Tag: United States (page 2 of 2)

Say Ron Paul Won…Which US Allies would get Retrenched? (1)

Here is an answer to Jon Western’s good question. Here is Steve Walt saying nice things about Ron Paul, and Layne has a nice recent piece in the National Interest, and another at ISQ, about looming US retrenchment.  Earlier I argued that I think lots of people in IR now both expect and want some measure of US pullback. The argument is pretty well-known by now – empirically, the US is doing more than it can afford, like the Iraq war (trillion dollar deficits and ‘overstretch’); normatively, we are violating far too many of our liberal values against a comparatively minor terrorist threat (torture, indefinite detention, unoverseen drone strikes). But I don’t see too much on what specifically could be cut if absolutely necessary. The British retrenchment east of Suez in the 70s is probably our best model, but of course, the Brits had different sets of commitments, so it’s not a great blueprint.
So I try below to compile a list of who would/could/should get the axe and who not. Just like the intense competition over the periodic BRACs, one could imagine US allies making their case for a retention of US bases, troops, aid, etc. In one of his speeches, I heard Ron Paul argue that we have 900 overseas bases, so the field of choice is very wide.
I can think of 3 basic criteria for judgment of whom should be cut loose and who not:
a. Direct US national security interest: This is fairly obvious. For example, no matter what the Israelis or Japanese may say, Mexico and Canada’s fate will always be more important to the US than theirs, because they so directly impinge on US security.
b. Need/Vulnerability: Some states may want the US to stay but don’t really need us. They just want to free-ride. Germany comes to mind. Modern Germany is irrevocably democratic, liberal, aging, with a small, barely deployable military, and surrounded by other democracies. There is no need to keep it ‘down’ anymore, nor is Russia a big conventional threat to Europe.
c. Values: Some places aren’t that relevant to US security, or they may have the means to defend themselves. But they represent crucial values in high-profile contests. SK is a good example. SK’s GDP is 26x NK’s; it can take care of it itself (even thought no one wants to say that publicly here). But the Korean stand-off has become a such global symbol of liberal democracy vs. tyranny, especially next to rising China, that US retrenchment would be see globally as a real setback.
So here is quick-and-dirty ranking of allies and commitments in order of importance:
1. Canada and Mexico: I imagine the Tea party would blanche at the idea of Mexico as one of America’s very highest national security priorities, but it is for the reasons mentioned above. Yes, Mexico is vastly more important to the US than Israel.
However, the rest of Latin America, including that now-pointless embargo of Cuba, really isn’t. How damaging has Chavez really been to the US? Honestly, if we were really strapped for cash and over-committed, we could cut the Monroe Doctrine loose. Latin America doesn’t really need us or the fairly condescending ‘Roosevelt Corollary’ anymore.
Strictly speaking, Canada does not need America commitment; Mexico does somewhat. But proximity alone means they are America’s most important allies. We can’t retrench from North America.
2. Saudi Arabia: Wait, what? But yes, it’s true. If you think about what the US needs (acute demand for cheap, reliable carbon, at least until the green economy gets on its feet), SA’s extreme vulnerability, and the pan-umma chaos that would result from its collapse, means that SA has to be very high on the list. I agree that places like Germany or Korea are more sympathetic, but they have also a lot more wherewithal to defend themselves. SA does not, so it needs the US more. The majority of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudis, and all were stewed in Saudi anti-western pathologies, yet we invaded Iraq??… Well, here’s why.
3. Taiwan: This one mixes need and values. Taiwan is modern and capable, but its opponent is so big, it will never even come close in that race. Also, Taiwan has emerged as a major global values contest relevant to China’s rise and Asia’s future order. Everyone’s watching. Given that China is a real long-term peer competitor to the US now, Taiwan has a global bellwether status. But is really important for US national security? Not really; that’s true.
4. India: This one mixes all 3 criteria. In Geopolitics, I argued that India will be America’s big future ally, because it shares  America’s values, and both its big threats – salafism and China. No other US ally does that. Bolstering India pushes back on Islamic terror in Asia and balances/distracts China, and reaffirms democracy in a region where democracy is often seen as a luxury that inhibits growth.
5. Indonesia: Here’s another unexpected one, but the argument is similar to India. If you think about places where a US presence could really make a difference (i.e., where we would get some dividend and not just encourage free-riding), then I think this is obvious too. For starters, it’s huge – the fourth biggest state in the world. It is a bulwark against salafism’s spread into the biggest community of the umma – southeast Asia. (No one ever seems to remember this, btw; Islam is a lot more than the Arabs and Persians.) As with India, there is a strong values case for supporting Indonesian democracy – its big, Muslim, and worried about China too.
6. Israel: I think the case for Israel is slipping. Yes, it is the only democracy in the Middle East, but not so much anymore actually. Arab Spring has changed a lot, and Israel’s own internal politics, especially its now effectively permanent occupation of the Palestinians, damages that ‘we’re the only state in the Middle East that shares US values’ line. This doesn’t mean we should abandon Israel, only that it’s rank is sliding. America’s national security interest in Israel is not particularly obvious now – the Cold War is over, S Hussein is gone, Assad is on the ropes. Nor is it clear that Israel really needs us. It needed us to survive the Yom Kippur War, but now? Its got the best military in the region, plus nukes. The real ‘values’ link between Israel and the US now is more tribal (a Judeo-Christian struggle against Islam) rather than liberal.
7. South Korea: Like Israel, the case for SK is slipping, primarily because SK so obviously outclasses NK. NK may be very scary, but a real SK military build-up (including vastly superior nukes) would be scarier still. SK’s GDP is at least 25x NK’s. Its military technology is two generations ahead. Its social capacity – health, education, institutional durability – vastly outstrip its opponent. Like Israel, SK needed us once, but not really anymore. Like the EU and Japan, wealthy SK has ‘graduated’ from the need for serious US extended deterrence. South Koreans I talk with about this worry about ‘abandonment,’ but then,  SK only spend 2.5% of GDP on defense. The US spends more than twice. That’s not free-riding as bad as Germany or Japan, but its still free-riding. If you consider that Taiwan or India would represent a greater return for the US’ extended deterrence investment, you understand why Ron Paul always mentions Korea as a basing obligation to eliminate. However, the intra-Korean contest has acquired a ‘freedom vs tyranny’ global profile. Like Taiwan, it is something of a bellwether now that would send big signal, especially now that we’re ‘pivoting’ to Asia. So the current US small commitment – 28.5k warfighters under USFK away from the DMZ – is probably about right.
Part two will come in four days
Cross-posted on Asian Security Blog.


