Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Emphasize Security in Dealing with North Korea

North Korea is a multilateral conundrum. Despite enduring decades of confrontation and isolation, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea continues to accelerate nuclear development, miniaturize nuclear weapons, and produce intercontinental missiles.

Failure to restrain the DPRK, along with understandable horror at its mass violation of human rights, caused some analysts to urge Washington to emphasize improving human rights and overthrowing the Kim dynasty. For instance, Carl Gershman of the National Endowment for Democracy recently argued that “human rights must come first.” After the recent tightening of sanctions against the North, the Wall Street Journal declared: “Now is the time to squeeze even harder with a goal of regime change.”

The North Korean nuclear crisis has been raging for more than a quarter century. Unfortunately, dealing with Pyongyang requires choosing the least bad alternative.

So far negotiations have failed. Few observers believe the DPRK is prepared to trade away its nuclear arsenal.

China Military Build-Up Threatens U.S. Dominance, Not Its Security

The U.S. dominates the globe militarily. Washington possesses the most powerful armed forces, accounts for roughly 40 percent of the globe’s military outlays, and is allied with every major industrialized state save China and Russia.

Yet the bipartisan hawks who dominate U.S. foreign policy see threats at every turn. For some, replacing the Soviet Union as chief adversary is the People’s Republic of China. They view another military build-up as the only answer.

The PRC’s rise is reshaping the globe. Of greatest concern in Washington is China’s military build-up. The Department of Defense publishes an annual review of China’s military. The latest report warns that the PRC “continued to improve key capabilities,” including ballistic and cruise missiles, aircraft and air defense, information capabilities, submarines, amphibious and airborne assault units, and more.

When Washington Should Say Nothing

North Korea appears headed for a fifth nuclear test. The U.S. joined South Korea and Japan in warning Pyongyang against violating its international obligations. Just as the three governments have done for the last quarter century.

Alas, they cannot stop the North from moving forward with its nuclear program, at least at reasonable cost. Washington should learn the value of saying nothing

The U.S. stands apart from the rest of the world. American officials circle the globe lecturing other nations. Yet other governments rarely heed Washington. It doesn’t matter whether they are friends or foes. Other states act in their, not America’s, interest.

Perhaps the most famous recent “red line” set by Washington was against Syria’s apparent use of chemical weapons in the ongoing civil war. However, the president’s off-hand comment promising action never made sense, since America would have gained nothing by going to war.

A Difficult Truth: Noninterventionism’s Less Tolerant Faction

Libertarians and other advocates of a noninterventionist foreign policy—or its close cousin, a policy of realism and restraint —have grappled with how to respond to the candidacy of Donald Trump.  Some of Trump’s policy positions are refreshing and sensible.  His hostility to wars for regime change and nation building are a gratifying contrast to the enthusiasm for such ventures that both neoconservative Republicans and humanitarian interventionist Democrats have exhibited in recent decades.  Trump’s insistence that America’s longstanding allies in both Europe and East Asia do far more for their own defense also has at least the potential to significantly reduce the republic’s excessive and obsolete security burdens. Finally, his desire to avoid confrontational relationships with major powers such as Russia and China  is a rare voice of prudence among America’s political elite, and it has understandable appeal to noninterventionists.

But there are other Trump positions that are deeply disturbing, if not outright offensive to the kind of noninterventionists (or “cosmopolitan realists”) who have filled the ranks of Cato’s foreign policy program.  Trump’s hostility to free trade is both disappointing and myopic.  But his stance on immigration is even worse.  His proposal to build a wall along the border with Mexico to keep out undocumented Hispanic migrants is not only impractical, it conveys a message of hostility to such populations. Trump’s stance on Muslim immigration, especially his call for a “temporary” ban, conveys such hostility with even greater clarity.

Obama Announces End to Arms Embargo on Vietnam

President Obama’s trip to Asia is off to a running start with the announcement that the United States will lift a decades-long American arms embargo on Vietnam. Initial commentary on the announcement has been generally positive, portraying the end of the embargo as the most recent in a string of events signaling improved relations with America’s former adversary in an increasingly dangerous region. So, what comes next in the U.S.-Vietnam defense relationship?

1. How will China react?

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs had a relatively quiet response to the announcement thus far. However, increased American military support for Vietnam fits into the narrative of a U.S.-led effort to contain China. It would not be surprising if more aggressive rhetoric comes to the fore in Chinese media over the coming days. China has also shown a willingness to respond to U.S. shows of force or resolve with military displays of its own. Vietnam’s capacity to resist Chinese coercion should increase once arms sales begin, but if China responds to such sales with assertive counter-moves then the security dilemma in the South China Sea (SCS) could become worse.

