Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

End America’s Defense Dole for South Korea

South Korean President Park Geun-hye postponed her trip to the U.S. because of a public health emergency at home. Unfortunately, the delay won’t make a future Park trip any more useful.

There is much on which the two nations should cooperate. But the military alliance is outdated. Despite having surged past the North, enjoying a 40-to-1 economic advantage and 2-to-1 population edge, Seoul continues to play the helpless dependent, unable even to command its own forces in a war.

South Korea eventually took off economically and adopted democracy. Yet through it all South Korea’s defense dependency on America persisted.

The South Korean government isn’t even willing to take over operational control, or OPCON, of its own forces in wartime. It isn’t ready, it insists. Yet North Korea commands its forces.

Of course, some South Koreans admit that they most fear shifting command would encourage Washington to withdraw its troops. Thus, their objective is to appear as helpless as possible as long as possible to retain the U.S. troop tripwire.

The present arrangement obviously is bad for America. Protecting South Korea isn’t cheap.

Washington and Havana Officially Restore Diplomatic Ties

It was long overdue. After over half a century of unsuccessfully trying to bring about regime change in Cuba through isolation, President Obama announced today that Washington has reached a deal with Havana to reopen embassies on July 20th.

There was a lot of posturing in the process, particularly from Cuba. At some point, the island’s dictator even said that restoring diplomatic ties would not be possible unless, among other things the United States returns Guantanamo and pays economic reparations for 50 years of embargo. In the end, it came down to the removal of Cuba from the U.S. list of states that sponsor terrorism and an agreement about the movement of U.S. diplomatic personnel around the island.

By restoring diplomatic ties, removing Cuba from the terrorist-sponsor list, and relaxing some elements of the embargo and the travel ban, the Obama administration has gone as far as it can using its executive authority. Lifting the outstanding elements of the embargo and travel ban is a prerogative of Congress. As it is, it looks unlikely that a bill in that regard will reach Obama’s desk for the remainder of his term.

Polls show not only considerable bipartisan support for Obama’s policy toward Cuba, but also a majority of Cuban Americans favoring rapprochement. Sooner rather than later, Congress–and the Republican presidential field–will realize the futility of sticking with the status quo.

Under no circumstances should we deceive ourselves on the current nature of the Cuban regime. It remains a Stalinist dictatorship. Dissidents are still harassed and arbitrarily arrested. The much-hyped economic reforms announced by Raúl Castro eight years ago have been too timid and seem more aimed at allowing Cubans to survive in the private sector without becoming prosperous.

However, political and economic isolation failed at weakening the Castro regime. American policy actually strengthened the Cuban government by providing itself as a scapegoat for Cuba’s disastrous economic policies and as a victim of U.S. aggression, thereby rallying support from all over the world.

Despite the embargo and travel ban still remaining in place, this is a historic move by the Obama administration.

Washington Is Fostering Anti-U.S. Cooperation between Russia and China

Relations between the United States and Russia continue to deteriorate, with the U.S.-led NATO alliance planning to station troops and heavy weaponry on Russia’s border.  At the same time that U.S.-Russian relations are reaching frosty levels not seen since the days of the Cold War, ties between China and Russia are growing noticeably closer.  Symbolizing that trend was a powerful visual seen on television sets around the world in early May.  Chinese president Xi Jinping not only attended the celebration in Moscow marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, he occupied the position of honor at the side of Russian president Vladimir Putin.  The image was especially powerful because the United States and several other major Western powers pointedly refused to attend the gathering to show their continuing displeasure with Russia’s annexation of Crimea and aid to rebel forces in eastern Ukraine. 

As I point out in a recent article in Aspenia Online, the events in Moscow were only one signal of a Russian-Chinese rapprochement that seems  motivated by a joint desire to curb America’s global dominance.  Bilateral economic agreements between Moscow and Beijing are on the rise, including a May 2015 $400 billion deal to sell Russian natural gas to the voracious Chinese economy.  In addition, Russia has now replaced Saudi Arabia as China’s principal source of oil.

The prevailing assumption in the West that Russia and China would become geopolitical competitors, if not outright adversaries, in Central Asia also apparently needs to be reassessed.  Following the May 8 Putin-Xi summit in Moscow, the two leaders signed a new declaration announcing the coordinated development of the so-called Silk Road Economic Belt in Central Asia.  Although Russian and Chinese ambitions in that region are still in conflict over the long run, it appears that both governments have declared a truce in their rivalry.

Meet China Half-Way to Maintain Peace

Great Britain long reigned as the globe’s greatest maritime power, determined to maintain a navy as strong as those of its next two competitors combined. However, by the end of the 19th century, America and Germany had ended London’s economic primacy.

Britain chose to accommodate the United States and confront Germany. The result was an enduring alliance during the first and two world wars before the global order was settled after the second.

Washington faces a similar choice in dealing with the People’s Republic of China. There are many differences in circumstances, of course, but again the globe’s dominant force, accustomed to premier status, faces a serious challenge from a new power mixing rapid economic growth, nationalistic exuberance, and powerful grievances. Increasingly the United States faces a choice between accommodation and confrontation.

