A few minutes before I sat down to write this, the Republicans officially nominated Donald Trump as their presidential candidate. So on one hand, I’d guess a GOP platform won’t mean much more to Trump than that tax plan you’ve already forgotten about. On the other hand, the GOP platform probably reflects the views of its rank-and-file and down-ballot candidates, and it looks like a thinly veiled call for overthrowing His Corpulency:
We are a Pacific nation with economic, military, and cultural ties to all the countries of the oceanic rim and treaty alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, and Thailand. With them, we look toward the establishment of human rights for the people of North Korea. We urge the government of China to recognize the inevitability of change in the Kim family’s slave state and, for everyone’s safety against nuclear disaster, to hasten positive change on the Korean peninsula. The United States will continue to demand the complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program with full accounting of its proliferation activities. We also pledge to counter any threats from the North Korean regime. [GOP Platform]
The platform also mentions North Korea further down, in a brief mention of potential electromagnetic pulse threats.
This year, of course, there are really two Republican parties — the one that still lives in the house and drives the minivan, and the one that took her stuff and moved into the trailer with Darryl, who drives a tow truck — so congressional Republicans have their own platform this year. It has numerous mentions of North Korea, calling it “bellicose,” a cybersecurity threat, and a nuclear threat to be countered in cooperation with our allies in Asia. It criticizes President Obama for extending an open hand to North Korea (among others) in 2009 and says that “strategic patience … emboldened the country’s rogue regime to test nuclear weapons and new missile systems that can reach our territory.”
In most places, it doesn’t sit long after landing. These are the two most substantial excerpts. The first, on alliances, looks like a direct rebuke of Trump.
In East Asia, our allies are desperate for a greater American role. Our top priority must be to counter the threat of a nuclear North Korea. And we must respond strategically to expansionist China’s rise, including checking its territorial ambitions. These challenges create opportunities to bring together Japan and South Korea while strengthening our ties with Taiwan and the Philippines. We cannot allow our alliances in East Asia and the Pacific to atrophy and must shore up our defense arrangements to deter China from tilting the global balance of power toward autocracy. [A Better Way]
The second is about human rights, and contains surprising praise of “the international community,” and implicitly, the U.N., for a Republican policy document.
The regime in North Korea likely has the worst human rights record in the world. Over 140,000 North Koreans are kept in forced labor camps where many are worked to death. Yet for years, the global community, including U.S. administrations, largely ignored this barbarity in a failed attempt to arrest North Korea’s nuclear development. With North Korea having flagrantly demonstrated its nuclear and ballistic-missile capabilities, the international community is finally bringing deserved attention to these abhorrent human rights abuses. International condemnation of the regime’s human rights abuses is not only morally justified, but it also weakens the regime’s autocratic grip on power. [A Better Way]
With the South Koreans understandably nervous about the things Trump and his minions have been saying, adults from both sides of the political spectrum are making their disagreements with Trump clear. You expect criticism of a Republican candidate from Democrats and the liberal foreign policy establishment; you don’t expect a Republican Speaker of the House to openly disagree with his party’s (then-presumptive) nominee.
Already, congressional Republicans are trying to mitigate the damage to the confidence of our allies in the region — allies that might be asking themselves if China, voracious as it may be, is a more dependable protector. Senators Dan Sullivan (R-AK), Joni Ernst (R-IA) and Cory Gardner (R-CO) went to Seoul in June to reaffirm their commitment to the alliance and the Free Trade Agreement, regardless of who wins the presidential election. John McCain was in Seoul last week, too.
And of course, the South Koreans have no better friend in Washington than Ed Royce, who has been going directly to South Korean people to talk about human rights, financial sanctions, and the importance of the alliance. In recent months, Royce has met with South Korea’s Defense Minister, Vice Foreign Minister, and National Security Advisor; U.S. Ambassador Mark Lippert; and the Commanding General of U.S. Forces, Korea. The South Koreans obviously value their relationship with Royce, who said, “I’ve never seen the [U.S.-South Korea] relationship as strong as it is today, and I think it’s going to get stronger … Republicans and Democrats in Congress are very committed to the alliance.”
The smoke from this year’s Republican dumpster fire tends to obscure the intelligence and statesmanship of some congressional Republicans, including members of the Class of 2014.
But then, as I’ve written before, Trump’s apparent soft-line policy toward Kim Jong-un is probably just as shallow and ephemeral as everything else under his hair. He doesn’t see policies; he sees flash cards with inkblots. His appeal is that he projects dominance to voters who harbor two mutually contradictory perceptions — that Barack Obama is weak, and that we have too many foreign entanglements. Trump craves the adoration of the mobs, and the mobs like the idea of “noninterventionism” in the abstract, right up until someone pisses them off. Then, they want a president who bombs stuff.
