May 16, 2017 by Anders Ingemarson
As North Korea continues to lob missiles into the Sea of Japan with varying degrees of success, foreign policy experts at home and abroad continue to debate what to do about it.
Before offering our take on the Korean conundrum, let’s recap: the cornerstone of a rational foreign policy should be to lead by example at home. If the U.S. were to turn its focus to protecting individual rights and expanding capitalism, we would send a very strong signal to the rest of the world as they saw our policies bearing fruit.
Cutting taxes, regulations and government spending would unleash growth and lead to an increase in wealth all around. The rest of the world would soon take notice and start copying our policies. We saw it in the 19th century and we would see it again. They may initially do it reluctantly, but the power of our example would not go unnoticed among the citizens of other countries; over time, the pressure would build on their politicians to follow our example.
But what should be the guiding principle for when to get militarily involved and when not? The answer is rational self-interest. Only when the rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness of individual Americans are threatened by foreign powers is military action justified.
Humanitarian missions and engaging in conflicts that do not pose a threat to Americans should not be part of the job description of our military. Americans may spend their own time and money on such endeavors if it is of value to them, but our government may not.
Many point to the rapid development of post-WWII Japan and post-Korean War South Korea as examples of American foreign policy success stories. But it is legitimate to ask if both the historical and continued military presence in the Pacific theater was and is truly in the self-interest of Americans. Would we really have been worse off letting Chinese and Soviet interests compete for dominance in East Asia after WWII? Did it really serve our self-interest to sacrifice all those young men in Korea and Vietnam? What if Japan and South Korea, and possibly the Philippines, had been swallowed by Communism after WWII, just like Vietnam was some 20 years later? Wouldn’t it have been enough to “draw a line in the sand” (i.e. water) at let’s say the 180th meridian telling the Commies to stay west of it (and retaliate forcefully if they didn’t)?
Hindsight is 20/20, but we know now that totalitarian regimes don’t last. They eventually implode under their own statist weight as they can’t produce even the bare necessities required to keeping their people alive as in the case of the Soviet Union and East Germany. Or they pragmatically introduce elements of economic freedom to not lose control, as in the case of China and Vietnam, which eventually leads to people demanding respect for and protection of their individual rights. Absent a direct military threat to the U.S., fighting Communist or other totalitarian regimes is not needed; they are their own worst enemy.
It is not that farfetched to think that we would have been further along, with a lot less American lives lost and tax dollars spent, by focusing on leading by example at home.
If the answer is yes, we also have the answer to what to do about North Korea: nothing, unless the country either (1) attacks the U.S. outright, or (2) otherwise develops military capabilities that possess an objective threat to American lives and property (for example inter-continental ballistic missiles with or without the ability to carry nuclear warheads). In both cases our military response should be decisive, swift, and overwhelming (and without any post-conflict financial commitment to rebuild the country without reimbursement; again, individual Americans may spend their own time and money on such endeavors if it is of value to them, but our government may not.)
A U.S. response to either scenario would possibly lead to war between North and South Korea. According to most assessments North Korea would not be able to maintain an offensive for very long for both material and psychological reasons. But if the U.S. is attacked or otherwise threatened, then the well-being of South Korea is secondary. The prospect of South Korea being temporarily invaded and sustaining considerable damage is not a reason for abstaining from taking decisive action when American lives and property are threatened.
If North Korea doesn’t attack, and refrain from developing military capabilities that are a threat to the U.S., we should simply leave the country alone. It will eventually follow in the path of other totalitarian regimes, and either implode or adjust without any loss of American lives.
Should we use nuclear weapons? If, as in the case of WWII Japan, the cost/benefit calculation in saved American lives warrants it, then yes. But having to resort to the nuclear option would most likely be an indication that we had dragged our feet in taking decisive action while conventional means were sufficient. Let’s hope our Commander in Chief, Congress and military leadership have the moral clarity and courage to take care of business before it gets to that point.