a) Crunch time at WTO: On farm subsidies

As leaders at the World Trade Organisation’s 11th biennial Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires seek to define the future contours of multilateral global trade, the challenges the U.S. has mounted on the institution are impossible to ignore. Notable among the proposals trade ministers will consider are those relating to new rules on farm subsidies, the elimination of support for unsustainable fisheries, and the regulation of e-commerce. With the backing of more than 100 countries, a joint proposal from India and China to eliminate the most trade-distorting farm subsidies worth $160 billion in several industrialised economies is arguably the most contentious agenda item at the Ministerial. The two countries see this as a prerequisite to address the prevailing imbalance in the Agreement on Agriculture, which unfairly benefits developed countries. But host Argentina has cautioned that the joint proposal could potentially unravel negotiations. Lending credence to such scepticism is the lukewarm stance the U.S. has adopted towards the WTO over the past year, suggesting that the Ministerial meet should serve as a forum for reflection rather than to shape substantive agreements. The other major dispute centres on finding a so-called permanent solution to the large subsidies that underpin public stock-holding programmes to bolster food security in the developing world. The G-33 coalition — which includes Indonesia, China and India — seeks a complete exemption from commitments to reduce subsidies, such as minimum support prices, from this poverty-alleviation programme. New Delhi has declined to negotiate any more trade-offs on this proposal at Buenos Aires, or accept calls for stringent transparency requirements to monitor these schemes. The EU and Brazil have expressed broad support for the G-33 coalition’s position on public stock-holding programmes. But in return they seek agreement on their own proposal to reduce trade-distorting subsidies on a percentage basis, in both advanced and developing economies. The existential crisis facing the WTO is heightened by U.S. President Donald Trump’s combative approach to the multilateral institutional framework. Washington has been exploring an alternative, unilateral route away from the formal dispute resolution mechanism of the Geneva-based body to settle perceived and real trade conflicts with partners. It has blocked fresh appointments to fill vacancies on the seven-member WTO appellate body. The risk of Mr. Trump’s protectionist rhetoric translating into economic barriers remains real. The response to that challenge is to make the gains of globalisation more visible and its transient downsides politically less painful. Trade leaders gathered in Buenos Aires can ill-afford to lose sight of this imperative.

b) A game of chicken in the Korean peninsula

Thirteen thousand kilometres. That’s how far North Korea’s newest Hwasong-15 missile can travel, which puts the United States, its principal adversary, within striking distance. With nuclear capable intercontinental ballistic missiles in its arsenal, and with hardly any workable U.S military options to disarm Pyongyang, nuclear North Korea is now an inevitability and here to stay. Lessons from the tragic end of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qadhafi would further disincentivise North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-un to give up his weapons. Pyongyang’s neighbours, namely Japan and South Korea, and the international community, the U.S. in particular, however, have not reconciled to this reality provoking a nuclear crisis in the Korean peninsula.

The rationality of escalation

Kim Jong-un has been called all kinds of names, from a ruthless dictator to a madman. But Kim’s actions consolidating his hold over power in Pyongyang or developing North Korea’s strategic arsenal show that he is anything but irrational. More pertinently, his policy of taking on the entire international community is seemingly premised on the classical military strategy of escalating to de-escalate — to initially escalate to unacceptable levels so as to force one’s adversaries to make concessions in areas they otherwise would not. Being recognised as a nuclear weapon capable state would be the foremost objective; survival of his regime and an eventual removal of sanctions would be the natural consequences of such a recognition. Given that Pyongyang is pursuing such an escalatory strategy when there is a great deal of great power disharmony and American indecisiveness, the odds are heavily stacked in its favour. In this game of chicken, Kim seems to be the winner.

