President Moon Jae-in of South Korea (Credit: Chung Sung-Jun—Getty Images)
How quickly we move from crisis to crisis. This past weekend has been dominated by the horrifying chaos of Charlottesville, where neo-Nazi groups joined with the KKK, white supremacists and an assortment of other alt-right groups to demonstrate, originally against the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee.
Those demonstrations, and what they reveal about the current energy in the fringe right, as well as the activation of groups like Antifa, deserves their own post. But before I talk about the fascists of the weekend, I’ll write today about the communists of last week.
North Korea is hardly communist of course, but segues aren’t known for their factual precision.
As we’ve looked on in disgust and fear at Charlottesville, we’ve managed to almost forget about last week’s absurd war of words between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
The week was one of threat and counter-threat. There were promises of more missile tests from North Korea, then there was Trump’s “fire and fury” comment, then North Korean plans to strike near Guam, and finally a host of ancillary escalations and deescalations by North Korean and American officials.
So the week was all about rhetoric: what was believable, what was a bluff, which officials should we listen to and what people actually meant. But one thing became clear was that this was a conflict between two people and two states — Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un.
Sometimes what is most interesting about any given crisis isn’t what is happening but what is missing. I believe this is one of those cases.
Specifically, I was struck by the lack of language coming out of South Korea and Japan. What little I did hear, in fact, seemed to indicate that they weren’t taking the escalations very seriously.
Now, granted, this could be simply because the Western press is not as concerned with South Korean or Japanese statements, but I’d argue that that itself is significant. The fact that South Korean and Japanese voices aren’t being heard in the States is concerning.
Why? Because as much as we worry about nuclear weapons that could strike Guam, Hawaii or the continental United States (or Canada, for that matter), South Korea and Japan already live with that reality. The ballistic missiles that North Korea currently possesses are more than capable of striking both countries. South Korea, moreover, is vulnerable to a wide variety of conventional attacks, including the famed artillery barrage that Seoul would undoubtedly be subjected to.
The fundamental issue is that the two leaders are playing with different stakes. When Kim Jong-un gambles, he is risking his own people’s lives. When Trump escalates the conflict, he is putting South Korean and Japanese citizens at risk.
Its worthwhile here to note that there are approximately 30,000 American soldiers on the DMZ between North and South Korea, as well as American armed forces on bases in Japan (especially Okinawa) and on Guam. But even saying this, the vulnerability of Americans is hardly comparable to the risks that South Koreans and Japanese face.
This dynamic, that the United States would not bear the brunt of any initial military conflict, raises the possibility of moral hazard on the part of American leaders. Knowing that they won’t have to absorb the costs of some actions, America might be more likely to take those actions. Since it is South Korea and Japan that will suffer, some options may look more appealing to American decision makers.
This, of course, is a problem, if you believe that the goal of any negotiations or rhetoric should be to reduce the risk of violence overall. The fact that the United States would incur a lesser share of possible costs makes it less likely to work towards this goal and more likely to pursue a self-interested approach.
The significance of this flaw is further compounded by the fact that the United States remains the primary decision maker among the USA-South Korea-Japan trio, because of its overwhelming advantage in military capacity, rather than its inherent stake in the issue. In fact, in this view, North Korea could be seen as more reliable than the States — it at least cannot help but be aware how high the stakes are.
So the absence of South Korean and Japanese voices in the most recent crisis is worrying. Without constant reminders that they also have a say in the matter, and they will be the ones to suffer, the possibility of counterproductive self-interested policies is higher.
This is an almost structural problem with American foreign policy. The projection of American interests abroad, including its collective defence commitments to its allies, has involved it in a host of issues that rarely put America itself at risk.
Recognizing this, American leaders have taken a variety of steps throughout their history to explicitly take on risk. During the Cold War for example, the American military stationed hundreds of thousands of soldiers in Germany. These soldiers could not possibly of withstood a conventional attack from the Soviet Union, but they served to reassure European allies that the United States remained committed to their defence. American soldiers in the DMZ serve a similar purpose, though to an insufficient degree.
This is also, I have to say, a problem that has been exacerbated by Trump. For someone who already has a problem with narcissism and generally seeks to put “America first,” there is an even greater likelihood that he will undervalue the lives of those living in South Korea and Japan. His tendency to view conflicts as personal struggles between individuals makes it even less likely he will consider the populations of foreign states when he makes decisions.
Eliminating this problem — the risk of moral hazard — would require a fundamental rethinking of how America pursues its foreign policy. Ultimately, it would require a total recalibration away from narrow self-interest and towards a foreign policy with universalizable goals like the reduction of violence.
This is unlikely to happen anytime soon, but progress can be made through a variety of small steps, like increasing consultation and responsibility-sharing with allies, or policies that would ensure the States bears a greater share of direct, material costs. Immaterial costs, like credibility, international reputation and international norms are not, I argue, enough of a guarantee in the Trump era.