For much of the U.S. foreign-policy establishment, there is no more sacred word than “alliances.” They are regarded as a continuing symbol of all that is good about U.S. foreign policy—a testament to the success and strength of American values. These friendly countries stand as a key validation of American self-identity. Logically enough, they are also nice places to visit (with many charming locals who fittingly speak excellent English). It's surely better to be sipping cappuccinos in Berlin, Sydney, Oslo or Tokyo than to be struggling to get a trustworthy translator, let alone a safe and decent meal in Lagos, Muscat, Baku or Xiamen. Allies have the delightful virtue of telling America over and over again how great and “indispensable” the U.S. is. No wonder then that American diplomats frequently sound like they are representatives of allied countries when they recoil at the straightforward concept of putting “America first.” This sentiment pervades Andrew Taffer's recent rejoinder that argues that America had better not consider any serious tweaks to the U.S.-Republic of Korea (ROK) Alliance, lest they and other allies have some doubts about American staying power in the Pacific.
Taffer is critical of a piece I published here advocating that U.S. troop levels should be “on the table” for the Singapore summit and in subsequent negotiations about denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. He and I evidently agree on a few things, at least. He concedes that there is a “need to offer Pyongyang incentives for it to abandon its nuclear program” and, moreover, that “given the gravity of the threat posed by the North’s nuclear capabilities, particularly meaningful inducements . . . may be warranted.” In common with many proponents of the status quo in U.S. foreign policy that sets up alliances as sacrosanct, Taffer is much better at articulating what not to do, rather than what should actually be done (beyond reaffirming alliances). Nowhere in this piece does one find the preferable set of “particularly meaningful inducements” that Taffer would support. Perhaps he envisions some sanctions relief, a peace treaty, some security guarantees, a U.S. embassy and the like. It would be certainly nice if Kim Jong-un would congenially denuclearize under such conditions, but I have serious doubts that such measures will deliver the holy grail of the complete, verifiable, and irreversible, denuclearization (CVID) of North Korea. Unfortunately, a peace deal that substantially undershoots Kim's objectives is almost certain to flounder and disappoint over the long term, bringing the region right back around to the precipice of major conflict once again.
Taffer regrettably ignores most of the substance of my original essay. In addition to not specifying what carrots he favors instead, he does not address the conventional balance (or lack thereof) that is at the very heart of my argument. Presumably, he does not contest the fact that the ROK military—which has the pick of the best weapons on the planet from tanks to submarines to fighters—is far superior to North Korea's armed forces that have obsolete tanks; aircraft that can't fly due to lack of fuel; and soldiers that are poorly fed. He is not much bothered evidently that U.S. bases would be among the first targets of nuclear attack in a war situation. Perhaps he should spend some time in Seoul meeting, as I have recently, with some of the American soldiers that are given the mission of serving as “trip wires”—e.g., those sacrificed early in the conflict for the good of the alliance. As a social scientist, Taffer does not seem to understand the concept of the “security dilemma” in which the very strength of the U.S.-ROK alliance itself could have provoked sufficient fears in North Korea that it caused it to develop nuclear weaponry in the first place. Despite being one of the world’s poorest countries and thoroughly outmatched by their eminently successful cousins to the south, that security dilemma forms a major reason why North Korea continues its nuclear program.
However, the biggest problem with Taffer’s rendering is the Cold War lenses through which he views the Korean Peninsula. As he makes clear in the last paragraph of his story, his real concern is not the Korean Peninsula, but rather the perceived threat of “Chinese revisionism.” He reveals the heart of his worries in discussing the South China Sea, wherein he argues that America’s “anemic response” to aggressive Chinese moves has precipitated doubts about U.S. power throughout the Asia-Pacific region. As seems to be the regrettable fashion among young U.S. strategists, Taffer appears to view Korea as a distraction from the main issues surrounding maritime disputes in the East and South China Seas. However, such a perverse logic mysteriously puts the fate of various rocks over the lives of hundreds of millions of people in Northeast Asia—people who are yearning for a sustainable way out of the present nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula. What happens, Taffer warns, when there is a “more difficult challenge from a far more capable China?” Does he really believe that the home territory—or home islands—of allied states like Philippines, Japan, and South Korea are likely to be invaded by China? Taffer’s zero-sum analysis is nothing but a breath of stale air from the 1950s.
