70th Anniversary of the Korean War: North Korea isn’t Going Anywhere; It’s Pretty Stable (Unfortunately)


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This is a re-post of my contribution to The National Interest’s recent essay round-up on the 70th anniversary of the Korean War. (My essay here; the full symposium here.)

My argument, in brief, is that North Korea is actually quite stable. Hence the answer to the symposium question – would Korea be re-unified by 2025 – is a resounding ‘no.’ Here is a brief Twitter thread which summarizes my argument.

North Korea faces little pressure internally – Kim has consolidated power quite nicely; elites are quiescent; there’s never been a popular revolt – and externally – China is unwilling to cut NK off; nukes give NK deterrence against regime change. The sanctions are tough, but Northern elites have been pushing the costs of them onto their population for decades. They won’t bring down or substantially change the DRPK system.

So we are stuck. We can try to negotiate, and we should, but the last few years’ flailing shows how hard that is. The stalemate is quite persistent.

The full essay follows the jump:

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Trump’s Impeachment is Good for US Foreign Policy


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This essay is a local re-post of my essay for the Lowy Institute for this month.

In brief, I argue that Trump, for all his bluster and chaos, has not actually moved the US foreign policy consensus that much. So if he is impeached, we’ll likely get a ‘snap-back’ to more traditional liberal internationalist positions. That would broadly be a good thing, but for the over-interventionism of the traditional foreign policy community. Trump’s departure would mean the end of idiocy like undercutting the World Trade Organization or the Universal Postal Union, attacking US allies, throwing friends like the Kurds under the bus, and cozying up to dictators like Kim Jong Un.

Trump is too uninformed, impulsive, and erratic to represent any kind of meaningful critique of foreign policy liberalism. Some of his supporters try, but it’s most been in vain. There’s no coherent Trump Doctrine, just whatever suits his fancy or serves his political purposes at the time. Nor has Trump created an alternative foreign policy community to the current one. As POTUS, Trump is hugely influential in that community, but he’s leaving no lasting mark because he’s too incoherent and, well, dumb. So if he’s impeached, it’s back to what was, because there is no serious Trumpian alternative.

The full essay follows the jump:

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More on Whether the US will Make Commensurate Concessions to North Korea to get a Nuclear Deal? How about Buying the Program?


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This is a local re-post of an essay I wrote a couple weeks ago for The National Interest. It is an extension of this first essay.

That original essay explored why the US will have to make concessions to North Korea if it wants a nuclear deal. The North Koreans aren’t stupid, and CVID is tantamount to unilateral disarmament for nothing. So if we really want them to give up at least some of the nukes and missiles – they won’t give up all – then we have to give them something of commensurate value. That seems pretty obvious at this point, no matter how much official Washington won’t even discuss counter-concessions.

I see two things we can give them: a) a boatload of money, or b) the retrenchment of US strategic assets from South Korea. Or we can give them nothing and try to adapt to a nuclear North Korea. I would rank these choices as: buy them (bad); live with nuclear missilized NK, ie, accept the new status quo (worse); swap them for a tangible US regional strategic assets like bases or airwings (worst).

So this essay argues why buying out as much of their program as we can is better than nothing or giving up local assets. The last is a particularly terrible idea, because once we leave, we’ll never come back. That’s what happened after the US left the Philippines in the 1980s. Even if we said we could flow back into Korea easily, the actual removal of US hard, tangible assets, like the bases in the pic above, would basically be decoupling/abandonment in all but name. It would dramatically soften the alliance.

So, for as ugly as it sounds to pay them off like its blackmail – and the Kims are nothing if not gangsters – that strikes me as better than the two alternatives.

The full essay follows the jump:

If South Korea Wants a Cold War with Japan, Trump Won’t Stop It


shutterstock_1042795348This is a re-post of an essay I wrote a few weeks ago for the Lowy Institute. I am also happy to say that I was translated into Japanese, here.

