Korean Missiles and the Messy Middle

Colin Liddell

This article was first published at our previous site on 13th of May, 2017. Since then it has become more relevant with the escalating situation between the USA and North Korea regarding the latter’s burgeoning nuclear arsenal.

James Burnham, in his 1941 classic The Managerial Revolution identified the managerial class and the managerial system as the new, ascendant form of power. This system, which still dominates the present-day power structure, has some troubling aspects that help to explain the growing dysfunction and decline of our society. I want to draw attention to two in particular.

First, because power is based on control rather than on ownership, there is a constant need to justify it through appeals to the emotions of the masses. Rather than being defined by the interests of the masses, democracy is defined by what can be sold to the masses, which is definitely not the same thing. Secondly, the need to demonstrate competence outweighs the need to have actual competence.

The great irony is that these two characteristics are produced by a system dedicated to efficient control and getting results, but in effect they work against efficiency and results. An interesting example is provided by the problem presented by North Korea, a so-called “rogue” nation that is rapidly developing its rocket and nuclear weapon technology.

This is part of the wider problem of nuclear proliferation, but it is also a very specific problem on its own, as the North Korean regime relies on ever-increasing amounts of face-saving and paranoia to maintain its grip on power. If the country were to suffer a major economic disruption of some kind, the regime would seek to “externalize” the discontent through an emotionally charged and potentially explosive foreign policy. Located where it is—next to the great economies of North East Asia and within nuking distance my own humble abode—North Korea is in a position to cause major damage and chaos.

This is definitely a problem that should have been solved long ago, but here we run up against the limitations of the managerial system, it’s inability to escape from what I would term the “messy middle,” the managerial elite’s own comfort zone and safe space.

In short, the “messy middle” is the unimaginative, middle-of-the-road approach that is more designed to protect the reputations of those in positions of control than to achieve results. The Korean problem is a particularly clear example of how this works, as the two strategies that would have the best chance of solving the problem are both extremes—fire and ice, if you like—while the middle position between them—the lukewarm water—seems best calculated to maintain and nourish the problem.


The managerial elite prefer to pick at knots.

The most hawkish response to the Korean problem would be a massive preemptive strike, aimed at eradicating the regime’s nuclear and rocket technology. This would be very risky and probably have heavy costs, but it would definitely solve the main problem, and at a time when North Korea’s ability to project its nuclear power is still limited.

The most dovish response to the Korean problem also seems promising. This would simply involve America removing itself from the equation, and packing up its bases. Much of the emotional impetus for the North Korean regime comes from the presence of American forces on the Korean peninsular. These are not only an insult to Korean pride in general, but they also represent the projection of toxic liberal-democratic values that can only ever be perceived as threatening by the communist elites in North Korea.

South Korea is clearly strong enough to defend itself, and with China and Japan likely to respond to any North Korean attack, the regime in Pyongyang would be extremely unlikely to take advantage of American withdrawal. Such a move would greatly reduce tensions and perhaps prompt the North Korean leadership to direct resources in other directions besides nuclear missile development.

Interestingly, Trump has signaled towards both of these policies during his short life as a politician. On the campaign trail he famously talked about pulling US military forces out of many of the countries where they are based, emphasizing the financial cost to America:

“We defend Japan. We defend Germany. We defend South Korea. We defend Saudi Arabia. We defend countries. They do not pay us what they should be paying us because we are providing a tremendous service and we’re losing a fortune.”

In recent weeks, however, he has been increasingly hawkish in his statements on North Korea, raising fears that he was going to launch major airstrikes against the regime.

But while Trump is the President and something of a showman and even a psychological trickster, his policy options are more likely to be defined by the narrow rationalism of a trans-national managerial class, composed of foreign policy wonks at the State Department, bureaucratic generals at the Pentagon, executives from the military industrial complex, and the diplomatic and business classes of key countries.

With the election this week of a new left-leaning Korean President—left-leaning by Korean standards as he still believes in closed borders for his country—the chances of an effective hawkish approach are now fading. But equally unlikely is a radical dovish strategy. Left to itself, without compelling leadership, the managerial class does what it always does—it veers towards the messy middle.

All effective actions have an element of risk and chance in them. They have the potential to backfire because they have the potential to succeed. In the case of North Korea, a preemptive strike could lead to the nuking of Seoul or Tokyo, while a complete pullout could tempt North Korea into an invasion, or at least upset the geopolitical balance in a negative way.

As the managerial class don’t own power like the old ruling elites but only control it, the fear of being associated with a clear failure is paramount. But because failure and success often share the same pair of shoes, the fear of facing failure automatically precludes success.

If you are an important executive, enjoying power and the good life, the last thing you want is to take a big gamble and be associated with a major setback, as that will lose you the key to the executive washroom: a key characteristic of this class is its love of its bourgeois comforts.

All ineffective actions, by contrast, have elements of rationality, balance, plausibility, and moderation in them. Their main function is first to cover the asses of those making the decisions, either by diluting responsibility or obfuscating results.

In the case of North Korea this works out as talking tough but not too tough, building up missile defenses but allowing the enemy to build more and better missiles, and getting China involved but without getting them too involved. Basically the status quo with a bit of tweaking. The managerial semantics are “look how strong and stable we are,” when the reality is the can is merely being kicked down the road to a more dangerous point.

This is in fact how we got here in the first place. If the US had adopted the most hawkish response in 2006, when the North Koreans first demonstrated their nuclear capability, the threat of nuclear retaliation was practically zero. Today it is still low, but clearly much higher than it was, and it is unlikely to lessen.

This is where the messy middle gets you, an unsatisfactory compromise that balances the interests of various interest groups, while perpetuating the core dysfunction and passing the problem down the line. We see it in the Korean problem in a particularly lucid and distilled form. But we see elsewhere too, in all the simmering problems that characterize our decaying civilization.