Kim Jong Un’s Ascent (2): Rocket Launch as a Sign of a Power Struggle?

Here is part one, where I argued that Kim’s rise scrambles our conventional wisdom on NK, opening a lot of unexpected room, at least early in his tenure, to try to deal. The cold war stand-off in Korea is now so bad, that there is little to lose in trying to talk with him, and it would seem like a huge missed opportunity to simply blow him off as identically awful to his father. For my regular argument that negotiating with Kim Jong Il was impossible, try here and here (or if you’d rather just read about the ridiculous Homefront video game, try this).
The tentative ‘Leap Day deal,’ from the recent US-NK high level talks, of aid for a nuclear halt, represents just such a possible opening. As predicted, the extreme centralization of NK allowed a dramatic policy U-turn once Kim Jong Il was replaced. The deal is tentative, but it is almost certainly a direct consequence of the change at the very top. It is hard to imagine that Kim Jong Il would have agreed to this; his prestige was too tied to the nuclear program. So if Kim Jong Un is already willing to deal, only ten weeks after his father’s death, this is very promising. It hints at wider possibilities for change. A new leader with such wide policy-making authority, who is not yet heavily tied to the nuclear program, military, or other vested interests, is encouraging. Talks should be pursued, if only because confrontation is always an easy fall-back position. The threatened rocket launch might also be interpreted in this way. Vested interests in NK (probably the military), worried about any opening or change, are pushing back. Rather than reading the contradictory progression from Leap Day deal to rocket launch as typical NK back-and-forth shenanigans justifying the cancellation of the Leap Day deal, it might instead be a sign of the widely-expected post-Kim Jong Il power struggle. If so, then abandoning the Leap Day deal over the rocket launch would set back Kim Jong Un internally against the military. But it is so frustratingly hard to tell.

Hawks will argue that Kim’s room to move is less wide than I suggest. He will clearly face constraints, from the military, and from the regime elite’s expectation that he will keep the kleptocracy rolling. Worse, in the back of the mind of everyone associated with the extreme repression of the DPRK is the fate of Gaddafi, Ceausescu, and the Nazi war criminals. So the new Kim is not likely a Gorbachev, because no one in Pyongyang wants to face an Arab Spring-style uprising, or SK post-unification courts with access to the death penalty. But Kim will also have room to change course, simply because the regime requires his lineage. Many observers expect a radical course change would provoke a coup. And indeed it is likely that Kim Jong Un’s toughest years will be his earliest. There is almost certain to be a power struggle to establish the pecking order of the new regime. But Kim Jong Un will likely be retained regardless. With the collapse of communism, juche and other legitimizing ideologies, the Kim family cult is central to the DPRK as we understand it today. It is almost impossible to imagine a recognizable NK without a Kim monarch, as that is now the effective legitimating ideology of the country.

Hence a military backlash to any changes by the new Kim will be limited by the need of the regime to keep him and his family. While the military might be tempted to ‘evolve’ into a junta like Burma and dispose of the Kims, that would be uniquely risky in this case. The standing alternative of unification with SK requires that NK continually gin up unique and extreme justifications for its separate, poorer existence. The Kim god-cult provides this. It is therefore unlikely the Kims will be replaced, and if Kim survives the coming years as more than a figurehead, he will increasingly set the tone of NK foreign policy as his father did.

Hence engaging with him now is a unique chance to draw him out early, before he is locked into routines by other regime elements. International engagement and success may generate internal legitimacy for him and may vest him in further international successes as a route to greater legitimacy and autonomy when those around him seek to control him for his youth and inexperience. There is much to gain from a major SK-US-Japanese effort to engage the new Kim and little to lose, as the standoff with NK is already in deep freeze.
Clearly negotiations will follow the established pattern of inch-by-inch concession and counter-concession. Kim Jong Il’s unexpected death does not alter the North’s ministerial or bureaucratic players for talks, at least not yet. The regime is still desperately dependent on foreign imports of almost every variety, and Kim Jong Un apparently shares his father’s outsized appetites. The usual gimmicks and twists will certainly apply, but these are now old hat for American and SK negotiators. After twenty years of this, it is extremely unlikely that the democracies will get conned at the renewed Six Party Talks. There is no reason not to try. The new Kim is probably no Gorbachev, but what do we have to lose?

