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 Op-Ed for the Korea Times on US-North Korea Relations: in short, They’re Awful


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That picture would be me and the “Great Chosun Leader, Comrade Kim Il Sung” (“위대한 조선 수령 김일성 동지,” as they told us to call him) in the Pyongyang subway. You’ll notice that the gold stature is nicer than the passing metro car (right) from the 1960s. That pretty much tells you what, and how awful, North Korea’s priorities are.

The Korea Times asked me to comment on North Korea’s relationship with the US as a part of its review of North Korea’s foreign relations. The original is here and re-printed below. My main theme is that most Americans are unwilling to accept the legitimacy of North Korea as a real, independent country like any other. Not only is it run as a orwellian gangster fiefdom which the world would loathe anyway, it should also be a part of a Southern-led, unified Korea.

Naturally, this worries the NK elite who in turn are hostile back to us. I suppose we could accept and recognize the permanent existence of North Korea, as the South Korean left would have us do, but I must admit I find normalization intolerable. The idea of coexisting with North Korea strikes me as deeply immoral, even if the cost of that attitude is near-permanent tension. I suppose North Korea is one of few global problems about which I am still a real hawk, but North Korea’s human rights record is so stupendously awful – the recent UN report on human rights in North Korea likened the place to the Nazi Germany for christ’s sake – that I just can’t take that leftist route of recognition.

Here’s that op-ed:

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My Lowy Essay for May: ‘Stop Fetishizing US ‘Credibility’ and ‘Red-Lines’’


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For the Lowy Institute this month, I wrote a response to this preposterously irresponsible and inflammatory Economist cover a few weeks ago. Normally I like the Economist a lot. I agree with their liberal economics and broad support for the advance of liberal democracy. I have written and spoken for the Economist Group and so on. But this cover is just neocon scaremongering. Does no one remember how just 5-10 years ago, everyone wanted American restraint and an end to ‘cowboy diplomacy’? Well that’s what you’ve got in Obama – caution, measured steps, no polarizing grand visions. The Euros even gave him a Nobel for that. But I guess managerialism is just too boring. If POTUS isn’t blustering about the end of history and the global triumph of liberty, then newspaper editors get twitchy and see ‘decline’ everywhere. Sigh…

Anyway, here’s the response essay:

The Economist this week stepped into the widening debate about US credibility provoked by Obama’s caution in the Middle East and (less so) East Asia. And unfortunately, like so many neocons and liberal internationalists, it seems unwilling to learn what should now, post-Iraq, be fairly obvious lessons about hegemonic over-extension and the fetishization of US ‘credibility’: Obama’s restraint and caution are not ‘weakness;’ he is not ‘abandoning’ the allies; constantly analogizing US intervention decisions to Munich or appeasement is pretty facile; constant US intervention erodes the public’s medium-term support for military action, breaks the US fiscus, and ignites local nationalist blowback.

There is already a pretty good response literature on this piece (Sullivan, Beinart, also here and this). I would just add a few points:

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My Diplomat Essay for May: ‘No, Crimea is Not a Model for Aggression in Asia’


The essay below is a local reprint of my essay for the Diplomat magazine this month.

The motivation was a lot of the panicky response in Asia after the Crimea annexation that something like that might happen in East Asia. I don’t really see that at all, to be honest. Sure Asia is dangerous – that China-Vietnam spat right now  is pretty hairy – but remember that East Asian conflicts are mostly over open, unpopulated sea-spaces whose economic value is minor or unproven. China taking the Paracels or Spratlys is not exactly an Anschluss. Is it bad? Of course. Should China be resisted? Absolutely. But China is not nearly as paranoid and thuggish – at least internationally – as Putin. So yes, if we have to contain China we can. I’ve argued that myself – so please don’t tell me I’m some panda-loving hippy. But we don’t need to rush to cast Crimea as some big lesson for Asia. Rising, prestige-accruing China is not declining, angry Russia, and the local circumstances – most obviously the lack of any Chinese irredentist claims – are pretty different.

Here’s that essay:

“Since the invasion of Crimea, there has been a lot of panicked talk that the annexation is re-defining international relations, violating established international law, throwing the post-WWII/post-Cold War order in Europe into chaos, and so on. Putin has been analogized to Hitler by no less than Hillary Clinton, and both Zbigniew Brzezinski and Madeleine Albright were quick to bring up the specter of the 1938 Munich conference. There has been a steady drum-beat from US conservatives that Obama is weak, appeasing, lacks resolve, and so on.

