Carter in Asia: McGovernism without McGovern
The Carter administration has undertaken three major foreign-policy initiatives in East Asia. Each of them is questionable on its individual merits, and all are questionable in terms of what they suggest when linked together. These initiatives are, first, the announced intention to withdraw unilaterally the U.S. ground forces stationed in the Republic of Korea; second, the implementation against Japan of a new policy to prevent the reprocessing of spent fuel for nuclear power reactors; and, third, the search for a formula whereby the United States can abandon Taiwan and recognize Peking while limiting the political damage here and elsewhere.
Let us begin with the case of Korea. On January 16, 1975, two weeks after leaving the governorship of Georgia and only a month after declaring his candidacy for the Presidency, Jimmy Carter stated that he favored pulling U.S. troops out of South Korea. In January 1977, barely a week after Carter had taken office, Vice President Mondale announced in Tokyo that American ground forces would be withdrawn from the Korean peninsula. This decision was made unilaterally, without negotiations among any of the parties concerned: the Soviet Union, China, North Korea, South Korea, Japan.
Why was the decision made? No convincing answer has ever been given. It was certainly not a matter of continuing or fulfilling a policy initiated in a previous administration—indeed, as recently as November 1975 the United States had stated that it had no intention of withdrawing its troops from South Korea, despite the UN General Assembly resolution of that month calling on it to do so.
President Carter justified the decision by stating that Korea was now sufficiently developed economically to defend itself. But if this is to be the criterion of America’s security activities, then why should it not apply to Western Europe, which is infinitely better able to defend itself than Korea? Yet proposals for U.S. troop withdrawals from Europe have not merely been silenced; the U.S. government says that it intends to move to Europe the last American division stationed in Korea!
One apparent reason for the withdrawal decision was to bring American pressure to bear on President Park Chung Hee because of his unsatisfactory record on human rights. In his commencement speech at Notre Dame on May 22, 1977, President Carter made human rights the keystone of his administration’s foreign policy, and during the same month, Senator George McGovern supported the administration’s proposed withdrawal by arguing that “It will give strong credibility to the renewed American commitment to human rights that President Carter has stressed. We have relations with other repressive governments. But nowhere in the world are we aligned so closely with one so bad.” But there are problems with this idea, too—the idea that the withdrawal is based on a concern for human rights. For one thing, even President Park’s political enemies in South Korea have come out in opposition to the withdrawal. (The decision to pull out U.S. ground forces has actually made Park more popular than at any time since he revised the constitution in November 1972.) And for another thing, the withdrawal will lower rather than raise U.S. leverage over Park in the area of human rights, just as similar withdrawals have done in the Philippines and Thailand.
Linking the withdrawal to human rights, moreover, totally ignores the danger of subversion from the North that Park is, at least in part, trying to prevent through his restrictions on civil liberties. The best estimate is that, under the emergency provisions of the constitution. Park has imprisoned perhaps 200 people out of a population of 36 million. Americans might recall that, when threatened with a much less credible danger of invasion, we reacted by locking up every American of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast without even giving them a hearing.
Does the withdrawal decision make sense strategically? There is no evidence that it does. The Japanese have been deeply disturbed by the decision. Kase Hideaki, Prime Minister Fukuda’s foreign-affairs adviser, said in July that the Japanese government could not help but interpret this as a further sign of the abandonment of Asia begun by the United States in Vietnam two years earlier. And the Chinese have not exactly hailed the decision, either. They have only called on Carter to get all U.S. forces out of Korea “completely and immediately.” Far from stabilizing the situation strategically, the decision to withdraw troops has exacerbated it. In the absence of a commensurate reduction of Communist forces, the withdrawal may contribute pressure toward nuclear proliferation in Japan, the Republic of Korea, and Taiwan once they come to feel truly abandoned. The alternative would be a move in the opposite direction toward greater accommodation with the Soviet Union. Neither the one nor the other consequence would benefit the U.S. strategically.
