alliances, allies, Asia, Chung Min Lee, defense spending, deterrence, Donald Trump, Japan, Mainstream Media, non-tariff barriers, North Korea, nuclear weapons, Obama, Our So-Called Foreign Policy, protectionism, South Korea, Trade, Washington Post, Yoichi Funabashi
It’s of course OK for the Washington Post op-ed page to run articles with which I disagree. It’s also OK – for a different reason – for the Post op-ed page to run mainly articles with which its editors or the paper’s owner agree. No media outlet is under any legal or moral obligation to serve as a completely open forum. (Although it would be nice if those with an obvious slant at least dropped the pretense.)
What’s much less OK is for the Post or any other paper to run op-ed articles that completely ignore major evidence and arguments that undermine their own conclusions, or that contain big internal contradictions. These articles may technically not amount to intentionally misleading readers. But as made clear by an offering in yesterday’s paper on America’s Asia policy, they come uncomfortably close.
The article, by a veteran Japanese journalist-turned-think tanker and a Korean academic Chung Min Lee, charges that Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump appears dangerously likely to support “a U.S. withdrawal or fundamentally reduced U.S. military presence in Asia [that] would not only undermine regional security; it would also ultimately weaken the United States at home and abroad.”
Among the leading points:
>Contrary to the insinuations of Trump and other Americans, Japan and Korea are not defense free riders;
>Both countries are committed to free trade, just like the United States; and
>Trump’s positions would represent a complete turnaround from the policies of President Obama, who has “demonstrated that credibility need not be purchased through force; it can come from articulating clear strategies that give other nations confidence the United States will follow through.”
Anyone remotely familiar with U.S.-Asia relations in recent decades will find these claims downright laughable. But for layfolks, here’s what authors Yoichi Funabashi and Chung Min Lee didn’t tell you – and what Washington Post op-ed editors allowed them to leave out:
>The best measure of whether an ally is a free rider is not, as Funabashi and Lee contend, whether it picks up some or even most of the expenses of hosting American forces on its soil. After all, these payments aren’t acts of foreign charity. Those U.S. military units are present first and foremost to defend those very countries. It’s true that American leaders have determined that this posture serves American interests, too. But its the allies themselves that unquestionably have the greatest stake in preserving their own security. Why aren’t they paying all the expenses of hosting the U.S. military. Isn’t it enough that American taxpayers have footed the entire bill for fielding and arming these forces in the first place?
Instead, the best measure of free rider status is whether allies’ defense spending is proportionate to the threats they face. According to the World Bank, for South Korea – which is located right next door to wildly belligerent North Korea, and only a little farther away from two huge neighbors with which it’s had a troubled history – the military budget amounted to 2.6 percent of its economy last year. And this figure had been falling for decades, even though the North Korean threat was obviously worsening. For Japan, defense spending as a share of the economy has been rising – largely out of concern of growing belligerence from both North Korea and China. But it still only represented one percent last year. Do these statistics really paint a picture of countries that have stepped up?
>Contrary to this Post op-ed, there’s little evidence that Japan and Korea deserve to be removed from the list of countries ranking as the world’s most protectionist. But don’t take my word for it – look at what President Obama’s Office of the U.S. Trade Representative has reported. Its latest survey on protectionist practices around the world devotes more pages to listing trade barriers in Japan and Korea than to nearly any other single country (as opposed to agglomerations that include big countries, like the European Union).
Worse, it’s clear that tariffs and non-tariff barriers remain high in Korea even though a U.S.-Korea free trade agreement promising to open the latter’s market significantly went into effect more than four years ago. As with Japan, with which Washington has negotiated dozens of purported market-opening agreements over a span of decades, the reason couldn’t be clearer to any informed trade policy student: The pervasive non-tariff trade barriers they maintain have provided the most effective protections and subsidies for their domestic producers. And because they’re developed and administered by powerful and highly secretive bureaucracies, they’re painfully difficult for outsiders even to identify, much less combat.
>Finally, it’s nothing less than astonishing for the Post to have published a piece lauding President Obama’s success in preserving America’s credibility with its security allies. For the paper has published the most detailed reporting on an idea conspicuously being mulled by the president that could pose the greatest threat to these relationships since their creation: his interest in declaring that the United States will never be the first participant in a military conflict to use nuclear weapons.
As is surely known by Funabashi and Lee – and by anyone on the Post op-ed staff that reads the paper – the threat of using nuclear weapons has been central to America’s alliance strategy in both Europe and Asia for decades. The idea has been and still is that these arms would be the free world’s great equalizer versus Soviet, Russian, Chinese, and North Korean adversaries that have fielded conventional military forces that Washington and its allies have decided would be too expensive to match, much less exceed.
Why should they know this so well? At the least because Post columnist Josh Rogin laid it all out in a piece all of four days before the op-ed by Funabashi and Lee. Further, Rogin reported that “Diplomats from allied countries argued that if the United States takes a nuclear first strike off the table, the risk of a conventional conflict with countries such as North Korea, China and Russia could increase. Regimes that might refrain from a conventional attack in fear of nuclear retaliation would calculate the risks of such an attack differently.”
It’s possible that Rogin’s reporting was completely off base, and that the allies are all on board with an impending U.S. “no first use” policy. It’s also possible that even if Rogin’s coverage is on target, the allies are wrong, as insisted by some American arms control advocates quoted by Rogin. (Although if this is true, that logically wouldn’t mean that the allies are thrilled with Obama or still believers in American defense guarantees.) But why on earth didn’t the Post op-ed staff ask Funabashi and Lee to at least address the issue?
The Mainstream Media have been under such fire lately that its members have been spending more and more time contending that its record, resources, and devotion to quality mean that alternative media can’t be remotely adequate substitutes. The more slipshod, tendentious, pro-status quo columns like Funabashi’s and Lee’s that these news organizations serve up, the weaker these increasingly controversial claims become.