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: