Korean National Identity (1): Comparisons to Israel, France, and the US



Part two is here.

I get lots of questions from Western readers about this or that aspect of Korea in comparison. We don’t really know about Korea too much, but Americans often use it as an example for some larger political point they want to make. Here are a just few examples: 1) Obama: SK is kicking our butt on education and tech; 2) Obama: SK is an example of a country that modernized but didn’t westernize; 3) Michael Crichton and Amy Chua: SKs and other East Asians are work robots who will take over America and cost your kids a job; 4) John Bolton: Long-suffering SK gives us an excuse to stomp on NK.

Of these, I really think only the second is valid. A few years here can rebut the others without too much trouble:

1) Korea has huge educational problems that Americans don’t really know about. After taking insanely difficult tests in high school in order to place into a good universities, Korean college students often slack and party as a ‘reward.’ Too much of university here is about building the informal social network that will carry you through your professional life and not actually clamping down to do the work. Korean students are also not the readers that college education demands, which is why they often struggle in US graduate programs. And far too much of K-12 is focused on rote memorization, so plagiarism is a huge problem. Also, in case you ever wonder why Korea is so wired (which Koreans love to brag about), recall that Koreans live in very dense urban clusters, frequently in high rises. These are very cheap to wire, compared to the far more diffused American population and the high expense of the US ‘last mile.’ (That said, my broadband here is awesome and is about to get even better.)

3) As for Crichton and Chua, gimme a break. America’s inability to balance its budget, control its imperial temptations in the developing world, fix its K-12 schooling mess, reduce hyper-inequality and high crime, etc. are the reasons for US ‘decline.’ Asians like the Japanese, Koreans, or Singaporeans don’t have some magical growth formula. I will agree that East Asians are better ‘socially disciplined’ (crime here is mercifully low), but not the way Amy Chua’s ridiculously racist domestic fascism would have you think. I’ve been here close to 4 years, and I have never seen anything like what Chua describes in the Korean side of my family. As for the ‘Asians-as-work-robots’ idea so popular in the US in the 80s and 90s, once you’ve experienced the East Asian post-work business culture of hard drinking and debauchery, you know that’s bunk too. I have seen enough Korean ‘salary men’ lean out taxi windows on Friday night to vomit while the driver waits complacently to know that the whole ‘Asian values’ schtick is a fraud.

4) Bolton: I resent the way neo-cons manipulate SK unhappiness about national division to suit pre-existing ideological preferences for regime change and US military activism. This is cloying, pretended sympathy in service to American, not Korean, goals; that’s extreme bad faith. I have noted before that SK want nothing to do with ‘Axis-of-Evil’ talk.

Given this mediocre record of popular comparison, here are a few comparative classifications of SK with countries western audiences might recognize better. Compare and contrast is a basic social science method. And comparative politics in political science is always looking for similarities among states on which to build generalization. So here are the ones that have leapt out to me:

1. Like Israel, Korea is a barracks democracy striving for international normalcy. Both are democracies but under long-term siege. Both would like to join the global economy, get rich and be normal, but can’t. Both struggle to maintain civil liberties in an threatening environment with inevitable slippage. Korea, for example, blocks internet access to NK websites; in Israel, Israeli Arabs can’t join the military. Both are trapped in partial or incomplete states. Korea is half a country, and Israel’s borders are up for debate. Both are too militarized for a democracy, but still, they are doing a really good job balancing a huge military role in society with democratic freedoms. By comparison, look at simlarly over-militarized democracies like Indonesia, Pakistan, or Turkey.

2. a. Like France, Korea has aloof, farily corrupted political class in a too-cozy, corporatist relationship with business. Both also have weak political parties and weak legislatures. So voting doesn’t really make much difference; political participation looks for other avenues.  As a result, both have a vibrant street protest tradition. Working for serious change within the system feels pointless because of an entrenched, circulating elite, toothless opposition, close party-state relationship, and a bureaucracy rather insulated from popular pressure. So when Koreans and French are most angry, they turn to extra-parliamentary means. They march on the streets. Immobilist, scandal-ridden politics channels real political grievance onto the streets.

b. Also like France, Korea is extremely centralized on the national capital. Seoul dominates Korean life, vacuuming up talent, wealth, and prestige from around the country. The goal of just about everyone is to go ‘up’ to Seoul, whether for school, the best jobs, or the best cultural life. You even see it among the expats. Even we foreigners in Busan say we wish we had a Seoul gig! And, as Paris does to the provinces, the rest of Korea is impoverished by this.

