It was great to see earlier this month that Walter Russell Mead was chosen by The Wall Street Journal to be its regular foreign affairs columnist. Mead has often (though not always) been an important voice for a broadly realist approach to American foreign policy (meaning one that understands the need to set at least some finite priorities because not all good things are possible simultaneously). He’s also been a serious and insightful student of U.S. diplomatic history. Therefore, his new position seemed to guarantee that some badly needed diversity would be added to a Mainstream Media pundits lineup that has long been completely dominated by globalists of the left and right. (The Journal has specialized in the latter.)
That’s why it was so disappointing to see that in his recent, second Journal offering, Mead has lapsed into the thoroughly bizarre (but characteristic) globalist habit of viewing America’s security alliances as mattering more to the United States than to the allies.
The passage in question comes about a third of the way in. According to Mead, the real diplomatic winner of the current Winter Olympics in South Korea is not, as widely reported, Kim Yo Jong, the visiting sister of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. Instead, it was South Korean President Moon Jae In. That’s a perfectly reasonable conclusion. So was the first part of Mead’s explanation: “Mr. Moon got a political boost from Ms. Kim’s visit and the appearance of a thaw between the Koreas, but he avoided the backlash from appearing naive or overeager.”
It’s the second part of the author’s analysis that has gone off the deep end: Moon “also reminded the Americans that South Korea cannot be taken for granted; without Seoul’s support, the Trump administration’s North Korea policy is unsustainable.”
Actually, in a narrow sense, Mead makes a novel and (disturbingly) convincing case for this proposition: The campaign to force North Korea to the nuclear bargaining table
“has been Mr. Trump’s most effective diplomatic and political effort to date. The administration has moved B-1 bombers and F-35 fighters to the Korean Peninsula during annual military exercises. It has reached out diplomatically to countries ranging from China to Indonesia. It has coordinated speeches by officials at the Pentagon, State Department and White House to keep the government on message.
“This is the sort of orchestration that the Trump administration, and the president in particular, is supposed to be too undisciplined to carry out. The relative success of the North Korea process suggests that Mr. Trump and his staff may be more capable than critics expected in operating the complex machinery of American power.”
It’s certainly possible that, at least in an unwitting way, the President and his aides place precisely this value on their North Korea strategy. But if so, the administration would be prizing image-making over elements of strategy that are not only fundamental, but existential – and needlessly exposing the United States to the risk of nuclear attack in the process.
For even if the Trump-ers are clinging to the appearance of success or competence in their North Korea policy, the overriding reality is that American power right now is the only obstacle currently blocking a North Korean military conquest of the South, or a South Korean future dominated by endless blackmail from the militarily superior North.
Consequently, although a successful American North Korea strategy could burnish the Trump administration’s resume, and possibly shore up its domestic political support, for South Korea, it’s literally a matter of national survival at worst and of genuine independence at best.
Unfortunately, moreover, Mead’s column also explicitly makes the broader and completely ludicrous globalist argument that allies like South Korea enjoy at least as much leverage in these relationships as the United States. And as a result, he too overlooks the yawning asymmetry in the respective sets of national interests involved.
Hence his contention that crucial to any diplomatic effort to denuclearize North Korea is “the need to keep America’s alliances united. The Winter Olympics kerfuffle should remind the White House that maintaining coordinated policies with Mr. Moon will be vital in the months and years to come.”
Far more important to recognize, however – and especially given the emergence of nuclear risk to the U.S. homeland – is that by virtue of geography and military power, the United States boasts inherent options in the Korean crisis that South Korea lacks. And the principal such option is washing the nation’s hands of this entire mess.
So if any party to this relationship needs to avoid taking the other for granted, it’s South Korea. All the more so because, as I’ve written, the “tripwire” mission of U.S. forces in South Korea aims to ensure that, in the event of war, Washington comes to the South’s rescue with nuclear weapons – and before too long could thereby trigger a successful North Korean nuclear strike on an American city.
That’s not to say that South Korea lacks the right to take the lead in Korean Peninsula diplomacy, or any legitimate interests in doing so. It merits exactly these rights and interests, precisely because no country outside the peninsula has remotely comparable stakes in a peaceful resolution.
But by the same token, the United States has the right to insist that any country expecting America to run catastrophic risk on its behalf pay a price in the form of deferring to its judgment. And for the sake of the American people’s security, their leaders have an overriding obligation to remind such allies that, if they’re unhappy with these terms, they will be more than welcome to handle whatever threats they face on their own.