Examples of change in U.S. foreign policy perspectives erupt from the Trump Administration from time to time, as often as not bearing the tone of a bird whistle. One can be dismayed by its credibility-dissolving methodology (I am), depressed by the overarching zero-sum mentality that informs its animating spirit (I am), and be troubled by the likely larger consequences of abdicating the U.S. role as provider of global common security goods (I am), and yet still be cheered by certain selected tweeted eruptions. It wasn’t, after all, as if the Trump Administration inherited a perfect foreign policy legacy. Trump’s recent tweet about Pakistan is a case in point, though its likely true analytical source is not the President but the Mattis/McMaster vortex of professional sanity that abides near the Oval Office.
Another potentially benign eruption may soon concern Korea. The Administration, facing a substantially changed military dynamic compared to its predecessors owing to North Korean military advances, has tossed over the side the Obama-era policy of “strategic patience,” believing it to be a euphemism for weakness and indecision. What exactly the Administration thinks it can achieve though a different policy remains speculative. One can credit the new, vituperative approach with helping to generate the stiffest UNSCR-blessed international sanctions ever ranged against the Pyongyang regime. Whether those sanctions, more or less, would have come about anyway on account of the North Korean leadership’s increasingly manic, unhinged behavior is hard to know; and whether the sanctions will produce some improvement in the situation, speculatively through greater Chinese pressure, has yet to be demonstrated. My sense is that they will not, and hence a detectable slide toward war likely will continue unabated.
But perhaps, then, we are approaching a n opportunity for letting Trump really be Trump, and in a way that transcends the failure of imagination still clinging to most expert “Asia hands.” The President has already broken the mold once on Korea by suggesting, back in May, that he would be prepared to meet face to face with Kim Jong-un without preconditions. A howl of incredulous ridicule arose from the experts, but I thought it was a good idea if properly handled—and said so.
So what is this Trumpian way forward on Korea that might be in prospect? It is as simple at one level as it is stark: Abrogate (or radically renegotiate) the terms of the U.S.-Republic of Korea alliance, thereby decoupling the bitter politics of the Korean peninsula from the military-security interests of the United States. Instead, aim policy toward the explicit goal of reunification under the aegis of the South, with great power concert endorsement of the peninsula’s non-nuclear weapons status.
I can already hear the guffawing and see the head-shaking, chin-dropping reactions of the tenured experts who have, to be sure, heard this basic suggestion before. But these folks, some of whom I count as friends as well as former government colleagues, will be hard put to refute me this time, for things have changed.
Never mind for now how the Korean peninsula got sliced in half in 1945, or even how the Korean War began; what matters as core background for present analytic purposes is how the U.S.-ROK alliance developed in the context of the Cold War in Asia after the mid-1950s. The essence is that the defense of South Korea and its protected three-decade graduation into being a prosperous democracy were of a part with holding the line against Communist expansion in what was believed to be a seamless existential struggle. We were determined to save South Korea from Communist rule within the peninsula, and to protect it from pressure brought to bear by Communist powers without, even as we helped make the place an example of the superiority of Western political and economic best practice. The risks that pledging the defense of South Korea could involve the United States in another war, even in theory a nuclear war, were deemed to be worth running in that wider context. And they were, because the defense of Korea was linked to the security of Japan, the Philippines, and other inarguably strategic real estate in East Asia. That is why when President Carter proposed very early in his Administration scrapping the tripwire of U.S. forces in Korea, it was one of the most outrageously irresponsible presidential initiatives ever.
But now the Cold War is over, and no Maoists remain in China. The DPRK is still a Communist dictatorship, albeit of a weird sort, but onrushing reality has delinked it from any larger geostrategic stakes, except for those kept artificially alive through obsolete Cold War alliance structures. Meanwhile, the wealth and democratic political coherence of South Korea stand as a vindication of U.S. policy acumen and patience. Indeed, those features have become so formidable that President Trump, a prisoner of his Randian zero-sum-only “big brain,” has long bristled at South Korean competitiveness, and now he bristles too at its spunk in the recent second coming of South Korean “sunshine” policy.