At the one of countless conferences I have attended on the NK question, a colleague once remarked that just about every theory, idea, concept, bargaining tactic, negotiating ploy, gimmick, and other tactic has been thrown at NK over the years to no avail. At this point, we’re so desperate that we’ll try almost anything that has a chance of moderating the regime. This is, however disturbing, correct. As Churchill said, ‘jaw-jaw is better than war-war,’ and NK is so cruel, capricious, indecipherable, and dangerous, that just about anything that offers a chance to temper the regime is worth a try at this point. This does not mean the Six Party democracies should ‘undersell’ concessions to get any deal at all, but it does mean that we should be constantly trying to engage NK, always suggesting ideas, looking for opportunities. Like Europe’s militaries before WWI, the militaries in the peninsula are highly attuned to each other’s moves. The risk of escalation from a spark like Yeonpyeong is pronounced. The democracies should negotiate from a position of strength, but they should return to the Six Party Talks given this extremely unique opportunity.

Cross-posted at Asian Security Blog and Korean National Defense University.


Kim Jong Un’s Ascent (1): A Unique Negotiating Opportunity

Kim-Jong-un-Meme-GeneratorOr maybe not…

The following short piece for the Korean National Defense University was written after the Leap Day Deal, but before the rocket launch announcement. In the interim, the US has decided to cancel the leap day deal, which is entirely understandable, but a mistake nonetheless I think. NK’s elite has to do something for Kim Il Sung’s 100th birthday this month (the cause of the launch); the regime depends on these sorts of shows. But this is a lot more tame than other possible hijinks, like another clash in the Yellow Sea, could be. Kim Jong Un might be signaling us from within the almost certain, post-Jong Il quiet power struggle now gripping the Pyongyang. For a similar and, I think, persuasive argument, try this. My full text at KNDU can be found here.

Kim Jong Il’s death is more than just the passing of a chief executive; given North Korea’s (NK) hyperpersonalization, it is transformational. As such, Kim Jong Un’s ascent offers a unique opportunity to try engagement once again with NK. It may fail, as it has so often before, but the very fluid new circumstances make it worth a major effort. NK is such a dangerous country and the cold war standoff with SK so severe now, that to pass up this rare window would be a tremendous missed opportunity.

Negotiating with NK has been deeply frustrating for the three democracies (US, SK, Japan) of the Six Party Talks for two decades. Even China clearly finds NK fatiguing at this point. The general consensus is that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is not serious about denuclearization, unabashedly lies to interlocutors, and otherwise games negotiations for its own internal interests. Negotiations, at least under Kim Jong Il, seemed an end in themselves for the DPRK. They served the prestige of the regime, by keeping it in the global limelight. They served NK’s state survival, in that every Northern concession could be ‘sold’ for rice, fuel oil, spare parts, and other necessities. Frequently these concessions would then be retrenched under some fatuous circumstance in order to be re-sold again. US officials have noted repeatedly how America ‘will not buy the same horse again’ from NK.

Perhaps most disturbing, the seemingly endless negotiations provided myriad opportunities for NK to ‘shake down’ interlocutors for elite personal comforts like alcohol, HDTVs, and automobiles. Most famously, Kim Jong Il was personally bribed $500M to attend the 2000 inter-Korean summit. In general, the broad public perception among the relevant democracies is strongly negative; negotiations had devolved into a gimmicky venue for NK to ask/demand/blackmail for aid, concessions, and favors. Despite the Sunshine Policy and the 2005 Joint Statement, NK cheated and went nuclear anyway. Hence, aid to NK seemed more like appeasement – leading to ever greater Northern appetites rather than pliability. This is most clear in the SK population’s turn against the Sunshine Policy several years ago, and the Democratic Obama administration’s continuing unwillingness to extend any meaningful, unreciprocated aid (‘strategic patience’). By Kim Jong Il’s death last year, few in the democracies trusted NK to follow through on anything, and there was little interest anywhere in negotiation. Even China seemed unsure what to do with its ‘ally.’
But NK is – or, perhaps, was – a highly autocratic, neo-patrimonial system, in which almost all relevant policy flowed from Kim Jong Il and the tight coterie around him. That means that his death generates enormous uncertainty. In polities with established institutions that exist beyond their rotating office-holders, those institutions provide continuity as personnel change. Institutions are greater than their passing occupants, and future occupants will face precedents and long-established policies and procedures. These constraints prevent wild swings in policy. But in dictatorships, especially extremely personalized and centralized ones like NK, institutions are shallow and corrupted. Power flows not from one’s formal portfolio but one’s personal relationship with the autocratic clique. Hence the irrelevance of the NK presidency and the importance of the otherwise unknown National Defense Commission from which Kim Jong Il choose to rule. Therefore the replacement of a dictator, unlike the death of an elected president, opens huge policy space for change. Kim Jong Il’s death is more than just a chief executive passing; it is the personal-cum-structural transformation of the DPRK.

Hence Kim Jong Il’s death scrambles many of our established expectations of negotiations. It opens dramatic and unanticipated space for talks. This is a unique opportunity to engage NK in search of an alternative to the severe, cold war-style confrontation that has become the Korean norm. The new Kim may not be a Gorbachev, but there is no good reason not to engage as if a break with the past were possible. At worst, if NK falls back on its old, well-known bargaining tricks, the democracies can always retreat to their established confrontational postures. Furthermore, a democratic response to a Kim Jong Un outreach may be an external way to bolster his position against the military and others fearful of change. As Gorbachev parlayed international acclaim into domestic legitimacy to contest reactionary elements in the USSR, Kim may be able to do the same. We just do not know, but the current opportunity is so rare, that it would be a huge missed chance to not make a real effort.

