The United States is hindered in achieving its objectives in Northeast Asia in large part due to a policy that encourages ineffective – often counterproductive – strategies.
There are three underlying causes for this. One is unavoidable due to the legal foundations of the American government, another is inevitable due to the weaknesses and vanities of human nature, but it is the third that is the largest single factor in developing an effective strategic foreign policy.
One detriment is the basis for and justification of American government: the U.S. Constitution, which limits the maximum time in office of any one president to ten years. In practice, however, that restricts a president to two terms of four years each since presidential elections are quadrennial.
Assuming that there is consistency in the policies of any given president that serves one or even two terms, it means that every four or eight years, U.S. foreign policy is subject to change, often a dramatic alteration as the political pendulum in America swings from left to right and back again.
For better or for worse, this is unavoidable without significant – and most likely disruptive, if not downright destructive – changes to the Constitution, the bedrock foundation of the American style of government. But never mind, for this essay is not about such changes.
Another disadvantage is that the United States government is, to quote a small piece from Abraham Lincoln’s noteworthy Gettysburg Address, “of the people, by the people, for the people.” However, as inspiring as those hallowed words are, these days it is all too frequently demonstrated that people are fallible, subject to illusions – some would say delusions – and a host of other maladies that prevent clear and objective thinking. More to the point, as Plato claimed 2400 years ago, “Those who seek power are not worthy of that power.”
Americans simply do not understand either Beijing or Pyongyang
The third and most important – yet most easily corrected – impairment to a meaningful American foreign policy is a disturbing combination of (1) a profound lack of knowledge about other countries and their ways of life, and (2) and a devastating failure to understand history.
Two recent examples of how American foreign policy has played out will serve to illustrate typical mistakes, mistakes with serious consequences.
Although the example of the United States relying on China to help it solve the problem that North Korea represents is not new, it remains in the news now more than ever before. Washington believes that Beijing holds the key to convincing Pyongyang to cease its provocative behavior and to negotiating away its nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile programs.
That is an unrealistic strategy, simply because North Korea is not at all motivated to do that. Kim Jong Un is painfully aware of what happened to Muammar Gaddafi of Libya and Saddam Hussein of Iraq: any enemy regime of the United States that does not possess nuclear weapons will not survive. Just about every observer of North Korea already knows this basic truth – only politicians and professional diplomats refuse to acknowledge this.
Further, China has never been inclined to help the United States achieve what it wants, though the two countries do share a few short-term objectives in common. In the long-term, however, what Beijing has in mind regarding North Korea is not even close to what Washington is counting on. Now, with hostile words being hurled at the Xi regime by Kim Jong Un, it may be the case that China’s inclination to offer assistance, normally a low probability, is much greater – but only in the short-term.
It is certainly true that China could bring North Korea to its knees, but while that would solve an American problem, it would present far greater problems for China: an overwhelming number of refugees on its northeastern border and the loss of a buffer between itself and the disruptive influence of the West-leaning South Korea. It is not improbable that Beijing, at some point, will take action on its own to address Pyongyang’s obstinacy, but it will not necessarily be what Washington seeks.
China has never been inclined to help the United States achieve what it wants
The U.S. ought to recognize the likelihood of that – not only due to a lack of success over the past several years – but because of what a collapse of North Korea would mean for China. Americans simply do not understand either Beijing or Pyongyang: a colossal failure to understand the national security interests of those nations with whom Washington is attempting to deal.
Additionally, there is the problem of South Korea and Japan still being at odds over the so-called “comfort women” issue more than 70 years after the conclusion of World War II. The relationship between Japan and Korea has never been a peaceful one, not since the 1590s when Japan invaded Korea. Add to that the brutish annexation of Korea in 1910 by Imperial Japan, and the matter of perhaps as many as 200,000 girls and young women – mostly Korean – that were forced to serve as sex slaves for Imperial Japanese troops during World War II.
However, when Washington saw that this still unresolved matter between its two allies in Northeast Asia was preventing political cooperation and coordinated action against the common enemy North Korea, this inconvenient history was ignored. Instead, a senior political appointee in the U.S. Department of State official, a social worker by training before becoming a partisan operative, publically rebuked the two countries, saying that they ought to get over it and get on with working together.
GETTING BACK ON TRACK
There is a process whereby the steps necessary for attaining any goal can be determined. Commonly taught in business schools and management seminars, the process itself is easily described, though the thinking required for each step is challenging and often non-linear. One simply works backward from the desired end-point to identify what is needed.
One objective should be to facilitate a greater sense of trust between and among all of the regional players
The first step, however, is to properly define the goal. In the case of Northeast Asia, the American end is the denuclearization of North Korea, as if once having accomplished that, everything else would just fall into place.
A better goal would be achieving regional peace and stability. From whatever goal as a starting point, things rapidly get complicated when trying to figure out what objectives are necessary to accomplish it. No one objective is ever sufficient to reach the end-state, and often enough some of the required objectives do not merge well or co-exist easily with others.
Just for starters, presuming the goal is indeed a sustainable peace and lasting stability for all in Northeast Asia, then one objective would be to facilitate a greater sense of trust between and among all of the regional players.
Another objective would be to resolve the undying historical issues that muddle cooperation on solutions. Informed readers will surely think of other near-end-states that must exist before that goal of peace and stability can be reached.
Each American failure adds to the baggage that everyone has to deal with going forward
I leave it to military planners, logistics experts, and policy specialists to ascertain the activities or actions necessary to support the objectives. Additionally, such an august group would be tasked with determining what physical resources – including qualified staff – would be necessary to sustain those undertakings. The resulting chain of steps would generate an ideal strategy.
All of this would have to be accomplished with a deep understanding of relevant history and the dissimilar contexts of the various national perspectives of the states involved.
That is a daunting challenge, one that has not been successfully undertaken by the U.S. in the past. Worse, each American failure adds to the baggage that everyone has to deal with going forward.
Is it possible? Yes, most assuredly it can be done. But is it probable? Given that human nature, politics, and ignorance stand in the way, the jury is out on that matter.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
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Featured Image: Congress by jacobresor on 2017-01-21 10:29:54