c. Finally, both Korea and France are semi-presidential systems. Both have a tradition of a megalomanical ‘father of the nation’ who created a super-presidential post above ‘grubby’ politics. In France, de Gaulle directed the ship of state from a constitution he set up for his own personal benefit as the living embodiment of France. In SK, Park Chung-Hee did the same thing. In both countries though, political institutions are weaker than you’d think because of their ‘great man’ origins. Eventually a succession must occur – no one lives forever – and both France and SK have struggled to tame the office of the president and build more routinized, democratic institutions open to the public. To date, France has succeeded better. Korea remains a very presidentialized semi-presidential system. Ironically, that may help Korea, because the rise of the prime minister in French semi-presidentialism has effectively created a bifurcated executive, particularly when the PM and president have different party affiliations. In Korea, the reduction of the PM to essentially the first cabinet minister has helped unify its executive.

3. The cultural gap between the West and East Asia is wider than the between the West and Latin America, Russia, or even the Middle East. In terms of food, music, religion, and language, the differences are far greater. So it is therefore all the more surprising how Americanized Korea is. English is everywhere – in the schools, on street signs, music, TV. Its institutions, especially military ones, are heavily patterned on the US; until 1981, the Korean version of the CIA was even called – the KCIA! Today there is still the K-FDA. Koreans watch lots of American TV and film. They eat our fast food and junk food (and are getting heavier for it). And they are beginning to pick up the American culture wars. They fight increasingly over stuff like abortion and the death penalty as we do. Korean evangelicals (yes, they are here too) even say that God has a special mission for the US no less! (Now that really is brainwashing.) My own personal guess for why Korea is so Americanized, is that if Korea can close the cultural distance between it and the US, the US is more likely to honor its alliance commitment and fight for SK. In other words, cultural Americanization is a national security strategy to reduce the ‘otherness’ of Korea to average Joe American, in order that he will agree to fight here. Kinda smart if you think about it.

Don’t push any of these analogies too far, but Obama mentioned Korea five times in the 2011 State of the Union, so I thought this might help.

Continue to part two.

The Korean-German Unification Parallel; plus Blackwater … the Game?

Quick IR test: name that dictator!

Regular readers will know that I have blogged about the parallels between Germany and Korea at length before: here and here. This week the Korean Journal of Defense Analysis published the long-form version of my argument. It is available here for free in PDF. KJDA is a great little publication in east Asian security is your area, and it is offered for free too. Very nice.

Comments on the argument are always welcome. I thought because everyone always implicitly compares NK to EG, and possible Korean unification to Germany’s experience, it would help to formalize the comparison at length. The bumper sticker version is that NK is about 10x poorer than EG, so unification will be way harder and more expensive than the German experience.

A foreign IR professor in Seoul argued to me that starting from the German analogy is an error, perhaps one that is flattering and preferred by Koreans because it turned out so well. A better parallel might be Yemen’s reunification, which worked out far less well. That seems pretty harsh to me. SK is a lot more like WG that either of the Yemens. For other comparison cases to Korean unification, try this.

Here is the summary section from the PDF:

To recap, domestically, there are more North Koreans than East Germans,
and they are much poorer as well. There are fewer South Koreans than West Germans,
and they are (albeit less so) less wealthy also. South Korea’s state capacity is lower
than West Germany’s, while North Korea today is dismal by even the former East
Germany’s standards. In sum, fewer people with less wealth in a weaker system will
support more people with less wealth from a worse system. That domestic calculation
is punishing, on top of which the international balance of forces is worse now than
in 1989 too.

Internationally, today’s external patron (the United States) of the free Korean
half is weakening, while the external patron of the communist half (China) is
strengthening. The opposite was true of the United States and West Germany, and
the USSR and East Germany, in 1989. Today’s northern patron (China) is trying to
push further into the continent (Asia), while yesterday’s eastern patron (USSR) was
looking for an exit (from central Europe). Nor is there is a regional encouragement,
revolutionary wave, or democracy zeitgeist that might accelerate the process. The
incentives for China to meddle (because of the greater importance of North Korea to
China, than of East Germany to the USSR) and the greater ease of such meddling
(because the United States and South Korea today are weaker than the United States
and West Germany were then, while China is much stronger today than the USSR
was then) mean Chinese intervention is likely. It will almost certainly seek to structure
any final settlement. The major policy question emanant from this paper’s analysis is
therefore: Will South Korea forego the U.S. alliance if that is required to remove
China from peninsular affairs? Will South Korea exchange neutralization for unity?