In Korea itself, the basic asymmetries between the North and the South remain: the more vulnerable targets are in the South, while the North has more equipment and a greater percentage of the GNP going for armaments. The North also shows persistent signs of an intent to attack. The first North Korean tunnel under the DMZ was discovered in November 1974; a second tunnel, capable of accommodating 105 mm. artillery weapons, was found in March 1975. At the time of the collapse of anti-Communist forces in Vietnam, Kim II Sung journeyed to Peking to enlist Chinese aid for his plan to follow the Vietnamese Communist victories with a new war in Korea. In August 1976, two U.S. officers were ax-murdered in the demilitarized zone. It should not be forgotten in all this that Kim II Sung is the same leader who once before attacked and devastated the South, a leader who appears impatient to try again before age removes him from the scene.
The situation in Korea itself, then, is hardly propitious tactically for an American troop withdrawal. To the contrary, the withdrawal will force expenditures of billions of dollars by both the U.S. and South Korea in order to replace the U.S. troops that have maintained the peace for twenty-five years.
In short, it is not obvious on what grounds the decision to withdraw American troops from South Korea was made, other than those of a rather obscure promise made during an election campaign.
Another current problem in East Asia which can be traced to the election campaign is our sharp dispute with Japan over the generation of electric power in nuclear reactors.
Ever since the oil crisis of 1973, Japan has engaged in a serious and comprehensive review of its energy policies, seeking to relieve its almost total dependency on imported Middle East petroleum and, above all, looking for ways to avoid a potentially catastrophic dependence on dwindling world oil supplies by 1985 and beyond. In full awareness of the technological, political, and environmental problems involved, the Japanese have committed themselves to the fast breeder reactor and a “plutonium economy.” This is particularly attractive to Japan because it substitutes technological sophistication for the use of scarce natural resources, reduces dependence on foreign supplies, and offers stability of supply.
When the Carter administration came into office, the Japanese had just completed a facility at Tokaimura for reprocessing spent enriched uranium fuel from light-water reactors into plutonium metal for use as a fuel in the fast breeder reactor. The government was also engaged in a serious campaign to convince the public of the feasibility and safety of the new technology. Then the Americans intervened.
Despite the administration’s declared intent of shifting the orientation of U.S. foreign policy from summit diplomacy with the Communist nations to a “trilateral” relationship with the advanced industrial democracies, it proceeded to offer a textbook demonstration of how not to deal with an ally. Uninformed about, or indifferent to, Japanese energy policies and the domestic politics surrounding them, the new administration linked the issue of spent uranium reprocessing to that of weapons capability, and on that basis sought to obstruct the opening of the Tokaimura plant. (It was able to do so because the U.S. currently supplies Japan with all of its enriched uranium and has restrictive agreements with Japan requiring American approval of any further reprocessing of the material.) The end result was a compromise that does not solve the problem but merely postpones it. For two years, the Japanese can operate Tokaimura to produce liquid plutonium nitrate but not weapons-potential plutonium metal; in the meantime, the two nations (and the world) will supposedly reevaluate all nuclear fuel cycles.
The handling of the Tokaimura question made a shambles of Carter’s professed desire to “consult with allies,” and gave the opposition parties in Japan new instances of alleged excessive reliance on the United States with which to attack the government. Issues that for Japan were matters of energy, research and development, and foreign trade became for the Americans matters of security, nuclear nonproliferation, and the avoidance of weapons tests such as that carried out by India in 1974. Carter never showed the slightest interest in the Japanese case itself, only in the precedent it offered to other nations; and the American public, even the politically sophisticated public, remained largely unaware of the entire episode, which Japanese leaders called the most serious clash with the United States in the entire postwar era.
What lay behind the American action? The Japanese never figured it out, particularly since the United States has acknowledged that Japan is the most disarmed of any advanced industrial nation. In any case, the clash put to rest the prospect of improved cooperation and coordination between the world’s two most powerful democratic allies.
The new administration’s policies toward China tell a similar story. Never once questioning the soundness or the viability of the previous administration’s initiatives toward China, Secretary of State Vance declared from the outset that “normalization is the goal.” Yet also from the outset, the new administration’s efforts were in deep trouble. Without bothering to coordinate these initiatives with China policy, Carter undertook the unilateral withdrawal of forces from Korea; allowed his new Assistant Secretary for East Asia and Pacific Affairs, Richard C. Holbrooke, to begin talks with Hanoi concerning diplomatic recognition; and sent Leonard Woodcock, a domestic trade-union leader with no foreign experience, on a mission to Hanoi. Carter subsequently named Woodcock to head the U.S. Liaison Office in Peking.
