Watching the speeches of President Donald Trump and President Moon Jae-in in Seoul over the last few days gave me a sense of just how rotten the politics of both countries has grown. Trump spoke about his lavish golf course and the fine foods he had enjoyed, dwelling on the sensual indulgence and pretending that the millions of underpaid and unemployed people in Korea and the United States did not exist. He spoke boastfully of the over-priced military equipment that South Korea had been compelled to purchase and indulged in praise for the Korean War so distant from the challenges faced by ordinary people. His talk was not even “America First.” It was unremitting “Trump first.”
And Moon did not challenge him or even chide him on a single point. No mention was made of Trump’s rabid racist language and its impact on Asians, or his discriminatory immigration policies. Nor was anything said about Trump’s rabid warmongering and his reckless threats of war against North Korea, and even veiled threats against Japan in his recent speech in Tokyo. No, the working assumption behind the meetings was that the summit was to be a mechanical and trite grand guignol for the masses, combined with behind-the-scenes big business deals for the super-rich.
The Korean media made it seem like all Americans, and most Koreans, supported the ridiculous and dangerous policies of Donald Trump, and legitimized his reactionary policies with abandon. One came away with the impression that it was perfectly fine for an American president to threaten preemptive nuclear war for North Korea’s testing of missiles (an action which is not in violation of international law) and nuclear weapons (which India did with American encouragement).
I made a short speech to offer another vision for what the United States role in East Asia could be. I did so because I worried that many Koreans would come away from the Trump with the impression that all Americans were just as militant and brazenly profit-motivated.
Although Trump may be beating war drums to scare Japan and Korea into forking over billions of dollars for weapons they do not need or want, he and his regime are clearly playing an extremely dangerous game. There are forces deep in the military who are perfectly willing to launch a catastrophic war if it increases their power, and who think that only such a crisis can distract the people from the criminal actions of the United States government, and draw attention from the looming catastrophe of climate change.
“An Alternative role for the United States in East Asia”
Emanuel Pastreich (Director The Asia Institute)
November 8, 2017
“An Alternative role for the United States in East Asia”
Speech in response to Donald Trump’s speech at the National Assembly of Korea
I am an American who has worked for over twenty years with the Korean government, research institutes, universities, private industry and with ordinary citizens.
We have just heard the speech of Donald Trump the president of the United States, to the Korean National Assembly. President Trump laid out a dangerous and unsustainable vision for the United States, and for Korea and Japan, a path that runs towards war and towards massive social and economic conflict, both domestically and internationally. The vision he offers is a frightening combination of isolation and militarism, and it will encourage in other nations ruthless power politics without any concern for future generations.
Before the US-Korea Security Treaty, there was the United Nations Charter, signed by the United States, Russia and China. The United Nations charter defined the role of the United States, China, Russia and other nations as the prevention of war, and an active effort to address the terrible economic inequity that leads to wars. Security must start there, with that vision for peace and for cooperation. We need today the idealism of United Nations Charter, that vision for global peace after the horrors of the Second World War.
Donald Trump does not represent the United States, but rather a tiny group of the superrich and members of the far right. But those elements have increased their control of my country’s government to a dangerous level, in part because of the passivity of so many citizens.
But I believe that we, the people, can take back control of the dialog on security, on economics and on society. If we have creativity, and bravery, we can put forth a different vision for an inspiring future is possible.
Let us start with the issue of security. Koreans have been bombarded with reports about a nuclear attack from North Korea. This threat has been a justification for THAAD, for nuclear-powered submarines and any number of other expensive weapons systems that generate wealth for a small number of people. But do these weapons bring security? Security comes from vision, for cooperation, and from courageous action. Security cannot be purchased. No weapons system will guarantee security.
Sadly, the United States has refused to engage North Korea diplomatically for years and American passivity and arrogance has led us to this dangerous situation. The situation is even worse now because the Trump administration no longer practices diplomacy. The State Department has been stripped of all authority and most nations do not know where to turn if they want to engage the United States. The building of walls, seen and unseen, between the United States and the world is our greatest worry.
God did not give the United States a mandate to remain in Asia forever. It is not only possible, but desirable, for the United States to cut down its military presence in the region and to reduce its nuclear weapons, and conventional forces, as a first step towards creating a positive cycle that will improve relations with North Korea, China and Russia.
North Korea’s testing of missiles is not a violation of international law. Rather, the United Nations Security Council has been manipulated by powerful forces in the United States to support positions regarding North Korea that make no sense at all.
