Here is part one of my thoughts on the US-Korea alliance after President Lee’s visit last week.
First, despite the invitation from Congress, Americans know very little about Korea compared to allies like Canada, Britain, or Israel. Americans usually see Korea’s geopolitics through the prism of North Korea and the ‘axis of evil.’ The Tea Party movement especially takes a rigidly ideological-neoconservative view of Korea as the ‘frontline of freedom,’ and Sarah Palin notoriously needed to be taught, as vice-presidential candidate, why there are two Koreas. While this doctrinaire view of Korea as a black-white, good-evil contest may suit South Korean conservatives, a neocon-ideological reflex should not be mistaken for deep local or cultural knowledge of Korea. Far more US congressmen have visited Israel than Korea, and how many Americans have you met who can speak Korean? Previous liberal governments of Korea kept some distance from the US for fear that American neo-cons would instrumentalize South Korea to the ‘freedom agenda,’ pull SK into ideologically-driven conflicts like Iraq, and unnecessarily raise tension with the North. Binding oneself too close to the US in foreign policy carries the risk of getting ‘chain-ganged’ into America’s periodic bouts of ‘democratic imperialism.’
Second, the US is flirting with national bankruptcy. This will have dramatic impacts on all its alliances, not just in Korea. In my teaching and public speaking in Korea, I find Koreans disturbingly unaware of just how bad America’s financial situation really is. The US is now borrowing 40¢ of every dollar it spends. The deficit is $1.5 trillion (160% of SK’s entire GDP); the debt is almost $10 trillion; the IMF predicts America’s debt-to-GDP ratio will exceed 100% by the end of the decade; China owns 1/3 of the US debt; US national security spending tops $1.2 trillion, 25% of the budget and 7% of GDP. These are mind-boggling figures that all but mandate at least some US retrenchment from its current global footprint, including perhaps, by not necessarily limited, to Korea.
Unless the US citizenry is willing to except a noticeably lower standard of living, including major cuts in popular welfare-state programs like Medicare, then the burden of the necessary cuts to fix America’s finances will eventually include defense. By almost any definition, the US is overstretched – fighting too many wars for too long and borrowing far too much money. ‘Empire’ is very expensive, and soon American voters will be forced to choose between it and the welfare-state, between guns and butter.
In this regard, the recent Libyan conflict should be instructive. It is a good example of what war in the age of austerity and US budget constraints will look like. US public opinion was deeply hesitant for yet another conflict, so Obama could only provide air support and quickly abjured leadership to NATO. Former Secretary of Defense Gates said before he left office that ‘any future secretary of defense who recommends sending a big US army into Asia or Africa again should have his head examined.’ These sorts of hints should tell Koreans (and Iraqis, Afghans, Israelis, etc.) that America can’t/won’t fight big land wars in Asia for awhile. Yet NK is a far more capable opponent than Gaddafi or the Taliban; the war on terrorism would pale in comparison to an intra-Korean war. What if America could only provide air power, because US banks are suffering from a slow-motion crisis similar to Europe’s today or the Lehman collapse of 2008? What if China, which funds so much of US borrowing, suddenly pulls the plug as US involvement in a war on its border deepens?
Third, Korea needs the US a lot more than the US needs Korea – which means that resolutely unacknowledged US relative decline is the real backstory to Lee’s triumph in Washington. Unlike the US, middle-power Korea has dismal geopolitics – surrounded by large neighbors who have periodically bullied it, and bordered by an unpredictable rogue. Weak, encircled countries as diverse as Poland, Paraguay, and Zaire have seen themselves plundered and divided, so the US alliance is good way for small Korea to get some leverage in its tight space. But this will fade, not just as American power recedes from Asia under massive budgetary pressure, but because Korea is no longer central to American security. The Cold War is over. Today, a NK defeat of SK, while a local tragedy, would not dramatically impact American security. I don’t mean to sound cold; a NK victory would be a humanitarian catastrophe. But the gap between US and SK security is an important truth not often admitted and behind the deeply disturbing statistic that only 40% of Americans want to fight for SK even if it is attacked by NK (p. 6 here). That number should stop the presses, but everyone ignores it. This ‘asymmetric dependence’ is very obviously the reason behind Lee’s visit, Korea’s willingness to go to Iraq, and the astonishing interest in Korea in English and the US. While American public does in fact obsess over Israeli security, small as it is, the Korean alliance has weaker, more ideological, and less tribal, roots in US popular opinion.
None of this means the alliance will break soon, but the strong elite consensus for it should not be mistaken for a deep American popular commitment (p. 6 here), as there is to, for example, Canada, Britain, or Israel. In the next decade, America’s political and financial dysfunction will force a painful prioritization of US foreign policy. Commitments like Germany, Iraq, Afghanistan, Korea, and others will be deeply scrutinized, and no amount of Korean-American friendship will undo a $10 trillion debt.
NB: Here is the new SecDef saying we won’t pull out of the Pacific. I hope so, but no one seems to want to talk about the money…
NB2: Here is a far more believable account of America’s future troubles projecting force into Asia, with even worse numbers than I present above.
NB3: If you think Korea can/should help the US contain China, try this. More and more I would expect Korea to market itself to the US in this, especially given those poll numbers on NK.