The rest in three days.

Cross-posted at Asian Security Blog and the Korean National Defense University.


China’s Counter to the Asian ‘Pivot’ (2): ‘Swarms’ in the Pacific

Part one is here, where I noted China’s growing fear of encirclement (I get Chinese students a lot who talk about this). So, in the role of China, I argued for an Indian charm offensive to prevent encirclement, and how China might buy off Korea from the US camp by abandoning North Korea. Here are some more ‘B-Team’ style ideas for pushing back on US local dominance, including swarming the US navy in the western Pacific with cheap drones and missiles:

3. Build missiles and drones; don’t bother with a navy.

I’m not a big hardware guy, but it should be pretty obvious that trying to ‘out-ship’ the Americans one-to-one in the western Pacific (as the Kaiser tried to do against Britain before WWI) would be a ridiculously costly fool’s errand. Japan’s failed effort to dominate vast Pacific in the 1940s is a good object lesson in how hard that is and how the Americans will fight tooth-and-nail to prevent it. It makes far more sense to pursue an ‘access-denial’ approach in the medium-term, and China, unlike Iran in the Straits of Hormuz, actually has the money and technology to attempt this. China should pursue regional (East Asian) dominance first (as Mearsheimer has argued for a decade), and then tangle with the Americans over the much larger game of the Pacific later.

So access-denial – making it harder and harder for US and allied navies to operate west of Guam (the so-called second island chain strategy) – is a good first step. Throwing swarms of cheap rockets and drones against hugely expensive, slow-moving US carriers is vastly cheaper, fights asymmetrically where the US hegemon is weak, looks less threatening (defensive balancing), and can be marketing as defending Asia against US interventionism. And stick with robots and missiles. They’re getting very cheap and increasingly outclass human platforms. Planes that don’t carry pilots can stay aloft longer and project further, hovering over the battlespace for long hours. I just reviewed an essay for an SSCI journal on whether carriers in the Pacific will be obsolete in two decades (the author’s answer was probably). So let the Americans go on buying fewer and ever more expensive ships and planes costing mountains of money – and then ‘swarm’ them with masses of super-cheap missiles and drones. (On the issue of America’s tendency to buy few and expensive platforms instead of many and cheap, try this.)

4. Buy European debt.

Unless China switches to internal consumption soon, it will continue to rack up currency reserves from OECD states. Buying OECD sovereign debt is a great way to get leverage over those economies. And buying Euros is especially useful.

First, it pressures the US by reminding Americans of China’s leverage over the US budget. It reminds Americans that China can take its money elsewhere, and that a nasty US budget crunch would ensue a real rupture with China. Nothing fuels American hysteria so much as the idea that China ‘owns’ the US or something. Buying Euro-debt drives up US interest rates and keeps America fretting that it needs to be nice to its ‘banker’ and all that. Conversely, if China refuses to put its savings than into anything other than US T-bills, expect the the US to play tougher.

Second, buying Euro-debt helps keep the Europeans out of any tangles between China and the US camp in Asia. Just as European dependence on Russian oil threatens to neutralize the EU in the long struggle over Eastern Europe’s post-Cold War course, so a dependence on Chinese finance is a method to handicap NATO grandstanding about Asia. Besides, what else should China do with the money? Buy even more debt from the US? At some point, getting so vested in US T-Bills threatens China, because so much of its wealth is in one place, its possible strategic competitor.

5. Keep propping up troublemakers like Sudan and Zimbabwe.

Nothing distracts American policy-makers like upstart little countries that have the nerve – the nerve! – to stick their finger in the eye of the US. Don’t they recognize American exceptionalism! Witness Iran, Iraq, Venezuela, Cuba… And nothing convinces the US to waste mountains of money on unnecessary defense procurement and pointless conflicts like these guys. So if you’re China, propping up local baddies is great tool. Yes, it makes you look like you’ll support anyone (which is true, of course, because you’re nasty communist oligarchs after all who couldn’t care less about the Darfuris). But the benefits – wasteful military spending plus American hysteria and imperial overreaction, leading to consequent global unease with American power – more than outweighs the costs. Anything to keep the Americans saying crazy, patently ridiculous stuff like ‘Iran is a mortal threat to the US,’ reckless talk that scares the whole planet and alienates the developing world where 4/5 of the world’s population lives. Encourage the US to dissipate its energies in the periphery while the rest of the world worries that otherwise good ideas like the ‘responsibility to protect,’ e.g, is really neocolonialism, because American just can’t help itself. If American comes off as a revisionist hegemon that can’t help but pursue rogue states, China looks restrained by comparison.

Cross-posted at Asian Security Blog.


China’s Counter to the Asian ‘Pivot’ (1): Korea, India

So the US is supposedly going to pivot to Asia and start worrying more about China. This makes sense (which is probably why we won’t do it). The Middle East has become a pretty terrible sinkhole of American power. Increasingly the verdict on the war on terrorism is negative, and we should probably retrench from the Middle East (but we won’t because of the religious right’s interest in the region). Mearsheimer argued that if it weren’t for 9/11 we probably would have focused on China a lot earlier. Kaplan sketched how the US would defeat China in a war. I argued a few years ago, at the height of the ‘China-has-changed-into-a-scary-revisionist’ hype of 2009-11, that containment of China was likely (maybe even desirable Sad smile). And clearly China’s behavior over the last few years has raised the likelihood of at least soft containment; even the Vietnamese and the Filipinos are asking for US agreements now.

