America Sells Its Seoul

The United States and South Korea have agreed on an overhaul of their bilateral trade agreement this past week. In it, the Koreans caved on pretty much every issue of contention, most notably agreeing to improve American firms’ access to Korea’s automotive and pharmaceutical markets while restricting their own exports of steel to the United States by nearly one-third. In exchange, the Koreans received the first permanent waiver to the Trump administration’s until-now unrelated issue of steel and aluminum tariffs.

In addition, Trump has personally made it clear he has little intention of formally signing off on the deal until after the North Korean situation is resolved, insuring South Korea must follow the American preferences on any subsequent arrangements with Kim Jung Un, rather than the other way around.

It’s the first formalized, publicly-declared instance of American foreign policy coming full circle. During the Soviet standoff the Americans made the global oceans safe for all and kept the American market open to the alliance, in essence trading some of its economic power in order to purchase a security alliance. But the Cold War is nearly three decades gone now, and until recently the Americans had yet to update their strategic policy. As such, the post-Cold War global economic boom was largely a result of the Americans continuing to pay for a global system without getting anything in return. That disconnect was in part responsible for America’s recoiling from the world and the rise of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.

We now have the beginning of a formal re-engineering of the old Cold War system. Linkage between economic and security issues is back – but without the Cold War rubric to shape it, American policy is taking on a somewhat à la carte characteristic.

South Korea was a great spot for the first of a new series of arrangements. Next to the three tiny Baltic states that have no hope of defending themselves against their monster neighbor Russia, there is no country in the world that has a greater defense dependency upon the United States. And since South Korea has a smallish, rapidly aging population (aka low local consumption and so export-dependent) and few domestic resources (aka import-dependent), trade is its lifeblood. No country in the world would be forced to come to terms with the Americans more, and Korea’s position as the world’s fifth-largest exporter means everyone must take notice.

Whether starting with the Koreans was the goal all along, or the well-worn contours of geography and economics guided the administration a bit like a luge course to this destination is really not relevant. (Donald Trump’s general lack of discipline and revulsion in the face of context suggests the latter. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer’s laser attention to detail and dogged persistence suggests the former. National Security Advisor John Bolton hasn’t been on Team Trump long enough to participate in the Korea trade talks, but this sort of thing certainly fits with his style, too).

The biggest question in my mind is, who’s next?

China seems like an interesting bet, but I’m guessing the Trump administration wants to get far more out of the Chinese than merely new understandings on steel, aluminum, intellectual property rights, and North Korea. The White House appears set to link a host of until-now unlinked issues. Issues like agriculture and freedom of navigation, manufacturing and the South China Sea, finance and hacking, market access and policies on Iran, reciprocity and Russian sanctions. It is a heavy list and even if the Chinese were to simply roll over on it all (which is not very likely) it would take quite a bit of time to work out the details.

In my opinion, folks convinced of the Chinese rise aren’t very good at math or reading maps. The Chinese financial system is the most overextended in history and every country that has followed its investment-led model has eventually crashed hard. The one-child policy has destroyed China’s future – it is now the world’s third-fastest aging demography. China’s strategic position is horrid – a line of islands parallels its coast, preventing it from projecting power into the sea lanes upon which its economy depends. It is utterly reliant on global energy imports and global merchandise exports – imports and exports which are under the thumb of the U.S. Navy.

The linkage the Americans are about to impose is the opposite of what the Chinese have become used to the Americans doing. It is precisely what the Chinese do to everyone else whenever the issue of Hong Kong or Taiwan or Tibet comes up. The Chinese are going to hate/fear this sort of strategic thinking in the United States because it cuts to the heart of the Chinese political system and strategic policy. And there’s far more to this than Beijing knowing they lack the leverage on the Americans to win. The Americans are in effect putting a dollar amount on their Korean alliance, and the same thing can now be done to any other aspect of American policy – including the China relationship.

The same general issue holds true for the European Union. Most of the European states are in terminal demographic decline, meaning that not only are they deeply dependent upon exports for their economic well-being, there is absolutely no hope their economic situation can be sustained, much less improved, without either the kindness of outsiders or a fundamental reshaping of how Europe defines the terms “economy” and “government.” Considering the European experimentation with those two terms in generations past, that last sentence should make everyone a bit twitchy.

And of course those are just some of Europe’s problems. There are also ongoing and deepening debt, banking, refugee, and political legitimacy crises. With neighboring powers – primarily Turkey and Russia – becoming more aggressive, the European choice is between once-again submitting themselves to American strategic goals, aggressively rearming in an era of terminal economic decline, or going through a regional…re-invention.

It’s an ugly choice, and one made far worse by a host of until-now unrelated issues.

  • Brexit not only reduces the EU’s overall heft and thus its stature in the world and at the negotiating table, but the UK acting as a free agent can and will provide the Americans with a host of wedge issues to hurt the Europeans where they are most vulnerable.
  • Of the EU’s 28 current members, five – Ireland, Cyprus, Austria, Finland and Sweden – are not in NATO, and so have little history in making formal economics-for-security swaps with the Americans.
  • Full competence for negotiating trade deals is held collectively with the European Commission, the EU’s executive/administrative/bureaucratic authority. But full competence for negotiating defense deals is held individually with the member states.
  • On major issues – for example, economics-for-security swap deals – every EU member has full veto rights. Even a deal that makes sense for France and Germany and Italy and Poland and Spain and the Netherlands and Sweden could be undone by a local election in Belgium (nearly derailed a free trade deal with the Canadians), or a spiteful politician in Greece (did derail Europe’s Russia policy).

