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The Perverse Effects of Alarmism

Michael Rubin makes a remarkably shoddy argument about U.S. “weakness”:

The Korean War initially broke out when Kim Il-song interpreted Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s “Defensive Perimeter” speech as a sign that the United States would no longer defend its ally on the Korean Peninsula. Is there any reason [bold mine-DL] why President Obama believes Kim Jong-un, the dear leader’s grandson and new dear leader, will interpret Obama’s weakness any differently?

I understand that hawks thrive on alarmism about foreign threats, but in the last year many hawks have outdone themselves in giving alarmism an even worse name than it already had. When the U.S. didn’t bomb Syria to enforce a vague threat that the president had made the year before, suddenly we were supposed to believe that formal U.S. defense commitments to dozens of allies around the world had been undermined. It didn’t matter that none of the allies in question saw it this way, and it didn’t matter that the argument made no sense. It was what hawks had to argue to maintain the pretense that other U.S. commitments had been jeopardized by the decision not to attack another country, because they had very much wanted the U.S. to attack and had to find some way to make the decision not to join a foreign war seem like a bad thing.

Now we’re supposed to think that North Korea’s leader will interpret some general “weakness” on the part of the administration as license to attack a U.S. treaty ally? That’s simply wrong, but more to the point it is insulting to the intelligence of any minimally informed reader. The U.S. has had a defense treaty with Seoul for sixty-one years. If such commitments to other governments mean anything, surely this is one that no one seriously doubts that the U.S. would honor.

The U.S. sometimes gets into trouble by making too many non-binding pledges of support to too many states that it isn’t going to back up if it became necessary to do so. The commitments that the U.S. and U.K. made in the Budapest Memorandum are even weaker than that, because all that they really promised to do was to respect Ukrainian territory and sovereignty and to try to use the Security Council to provide “assistance.” Because these are not legally binding commitments, they require no action and so are relatively easy to ignore, but because they exist they create an expectation of assistance that the U.S. may not be able or willing to provide when the time comes. The difference between such non-binding commitments and formal defense agreements is about as great as one can imagine, but for their own reasons hawks keep trying to treat all of them as if they were the same kind of promise. That has the perverse effect of creating the impression that formal treaty commitments are less important and binding than they are.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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