These moves undoubtedly confused and irritated the Chinese. A simultaneous approach to all the Asian Communist nations could not fail to disturb China’s sense of propriety; the Chinese have long insisted that relations with them be treated as exceptional and unique, not multilateral. More seriously, the initiative toward Hanoi injected the United States into the strained relations between China and Vietnam, a reflection of the Sino-Soviet dispute. The Korean withdrawal decision, whatever the Chinese have said about it in their propaganda, was taken as one more sign of America’s unwillingness to maintain the balance of power with the USSR.
Despite this poor beginning, the administration advanced the time of a visit to China by the new Secretary of State from November to August. No reason was given for the change, save the continuing need of the administration for domestic publicity. Vance arrived in China only a week after the 11th Congress of the Chinese Communist party had ended, thereby insuring that one purpose of such a visit, to size up and evaluate the new post-Mao leadership, would be frustrated—that leadership had only barely been installed. The new administration also came to Peking empty-handed in terms of a policy. Instead, it came like a ribbon salesman with a basket of flimsy proposals that would permit the U.S. to grant Peking diplomatic recognition while not appearing to abandon Taiwan, and it asked the Chinese to choose one. Among these bits of camouflage were the suggestions that the United States be allowed to pursue a variant of the “Japanese solution” (ambassador in Peking, liaison office in Taipei); that the United States substitute for the mutual defense treaty with Taiwan a “unilateral declaration of support”; that the United States or private American firms be permitted to sell arms to Taiwan after it had become a province of the Chinese People’s Republic; that Peking convert Taiwan into some kind of Hong Kong; and that Peking publicly renounce the use of force against Taiwan. The Chinese were not cooperative, however; they promptly rejected all of these.
Several flaws in the American negotiating stance toward China seem likely to insure that any future policy will be defeated. First, the Americans do not understand, or refuse to take seriously, the well-known Chinese negotiating tactic of seeking concessions, breaking off negotiations after the concessions have been made, and then resuming talks after an interval—but on the condition that the opposite party begin the new round from the most conciliatory position it took in the previous round.
Second, despite the fact that it is an infinitely more powerful nation than China, the United States has allowed itself to become subservient to Chinese initiatives. A long stream of American politicians and other leaders has toured the mainland, but there has not been a single instance of reciprocity at a comparable level by a Chinese leader. And in negotiating, instead of firmly stating an American policy, the U.S. government spends its time trying to find some ingenious formula that will meet China’s blunt terms.
The American assessment of the internal Chinese political situation is so uncritical as to be ridiculous. Throughout the summer of 1977, American bureaucrats and journalists hailed the emergence of “pragmatism” on the mainland, failing to note that the principal leaders involved are all septuagenarians, that China has been wracked by political instability for the past eleven years, and that further abrupt changes in the Chinese line cannot be ruled out until a genuine successor generation to the original revolutionaries has emerged and assumed power.
The results of American moves in East Asia so far are unsatisfactory to all the parties concerned. Teng Hsiao-p’ing has commented that while Secretary Vance may say American policy seeks to check the growth of Soviet influence in the world, Chinese leaders do not believe him. The Japanese interpret the new initiatives as a sign of an American retrenchment, unequally implemented and with Asia bearing the brunt. And the Koreans feel isolated, the victims of domestic American political struggles. Only the Russians have reason to be pleased by the trend of events.
On August 17, 1977, the Christian Science Monitor wrote editorially: “There appears to be no overall concept or framework governing the Carter policy in Asia, or at least none that is visible.” Why has this incoherence come about? Generally speaking, three probable causes may be named for the failures of U.S. policy in East Asia: amateurism, a concern with domestic politics, and an adherence to a covert ideological line.