So I got my wife a Kinect for Christmas (yes, it is very cool, but it’s a pain to set up your living room for it). While browsing for it, I found ‘Blackwater – the Game.’ Wow! Mercs for kids! Phenomenal! Who came up with that idea?! Recall that the Kinect is meant for the non-gamer types and kids (like the Wii). I understand that there are already lots of military-style shooters at home, and some of them are genuinely brutal and extreme. Yet Blackwater of course is/was a real firm, implicated in some of the most controversial moments of the Iraq War, and the game is on the wii-like Kinect. So do you really want your kids playing hired guns in Iraq? At least in most shooters you play a ‘public-spirited’ character (ie, a soldier); here you’re just killing people for money – a great lesson for little Johnny, I geuss.

Blackwater of course is gone now. Its called Xe today, but apparently former CEO Erik Prince owns the rights to the name and I geuss he needs the money. I’m just not sure what to think. On the one hand, I think realism and/or edginess improve gaming and make it less ridiculous; that’s why I don’t mind Grand Theft Auto or Halo, and I thought Bioshock was super. But mercs for kids is probably a new low. In any case, the game is terrible apparently.

And here is another nice item for the Korean-watchers. We bought a TV mount for the Kinect. It costs $20 on Amazon, and $36 in Korea. Yet another example of how Korean mercantilism and the weak won policy are killing Korean consumers by making everything pointlessly, outrageously expensive here. What possible explanation besides politics can there be for an 80% (!) price differential like that on such a mundane, irrelevant product? Ugh.

NATO’s Biggest Problems in the Future will be Internal, not External


If you missed the flap over Robert Gates’ speech to the Europeans over defense spending, start here. I am participating in one of those forums about the future of NATO. If had a dime for every time I have been to a conference or forum on this, or read an article on it from the Council of Foreign Relations, the German Marshall Fund, Foreign Policy…

I am amazed at the endless amount of navel gazing on this issue, especially by Europeans in conjunction with the (equally tiresome, endless, and speculative) ‘future of the EU’ debate. You could write a book about the future of NATO or the EU (and many have), but a far more interesting book would be on the cottage industry and rubber chicken circuit that has grown up around these topics. Most westerners still don’t know the difference between Sunnis and Shia, but there’s always more time and money to bemoan NATO’s lack of a ‘strategic concept’ or (worse) the EU’s rube goldberg institutional structure. My guess is the real reason we don’t close NATO is because about 10,000 transatlantic security analysts would be out of a job (but me too, so I’ll shut up now).

Anyway, here we go on the big problems for NATO in the next decade:

1. Coherence: The Soviet threat forced an unnatural level of coherence on alliance members that has since faded. Salafist terror is not a substitute (nor should be – god save us from the ‘long war’ and ‘world war IV’) . The policy struggles over NATO action in the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya suggest this tussle (‘alliance politics’) will be a regular feature in the future. This will tempt the US to go it alone, especially as the European members are divided among themselves as well. So NATO will look less like an alliance and more like a club of democracies. Its operations will have a more ‘a la carte’ feel as members opt in and out of what suits them, such as Germany and Turkey’s rejection of the current Libyan operation. The more NATO operations move from consensus to majority decision-making, with ‘modalities’ of mixed cooperation, the less the ‘all for one, one for all’ Article 5 will mean. This will progressively unnerve eastern European members who now take Article 5 more seriously than anyone else in NATO.

2. European military capabilities: Collapsing European defense spending reinforces the slide from alliance to club. NATO was always unbalanced with no integrated European ‘pillar’ to complement the US one. This is worsening, because of growing Continental skepticism about the morality and utility of the use of force, and because of the ‘age of austerity’ cuts being forced on all NATO militaries (including the US soon, but worst in Europe). The back-biting and buck-passing of the Libya operation is likely to be repeated as NATO’s high-minded idealistic commitments collide with its operational limitations.

3. Out of area: The big NATO debate from the mid-1990s to mid-2000s was whether to go ‘out of area’ (out of Europe). Afghanistan was the first test of that, and no one seems to like it. European commitments there are so hedged with rules of engagement limitations, that US commanders simply go around them. European publics don’t support ISAF. Perhaps Afghanistan was too far away and too contentious to Europeans for its connection to the much-disliked war on terror. Perhaps Libya, Syria or Somalia might revive the idea. But European publics seem to have little taste for large footprint operations. Minimalist ‘bombing for peace,’ as in Kosovo and Libya, seems like about all the out-of-area European publics are ready to tolerate, again reducing the ‘alliance’ character of the alliance.