Great power buck-passing

Ever since Pyongyang withdrew from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2003, which led to the Six-Party Talks to diffuse the situation in the Korean peninsula, the North Korean regime has played the great powers against each other, exploiting their respective strategic calculations vis-à-vis Pyongyang, and each other. Having outmanoeuvred the big boys, North Korea conducted several nuclear tests and has now reached a point of no return, leaving the great powers stupefied and outwitted. Notwithstanding Pyongyang’s determination to go down this road by all means, the differing great power endgames and their unwillingness to commit sustained political and diplomatic capital, individually and together, to the Korean peninsula have contributed to the current crisis in a major way. Today, having exhausted all its strategies, from imposing sanctions to isolating North Korea, Washington has neither any leverage nor is it in a position to make a successful military strike against the country. China is not only worried about lethal nuclear fallout in its neighbourhood and the potential rush of North Korean refugees into its territory but also uneasy about what may otherwise be an excellent solution — a reunified Korea, something Beijing thinks will undercut its rising regional predominance. Russia, having had clandestine dealings with the North Korean regime in the past, also has no cards to play. And yet, if the unravelling of the Korean peninsula weakens Washington’s standing in the region further, Moscow and Beijing would certainly not mind that. Japan and South Korea, in a sense, then are the real victims in this game of great power buck-passing and geopolitical expediency. Seen as arch-rivals by Pyongyang and located in what is arguably the world’s most dangerous neighbourhood, Tokyo and Seoul would be the first to face Kim’s wrath. What is complicating their plight even more is the shakiness of the extended deterrence commitments of U.S. President Donald Trump’s “America First” policy. Going nuclear would not take too much time or effort for either of these technologically advanced countries. The lack of a firm commitment from Washington on security commitments could potentially prompt them to develop a modest strategic arsenal which would have a domino effect for the region and the rest of the international system. In a self-help world of such kind, the NPT-led non-proliferation regime as we know it would cease to exist.

Systemic crisis

At the heart of it, the crisis in the Korean peninsula reflects an endemic and worrying disorder in the contemporary international system. For one, international diplomacy has failed in the region. The ability of the great powers to compromise and reach a workable consensus to deal with global crises seems to have considerably reduced especially with the arrival of Mr. Trump and the assertion of China and Russia. What is even more worrying is this: the failure of the great powers to arrive at a workable consensus in crisis situations is perhaps a sign of the times to come. Second, the current crisis is further intensified by the deal-breaking tendencies of Mr. Trump. For instance, his administration’s tirade against the Iran nuclear deal, the end result of long, arduous negotiations, is sending out all the wrong signals to the international community. If Kim’s North Korea is decidedly revisionist, Mr. Trump’s revisionist tendencies are equally damaging. What is also becoming clear today is that isolating states that “misbehave” does not resolve conflicts. Be it Pakistan, Iran or North Korea, isolating states in the international system can only further complicate existing crises. The reason why we have been able to restrain the development of Iranian nuclear weapons is precisely because the P5+1 (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, plus Germany) reached a historic nuclear deal in 2015 despite pressure from within the U.S. and countries such as Israel to use force against Tehran. Had it not been for this deal, we would have had quite a mess in our neighbourhood today. Finally, and at a deeper level, the disarmament platitudes of the N-5 (or the five nuclear weapon states) and no progress on their disarmament commitments have eroded the faith of the nuclear have-nots in the global nuclear order. In an indirect but relevant way, such erosion of a normative global order has contributed to the North Korean crisis. Therefore, those lamenting how Kim’s nukes will weaken the non-proliferation regime have only themselves to blame for it.

