Allies’ cooperation is best protection from China
Stephen Walt, a professor of international affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, is one of the world’s leading scholars of the realist school in international relations, having authored a series of seminal works building upon the theory of defensive realism. At its core, the realist school does not subscribe to any notion of a “world order” that scholars of the liberal school like to postulate, viewing global reality as existing in an anarchic structure where each nation-state seeks to maximize its power for the sake of its security.
In such a framework, Walt — a vocal analyst and sometimes critic of U.S. foreign policy — argues that China should be the main focus of U.S. global strategy and that Washington must aim to keep its allies in Asia united to counter this rising threat.
The JoongAng Ilbo spoke to Walt at its office in central Seoul on Tuesday, discussing South Korea’s place in the United States-led regional order in Asia amid a confused list of policies that is the Donald Trump Doctrine. Unity, Walt said, was paramount to maintaining Seoul’s alignment with U.S. interests, which at heart entails South Korea getting along with strategic partners like Japan to deal with the challenges stemming from North Korea and China.
Below are the edited excerpts from the interview.
Q. You’ve written before that the United States should pay greater attention to Asia rather than Europe or the Middle East. Can you tell us more about that?
A. I think the most important feature of international politics is the distribution of power — who has power and what they’re going to do with it. For the United States, and certainly all major powers, you have to pay close attention to how power is distributed around the world and where challenges to your interests might be rising. So, in 1947, it was clear that the most important area for the United States was Europe, and that the Soviet Union was a potential threat to Europe. We had other interests including in Asia. We fought a war here, as you know. But Europe was really the focus of much of U.S. strategy. Well, the world has changed in 80 years or so, and now it’s clear that the strategic importance of Asia overall is increasing. That’s partly because of the rise of China but also because of the economic importance of countries like Japan and South Korea and Southeast Asia, and I think, over time, India as well. The United States needs to focus most of its attention on Asia. What’s happening in Europe is not unimportant, but the United States doesn’t need to be there to protect Europe. The Middle East has been a disaster for the United States. The more heavily involved we get there, the more trouble we get into. We shouldn’t be doing that at all and focus our attention on Asia.
What would you say about the challenges presented to the United States by a rising China?
If China had an active revisionist agenda, it wouldn’t necessarily be announcing this to everyone. Of course, no country thinks of itself as being aggressive. It’s always acting defensively. That’s the same way Americans talk. We say we’re not trying to control the world; we just want to maintain a stable world order. But the two most powerful countries in the world always have to worry about each other because each is the other countries’ greatest potential danger. Secondly, if you were China, you would like to have a situation where you didn’t have any enemies or adversaries nearby. You would like to be a dominant power in Asia. I think that is ultimately China’s long-term goal. I don’t think they want to conquer their neighbors, but they want to make sure that their neighbors are not opposing them on any issue that is important. In particular, I think China would feel more secure if none of its neighbors had a close relationship with the United States. It would be ideal that the United States was gone from Asia and China could deal with all of the Asian countries individually and tell them what to do if it had to. That is not the situation the United States wants, because if China dominated Asia, it could start to project power and influence into other parts of the world including close to the United States. We would rather China had to worry mostly about the situation close to home. So it is in our interest to support our allies in Asia. It’s also in our allies’ interest to maintain a good relationship with the United States because that’s the best protection for pressure from China.
What do you think about the Donald Trump administration’s policy in Asia?
I think the one thing the Trump administration got right was that the main challenge was China and that it was time to confront China on some of its activities. On China’s trade policy, for example, or some of the pressure it put on other countries in the South China Sea, the United States had to take a firmer stance. That said, the Trump administration has done this very badly. They had the right objective but the wrong strategy for dealing with it. First of all, we should never have left the Trans-Pacific Partnership. That was an important economic agreement, but it had a strategic political dimension to it: containing and building on the ties we already had in Asia. Second, when we wanted to confront China about its trade policy, we shouldn’t have done it by ourselves. We should’ve done it along with South Korea, Japan, the European Union, Canada and some other major countries that have economic dealings with China. We could all get together and go talk to the Chinese about how they’re living up to their agreements or not. That would have been much more effective than doing it ourselves. Finally, we shouldn’t be constantly picking fights with our allies in Asia, to include Japan but also South Korea. We obviously have issues we need to talk about as part of the alliance, but we should do it in a much more cooperative spirit and not just constantly demand that Japan, South Korea and other countries pay more.
What do you think is the most effective way to deal with North Korea?
I don’t think it was a mistake to reach out to North Korea and to reach out to [its leader] Kim Jong-un. Even to do that personal diplomacy. But we should have done this in a much more realistic and well-prepared fashion. Trump’s belief that he could just sit down and get to be friends and then get North Korea to completely give up its nuclear program was completely unrealistic. I think to the extent you can, you always want to do it along with other countries, like with China, Japan, South Korea and sometimes Russia. It would be helpful in that regard so that North Korea faces pressure from lots of different countries. Second, you have to be very realistic as to what you can accomplish. We are not going to get complete, verifiable, irreversible disarmament any time soon. The nuclear program is too important to North Korea’s sense of security. But we maybe could get more limited agreements on further missile testing and other military aspects, and this process then can take place much more slowly. I think diplomacy is the only alternative. But we do not have a particularly patient president right now. You don’t want to exaggerate [North Korea’s] importance. There’s a tendency to focus enormous attention, which is what North Korea wants. I think one has to find ways of signaling to North Korea two things. One is that it is not the policy of the United States government to try and overthrow the regime in Pyongyang, and second, it is our policy that we will oppose any attack by North Korea against any of our allies.
