Fortress North America deal with Washington.

In truth, the border became “thicker” in the aftermath of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. As a part of its response to the attacks, Washington deployed additional manpower to its Mexican and Canadian frontiers. While crossing times at the Canada-U.S. border grew longer after September 11, Canadian exports climbed steadily in the years prior to 2008.

The steep decline in Canadian exports to the U.S. after the crash had nothing to do with border controls. What the members of the Harper government refuse to face is that the crisis that burst to the surface in 2008 has unleashed a basic shift in the nature of the global economy. The U.S. will not carry the economic weight it has carried in the past. The American share of global economic output is in decline from about 20 per cent of the total to about 15 per cent. While that still makes the United States a considerable player, the centre of gravity of the global economy is shifting to Asia. That’s why Australia’s economy, with its Asian focus, is doing so well while Canada’s is sputtering.

That’s what makes the determination of Stephen Harper and the business lobbyists to tie ourselves even more tightly to the U.S. so maddeningly shortsighted. They are living in the past and are turning their backs resolutely against the future. Indeed, an adamant refusal to face the future is the hallmark of Conservative policies more generally than with respect to Fortress North America.

The Harperites refuse to acknowledge the two crucial realities of our time, peak oil and climate change. Experts across a range of fields, from geology to geo-economics and the U.S. military, say that world petroleum production will peak in the next few years and then will began an inexorable decline. The rise of China, India, Brazil and other countries coincides with peak oil. Their soaring demand for petroleum means that oil prices, with fluctuations along the way, are headed higher. Get ready for gasoline prices of $3.00, then $3.50 and $4.00 a litre. They’re coming.

Along with the destructive fury of climate change, peak oil will compel the reconstruction of the world’s cities. Greater urban density will be the order of the day with suburbs in decline. Public transit will be ascendant with multiple tram lines, also known as LRTs, crisscrossing metropolitan areas. Regional and national transportation systems will be rebuilt with the emphasis on rail---high speed rail in populous regions. Along with the opening of a Rob Ford exhibit in the Royal Ontario’s Museum’s dinosaur collection, there will be a fierce debate about whether to expand or shrink the role of nuclear energy.

Prior to the mid 1920s, Canada did more trade with Europe (principally Britain) than with the United States. There is no “natural” reason why the U.S. should remain Canada’s overwhelmingly dominant trading partner. Great commercial shifts have occurred in the past; they will occur in the future.

The Harper Government’s determination to enclose Canada in an even tighter embrace with the U.S. is as misplaced as was the appetite of Canadian high Tories a century ago to cocoon this country in an Imperial Federation with declining Britain.

And Fortress North America, while useless for Canada, would nonetheless come with a steep price for this country.

To “thin” the border and to “thicken” the common Canada-U.S. border with the rest of the world, Canada will have to harmonize its refugee and immigration policies with those of the United States. While some face saving device on these issues can be found to satisfy Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff who has said he would not countenance harmonization, that will be the essential result. Canada will be required to share vital information with the CIA, the FBI, U.S. Homeland Security, and other U.S. intelligence agencies about Canadian citizens and other residents. There is already much information sharing about Canadians with U.S. agencies. Fortress North America will invite American agencies right into the lives of Canadians. The Canada Border Services Agency, and Citizenship and Immigration Canada, will be harmonized into the broader framework of equivalent American agencies. The inter-operability of these agencies will be further extended to draw the Canadian Armed Forces even more fully into an American command structure.

And after all this has been done, how much more rapid will the crossing of the border from Canada to the U.S. become? Not much.

That’s because the Americans are very skittish about security on their borders. It wasn’t long ago that Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano repeated the old and untrue yarn about some of the hijackers involved in the September 11 attacks crossing into the U.S. from Canada. And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has always been a stern critic of Canadian security and the dangers to the U.S. on its northern border.

There’s another reason why the Obama administration won’t really give much on the matter of border “thinning.” Such thinning would be seen in Mexico, as well as by Latinos in the United States, as undue favouritism on behalf of Canada. As they prepare for the 2012 presidential election, the Democrats will be unwilling to do anything to hurt themselves with Latino voters. It’s a non-starter.

That doesn’t mean that the U.S. won’t be willing to sign onto an arrangement with the Harper government though, proclaiming the achievement of a Fortress North America. It’s just that the deal will be an empty shell as far as Canada and Canadians are concerned.

Like Brian Mulroney before him, Stephen Harper is all too anxious to give away Canadian sovereignty in return for nothing. A photo op and a few pretentious words is all these Conservatives have ever required.