That means that either a) the major EU powers find ways outside of EU norms to crush the dissenters, b) the EU gets cut out of American and global markets which throws Europe into a long-lasting depression, or c) the Trump administration breaks the entire EU in order to get its deal with the members that matter. No matter the path, the strategic alignments that have made the EU the vehicle that have made Europe united, at peace, wealthy and free are over.

Zocalo, Mexico City, Mexico

If anything, the NAFTA renegotiation will be even tougher, but here the issues are different. Canada and Mexico are not dependent upon the Americans for strategic overwatch (or, more accurately, the United States has no option but to protect its continental neighbors from extra-continental threats if it is to protect itself). Neither of them trade very much with the rest of the world, with both in essence functioning as de facto extensions of the American economic space.

The Americans can, will and are playing hardball in the talks, but the Canadians and Mexicans are doing the same. They know the tactics the Trump administration is employing to bring the rest of the world to heel just don’t apply in North America. Both Canada and Mexico have been (repeatedly) successful in courting American corporate giants and American state governors to make their cases in Washington for them. Remember that NAFTA is the only trade deal the Americans have signed in the post-WWII era that was not about security. That gives both Canada and Mexico something that neither the Chinese nor Europeans have: leverage.

It also means that the Canadians are playing very dirty, following what has more-or-less become a scorched earth policy. As part of Canada’s NAFTA strategy the Canadians have launched a case at the WTO that would actually hurt them if they won, because if they did win, the case would impose such pain on the Americans it would likely induce the Trump administration to abandon the WTO completely. Additionally, Canada’s hardball tactics might be aiming to wreck NAFTA. If that were to happen, Canada has a separate bilateral trade deal with the United States…but Mexico does not. In a world without the WTO and NAFTA, Canada would become the only country to maintain preferential access to the American economy. Harsh. Brilliant, but harsh.

But all these talks will take time. For the Chinese and Europeans, these are all very messy, complex, interwoven issues that cut to the core of issues of national identity and even national existence. For the Canadians and Mexicans the negotiations will continue to be difficult because with those countries the Americans are actually dealing with a more-or-less level field. The Americans with their stereotypical boorish, freight-train style will plow through it all as quickly as they can – and Lighthizer and Bolton will revel in every minute of it – but unweaving and reweaving the strands of China and Europe will take time, as will hammering out a more sustainable understanding within North America.

Trump isn’t that patient.

My bet is the next two deals will be bilateral and done more or less simultaneously.

Japan will be far easier than most of the other negotiations in front of the Americans because it will be a one-on-one talk as compared the multilateral complications of NAFTA and the EU. Japan – like South Korea – is deeply enmeshed into American defense networks and fully admits and realizes just how important U.S. strategic policy is to its own strategic needs (while most of the Chinese and Europeans remain in deep denial). Contrary to the conventional wisdom, Japan is no longer a massive trading nation. Rather than engage in broad-based economic and financial reform in the 1990s and 2000s to fix their broken economic model, they instead walled themselves off from the world. Consequently, Japan’s share of the international export market has shrunk by four-fifths since the 1980s.

Most importantly, the horror show that is Japan’s aging demography long ago induced the Japanese to forward-position much of their manufacturing capacity in their end-markets both to minimize currency risk and curry political and strategic favors. In essence, Japan has already swallowed some of this economics-for-security medicine in the post-Cold War era. It won’t crush their sense of national identity or their national economy to do it again, so long as the Americans continue to hem in places like North Korea and China.

The other big about-to-be deal is the United Kingdom, and this deal will practically fall into the Trump administration’s lap. Because of Brexit, the Brits are already casting out for alternative systems. The search has not been going particularly well. Political bungling at home, unrealistic expectations from the Leavers, a united EU front, and a resurgent and increasingly economically suicidal Labor opposition have tangled up the UK’s negotiating positions on pretty much everything.

The government of Prime Minister Theresa May now fully realizes that there is going to be no Brexit deal. It took considerable concessions to the EU simply to extend the negotiation period for another year. The new arrangement is that the UK will remain subject to all relevant EU laws and regulations, but will gain no input or votes on them during the “transition.” The one concession London teased out is the one most relevant to this discussion: the EU will allow the UK to negotiate trade deals outside of the EU’s authority. So the Brits now need to and are free to fully recalibrate their national, regional and global security and economic norms just as the Americans are reforging national, regional and global security and economic norms.

If the Trump-Lighthizer-Bolton team can induce (browbeat?) the world’s third- and fifth-largest economies which control the world’s second- and third-largest navies into joining the United States in a refashioned economics-for-security arrangement, then not only will the Trump administration have gotten a couple “big wins,” but the global stage will be set for whatever strategic alignments come next.

This is the bit that worries me, but it is also the bit that I ultimately expected.

The established American foreign policy community, both in the government bureaucracy and distributed throughout Washington, is still living in the past and seems out of ideas. For its part, the Trump administration has no strategic vision; MAGA is a slogan, not a policy. The normal means of debating a new national grand strategy – discussion and debate between the major parties – is not possible because both parties are currently broken.

Trump may be stumbling/groping/learning his way into a common approach, but he is doing so without any guiding principles or goals. The Cold War structure was stable because the Americans paid everyone the same (by creating a global structure) and expected the same behavior in return (membership in the anti-Soviet alliance).

This time around the Americans are customizing the membership fee to match the need. For South Korea the cost is deference on North Korea. For China it will likely be deference on global policy. For Europe it will likely include a demand to follow American regulatory norms. And as the Americans are strategically unmoored, I see no reason why the goal posts won’t move as America’s perceived self-needs evolve. It is less the stuff of a global leader and more the behavior of a mafioso.

There’s a reason I call the next couple of decades the “Coming Disorder.”

Read more about it in my book, The Accidental Superpower.

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