The future

Now that Pyongyang has crossed the nuclear threshold, international sanctions and the use of force against North Korea will not yield the desired results. It will lead to immeasurable human suffering within North Korea and in its neighbourhood. We are way past tactical solutions, and, therefore, only a comprehensive, sustained and diplomatic solution will work, though the result of which is uncertain, and the intent for which is non-existent among the great powers at this point. However, if indeed Kim is “escalating to deescalate”, Pyongyang might be open to such engagement especially since it has now gone beyond being forcibly disarmed. Moreover, for Kim, talking itself would constitute a form of recognition for his regime. The most unpleasant part of such a comprehensive solution would involve according de facto “recognition” to North Korea’s nuclear weapons. In other words, North Korea has nuclear weapons and its delivery mechanism in its custody, and there is no getting away from that fact, not now. If so, all we can do now is to consider how we can live with a nuclear North Korea rather than think of impractical military solutions to disarm Pyongyang. For sure, it would be a pity to add it to the list of states possessing nuclear weapons. But then there is a time to prevent something from becoming a reality, and there is a time to accept when it becomes an inevitable reality. The operational aspect of this approach would involve taking on board North Korea’s historical grievances, involving the regional powers including China and South Korea to reach out to Kim, and reviving the dormant Six Party Talks at the earliest. Revival of the Six Party talks is important precisely because entrusting China and or Russia to solely deal with North Korea would be unwise. Moreover, multilateral engagement would also prevent anyone from engaging in underhand dealings with Pyongyang.


1) Contours

Meaning: An outline representing or bounding the shape or form of something.

Example: “she traced the contours of his face with her finger”

Synonyms: Outline, Shape

2) Trade-distorting

Meaning: Used to describe a tax or action that changes the normal characteristics of trade.

Example: Some experts believe that trade-distorting agricultural subsidies are partly responsible for increases in global food prices.


3) Contentious

Meaning: Causing or likely to cause an argument; controversial.

Example: “a contentious issue”

Synonyms: Vexed, Debatable

4) Prerequisite

Meaning: Required as a prior condition.

Example: “the student must have the prerequisite skills”

Synonyms: Necessary, Required

Antonyms: Unnecessary, Non-essential

5) Unravel

Meaning: Investigate and solve or explain (something complicated or puzzling).

Example: “they were attempting to unravel the cause of death”

Synonyms: Solve, Resolve

Antonyms: Complicate

6) Credence

Meaning: Belief in or acceptance of something as true.

Example: “psychoanalysis finds little credence among laymen”

Synonyms: Acceptance, Belief

7) Scepticism

Meaning: A sceptical attitude; doubt as to the truth of something.

Example: “these claims were treated with scepticism”

Synonyms: Doubt, Distrust

Antonyms: Conviction, Belief

8) Lukewarm

Meaning: (of a person, attitude, or action) unenthusiastic.

Example: “Britain is lukewarm about the proposal”

Synonyms: Indifferent, Apathetic

Antonyms: Enthusiastic

9) Underpin

Meaning: Support, justify, or form the basis for.

Example: “the theme of honour underpinning the two books”

10) Combative

Meaning: Ready or eager to fight or argue.

Example: “he made some enemies with his combative style”

Synonyms: Aggressive, Bellicose

Antonyms: Conciliatory

11) Rhetoric

Meaning: Language designed to have a persuasive or impressive effect, but which is often regarded as lacking in sincerity or meaningful content.

Example: “all we have from the Opposition is empty rhetoric”

Synonyms: Bombast, Bragging

12) Ill-afford

Meaning: If you cannot afford to do something, you must not do it because it would cause serious problems for you.

Example: He can ill afford to fail any of his exams.

Synonyms: Degrade, Decline

13) Imperative

Meaning: Of vital importance; crucial.

Example: “immediate action was imperative”

Synonyms: Crucial, Critical

Antonyms: Unimportant, Optional

14) Disarm

Meaning: (of a country or force) give up or reduce its armed forces or weapons.

Example: “the other militias had disarmed by the agreed deadline”

Synonyms: Demilitarize

Antonyms: Arm

15) Disincentivise

Meaning: Discourage (a person or course of action) by removing an incentive.

Example: “such policies disincentivize those on average incomes”

16) Reconciled

Meaning: Settle (a quarrel).

Example: “advice on how to reconcile the conflict”

Synonyms: Reunite, Placate

Antonyms: Estrange, Alienate

17) Consolidating

Meaning: Strengthen (one’s position or power).

Example: “the company consolidated its position in the international market”

Synonyms: Strengthen, Harden

18) Irrational

Meaning: Not logical or reasonable.

