Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein


MARCH 2019

Failure of President Trump's effort to persuade North Korea's Kim Jong-un to give up his nuclear weapons is a diplomatic setback; but it's not the end of the game. Kim needs an end to tough U.N. sanctions imposed two years ago, and Trump needs to ensure that Kim's missiles don't again threaten Japan's and South Korea's security. A modified nuclear deal will eventually emerge after more hard bargaining.

Trump's diplomacy with North Korea, although stalled, achieved one notable success: Pyongyang has refrained from missile testing, and Kim suggests he could dismantle his Yongbyon nuclear complex if Trump removes most of the sanctions. And last week the Pentagon said it was suspending U.S.-South Korean military exercises. This isn't the breakthrough deal that the leaders sought, but it is progress toward reducing the risks of war.

Japan's security has been America's overriding strategic interest in East Asia since the end of World War II. The U.S. maintains over 50,000 military forces in Japan and bases a major carrier task force there. The U.S.-Japan defense treaty is the major reason Japan has not considered becoming a nuclear power to deter China and a nuclear-armed North Korea. If Japan ever doubted the U.S. commitment to confront a nuclear-armed North Korea, Tokyo may quickly decide in its own interests to build nuclear weapons.

South Korea is one of those unlucky nations to be situated between two powerful neighbors. North Korea invaded the south in 1950 and remained hostile after U.S. forces restored the border in 1953. Japan invaded and occupied the entire Korean Peninsula during the early 20th century and withdrew only after losing World War II. Like Japan, South Korea is closely tied by its defense treaty to Washington. Although President Moon Jae-in strongly desires a thaw in relations with the North, he is dependent on Donald Trump to provide a peace treaty. Kim Jong-un will exploit South Korea's eagerness to open the border and lift travel restrictions.

China, under President Xi Jinping, will remain in power for many years and has little interest today in a confrontation with the United States, either economic or military. He calculates China can afford to wait, that a new U.S. leader will be easier to deal with than Donald Trump. He also expects that Americans will tire of the burden of defending East Asian countries, that eventually China will replace the U.S. in Asia.

America's future in Asia

The U.S. has been the guarantor of East Asia's security for sixty-nine years and fought two costly wars in Korea and Vietnam to uphold that commitment. As a result, Japan and South Korea are flourishing democracies, while Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia prospered and resisted Communist efforts to subvert their governments. Even Vietnam, where the U.S. lost a war after ten years of effort, has emerged as a prosperous country, albeit under a modified Communist system. At the same time, however, China emerged as an economic superpower, under a strong Communist government, and expands its military in order to challenge what it sees as America's intrusion in its neighborhood. Americans who, like President Trump, think the costs of defending Asia are too high, propose retrenchment that would reduce U.S. forces in Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines. They argue that these allies are capable of doing more to provide their own defense and that a smaller American force would be as credible a deterrent to Chinese and North Korean blandishments than larger ones.

Critics of this view, supporters of traditional U.S. policy in Asia, argue that our allies as well as China and North Korea will view retrenchment as prelude to withdrawal. They predict that our allies. Except Japan, would draw away from Washington and find accommodation with China. They point to Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte as a bellwether because of his recent moves to warm relations with Beijing and obtain large infrastructure loans.

In my view, the U.S. can gradually reduce its military presence in Asia without triggering a decline in its political and economic power. It continues to have vital economic and security interests in Asia; but defending them today no longer requires the large ground forces and associated costs that were once required.

File last modified on Monday, 11-MAR-2019 8:47 AM EST

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