But I don’t see much Western discussion of how China would/should respond. So in the tradition of those old CIA A team/B team exercises, here are five ideas for how China should/could respond to its incipient encirclement:

1. Pull Korea into its orbit by dumping NK and supporting finlandized unity.

This is such a no-brainer. China’s big regional political problem is that no one really trusts it. So its allies are lame – NK and Myanmar, and even the latter is drifting now. The best way to head off the encirclement that hammered both the Germans and the Soviets in the 20th C is to break the ring with some decent allies, and nasty, dependent dictatorships are not enough. SK is a pretty central link in any containment ring around China, but one where China has a lot of leverage.

Before the 20th C, Korea was Confucian China’s closest ally/subordinate for a millennium. Korean culture is very close to China (even if modern nationalist Koreans don’t want to admit it): the language is shot through with Sinic roots, the philosophy of Confucianism comes from China, social traditions are similar (food, dress, etc.). Koreans will not tell you that China is a big enemy of Korea, no matter how many Japanese and US scholars, pundits, etc. say it is. I see this in class and at conferences all the time. Structural realism and liberalism both say that Japan and Korea should ally against China and NK. Nope! The average Korean just won’t buy that no matter how many times you repeat your IR logic. Instead, he thinks that Japan, and even the US, is a greater threat to Korea than China. Dokdo activates Koreans a lot more than China’s growth.
Also Korea has a long tradition of anti-Americanism too. Yes, they are a good ally to the US, but mostly because they need us a lot more than most US allies, not because they really like us that much. Lots of Koreans that I meet think that the US is heavily responsible for the division of the country, bullies SK leaders, forces unfair trade deals on the country, sends pot-smoking English teacher to prey on their young girls, etc. All this may or may not be true – hold that thought – but consider what an opening this gives China.

Finally, Koreans really want unity, and China is probably best placed to give it to them (more so than the US actually). I have written about this a lot before, but if we accept that NK is all but dependent on China now, then China could basically force a deal in which Korea got unity on southern terms, but only if US Forces in Korea left. Yes, lots of Chinese see NK as a buffer between the robust democracies of Japan, SK, and the US. But NK is a losing horse. Someday it will crash and burn, and how much does it really help China now anyway? Its elites are so unpredictable than the CCP must always be wondering wth they will do this week. A Chinese-backed finlandized unification would electrify the region, neutralize a major link in the ring, isolate Japan, and confuse the US (would the US oppose unity to keep troops in Korea and Japan?).

2. Keep flattering India.

India and China will never be too close (barring a democratic revolution in China). Their long border and history of tension makes the relationship tough. But China would at least benefit if India did not throw in its lot completely with the US camp in Asia. In 2010, I predicted that India would have US bases within the decade because of the almost tailor-made fit between India and the US. That is, both India and the US share both values (liberal democracy) and security concerns (salafism and China). No other major US ally has that nice contiguity (see the chart below). But a tight Indo-US link would be clearly worsen China’s position, complementing the current tight US-Japan link and providing an obvious anchor on the other side to a ring running from Japan through Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Australia, and India. That really would be encirclement along the lines of what happened to Germany before 1914.  But India isn’t really following this script. They’re hedging the US somewhat, and the evolution of the responsibility to protect into triumphalist western regime chagne in Libya looks to New Dehli like neocolonialism all over again. There’s an ‘BRICS solidarity’ opening for China here. Given the India is still pretty soft on American option, a charm offensive, however humbling, would be wise.

Great Britain/NATO
Japan/East Asia

Part two will come in 3 days.

Cross-posted at Asian Security Blog.


The US will not ‘Pivot’ much to Asia (3): We can’t afford it

Here are parts one and two, where I argued that there is no constituency in the US for the pivot, and that Asia is so culturally distant from the US, that Americans are unlikely to care enough to sustain the pivot. But we also don’t really need to pivot, nor do we have the money for it:

3. The ME is characterized by so many nondemocracies that the US must be heavily invested (at least to meet current US goals – oil, Israel, counterterrorism). Katzenstein noted this; America has no strong subordinate anchor-state in the region (like Germany in Europe and Japan in Asia). This is why the GOP particularly emphasizes an enduring, semi-imperial presence in the Gulf. Besides tiny Israel, we don’t have the friends necessary for things like the dual containment (Iran and Iraq) of the 90s, and or the Iraq war of the 2000s. So we have to do it all ourselves.

By contrast in Asia, we have lots of allies and semi-friends who are strong and functional – Japan, Australia, Korea, and Taiwan most obviously – with improving relations with India and Vietnam too. Now, if we are smart – or maybe just because we are broke – we can push a lot of the costs of our goals onto them. Specifically, much of the pivot has been assumed to be targeted at China. But why should we encircle, contain, or otherwise provoke China, when the frontline states should be it doing it first? In other words, we don’t have to pivot toward Asia unless China threatens to invade everybody, because places like India, Korea, and Japan will work hard to build and maintain a multipolar equilibrium. They don’t want to be dominated by China, and they will suffer a lot more than we will if China becomes the regional hegemon. So we can hover in the background, offshore, over the horizon, as we always have. Given the strength of liberal democracy in Asia (unlike the ME), there is no need for us to be there in strength.

