US Decline & Korea (2): What is US National Interest in Korea? UPDATE – Poll: only 40% of Americans want to defend SK, even it is attacked

Here is a bit of President Lee of Korea’s speech to the US Congress

Here is part one of my thoughts on the US-Korea alliance after President Lee’s visit last week.

First, despite the invitation from Congress, Americans know very little about Korea compared to allies like Canada, Britain, or Israel. Americans usually see Korea’s geopolitics through the prism of North Korea and the ‘axis of evil.’ The Tea Party movement especially takes a rigidly ideological-neoconservative view of Korea as the ‘frontline of freedom,’ and Sarah Palin notoriously needed to be taught, as vice-presidential candidate, why there are two Koreas. While this doctrinaire view of Korea as a black-white, good-evil contest may suit South Korean conservatives, a neocon-ideological reflex should not be mistaken for deep local or cultural knowledge of Korea. Far more US congressmen have visited Israel than Korea, and how many Americans have you met who can speak Korean? Previous liberal governments of Korea kept some distance from the US for fear that American neo-cons would instrumentalize South Korea to the ‘freedom agenda,’ pull SK into ideologically-driven conflicts like Iraq, and unnecessarily raise tension with the North. Binding oneself too close to the US in foreign policy carries the risk of getting ‘chain-ganged’ into America’s periodic bouts of ‘democratic imperialism.’

Second, the US is flirting with national bankruptcy. This will have dramatic impacts on all its alliances, not just in Korea. In my teaching and public speaking in Korea, I find Koreans disturbingly unaware of just how bad America’s financial situation really is. The US is now borrowing 40¢ of every dollar it spends. The deficit is $1.5 trillion (160% of SK’s entire GDP); the debt is almost $10 trillion; the IMF predicts America’s debt-to-GDP ratio will exceed 100% by the end of the decade; China owns 1/3 of the US debt; US national security spending tops $1.2 trillion, 25% of the budget and 7% of GDP. These are mind-boggling figures that all but mandate at least some US retrenchment from its current global footprint, including perhaps, by not necessarily limited, to Korea.

Unless the US citizenry is willing to except a noticeably lower standard of living, including major cuts in popular welfare-state programs like Medicare, then the burden of the necessary cuts to fix America’s finances will eventually include defense. By almost any definition, the US is overstretched – fighting too many wars for too long and borrowing far too much money. ‘Empire’ is very expensive, and soon American voters will be forced to choose between it and the welfare-state, between guns and butter.

In this regard, the recent Libyan conflict should be instructive. It is a good example of what war in the age of austerity and US budget constraints will look like. US public opinion was deeply hesitant for yet another conflict, so Obama could only provide air support and quickly abjured leadership to NATO. Former Secretary of Defense Gates said before he left office that ‘any future secretary of defense who recommends sending a big US army into Asia or Africa again should have his head examined.’ These sorts of hints should tell Koreans (and Iraqis, Afghans, Israelis, etc.) that America can’t/won’t fight big land wars in Asia for awhile. Yet NK is a far more capable opponent than Gaddafi or the Taliban; the war on terrorism would pale in comparison to an intra-Korean war. What if America could only provide air power, because US banks are suffering from a slow-motion crisis similar to Europe’s today or the Lehman collapse of 2008? What if China, which funds so much of US borrowing, suddenly pulls the plug as US involvement in a war on its border deepens?

Third, Korea needs the US a lot more than the US needs Korea – which means that resolutely unacknowledged US relative decline is the real backstory to Lee’s triumph in Washington. Unlike the US, middle-power Korea has dismal geopolitics – surrounded by large neighbors who have periodically bullied it, and bordered by an unpredictable rogue. Weak, encircled countries as diverse as Poland, Paraguay, and Zaire have seen themselves plundered and divided, so the US alliance is good way for small Korea to get some leverage in its tight space. But this will fade, not just as American power recedes from Asia under massive budgetary pressure, but because Korea is no longer central to American security. The Cold War is over. Today, a NK defeat of SK, while a local tragedy, would not dramatically impact American security. I don’t mean to sound cold; a NK victory would be a humanitarian catastrophe. But the gap between US and SK security is an important truth not often admitted and behind the deeply disturbing statistic that only 40% of Americans want to fight for SK even if it is attacked by NK (p. 6 here). That number should stop the presses, but everyone ignores it. This ‘asymmetric dependence’ is very obviously the reason behind Lee’s visit, Korea’s willingness to go to Iraq, and the astonishing interest in Korea in English and the US. While American public does in fact obsess over Israeli security, small as it is, the Korean alliance has weaker, more ideological, and less tribal, roots in US popular opinion.