Into this imbroglio steps Lyle Goldstein, a professor at the National War College. In his new book, Meeting China Halfway: How to Defuse the Emerging US-China Rivalry (Georgetown University Press) he offers a strategy of cooperation for the two nations, which includes recognizing natural but much-reviled “spheres of influence.”

Goldstein encourages both nations to reward reach other’s good behavior. Forging a successful relationship requires Americans to honestly confront the past, which continues to color Chinese attitudes. From there, Goldstein discusses several difficult issues between the two nations and proposes policies which would encourage “cooperation spirals.”

Europeans Rely on America to Protect Them from Vladimir Putin

Europe is at risk from Russia, we are told. But no one in Europe seems to care. Even the countries supposedly in Vladimir Putin’s gun sites aren’t much concerned.

Even if Russia threatens the continent, the Europeans don’t plan on defending themselves. Instead, virtually everyone expects America to save them, if necessary. Washington is being played for a sucker as usual.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter recently announced that the United States. will contribute aircraft, weapons, and personnel to the “Very High Readiness Joint Task Force.” That’s not all. Separately, the Obama administration plans to pre-position tanks and other equipment for a combat brigade in Eastern Europe.

Carter explained that Washington was acting “because the United States is deeply committed to the defense of Europe, as we have for decades.” America is more committed to Europe than are Europeans.

Two Years On, the TSA Is Still Not Subject to Law

Two years ago tomorrow, the Transportation Security Administration stopped accepting comments on its proposal to use “Advanced Imaging Technology” for primary screening at airports. The end of the comment period on nude body scanning would ordinarily promise the issuance of a final rule that incorporates knowledge gained by hearing from the public. But this is no ordinary rulemaking. This is an agency that does not follow the law.

It was almost four years ago that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ordered TSA to do a notice-and-comment rulemaking on its nude body scanning policy. Few rules “impose [as] directly and significantly upon so many members of the public,” the court said in ordering the agency to “promptly” publish its policy, take comments, and consider them in formalizing its rules.

The South China Sea Is Not Worth the Risk of War

Contrasting Chinese and American perspectives were on display at the recent Shangri-La Dialogue, during which Defense Secretary Ashton Carter challenged Beijing over its island expansion program. Privately the possibility of war has emerged as a serious topic in Washington. Both nations should draw back from their increasingly dangerous game of chicken.

China’s territorial claims involve a complex mix of control, historical practice, international law, and treaty. In the view of most observers, Beijing’s claims are extravagant. Yet they are not unprecedented.

The early American republic made aggressive claims against both Canada and Mexico. The United States won its claims in the first case through conquest and in the second instance through negotiation. Great Britain’s decision to accommodate the United States yielded long-term peace and future friendship.

As territory most of the islands are worthless rocks. However, they carry with them control over surrounding waters and underlying resources.

While Washington lays claim to no land, it insists on free transit in surrounding waters. Equally important, with China expanding many Americans want the United States to contain Beijing.

Indeed, there is increasing comment among the chattering classes about the importance of making China “pay a price” for its aggressive behavior. The administration is more vigorously advancing claims than the claimants themselves. The United States created particular controversy flying over islands claimed by China, courting a corresponding challenge from the latter.

The problem is not asserting American navigational freedoms, but doing so in a way seemingly designed to provoke a response. In 2001 similar military gamesmanship resulted in an aerial collision which killed a Chinese pilot and brought down an American spy plane, leading to an extended bilateral stand-off.

Since then both nations have become even more concerned over credibility and reputation, which means neither will readily back down when challenged. This creates a real danger of a military confrontation.

Rather than working to prevent such an eventuality, however, a number of officials, pundits, and analysts appear to view it as almost inevitable. I recently attended a gathering which mixed policy and non-political professionals. Without a neoconservative at the table there was broad agreement that Beijing had tossed down the gauntlet, so to speak, and had to be confronted.

Most sobering was the acknowledgement that an aggressive reaction could trigger a Chinese response in kind and a confrontation such as a ship collision or plane shoot-down. The consensus was that Washington would have to act immediately and firmly by, for instance, sinking a vessel or destroying a runway.

As I point out on China-US Focus: “The unspoken presumption was that the confrontation would end there, with Beijing duly chastened. But the obvious question is what if the Chinese made a similar calculation and escalated in turn? Some “damn fool thing” in the Asia-Pacific just might trigger war between the two nations.”

Washington enjoys military superiority but must disperse its forces around the globe. More important, the PRC views its interests in nearby waters as important if not vital. In contrast, American domination is not necessary for America’s defense. Beijing knows that and will risk much more than the United States in handling nearby territorial issues.

The possibility of miscalculation and misjudgment makes it even more important that all participants step back from confrontation. The fuse to war may be long, but no one should risk lighting it.

All parties should look for creative solutions to the plethora of territorial disputes. Countries could set aside deciding on sovereignty while jointly developing resources. Neighbors could share sovereignty and resources. Beijing could pledge to maintain navigational freedoms irrespective of the islands’ ultimate disposition. 

The disputed territory is important, but not worth war. Yet a dangerous dynamic appears to have taken hold. Instead of sleepwalking into a shooting war while assuming the other party will bend, both America and China should renew their determination to defuse territorial controversies peacefully.