| Patrick M. Cronin
President Barack Obama`s recent swing through Asia reaffirmed the importance of alliances and a long-term U.S. policy of rebalancing to Asia. But it failed to halt the perception that international order is increasingly in the hands of regional bullies.
A disturbing trend appears to be gaining momentum. Syria`s strongman Assad crossed red-lines by using chemical weapons against his own people. North Korea`s drive to acquire nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles is unrelenting, even while official press spews vitriol towards South Korea`s democratically elected leader. China`s is pursuing tailored coercion in its near seas, including using oil rigs as the new battleships in persistent grey zone contests. the manner in which in announced an air defense identification zone in the East China Sea last November and its refusal to clarify a nine-dashed-line claim covering the vast majority of the South China Sea; whether one contemplates No one has a good answer about what to do with respect to Russia`s might-makes-right annexation of the Crimea and subterfuge in supporting insurgency in the rest of Ukraine. Whether one focuses on one or all of these recent developments, it is easy to discern a dangerous pattern of global fragmentation. The international community, though not moribund, is seemingly helpless in its attempt to encourage good behavior and enforce common rules of the road.
In the aftermath of the Second World War, the United States championed the creation of a liberal world order. That order focused on access to the global commons, adherence to agreed-upon rules, and the peaceful resolution of disputes. Order revived postwar Europe and enabled the Asian tigers, including the miracle on the Han. But as the United States adjusts to relative decline, at least compared with many dynamic economies across the Indo-Pacific region, Washington is no longer in a position to mobilize others around a single approach that reinforces the existing system.
The United States is in the process of transitioning after more than decade of protracted ground wars and a financial crisis. But U.S. allies and global partners are also beset with domestic challenges that are hampering their ability to contribute more to international peace and stability. Europe`s economic woes have led to a significant reduction in defense spending. Asian democracies from Seoul and Canberra and New Delhi to Tokyo are active and doing more than ever. But expectations about what they should do are rising, even though they may remain reluctant to commit to costly adventures in global enforcement or new rules that bind future behavior. Even Japan`s conservative Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, is exhibiting caution in his approach to Constitutional reinterpretation to permit some collective self-defense rights. His ruling coalition partner, the New Komeito Party, appears to have extracted an agreement to sharply limit the cases to which collective self-defense rights apply. Similarly, Japan`s defense budget remains under one percent of gross domestic product쨏ar below that of most developed economies.
In the chasm opened up by international fragmentation, there is a huge opening for middle powers. The Republic of Korea, a G-20 country with a regional and global vision, has an alliance with the United States and has or could have a close rapport with all the world`s major powers. As a superbly well-educated nation, on the vanguard of technological development, with a vibrant private sector and civil society, South Korea is in a position more than ever before to help with both security maintenance and order building.
Already, President Park Geun-hye is helping to do precisely that with Kim Jong Un. As he strengthens his capabilities, she strengthens deterrence and the ROK-US alliance, including by convincing Washington that the conditions and timing of the transfer of wartime operational control needs to be reconsidered in light of the current Korean security environment. As Kim prepares a fourth nuclear test and more missile tests, she prepares responses designed to punish bad behavior and reward good behavior. As Kim issues taunts and threats, she remains stoic, statesman-like and committed to reunification.
President Park`s burgeoning relationship with Beijing, far from shunned in Washington, represents a necessary step to manage North Korea. Although China`s pressure on Pyongyang is limited by capacity and choice, sowing doubt in the minds of North Korea`s leaders can help to temper its penchant for reckless brinkmanship and saber rattling.
Similarly, notwithstanding unresolved and sensitive issues involving history, President Park has taken considerable personal risk to meet with Prime Minister Abe and President Obama in The Hague. If Prime Minister Abe now moves to address some of the real pain felt by those comfort women who are still living, then surely Korean-Japan relations can be bolstered. A summit meeting next year would be indicative that these two major free-market economies are capable of deepening security cooperation to deal with North Korea and other global challenges.
The question is whether middle powers like Korea can dissuade actors from egregious behavior, punish such behavior should it occur, and block further misbehavior that erodes norms and rules. The old hub-and-spokes model of alliances can give way to a looser network of like-minded countries committed to preserving, adapting, and augmenting international order.
In the new multiplayer international system of the 21st Century, middle powers may be the decisive actors when it comes both to securing the peace and establishing the order. They will still need a strong United States that knows when to lead and when to follow. However, in the future, it will increasingly be up to middle powers like South Korea, to help reinvigorate the international community and prevent it from complete system failure without a better system in its place.
Dr. Patrick M. Cronin is Senior Advisor of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) in Washington, D.C.