So everyone knows that South Korea and Japan are having another spat – this time over compensation of Korean forced labor during the Imperial period. Korean courts have opened the door for lawsuits, while Japan continues to insist that all such claims were resolved at the time of normalization treaty. Korean officials I’ve talked with tell me that there is nothing the government can do. This is coming from the courts. I find that highly unlikely given the extreme presidentialization of the South Korean constitutional order and regular POTROK flouting of checks-and-balances.

But my concern here is that the  South Korean push on Japan on yet another issue will not lead to pushback. Trump doesn’t care about this stuff. He’s racist, dislikes allies, and gets most animated when telling them to pay more. SK conservatives, who have traditionally slowed the march to a precipice with Japan, are out of power. And Abe is burned out on this issue (‘Korea fatigue’).

So if the South Korean left genuinely wants a breach with Japan, and a slide into a cold war over Dokdo/Takeshima, Sea of Japan/East Sea, comfort women, labor reparations, and so on, then they’ll get it this time. This is very worrisome, but also a ‘useful’ social science natural experiment moment: we will learn just how far the South Korean left is willing to go on Japan, because the traditional brakes are not there this time.

The full essay follows the jump…

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Annihilation without Representation: Do S Korea & Japan have a Veto over Action against N Korea?


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This is a local re-post of an essay I wrote for The National Interest this month. The TNI editors gave it the very helpful title, “The True Danger of the North Korea Crisis: It Could Cost American Its Allies.” That is exactly right. If the US strikes North Korea without getting the consent of South Korea and Japan, they will exit the alliance. Why stay when your ally jeopardizes potentially millions of your citizens and doesn’t even get your permission? And this would have a huge demonstration effect on other US allies too. Now you know that Trump thinks you’re expendable. Why would you stay?

So to me, that is the big question going forward: Will Trump even bother to call the South Koreans and Japanese before he strikes? He couldn’t be bothered to appoint an ambassador to South Korea, and presidenting is pretty hard. So hey, why bother? Fox and Friends is on…

The full essay is below the jump:

Bombing North Korea would be a War of Choice


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This essay is a re-post of a piece I wrote earlier this month for The National Interest. It is an extension of the arguments a made earlier in the month, that North Korea is not in fact an existential threat to the United States. And that wonderfully scary photo is courtesy, naturally, of the Chosun Ilbo.

In brief, my argument is that the US has the ability to survive a North Korean nuclear attack, and therefore, we do not need to threat-inflate North Korea into some state-breaking threat to the United States. It is not. North Korea is dangerous enough without scaring the crap out of people unnecessarily. Killing a lot of Americans is not the same thing as bringing down the Constitution, and too many Trump officials are eliding that critical distinction. Strategic bombing has yet to bring down a country, and there is no reason to think the US is different. We do not need to bomb North Korea because it is on the cusp of destroying the American way of life. It could not do that even if it wanted to, which it does not. So an air campaign would still be a war of choice, no matter how much fire-breathing rhetoric you hear from Trump, Dan Coats, or Bolton.

The full essay follows the jump.

US-South Korea Alliance Survived Presidential Partisan Differences Before


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This is a local re-post of an op-ed I wrote this month for The National Interest. There’s been a minor freak-out on the right since Moon Jae In got elected. He’s a communist; he’s gonna sell out SK to Pyongyang; the alliance with America might break. Good grief. Enough with the hyperventilating. Even if he was a communist at heart, he couldn’t govern that way because he only won 41% of the vote. He doesn’t have the political space to govern as some far lefty. And realistically, he’s just a social democrat: he wants to raises taxes, expand the public sector labor force, and clean up the air. That’s hardly a marxist revolution.

I do think that there is a possibility of a real split at the top though. It is easy to see Trump and Moon loathing one another. So this essay notes how previous US and SK presidents of different political beliefs stumbled through. The short version is that there is a lot of depth to the US-SK alliance. So much actually, that it almost makes presidential changes irrelevant, which is not exactly democratic if you think about it. But the point is, that the alliance will likely survive.

The full essay follows the jump:

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Does Secretary of Defense Mattis Speak for President Trump, and Co-President Bannon?


