Henry Temple, an eighteenth century British statesman, was once purported to have said, “We have no permanent allies, we have no permanent enemies, we only have permanent interests.”
About two centuries later, that sentiment was echoed by Henry Kissinger who said “America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests.”
|I feel like as though there should be a "Game of Thrones" reference here.|
Despite all the rhetoric about special relationships, blood alliances, or teeth and lips, both men’s cold and calculating realpolitik is the true manual that dictates nation states’ foreign policy. With the exception of dyed-in-the-wool neo-conservatives (and not just the American variety) or those who have no hope of ever being elected into high office, most people are loathe to champion such a(n) amoral/realistic approach to foreign policy.
Nations, of course, have varying goals such as military supremacy, economic development, environmental preservation, goodwill, peace, etc. However, if Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs can be used as an analogy, not all of a nation’s goals have the same level of priority. Before some of the loftier goals can be considered, every nation state must first secure one goal above all else – survival. And it is this basic need that causes the shifting sands of alliances.
No person in the world can survive without using one’s mind – a process of thought. From this simplest necessity to the highest philosophical abstractions, everything comes from that one attribute – the reasoning mind. The same applies to nation states and it stands to reason that overly relying on any particular (impermanent) alliance for one’s national survival is counterproductive in the long run.
Such is the position that Korea finds itself with its alliance with the United States.
Of course, this is not to say that the United States has not shown its commitment to the US-ROK alliance. Over 36,000 American military servicemen died and over 92,000 were wounded during the Korean War (yes, yes, the Korean War is technically not over yet). Additionally, according to a report in the Nautilus Institute, the United States spends about US$42 billion per year to defend Korea. Although it was recently agreed upon between Seoul and Washington DC to increase Korea’s share of the defense costs, Korea’s share is still relatively quite small.
(The original link to the Nautilus Institute appears to have been deleted. The link I am providing to is another blog called “One Free Korea,” which linked to the original article that appears to have since been deleted. As such, I am in no way sure about the accuracy of the data.)
And this doesn’t even count the annual Foal Eagle military exercises that the United States and Republic of Korea militaries have been engaging in since 1997. Furthermore, though it cannot be measured yet, when President Obama’s “Asia Pivot” moves beyond its initial stages long after he leaves office (assuming that the US can still afford this pivot despite cutting defense spending and its need to reassess its commitments to NATO due to an increasingly belligerent Russia), it is possible that the amount of raw capital that the United States will invest in Korea’s defense will multiply even further.
The number of lives and the amount of treasure that the United States has given up for its alliance with Korea is a matter of historical record. It has been and still is the most steadfast (and powerful) ally that Korea has ever had. That is not in question. What is in question is whether or not this alliance will still be as close as it has been in the future.
Treaties are the bedrock of international affairs. It is the closest thing to a sacred document that requires nations to remain true to their words. Lately, however, treaties seem to be more a matter of convenience than anything else. Case in point is the Budapest Memorandum that was signed in 1994 between the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Russian Federation. Among other things, this document gave security assurances against threats to Ukraine’s territorial integrity on the condition that Ukraine got rid of its nuclear stockpile. At the time, Ukraine had the third largest nuclear stockpile in the world.
With the recent annexation of the Crimean peninsula by the Russian Federation, and the conflict between the Ukrainian government and the pro-Russian rebels as well as the erosion of even Ukraine’s police force, I think it is safe to say that the Budapest Memorandum has been scrapped.
Though President Obama and European leaders have warned of sanctions against Russia, it is highly doubtful that sanctions would even work. President Obama has also repeated on numerous occasions that he would not utilize military options to force Russian forces out of Ukraine or the Crimean peninsula.
The fact is that the United States needs Russia’s assistance to rein in Iran’s nuclear program. Many European nations require Russian oil. Russia has significantly modernized its military. Furthermore, the question as to whether Crimea is part of Ukraine or part of Russia will have little enduring impact on US national security or its strategic interests.
They all point to two undeniable points:
- The United States is not as powerful as people think it is, especially when it has to consider confronting the Russian military instead of untrained militants in Afghanistan.
- The United States will not sacrifice its interests to protect the territorial integrity of a country that, either way, poses little to no impact to its interests.
If not publicly, Korean politicians must at least be privately asking if the United States might throw Korea under the bus if something happens here. Though it will most likely not happen in the immediate future, when the People’s Republic of China’s military has caught up with the United States Pacific Fleet in about twenty to thirty years, when it might no longer be willing to allow foreign fighters flying in and out of its Air Defense Zone, which happens to include Ieodo as well as the Senkaku Islands, what then? If, in a hypothetical scenario, the North Korean regime collapses and China deploys its military to the former Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to “indefinitely maintain stability and order,” what then? Article 3 of the Republic of Korea Constitution states that the territory of the Republic of Korea shall consist of the Korean peninsula and its adjacent islands. Would the United States honor the Mutual Defense Treaty that it signed with Korea in 1953?