Which is interesting — and by “interesting,” I mean “terrifying” — because some of those observations are just as true of Kim Jong-un, only Kim’s stakes in maintaining his image are much higher. Kim must provoke the U.S. to maintain the adoration of his generals and survive, and Trump can’t stand anyone questioning his manhood by accusing him of backing down to Kim Jong-un. The personalities of these two men, both flawed and neurotic in their own ways, put them on a collision course. I’m more afraid that Trump will overreact and nuke Pyongyang than I am that he’ll cut a crappy deal that gives away Baekryeong-do and the Aleutian Islands, although (as I said before) those are both plausible possibilities, and aren’t mutually exclusive. It’s not hard for me to imagine a Manafort-Han Pact as a prelude to war. Not hard at all.
The thing with Trump is, it’s often not really the things he says (though sometimes, it really is) but the man himself. A nuclear South Korea, Taiwan, or Japan would cost me no sleep, if I could believe that things would go only this far and no further. It would be profoundly clarifying for China if the consequence of its bellicosity was to surround itself with nuclear states. It might even be stabilizing for China to have an extra reason not to invade Senkaku or blockade Taiwan.
In principle, I also agree that wealthy allies that want our protection should pay a greater share of the costs. Foreign governments should read this smart analysis of Donald Trump’s criticism of our alliances, and our allies. It’s possible to despise Trump while agreeing that on this issue, he makes a point that resonates with a large (and perhaps, growing) percentage of American voters. If Americans continue to perceive allies as free riders, they will elect a president who promises to walk away from its security commitments entirely. That’s why Seoul’s hard bargains on USFK cost-sharing or the SOFA are ultimately self-defeating.
The good news for Seoul is that American popular support for the alliance is still strong. I’m not sure how much depth there is to that support, however. I certainly don’t see the alliance with South Korea as sacrosanct or permanent, but I don’t believe that presidential candidates should deconstruct alliances soundbite-by-soundbite. I still believe that the ground component of U.S. Forces Korea should be withdrawn, if gradually. Whether the air component stays should depend on whether South Korea acts like an ally that shares our interest in dealing with North Korea as a global proliferation threat. There are plenty of examples of strong alliances where the U.S. keeps its allies safe without keeping tens of thousands of Americans on their soil. Our alliance with Israel is my own mental model of what our alliance with South Korea should become; our alliance with Taiwan is a model of what it should never become.
Much has been said about the risk to the alliance from the U.S. presidential election, but as David Straub points out, the South Korean election is a big risk, too.
Frankly, I’m concerned that too many people in the “progressive” camp in South Korea continue to underestimate Pyongyang, that is, assume that its ultimate aim is security from a hostile world rather than achieving security by inducing the end of the U.S.-ROK alliance and eventually undermining and taking over the South. South Korea will have its next presidential election in December of next year. At least three major candidates are likely to run, increasing the odds that a progressive candidate could win and then try to implement an updated version of the sunshine policy. If that happens, we will suffer five lost years in which the leaders in Pyongyang will feel they have no reason to reconsider their current approach. [David Straub, NK News]
A Trump victory would contribute to that result by undermining South Koreans’ confidence in us, and South Korean weakness as an ally might be a good opportunity for a Trump administration to reduce the ground component of U.S.F.K.
Recently, however, South Korea has acted like an ally — and a rather effective one at that — and I don’t believe in kicking one’s allies in the teeth. The January nuke test, the consequent closure of Kaesong, and South Korea’s extraordinarily effective sanctions diplomacy have united the two governments to a degree I’ve never seen since I began writing this blog. Perversely, the short-term impact of Trump sharting out extortionate demands for the upkeep of U.S. Forces Korea may have caused the South Koreans to embrace their Republican friends more closely than ever.
But even if the alliance grows apart, let’s not kid ourselves by imagining that North Korea would cease to be a threat. North Korea thinks it has a right to censor our films, threaten our cities, and sell chemical weapons, missiles, and nuclear reactors to the highest bidder. Those things will still be serious threats to our security whether we keep troops in South Korea or not, and there are advantages in having a good relationship with the legitimate Korean government when opposing the illegitimate one. Korea is another one of those problems, like Syria or Iraq, that a lot of simple thinkers would like to walk away from, based on the naive assumption that this is actually possible. Does the Republican Party, whatever it is now, still understand that?
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Update: Perhaps the most reassuring thing I’ve heard about Trump, ever, is the possibility that if elected, he would not serve, other than as a figurehead of some kind. Sorry, but I don’t buy that clever marketing strategy.