As pretty much anyone who has been paying any attention to the news today is aware it appears that the DPRK has tested a much larger nuclear device. With estimates of yield around the 100 kiloton range. I’m going to leave the technical write up to Cheryl as this is her area of expertise (no pressure…), but I want to talk about some of the strategic issues that we are now facing because of the test. Specifically those involved with trade relations with South Korea.
As I wrote about in regard to NATO and the EU, their real value isn’t at the tactical level, but at the strategic. Yes, the tactical and operational effects of deterring the Soviet Union and post 9-11 anti and counter-terrorism operations are very important. Especially the role they play in running NATO Training Mission Afghanistan. As is the role they’re playing today in attempting to deter Putin’s revanchism. But it is the geo-strategic effect of breaking the cycle of a major war on the European continent every 35 years that demonstrates NATO’s and the EU’s true value. While the US may not always get the best out of the NATO Alliance at the tactical end – though the only time Article V was invoked was after 9-11 on behalf of the US – nor from our trade agreement with the EU, both institutions and our arrangements/agreements with them are strategically priceless. Significant amounts of Americans have not had to go and die on the European continent since 1945. Nor have we had to spend significant financial resources to rebuild the continent a second time.
These important strategic effects are in the US’s interest, and they benefit the US, because the US is either the primary rule maker involved with them or one of the principle rule makers within the global system. This is why, for all its warts – and there were plenty – the Trans-Pacific Partnership made strategic sense. Yes, at the nickel and dime (tactical) level the US, and more specifically Americans, may not have done as well as the other signatories. And yes there were significant challenges to state sovereignty, such as the horrible corporate arbitration rules, but at the strategic level the effect was significant. The US would not only have reinforced its role as primary rule maker within the Asia-Pacific region, but also have blocked the PRC from emerging as a rival rule maker for the foreseeable future. While pulling the US out of the TPP may have made for a good photo-op and good messaging when playing to the domestic political base in the US, it was terrible strategic decision making. The result of the US just walking away from the Trans Pacific Partnership, the Peoples Republic of China has begun to assemble its own Asia-Pacific free trade agreement without the US. The US has ceded the strategic power of economic rule making in the Asia-Pacific region to China because of the President’s America First focused tactical thinking. Which will, in time, have both a negative strategic and tactical effect on the US economy. And other American interests as well.
This is important because the President is considering pulling the US out of another trade agreement this week. Specifically the US-Korea Free Trade Agreement.
On Saturday, before the nuclear test, senior administration officials confirmed that they were considering withdrawing from a major trade agreement with South Korea over what they believe is Seoul’s pursuit of unfair protectionist policies that have led to huge United States trade deficits.
On trade, the president’s top economic advisers remain deeply divided over a possible withdrawal from the United States-Korea Free Trade Agreement, as negotiators from both countries struggle to rewrite the five-year-old deal.
In recent days, a frustrated Mr. Trump has pushed his staff to take bold action against a host of governments, including the one in Seoul, that he has accused of unfair trade practices. But many of his more moderate advisers, including the chairman of the National Economic Council, Gary D. Cohn, believe that such a move could prompt a trade war that could hurt the United States economy.
The possibility of abandoning the agreement has alarmed economists and some members of the president’s own party who fear that such a move would force South Korea to block American manufacturers and farmers from a lucrative market.
While the NY Times and other reporting about what may happen with the US-Korean Trade Agreement largely focuses on the economic issues, specifically the tactical effects felt in both countries’ economies, the bigger concern here is the strategic. The Republic of Korea has a new President who was elected on a platform that included attempting new diplomatic talks with the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea. This morning part of the President’s initial flurry of communications about the DPRK’s latest test was to slam President Moon for appeasing Kim Jung-Un.
Unlike the vast majority of the US, until/unless Kim’s engineers and scientists resolve their outstanding missile development technology issues, the ROK is directly threatened by the DPRK’s conventional forces. President Moon’s intent to try to keep a military response from becoming necessary is born out of the very real concern for survival. For all that Kim has threatened Guam or even LA, it is Seoul that is within spitting distance of the Demilitarized Zone. And it is Seoul, the ROK’s military and civilians, the bulk of US Forces Korea, and hundreds of thousands of American and other expatriates working and living in Seoul that would initially bear the brunt and pay the price for military escalation with the DPRK.
The President’s tactical focus, whether it is on the nickels and dimes gained or lost through free trade agreements or resources to be taken during military operations, even if that is a strategically and realistically foolish position to hold, is actually heightening the strategic threat. Right now we need the ROK, as well as Japan, the PRC, and our other regional allies and partners to be pulling together. Instead we seem to be actively pulling them apart because the current National Command Authority has lost sight of, or doesn’t understand, the strategically important components of the free trade and security agreements the US enters into (being the rule setter within the global system) while focusing on the tactical minutiae of the financial bottom line. Bellicosity and intimidation may have worked when the President was driving deals, but they don’t work for international diplomacy. And regardless of what the President may think of diplomacy, trying to get one’s allies, partners, and peer competitors to do what you want is diplomacy.
Right now the US needs strategic leadership. As in leadership that understands what is strategically important, clearly articulates the necessary policies, and develops effective strategy to achieve the effects and objectives of those policies. The President and everyone else needs to realize that the DPRK is a nuclear weapon state. Non-proliferation has failed. The US policy, and that of our allies, partners, and peer competitors with whom we have common cause on this issue, such as the PRC, need to shift their focus to containment and deterrence of the DPRK in regard to its potential use of nuclear weapons. How to do this is the strategically important discussion that needs to be had now.
Now more than ever the US needs to live up to its post World War II role as the global rule maker and enforcer, not down to the nativist, isolationist tendencies that seem to seize it every so often. To do that we need a President who thinks strategically, not tactically. And who understands that sometimes one must cede tactical advantage to achieve strategic victory.