4. No one in Asia cares about NATO that much anyway. I have been teaching international relations in Asia for years, and in my experience NATO is seen as just a pleasant, somewhat dated, regional organization. Any hype about NATO as a global police force for globalization would crash right into the new core’s disinterest in any such role. Forget that.

5. Ad hocery is the rule now. In the endless speculation over the future of NATO, my sense is that the organization increasing suffers from the outsized, almost mythic expectations that have accreted around it over two generations. Call it the public relations inertia of NATO’s path dependent trip in the western mind – from hastily thrown-together alliance to the single most important international organization ever (particularly to Europeans). After 60 years, the notion of ‘NATO’ has taken such a hold of the public imagination, certainly among western foreign policy elites, that we are constantly calling for big plans to ‘revive’ it with ‘strategic concepts’ and the like, and we regularly lament that it is fracturing. We have talked up NATO into a powerful image of western solidarity and community, but one which members don’t really want to pay or sacrifice for. NATO’s own self-image often gets in the way of its likely and ad hoc role in the future. No one really knows what NATO is supposed to do after the Cold War, but inertia in the West means we are afraid to close it (which is why we have been having forums like this one for 20 years now). So we keep throwing missions at NATO, wondering whether or not they will work, unsure quite what to expect. Expectations management (read: reduction) is needed. NATO is highly unlikely to forge a widely shared geopolitical consensus, as in the Cold War. But we can try various missions and experiments. Some may work, some won’t. But holding NATO together as a symbol of western political unity is not a bad thing in itself.

The EU has Sewn Up the IMF Race Already? …. plus some media


I published an op-ed in the Korea Times last week on the IMF managing director (MD) race. For readers outside of Korea, the KT is a mid-level paper here in Korea, sort of like the Plain Dealer from my hometown Cleveland. The biggest paper in Korea’s landscape is the conservative Chosun Ilbo. The KT is smaller, and because it is written only in English, it has a substantial foreign readership beyond Korea. My op-ed is based on this post last week.

I am amazed at how quickly the replacement for Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK) is emerging as a European once again  – the French Finance Minister, Christine Lagarde (above). The Europeans seem to be moving lightning fast on this, before Asians or developing states can get their act together and congeal around one or two non-European alternatives. As I noted in the op-ed, there is no functional reason for the IMF MD to be a European. It has simply been precedent, justifiable so long as Europe was the second major pole in the global economy with the US. Well now there is a third, in East Asia, what Barnett calls the ‘New Core’ (the North Atlantic being the Old Core). Surely it’s time to give the new Core a shot at running one of the big international economic organizations of the world?

The EU has driven its economy into a ditch in the last few years, so I see no ‘competence’ reason why a European finance minister would be better than a Japanese or Singaporean banker, e.g. Nor have the last three European MDs of the IMF been very good. Horst Koehler (2000-04) and Rodriego de Rato (2004-07) were placeholding non-leaders who took the MD-ship in order to springboard into higher office back home. And of course, DSK just globally embarrassed the institution in a manner that basically epitomizes its critics’ worst fears. The narrative of a powerful wealthy white man assaulting an black immigrant female maid is straight out of the antiglobalization movement’s nightmare imagery. So there is no particularly history of ‘quality leadership’ from the EU to justify its sinecure either. In fact, quite given how bad the last three MDs in a row have been, it would be a good idea to drop the EU for a round or two.

So where is substance to the argument that somehow Europeans are somehow entitled to the MD-ship? There is none. It’s bogus. The real claim is tribal – the EU wants the position, because it bolsters Europe’s otherwise declining claim to global leadership and relevance. The EU is like a child running around the adult table waving its hands demanding attention. As Martin Wolf noted on this issue, if the IMF can’t change to accept new realities (the rise of  the rest, especially Asia and the BRICS), then unfairly excluded states will simply walk away from the institution. Asia has already flirted with this because it felt so high-handedly treated in the Asian Financial Crisis (AFC).