Fortress North America is coming at us much faster than free trade did. The only way we can avert it is to make the political cost too high for Harper.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Guns: What the Proponents of Fortress North America Want You to Forget

The Canadian proponents of Fortress North America want you to think about the prospect of speedier passage across the Canada-U.S. border for goods and people. They propose that we “thin” the border between the two countries and “fatten” it around Canada and the U.S. against the rest of the world.

The proponents are fond of calling up images of the ease of passage for motorists travelling between EU countries such as France and Germany. There, drivers are not required to stop at customs posts when crossing the border.

What the Fortress fanciers don’t tell you is that the governments of European countries that removed border controls spent years assuring themselves in negotiations that they all had similar regulations for hazardous products before they opened their frontiers to one another. They weren’t prepared to open the gates if one country had a more lax regime for hazardous products than the others.

The problem for Canadians is that we live next door to the gun capital of the world. In the U.S., home of the cherished Second Amendment, that gives Americans the right to bear arms, a wide range of handguns and high-powered, rapid-fire weapons, are legal products. Americans possess more than two hundred million guns. In some states such as Virginia, high-powered weapons, that are not legal in Canada, can be purchased with ease at gun shows.

Some U.S. states such as Massachusetts have much tougher gun laws than Virginia and other states from the old Confederacy. But those laws are of little use. Gun owners can just drive into Massachusetts with their weapons in tow. A high proportion of the gun crimes in New York City are committed with weapons brought into the city from Virginia.

Once, to observe the American gun culture up close, I enrolled in a gun-training course offered by Smith and Wesson in Springfield, Massachusetts. Many of the participants in the course were from out of state and they brought their firearms with them.

On the other hand, I’ve seen Canadian Customs officials seize the guns of Americans crossing into Canada. On one occasion at the crossing from Calais, Maine to St. Stephen, New Brunswick, I watched a Canadian official explain to the members of an American family that they’d have to leave their weapon with Customs and then pick it up on their return trip home.

Canada already has a serious gun problem. Over half the guns used in the commission of crimes in Canada have been illegally smuggled into the country from the United States. Most of the weapons smuggled from the U.S. are high-quality, semi-automatic handguns. Smugglers commonly place the guns in hidden compartments in their vehicles when they cross the border. Some duct-tape them to their bodies.

“Thinning” the border would be an invitation to criminals to import many more guns into Canada. Opening the border to the free passage of motorists with no customs stops----EU style---would effectively mean that Virginia’s guns laws would apply in Canada. Today’s Canadian gun problem would become a gun epidemic.

Presumably the attraction of Fortress North America is that crossing the border will be easier and quicker. But easier and quicker border crossings mean more U.S. illegal guns in Canada, the easier the crossing the greater the flow of weapons. That’s axiomatic.

Of course, we could always try to convince Americans to abrogate the Second Amendment and join the civilized world on the matter of guns…..

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

MEET ROBMAN: TORONTO’S MAYOR IS A SUPERHERO

(This is the first in an occasional series on Robman, Toronto’s mayor, who dons a pink cape and flies into combat on behalf of taxpayers.)

On the morning when he takes office, December 1, Toronto’s mayor leaves for work at the crack of dawn. He drives through the streets of the still mostly sleeping city in a non-descript Chevy Van---licence plate Rob Ford---that’s the name he goes by when he appears in the guise of a mild-mannered civilian.

Along with him in the van are one or two other guys----same size, shape and haircut---a reasonable precaution.

Once inside the office, where only a few hours earlier David Miller and his satraps frolicked in the gravy, an assistant hands Rob Ford a one liter bottle that contains a secret potion that has been passed down through generations of Fords since cave dwelling times.

In a single gulp, Ford swallows the concoction, which contains, among other ingredients, sour cream, potatoes, coconut milk, a chip butty, and a double-double of chocolate. Ford sits calmly for a moment. Then a gurgling wells up from within him. Wings sprout, fully feathered from his shoulders, and a pink cape springs down his back.

Standing on his webbed feet, Robman takes flight. He wings three times around the office and lands standing on the desk.

Robman dictates Directive Number 1 to his terrified secretary who mutters, “I thought he was just a nebbish from Etobicoke.”

Robman dictates in clearly enunciated, grammatically immaculate sentences: “Transit City is dead. Shovels in the ground or no shovels in the ground. Bombardier can suck a pickle. As for the workers in Thunder Bay, let them eat Saskatchewan durum number one. “

“It is my insufferable will that no new LRT line shall ever sully the soil of Scarborough.”

“And while we’re at it, I’m cutting the paper clips allowance for all city councilors.”

“There ends Directive number one.”

“But Your Worship,” sputters his secretary “at one stroke of a pen, you’ve thrown away hundreds of millions, possibly billions, of dollars earmarked for Toronto taxpayers by Queen’s Park. Won’t it be hard to explain that you’ve blown a bundle on day one?”

“You’ve forgotten that I’ve slashed the paper clip allowance, mere mortal,” Robman replies, his wings whirring impatiently and his pink cape streaming behind.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Stop Fortress North America: Don’t Let the Harper Government Make a Secret Deal with Washington

The Harper government is engaged in secret talks with the U.S. government to negotiate a sweeping Fortress North America security deal with Washington.

For over a decade, Fortress North America has been a favourite goal of the political right and continental business. The deal poses a major threat to Canadian sovereignty. Whatever proponents of the deal say, its implementation will force Canada to harmonize its immigration and refugee policies with those of the United States. And it will require Canadian government agencies to share much more private information about Canadian citizens and residents with American agencies than they already do. The deal will invite the FBI and the CIA right into our lives.

For those who think that this won’t matter much, it is vital to remember that what happened to Maher Arar nearly a decade ago was precipitated by the Canadian government’s sharing of information with the U.S. He was the canary in the mine shift----the warning that many more of us could be next.

Canada has already moved a long way down the road to defence arrangements with the U.S. that could conceivably allow the U.S. to effectively seize control of Canada during a global geo-political crisis.

The sweetener for the deal that is now in the works is that its ratification will mean quicker shipments of goods across the Canada-U.S. border. This is hardly a vital matter for Canada. It’s true that over the past two years Canada’s exports to the U.S. have plunged. But that’s because the U.S. has a weaker economy than it did before the crash and its demand for our products has declined. Such a development should motivate us to find other partners for commerce around the world, not to climb ever more into a relationship with a country whose global economic power is in decline.

The only reason we know about the secret talks between Ottawa and Washington is because of media leaks. The plan is to unveil the deal with Washington in January. Then a joint ceremony is to be held with Stephen Harper and Barack Obama appending their signatures to the agreement. After that, the details of the deal are to be hammered out between officials from the two countries.

In the meantime, the members of the Harper government refuse to say a word about this.

We know from WikiLeaks that CSIS is home to those who believe that Canadians are na├»ve about the threat of terrorism. We can expect the members of the Harper government to get lurid about the danger of terrorists when the deal with Washington is made public. The truth is that we now face a real threat to our nation’s sovereignty from those who hold the highest offices in the land.

Canadians need to get loud right now to stop this covert attack on our national sovereignty. Despite the chest-thumping phony patriotism and flag waving of the Harperites and their friends, this government has always been committed to a deeper continental union with the United States, an idea that is profoundly contrary to the interests of Canadians, now and in the future.

All of us need to take on this fight. We can’t leave this one to the tepid opposition parties in the House of Commons.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Greed is Good: The Canadian Right Comes Into Its Own

Much though I hate to admit it, Canada’s right-wing has achieved a new maturity, self-confidence and ebullience. Gone are the days when right-wingers were little more than liberal wannabes who looked awkward and out of place in public. Now they’ve come out of the shadows for all of us to see.

Who can deny that they have a style all of their own? Without a hint of embarrassment, they’re redefining the country.

“Put that in your pipe you left-wing kooks,” proclaimed Don Cherry as he addressed the inaugural meeting of Toronto’s newly elected city council. During the swearing in ceremony for Mayor Rob Ford, Cherry placed the chain of office around the neck of the city’s new chief executive.

“I’m wearing pinko for all the pinkos out there that ride bicycles and everything,” said Cherry reveling in the right’s moment of triumph. But he had a warning for the new mayor, telling him point blank what he’d be facing, “with these left-wing pinkos. They scrape the bottom of the barrel.”

You have to hand it to Ford for not playing it safe with the invitation of the Coach to set the tone for the new Toronto. As Cherry said of Ford: “Rob’s honest, he’s truthful, he’s like Julian Fantino. What you see is what you get. He’s no phony.”

And Rob Ford is not alone in wearing his rightist credentials as a badge of honour.

Every morning on CBC television, you can see Kevin O’Leary, the venture capitalist, entrepreneur shouting that “greed is good and I love money.” It’s in a promo for the Lang and O’Leary Exchange the show he co-hosts. He also brings his swashbuckling talents to the Dragons’ Den.

So much does CBC television love O’Leary that many mornings you get to see him in his skivvies, working out in the gym while he tells a breathless Heather Hiscox a thing or two about why government should get out of the way of investors, or why the Euro and the EU are bound to go the hell.

