Time For Seoul To Grow Up

10 May

Signs-Spoiled-ChildSomeone please tell Seoul it’s time to grow up, because the U.S. president, Barack H. Obama, is a “buck-passer”.

In particular, the bedrock foundation of Obama’s foreign policy is his recognition that the United States is very, very secure. That statement doesn’t mean we have no interests elsewhere, but none of them are truly imminent or vital and thus they don’t require overzealous, precipitous, or heroic responses. There’s no peer competitor out there (yet) and apart from the very small risk of nuclear terrorism, there’s hardly anything that could happen anywhere in the world that would put U.S. territory or U.S. citizens at serious risk. We will inevitably face occasional tragedies like the recent Boston bombing, but the actual risk that such dangers pose is far less than many other problems (traffic fatalities, industrial accidents, hurricanes, etc.), no matter how much they get hyped by the terror industry and our over-caffeinated media.

Instead, the greatest risk we face as a nation are self-inflicted wounds like the Iraq and Afghan wars or the long-term decline arising from a failure to invest wisely here at home. Recognizing these realities, Obama has reacted slowly and in a measured way to most international events. He takes his time, remains calm, and prefers to pass the buck to others whose interests are more directly affected. Unrepentant neocons and liberal imperialists scorn this approach, because they never lose their enthusiasm for new and costly crusades, but most Americans don’t seem to mind. Why? Because they recognize what the foreign policy establishment can’t admit: What happens in Syria, Mali, most of Central Asia, and even the Korean peninsula just doesn’t matter that much to the United States, and the outcome in most of these places won’t make Americans poorer or less safe unless Washington does something stupid (like intervening with military force).

That’s why when Ted Galen Carpenter points out how much Washington spends for the defense of those states whose defense is not necessary for the United States, the little these free-riders spend is an even more insulting problem than terrorism.

As a new Cato Institute infographic and video demonstrate, allied free riding has grown even worse in the past few years. Today, the United States spends nearly 5 percent of its GDP on the military. The rest of NATO spends a paltry 1.3 percent, South Korea 2.6 percent, and Japan still just 1 percent. And the trend in the major European powers, even such countries as France and Britain that once made respectable outlays (in the area of 3 to 4 percent), is toward stagnation, at best.

But as much as U.S. officials, members of Congress, and various pundits might complain, such behavior is predictable and rational. Washington has insisted on being the “indispensable nation,” actually encouraging dependence on the part of other nations to preserve the U.S. leadership role in both Europe and East Asia. Allied governments and taxpayers have been happy to pocket the benefits of a multi-billion-dollar annual subsidy, even though it meant relinquishing decision-making autonomy on key security issues.


Such behavior in East Asia, though, is far riskier. The security environment in that part of the world is the opposite of Europe’s boring quiescence. North Korea’s behavior is the most prominent source of tension and instability, but there are others. China’s territorial disputes with Vietnam, the Philippines, and other neighbors over islands in the South China Sea, and its even more worrisome quarrel with Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands in the East China Sea, involve more than a little potential for trouble. And lurking in the background, albeit mercifully quiet for now, is Taiwan’s unresolved political status.

For Seoul, Taipei and Tokyo to continue their meager investments in defense may be rational purely from their financial standpoint, but it is reckless behavior given the tense, unstable strategic environment. Those governments are putting all of their security eggs in the basket of relying on the United States to neutralize any military threats. That approach is not wise for them, and it’s not healthy for the United States. Their military deficiencies virtually invite probes or challenges from any adversary willing to test the U.S. security guarantee. Democratic Europe got away with a similar gamble during the Cold War when the USSR did not take the risk of seeing whether the vaunted U.S. promise to wage a nuclear war if necessary to defend Western Europe was a bluff.

The East Asian allies might not be so fortunate today, and they need to invest considerably more in their own defenses. But to give them a meaningful incentive to do that, the United States must stop insisting on being the indispensable nation and encouraging them to remain dependent. Instead, Washington needs to gradually adopt a lower military profile in East Asia and make it clear to the nations there that they have to take primary responsibility for their own security.

Providing premium service for the South Koreans also looks rich when cheaper old-fashioned diplomacy works too.

On May 7, just before the South Korea-US summit, the Bank of China gave notice to FTB that it was closing its accounts and halting all financial transactions. The Bank of China is the country’s largest foreign exchange bank, while FTB handles North Korea’s overseas financial operations.

The decision was made independently by the bank, but Beijing’s decision not to prevent it was seen by many as tantamount to sanctions by the Chinese government.

The possibility that Beijing might go along with the sanctions was foreshadowed by frequent contact among the three countries in recent weeks. The past month saw a frantic barrage of visits to China by South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se and Special Representative for Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Affairs Lim Sung-nam, and from US Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Department Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen. Wu Dawei, China’s Special Representative for Korean Peninsula Affairs and senior representative to the six-party talks, also visited the US. In all cases, the main issue on the agenda was coordinating North Korea policy. Kerry and Cohen in particular pushed strongly for China to go in on sanctions.

Changes in position on North Korea were evident elsewhere in China. After meeting with Lim on May 1, Wu said China, “agreed with South Korea and the US’s position that North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons is unacceptable and that North Korean denuclearization is necessary.”

A circular document passed around within the Chinese administration reportedly stated that UN Security Council resolutions sanctioning North Korea needed to be enforced to get the North to denuclearize. In the past, North Korea’s nuclear tests were seen as showing only rudimentary capabilities; now, it seems, Beijing has decided it cannot tolerate a nuclear-armed North Korea.

Keep those frequent-flier miles accumulating!

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