This scholar's ultimate nightmare seems to be a “defection” by America’s South Korean ally following the pattern of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte's flirtation with Beijing. Yet, he does not bother to explain how U.S. national security interests are harmed by leaders of the Philippines and South Korea that are willing to work very closely with China to manage regional tensions. Like most “China hawks” he never actually specifies why rising Chinese influence is a threat to U.S. national security, so we are just to take that on faith. Never mind that the ominous China threat and related issues regarding alliance credibility (aka the “domino theory”) were the principal arguments in getting the U.S. sucked into fighting the incredibly tragic and wasteful Vietnam War. Since Taffer views China as the main problem for U.S. interests, perhaps it is too much to have asked Taffer to entertain my proposals to enlist Beijing's vital assistance in several key areas. America could still enlist China in warehousing and padlocking the North Korean arsenal, verifying the process of disarmament, and offering concrete security assurances to Pyongyang. Such Chinese cooperative steps could actually be critical to a viable process of denuclearization.
Taffer additionally makes no effort to show that China is somehow threatening to South Korea. On my last trip to Seoul, I witnessed hardly any mention of the alleged Chinese threat, but rather—in an interesting contrast—plenty of concern about Japan and its maritime dispute with South Korea. Should Washington maintain troops in South Korea to protect it from Japan? Of course not. The discussion of supposed threats to South Korea emanating from both Japan and China are equally absurd (but useful for South Korean nationalists) and need not be taken seriously by academic and military strategists. Like most “China hawks,” Taffer focuses on the South China Sea issue but ignores a plethora of positive and very meaningful foreign policies undertaken by Beijing. These actions include major peacekeeping, pandemic-response, counter-piracy, and economic-development initiatives. He also inexplicably does not recognize the major reason why North Korea is at the table at all—that Beijing decided finally to exert economic pressure on Pyongyang. Viewed from his zero-sum 1950s framework, quite obviously such pressure could very quickly be withdrawn thereby ending any prospect for denuclearization. That might be good for the alliance and its many advocates, of course, but bad for American, South Korean and global security obviously.
One of the stranger parts of Taffer's discussion comes when he puts forward the example of Sadat's Egypt as an example of alliance defection. Well, I would certainly agree that America should not take Soviet alliance management as a model for U.S. diplomacy. But it is perhaps noteworthy that no real examples of defection come to mind within the U.S. alliance network. This is because the alliances are robust, highly durable, and built on a much larger foundation than the disposition of a few bases or thousand troops. Alliances are commercial, cultural and ideological. In other words, Taffer is far too insecure about the nature of the U.S.-ROK alliance, and he should not be troubled by the truly outlandish scenario of a defection by South Korea into an anti-American alliance. As I have explained, the U.S. alliances can be strengthened by reducing their profile and related commitments. Very often it so happens in these situations that less is more.
Additionally, members of the Washington foreign-policy “blob” will be shocked to learn that alliances are nowhere enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, nor is the related word “reassurance.” The perverse impact of hyperactive and militarized alliance management is apparent everywhere in contemporary U.S. foreign policy, from the Baltics to Syria to the South China Sea. U.S. decisionmakers and diplomats would do well to re-read George Washington’s Farewell Address now and again to realize that America’s founder did not intend for this country to recreate the British Empire, preparing for and fighting meaningless wars in every corner of the planet. His wise words ring true today across the generations: “nothing is more essential, than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular Nations, and passionate attachments for others, should be excluded.” Moreover, the idea that the world is more complex and dangerous than the world that which America’s founding president confronted is utter nonsense.