None of this means the alliance will break soon, but the strong elite consensus for it should not be mistaken for a deep American popular commitment (p. 6 here), as there is to, for example, Canada, Britain, or Israel. In the next decade, America’s political and financial dysfunction will force a painful prioritization of US foreign policy. Commitments like Germany, Iraq, Afghanistan, Korea, and others will be deeply scrutinized, and no amount of Korean-American friendship will undo a $10 trillion debt.


NB: Here is the new SecDef saying we won’t pull out of the Pacific. I hope so, but no one seems to want to talk about the money…

NB2: Here is a far more believable account of America’s future troubles projecting force into Asia, with even worse numbers than I present above.

NB3: If you think Korea can/should help the US contain China, try this. More and more I would expect Korea to market itself to the US in this, especially given those poll numbers on NK.

11 thoughts on “US Decline & Korea (2): What is US National Interest in Korea? UPDATE – Poll: only 40% of Americans want to defend SK, even it is attacked

    • That’s a good analogy, one I had not thought of. Thank you.

      If the point of US engagement out here is to counter China – as the USSR’s engagement with Latin American Marxists was to divert the US in the Cold War – then ok. But that analogizes China and the USSR, which is too great a leap. China isn’t nearly as dangerous, expansionistic or ideological as the USSR was. If it does become a threat, then it is more dangerous to frontline states like India, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam.

      Now THOSE states may want the US to contain China; I understand completely why Korea likes the US alliance. But it is not clear to me if containing China is in America’s interest. In fact, this is the big question over all of America’s security commitments in Asia. Why, EXACTLY, are we here, especially in an age of austerity at home, with high unemployment and massive deficits? So, if you are Congress, defense cuts look politically very attractive, and given that Korea is obviously wealthy enough to defend itself, it is a tempting target for the axe.

      That said, I nonetheless believe the US and its Asian allies will try to contain China anyway: I don’t think China is a massive threat to the US, but that won’t stop neocons and liberal hwaks committed to a US globocop role from spinning it that way to prevent defense cuts and US retrenchment. So Korean abandonment is unlikely, given persistent, ideologically-driven US misperception of China. Hence, you may be rigth in the end anyway, even though I don’t think an empirical analysis actually supports the USSR-China parallel.

      Thanks for reading. rek


  1. You said “China owns 1/3 of the US debt”. This is false. China owns 1/3 of our FOREIGN owned debt, but only 16% of the total debt, since most of our debt is not foreign owned. In fact, almost half of is owned by the Federal Reserve. See for example:

    The idea that China will somehow use the debt to take over the US is just a myth pushed by Republicans who want an excuse to dismantle Medicare.


    • You are correct that I am not counting the internal faux-debt of SSA lending to the general fund. I am only thinking of the publicly-held debt (almost $10T), and China’s $3T in US currency reserves. Hence the 1/3 figure.
      But I concur that the GOP will use the debt issue as a wedge to cut entitlements.
      Thanks for reading.


      • I like your blog a lot. I just think you’re way off base about the debt. The main holder is actually the Federal Reserve now, since they can buy as much as they want. And it’s very strange to count currency reserves as debt- it’s just cash, it’s not like it obligates us to give them any more cash. If anything, having China buy so many dollars hurts Americans and helps China, since they boost Chinese exports at the expense of US jobs.


      • Yes, but then there’s the looming demographic whammy brought on by retiring boomers and the disincentivizing tendencies on investment of all this QE the Fed is doing. It will be at least a decade before private companies can expect to see returns on investment. China also faces a demographic whammy worse than America’s, and it is wracking up debt quietly on failed boondoggles.


  2. So, if not to contain China – which both of us would agree is neither necessary nor feasible – what does South Korea bring to the American table? Why should Washington listen to the blandishments of another middling power? There’s Israel and India, too, and both of them are doing enough damage to American credibility – West Bank and Sri Lanka – around the world already. What good besides supplying lobbyists and cash for electoral campaigns can these middling powers provide?


    • Good question. It’s not just that Korea is a middle power, but it is also far away from the US. Canada, Mexico and Brazil are middle powers, but close, so their trajectories matter. Saudi Arabia isn’t even a middle power, but its oil reserves give it great strategic relevance. But Korea is sorta like South Africa – a regional democracy with good relations with the US, but without obvious strategic relevance. In time, I believe this will cause drift, especially if the US financial crisis impacts the defense budget, as I believe it will.

      Thanks for reading.


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