Example: “irrational feelings of hostility”

Synonyms: Unreasonable, Illogical

Antonyms: Rational, Logical

19) Concessions

Meaning: The action of conceding or granting something.

Example: “this strict rule was relaxed by concession”

Synonyms: Admission, Acceptance

Antonyms: Denial, Retention

20) Disharmony

Meaning: Lack of harmony or agreement.

Example: “we will become ever more a nation of social disharmony”

Synonyms: Discord, Friction

Antonyms: Harmony

21) Exploiting

Meaning: Benefit unfairly from the work of (someone), typically by overworking or underpaying them.

Example: “women are exploited in the workplace”

Synonyms: Abuse, Enslave

Antonyms: Treat fairly

22) Outmanoeuvred

Meaning: Use skill and cunning to gain an advantage over.

Example: “he hoped he would be able to outmanoeuvre his critics”

Synonyms: Outwit, Outplay

23) Stupefied

Meaning: Make (someone) unable to think or feel properly.

Example: “the offence of administering drugs to a woman with intent to stupefy her”

Synonyms: Shock, Astound

24) Outwitted

Meaning: Deceive by greater ingenuity.

Example: “Ray had outwitted many an opponent”

Synonyms: Outsmart, Outplay

25) Exhausted

Meaning: Use up (resources or reserves) completely.

Example: “the country has exhausted its treasury reserves”

Synonyms: Consume, Finish

Antonyms: Replenish, Restock

26) Leverage

Meaning: The power to influence a person or situation.

Example: “the right wing had lost much of its political leverage in the Assembly”

Synonyms: Influence, Power

27) Lethal

Meaning: Very harmful or destructive.

Example: “the Krakatoa eruption was the most lethal on record”

Synonyms: Fatal, Terminal

Antonyms:  Harmless, Safe

28) Undercut

Meaning: Weaken; undermine.

Example: “the chairman denied his authority was being undercut”

Synonyms: Undermine, Weaken

29) Expediency

Meaning: The quality of being convenient and practical despite possibly being improper or immoral; convenience.

Example: “an act of political expediency”

Synonyms: Convenience, Advantage

Antonyms: Disadvantage

30) Wrath

Meaning: Extreme anger.

Example: “he hid his pipe for fear of incurring his father’s wrath”

Synonyms: Anger, Rage

Antonyms: Happiness, Good humour

31) Deterrence

Meaning: The action of discouraging an action or event through instilling doubt or fear of the consequences.

Example: “nuclear missiles remain the main deterrence against possible aggression”

32) Arsenal

Meaning: A collection of weapons and military equipment; an array of resources available for a certain purpose.

Example: “Britain’s nuclear arsenal”

Synonyms: Weaponry, Range

33) Proliferation

Meaning: Rapid reproduction of a cell, part, or organism.

Example: “we attempted to measure cell proliferation”

Synonyms: Growth, Spread

Antonyms: Decrease

34) Consensus

Meaning: A general agreement.

Example: “there is a growing consensus that the current regime has failed”

Synonyms: Agreement, Concord

Antonyms: Disagreement

35) Intensified

Meaning: Become or make more intense.

Example: “the dispute began to intensify”

Synonyms: Escalate, Increase

Antonyms: Lessen, Abate

36) Tirade

Meaning: A long, angry speech of criticism or accusation.

Example: “a tirade of abuse”

Synonyms: Invective, Denunciation

37) Disarmament

Meaning: The reduction or withdrawal of military forces and weapons.

Example: “the public wanted peace and disarmament”

38) Comprehensive

Meaning: Of large content or scope; wide-ranging.

Example: “a comprehensive collection of photographs”

Synonyms: Inclusive, Complete

Antonyms: Partial, Selective

39) Dormant

Meaning: Temporarily inactive.

Example: “the bacteria may lie dormant in the bird”

Synonyms: Asleep, Inactive

Antonyms: Awake, Active

40) Underhand

Meaning: Acting or done in a secret or dishonest way.

Example: “underhand dealings”

Synonyms: Deceitful, Dishonest

Antonyms: Honest, Fair

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