This is why I don’t think the ‘pivot’ language is helpful, because it’s not necessary. We can do what we have always done – provide an offshore balance that keeps the peace and allows trade so we can all buy cheap crap at Walmart. So we don’t need to do anything new; let’s just keep doing the same. And let’s not get ‘neo-conned’ into believing that Asia can’t manage its own affairs unless ‘bound to lead’ America is front-and-center with its hands in everything managing everyone’s choices. That’s the kind of paranoid pseudo-omipotence that got us mired in the Middle East for the last 20 years. We can pivot if we must, but let’s not do it because of our impatient, ‘we-have-to-run-all-big-issues-in-the-world’ foreign policy establishment. We don’t need a ‘pivot,’ unless that is being used as rhetorical cover to justify escaping from the ME (which is not a bad idea actually, if there’s no other way).

My concern here is the globalist ambition of the US foreign policy establishment, especially the Beltway think-tank set which is so deeply vested in American semi-empire. The pivot smacks of one of those ‘big idea’ schemes from places like CFR or CSIS to push America into the frontline of every problem and hotspot on the planet. As US over-involvement in the ME winds down, let’s not get pushed into yet another round of overbasing, overspending, and overhyped threat assessments (this time focused on China or NK) to keep the post-9/11 military boom rolling along and keep think-tank pundits employed.

4. Finally, I think the Asia pivot will be less than we think, simply because the US can’t afford it anymore. It should be pretty obvious to everyone that the US needs to spend less, and that money which could fund domestic entitlements is going to defense instead. The obvious opportunity cost of buying aircraft carriers to semi-contain China is cutting Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. (Defense, plus M/M/SS, comprise around 70% of the US budget now.) The pivot is a classic guns vs butter trade-off. In the 1990s, as we reached the zenith of US dominance over the ME after the Gulf War, we could afford it because the Cold War was over, the US economy boomed in the 90s, and the US budget gap was healing. But in the 2000s, W just borrowed to maintain and expand US dominance. And now, post-Great Recession, American debt is reaching crisis levels. So,  given the size of China, the expense of a pivot-cum-containment would be astronomical. I suppose we could try it; we’d have allied assistance that we didn’t have in the ME for dual containment. But still, China is so big, it is hard to imagine a major US build-up that wouldn’t cost huge sums that just aren’t there anymore. It will become more and more obvious to the median voter in the next 20 years that domestic entitlements are suffering to fund the continuing post-9/11 US military expansion. I don’t think Americans will choose guns over butter (aircraft carriers instead of checks for grandma) if forced, and Ron Paul’s candidacy is proving that even within the GOP, there is an growing constituency for less war, less basing, less military spending. This, plus the Democratic coalition’s general disinterest in the pivot, will handicap any effort to borrow yet further to fund an Asia shift.

Cross-post on Asian Security Blog.


The US will not ‘Pivot’ much to Asia (2): We don’t really care @ Asia

This is my Asian pivot.

Here is part one, where I argued that there is no constituency in the US to support an Asian pivot besides the some businesspeople.

2. Connected to the first point is that Americans don’t know much about Asia. Of course, it’s true Americans don’t know a lot about the world generally. We are a superpower, so we don’t have to know about others; others have to know about us. That’s why ‘they’ learn English, and we think Urdu is a country in the Sahara. We are geographically far away, so touring Europe or Asia is very expensive. We don’t (need to) speak foreign languages. But beyond that general ‘ugly American’ stuff, I think Americans are particularly ignorant about Asia. Asia is the most culturally different social space in the world from the US I can think of, with the possible exception of central Africa. Latin America, Europe, Oceania, and Russia are all in, or close enough to, Western Civilization that what we learned in high school civics classes can apply. They look like us (kind of); they eat like us, their languages are fairly similar (Indo-European roots); they dress like us; they worship like us. The tribal cultural gap (how others eat, dress, talk, worship, look, write, etc.) is not that wide .

Even the Middle East is more like the US than China. Islam is an abrahamic monotheistic faith, Israel is pretty western, and decades of western intervention in the Middle East has made it a little easier. And since 9/11, most westerners have learned a lot more about Islam and the Arabs.

Now think about what you know about Asia before Western imperialists arrive in the 19th C. Who was the emperor of China when the Opium War occurred? Do you know even when the Opium War occurred? Do Obama, Romney or Clinton, although I bet they know when the (earlier) French Revolution happened? Do you know anything about India before Clive stole everything he could get his hands on? Did you know that Qianlong was fairly the Napoleon of east Asia? But you know who Napoleon was, right? And if you think that ‘modern’ Asia is what really matters, did you know that most Asian societies have a deeply historical sense of themselves going way back before white people showed up? If you think Tang is an orange drink before you think it’s a Chinese dynasty, then your Asian pivot is over before it started.

But you say, nobody but tiresome, preening academics like you, Kelly, learn historical names and dates any more, but you love Chinese take-out. Ok, so what do you know of Asian culture, in even the broadest terms? Have you seen an Asian movie besides Crouching Tiger? Do you know the difference between sushi and sashemi? Can you name one Asian author? Do you know who Ganesha is? Can you read any non-latinate Asian script? Did you know that the CIA rates Korean, Chinese, and Japanese at its hardest acquisition level (4)? How many Americans do you know who speak those languages? Do you in which millennium Angkor Wat was built? Can you even use chopsticks? Do you honestly think evangelical voters in the GOP primary even care about any of this? Even worse, do you think your average neo-con, ‘America has a duty to police the world’ think-tanker could answer these questions without Wikipedia?