Many people in South Korea are concerned that Trump may compromise South Korea’s security from North Korean nuclear and missile threats as long as he gets a deal with the North. What is your view on this?
We should do our best to alleviate those concerns that somehow our allies in Asia may be decoupling from the United States. But this problem has existed for a long time. In the Cold War, people worried about Russia having nuclear weapons but Japan and South Korea did not. I think we can still make it clear to North Korea that an attack on South Korea or an attack on other U.S. allies in the Pacific region would not go unanswered regardless of what the strategic situation is. In some respects, it’s easier for the United States to come to the aid of our allies in these countries if we’re not facing a threat from North Korea ourselves. It’s not a problem that I think diplomacy and consultation can’t help overcome. North Korea’s nuclear weapons, in my view, are useful for only one thing, and that is to prevent the regime from being overthrown by an outsider. Other countries will not invade and try to overthrow North Korea if it has nuclear weapons. But North Korea’s nuclear weapons cannot be used in my view against Japan, South Korea or China without putting the entire regime at risk. I do not believe the United States or the rest of the international community would see something like that happen and not respond. There’s no evidence whatsoever that anyone in the Kim family has ever been suicidal.
Can you comment on the ongoing strain in bilateral relations between South Korea and Japan and the effect of the Moon Jae-in administration’s decision to withdraw from an intelligence-sharing pact called Gsomia with Japan on its security ties with Washington?
A worsening relationship between South Korea and Japan is not good for South Korea, Japan or the United States. There is clearly deep contention or wariness between the two countries that has historical origins that one should respect and understand. But it is my view that it would be very unfortunate if crimes in the past are continuing to have a negative effect on the future. It’s not that these crimes should be forgotten, but they can’t be allowed to drive policy decisions that are made. Finally, my sense is that both South Korea and Japan have overreacted to this. Regardless of the legality of the original judicial decision in South Korea that began the latest round here, I believe the Japanese overreacted to that, and I believe that South Korea has overreacted to the Japanese reaction. I am hoping that it stops here, the United States talks to both sides and we gradually figure out how we can work back to a healthier relationship.
Whether it’s joint military exercises, exchange of military personnel, the sharing of intelligence going forward or joint statements on political issues on North Korea or China, all of these things suddenly become harder if the South Korean and the Japanese governments stop working together. It’s not like what’s happened immediately puts both countries at risk. But over time it’s going to prevent all sorts of positive initiatives that they might be able to take. I think the divisions could be something that other countries such as China could exploit to try to play them off against each other.
There have been concerns that if South Korea refuses Trump’s demand that it take up a larger burden of the upkeep of U.S. forces, he may consider withdrawing troops from South Korea. Can you comment on this?
He’s very unpredictable so I don’t know. If he were to announce that. it would be very controversial in the United States. But this is an example of a bigger problem, and it didn’t start with Trump. This goes back to almost the history of the alliance. It’s also true with our other allies. Our Asian allies would like the United States to do most of the work in handling security here. The United States would like its Asian partners to do more of the work. You don’t really want to jump into bed with China, and we don’t really want to go home. We’re both bluffing. But if we talk like that to each other too often, we start to believe it. I understand some of this bargaining that goes on. It’s inevitable in every alliance. The security issues in Asia and the United States’ alliance relations in Asia are much less about strictly military power. There are political questions, and they require a lot of time, attention and well-trained knowledgeable diplomats working these issues on a fairly constant basis.
What do you think is the most important priority for the alliance?
I think there are two things that go together. The most obvious one is common interests. Shared interests are still very powerful, and that helps insulate us from mistakes made by individual leaders. Alliances between countries whose interests are diverging don’t last. If what South Korea wants and what the United States wants become too disparate, the alliance will not last. I don’t think that’s the case. I think in fact the rise of China is giving us more reasons to cooperate with each other and to be close on strategic thinking. The second thing is about trust. Even when there are common interests, it’s possible that relationships get off on the wrong foot or politicians make mistakes. So there’s a certain amount of management or diplomacy that’s part of keeping any good alliance as healthy as possible. That’s what we’re talking about with respect to South Korea and Japan.
In terms of dealing with a major adversary, do you think bandwagoning – states aligning with a stronger, adversarial power for its security – or balancing – states forming groups to counter a potential hegemon – is the better strategy?
There is a very simple reason why countries don’t want to bandwagon. It basically means you have to trust that your powerful neighbor will be benevolent forever and will always behave itself. In international politics, you can’t trust other countries. If you join forces with them, you’re basically saying: look, I’ll be your friend but don’t do anything to hurt me. You can’t be sure that that’s the case. It’s much better off to balance against them to join forces with others and then say don’t try to hurt me because you’ll fail. It’ll be too expensive for you because I have friends and I am very strong myself. So states don’t like to bandwagon unless they are very weak and can’t find any allies to help them. South Korea is not weak. It is a serious middle power. It is the 10th-largest economy in the world. It’s not the South Korea as of 1960 or 1970. South Korea is certainly a formidable regional power. I do not believe South Korea wants to constantly look over its shoulder and hope that China remains benevolent forever. To balance against China does not mean that you have to have an aggressively hostile relationship with China. In fact, I think it’s in South Korea’s interest to have the best possible relationship it can have with China in the context of balancing against it. You want to be in a position that you can defend South Korea’s interests with confidence in partnership with other countries.
BY NAM JEONG-HO [firstname.lastname@example.org]