solve the crisis in Northeast Asia – transform it”
October 6, 2019
The United States faces an unmitigated catastrophe in Northeast
Asia today that is the result of a thoughtless trade war with China, companion
tariff battles with Japan and South Korea, and an effort to promote China as a
military threat that have undercut a broad range of cooperative efforts. We are
watching in silence the metastasis of benign neglect into malignant neglect.
Asians may be reticent to speak, but perceptions of Washington as a destructive
force are spreading rapidly.
The administration’s governance by Twitter and a new vision of “Trump
first” for the international community is but the acceleration of the
trend toward short-term profits that has buried the tradition of
internationalism in the United States that is embodied in the Statue of
Liberty, the hosting of the United Nations headquarters and our support for
global treaties addressing non-proliferation, trade and terrorism.
This crisis in Northeast Asia was not made in Pyongyang ― rather, Washington’s
model of greed and narcissism has found new hosts in Asian capitals.
Do we really need to spend taxpayers’ dollars to promote a new “cold
war” in Asia that will most likely result in the United States being
pushed out of the region altogether, rather than restoring some lost prestige?
And Japan is postulating possible military conflicts with South Korea. We have
no time to waste before we set out in a new direction so as to avoid an
unimaginable nightmare of an arms race and economic warfare between South
Korea, Japan, China and other nations. Such a development could mean many
things, including an end of the U.S. role in the region.
This crisis in Northeast Asia will not be solved by a gaudy summit meeting, or
by some act of Congress. What we need is a vision for the future of Northeast
Asia that is transformative, one that offers palpable hope for a way forward.
The Japanese philosopher Ogyu Sorai wrote that there are two kinds of chess
masters: those who know the rules so perfectly that they can win every game
effortlessly and those who make up the rules by which chess is played.
The latter approach is distinctively unfamiliar. We are accustomed to
maintaining the world order established at the end of World War II, not making
up a new order. But our eroding position in East Asia cannot be turned around
by gradual reform. We must fundamentally alter the U.S. role in East Asia.
And just as we start to struggle to define an American role in Asia that is not
conditional on the demonization of others, an answer comes to us from somewhere
The world was rocked by a series of climate strikes, peaking with the moving
speech of Greta Thunberg at the United Nations’ Climate Action Summit. Tens of
thousands of passionate youth demanded a fundamental change in all our
economic, political and cultural assumptions in order to save us from the
catastrophe of climate change. They know the consequences will be worst for
That demand for fundamental change in our world offers a priceless opportunity
to redefine the U.S. role in Northeast Asia and to resolve the confrontation
with China, and to encourage cooperation between Korea and Japan.
The U.S. must recognize that climate change itself is the primary threat in
Northeast Asia, whether rising seas, warming oceans, spreading deserts or
raging tropical storms. Many are dying and millions will die in the years
But to achieve this fundamental shift in the concept of security requires us to
change all our assumptions ― which is exactly what Greta demanded.
It means that the U.S. must move away from a military that is focused on
planes, ships, bullets and missiles and redefine its security mission as
rapidly making our country free of fossil fuels, restoring forests and
protecting the ecosystems of oceans and rivers. Whereas the U.S. military is
one of the greatest polluters now, it could be re-engineered to devote its
efforts to cleaning up pollution and enforcing a ban on oil drilling and the
use of coal.
Such a vision seems too fantastic to work. But the crisis is literally so great
as to demand that we rethink everything.
In the case of East Asia, as the U.S. military shifts its mission to mitigating
climate change (planting trees, protecting the ecosystem, making sure that
businesses do not destroy the Earth’s precious resources for profit) and away
from conventional warfare, we will find that our military can cooperate with
the militaries of Japan and Korea on multiple fronts. Military-military
cooperation with China will be a no-brainer as the militaries focus in on
adaptation to, and mitigation of, climate change.
military is not set up so serve such a transformative role. If anything, it
clings to outdated ideas about security and defense. But if the military
started to function in such a manner, it could implement such a shift more
rapidly than the civilian sector.
The military can set up long-term budgets to develop
technologies without concern for profits, it can determine that all electricity
must be generated by solar or wind power by next month and then make it happen.
We can combine American, Korean, Japanese knowhow to come up with those
solutions and move away from a dangerous military buildup that does nothing to
address climate change.