The new South Korean President, Moon Jae-in, has asserted publicly that the government of South Korea holds a veto over U.S. military options affecting the peninsula. Since the South hosts U.S. forces, this veto has been implicit in the relationship all along, and it goes far to explain why at episodic points, starting around 1994 and running a dozen years thereafter, options for U.S. preemption of the North Korean nuclear weapons program were ultimately rejected. The President may rue this new public assertiveness, but as a strong advocate of the primacy of national sovereignty, he can hardly blame President Moon for refusing to act like a mere imperial satrap while the lives of hundreds of thousands of his people hang in the balance. My sense of this President’s instincts is that, faced with this sort of pushback, he wants deep down to tell President Moon to go to hell. Can’t you hear him? “You won’t let us defend you as we see fit, then defend yourselves without us, dammit!”
And they can. The South Korea military is superior in every way to the rust-bucket mass army in the North, save for one thing: nuclear weapons. But the Norks sought out the ultima ratio of nuclear weapons to protect the regime not from South Korea but from the United States, which it imagines, projecting its own instincts were circumstances reversed, is actively seeking regime change. Kim Jong-un does not fear an attempt by any South Korean leadership to actively undermine the DPRK regime; indeed, as evidence that he is correct, the current “sunshine 2.0” gang is doing its own decoupling right now in talks with the North, trying to put blue sky between itself and the growling rhetoric from Washington with which it fears to be associated.
The fact is that the likelihood of a North Korean attack on South Korea is much higher than it would otherwise be on account of the approximately 35,000 U.S. military personnel stationed there, in many cases with their families on base. Those troops, along with South Korea’s civilian population, are hostages to North Korea should the United States ever attack it, which in turn is why the South Korean leadership will move heaven and earth to prevent us from doing so. In the strategically flipped post-Cold War version of East Asian reality, those U.S. troops do not defend the people of the South anymore but imperil them, and they do not deter the North so much as they deter us.
The result has been a diplomatic stasis that, now for more than two decades, has sheltered the growth of the North Korean nuclear program and allowed it to progress into an imminent threat to the U.S. homeland. Observers like to say we’ve “kicked the can down the road” all this time for lack of better remedies, but what they don’t say is that the can has not stayed the same. What started out as an emptied eight-ounce tomato soup can has by now become a burning 50-gallon oil drum.
In short, everything about the Cold War context of the U.S.-ROK relationship has changed, but the relationship remains unchanged despite the flipped derangement of its own purposes. Not to see that is to miss a lot, so new objections to changing the relationship are now the only ones worth hearing. Aside from highly general blather about credibility and the feelings of old friends, what might they be?
The first objection to a proposal to abrogate the U.S.-ROK alliance relationship is predictable: It will aid China’s geopolitical rise, reward its revisionist strategy, and by so doing reduce Japan’s margin of security, along with that of other democratic Asian nations.
It is true that the optic of an abrogation would need to be properly managed; any change in the U.S.-ROK relationship must not look like a general U.S. retreat from the Pacific. Certainly, that would require first and foremost a tightening and refinement of the U.S.-Japanese security relationship. But that is good and necessary work to be done in any event, not least to provide sufficient additional reassurance so that Japanese leaders do not conclude that Japan needs its own independent nuclear deterrent—a fateful decision that would put Japan’s very postwar national identity in doubt.
The Japanese leadership these days ritually bows to the concept of a three-nation coordination of East Asian security: The United States, Japan, and South Korea. That is partly because we have kept insisting on that formulation for a while now. The truth, however, is that the Japanese, despite some recent modulations, have never been keen on the idea of insinuating Japanese territory and diplomatic equities into a U.S.-led defense of South Korea.