2. What equipment will Vietnam buy?

Given the challenges it faces in the SCS, Vietnam will likely place a premium on military hardware that improves maritime domain awareness and the ability to quickly respond to infringement on its claimed territories. For example, in 2015 the United States pledged $18 million to help Vietnam purchase U.S.-made Metal Shark patrol boats for its coast guard. Sales of more advanced or lethal systems may be more difficult given the challenges of integrating such systems into an arsenal already dominated by Russian weapons and the high price tag of U.S. hardware. Additionally, Vietnam has overlapping territorial claims with the Philippines, a U.S. treaty ally. Vietnam-Philippine squabbling is not the primary threat in the SCS right now, but Washington policymakers have an incentive not to approve sales of equipment that could give Vietnam a significant advantage over the Philippines.

3. How does lifting the arms embargo advance U.S. goals in the SCS?

In a press conference announcing the end of the embargo, President Obama stated “the decision to lift the ban was not based on China,” but was part of a broader process of normalization with Vietnam. This statement is only partly true. On the one hand, U.S.-Vietnam relations have greatly improved over the years and this is the next logical step in normalization. On the other hand, assertive Chinese activity in the SCS is the most pressing security concern in the region and lifting the arms embargo should improve Vietnam’s ability to deal with it. Improving the military capacity of U.S. allies and partners is a low-risk way to increase the costs of Chinese actions, which seems to be the current U.S. objective in the SCS. Unfortunately, “imposing costs” isn’t an end state.

Lifting the arms embargo on Vietnam is an important step toward the best course of action for the United States in the SCS: using weapons sales and economic support to bolster the self-defense capabilities of friendly states. It will be virtually impossible for America’s partners to achieve military parity with China on their own, but with the right mix of weapons systems and strategy they could present serious challenges to Chinese military action. More capable allies and partners should enable the United States to be a balancer of last resort in the SCS, instead of the first line of defense. 

Will Donald Trump Change U.S. Foreign Policy?

When the Berlin Wall fell, Warsaw Pact dissolved, and Soviet Union split apart, U.S. foreign policy became obsolete almost overnight. For a brief moment advocates of a quasi-imperial foreign policy seemed worried.

For instance, NATO advocates were reduced to talking about having the anti-Soviet military compact promote student exchanges and battle drug smuggling. But advocates of preserving every commitment, alliance, and deployment quickly recovered their confidence, insisting that the status quo now was more important than ever. Since then the political elite has remained remarkably united in backing America’s expanding international military role.

GOP presidential candidates competed over how much to intervene. The Democratic frontrunner pushed for U.S. military intervention in the Balkans as First Lady, voted for the Iraq war as Senator, and orchestrated the Libya campaign as Secretary of State.

Breaking with this pro-war consensus is Donald Trump. No one knows what he would do as president and his foreign policy pronouncements fall far short of a logical and consistent foreign policy program. Nevertheless, he was the most pacific GOP contender, perhaps save Sen. Rand Paul.

Donald Trump Criticizes Washington’s Policy Elite—With Cause

Donald Trump is headed toward the Republican Party’s presidential nomination. He’s among the most pugnacious of candidates.

Many of his political battles could reduce his chance of getting elected president. But his fight with foreign policy professionals might help. Given the disastrous course of U.S. foreign policy in recent years, there’s little public support for more military adventurism in the Middle East.

Trump clearly is out-of-step with the neoconservatives and militaristic interventionists who dominated the Republican Party of late. One of Trump’s most important pledges addressed personnel, not policy

He declared: “My goal is to establish a foreign policy that will endure for several generations. That’s why I also look and have to look for talented experts with approaches and practical ideas, rather than surrounding myself with those who have perfect resumes but very little to brag about except responsibility for a long history of failed policies and continued losses at war. We have to look for new people.”

Trump may have been reacting against the open letter from 117 self-described members of “the Republican national security community,” including leading neoconservatives and right-leaning interventionists of other stripes. They denounced Trump as “fundamentally dishonest,” acting like “a racketeer,” being “hateful,” and having a vision that “is wildly inconsistent and unmoored in principle.” Their critique contained important truths, but was fueled by Trump’s lack of enthusiasm for new wars.

Trump’s promise to ignore the usual foreign policy suspects also may reflect media coverage of some members of the very same policy elite publicly stating their willingness to serve Trump—though only reluctantly, of course. An unnamed GOP official told the Washington Post: “Leaving any particular president completely alone and bereft from the best advice people could give him just doesn’t sound responsible.”