Finally, the argument that the IMF should have a European leader right now because the IMF will be working so much in Europe in the near-future, is so specious as to be nearly racist. I find this almost revolting. Back when the AFC hit (1997-98) and westerners were dispensing painful but necessary advice to Asia, no one in the West worried about white bankers dispensing hard medicine to Asians. To say, today, that German Chancellor Angela Merkel won’t trust anyone to run the IMF unless it’s a European she knows,  is so ridiculous, hypocritical, self-serving, and borderline racist, that it really should shock the non-western IMF members into some pretty harsh language in response. If the EU wants to run its economy over a cliff, that’s its own choice. But the EU has no special claim to line up the globe’s resources (through the IMF) to bail out foolish German bondholders badly exposed in Greece, Spain and Ireland. For a counter-example, ask if California, with its own nasty budget crunch, is getting a bail-out from the IMF? No; Americans will wrestle through that on their own, and the EU should too on Greece and the other euro-miscreants.

I find the sheer, bald-faced selfishness and parochialism of this just shocking, especially given how often the EU preens about the importance of multilateralism and international institutions, in obvious contradistinction to ‘mercantilist’ Asians and ‘cowboy unilateralist’ Americans. So here is a golden chance for the EU to really improve global governance, to make it fairer and more democratic. But no, they’d rather insist on tribal privileges. Bleh.

Does it need to be restated that the IMF is a global institution, not a European regional one? The IMF does have other lending responsibilities, and most of its non-European borrowers are vastly poorer than Greece or Ireland. The EU has huge resources compared to the many LDCs (less developed countries) of Africa, but I guess the IMF is really supposed to be a global slush fund for the euro mess.

As best I can tell, Lagarde is pretty competent, and may do a good job. I certainly hope so, and her first trip as MD should be to non-European borrowers, especially in Africa, to prove her credibility. But there is no substantive argument from her resume to set her apart. Try here and here for a nice run-down of all the good non-western candidates who won’t be considered, because Merkel couldn’t care less about global governance and multilateralism when her campaign contributors’ South European bond-holdings are about to be ‘hair cut.’ It’s all just tribalism and selfishness. The real European claim is narcissism – put off succumbing to the new global reality where Asian economies are easily as influential as the old Core’s.

Read this and this as well on this issue.

If Strauss-Kahn Resigns, How about an Asian to run the IMF this Time?


I have no particular intelligence on the details of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK) case. I would only say what everyone would agree to: He should be investigated properly with due process and the assumption of innocence. (That we even need to say this in the US is now, unfortunately, necessary given the US flirtation with extra-judicial methods because of the war on terror.) That he was fleeing the US for his home country when he was arrested does not bode well; this is why he was denied bail. If he is found innocent, then he perhaps can stay on the job, unless this incident comes to be seen in a pattern of irresponsibility, even if formal guilt is not found. DSK was rebuked for an affair with an IMF staffer a few years ago, so perhaps this will tip him out, even if he is found innocent.

But any decision to retain him as IMF managing director (MD) should be based on the evidence, not because he has helped revive the IMF’s fortunes after a tough decade (because of heavy criticism of the IMF’s handling of the Asian Financial Crisis and globalization generally), nor because he has helped so much in the recent debt crisis, especially in Europe. I agree with both of those assessments, but they don’t really change the issue of whether or not he is personally responsible enough to complete his duties. It is also worth noting that infidelity is not a crime (DSK is married). The real issue is whether he tried to rape his alleged victim or not. If he did, he should obviously go. But the important distinction here is with the Clinton impeachment. If DSK’s wife can live with his libertinism, as Hillary Clinton was able to, then that is ultimately a personal issue. There is no need to import the ‘politics of personal destruction’ into the IMF. It is also worth noting that French politicians get far more leeway on personal indiscretions that US politicians. France’s longest serving modern president, Francois Mitterrand, had a love-child out of wedlock who was revealed after his death. Perhaps DSK never quite escaped that more tolerant expectation set.

My own sense is that, even if found innocent because it turns into ‘he-said-she-said,’ it will be hard for him to stay on. The images of him in handcuffs, being pulled off a plane, standing sullenly in a court will make it hard to keep him. Paul Wolfowitz too was forced out of the World Bank presidency several years back for a similar, less egregious, personal affair. My guess is that DSK will have to go too.

For my own previous writing on the Fund, broadly sympathetic to its role, try here or here.

The issue of his replacement brings up a long-standing dispute over the leadership of the Bank and Fund. Precedent says the Europeans pick the IMF MD, and the US picks the World Bank president. This logic was based on the, previously reasonably accurate, claim that the North Atlantic represented the core of the world economy. Of course, it was more than this; prestige has always played a huge role, particularly for the Europeans. Having the IMF sinecure helped buttress Europe’s self-image as important central to global governance.