The first step towards peace starts with the United States. The United States, my country, must follow its obligations under the Non-proliferation Treaty, and begin again to destroy its nuclear weapons and to set a date in the near future for the total destruction of all remaining nuclear arms. The dangers of nuclear war, and of our secretive weapons programs, have been kept from Americans. If informed of the truth I am certain that Americans will overwhelmingly support the signing of the UN treaty to ban nuclear weapons.
There has been much careless talk about Korea and Japan developing nuclear weapons. Although such actions might provide a short-term thrill for some, they will not bring any form of security. China has kept its nuclear weapons under 300 and would be willing to reduce them further if the United States is committed to disarmament. But China can easily increase the number of nuclear weapons to 10,000 if threatened by Japan, or by South Korea. Advocacy for disarmament is the only action that can increase Korea’s security.
China must be an equal partner in any security framework for East Asia. If China, quickly emerging as the dominant global power, is left out of a security framework, that framework is guaranteed to be irrelevant. Moreover, Japan also must be included in any security framework. We must bring out the best of Japan’s culture, its expertise on climate change and its tradition of peace activism through such collaboration. The banner of collective security must not be used as a rallying call for ultranationalists dreaming of a “warrior Japan” but rather as a means of bringing out Japan’s best, its “better angels.” We cannot leave Japan to itself.
There is a real role for the United States in East Asia, but it is not concerned ultimately with missiles or tanks.
The United States role must be transformed radically. The United States must focus on coordinating to respond to the threat of climate change. We must reinvent the military and redefine “security” for this purpose. Such a response will demand cooperation, not competition.
Such a shift in the definition of security requires bravery. To reinterpret the mission for the navy, army, air force and the intelligence community so as to focus on helping citizens respond to climate change and rebuild our society will be an act that will demand amazing bravery, perhaps more bravery than fighting on a battlefield. I have no doubt that there are those in the military who have that sort of bravery. I call you to stand up and demand that we face up the threat of climate change in the midst of this grotesque mass denial.
We must fundamentally alter our culture, our economy, and our habits.
The former US head of the Pacific Command Admiral Sam Locklear declared that climate change is the overwhelming security threat and he was subject to constant attack.
But our leaders should not see being popular as their job. I could care less how many selfies you take with students. Leaders must identify the challenges of our age and do everything in their power to address those dangers head-on, even if that means tremendous self-sacrifice. As the Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero once wrote,
“unpopularity earned by doing what is right is glory”
It may be painful for some corporations to give up multi-billion dollar contracts for aircraft carriers, submarines and missiles, but for the members of our military, however, to serve a clear role protecting our countries from the greatest threat in history will give them a new sense of duty and commitment.
We also need arms limitation treaties, like those we established in Europe in the 1970s and 1980s. They are the only way to respond to next-generation missiles and other weapons. New treaties and protocols must be negotiated for collective defensive systems to respond to the threat of drones, of cyber warfare and of emerging weapons.
We also need the bravery to take on the shadowy non-state actors who are threatening our governments from within. This battle will be the hardest, but important, battle.
Our citizens must know the truth. Our citizens are flooded with falsehoods in this internet age, denials of climate change, imaginary terrorist threats. This problem will require the commitment of all citizens to seek out the truth and not accept convenient lies. We cannot expect the government, or corporations to do this job for us. We must also make sure that the media sees its primary roles as conveying accurate and useful information to citizens, rather than the making of a profit.
The foundations for the United States-Korea cooperation must be grounded in exchanges between citizens, not weapons systems or massive subsidies for international corporations. We need exchanges between elementary schools, between local NGOs, between artists, writers and social workers, exchanges that extend over years, and over decades.
We cannot rely on free trade agreements that benefit primarily corporations, and that damage our precious environment, to bring us together.
Rather we need to establish true “free trade” between the United States and Korea. That means fair and transparent trade that you, me and our neighbors can benefit from directly through our own initiatives and our creativity. We need trade that is good for local communities. Trade should be primarily about global collaboration and cooperation between communities and the concern should not be with massive capital investment, or with economies of scale, but rather with the creativity of individuals.
Finally, we must restore government to its proper position as an objective player that is responsible for the long-term health of the nation and which is empowered to stand up to, and to regulate, corporations. The government must be capable of promoting projects in science and in infrastructure aimed at the true needs of our citizens in both countries, and should not focus on the short-term profits of a small number of private banks. Stock exchanges have their role, but they are marginal to the making of national policy.
The age of the privatization of government functions must come to an end. We need to respect civil servants who see their role as helping the people and give them the resources that they need. We must all come together for the common cause of creating a more equitable society and we must do so quickly.
As Confucius once wrote, “If the nation loses its way, wealth and power will be shameful things to possess.” Let us work together to create a society in Korea and in the United States that we can be proud of.