And who can top Tom Flanagan, the godfather of Canada’s New Right, and one-time mentor to Stephen Harper, for his candour? The University of Calgary political science professor told the CBC program Power and Politics that he thought WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange “should be assassinated.” He went on to add that “Obama should put out a contract and maybe use a drone or something.”

Later Flanagan issued a statement in which he apologized for counseling the elimination of the man who has terrified the American Empire, the mouse who has made the elephant tremble.

Apology or not, Flanagan’s poise and comfort in his own skin are there for all to see.

The new voices of the Canadian right have taken the measure of those who oppose them and they are not cowed. They show how good humoured they are by appearing regularly on the CBC, the public network whose very existence is a symbol of the old Canada they are sweeping into the dustbin.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Korea: How Wars Can Start Between Countries Whose Leaders Don’t Want War

It is generally assumed that when a great war breaks out, at least one of the parties to the conflict wanted it. That assumption can be wildly wrong. None of the regimes at the helm of the powers that went to war against one another in Europe in 1914 wanted a great war. But they got one through miscalculation, bluff and counter bluff. Four years later, millions of people had been killed and three of the great powers of Europe had been torn to shreds, four if you count the Ottoman Empire.

The conflict in the Korean peninsula is super-charged with many of the same combustible materials that blew up Europe nearly a century ago. The chances are that the present crisis will not end in a great war. But the potential for that outcome is certainly there.

Here’s how the First World War started.

In June 1914, the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, traveled to Bosnia to observe military exercises. In the southern reaches of the empire, Bosnia was located next door to Serbia, whose political leaders and nationalist activists hoped to create a South Slav state, Yugoslavia, that would tear a large chunk of territory out of Austria-Hungary.

Nationalist agitations were eating away at the integrity of the multi-national Austro-Hungarian Empire on the eve of the First World War. Despite warnings that the visit of the Archduke to Bosnia and the military exercises could lead to trouble with Serbian nationalists, the government in Vienna decided that it had to go ahead with its announced plans. Cancelling the Archduke’s journey to Bosnia would only fan the flames of Serb extremists in the opinion of the empire’s rulers.

The military exercises were held; the archduke and his wife attended. Then the royal couple visited Sarajevo and a would-be assassin stepped into the street to hurl a bomb at the Archduke’s car. Franz Ferdinand coolly seized the bomb and hurled it out of harm’s way where it exploded. Instead of rushing the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne out of town, the visit to Sarajevo continued. A last minute change in the route taken by the archduke’s car brought him and his wife face to face with another assassin from Serbia, who shot and killed them both.

The date was June 28, 1914. The countdown to war began. From then until the outbreak of a European war, there were many twists and turns that don’t need to be recounted here.

The Austro-Hungarian regime concluded that this was an opportunity to capitalize on the Europe-wide sympathy in their favour in the aftermath of the assassination and to deliver a blow to the Serbs to remove them as a threat to the integrity of the empire. Austria-Hungary’s powerful ally Germany was prepared to go along with Vienna’s plan to get tough with Serbia. How tough was another matter.

Russia, whose rulers saw themselves as the protectors of their “little Slav brothers” was not willing to allow Austria-Hungary to launch a military strike against an isolated Serbia. Meanwhile, the pre-eminent concern of those at the helm of France was to prevent anything from undoing their alliance with the Russians. If they were ever to face a war against Germany as they had in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, the French wanted it to be a two-front war with the Russians attacking Germany from the east.

Only a little more removed were the British, the allies of the French and the Russians, who were much more committed to defending France against a German attack than either the British public or the members of the British Parliament had been informed.

On the evening of July 23, the Austro-Hungarian government addressed an ultimatum to the government of Serbia, giving the leaders in Belgrade until 6.00 p.m. on July 25 to reply. The ultimatum insisted that the Belgrade regime agree to a list of ten demands, including the disbanding of ultra-nationalist Serb organizations, the banning of publications directed against Austria-Hungary, a direct role for the government in Vienna in judicial proceedings against the planners and perpetrators of the assassination, the arrest of certain named individuals, and steps to prevent arms and explosives from being sent across the border to South Slav nationalists in Bosnia. The ultimatum was drafted to so demean Serbia and interfere with its sovereign authority that government leaders in Belgrade would have to turn down at least some of its demands.

Vienna wanted a localized war against Serbia. But Russia’s government was not prepared to let this happen. On July 25, the Tsarist government ordered the partial mobilization of its armed forces, a measure that deeply alarmed the rulers of Germany. In the doctrine of the day, the side that mobilized first was reckoned to have an immense advantage over its foes. Mobilization, therefore, would mean war.

