With President Trump traveling around Asia and talking North Korea, among other subjects, with the region’s heads of state, it’s a good time to bring up an aspect of the nuclear crisis that hasn’t received enough attention – including from yours truly.
It’s what political science types might call the asymmetry in stakes perceived by the North and by the United States, and it’s a problem that’s greatly complicating American efforts to resist China’s recent expansionism in Asian coastal waters and Russia’s similar activities in its borderlands, as well as North Korea’s designs. It also differentiates these national security challenges from their prime Cold War era counterparts.
In plain English, “asymmetry in stakes etc” means that what the United States on the one hand, and North Korea, China, and Russia on the other, are arguing about means much more to those three American rivals than it does to the United States itself. As a result, especially with all of those rivals either able or on the verge of being able to hit a U.S. cities with nuclear-armed missiles, Washington’s commitment to defend the countries in their cross-hairs is much less believable than the prospect that they will call America’s bluff and risk a military conflict.
After all, the United States would be put in a position of exposing its territory and population to nuclear attack for relatively low priority interests – principally, South Korea, freedom of navigation in the South and East China Seas, and small Eastern European countries that until recently were well inside the Soviet orbit for decades with no apparent effect on U.S. security or prosperity.
North Korea, China, and Russia would also be running nuclear risks if military showdowns develop. For them, however, the upsides are more highly prized. And since the downside for America involves catastrophes that would equal the September 11 attacks by about a zillion, it’s likely that the United States would not decide, as the saying goes, to sacrifice Washington or New York or (FILL IN CITY OF YOUR CHOICE) to save Seoul or Vilnius (capital of the Baltic state Lithuania) or Asian sea-lanes.
Of course, the United States vowed to use nuclear weapons to defend allies during the Cold War, too, and the threat clearly achieved the desired deterrent effect. But thinking in “asymmetry terms” explains why these circumstances differed fundamentally from today’s. The main allies being defended – Western Europe and Japan – were continually identified as high priorities by Washington, and the reasons were entirely understandable. Both were major potential and then actual concentrations of industrial, technological – and therefore military – power. Their possible shift into the Soviet (or, less likely, Chinese), camp would transfer major assets to U.S. adversaries and weaken the overall strength of the free world.
I’d long had my doubts about whether preventing even losses this great were worth risking a global nuclear cataclysm, but this proposition was at least reasonably debatable, in my opinion. Preventing the losses at risk now? Not even close.
And what’s also surely instructive about the Cold War experience is that the European allies, in particular, never fully believed the American pledge. That’s largely why the United Kingdom and especially France developed their own impressive nuclear arsenals. Fast forward to today, and America’s nuclear pledges, especially in Asia, are more deeply doubted. That’s why South Korea and Japan are discussing creating their own nuclear forces more actively and urgently than ever.
In a previous post, I’d identified other reasons for challenging what may be a growing belief that North Korea can be deterred by America’s nuclear weapons just like the Soviet Union and China were during the Cold War – and that therefore some kind of agreed upon freeze in Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program is the most realistic way to resolve the crisis peacefully and acceptably. The asymmetry argument is another important reason for skepticism.
It’s entirely possible that I’m wrong. And I’d be perfectly happy to support such an effort. But if a freeze becomes the aim, I want American forces – whose vulnerability to North Korean attack would put heavy pressure on any U.S. president to respond with nuclear weapons and possibly trigger North Korean nuclear retaliation – nowhere near the Korean peninsula. Because the chances that I’m right are much higher than zero. And I view the policy of incurring any risk of a nuclear warhead landing on American soil in order to save South Korea to be completely indefensible.
As argued above, Japan could reasonably be placed into a different, and higher priority, category. So although I’d prefer to see U.S. forces exit the Asia-Pacific region completely, a fallback position could be focusing American deterrence policies on protecting Japan (from whatever plans for global or regional hegemony or predominance or call it what you will China may be seeking), abandoning South Korea militarily (but as previously proposed, supporting its development of nuclear weapons and selling it whatever conventional arms it wants), and pulling back from the South China Sea (because, as also previously argued, any power controlling these waters will need to trade with America if it wants to grow acceptably fast).
It would be an Asian version of the partial pullback I’ve recommended for Europe. It’s also entirely consistent with what’s lately often been called an “America First” foreign policy. Maybe it’s something for President Trump to consider?