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This is a local re-post of an essay I wrote for the Lowy Institute earlier this month on US Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ trip to Japan and South Korea. It was your fairly typical meet-the-allies thing, but under Trump nothing is what it seems. In brief my argument is, why would US allies listen to SecDef when the president is this erratic and impressionable? What really matters, especially if Michael Flynn is on the way out, is what Steve Bannon, Trump’s very own Dr. Strangelove, thinks. Creepy. I still can’t believe this guy is POTUS.

The full essay follows the jump:

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Obama did about as well in E Asia as could be Expected: One Last Defense of Strategic Patience


I know the only thing people want to talk about now is Trump, but here is a parting review of Obama in Asia. I wrote this a few weeks ago for the Lowy Institute. All in all, I’d say he did about as well as you could expect.

Yes, he didn’t prevent North Korea from getting a nuclear weapon and missile, but no one knows how to do that barring kinetic action which is off the table because of South Korea’s ridiculous decision to place its capital, and allow it to flourish, just 30 miles from the border. And no he didn’t slow China’s rise, but no president could do that without kinetic action either. And that’s even crazier than bombing North Korea.

There are no good solutions to our challenges out here, just as there were none to communist power in the 1950s. Hawks calling for ‘toughness’ and ‘leadership’ should remember that rollback was a catastrophe (in the Korean War) that almost ignited WWIII. We then settled for hanging tough’ until communist power imploded, which it did. The contemporary Asian analogue of hanging tough is Obama’s ‘strategic patience.’ Everyone criticized it, but no one has a better option that isn’t hugely risky. So stop complaining about strategic patience until you’ve got a better, genuinely workable idea.

The full essay follows the jump.

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Restraint and Burden-Sharing to Revive US Alliances, not Tear Them Down


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This is a local re-post of an essay I published with The National Interest last month.

My concern is to separate the idea of greater US caution and self-discipline overseas from faux-complaint that this is ‘isolationism.’ Just because the US is more cautious in its use of force, or more demanding of its allies, doesn’t mean the US is abandoning them. Indeed, pushing them to do more, spend more, think more strategically about their own security is a way to revive US alliances, to make the US alliance framework less unipolar, richer. and more fully capable. I don’t see why this is so often derided as isolationism

Will Trump do this? Probably not. For a moment there, it seemed like he might embrace a foreign policy of restraint, but his hawkish cabinet picks and proposed DoD build-up suggest that is unlikely.

The full essay follows the jump.

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Year in Review, 2016: Top 5 Events of Northeast Asian Security


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If that thrilling post title doesn’t pull you away from It’s a Wonderful Life or Sound of Music, I don’t know what will.

This essay is a local re-post of my op-ed posted with the Lowy Institute this month. The pic is President-Elect Donald Trump in his first meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. It well captures what a banana republic amateur hour set will be running the US shortly, which makes Trump the number one Asian security story of the year. That is Trump with his daughter and son-in-law business partners, but no US-side translator or Japan expert, because heh, what really matters is getting Trump Tower Tokyo built…

My top 5 security events for the region in 2016 follow the jump, but honestly you’re probably a lot more interested in my picks for the worst TV show and movie of the year.

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US Election and Northeast Asia: Clinton’s Status Quo vs. the Great Orange Unknown


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This re-posts an essay I published today at the Lowy Institute. I tried to sketch a few possible futures for northeast Asia with these two candidates.

Basically it seems to me that Clinton is offering the status quo, which is intuitively attractive to Asian elites, while Trump offers who-knows-what. It is fairly established then that Asia’s democracies want Clinton to win, while its non-democracies want Trump, although honestly, I wonder if the Chinese might be having second thought given how much Trump seems to be itching for a trade war.

Trump is the interesting variable here, and his trade policies are the big unknown. Unraveling America’s alliances out here would be really hard. I doubt Trump has the stamina, focus, and attention to bureaucratic detail to tackle that. But on trade, he would enjoy a lot more sympathy, and he could really change (ie, wreak havoc) on US trade relations with Asia is he wants.