Now if you, a reader of this specialty blog, couldn’t answer these questions without struggling, what does that say about the American electorate’s cultural-intellectual ability sustain this pivot? When we got involved in Western Europe in the 50s, the US public, mostly descended from European immigrants, had a pretty good idea of what Europe was, so a ‘North Atlantic community’ was a coherent concept. When we became the hegemon of the Middle East in the 1990s, the deeply religious attachment of many Americans provided a strong foundation for that commitment (however much it may have lead us astray). Now, what exactly is our cultural, intellectual, linguistic, religious, etc. connection to Asia that will sell this to a public wary of more wars and interterventions? So if you wonder why tiny Iran is so much more important to Americans than huge China or India, well here you go – the cultural distance distance between Asia and the US is massive. (Or, if this is boring you, just go watch Gran Turino and Borat again).

And I will admit to struggling with this too. I have been here too many years to speak Korean as badly as I do. I don’t know my Korean dynasts as I should. Asia is hard. Absolutely. But that is my whole point. For Americans, for whom travelling means the Eiffel Tower and a foreign language means ‘Spanglish,’ Asia is like another planet. The cultural differences – language, food, writing, religion, music – are wider than any other I can think of, with the possible exception of Bantu Africa. I highly doubt Americans will empathize with Asians the way we do with Europeans, Israelis, Australians, and to a lesser extent, Latin Americans.

More in a few days.

Cross-posted on Asian Security Blog.


The US will not ‘Pivot’ much to Asia (1): We don’t really Want to

I found this image here.

So the US pivot toward Asia is all the rage in foreign policy now. Obama and Secretary Clinton genuinely seem to believe in this, and there good reasons for it. Briefly put, Asia has the money, people, and guns to dramatically impact world politics in a way that no other region can now. But I think the US Asian pivot won’t happen much nonetheless, because: 1) Americans, especially Republicans, don’t care about Asia, but they really care about the Middle East (a point the GOP presidential debates made really obvious); 2) Americans know less about Asia than any part of the world, bar Africa perhaps; 3) intra-Asian soft balancing (i.e., almost everyone lining up informally against China) means we don’t really need to be that involved, because our local allies will do most of the work; 4) we’re too broke to replicate in Asia the sort of overwhelming presence we built in the Middle East in the last decades.

On the face of it, a US pivot seems like a good idea, and if the US followed secular, rationalist, (realist-defined) national interest criteria, we would indeed pivot. Looking at global regions, Asia pretty clearly outweighs the rest. Europe and Latin America are mostly democratic, fairly prosperous, and at peace. We don’t really need to be in these places, and we shouldn’t either abet Euro-free-riding or worsen our already bad history in Latin America. Getting out serves our (and their) interests. Africa, sadly, remains a backwater of US interest, with no clear (national security) reason for an already overstretched US to do much. The Middle East, to my mind, is wildly overrated for us. Like Walt, Sullivan, Friedman, and so many others now, I think it’s fairly obvious, ten years after 9/11, that: our relationship with Israel has become unhealthily close, almost obsessive; Islamic terrorism is a wildly overrated threat to the US which we risk worsening by the inevitable blowback to all our action in the Middle East; and we should be moving toward alternative energy so that we can get out of the Gulf. In short, Europe and the Western Hemisphere are basically democratic peace zones, Africa is (sorry) irrelevant, and the ME needs to be cut down to size in our foreign policy phobias.

That leaves Asia, and the reasons for attention should be blindingly obvious. Asia’s economies are growing fast, almost uniformly so. Even place like Cambodia and Vietnam are clocking 5+% growth now. Asian savers and banks fund the ridiculous US budget deficit and export lots of stuff we buy. The number of people Asia has added to the global labor pool (2 billion in the last 25 years) has kept global inflation down for a generation (the largest ever one-time shift in the ratio of capital to labor). Asian markets are now major export destinations for American industries (including academia).

Next, there are a lot of Asians. This seems trite, but if you consider that there are only around 500 million people stretching from Rabat to Islamabad, but 3 times that just in India (!), you quickly get a sense that sheer demographics plays a role. Half the world’s population lives in South, Southeast, and Northeast Asia. And unlike many people in the greater Middle East, Africa, or even Latin America, these people participate in the global economy a lot – as low-cost labor, big savers, importers, exporters, etc.

Third, lots of people means inevitable friction, and lots of money means lots of weapons. Especially NE Asia sometimes feels like Europe before WWI: big, tightly-packed, fast-growing economies; lots of money for bigger and bigger militaries; lots of nationalism and territorial grievances to create sparks. Regional conflict in Asia would dwarf anything since the Cold War. And specifically, China’s rise to regional hegemony would have very obvious security ramifications for the US.

So all this says Asia’s important, but the trends of US domestic politics run strongly against this. I think the Asian pivot for the US won’t take off, at least not for another decade:

1. Who is the constituency for a US shift to Asia? Who in America actually cares about this region enough to drive a major realignment away from long-standing US interests in Europe and the Middle East? I guess the business community cares; they pushed PMFN for China 15 years ago, but they’re souring on China today because of its relentless mercantilism. Perhaps Asian-Americans would like to see this, in the same way that Hispanic-Americans impact US south-of-the-border policy. But there aren’t that many Asian-Americans (4-5%), and they don’t strike me as an organized voice loudly demanding this pivot. Perhaps foreign policy elites want this, but to my mind the think-tank/op-ed pages set (AEI, WSJ, NYT, Fox, Heritage) still seem more interested in the Middle East – when is the last time you read an op-ed about US basing in Japan or Korea, or US CT cooperation with Indonesia? The relevant Asian security stuff regarding the pivot is still scarcely on the radar of the regular media (compared to the coverage of US domestic politics or the Middle East). Finally, does Obama’s electoral coalition care about or want this? As a rule of thumb, the less wealthy you are, the less you care about far-off issues like foreign policy, so it’s unlikely that the underprivileged and youth who helped Obama win want or even care about this. While college educated whites, who also broke for Obama, likely support this, the rest of the Democratic coalition traditionally focuses on domestic issues like education, social mobility, the courts, redistribution and safety nets, etc. Maybe labor unions care a bit, but their trade concerns are dated and generic, rather than Asia-specific, and they probably want less not more engagement with Asia.