But you hardly need to be an economist to know that Europe’s role, relative to that of the US and Asia, has been in decline for awhile. Decolonization generally reduced Europe’s global footprint. Decades of slow growth and declining military spending has vaulted the US past the EU in the transatlantic partnership. The seemingly endless inability of the Europeans to put the EU into good working order – the euro mess, the constitutional-institutional rube goldberg structure of the EU itself, the continuing inability of outsiders to know who ‘speaks’ for Europe – cripples an EU global role. Just about everyone outside Europe thinks that the EU should have one EU seat on the UN Security Council, not two for Britain and France. Henry Kissinger famously quipped that he did not know whom to call if he wanted to talk to Europe, and that question is still unresolved. And of course, the rise of Asia has relatively squeezed the EU more than the US. I was at a conference last year where I made this point, and the EU speaker could at best only respond that the EU was a ‘foreign aid superpower.’ If that is all you got, it is time to step aside and allow the ‘New Core,’ Asia, to have a crack at the top-table of world politics. And last year, when I was at an IMF conference in Korea, Asian questioners did in fact ask DSK this, and he was response was, yes, the MD after him should be an Asian.

Everyone knows that Asia’s weight in the global economy has grown dramatically in the last several decades. The IMF’s own voting quotas have been re-ordered to reflect this. Chinese, Japanese, and Indians have already been pretty high up in the managerial order in both the Bank and the Fund.

My own sense is that a Japanese banker would be an excellent choice. Japan is the most open and mature of the Asian economies. The Bank of Japan has been downright heroic in its battle against deflation for years now; it is vastly more serious about Japan’s economic problems that Japan’s politicians. The BoJ has tremendous skills on issues that dog IMF debtors, like government debt, the money supply, or slow growth. A Chinese might be a more controversial choice, one the US and EU might veto, because China is highly interventionist and still a formally communist country. If China would object to a Japanese, likely out of sheerly nationalist resentment, then what about a Korean, Indian or Singaporean?

In short, Asia’s time to run one of the two Bretton Woods Institutions has arrived. Europe’s economic claim to that leadership role is now much-reduced. The euro is a mess; EU economies are carrying huge debt burdens; the EU remains unable to find a common voice despite decades of waiting and endless speculation; and the last few Europeans to run the IMF have been been pretty meager – Rodrigo De Rato lasted just three years (2004-07) and used the position to jockey for political position at home in Spain; before him, Horst Koehler (2000-04) did the same.

In fact, the only argument to keep a European one more time, is based on Europe’s weakness, not its strength; that is, because the IMF’s most important work in the next few years will be in Europe, it should have a European. But this strikes me as too clever by half and yet another gimmick to keep Asia from its clearly-earned place to run these institutions occasionally. By any reasonable criteria, Asia is qualified – probably more qualified actually given Europe’s economic state today – to take the MD-ship. The inevitable arguments to be heard in the next few weeks about Europe’s ‘weight’ in the global economy will just be mask the real,  tribal and prestige-driven desire to hang onto the last shreds of influence in an increasingly ‘post-atlantic’ world.

The US Drawdown & National Debt Debate: AfPak, Korea, etc

Afghanistan rocket

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the scale of US commitments and how to reduce them so as to not bankrupt the US in the medium-term. I have gotten a fair amount of criticism that I don’t know what I am talking about, US warfighters are superlative, US forces in various places like Korea or Afghanistan augment US national security, pull-outs jeopardize our credibility, etc. Ok. I am learning like the rest of us on this. I agree that US commitments are sticky, and I have little doubt that US servicemen are professional enough to win conflicts in places like Korea and AfPak (Afghanistan & Pakistan), so long as we have the resources to stay.

Further, I will admit that a ‘post-American’ world is a little unnerving. I say this not as an American who likes ‘empire’ (I don’t), but more generally because I still do think, even post-Iraq, that US involvement generally makes the world a better place. The dollar and US engagement help keep the world economy open, and US force can sometimes be the last line against truly awful acts that shame the conscience. This is why I supported the Libya intervention, and this is why I hope the US can keep forces in Korea. A retrenched, bankrupted, and sullen America worries more than just Americans. To clarify to my critics, my concern is whether the US can support allies around the world, not if it should. I don’t want US Forces in Korea (USFK) to leave any more than anyone else. I can think of few more valuable uses of US force than to help defend a democracy against the last worst stalinist despotism on earth. I just wonder whether we can afford it.