There can be no mistake about the comparative inexperience of the new President in international affairs, or about his failure to delegate responsibility to an effective team of experts. The signs of amateurism abound. Richard Holbrooke, for instance, undertook his negotiations with Hanoi without preparing Congress in any way. As a result, Congress terminated these contacts through a joint resolution and left the assistant secretary isolated in an untenable position. Another example: Secretary Vance, in a Tokyo briefing with newsmen after his visit to Peking, carefully avoided saying that progress had been made on the issue of recognition, whereas President Carter announced to the world when he welcomed Vance home that a great deal of progress had been made. No wonder Teng Hsiao-p’ing felt obliged to make public his own acid assessment of the Vance visit. To take a more serious instance of amateurism, the imbroglio with Japan over nuclear power was one that could have been avoided if the area expertise of the State Department and CIA had been sought and utilized.
Amateurism goes beyond instances of poor or uninformed execution of policy; it extends to the staffing of the foreign-relations apparatus itself. Of the thirty-six senior positions in the Department of State, twenty-two have been filled with political appointees, compared with twelve in the previous administration. The pattern is similar in the Department of Defense and other agencies concerned with external affairs. Moreover, these political appointees have all been drawn from one segment of the American political spectrum. They are virtually all young, former staff employees of Senators Mondale, Humphrey, Muskie, McGovern, Church, Case, and Javits, or well-known anti-Vietnam war activists from the bureaucracy or academic life. This so-called junior varsity is not only young and inexperienced in the formulation and conduct of foreign policy, it also has been asked to work under Cabinet officers who in some cases were the leaders of the U.S. effort in Vietnam and who Stood for everything to which the junior varsity was violently opposed. This is not a prescription for professionalism or the smooth determination of priorities in government.
Which brings us to the issue of partisan politics. However the President has chosen to manage domestic affairs, he has turned over foreign policy to the “New Politics” wing of the Democratic party, as the list of political appointees to the Departments of State and Defense attests. Virtually none of the nominees for foreign-policy positions from the wing of the party identified with Senator Henry M. Jackson or with the AFL-CIO was subsequently appointed. If the President has acted intentionally in this matter, his purposes would appear to be to bind the party closer together by satisfying its left wing, which has always been more interested in foreign than in domestic problems. But whatever the reason, the results are a lopsided representation of one set of political views in the new foreign-policy bureaucracy.
It may well be that recent trends in U.S. foreign policy can best be explained in terms of this confluence of views, which is to say, in terms of ideology. Mao Tse-tung once characterized the regime of Leonid Brezhnev as “Khrushchevism without Khrushchev.” The Carter administration, in its foreign-policy activities, may be called “McGovernism without McGovern.”
On October 14, 1977, UN Ambassador Young stated that “The American people [read, the Carter administration] have rejected military activism.” Taking Mr. Young and like-minded supporters of the administration at their word, one may say that the prevailing principle that guides U.S. foreign policy today is not the one the President stressed in his election campaign-namely, the replacement of the Nixon-Kissinger preoccupation with the Communist nations by a renewed stress on relations with the democracies—but rather that same principle of “demilitarization,” of anti-war activism, which underlay the McGovern candidacy of 1972. Not only have many policy-makers in the new administration been explicitly associated with Senator McGovern’s views, but the nomination (subsequently withdrawn) of Theodore Sorensen to head the CIA, and the naming of Paul Warnke as chief SALT negotiator, were both consistent with the theme of demilitarization. Certainly what the administration has undertaken to do in East Asia lends itself to interpretation in this light.
Thus, the reason for the administration’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Korea may simply be that it is determined to avoid war at any price. Similarly, in the minds of Washington’s pacifists, the fact that nuclear reactors are potential sources of materials for weapons would be enough in and of itself to render suspect the Japanese decision to develop nuclear power. The policy of accommodation to China, as well as to Hanoi (and, closer to home, to Cuba) also follows logically from a commitment to demilitarization, which necessarily entails an adjustment to Communist nations and their policies. It is a safe assumption that no one in the present administration would lift a finger to aid Taiwan should that country choose to maintain its independence from the mainland.
As Mao Tse-tung used to stress, correct policies in any period derive from an accurate assessment of the period’s “primary contradiction”—that is, its most salient problem. The present American policy toward East Asia strongly suggests that the Carter administration either cannot agree on what the “primary contradiction” is, or has seriously misassessed it. It may still be this country’s intention to remain a Pacific power, but one would not know this from the actions undertaken so far by the Carter administration, or from the statements made on its behalf by the ideologues who now staff its foreign-policy offices. Quite the contrary.