Moreover, relations these days between Seoul and Tokyo are not comfortable. Japanese officials are incensed at the Koreans’ moving the goalpost to comity in coming to terms with the legacy of the Pacific War and before that the post-1905 Japanese occupation of Korea. Koreans are incensed over how Japanese have long spoken of and treated Koreans, including ethnic Koreans born in Japan. Some Westerners understand all that; few, however, realize that the animus goes all the way back, at least, to 1592—a bit more about that extended episode below. This relationship thus has historical baggage most Americans can’t even see, let alone understand; it will not be healed soon to support a genuine three-party defense arrangement.
Just as over time we sold the Japanese on the three-nation security concept—because it was just easier for them to solidify relations with Washington by saying, in effect, “OK, sure”—we can reassure them in the context of a less cluttered, strengthened bilateral relationship, and one in which their security is further bolstered through extended U.S.-encouraged understandings with India, Vietnam, and other Asian countries. That is the general direction of U.S. thinking, and South Korea should retain a role in it even without the frozen tripwire of Cold War days. It may not be easy; Japanese officials are very sensitive about South Korean security as a the focal point of Japan’s geostrategic vulnerability. But the fact is that North Korea is plainly incapable of intimidating, invading, and occupying South Korea, and for the time being so is China. Moreover, South Korea’s relative safety is bolstered by a couplet of complementary constraints: Chinese leaders do not want the North Korean regime to suborn the South, and the North Koreans do not want China to do so. South Korea’s security, and hence Japan’s by a degree of separation, is not at any remotely serious risk.
That said, a residual U.S. nuclear umbrella over South Korea may be prudent re-insurance. As long as South Korea abjures obtaining its own nuclear arsenal, it does not really need a U.S. extended deterrence shield for narrowly military security purposes. If it threatens no one, it need not become anyone’s target. If it wants nuclear protection anyway, if only out of habit or to blunt potential nuclear intimidation feints from the North, one can imagine a reformulated U.S.-ROK alliance which allows for that, but otherwise removes the 35,000-strong U.S. military presence from the peninsula. After all, the U.S. government already implicitly provides a nuclear security umbrella over some states in which it has no troop presence—Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, for example.
To sum up the essence, so long as South Korea hosts significant numbers of U.S. troops, its veto—implicit or otherwise—on muscular U.S. options will persist. That did not matter much before North Korea’s military development efforts brought it to a capacity to target the U.S. homeland, which is in turn why older suggestions to terminate the alliance lacked political teeth for the absence of any sense of urgency. Unlike some, I lose no sleep worrying about a North Korea strike out of the blue against the United States; the regime is variously homicidal, not suicidal, and hence can be deterred. No hasty preemptive strike is necessary, or would be wise at this point.1 Still, any American decision-maker would prefer, all else equal, not to be encumbered by political constraints when planning to defend U.S. vital national security interests. We are now closing in on a point where the U.S.-ROK Treaty relationship is such an encumbrance.
Would a loosening or sundering of the U.S.-ROK relationship, if it took place in the context of a strengthening of the U.S.-Japanese relationship and of the broader security architecture of the Indo-Pacific, really help China in ways inimical to U.S. interests? This is a complicated question the answer to which begs that certain basic premises be laid out on the table for all to see.
What is not complicated, to start with, is the prospect that freeing up U.S. policy options with respect to North Korea would have a stronger deterrent effect on Pyongyang’s brinksmanship. No longer could Kim Jong-un just push the inter-Korean dialogue button to undermine U.S. diplomatic efforts to constrain him.
More important, that freeing up could also induce the Chinese leadership to put more serious if not terminal pressure on the DPRK regime in rough proportion to how seriously they contemplate the likelihood of a U.S. military operation. Even more interesting, if also more speculative, the absence of a U.S. military ground presence in South Korea removes an inhibition to Chinese support for Korean denuclearization in the context of unification (not that there aren’t others)—namely, that unification within the current U.S.-ROK treaty relationship would bring U.S. military power closer to a broader expanse of China’s borders. Take that prospect away and China’s calculations change.