I’m just scratching the surface in this short essay. If you really want a deep dive, go to the Peterson Institute for International Economics’ blog on North Korea, which has provided a lot of such coverage in greater detail than I provide here. Go to the bottom of this post for extended commentary from Stephen Haggard and Marcus Noland.

My essay follow the jump.

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“The Curious Love-Hate Relationship between China and North Korea”


The following is a re-up of my monthly post for the Lowy Interpreter for June. The original is here.

The fissure between North Korea and China is widely noted, and Kim Jong Il supposedly told Madeleine Albright when she visited Pyongyang in 2000 that he’d rather have a deal with the US than with China.

That’s somewhat understandable actually. The US is too far away, both geographically and culturally to really dominate North Korea if the two managed to strike a deal. But dealing with China – right next door, bullying, opportunistic – must be tough. There’s nothing Beijing would like more than for North Korea to be like East Germany: a completely dependent, completely controlled satellite. So the North Korean nuclear program is a great idea: even as North Korea becomes an economic semi-colony of China, the nukes can prevent the loss of political sovereignty.

The full essay follows the jump.

My Take on Trump and Asia for Newsweek Japan: He’s Too Lazy to Push for Real Change, so Don’t Worry


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I write a monthly column for Newsweek Japan, and below is this month’s English original (on pages 36-37 of the edition pictured).

I haven’t written much about Trump, mostly because he says so little of value in my area, nor do I believe that he really means what he says, because he changes so often and puts so little thought into foreign policy.

So my first comment to Asians who ask is: relax, because even if he wins, he isn’t likely to push through some major geopolitical retrenchment, because of the effort that would take in Washington. Nor is he likely to spark a huge trade war with China for the same reason. The bureaucratic resistance would be massive, and I don’t buy it at all that Trump has the tenacity, focus, intelligence, or interest in any policy issue necessary to undo long-standing precedents such as the decades-old US engagement in Asia.

If Obama can’t get us out of the Middle East, do you really believe Trump will take us out of Asia? Forget it. Perhaps it is the teacher in me, but, like Regan, Bush 2, Palin, and Fox before him, Trump’s defining intellectual feature is laziness, and it will take a helluva lot of work to change the US architecture out here. So forget it. Instead, think about what Trump really cares about – his show-boating, made-for-TV image as manly, tough, a winner, and so on.

President Trump will spend all his time and energy chasing whatever the polls say voters want in a desperate effort to stay popular. What he will really use US government power for, where he will show genuine commitment and focus, is in pursuing his media enemies Nixon-style, and enhancing his business interests. In that sense, he will govern like the CPP or Putin – chasing after journalists, feathering his nest, changing laws and regulations that damage his businesses, and so on.

So don’t worry Asia. Trump is too intellectually lazy to learn, too uniformed to understand, and too narcissistic to care. Trump is a threat to the First Amendment and check-and-balances, not the American architecture in Asia.

My essay follows the jump.

Separating China from North Korea is Worth South Korea’s Silence on the South China Sea


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I got this map from here. Very useful. The article below was originally published at the Lowy Institute last week, here.

In short, I don’t mind too much that the Koreans aren’t engaged on the South China Sea freedom of navigation dispute, because keeping their mouths shut and schmoozing the Chinese is necessary to get China to finally cut North Korea loose, which in turn is the only way North Korea will ever collapse. This is why I have never thought much of the criticisms that President Park Geun-Hye is a ‘sinophile.’ If you were South Korea, you would be too. If you lived next to giant China, and they were permanently bailing out your mortal enemy, then sucking up to them (within limits) is a good idea. I am not a big fan of PGH, but she has really gotten the Beijing-Pyongyang nexus right that her predecessors did not. Let her keep flattering Xi Jinping.

