During his campaign, Donald Trump essentially told the American people that the country should stay out of stupid wars (good). But as president, to pander to his political base he tends to bluster and threaten countries, for example Iran and North Korea, to attempt to get what he wants -- thus making a stupid war with either one of them more likely (bad). With North Korea, he blows hot and cold, combining stunning flattery and potential summitry with bald threats. With Iran, he blows entirely cold, wrecking the Iran nuclear deal while again indulging his political base, as well as the Israeli government.
North Korea has worked decades to attain nuclear weapons and long-range missiles that can hit the United States because its dictators have feared that the United States will attempt to invade their country or overthrow their regime through military attacks or covert action. This is not an idle fear. Since the end of World War II, the United States has attacked, invaded, and at least tried to overthrow leaders in Iran, Guatemala, the Congo, Cuba, South Vietnam, the Dominican Republic, Chile, Grenada, Panama, Haiti, Serbia, Iraq, and Libya, to name only the most obvious examples. The unfortunate consequences of the Obama administration’s overthrow of Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi -- after Gadhafi had willingly given up his nuclear program -- have been starkly illuminated by the mere mention of the episode by hawkish National Security Adviser John Bolton, thereby complicating Trump’s scheduled summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Yet if the United States no longer had troops in South Korea or guaranteed that country’s security, a less threatened North Korea would no longer hold much of a grievance with the United States. American leaders as diverse as Jimmy Carter and Donald Rumsfeld have expressed during their tenures in office that the presence of U.S. forces in South Korea had become obsolete. American troops stayed after the Korean War in 1953 because South Korea was poor and North Korea still posed a threat to Seoul. However, South Korea’s economic miracle has left it with 40 times the economic power as measured by GDP of the still-destitute North. The United States can therefore contemplate withdrawal. It could leave gradually over the course of years, withdrawing American troops and nuclear deployments from the Korean Peninsula in exchange for verifiable North Korean denuclearization.
This trade is looked on with horror by the U.S. foreign policy elite. The most obvious point of protest is that North Korea could cheat, which could lead to South Korea pursuing a nuclear weapon of its own, perhaps followed by Japan. Yet both countries have been responsible players in the international arena in the decades since the end of World War II. They are capable of defending themselves responsibly, and nuclear weapons wouldn’t change that.
The other reason withdrawal is viewed as untenable is more important, but it usually remains unstated: The United States no longer would be the “Big Man on Campus” in East Asia, providing security guarantees at its own peril for nations in the shadow of a nuclear-armed China. Some analysts argue that the path to solve the North Korean problem runs through China. It does, but not in the way they think.
The larger question is whether the United States, with $21 trillion in national debt, can afford to defend now-wealthy nations against a rising China. Analyst Graham Allison has elaborated on the Thucydides Trap, whereby rising powers and established hegemons frequently go to war -- in fact, in three-fourths of such cases in the last 500 years. That’s really bad news considering that China and the United States both have lots of nuclear weapons. Yet hope exists. Consider a rare example in which a dominant hegemon made room for an aspiring power on the international scene: In the early 20th Century, Britain surrendered its global economic dominance to the United States and withdrew from the Western Hemisphere.
China will soon surpass the United States in economic power -- it has already done so in GDP in terms of purchasing power parity. With its large national debt, the United States can no longer afford to police East Asia with forward-deployed positions in Japan, South Korea, Australia, and other nations. Reducing that presence would not leave the United States defenseless in the region. The United States should withdraw all naval assets to Hawaii and Guam, which are still defense posts in the middle of a vast Pacific Ocean buffer for the continental United States. That great separation between China and the United States is greater than the smaller Atlantic Ocean barrier between the United States and a Britain that had remained hostile even into the early 20th Century.
Confucian thinking, which imbues Chinese foreign policy, seeks regional domination. Unlike the post-Cold War United States, China regards the use of force as a last resort. Great powers justifiably want a security buffer in the region near them, and China notes that it does not meddle in the Caribbean near the United States. This Chinese outlook provides an opportunity for the United States to conduct a strategic withdrawal to renew itself as a great power. To do so, it needs to increase economic growth rates. It needs to cut back government regulation and spending, including that spent on entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare, but also including parts of the military -- especially the ground forces. That is the path to reducing its colossal national debt.
A sound economy underpins all other aspects of American power -- cultural, diplomatic, and military. The United States should stop policing the globe and using its military as a first resort, and instead needs to renew itself as a great power for the long term. Throughout history, other great powers have gone through cycles -- France and Russia stand out as examples -- and this restoration should not be branded as “decline.” The nation’s founders wanted to avoid becoming a globally active military power with eroding liberty at home. They instead sought to create an economically strong republic. They would approve of such renewal both in thought and action.