Some of this is true. Certainly ethnic irredentism smacks of Hitler’s ploy at Munich, but the implication of the ‘Munich analogy’ is that this is but a first step, unseen by weak, appeasing western statesmen, toward future invasions. This is almost certainly not true for Putin. The US and NATO are vastly more powerful than Russia, and without the rest of the old Soviet empire, there is no possible way Putin could launch a second cold war against an expanded NATO. Putin’s thuggery is more a local challenge to the European order and the European Union, a desperation move from panic and paranoia. We should not lose perspective.

So out of hand did this hawkish exaggeration of Crimea become, that a backlash set-in. Micha Zenko noted the obviously hypocrisy of US officials suddenly praising international rules and sovereign non-interference. Fred Kaplan noted how NATO does in fact retain the ability to defend itself. And Fareed Zakaria usefully reminded everyone that the ‘Long Peace’ and gradual decline in war violence are in fact real secular trends not debunked by one event.

This essay is a part of this response literature, but focused on Asia, where there has been a flurry of similarly exaggerated suggestion that Crimea could be a model of local aggression (here, here, and here – or here for the most egregious on Obama’s ‘capitulation’ in Asia). Unsurprisingly, much of this focuses on China, moving to take either the Senkaku/Diayou Islands or a strip of northern North Korea (the latter has been kicked around in the South Korean press). But much of this is hyperbole, some of it rather irresponsible. And a lot of it feels like US neoconservatives and defense hawks using Crimea as a political cudgel against a president they dislike and defense budget cuts they detest. Crimeas are apparently like Pleiku streetcars – wait long enough and you can always circle back to preferred arguments.

But it is far too early and the Crimean situation probably too unique for these conjectures. By way of illustration, consider this ‘what Crimea means for Asia’ piece by my friend Brad Glosserman of the influential Center for Strategic and International Studies. Brad argues:

1. Putin took Crimea, ergo realism is the ‘coin of realm in foreign policy’ and liberal theories on the decline of war are wrong. This is too simple. Crimea is one event; it has resulted in few casualties; it seems likely, in spite of the rigged poll, that a majority of Crimeans would prefer to belong to Russia; it is not at all clear that Russia’s army could sustain a serious occupation of even eastern Ukraine; a full-scale invasion would galvanize NATO overnight, and so on. By contrast, liberal theories of international politics continue to explain a lot – most obviously the very large democratic security community that reaches from eastern Europe all the way west and south to parts of east Asia and Australia. One event does not buck this well-documented trend.

2. ‘National identity matters’ in Asia. But few Asianists said it didn’t. It is well-known that Asian regionalism has broadly failed; that Asian elites and populations are statist and nationalist; that Asia is not going to integrate along EU lines, and so on. Realism does indeed have reasonable analytical purchase in Asia, but that does not mean realism can explain the above mentioned security community very well, or that east Asian statism means conflict. East Asia has been at peace since 1979, but realists and hawks have been predicting war there since the end of the Cold War. The Asian peace may be a ‘cold peace’ but has proven surprisingly durable. These inaccurate predictions should be admitted by those who want to ramp up the pivot and expect a major Sino-US competition.

3. China abstained on the UN Security Council Crimea vote; it is balancing the West with Russia. This is also too fast and a little slippery. China’s behavior on Senkaku is not as aggressive as the conventional wisdom suggests. China is extraordinarily dependent on Western export markets. There is little undisputed evidence that China and Russia are meaningfully working together. China probably abstained at the UN for the same reason everyone else is keeping their powder dry on Crimea: no one really knows what Putin is up to; no one knows how far he intends to push. Crimea was a big surprise to everyone, including to the hawks who are now claiming it is the natural outcome of Obama’s weakness.

4. Crimea could be a template for conflict in Asia, because it too has territorial disputes. This massages the regional differences too much. First, to even call Crimea a ‘model’ of conflict is to accord it far too much significance too soon. (To be fair, Brad does not actually use that term, but much of the Crimea-Asia writing in the last two months pushes in this direction.) Second, Asia’s territorial problems are not irredentism which underlay both the Munich and Crimean annexations. I know of no Chinese irredentist claims in East Asia; no one in China speaks of ‘liberating’ ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia, for example. (Taiwan might be considered Chinese irredentism if one really stretches the category, but that has long been a well-known issue.) Curiously, the only serious irredentist possibility in east Asia I can think of is Korean claims on northeast China. Korean history books teach that early Korean kingdoms stretched far north of the Yalu, and China and Korea have fallen into historiographic spats on this. But I know of no serious Korean politicians demanding Chinese territorial concessions there.