So you say that SK is a US ally and they’re getting a free-ride on the US, and therefore they should be involved in the SCS. Fair enough, but think a few steps further out. Getting China to dump Pyongyang is way more valuable than a little more weight on the scales in the SCS. SK can’t add much there, but openly throwing in with the US and Japan on the SCS would push Beijing back to Pyongyang when PGH’s schmoozing and flattering of Xi Jinping has done so much to push them apart. That’s hugely valuable.

Remember that NK will not collapse until China cuts it off, and that NK’s collapse is vastly more valuable to everyone – US included – than one more minor voice in the SCS flap.

The full essay follows the jump.

Kim Ki Jong, likely a Nutball Lone Wolf ‘Terrorist’-wannabe, will have Zero Impact on US-Korea Relations


So it’s been a week since the US ambassador to Korea got attacked, and the consensus here is pretty much that he is a lonely nutball who drank too much Nork kool-aid. The South Korean police are investigating to see if he is connected to North Korea in any meaningful way. Apparently he went there a few times, but I find it highly unlikely that actually acted on orders or training he got in Pyongyang. The NK regime is not that suicidal, as an open attack on the US ambassador might well precipitate a US counter-strike.

I think it is pretty important to note that while lots of Koreans on the left are uncomfortable with the US presence and have even protested it (such as the candlelight vigils back in 2008), the mainstream Korean left does not call for anti-American violence or physical harm of Americans. The SK left may be too pro-Pyongyang – which is a big reason it keep losing elections; it really needs a Tony Blair/Bill Clinton-style centrist reformation – but its definitely not violent or revolutionary.

So forget about Kim – he’s likely more a loon than a revolutionary. Little will change.

The piece after the jump was originally written for the Lowy Interpreter here.

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My Top 5 List for 2014: 5 Biggest Foreign Policy Events for the US in Asia


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I love these hoky, end-of-the-year lists. But I don’t know much about genuinely interesting or cool stuff, like the top 5 classical music pieces or architectural masterpieces of the year. So before you read another list about the Kardashians’ top 5 lip glosses, or the 5 most repetitive comic movies of the year, here is an uber-wonky one that’s basically about the sustainability of the pivot.

I am constantly wondering whether the US can carry through on the ‘rebalance,’ whether we can actually shift out of the Middle East and Europe and pay more attention to the Asia-Pacific. I am skeptical, in part because I tend to see US commitments as opportunity costs of one another. In other words, if we are tangling with Putin or ISIS, then we don’t have much time for China or Maduro. But if you’re a neocon, then the pivot is no trouble. Getting involved in Asia doesn’t mean lessening commitments elsewhere, because the US should be globocop anyway, and US domestic expenses should be cut to fund to all this intervention.

The following post was originally put up at the Diplomat:

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 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 April: Unintended Consequences of US Alliances in Asia


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So this month for the Diplomat I wrote a speculative essay on US alliances in Asia – reposted below, original here. I think some people over-read it to mean that the US should leave Asia or that I endorse Chinese regional hegemony or whatever. I don’t. As I say in the piece, I still think the US presence is balance-positive, especially as China is moving from the ‘peaceful rise’ to capacious maritime claims off its east coast. Instead this was to be a thought experiment – an effort to tease out whether US regional alliances have negative impacts, given that almost all the discussion rather blithely assumes the opposite. I think the first possible downside suggested below – that China won’t cut North Korea loose until the US leaves Korea – is particularly strong and unsettling to the conventional wisdom. Ideally, this analysis would encourage thinking on mitigating these unintended side-effects.

Here is that essay. If you follow CSIS’ ‘PacNet’ series (which you should btw), a variant of this will come out there shortly:

“The conventional wisdom on US alliances in Asia, at least in the West, Japan, and Taiwan (but not necessarily in South Korea), is that they are broadly a good thing. One hears this pretty regularly from US officials and the vast network of US think-tanks and foundations like CSIS or AEI and their many doubles in Asia. US alliances, we are told, provide stability. They keep China from dominating the region. They hem in North Korea and defend the powerfully symbolic South Korean experiment in liberal democracy and capitalism. They prevent the nuclearization of South Korea and Japan and a spiraling regional arms race. In short, they re-assure.

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