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Let’s Talk About Korea

In the last Republican debate, Donald Trump said the following in response to a question about how to handle Russia:

Well, first of all, it’s not only Russia. We have problems with North Korea where they actually have nuclear weapons. You know, nobody talks about it, we talk about Iran, and that’s one of the worst deals ever made. One of the worst contracts ever signed, ever, in anything, and it’s a disgrace. But, we have somebody over there, a madman, who already has nuclear weapons we don’t talk about that. That’s a problem.

China is a problem, both economically in what they’re doing in the South China Sea, I mean, they are becoming a very, very major force. So, we have more than just Russia. But, as far as the Ukraine is concerned, and you could Syria — as far as Syria, I like — if Putin wants to go in, and I got to know him very well because we were both on 60 Minutes, we were stablemates, and we did very well that night. But, you know that.

But, if Putin wants to go and knock the hell out of ISIS, I am all for it, 100%, and I can’t understand how anybody would be against it….They blew up a Russian airplane. He cannot be in love with these people. He’s going in, and we can go in, and everybody should go in. As far as the Ukraine is concerned, we have a group of people, and a group of countries, including Germany — tremendous economic behemoth — why are we always doing the work?

Hidden in that word salad is a real idea—or, rather, two ideas, that don’t live happily in harmony.

The first idea is “why are we always doing the work?” If we have interests and goals that align with other powers, we should be able to work together to advance them and share the burden of doing so in an equitable fashion. Likewise if we face a common adversary. Our need to always be the leader, always be the decider, always be involved—that gets in the way of seeing opportunities to get a decent percentage, though not all, of what we want for a hugely reduced price by letting other powers set the agenda sometimes.

The other, conflicting idea is “they are becoming a very, very major force.” If any other state—Russia, China, Iran, whoever—pursues an agenda of increasing their own power and position, that’s something we need to worry about and counter. On Iran, we decided that getting a deal was better than not getting a deal, particularly since Russia and China (and likely Germany) were not going to support continued hostility with no end-game. Iran, of course, was looking out for its own interests. So the deal is a “disgrace” where we gave away the store. China is asserting claims in the South China Sea, expanding its military capabilities—all rational actions for a power of its size and stature. This, by definition—whether or not they aim to challenge America directly, or whether our interests actually align—is viewed as a problem, because it’s a threat to the security of our supremacy.

If you want an illustration of the Thucydides Trap playing out in real time in the mind of a single person, it would be hard to do better.

As it happens, I’ve been thinking about the problems we have with North Korea myself. It’s just that, as I see it, the situation on Korea is not just a problem, but an opportunity. Specifically, an opportunity to lay the foundation of a more constructive relationship with a rising China. That’s what my latest column in The Week is about:

It’s not inconceivable that one day North Korean brinksmanship could spark a war. It’s also possible that the North Korean regime could collapse catastrophically, leading to a necessary intervention both for humanitarian reasons and to protect South Korea. Nor can it be ruled out that a future American President would take preemptive military action against North Korea as we did in Iraq and as we have contemplated doing against North Korea in the past.

In current U.S. war planning, the assumption is that China would remain neutral in the event of war, both because of the potential cost to China and because it lacks the capability to prevail against the United States. But any such conflict would unquestionably be perceived as enormously threatening in Beijing, and would likely set China on a more determined course of confrontation in the future, with an aim to removing America from the Western Pacific. The time to defuse potential consequences for the U.S.-China relationship is now, before a crisis erupts.

Now consider what the effect might be of conducting frank, bilateral discussions with China about the future of the peninsula. These need not be, indeed likely should not be, public discussions, if for no other reason than both sides of the DMZ would receive it poorly for being left out. But the goal would be to make it clear that, in the context of a peaceful reunification of North and South, America would be comfortable with a Korea that was free of both nuclear weapons and American bases. A freely reunified and denuclearized Korea would not be a base for future American encirclement of China.

China would have little reason to trust American intentions after having observed the post-Cold War expansion of NATO into states that were once part of the Soviet Union. But the advantage of undertaking such conversations now, when the situation on the peninsula is relatively stable, is precisely that there is little risk for either party in coming to an understanding in principle. In the event of a crisis, each side would have the basis from prior conversations to know our stated aims, and to measure our actions against them. In that way, our behavior in a future crisis could lead to mutual confidence rather than escalation.

Read the whole thing there.

Xi Jinping, as I understand it, is actually quite aware of just how useless the North Korean regime is to advancing Chinese interests, and how risky that relationship ultimately could be for China. Moreover, while a military base in Korea is valuable to the United States, it’s nowhere near vital. Reversing North Korean proliferation is a far more important goal.

In other words, American and Chinese interests on the peninsula, properly understood, dovetail far more than they diverge. Which means that even if we’re unable to solve the North Korean problem together (China may actually have very little leverage), open discussions could improve relations between America and China by making it clear to our respective leaderships both that we have strong common interests there, and that we are ready to work together to advance them.

But those kind of discussions can only happen if America recognizes that Chinese interests are legitimate, that Chinese distrust of our intentions is rational, and that the point is not to convince them that really we have their interests at heart – they’ll never believe that – but that we are capable of recognizing when our interests align, and in working together as partners when that is the case.

And, unfortunately, I’ve yet to hear a Presidential candidate in this cycle speak that kind of language.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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