Alan Beattie, alliances, allies, Biden, China, deterrence, extended deterrence, Financial Times, Following Up, Indo-Pacific, North Korea, nuclear weapons, realism, reciprocity, sanctions, semiconductors, South Korea, technology, Yoon Suk Yeol
Consistent with cutting-edge astro-physicis – and the last few decades of Marvel comics story-telling – I’m sure that among all the infinite number of universes in a “multi-verse” comprising creation, there’s one in which South Korea somehow genuinely has no reason to believe it has any obligation to comply with U.S. wishes in exchange for protection against complete destruction or enslavement by fanatically totalitarian North Korea.
I’m also sure that that universe isn’t the one we inhabit. Which is why it’s so whacko that Financial Times columnist Alan Beattie begs to differ, and that his editors evidently had absolutely no problem with this argument. And that’s only the lesser of two jaw-dropping new developments related to last week’s summit between President Biden and his South Korean counterpart Yoon Suk Yeol, which I analyzed in this post. Nonetheless, that’s the focus of today’s post. Tomorrow’s will deal with the second.
To be clear, I’m not contending that the South Koreans should be grateful to Washington for anything.
As a self-styled foreign policy realist, I’ve long held that countries can be counted on to act first and foremost in their own self-interest, and indeed should – in fact, unapologetically. I’ve taken many of my cues here from the Founding Fathers, who also considered the world to be far too dangerous to ground strategy in considerations of sentiment. So that puts me in pretty good company IMO.
Moreover, South Korea is emphatically no exception, first because it lives in an exceptionally dangerous neighborhood; and second, because as I explained last week, its semiconductor manufacturing prowess gives it some clout vis-a-vis the United States.
Nor am I arguing that the U.S. commitment to defend the South has ever stemmed from anything other than a regard for its own security or independence or prosperity – even though I’ve disagreed until very recently (because of semiconductor manufacturing-related national security issues) with this characteristically globalist definition of national interest.
Instead, I’m arguing that, given the decision by Washington to protect the South even though its strategy of extended deterrence has recently exposed the United States to the risk of nuclear attack on the American homeland, it’s entirely reasonable for America to seek some South Korean help in meeting a different challenge. In this case, it’s helping Washington limit the technological progress that could enable China to attain military parity – and at some point even superiority – over the United States, and thereby undercut declared vital U.S. national interests throughout the Indo-Pacific region and even beyond.
But Alan Beattie? He writes that it’s “galling when Washington expects you to take economic hits for geopolitical gains when it’s not always willing to do the same itself.”
One fatal flaw in Beattie’s argument is the claim that the United States is asking South Korea to sacrifice some earnings (resulting from the major revenues it earns by supplying semiconductors and other high-value inputs to China’s huge electronics industry) without offering to pay any price for containing China itself.
What he ignores is how the Biden administration tough’s curbs on the investment and operations of America’s own semiconductor and chip-making equipment companies are costing them economically, too. Instead, he focuses on the electric vehicle manufacturing provisions of the Inflation Reduction Act, which require South Korean auto companies to produce key components in the United States in order to qualify for subsidies.
Yet these provisions apply not only to all foreign auto-makers, but to America’s as well. And even if they were being applied in a blatantly discriminatory manner, however, it’s not as if South Korea wouldn’t still be getting a heckuva deal from its alliance with the United States. Beattie blandly describes the benefits to the South as “maintaining relations with the US….” Of course, as I stated above, it’s really about its national freedom and very survival.
Again, as a realist, I respect South Korea’s right to define its own interests however it wishes, and to act accordingly. But should I – or anyone – agree with Beattie that Washington’s desire for some South Korean reciprocity is “galling,” or excessively steep? It sounds like Beattie’s actual position is that any U.S. effort to leverage its commitment to defend South Korea is unreasonable – especially if it might interfere with the decades of hyper-globalization that the author tends to lionize uncritically, even though they’ve unmistakably fueled the dangerous rise of Chinese power. Can that be a serious basis for conducting diplomacy?
But from Beattie’s scathing tone, it’s also apparent that he’s condemning this kind of transactional approach to foreign policy for deeply personal reasons as well – likely the transparently childish view that the United States, or maybe just the Anglo-phone countries, should be above this sort of crassness, and that even if international relations aren’t comparable to a sporting event, where the real world stakes are modest, they should act as if they are – whatever the risks.
Thankfully, the Biden administration is steadily (though not fast enough for my tastes) thinking in more adult terms and recognizing – like the Trump administration before it – that one-way-street alliances no longer make sense from America’s standpoint (if they ever did). In this instance, moreover, South Korea could easily conclude that containing the tech prowess of a gigantic totalitarian and increasingly aggressive neighbor serves its own interests quite handily, too.
Tomorrow’s post will describe that aforementioned even more befuddling – and possibly more worrisome – consequence of the Biden-Yoon summit.
P.S. Full disclosure: Beattie has blocked me on Twitter because he believed that my stances on immigration policy partly reflected anti-Muslim prejudices. So clearly he’s not my favorite journalist.