It is also not complicated to describe a broader regional security architecture without the current U.S.-ROK treaty piece that can be just as effective a limiting influence on Chinese appetites as the one that exists today with that piece. It takes a huge failure of imagination to resist this point. It’s a little like claiming that a football team can only win games if a certain individual player is always on the field.
The complications set in when we look more broadly at the geostrategic realities of the region, and at the prospective U.S. role therein. The U.S. role as security webmaster for Asia has always differed from its comparable role in Europe. As is often pointed out, European security architecture is much more institutionalized and multilateral than it is in Asia. But it is also much more bound by cultural and normative affinities than has been the case in Asia (or the Middle East). Of course, the United States has long called itself a Pacific as well as an Atlantic power, and that has been true from the middle of the 19th century from a strictly geographical point of view. But the United States has been a Euro-Atlantic nation from its cradle, and until recently its economic interests lopsidedly faced east, not west.
Moreover and more important geostrategically, threats to U.S. security interests coming from Europe have always been from “minority” powers, so to speak—first Spain way past its imperial prime and later Germany and, to a lesser extent and very temporarily, Italy. To face these problems we always had Brits, French, Dutch, Scandinavians, and others to help us in all cases when we needed to engage militarily. Not so in Asia, where first Japan and then China have been the most powerful antagonistic actors of their era, and no comparable partners have existed for the United States to oppose them as was the case in Europe. So in a sense, Asia to the United States has always more resembled a pure balance-of-power political world than has Europe at any time in the 20th century.
The situation today in East Asia remains very different from that of Europe. Japan is a stalwart ally, but an under-armed and historically fettered one. A potential Russian relationship in Asia aimed at limiting Chinese ambitions is logical, more for Russia than for America; but the Russian leadership at present, while tactically adept, is strategically very stupid for basing its domestic legitimacy on thwarting everything the United States would do. India’s regional security role has yet to be fully defined, and for good reasons it is internally directed. Other potential partners—Vietnam, Singapore, the Philippines, Malaysia, Burma, and others—are either too small or too unreliable as raw materials for a concerted, European-like multilateral balancing act. So the question ahead really comes down to what kind of Chinese great power status the United States, left more or less to its own devices, desires if there has to be one, and what kind can we live with if our heart’s desire is unattainable?
To some extent, the answer depends on what sort of world we think we are living in. If the Trump Administration really represents a break from the postwar U.S. role of common security provider—and to all appearances that is the President’s wish—then the longer he or people like him are in office, the faster we will move from what I have called “same world” (the United States as provider of common security goods in a rule-based order) to “lonely world” (the United States as essentially isolationist) to “cold world” (the United States as essentially unilateralist operating in a 19th-century style balance-of-power, spheres-of-influence “realist” world).2 Now, if “cold world” is the world we are in or fast bound for—like it or not—and the sort of world we have anyway been closer to inhabiting in Asia all along, then what options do we really have?
It is appropriate, in my view, to ask at a moment like this not what Jesus or Moses would do, but rather what Salisbury or Lansdowne would do. And their counsel, I suspect, would go something like this: If China is a rising revisionist power, but not a crazy state whose ambitions cannot be limited, you as the first-rank status quo power need to determine what kinds of accommodations can be made with it. A policy that seeks to prevent any and every expression of rising Chinese power cannot succeed, but must end in conflict that, even if won, could still prove ruinous. To preserve the best of the favorable status quo that suits U.S. interests in Asia and globally, bold policy reorientations may be necessary.
That is how an enlightened conservative thinks: bold change to protect core interests. An athwart-the-future kind of conservative doesn’t really think at all on his way to inevitable oblivion. An enlightened conservative also does not delude himself into believing that as China develops it will magically adopt culturally wrought Western choices as to political governance best-practice and global “human rights” norms. The situation arguably developing is too serious for such faith-based delusions.
