|U.S. President Donald Trump, center, with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, left, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe before a Northeast Asia Security dinner at the U.S. Consulate General in Hamburg. AP|
By Emanuel Pastreich
The recent declaration by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that engagement with China is dead and that cooperation with China has ended in just about every field marks a historic shift. We can already see a massive campaign unfolding to promote suspicion about any interaction with China and a call has gone out for so-called "decoupling" for the United States, but also for its traditional partners in Northeast Asia South Korea and Japan.
This campaign must be seen in the context of President Obama's signing of the bill HR 4310 in 2012 that authorizes the use of propaganda against U.S. citizens, thereby ending the restrictions imposed by the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948. The recent statements of Secretary Pompeo take this propaganda to a new high, and the wave is entirely bipartisan.
Secretary Pompeo said, "If we want to have a free 21st century, the old paradigm of blind engagement with China must be replaced by a strategy to ensure the free world will triumph over this new tyranny (of China)."
Pompeo's evocation of reductionist Cold War rhetoric clearly marks a shift, granted that it can also be described as the latest stage in a process of confrontation driven by the radical anti-China faction in the United States military and in American politics that backed President Trump in his campaign from early on. The fact that the Democratic Party is incapable of articulating an alternative vision for US-China relations, and that presidential candidate Joe Biden has even gone as far as to accuse Trump of coddling China as a means to score political points suggests that we are seeing a transformation of American political culture.
We are in uncharted territory now and the rapid shifts we have seen over the last few weeks, from calls for regime change in Beijing to the dispatch of aircraft carrier groups to the South China Sea with unprecedented and unjustified frequency suggests there is a consensus in Washington D.C. on the political value of the China threat. Extreme xenophobic claims have become the norm. That unfortunate trend has combined with the virtual shutdown of the State Department as a functional institution.
The mainstream press is nearly universal in its description of a "new Cold War." I think the circumstances are profoundly different from the original Cold War and that new elements, such as technological integration and climate change, make such a description deeply misleading.
Certainly Pompeo's comments at the Nixon Library in which he declared, unilaterally, an end to engagement as he ham-fistedly buried five decades of engagement in a shallow grave at precisely the moment that the Arctic is melting and releasing catastrophic levels of methane gas, was a shameful moment. I would like to say that we are seeing how "cold wars repeat: first as tragedies and again as farce."
Let us come back to where we are right now. No, let me start with who I am right now. I am an American trained at Yale and Harvard as an expert on East Asia. I spent seven years in Japan and almost 14 years in Korea in the course of my life, and I taught Americans about Korean and Japanese history and culture for 14 years.
The significance of the U.S.-Korea Alliance and the U.S. Japan Alliance are in a state of flux. The confusion as to what the relationship is and what the purpose of the alliance is has become so tenuous and so charged that most in polite company avoid the topic.
It would be wise for me to avoid the topic, too, but I am compelled to take it on head on. The role of the U.S. in East Asia is the critical question for us today and we must confront the two basic facts. First, if the U.S. does not play a constructive role and does not engage in an effort to present an inspiring vision for the future, the risk of serious conflict is high and the risk that the U.S. will completely lose its mandate in Northeast Asia is higher.
The assumption behind the radical rhetoric of Mike Pompeo is that the U.S. and its military allies in Northeast Asia, especially the Republic of Korea and Japan, will fall in line behind this new cold war agenda, and the push for an "arc of democracy" ― a new term for the military cooperation between Australia, India, South Korea and Japan. These countries are under enormous pressure to fall in line and take a hostile position towards China and to "decouple" rapidly from China in terms of manufacturing, distribution and finance.
Let me say a word about decoupling from China to make my position clear. The globalization of finance, industrial production and distribution that ties these countries together, and tethers them to China, has not been an unmitigated blessing and we will not go back to that previous paradigm, nor should we.
The environment has been destroyed, workers horribly exploited and tremendous resources wasted in the pursuit of short-term profit and glorified consumption happiness in the U.S., in Asia and around the world.
But if we need to move back to local production, to organic farming and to healthy communities by decoupling from unaccountable global production and distribution networks, that does not mean a rabid hostility towards China, one sixth of the world population and the core of the global economy.
No, quite the opposite is required. We need to work more closely with Chinese scholars, policy makers, local government and above all with ordinary citizens. We need connections with China at the level of partnerships between elementary schools in Korea, China, Japan and the U.S. so we can learn about each other and cooperate from a young age. We need more consortiums to address global warming and the crisis in the Arctic made up of teams from the U.S., Korea, Japan and China. We need above all to be creative about how we will work together.