I think we need to be a lot more honest about the huge defense cuts that will be required to balance the US budget. The US deficit ($1.5 trillion) is a staggering 10% of GDP and 35% of the budget; publicly-debt ($9T) is at 60% of US GDP ($15T); and the integrated national security budget (DoD, Veterans, relevant parts of Homeland Security and Energy) exceeds $1T. You hardly need to be an economist to think that this is unsustainable and smacks of imperial overstretch. For an expert run-down on the US budget mess, try here.

This gap could of course be filled with tax increases, but a central GOP policy commitment since roughly the Ford administration has been ‘no new taxes.’ Unless this changes dramatically – and the recent Ryan budget proposal showed no GOP movement on tax increases – this means that most of the $1.5T hole must be filled with spending cuts. My own sense is that allowing the Bush 2001 and 2003 tax cuts to sunset, as is current statute, plus tax reform and a carbon tax, could in fact generate a lot of new revenue at tolerable and intelligent levels of pain. This would reduce some of the pressure to cut defense (and all other US government programming). But without such new taxes, the $1.5T hole calls for huge cuts, and the axe would inevitably land on defense too, including US bases and commitments overseas.

I am genuinely agnostic on whether this is a good idea. Part of me thinks that wealthy US allies, especially Japan and Germany, free-ride. They should spend more so that we can spend less. But others have retorted that encouraging wealthy Asian allies like Korea and Japan to spend more could trigger an arms race in Asia that might also go nuclear. Barnett has a nice post on how Asian elites are aware of this and worry about a weak US. (On the other hand, there is not actually a lot of empirical evidence that denuclearization brings peace.)

In response to my commenters at Busan Haps on a US withdrawal from Korea, I wrote:

“America’s economic problems will likely compel the rebalancing all of you are thinking about. Importantly, even if the US wanted to stay and provide ‘extended deterrence’ as we have for 60 years, the dollars are not there for it.

Whether or not we should go is a different question. My sense is that Korea does actually try harder than many US allies. Korea spends 2.7% of GDP on defense. Germany and Japan spend around just 1%. The US spends close to 6%. But like Germany and Japan, Korea is now wealthy enough to spend a lot more. This raises the free-riding question you all worry about.

If Korea really wants USFK to stay no matter what, then the most likely way is for Korea to pay for ALL of the expense of USFK here. Right Korea and the US split the bill roughly so far as I can tell.

But I find great resistance to this thinking. My sense is that within the Beltway, there is strong elite consensus for the US remain committed around the world. ‘Empire’ seems to be a knack or a habit Americans have grown into. We like being a globally present superpower but are increasingly unable to afford it and unwilling to pay the taxes for it.

The question then is what do we do now? Cut entitlements (Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security) to make room for defense? Do we raise taxes enormously for all these things? Are do we retrench from our global posture so we spend less money?

Finally, there is a model for retrenchment. Britain slowly retreated from its empire in the 1950s and 60s. In some places it went very badly – South Asia and southern Africa especially. But this slowly brought British commitments back into line with British resources. The alternative for the US is to change nothing and risk an imperial crack-up – something like the USSR in 1989 or Austro-Hungary in 1914. That is my worry.”

Here are two good recent articles from the Wall Street Journal by Leslie Gelb and Max Boot on whether or not we can drawdown from Afghanistan and Pakistan (AfPak) post-bin Laden. I lean toward Gelb, but I think Boot makes some good points. Particularly, Boot notes that a US presence in Afghanistan made it possible to get OBL, because US forces were proximate. But Boot still sidesteps the debt issue. Both Beinart and the US JSC chairman call the debt the biggest threat to US national security. I am inclined to agree…

There’s No NATO ‘Crisis’: Muddling Through Libya is Good Enough



Besides the much-needed debate on the limits of the responsibility to protect (R2P), the Libyan mess has also provoked some good discussion of what NATO is supposed to do now, 20 years after the Cold War. It is a good question actually. Western publics are so accustomed to it, we just don’t even consider it much (such public opinion inertia is one reason it is still around). Conversely, the Chinese, and Russians especially, continue to suspect it as a ‘bloc’ that might somehow be used for future containment of them. Here and here are good articles Libya as a NATO-breaking event – a distinct possibility, especially if there is a push to extend NATO intervention into other Arab Spring revolts. Here and here are two defenses, that still struggle to define NATO’s military role.