5. The move into Crimea means the US should re-double the Asian pivot. In fact, it likely says the opposite – that the US might be looking at a sustained stand-off with the Russians that will pull US resources into eastern Europe. Much of the security writing on East Asia assumes that the US is a source of stability and that Chinese power is a rising threat. This may indeed turn out to be the case, but it is also true that Asia has not had a major inter-state conflict since 1979 (China’s brief invasion of Vietnam). An alternative literature notes that Asian military expenditures are not nearly as high as US hawks would have you think and that Asia is much more stable than we realize. It may be that Asia under a bland, developmentalist Chinese oligarchy is more stable than eastern Europe menaced by a clownish, paranoid, prestige-seeking Putin. Again, we should not judge so rapidly. Particularly, we must be careful not cast China too quickly into the role of the regional villain like Germany 1914 or the USSR 1945. That is not clear yet.

The realist-hawk-neocon take on east Asia may indeed turn out to be right (this is probably the best statement of that case). But it is far too early to jump to large conclusions on Crimea’s ‘demonstration effect’ in Asia. China has a very long and well-known record of defending sovereignty. It is likely that the Chinese are upset with Putin’s open violation with this principle. They likely abstained on the Crimea vote to avoid giving the West a ‘win’, but it would be an extraordinary volte-face in Chinese foreign policy if Beijing were to suddenly endorse the rewrite of borders by force. Senkaku and the South China Sea dispute are not strong counter-evidence either. Both are nearly empty maritime spaces. China’s claims on them are indeed capacious and should be resisted, but they are far less threatening than Crimea, which was the annexation of a developed, populated land-space. Again, Asia’s cold-peace, while cold, may be more stable than we usually think.

So if Crimea encourages US allies in Asia to take their own defense a little more seriously, then so much the better. But there is little evidence to date that China (or anyone else in Asia) has picked up a ‘Crimea model.’ Conversely, there is a lot of evidence that US hawks and neoconservatives deeply dislike Obama, remain strongly committed to US hegemony, and will use events to support that. Let’s go a little more slowly…”

My CSIS-PacNet Newsletter on US Alliances in Asia: Balance-Positive, but Downsides should be Admitted Too


So I wrote my first article for CSIS the other day – for their PacNet series on Asia-Pacific issues. If you aren’t on the PacNet list-serve already, you probably should be. They have pretty good reach, and they manage to get a lot of good people to write for them – so who knows how I got a call. My thanks to the editor, Brad Glosserman for soliciting me.

This essay (below the jump) is a tweaked version my original essay for the Diplomat. The argument is the same, only Brad made it a little sharper and more pointed than in the original. So here I will take a moment to respond to some of the ‘you’re-appeasing-the-Chinese’ comments I have gotten. The point of the essay is not to suggest that the US should leave Asia. Instead,

1) We (Americans) should realize there are unintended consequences to our actions out here. I think we sometimes miss that due our nationalist blinders that an American presence in the world is an automatic good. It is almost always mixed, as we should know by now with our up-down involvement in the Middle East. This tries to illustrate that.

2) The good things that America is supposedly bringing to Asia are almost never measured. They are just assumed under a miasma of American exceptionalist awesomeness: we are awesome, therefore our presence is Asia is good for them. Instead of assuming in classic American Whig fashion, that all good things go together, how about a little more modesty?

So, yes, if your black/white alternative vision for Asia is Chinese regional hegemony, then US East Asian regional hegemony is great. Until China liberalizes/democratizes, we should probably stay, and that is probably a good thing. I agree that China is sort of a threat against which we should be hedging. (But Dave Kang makes an argument that China’s neighbors’ military spending does not actually suggest they see China as a big threat.) But, there might alternatives to a big militarized pivot and tacit cold war with China. Maybe some kind of concert with China, Japan, India and Australia, plus smaller powers, can be arranged. Also, we need a way to prevent East Asian allies (and ‘shadow-allies’ like Indonesia or Vietnam) from free-riding on us too much. (NATO free-riding is very severe and is crippling the response to Crimea, so it is actually pretty important to get US Asian allies to step-up.) I am not yet convinced that these alternatives to a Sino-US cold war are impossible – hence this essay. But yes, Chinese behavior in the East and South China Seas gives me pause too. It is hard to know the right way forward here.

Here is that CSIS essay:

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