The return of the abacus
The author is head of the international, diplomatic and security team at the JoongAng Ilbo.
In June 2017, a week before President Moon Jae-in held his first summit with U.S. President Donald Trump, I had a chance to interview Thomas Wright, director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution. During the meeting in Washington, he advised Korea to work hand-in-hand with the traditionalists of the U.S. government. When I asked who they were, he pointed to Jim Mattis, who at the time was the defense secretary. Wright said Mattis was more of a traditionalist than Rex Tillerson, then-secretary of state.
Two years after Moon’s first summit with Trump, Korea has found it difficult to follow Wright’s advice. Seoul is to blame for pushing away the traditionalists by deciding to withdraw from the General Security of Military Information Agreement with Tokyo, but a bigger problem is that the U.S. government no longer has any traditionalists like Mattis.
Mattis left the Trump administration due in part to his discontent over Trump’s treatment of American alliances and partnerships. His successor, Mark Esper, is pressuring U.S. allies to pay more for America’s defense of their countries, saying there can be “no free rides to our shared security.” Likewise, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is repeating that countries should bear the necessary responsibilities for their security. In a dramatic turn, the two leaders of U.S. foreign policy are acting as debt-collectors.
The era of Pax Americana has been ebbing since Trump came into office. The power of an empire to lead the global village has always come from physical force — say, the size of population, land and military power. But in the contemporary world, a “big country” alone does not make it the leader of the international community because ideological power — or the power to influence other nations to agree and follow — is essential to assume the leadership position.
After going through World War II and the Cold War, the United States created the great causes of liberty, human rights and the market. The United States believed it held the torch to guide humanity. In his 1961 inauguration address, President John F. Kennedy proudly said, “The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.” It takes money to light up that torch — to maintain U.S. allies and influence them to agree with American values. But Trump is scoffing. His America First policy signifies a voluntary withdrawal of Pax Americana.
The United States’ relinquishing its position as a global leader heralds an era of uncertainty in Northeast Asia. China is on the top of the list to replace the United States, but sadly, neighboring countries see China’s rise as a pain in the neck because it is centered on Sinocentrism. It is quintessential for an empire to acknowledge diversity inside and outside, but China, as in the past, is forcing the global community to adopt a Chinese-style new order.
Japan — the first Asian country to succeed in modernization — could have counteracted Western supremacy and become a torch that rekindled the pride of Asia. But its past ideology that saw Japan and Korea as one was only designed to imperialistically exploit Koreans, not to seek coexistence and prosperity.
Because Japan keeps refusing to admit and overcome its past mistakes, it cannot represent the Asian continent. Pax Americana has been dying since Trump became president, but I do not see any country capable of holding the torch in the absence of the United States. As the era of the torch is failing, the era of the abacus is about to arise.
JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 30, Page 30