We don’t even have to consider a hypothetical Chinese military threat. If the North Korean regime sunk another Korean naval vessel or shelled one of Korea’s islands again, would the United States think that using aircraft and artillery to strike back at the criminal regime was “disproportionately aggressive?” Does that imply that the United States will not aid Korea if it decided to retaliate against a North Korean attack if the United States thinks that Korea’s response was “disproportionately aggressive,” a statement that could mean just about anything? If so, is the Mutual Defense Treaty even worth the paper that it was written on?
If Korea is attacked again by North Korean forces or if China decides to occupy North Korea, and the United States either urges “restraint” and/or declines to respond, then what exactly is the point of having American military bases in Korea? The United States certainly wants to hold on to its bases in both Korea and Japan in order to remain as a Pacific power but in the long term, just what does Korea gain? If all that Korea gains is the territorial integrity of South Korea proper while its adjacent islands and the northern half of the peninsula are fair game for all other powers, then Korea might need to reexamine the treaty.
President Obama’s recent Asia visit was about reassuring the United States’ key East Asian allies. His trip to Japan was to “reaffirm” America’s support for Japan over China. In Korea, it was about standing “shoulder to shoulder” against North Korea. But can the United States be trusted to keep its word? After all, the United States has shown that it is not willing to militarily challenge Russia over Crimea or Georgia and it has expressed concern over China’s increased military budget.
No one can blame the United States for the positions that it has taken. Like any sovereign nation state, the United States has always sought and will always seek to champion its own selfish national interests. It cannot be expected to altruistically sacrifice the lives of its citizens and its treasury to protect Korea or any other country in the globe. Although it is certainly within the United States’ national rights to interpret any treaty where it is a signatory to maximize its own benefits, as far as Korea is concerned (or at least as far as it ought to be concerned) the United States’ less than heroic response to the Crimean crisis has not exactly inspired much confidence.
|It wasn't exactly a "Battle Hymn of the Republic" moment|
Although the United States will never explicitly state that it wants its two closest Asian allies to be its bulwark against a rising China, that is most likely one of the worst kept secrets in the world. With Korea gaining only the very minimum of its geopolitical goals from its alliance with the United States and likely having to be figuratively and literally caught in the middle of a new Cold War with China on one side and the United States and Japan on the other, Korea might have more to lose than gain.
While Korea needs to cultivate its relations with China to ensure continued economic growth (as China is now Korea’s largest trading partner), it also needs to maintain its alliance with the United States to maintain its security needs. However, this balancing game cannot last indefinitely. Korea needs to pick a side. However, although people have traditionally framed Korea’s choices as being between China or the United States, many have neglected to point out that there is a third choice – Korea chooses itself.
Koreans need to consider the possibility of having to emulate Switzerland by declaring armed neutrality. This means that if Korea declared armed neutrality, it would make no military alliance with any country in the world; but it would defend itself from foreign attacks and still reserve the right to pursue an active foreign policy. In order for Korea to be an armed neutral nation, however, as it will no longer have the protection of the United States’ nuclear umbrella, it would need to do three things.
- Korea needs to continue to extend its missile range to its 800 kilometer radius to ensure neighboring countries that its missiles are for defensive purposes only.
- Korea needs to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
- Korea needs to develop its own nuclear weapons program and formally declare itself as a nuclear power.
Although this would find Korea in violation of its civilian nuclear agreements with the United States, which inhibits any other non-nuclear countries’ ability to weaponize their nuclear power plants that deal with American nuclear power plants, Korea could begin to engage France or India or Israel for its nuclear needs.
Although it is possible that a disgruntled United States might wish to proceed to place economic sanctions on Korea for developing nuclear weapons after it officially declares itself as a nuclear-armed neutral power, it will most likely not pursue a sanctions regime that is too harsh lest Korea becomes a nuclear-armed neutral power that tends to tilt towards China.
After all, even if the United States is forced to withdraw from Korea, it will most likely not withdraw from Japan and will still want to maintain its role as a Pacific power to counter China. Furthermore, even if the United States does decide to pursue an aggressive sanctions regime, it would not be too effective as a neutral Korea (and in the long-term a reunified neutral Korea) would be an economic dynamo for northern China and thus permanently end China’s nightmare of millions of North Korean refugees swarming into China or it having to perpetually keep the North Korean economy afloat. Although China will be extremely unhappy about Ieodo, and it will likely be a source of friction, or perhaps even a limited conflict between China and Korea, as long as Korea is a nuclear-armed neutral power that can guarantee that North Korea’s problems do not become China’s problems, China might very well look the other way.
“We have no permanent allies, we have no permanent enemies, we only have permanent interests.”