About Robert E Kelly

I am a professor of political science at Pusan National University. I write mostly on international relations in East Asia.

My Submission on Dodko to the University of Nottingham’s Blog Symposium on Asian Territorial Disputes


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The China Policy Institute of the University of Nottingham in Britain is running a blog symposium – cool idea! – this week on Asia’s territorial disputes. Here is the series page, and here is my submission. I’d like to thank the CPI blog director, my friend Jon Sullivan, for inviting me to submit. Not surprisingly, I was solicited to write on Dokdo/Takeshima/Liancourt.

Regular readers of my work will notice some of my preferred themes – that Korean claim is probably stronger; that a Japanese acceptance of that is nonetheless necessary to legitimate that sovereignty claim; that Korea wildly overblows the importance of this conflict because ‘anti-Japanism’ is central to modern South Korean identity.

The other entries in the series are worth your time if this area interests you. I was happy to participate. Below the jump is my contribution:

My October Diplomat Essay: Russia between Empire and Modernity


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This is a re-up of an essay I just wrote for the Diplomat (posted here). And that image to the left comes from this famous (notorious, really) tweet. If that doesn’t capture the values clash between Putin and modernity – real men have tigers as pets, while Obama is a well-dressed wus – I don’t know what would. If you ever wondered where feminism in the study of international relations came from, there you go.

Russia is a bit outside my normal purview, but I’ve always had a running interest. I studied Russian in grad school and spent a few summers there learning the language. I enjoyed it a lot and like to think I am sympathetic. Like a lot of post-Soviet analysts, I find it tragic how badly misgoverned Russia has been for so long – literally back to Ivan the Terrible. Russia has so much human capital; if only it was governed properly, it could be a serious emerging market player like China. But instead its one megalomaniac czar after another – whether they be imperial, Soviet, or Putin – wrecking the economy for their own vanity and nationalist unwillingness to accommodate the West.

Putin would rather posture and bluster like a bully on the school parking lot than whip Russia into shape. Everyone knows what’s needed – real elections, press freedom, an anti-corruption campaign, and so on. But I guess if Western analysts say these things, the ‘Russian’ way for Putin must be to do the opposite. So we’re back to 19th century ‘Dostoyevskyan’ images of Russia as an Orthodox, anti-western nationalist power with a unique mission (read it for yourself, then compare it to Alexander Nevsky). That may sate the ideological cravings for global status of Russia’s nationalists, but it won’t help Russia rival the West in the medium-term, will scare non-Russians along Russia’s borders, especially Muslims, and will not impress Beijing, which long ago learned how to profit from globalization and capitalism (while corruption is destroying Russia).

Here’s that essay after the jump:

My September Diplomat Essay: “After Six Years, Is there an Obama Doctrine? Kinda, Sorta”


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This is a re-post of a piece I just published at The Diplomat this week. And that picture is Clausewitz. I attended a strategy training seminar this past summer at Columbia (apply for it if you’re in a PhD track; it’s excellent). So this stuff has been on my mind a lot recently. And what would a blog about security be without ostentatiously name-dropping Clausewitz once in awhile so I look smart?

Actually I am kind of skeptical of these big ‘doctrinal’ or ‘grand strategy’ statements. Is it really even possible to burn down the complexities of US foreign policy all over the world into some kind of pithy statement, or a few paragraphs? I doubt that is even possible. I suppose if you are a micro-state like Panama or Tuvalu, these exercises are manageable. But for large states like the US, I think it is easy for such debates to become scholastic, how-many-angels-can-dance-on-a-pinhead sorts of things. And frequently, these sprawling, meta-statements fly out the window when events don’t follow the ‘strategic’ guidelines or expectations. This has certainly been the case in dealing with North Korea, where I have repeatedly defended the Obama line of ‘strategic patience’ against the critique that its lacks a ‘strategy.’ Just look at how many big ideas for dealing with North Korea have crashed and burned. It makes one wonder what the point is at all. Keeping deterrence firm and not getting rooked by the Norks is pretty good without elaborate, fanciful power-points on to disarm the KPA in 20 years.