What we can be sure of is that the current radical arguments in Washington D.C. have connection to the long-term interests of the people of South Korea, Japan or the U.S. We have tolerated such political rhetoric in the past, but it has lapsed into dangerous territory and if we continue along this road, even if war or climate catastrophe is avoided, the U.S. role in East Asia will be permanently altered. The U.S. cannot rally a coalition of the willing against China in the way it tried to do against Iraq in another age.
Such an effort is suicidal for the U.S., and for humanity, at this critical moment.
The origins of the alliance system
The U.S.-Japan alliance has its roots in the 1951 U.S.-Japan Mutual Security Treaty that postulated the threat of communism as a reason for the U.S. to provide security to Japan as it rebuilt its economy. It was linked directly to the Korean War which fundamentally altered the relationship of the U.S. with China and Russia. The U.S. and South Korea established their formal Mutual Defense Treaty in 1953, after the Korean War, a treaty that has evolved into a tremendous bureaucracy, and produced enormous budgets for weapons systems.
That alliance system took form as part of the ideological fight between the U.S. and the Soviet Union (but more importantly, within the U.S.) as the previous consensus on the need for a new international approach to governance, a consensus that formed the backbone of the anti-fascism alliance of the 1930s and the 1940s took a back seat.
The U.S. and the Soviet Union worked together as allies against the ruthless fascist push to destroy wide swaths of humanity in the pursuit of profit ― both were fighting against an agenda of eugenics that assumed much of humanity had no right to exist.
Getting right the historical and cultural significance of the Korean War, and the U.S.-ROK and U.S.-Japan alliances is essential to making the rapid transition to the next stage of the alliances so they to address emerging threats that are unlike anything encountered in the last 70 years.
As an American trained as an Asia expert who has spent a career trying to understand Asia, the question of what the U.S. role has been, and what is will be, is critical. It is not morally responsible simply to follow directives from politicians who understand nothing of Asia except its financial value to their patrons.
There are numerous examples of Americans, and of American institutions, that have made positive contributions in Korea and in Japan. But those efforts were mixed with other, far less benign, activities.
As the U.S. turns back to extreme isolationism, as racist and anti-Asian rhetoric spills out from the corporate media, as we see the commitment in the U.S. to Korea and to Japan increasingly conditional on the sales of weapons, the hyping of a China threat and a North Korea threat, the greatest danger is that American contributions will be buried in a wave of anti-American sentiment. We can already see that wave coming even as the newspapers tell us that it is the China threat we must be concerned with.
We must also remember that the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was aimed at Chinese, but was later extended to limit immigration from Japan and Korea severely and that it was the result of a broad "Yellow Peril" campaign that made no distinction between the nations of Asia. We can see precisely the same patterns today.
When Mao Zedong made his declaration of the People's Republic of China on October 3, 1949, the U.S. was pushed by domestic factions to move away from the anti-fascism alliance with the Soviet Union, and the efforts to avoid taking a stand against the Chinese Communist Party. Pro-business groups in the U.S. campaigned for close affiliation with the British Empire, for the U.S. to take advantage of the opportunities for power and financial advantage to be gained from accepting the mantle of the decayed London-based global system. The battle against fascism, the battle against eugenics and racism, were drowned out by a cynical campaign of "Who lost China?"
That campaign was designed to remove all sense of complexity about the political and economic situation and to make the U.S. the bastion for an anti-communist global campaign. It was a tragic choice that was made in Washington D.C.
The United Nations was not able to realize its sacred mission as an international organization and the gates were opened for a treacherous form of globalism that would lead the U.S. in a dangerous direction from the 1990s on.
The Senate Internal Security Subcommittee was formed in 1950 in the U.S. and set out to destroy thoughtful Americans who tried to cooperate with the Chinese Communist Party in any way in the pursuit of peace. Most notable was the attack on the thoughtful and insightful Chinese scholar Owen Lattimore for his promotion of the investigation of the truth. That campaign made cooperation impossible and permanently altered the U.S. role in Korea, and in East Asia. The battle against fascism, against colonialism, against racism ― a battle that had been supported by many thoughtful Americans ― was buried.
Where do we stand today, 70 years later? The U.S. still has thousands of troops in South Korea and Japan. The Korean Peninsula is still divided. The political establishment in Washington D.C. and in Seoul and Tokyo assumes that somehow the U.S. must have troops here forever. There is no vision at all for when American troops will go home, or how a peace regime will be established in East Asia and the Korean Peninsula reunited.
