‘Global Korea’ vital to U.S. strategy

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‘Global Korea’ vital to U.S. strategy

Pax Americana after all?

Six years ago in the wake of the worst financial crisis in a generation, pundits around the world were predicting the demise of American leadership. Burned by the Iraq War and frightened by the Lehman Shock, Americans expressed almost unprecedented opposition to free trade and military intervention abroad.

There seemed to be a new isolationism growing with the rise of the Tea Party and the success of quasi-isolationists in the U.S. Congress like Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky.

President Barack Obama also captured that sentiment, arguing that the United States is not “exceptional,” promising to “lead from behind,” acting cautiously at first on free trade agreements, while repeatedly framing his foreign policy legacy as “not doing stupid stuff” and ending America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Last week, the White House issued two documents that repeated those same cautious themes and projected them over the remaining two years of the Obama administration. The first document was the official National Security Strategy of the United States (NSS). The main catch phrase in the NSS was the need for “strategic patience” and the prevailing subtext of the document was that the United States did not need to increase its efforts or defense spending in order to combat the rise of terrorism, Russian aggression and Chinese assertiveness.

The second document was the president’s request that Congress grant authorization for the use of force against the Islamic State (ISIS) -revising and strictly limiting the time frame (he asked for only three years) and rules of engagement (ground forces only for self-defense) compared with President George W. Bush’s original authorization to use military force against terrorism after the attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

Republicans and conservative democrats close to Hillary Clinton quickly criticized both documents, decrying President Obama’s passivity, pacificism or excessive deliberation, depending on the critic’s point of view. The Asia portion of the NSS, it should be pointed-out, was quite reasonable and reinforced the importance of the U.S.-ROK alliance, but the larger impression was not one of robust leadership on international security writ large.

Six years ago, this caution might have been understood in terms of constraints on U.S. economic power. National security strategy has to be molded to the resources a state can bring to bear, after all.

Today, however, U.S. economic power again stands out. U.S. GDP is now 8 percent above the peak before the financial crisis, while most OECD countries have not even reached pre-crisis GDP yet because of sluggish growth. U.S. GDP growth is projected by most economists to exceed 3 percent annually for the next few years - far more than Europe or Japan. Thanks to innovation, productivity gains, and an energy revolution at home, the United States is now ranked the second most competitive manufacturing economy in the world behind China.

And economists expect that the United States will surpass China in manufacturing competitiveness to rank No. 1 by 2018 if not sooner. U.S. firms have also successively de-leveraged after the financial crisis, well ahead of every other economy in the world. As a result of these healthy indicators, leading investors like Goldman Sachs are now advising their clients to reduce investment in the emerging markets and shift to the United States for both stability and return on investment. It was Goldman Sachs, remember, that coined the acronym “BRICS” and once led the call for investment in Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

Nor is the caution expressed in the White House National Security Strategy entirely justified by the American public’s mood about international affairs anymore. In Pew Research Center polls taken in 2013 a majority of Americans (51 percent) said the United States is “doing too much to solve world problems,” but in late 2014 Pew found that only 39 percent felt that way. Russia’s stealthy invasion of Ukraine and the Islamic State’s beheading of two Americans clearly raised the American public’s sense that the world is dangerous and requires American leadership.

The shift was particularly strong among Republicans.

On trade, Pew and other polls found that Americans have gone from slightly opposed to free trade to strongly in support of agreements like TPP. There is still a deep wariness among the American public about military engagement in the Middle East, but a stronger economy and clear threats from aggressors like Russia and the Islamic State have had a big impact on the public consciousness.

At a recent bipartisan gathering of international relations scholars and former officials at the Brookings Institution, there was broad consensus that the United States does indeed have the capacity to lead. But there are two questions. The first is about leadership in 2017. The mainstream candidates in both parties - Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton - are likely to increase defense spending and push back harder against Russia, the Islamic State and - if necessary - China.

However, the movements from the right wing of the Republican Party and the left wing of the Democratic Party cannot be completely discounted.

The second question is about allies.

Pew polls show that Americans want to share leadership more in the world, but they do not fully trust China or other autocratic states. Europe is in deep political and economic trouble and struggles to prevent Britain, Greece or other states from leaving the European Union as anti-immigration and anti-EU politics gain ground across the continent. Even Atlanticists in Washington now acknowledge that our Asian allies will become increasingly important in a global context. Korea, Japan and Australia are at the top of the list. A “global Korea” has never been more important to U.S. grand strategy.

JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 27, Page 28

The author is senior vice president
for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and an associate professor at Georgetown University.

by Michael Green

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