President Donald Trump’s departure Friday on a 12-day trip to Asia will doubtless prompt a chorus of foreign-policy mandarins and mainstream media pundits to recite the traditional diplomatic mantra that “America is a Pacific power — and must always remain one.” And judging from his decisions so far to continue the nation’s longtime support for treaty allies and less formal friends in the region against North Korean and Chinese threats, Trump himself is likely to join in.
It’s time, however, for President Trump to start listening to candidate Trump, and start questioning a Cold War strategy that is rapidly exposing the United States to dangers — specifically, the nuclear destruction of American cities — that utterly dwarf any conceivable upside.
Despite understandably grabbing most of the Asia-related headlines, North Korea's development of nuclear missiles able to reach the U.S. homeland has so far failed to shake Washington's determination to protect South Korea from Pyongyang's designs. It should. For when this commitment was first taken up, nearly seven decades ago, the risks to U.S. territory from North Korea itself were literally nonexistent. And although the Soviet Union represented a theoretical nuclear-armed guardian for the North, Moscow's forces could plausibly be deterred by America's.
As a result, the United States could keep North Korea's superior conventional military forces from attacking the south by threatening to destroy them — as well as the regime itself — with its own nuclear weapons. This threat moreover, was supremely credible precisely because it could be made with impunity.
Now, however, this "escalation dominance," as strategists term America's longtime advantage, is virtually gone. Any use of the U.S. military to defend the South could result in major U.S. population centers being turned into glowing, poisoned graveyards — by far the worst catastrophe the nation would have ever suffered.
Worse, however tempting, any American president would find it excruciatingly difficult to welsh on this promise. Why? Because 28,500 U.S. troops are stationed practically next to the North Korea-South Korea border. If Washington stood by, they would be overrun — which is in fact, ghoulishly, their mission. As the euphemism has it, they're deployed as a "tripwire" whose vulnerability would leave U.S. leaders no choice but to go nuclear to save them.
In the era of U.S. escalation dominance in Korea, this gambit deterred the North as intended. With the strategic tables turned, relying on the tripwire can only entrap a president into a decision that should always be a matter of choice: whether to endanger the homeland by entering a war that could go nuclear.
Any use of the U.S. military to defend the South could result in major U.S. population centers being turned into glowing, poisoned graveyards.
The most sensible American response? Dismantling the tripwire and pulling militarily out of South Korea. The move would greatly increase the odds that the North's nuclear forces would be here to stay, but Kim Jong-un's casus belli against the United States would be gone. Even better, Washington would no longer appear more concerned about Pyongyang's nukes than most of North Korea's neighbors (especially China and Russia) seem to be. If they (possibly along with South Korea) believe that ultimately they can live with a nuclear-armed North, why can't the United States, which is much farther away? If Pyongyang's neighbors, which include near-superpowers, are in fact more worried, let them figure out a denuclearization approach of their own. And if China, in particular, wishes to avoid a nuclear-armed South Korea and especially Japan, it will start genuinely turning the economic screws on the North.
Though garnering less attention, the military challenge posed by China is at least equally serious. Like President Obama, President Trump has used American naval and air forces to prevent Beijing from asserting ever more control over the East China Sea and especially the South China Sea. China has possessed intercontinental nuclear weapons since the early 1980s, but it has seemed it can be deterred for two main reasons. First, its stake in a peaceful Asia has long been vastly greater than North Korea's; second, its long-range nukes were not only much less numerous than America's, but they also were deployed in land-based silos that were relatively vulnerable to a pre-emptive U.S. attack.
In recent years, however, Beijing has made impressive strides towards increasing the survivability of many of its nuclear missiles by putting them out to sea on hard-to-detect submarines. Once this capability arrives, American showdowns with China off the coast of Asia become much more dangerous.
As with the Korean peninsula, it's in America's best interests to withdraw, and all the more so since Chinese regional domination need not automatically follow. The prospect of Japan's going nuclear alone could inhibit the Chinese. The United States could also offer to sell any country bordering China as much conventional weaponry as it wanted — and greatly improve its trade balance and boost domestic employment in the process.
As during the era of American escalation dominance, important rationales for major U.S. military involvement in East Asia would remain. The area is one of the world's most economically dynamic, and it does do a great deal of business with Americans. In particular, the Chinese could indeed fill the influence vacuum that would be left by a substantial or complete U.S. withdrawal.
But preventing exactly which of these developments is worth the incineration of, say, Los Angeles? Further, with escalation dominance gone, how many Asian governments would believe that the United States would make, or risk, such sacrifice?
Just as important, the influence argument now at the heart of the economic case for these "forward deployed" American forces has never held any water. Even when Cold War tensions were high, Asian allies kept their markets tightly closed to many U.S. products and decimated American industries with subsidized exports. Since then, such mercantilism still marks these countries and others claiming to fear Beijing's growing power.
Indeed, the beginning of wisdom about achieving essential U.S. goals in East Asia is recognizing that without access to American customers, the region's export-dependent economies simply can't grow adequately and many, including China, could become politically much shakier. American leaders should be able to use this market power to secure win-win terms of trade no matter who controls the region politically.
Throughout his game-changing White House run, President Trump lambasted the bipartisan U.S. establishment for prioritizing foreign countries' needs over America's. East Asia policy is now an archetypical example. And his upcoming trip is a golden opportunity to set a truly "America First" course.
Alan Tonelson, who blogs on economic and security policy at RealityChek, is the author of "The Race to the Bottom" (Westview Press, 2002).