Just prior to 6.00 p.m. on July 25, the Serbian government formally replied to Austria and when the Austrians determined that Belgrade had not acceded to all of the demands in the ultimatum, the Austro-Hungarians broke diplomatic relations with the Serbs. On July 28, Austria Hungary declared war on Serbia.

Efforts were made by the leaders of the now fully alarmed governments of the other major powers to find a peaceful solution. Especially in Berlin and London, governments floated various proposals to halt the rush to war. But the imperative that determined the outcome was the insistence of the generals that mobilization on one side had to be countered with mobilization on the other and that once the military machine was set in motion, frontiers had to be crossed and war had to ensue.

The Russians ordered general mobilization and that was followed by general mobilization in Austria Hungary. On August 1, the French and the Germans mobilized. Then came the declarations of war. When the Germans demanded that Belgium allow German troops to cross Belgian territory en route to an invasion of France, and the government in Brussels said no to this, Britain declared war on Germany. It is almost certain that Britain would have gone to war even without the violation of Belgian neutrality, but the German assault on little Belgium cemented the support for war of the British cabinet, parliament and public.

Thus began the war that no one wanted.

What about Korea today?

North Korea, the ally of China, is going through a regime change. Power is being transferred from the ailing Kim Jong Il to his son Kim Jong Un, a delicate exercise which carries with it the potential for a coup d’etat against the family dynasty.

At such moments, a secretive regime such as the one in Pyongyang is concerned, above all else, with asserting its strength, both at home and abroad.

That’s where relations with South Korea and its major ally the United States come into play.

The Korean War ended in an armistice, with a ceasefire on July 27, 1953, between the warring parties----the South Koreans, the Americans and other United Nations forces on one side and the North Koreans and the Chinese on the other. The war brought the U.S. military into direct conflict with the Chinese, and threatened the world with the use of nuclear weapons by both sides, since the nuclear-armed Soviet Union backed North Korea and China in the conflict.

No peace treaty has been signed in Korea. Border disputes in Korea, both on land and sea, have resulted in incidents along the frontier in the past, including the recent shelling by North Korea of a South Korean island. Two South Korean marines and two civilians died during the assault. Earlier this year, the North is believed to have launched a torpedo attack on a South Korean warship, killing 46 sailors.

Over the last few days, the United States and South Korea have been holding joint military exercises off the west coast of the Korean peninsula in the Yellow Sea. The nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the USS George Washington, led the forces in the drill.

The trouble with the Yellow Sea is that it is China’s front door. The Chinese government does not like to have U.S. aircraft carriers on the seas a mere five hundred kilometers from Beijing. For decades, China’s leaders have objected to any entry into the Yellow Sea by American aircraft carriers. Just prior to the current exercises, Beijing issued a warning that it is opposed to what it calls any “unilateral military act” in the area without its permission. Chinese military leaders have rhetorically asked whether the United States would allow China to hold military exercises just off its east or west coasts.

We have learned from the recent Wiki Leaks releases, to no one’s surprise, that Chinese authorities have told the Obama administration about the frustrations of dealing with the paranoid regime in Pyongyang. It is one thing for the Chinese to share light moments with Americans about the wackiness of North Korea’s rulers, it is another to think that the Chinese would be happy with having a U.S. ally entrenched on their frontier in the event of the collapse of the Pyongyang regime and the unification of the Korean Peninsula under the rule of Seoul.

What makes Korea so dangerous is the presence of four governments that cannot afford to be seen to back down. The North Korean regime obviously falls into that category. But so too does the current government in Seoul that is publicly committed to taking a hard line in response to any military incidents initiated by the North. And the Obama administration is far from strong in the aftermath of the drubbing the Democrats received in the recent Congressional elections.

President Obama is looking weak everywhere at the moment. He can’t talk the Republicans into ratifying a nuclear weapons treaty with Russia right now---he needs a two-thirds vote in the Senate for ratification---and the Russians are warning of a possible new nuclear arms race.

So Obama can’t afford to back down in Korea----thus the presence of the USS George Washington.

Beijing may go along with all of this. But the rulers of China are well aware that they run the world’s new superpower and they’ll only stand for so much provocation in the Yellow Sea.

We’ll likely get through this incident in one piece. But what about the next one, and then the one after that? The assassination the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in June 1914 was not the first grave crisis to embroil the European Great Powers in the years before the outbreak of the First World War. It just happened to be the one that got out of control.

That kind of problem exists in Korea. A sudden incident, given the array of forces in the region----the assassination of a South Korean leader for instance, or some other dramatic development----could trigger a chain of events that no one could stop. That’s how leaders who don’t want a war, but who can’t afford to back down can end up sending the Great Powers they rule into conflict against one another.