So it comes down to a coldblooded analysis of choices and trade-offs. Is, for example, a massive Chinese infrastructure initiative to its west—even if one believes all the hype about “One Belt, One Road”—or a multilateral development bank, or the two together, necessarily a threat to U.S. interests? If China helps other economies to grow and prosper through such exertions, how is that ipso facto inimical to U.S. interests? Even were China to eventually develop a network of geographically contiguous tributary states, as it did a thousand years ago, how does an ethnically centered mercantilist state with no universalist ideological pretensions threaten us? Global market share does not equate to core national security. And how would such a future Sinocentric Asian arrangement, even one that presumed a military-strategic keep-out zone for transoceanic powers, differ from the traditional and by now long-lasting and broadly peaceful U.S. hegemony over North and South America?
Obviously, a stronger China might imperil U.S. interests. Massive military buildups designed to back aggression against China’s neighbors, particularly Taiwan, or to unilaterally intimidate and eject U.S. naval forces from large swaths of Pacific waters, are and must remain unacceptable. In a better integrated regional security architecture, hypothetical Chinese threats to Sri Lanka or Burma, for example, would fall under Indian interest but have U.S., Japanese, other support as needed. But such threats are not inevitable if the Chinese have options to express their power in less belligerent ways.
Compared to these larger dynamics, Korea is but a medium-sized stake. Besides, as already suggested, a South Korea no longer enfolded by a formal and encompassing U.S. security relationship would not be easy prey for China. If the Chinese leadership were impatient and hubristic enough in search of a new tributary system, it could choke on Korea, which could pose an irritation for the CCP orders of magnitude more daunting than has Hong Kong. South Korea’s institutions—political and scientific, financial and banking among them—are either a match for or are superior to China’s. The demonstration effect of those capacities could easy roil a corrupt Chinese one-party state that got too close to them too fast.
And then, as promised to tell, there is a relevant historical relationship dating from at least the end of the sixteenth century. Hideyoshi’s two invasions of Korea (1592, 1596) unleashed unspeakable hardship on the Korean people, but not all of it came at the hands of Japanese invaders. The Chinese dynasty of the day claimed to come to the rescue of Korea, but in the process the Chinese (and some of their Korean allies) ultimately looted, plundered, raped, and murdered more Koreans than the Japanese invading forces before a 1598 truce ended the crisis. A Chinese attempt to suborn Korea—South, North, or both—by rekindling old memories that have never disappeared, might be the best thing ever to happen to the image of Japan among Koreans since Tokugawa times.
In sum, the abrogation of the U.S.-ROK alliance would free up U.S. military options in a way that could deter North Korean brinksmanship and have positive effects on China’s willingness to press the regime as well. It could be managed optically to mitigate any reputational damage, and it could stimulate the strengthening of other relationships and security architectures that would be beneficial in their own right. It need not leave South Korea prey to Chinese pressures, and Chinese interests in any event can be accommodated realistically in ways that pose no threat to any state’s vital interests. It would certainly be a better course of action than a preemptive U.S. attack on North Korea, which would destroy the alliance the wrong way, get hundreds of thousands of innocents killed (including, possibly, in Japan as well as on the Korean Peninsula), and create a multifaceted after-attack crisis for which no preparations to manage are in readiness.
U.S. Cold War-era policy toward Korea, and in Asia as a whole—save for the tragic detour in Vietnam—succeeded brilliantly. The challenge was faced and won. That has rendered the U.S.-ROK alliance a relic of an age passed by, one that has now become an encumbrance on U.S. policy in a changed military-strategic situation. It is time to declare the policy a joint success, and for both parties to look to the future with more mature and hopefully wiser eyes. So come on Donald, just one more tweet—what do you say?
1I have explained elsewhere why the broader geopolitical context makes Iran a more dangerous problem than North Korea in “The Right Nightmare,” The American Interest Online, August 9, 2017.
2 See my “Same World, Lonely World, Cold World,” The American Interest (March-April 2017), (translated as “Les options stratégiques de Trump: continuité, solitude, ou réalisme,” Commentaire, Numéro 158/Été 2017).