Is Obama’s Second Term the Highlight of the Pivot to Asia?


The following is a re-up of an essay I published this week with Newsweek Japan. I was thinking about Obama’s attendance at both the G-20 and ASEAN this month. Those trips really do reflect his commitment to the pivot to Asia – probably as much out of conviction as out of a desire to escape the sink-hole of the Middle East.

But as readers of this website know, I am rather skeptical that the pivot actually grips the median American voter. Sure, elites love it, especially realists. It has all the trappings of geopolitical excitement think-tankers and IR types love. But regular Americans care way more about other regions first – when they even consider foreign policy, which the rarely do when they vote. Europe and increasingly Latin America will always have a powerful ethnic pull, because most Americans have roots there, while the Middle East bewitches the American evangelicals who are obsessed with Islam and Israel. China, even though it is vastly more important, isn’t actually as pressing to voters except as a trade issue.

This is not to say that I don’t support the pivot. I do. Very much. But if you look at Trump and Clinton’s foreign policy utterances, they basically cleave to the pre-pivot norm: the obsession with the Middle East, Islam, terrorism, while Asia is basically a trade-cheater. Hillary has turned against her own creation, TPP, while Trump sounds like he’d spark a trade-war with China, and maybe even Japan.

So if you’re an Asia hand, enjoy your moment in Obama’s sun. Next year, we’ll back to warring in the Middle East.

The full essay follows the jump.

Continue reading

Note to Congressional Republicans: Please Don’t Send One of Your Iran Letters to China

Does anyone wonder what it would be like it neoconservatives brought their unique blend of bluster, recklessness, and belligerence to Asia? I kept thinking about that in the wake of that wildly irresponsible Iran letter from the Senate GOP last month. As Jonathan Chait notes, that letter was the perfect metaphor for neoconservative rashness, poor planning, maximal belligerence, and relentless nationalist self-congratulation. And this will be the tone of the GOP primary (again) too.

Now try to imagine how that would have gone down if we had sent that letter to China. Yikes! I hope these guys stay focused on the Middle East where their free-lancing recklessness and belligerence have manageable costs. But please, please keep these people away from Asia, where they know even less than in the Gulf and the costs are much higher. Scary.

The following was originally written for the Lowy Institute, here.

Will South Korea Eventually Feel Compelled to Bomb NK Missile Sites?

The picture to the left is the poster from a South Korean film in which a North Korean coup forces South Korea to launch on air-strike on Nork missile sites. It’s not very good (it’s the Top Gun of Korea), but it’s the closest pop-culture reference I could think of to the argument I make below.

My growing concern for years now is that the more nuclear missiles North Korea acquires (read this on just how many and when), the more they threaten South Korea’s very existence. To date, North Korea’s missile and nukes have generally been understood as a tool for regime security – to prevent an American ‘regime change’ attack – or as a gangsterish way for NK to shake-down SK, Japan, and the US for concessions. As Robert Gates and Hillary Clinton both noted, the Norks are great at selling and re-selling their nuclear program for aid.

But, if NK gets dozens, or even hundreds, of nuclear warheads and missiles, then the NK nuclear program is no longer about regime security or blackmail. It would then have grown into an existential threat to SK as a state and society. This is why I am such a strong supporter of THAAD. NK is moving from being a frightening rogue state obsessed with survival, to a major threat to the constitutional order and even physical survival of the ROK (and Japan). To be sure, the USSR and US were that to each other in the Cold War, but both developed technologies (SLBMs mostly) that allowed them to survive (or ‘ride out’ in nuclear parlance) even a massive first strike and still retaliate. This ‘assured second strike’ capability dramatically reduced the incentive for either side to strike first, so stabilizing the nuclear competition despite the huge size of the arsenals. By contrast, neither NK nor SK have assured second strike (SK might because of the American alliance, but that’s not entirely clear) which therefore incentives attacking first.

Further, both NK and SK are very vulnerable to a first strike, so again the incentives to move first are high. NK cannot hide its nuclear weapons; it is too small and US satellite coverage too intrusive. Nuclear facilities are big and vulnerable, and a obvious temptation for an allied preemptive strike. This creates a ‘use-them-or-lose-them’ dilemma for Pyongyang. And this dilemma worsens as Pyongyang builds more and more, and spends more and more. The more nukes North Korea deploys, the greater the allied temptation to destroy them before they could be used (this was American thinking during the Cuban Missile Crisis too). This vulnerability, in turn, incentivizes NK to use them before they’re struck. It’s a nasty spiral of paranoia.

SK too is vulnerable, which again incentivizes moving first. SK cannot ride out a serious nuclear assault, because it is a small, highly centralized state with a highly concentrated population defenseless against missile attack. It would not take many nuclear strikes to destabilize the Republic (unlike the US or USSR in the Cold War). As Nork nukes move from a few for security, to many as a state- and society-breaking threat to SK (and even Japan), the incentives to preemptively destroy them first will grow also. This is a classic nuclear security dilemma, straight out of the Cold War in the 1950s.

The best way out of this nasty, worsening game would be nuclear restraint on the NK part (a pipe-dream, that), and/or robust missile defense on the SK side. THAAD is really, really important to slow the security dilemma paranoia that accompanies arms build-ups, especially nuclear ones. The Chinese ought to think about that before they come out so strongly against THAAD:

If South Korea is entirely ‘naked’ or ‘roof-less’ against missile attack, when NK has 100+ nuclear missiles – a capability that could destroy South Korea in just a few minutes – what does Beijing think will happen? That Seoul will just sit back and do nothing because of trade with China? I doubt it. No SK president could tolerate such a stark, asymmetric threat to the ROK’s very existence just to keep the Chinese mollified. That would border on dereliction of duty. Even if SK did not want to strike North Korea’s nuclear sites (which I don’t think it does), it might feel compelled to out of sheer fear.

These ideas were first fleshed out at The Diplomat here. That essay is re-posted below and repeats the above discussion:

Modernization has Revolutionized Korean Grand Strategy

In the summer 2015, I went off to Columbia for a strategy training seminar called the ‘Summer Workshop on the Analysis of Military Operations and Strategy.’ It was pretty great. You should apply for it, here.

It got me thinking about Korean grand strategy, which I have written about before. I still think the primary geopolitical dilemma for Korea is that it is a middle power surrounded by three great powers. That really sucks, and may be unique in world politics to be bordered by three great powers while being a small/middle power yourself. Most encircled powers only face two large states so directly adjacent to them. Even Germany, while encircled, was never so overmatched by neighbors, because it too was a great power. But Korea has three large states right on top it. That’s very tough.

But the power ratios are changing. In the last 50 years South Korea has grown very fast, while in the last 20-30 years, Russia and Japan have stagnated. That still doesn’t mean Korea is a great power, but the gap is much narrower. So for the first time in its history, Korea is not a regional geopolitical football. That’s actually a pretty great national achievement.

This is the focus of this essay (after the jump), originally written for The Diplomat.