By Robert E. Kelly
The Secretary of Defense is on his way out. To my mind, Secretary Gates was excellent. More than any SecDef since the end of the Cold War, he pushed the real ‘transformation’ of the Department of Defense (DoD) ― toward restraint and limits: the U.S. can no longer afford the expansive globocop role we have become accustomed to in the ‘unipolar moment.’
His successors will have a difficult time continuing this. There is a strong predilection in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill for defense spending. It looks patriotic and exciting. Cutting it can be easily demagogued as ‘imperiling our national defense in an era of terrorism’ or something like that. Pentagon weapons procurement is notorious for placing bits and pieces of defense production in as many congressional districts as possible. This gives congressmen an economic and ‘patriotic’ incentive in voting yet more funding to DoD. And the Navy and Air Force are worried of a much-reduced role if the future use of American force follows mini-interventions like Libya or (what was supposed to) Afghanistan. Watch for those parts of the force to hype the China threat.
Finally, it is simply undeniable that Americans somewhat like ‘empire.’ We like that we can go anywhere in the world and command a level of respect, because we are citizens of the ‘indispensible nation.’ Everyone uses the dollar and pays attention to the intricacies of our politics. No, I’m not saying we are the European caricature of a globe-strutting imperialist. But you only need to watch American film (or worse, video games) to see how attractive the idea of a tough-guy U.S. is to Americans. We love the narrative of American exceptionalism; remember that President Bush said ‘God has a special mission for America’ and got re-elected despite the Iraq War.
So Gates’ value, in the end, was seeing that the U.S. simply cannot afford the neocon-liberal hawk synthesis in which the U.S. use of force is a regular response to global problems. Even if you think America should be globocop, America’s finances force the obvious question of whether it can. Historians regularly tell us that rising foreign debt and long wars are the death-knell of empires. Cut we must, or face a truly devastating melt-down at some point. It will take time for Americans to digest this reality, and Gates, with his huge personal prestige, started this process.
I say that quite aware that I supported NATO force against Gaddafi. (I would defend that position by noting that I argued for a super-light air intervention to stop a massacre. Beyond that, Libyans must achieve ‘regime change’ on their own.) I also say this with some trepidation, because part of me does think that unipolarity backed by U.S. force, has made the world safer and the global economy function more easily. I worry too what a ‘post-American’ world will look like, especially if authoritarian China plays a much bigger role. While no fan of ‘empire,’ I will agree that this is unnerving.
But the larger concern of overstretch is now so apparent that Gates’ retrenchment position can either be, a) a choice now, in which we slowly retrench in order to better accommodate America’s fiscal mess and do so in a professional, ‘graceful’ manner, or b) forced on us later, when we are genuinely broke because we continue to borrow $1-2 trillion dollars a year. Even America can’t do that forever, and cuts are coming whether we want them or not.
The Korean case forces this reckoning locally, because Korea’s security is obviously dependent on a U.S. commitment. Any war here will be bloody and expensive, far worse than the U.S. post-Cold War conflicts in the Middle East. Americans are genuinely nervous about getting chain-ganged into a long conflict here. China, which holds around 1/4 of all U.S. Treasuries, would have an obvious incentive to stop buying if U.S. Forces in Korea were suddenly marching toward the Yalu. And I can think of few uses of U.S. force more noble than helping a democratic friend against the world’s last, worst stalinist tyranny. But that shouldn’t blind us to the obvious. Gates himself said, “any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined.” And: “We need to be honest with the president, with the Congress, with the American people, indeed with ourselves, about what those consequences (of additional defense budget reductions) are: That a smaller military, no matter how superb, will be able to go fewer places and be able to do fewer things. ... To shirk this discussion of risks and consequences—and the hard decisions that must follow—I would regard as managerial cowardice.” That should be a wake-up call.
Hence I have argued repeatedly on my website, especially for Korean readers, that Korea needs to be far more aggressive in preparing its own defense and imaging an East Asian alliance structure beyond simply a U.S. guarantee. Korea should finally resolve the Dokdo dispute with Japan, so that real joint decision-making on vastly greater issues like NK or China’s rise can begin. Korea should be looking further afield to other Asian democracies like India or Australia. These are no substitute for the U.S. of course, and the U.S. isn’t simply going to leave tomorrow or next year. But the U.S. will have to be further and further ‘over the horizon’ in the medium-term, barring some major turn-around of the U.S. fiscus. Korea has the money and talent to fill in this gap, but first the recognition of U.S. limits, pushed by no less than the U.S. secretary of defense, needs to sink in - not just in Seoul, but in the whole U.S. establishment in Korea, and in the hawkish Beltway think-tank industrial complex. I hope I am wrong…
Robert E. Kelly is an assistant professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science and Diplomacy at Pusan National University. More of his work may be found at his website, AsianSecurityBlog.wordpress.com.