2016 election, alliances, China, Cold War, Donald Trump, East Asia, escalation dominance, extended deterrence, foreign policy establishment, Germany, Japan, North Korea, nuclear weapons, Our So-Called Foreign Policy, Russia, smothering strategy, South Korea, Soviet Union, Western Europe
Foreign policy devotees like yours truly have rarely seen salad days like the last few weeks. On the heels of a long and remarkably candid interview of President Obama summarized in an Atlantic magazine piece have now come two comparably detailed and revealing sessions on the subject between Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump and reporters from first the Washington Post and then The New York Times.
I wrote last week on Trump’s Post remarks on America’s approach to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) embodied far more realism and indeed wisdom on the subject of U.S. alliances than the bipartisan American foreign policy establishment has demonstrated in decades. His latest statements to The Times confirm this superior judgment – and on elements of U.S. alliance doctrine that are as fundamental, longstanding, and arguably reckless as they have been thoroughly soft-pedaled in public. Specifically, Trump is challenging the decades-long policy that, a quarter century after fall of communism, is still exposing the United States to the risk of nuclear war to protect Japan, Western Europe, and South Korea.
One reason for threatening to unleash armageddon to maintain the freedom of major treaty allies was always made reasonably clear to the American voter during the Cold War: Western Europe and Japan were actual and potential concentrations of economic, industrial, and therefore military might. Therefore, they needed to be kept out of Soviet (and Communist Chinese) hands at literally all costs or else the global balance of power would tip fatally against the free world. And central features of American foreign policy quite naturally became deterring communist aggression both by deploying hundreds of thousands of American soldiers and heavy conventional weapons overseas, and by placing literally thousands of nuclear weapons on allied soil.
What was never made remotely clear to the U.S. public was a second, equally crucial reason for this alliance strategy – and the reason it has survived the complete transformation of the global strategic environment since the Soviet Union collapsed and China started integrating with the world capitalist economy instead of seeking its overthrow. Extending the American defense umbrella over the allies was also deemed essential to prevent these countries – and especially the former Axis powers Germany and Japan – from ever becoming global security threats themselves again.
The ultimate military guarantees provided by Washington were central to a strategy of what I’ve called “smothering” the allies. The United States literally would eliminate the need for them to carry out independent foreign policies ever again by meeting all the major needs that spur countries to conduct foreign policies in the first place. Washington would shield them from military attack and provide huge markets for the surplus production they needed to foster ever-rising levels of prosperity.
The economic dimension of this strategy have been problematic enough – but let’s save that discussion for another post. But the military dimension has become downright irrational in recent years. Put simply, yoking America’s very survival to that of foreign countries is easily defensible at a time when mortal threats to U.S. alliances are difficult to find – as in the early post-Cold War years, when Russia was weak, China seemed tamed, and North Korea’s development of nuclear forces that could strike the American homeland seemed a remote prospect even to worrywarts.
What Trump has been telling his media interlocutors is that those relatively halcyon days are gone. As events are making clear, the weaknesses of the military smothering strategy have become most apparent in East Asia. As I’ve written, the U.S. approach is logically defensible for America only if the United States maintains escalation dominance – nuclear superiority so overwhelming that even a questionably rational regime like North Korea’s would understand that it would come in a distant (and completely destroyed) second if these terrible weapons were ever used.
But as I’ve also written, this American escalation dominance is weakening, as the North has made progress in developing both nuclear weapons able to strike U.S. targets, and weapons mobile enough to survive limited American preemptive strikes aimed at taking them out. Here’s an update on Pyongyang’s nuclear programs. In other words, it’s one thing for an American president to promise to risk Los Angeles for Seoul (the South Korean capital), when there’s no real risk to Los Angeles. It’s quite another to make this vow when southern California is a real target. Recent Chinese nuclear weapons progress presents a similar dilemma, especially with China more aggressively asserting territorial claims in the South and East China Seas – including islands also claimed by Japan.
The point here is not that America’s current approach to alliances should be changed immediately. It’s entirely possible that such “extended nuclear deterrence” is the nation’s best overall bet for continued security and prosperity even in a post-Cold War world in which potential adversaries possess increasingly formidable nuclear capabilities. But contrary to the sneering, harrumphing – much less indignant – responses of foreign policy establishmentarians, the smothering strategy is anything but a slam dunk any more, either.
So it’s anything but crazy or irresponsible for Trump to be raising the prospect of Japan and South Korea acquiring their own nuclear deterrents. Indeed, as Trump told New York Times reporters David E. Sanger and Maggie Haberman, it’s essential for Washington to start thinking about these possibilities precisely because better Chinese and North Korean capabilities are – understandably – raising doubts among Japanese and South Korean leaders themselves about the credibility of U.S. nuclear guarantees. That is, they’re no longer solidly convinced that Washington would risk Los Angeles for Seoul or Tokyo. And if you think about these matters seriously, how could they be?
Indeed, Trump’s remarks about U.S. alliance policy have performed a major public service. For decades, a series of at-least-questionable decisions bearing on American national life and death have been common knowledge among U.S. leaders and foreign policy professionals, allied leaders, and adversary leaders. But they’ve been practically unknown to most Americans. Now what has clearly been a secret kept through countless acts of omission is starting to come out. The establishment is clearly being discomfited, but given its longtime record of often disastrous incompetence, why should anyone outside its coddle ranks care? For all other Americans, and especially those truly supportive of accountable, representative government, Trump’s challenge to the nation’s alliance strategy can only ultimately be an unalloyed good.