My own sense is that NATO would be better off just openly admitting that it is now western military club for the general promotion of democracy and liberalism when its members feel so compelled. It is basically that ‘league of democracies’ idea, the formal proposal of which failed a few years ago. I understand that this is terribly messy, and it sounds pretty open-ended. But like the evolution of the R2P concept, just because it is open-ended, doesn’t mean the alliance needs to act on every possible scenario. We are learning how this works; there is no rush. Like the evolution of R2P, a more general mission for NATO would allow the members to pick-and-choose where interest, values, capabilities. Such ‘selective action’ is well-shown in the current Libya operation.

Yes, the Cold War brought a level of clarity to world politics that we all, disturbingly, seem to miss. But trying to force NATO into old boxes – ie, looking for a Soviet-style threat that brings ‘mission clarity’ or ‘threat definition’ is a fool’s errand by now. We really ought to know that 20 years after the Wall fell, and god help us if we place China into the Soviet ‘enemy box.’ As I argued earlier, the mess of crises of the future will be mostly ‘third world brushfires’ that like Somalia, Kosovo, or Rwanda. This should hardly be news to anyone who has followed the emergence of COIN in US military thinking in the last decade.

Such third world crises  require different force postures among NATO allies, yes, but they are hardly a reason to dissolve or disdain NATO. The most obvious evidence for this is George W Bush’s dismissal of NATO assistance in Afghanistan and Iraq. Bush thought NATO too encumbering, sluggish, and political for the rapid action he sought. But then both operations went south, and the US has tried repeatedly to pull NATO in.

Anyone who follows NATO knows the endless ‘out-of-area’ discussion discussion: should NATO go out of its European area into places like Afghanistan? I have no definitive answer – probably, but selectively. But far more important is that NATO is working this out, albeit slowly. This is why I don’t understand the pundit contempt for NATO ‘dithering.’ What is the alternative? Do neo-cons, eg., really want the US do all this stuff alone, again? Didn’t we learn that hard lesson in the last decade? And to those who think NATO is just irrelevant, should we simply close it? NATO is the closest thing we have to a club of democracies. As such, it carries enormous moral weight in world politics, beyond the simple aggregate of its military capabilities (which are, to be sure, atrophying). Yes, NATO bickers incessantly, but any show of unanimity from organizations like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization or ASEAN is almost certainly farcical and repressed – a representation of solely elite, frequently dictatorial, views. By contrast, NATO, because it is democratic, signals far more credibly. So while it takes awhile for NATO to get its act together (dithering), it is vastly more meaningful when it does – even if partially, as in Libya. And NATO ‘interoperability’ reduces the coordination costs among the democracies. Finally, its existence is minimally costly. Members can still free-lance as the US did in Iraq and France just did in Ivory Coast. NATO does provide room for ‘coalitions of the willing.’

In sum, the costs of NATO are low – some meetings and a lot of hassle. But the benefits are high – a credible, somewhat united democratic voice in global affairs with enormous moral prestige, a functionally meaningful and capable alliance (unlike the ‘alliances’ between China and NK, or Russia and Belarus that look more like gangs than real alliances), and retained national room to maneuver.

So why complain about NATO so much? It is muddling through pretty well it seems to me. It is stumbling toward a new role to project democratic force on a selective basis. A more R2P focused NATO will re-assure China and Russia that they are not the alliance’ targets (even if they will call R2P ‘human rights imperialism’). What great benefit does anyone in the West (not just the US, but anyone) get if we close NATO?

The real problem with NATO is not the endlessly harped-on issue of its mission: I really can’t read anymore of these sorts of articles with variants of the title ‘the future of NATO.’ It should be blindingly obvious that in a messy post-Cold War, post-colonial world, NATO’s mission focus will correspondingly be unclear (beyond basic member security). But so is the mission of the UN, ASEAN, and maybe even the EU (!), so this is not uncommon in generalist, big-theme international organizations. The real issue is member capabilities – specifically the precipitous decline of the European democracies to project power independently of huge US intervention. The well-known ‘free-rider problem’ debilitates the alliance no matter what its mission. This is a problem in Asia too (although the SKs try harder than Japan, to be fair.) The real issue for NATO is not its irrelevance – in world of ‘brushfires,’ it will still have relevance as Libya just showed – it is the willingness of members to provide resources.