So give Obama break. The most important thing is making the world a little more liberal, a little more democratic, a little more capitalist from presidency to presidency. There is no huge need for some major, complex intellectual edifice for that, because events will often invalidate anything more detailed than that. Just look at how President Bush more from anti-Clintonian realist to uber-Wilsonian democracy promoter overnight. Ultimately, it is US behavior that matters, not some paragraphs in the NSS that only Washington think-tankers read.

Anyway, here’s that essay:

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My Lowy Debate on whether the US should Retrench from South Korea, part 2: No


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This is a re-up of the second part of a couplet I wrote for the Lowy Institute on whether the US should retrench from South Korea. Part one is here; the original Lowy version of part 2 is here. And that pic is me doing what I really went to North Korea for…

My friend Dave Maxwell responded to part one by suggesting that I am not really laying out core US realist or national interests in Korea. Instead I got sidetracked going after liberal internationalists and neocons over the alliance and interventionism. Here is his reply. He says I come down on the side of retrenchment. Hmmm…

First, if you don’t know Dave’s work on Korea, you should. Go follow his blog. He’s way better on Korean security than I am. For example, his piece on a possible insurgency in post-unification north Korea is really valuable. I can’t think of anything else on that topic. Until I had read it, I must admit that I hadn’t really even thought of that scenario.

In response, I guess I would say that I am not sure what direct national interest the US has in ROK security today. I get it that South Korea is a liberal democracy facing off against the worst tyranny ever. But that’s a liberal argument, not a realist one. And I get it that North Korea is horrible, worse-than-1984 state which we should push into the dustbin of history as soon as possible. But that’s also a liberal/humanitarian argument.

I also get it that South Korea is important for the US position in Asia and dealing with/hedging/containing (or whatever it is we’re doing with) China. But that’s more a neocon argument in which US hegemony, instantiated in our global basing network, is an end itself. But if hegemony means allied free-riding (see: NATO) and getting chain-ganged into conflicts with states like North Korea or China, then realists would say hegemony should be scaled back, because it is not serving the national interest. American hegemony is only valuable if it serves the national interest; it is not an end in itself. (Daniel Larison makes this argument a lot.)

Finally, I get it too that a North Korean destruction of South Korea would be a horrible tragedy, a humanitarian nightmare, a boon to autocrats and tyrants everywhere, give new life to the worst regime on earth, and so on. But those reasons are so big and ‘metaphysical’ that they violate the realist demand that the national interest be something direct, tangible, immediate, and so on. It cannot credibly be the purpose of US foreign policy to stop tyranny or humanitarian catastrophes everywhere in the world. However morally attractive, that’s a sisyphean task that means perpetual war by the US all over the planet. This was thrust of Bush’s soaring second inaugural – which just about everyone derided immediately as an impossible flight of crusading fancy.

So, what, exactly, are the US national interests in South Korean security? North Korea is not going to invade the US. The Cold War is over, so South Korea is not a domino about to fall as communism chews its way through the Free World. South Korea doesn’t export anything that the US absolutely has to have, like oil which keeps the US tied to the Persian Gulf no matter how much we want to get out. There’s no anti-American terrorism problem out here.

And I don’t say all this to be testy or contrarian. My own gut-feeling is to keep the US in Korea – probably because I think North Korea is just about the worst place on earth. I am open to being convinced on this, and I kinda want to be. I imagine a lot of people instinctually feel the same way. But that’s not a replacement for clear, obvious need for us to be here. As I said in part one, this is the big hole in the conversation. We’re in the Middle East because of oil and terrorism. We’re in the Caribbean littoral states, because they’re our neighbors, and their problems become our problems. We’re in Japan, because China is a genuine emergent hegemonic challenger to the US. But Korea? I’m not sure. Even the reasons given in this post below are kinda vague, nothing is as crystalline as, say, helping Mexico defeat its super-violent drug cartels so that they don’t penetrate the US.

So give me your best shot. I’m open to it.

The essay follows the jump:

My Lowy Debate on whether US should Retrench from South Korea, part 1: Yes


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This is a re-up of a debate couplet on the US position in South Korea, which I wrote for the Lowy Institute. Part one, the reasons for US retrenchment, is here (and below); part 2, the arguments against a US departure, is here. And that pic is me and my North Korean minder at the North Korea side of the DMZ. Note the KWP pin above his breast pocket.

Whether the US should stay or go is a perennial issue, that surprisingly, doesn’t get discussed much. This is probably because if you really supported a US withdrawal, you would not be taken seriously in much of US or Korean foreign policy establishments. US foreign policy is dominated by a hawkish, interventionist consensus of neocons and liberal internationalists for whom the US positions in Japan and Korea have become ends in themselves as symbols of US hegemony (in neocon-speak, that’s read as: ‘global basing means we’re f****** awesome!’). In tandem, the Korean discussion, for all its lazy anti-Americanism, assumes a permanent American presence to the point of irresponsibility. But all this misses the real hole at the center – the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the North Korean conventional threat (and before you say, ‘heh wait, they could blow up Seoul,’ recall that South Korea easily has the resources to ramp up in a big way; it just doesn’t do it).

The essay starts after the jump:

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My August Diplomat Essay: Can China Legitimate its Would-Be Hegemony?


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This is a re-up of an essay I wrote at the Diplomat a few weeks ago. Basically, I ask if China can find a way to pull its neighbors into a cooperative project in east Asia, or if Chinese hegemony is just going to be a regional despotism. It is increasingly likely that China will resume its place at the top of east Asian pile, as it was before the Opium Wars. This unnerves everyone, but this is probably unstoppable, unless the US and Japan wage some kind of preventive war on China, or unless China’s neighbors work closely to contain it for a lengthy period of time. Neither is likely. Japan might give China a run for its money, if Abe can get Japan moving again, but China is pulling away so fast, that this would be a tough climb (not that Japan shouldn’t try).

So if Chinese regional hegemony seems increasingly likely, how will China govern it? Will it just be an exploitative tyrant like the USSR was in Eastern Europe? Or will it try to tie in the locals to a structure where they have some rights and voice opportunities, like the Roman Empire or the old Chinese tribute system? I predict this will be the big question in Chinese foreign policy in about 20 year, and the signs so far are not encouraging:

My Lowy Post: Relax (again), Japan is Not ‘Re-Militarizing’


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If there is any one trope in Korean and Chinese international relations writing I don’t like, it is the causal, constant, angry insistence on reading Japan as always ‘remilitarizing.’ In just about everything I read by Korean and Chinese authors on northeast Asia this is repeated relentlessly, as a truism, and usually in the worst possible normative light: not only is Japan ‘remilitarizing,’ it also apparently has neo-imperial designs on Asia.

Sorry, Koreans and Chinese, but this is just not true, not at all really. Note for example, that Japan always seems to be in the process of re-militarizing in this manner of writing. It is never actually done doing so; it’s constant and insidious. No matter what Japan does on national security, it always is described as re-militarizing. Apparently Japanese remilitarization has been going on for decades; which is another way of saying it isn’t really happening at all. Note too, that no one ever seems to remark on Japan’s paltry defense spending or systemic dependence on the US military. So this is just silly boilerplate; it’s far more about Korean and Chinese nationalist dislike for Japan than any real empirical trend. But since it gets repeated so often, and seems to be taken for granted by just about everyone in Korea and China, it is worth laying out in some detail why is is bunk.

The essay below the jump is re-post of this essay for the Lowy Institute in Australia.

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