International engagement doesn’t betray the President’s base
Since the end of the Cold War, the analysis of whether a policy is “good” or “bad” has centered on whether that policy has a quantifiable economic benefit. America spends less time today thinking about crises of ideology than it once did, and so our foreign policy becomes rooted in hard-dollar analyses. But that doesn’t mean that the American public has abdicated the beliefs that it once so strongly espoused on the international stage.
The indicators of an American ideological vacuum now seem disturbingly regular. In China, we see an acceleration in information control, and the exertion of pressure on Hong Kong, including the government’s decision to appeal the sentencing of three pro-democracy activists (who were later re-sentenced and jailed). In the past several days, we’ve also learned that China’s television regulator has stepped up the pressure against broadcasters to produce more pro-Party programming, and North Korean engineering students study subjects applicable to weapons programs at Chinese universities, some on scholarship from China.
In our own hemisphere, we see missed opportunities in Cuba, Venezuela, and elsewhere that have led to generations lost to the pursuit of communism and socialism. And today, we risk opportunities by using free-trade agreements like the South Korea-US free trade agreement (KORUS) as negotiating leverage, playing to the fears of Americans purportedly harmed by such agreements.
It’s of course true that economic issues, including free trade, played a pivotal role in the 2016 presidential campaign. However, the Trump voter who has seen his or her manufacturing job lost to lower-priced foreign imports is still likely to trend ideologically conservative, be religious, and be a profound believer in an idea presently in pause – that America, despite any flaws of past or present, remains the single best source for good in the world.
Placing KORUS discussions on hold does not mean reneging on a campaign promise to these voters. Standing with an ideological ally, notwithstanding economic concerns, validates those voters’ non-economic values about what it means to be American and adhere to a promise. Even more so, placing aside trade issues and standing firm with South Korea makes it clear to aggressor nations that America and its allies are bound by more than just dollars. Tens of thousands of Americans have already given their lives alongside Koreans in pursuit of freedom, and hundreds of thousands of Americans on the Korean peninsula, both civilian and military, demonstrate the ongoing bond between the two nations that runs deeper than trade.
Furthermore, these actions would show that America’s tolerance for ideologies antithetical to its own is not limitless. America has never predicated access to its market on strict adherence to its interests in all matters, but publicly and definitively setting aside the present trade spat would show that non-economic actions have inherent value to America as well. Conversely, non-economic actions taken contrary to American interests could have profound effects with respect to how America views the total value of the relationship.
The US has been limited in its application of sanctions to Chinese banks and has made concessions to China to gain its direct involvement with North Korea; China understandably is limited to certain options as well, in the face of a potential refugee crisis should the North Korean state collapse. However, America’s concessions have a limit, so it is a legitimate question to ask at what point China’s actions both domestically and with respect to the Korean peninsula make it less a matter of their benign indifference to American interests, but rather, short-sighted actions trying to maintain an untenable status quo.
The world has heard from many sources that in this Korean crisis, there are only bad options. Not all options may be bad, but none of the options are easy. They require political will and long-term resolve to be achieved, and in Newtonian parlance, one can’t expect that decades of focused action by North Korea can be resolved by anything other than stronger focused action in the opposite direction over time.
Then, the easiest decision to make, and the predicate to any option, is to close the gaps between America, South Korea, and its other regional allies including Japan, to present a united and strong ideological front to the world that transcends trade, and adheres to commitments that America began making to the region seven decades ago. This would be a decision that the president’s base would understand, would foreclose other nations’ ability to hedge their positions on the issue, and would pay both economic and non-economic dividends in the years to come.