But most importantly, the Republican Party, which I think worries about foreign policy a lot more than the Dems, really cares about the Middle East. Remember that something like 30-40% of Americans claim to have had a born-again experience. For them, Israel is, easily, America’s most important ally. Their post-9/11 Kulturkamp with Islam is a central value; they know that worshipping Allah is blasphemous. In that fetid Christianist mindset, what are Korea or China but factory floors far away who make stuff for Walmart? Asia doesn’t activate or mobilize these ‘Jacksonian-Christianist’ voters. When Santorum said in the New Hampshire debate that Iran’s nuclear program is the most important issue in US foreign policy, he was channeling probably one-third of the electorate. Romney and Gingrich too discuss Iran constantly and pledge ‘no daylight’ with Israel. By contrast, what does the Tea Party know or care about China or India? At least Islam looks like a ‘heathen’ analogue to Christianity (a book, similar godhead, prophets) to the US right, but what to make of Hinduism, Confucianism, Shintoism, Taoism? Does anyone really believe Joe Tea-partier cares a wit about that stuff? It’s all about culture and religion to the base of the American right these days, and Asia is like outer space to those voters. Where is the ideology, the excitement, the fervor that created the wild paranoias like ‘WWIV’ or the ‘long war’ regarding Islam, in regard to Asia? Zippo…

In short, the Democrats don’t really care about Asia one way or another, besides a vague sense that China is ‘cheating,’ and Republicans want to keep the focus on the Middle East.

More in a few days.

Cross-posted on Asian Security Blog.


American Relative Decline? No Dansk!

Go Luxemburg!

According to Michael Beckley, the United States should be deeply concerned about the power-political position of Luxemburg, Denmark, Switzerland, and others. Okay, not really. But that’s the implication of Beckley’s top-line response to Erik Voeten’s dissection of his recent article in International Security.

Normally economic growth rates dovetail with changes in wealth gaps. But these measures often diverge when comparing a rich country like the United States to a poor one like China. 

Since 1991, China’s per capita income rose 11 percent annually while America’s rose 3.5 percent annually. But 11 percent of $900 (China’s per capita income in 1991) is less than 3.5 percent of $24,000, the United States’ per capita income for that year. As a result, the average Chinese citizen is $17,000 poorer compared with the average American today than he was in 1991.

There’s a reason the United States doesn’t worry about Luxemburg revisionism; although the country’s 2011 average income of $84K (PPP) places it second in the world (the United States is seventh), its total GDP (PPP) of $41,271M is well below that of the United States, which weighs in at a hefty $15,065,000M. In consequence, the US enjoys a significantly higher tax base to convert into military hardware and logistics than does Luxemburg — rendering the former the most powerful country in global history and the latter a very nice place to be a banker.

Contra Beckley, the point of comparing growth rates (in these debates) is to get some sense of the distribution of total wealth in coming years. Insisting, as Beckley does, that relative growth rates are irrelevant because they “compare countries to their former selves” strikes me as deliberately obtuse. We look at relative growth rates in conjunction with existing wealth — which is why Washington worries about future Chinese capabilities much more than it does that of Uzbekistan.
Of course we can “imagine,” as Beckley suggests, reasons why having a higher per-capita income might be useful when it comes to converting resources into military power. But we can also “imagine” reasons why having a low per-capita income makes it cheaper to develop, build, and field military forces. Moreover, there’s something deeply wrong with this line of argument. China’s middle class numbers roughly 250 million people. The entire population of the United States is about 307 million. There are a host of reasons why China should be concerned about a population of urban poor and peasants that numbers around 750 million, but I’m pretty confident that the impact of per-capita GDP on military capabilities isn’t one of them. 
I agree with Beckley that the United States enjoys a host of advantages in innovation and technology — and particularly military technology — that, in conjunction with its total wealth, global alliances, and other factors will keep it hovering around the top of the global power hierarchy for a great while longer.   But even if China isn’t able to close the innovation gap, it still has access to enough cutting-edge technology to produce perfectly serviceable ships, planes, tanks, missiles, and the like. And it is worth keeping in mind that the US and the USSR defeated Germany in World War II despite the Third Reich’s ability to field more sophisticated military technology. 
At the end of the day, Beckley’s argument strikes me as an example of the “if you squint hard enough” syndrome. Yes, there are a variety of factors that give the United States an advantage over would-be peer competitors. And yes, US relative decline has been profoundly overstated by some participants in these kinds of discussions. Yet if China — as an aggregate entity — continues to become wealthier relative to the United States, we should expect it to be able to acquire an awful lot of stuff relevant to military power… whether tanks, satellites, and aerial refueling capabilities, or a large highly-educated workforce and cutting-edge technology. Countries such as Denmark and Luxemburg? Not so much.
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