The world is beset by regional conflicts, civil upheaval, and instability that seem to defy ready solutions. The civil war in Syria continues to shock with daily reports of heavy civilian casualties, forced migration of refugees and disastrous consequences for succeeding generations. Iran seems determined to pursue a troubling strategy to broaden its influence in the Middle East.
A resurgent Russia persists with its aggressive moves in eastern Ukraine, driven by the territorial ambitions of Soviet Federation President Vladimir Putin who believes the downfall of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century.
There are severe problems in parts of South and Central America. China is building islands in the South China Sea raising alarm among bordering maritime countries for the risk to freedom of navigation on the vital economic seaway.
Today’s world order, in which disputes are settled at the United Nations or through recognized diplomatic channels, is in jeopardy. In his new book, The Will to Lead, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, a former prime minister of Denmark and secretary-general of Nato, writes that only the United States can guide the world out of the geopolitical abyss represented by North Korea and China’s threats against sovereign Asian countries. “There is only one nation [the US] in the world capable of putting out these fires,” Rasmussen states. “Only America has the diplomatic reach, financial resources, and military firepower to lead the world against the autocrats, rogues states, and terrorists.”
When America doesn’t lead against evil, then disastrous regional and global conflicts ensue. Is there any credible reason to believe that any country except the US could have stood resolutely against the Soviet Union during the Cold War? And now America must confront North Korea and China — if not, then human rights as epitomized by the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights won’t be realized in Asia.
Unless these threatening nation-states are defeated, deterred, isolated or balanced by the US and its allies — South Korea, Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines — then the choice is either freedom or despotic rule. Faced with these challenges, will the possible incoming leftist government in South Korea try another round of fruitless negotiations with North Korea? Yes. As Britain’s prime minister Winston Churchill is said to have advised during a White House luncheon in 1954: It is better to “Jaw-Jaw is better than War-War.” But even Churchill realized during the war that he was dealing with regimes that wanted war. Discussion wasn’t an option. The North Koreans seem intent to follow that path.
Rasmussen warns that when America doesn’t lead, national morality whithers, countries with hegemonic ambitions come to the forefront, and refugees proliferate. Russia’s annexation of Crimea in Eastern Ukraine in March 2014 was the first European land-grab since the end of the Second World War. Former US secretary of state John Kerry decried the incursion. “Unbelievable act of aggression,” he said. “And you just don’t, in the 21st century, behave in 19th-century fashion by invading another country on a trumped-up pretext.” Those forceful words (but only words) didn’t persuade the Russians to withdraw from Crimea. If anything the Russians have only grown more emboldened to misbehave, as have the Chinese with their lawless militarization of the South China Sea.
This type of thinking by Kerry is dangerously naïve. Admiration and feel-good statements won’t help Asian countries facing the North Korean nuclear menace — a threat China refuses to interdict. The First and Second World Wars during which it’s estimated that as many as 80 million people died may have been avoided with forceful American deterrence. Only America using realist foreign policy can counter-balance China and North Korea. Now isn’t the time for the US and its Asian allies to turn inward. The post-Second World War order will end unless America leads. No Asian power is strong enough or has the diplomatic clout to balance and deter China.
Only America understands the responsibility of leading while not taking land and crushing people’s dreams — or the danger of retreating into isolationism. America conquers, and then gives back its conquests — what other power in history has given back gains from wartime victories? This reason alone means America is the only country with the moral authority and military might to confront the evils plaguing Asia: sex-trafficking, terrorism, and nuclear proliferation by powerful regimes.
Some countries don’t agree with or seem to misunderstand balance of power, deterrence, and pre-emption. South Korea, Japan, and other Asian allies would be wise to pressure President Donald Trump and Congress to enforce security treaties that counter North Korea’s nuclear program and Chinese threats.
If Asia, and particularly Southeast Asia, wants stability and the vast worldwide economic expansion that has lifted millions out of poverty since the Second World War, then the US and Asia must use their economic might. The fires blazing in the Asian hemisphere and other regions of the world won’t be extinguished if America abandons its role as world policeman.
Unfortunately, policymakers can’t simply sit down with Chinese President Xi Jinping or North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-un and quote philosophers like Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Locke and then believe those leaders will change their diplomatic postures. The world is more primitive than we care to admit, and if we don’t return to an American-realist political order and its military strength to lead in Asia then the peaceful post-Second World War order will be obliterated.