The new "Cold War"
Although the newspapers tell us of the increasingly close working relationship between the U.S., South Korea and Japan, I can tell you as an Asia expert who has worked on Asia issues with the governments of all three countries for the last 20 years, that I do not see that to be the case. There may be bigger budgets for weapons systems, and more articles describing a new Cold War, but on the ground I see fewer American experts in Seoul and Tokyo (and quarantine had reduced that number even further).
In Washington D.C., where I was until February, I saw a State Department and Department of Defense essentially stripped of people who understand Korea, Japan and China (and it is increasingly difficult for people who know China to get security clearance). I met friends from my last tour in Washington D.C. who know Asia well and who once were regularly briefing the White House. They are not playing any role now.
Nor is this shift a creation of the Trump administration. The Democratic and Republican parties have been happy to trash expertise and rely on caricatures and straw men to describe the complex economic and security relationship with Northeast Asia.
What must the alliances become?
Our only choice as intellectuals, as American diplomats, academics, journalists and lawyers, is for us to condemn openly the racist and reductive efforts to blame the worst of American culture, the decadence and corruption which I watched first-hand paralyze policy on Asia in Washington D.C. last year.
We need now, not next month, or next administration, a new vision for the U.S. role in Asia, and in the world, that makes a clean break from the destructive habit of promoting conflict, competition, containment and consumption. We can, we must, embrace a vision based on cooperation, coexistence, climate science and cultural exchange.
Part of that transformation must include a return to the original inspiration of the alliance system. The alliances established when the U.S. recognized for the first time formally Korean independence at the 1941 Moscow Conference and combined forces with nationalists and communists in China, and with the Soviet Union, were alliances focused on the battle against fascism. And that meant at the time fascism at home and abroad, the efforts of small interest groups to use racism, militarism, essentialism and the debasing of science and intellectual discourse as means to achieve complete power. It was true for the Nazi Party as it was for the Ku Klux Klan in the U.S. in the 1930s.
We are facing on all fronts a threat from fascism today, in varied new forms. That threat, and not an imagined threat from "communism," must be the focus of our global alliance as it was before, in Korea, Japan and across Asia.
The term "alliance" suggests a conflict, a war. That is a danger in that it encourages a state of war to preserve the alliance and undermines peace. But at the same time, we are in such a perilous state now, one in which totalitarianism and fascism are creeping into every airport, every convenience store and on to every TV broadcast globally.
But it is an open distortion to suggest that it is China that poses the threat. China is wrestling with exactly the same demons that we are wrestling with today in Washington D.C., Seoul and Tokyo. All these capitals are dominated by the power of investment banks, the super-rich, and the ruthless super-computers that work day and night to exploit our precious planet for short-term profits.
We will promote cooperation between Koreans, Japanese and Americans to respond to the true security challenges of the 21st century. The development of nuclear weapons by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea is not anywhere near the top of that list and the question of nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula cannot be solved until the U.S. itself completely commits itself to the principles of the Nonproliferation Treaty and sets out a plan for the U.S. quickly to get rid of all the nuclear weapons that remain in our country.
There will be a struggle, but it must be one that is inspiring, based on the pursuit of a scientific approach to policy, and that brings back the best of the American traditions of internationalism dormant since the 1950s.
I cannot support Donald Trump's rhetoric, especially the racist message of "Make American Great Again." But I will say that, with the help of all citizens of Korea, of Japan, of Northeast Asia and of our precious Earth, we can work together to give hope again to the discouraged and the oppressed. In that process, I believe we can take the first steps toward making the U.S. great for the first time.
An American vision for the Northeast Asia
The U.S. must play a leadership role. That does not mean praying before the false idols of war propped up by Lockheed Martin and Booz Allen Hamilton, insisting that the only thing that matters is weapons systems, free trade agreements and more weapons systems.
We must put forth a vision for the future of Northeast Asia and of the world that is about global governance with a focus on the world and on local governance. True science, education, ethics and new models for participatory democracy must inform this vision for the U.S. at home and abroad.
Let us go forward together, with bravery, ready for self-sacrifice, ready to do our best to end this consumption-driven extraction economy, to address the peril of climate change and to create a culture for cooperation in education, true science, the arts and moral philosophy, one that will bring the U.S., South Korea and Japan together as a true team dedicated to internationalism via people and ideals, not super-computers calculating profits.