Washington’s dream of power to win wars on two fronts may be a nightmare for Korea

Posted on : 2023-11-13 16:51 KST Modified on : 2023-11-13 17:01 KST
A report released by the US Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States stresses the need for more military might
Members of the civic group Solidarity for Peace and Reunification of Korea picket outside the presidential office in Seoul’s Yongsan District on Nov. 9 in protest of US State Secretary Antony Blinken’s meeting with President Yoon Suk-yeol. (EPA/Yonhap)
Members of the civic group Solidarity for Peace and Reunification of Korea picket outside the presidential office in Seoul’s Yongsan District on Nov. 9 in protest of US State Secretary Antony Blinken’s meeting with President Yoon Suk-yeol. (EPA/Yonhap)

“The world is poised to enter a state where the two countries have nuclear weapons on par with those of the US, and the threat of conflict with these nuclear states is growing. At the same time, the necessary preparations have not been made. Immediate action is needed.”

This was the gist of a report adopted by the US Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States. Declaring the US to be facing “existential threats,” it upped the level of the country’s two main conflicts.

There was talk about the US needing to be able to win on two major fronts in the 1990s, and that discussion is resurfacing today. But in terms of content, the situation could not be any more different.

The difference is stark in terms of the level of military power that the US is pursuing. With its vision stressing the need to prepare for simultaneous wars with Russia and China, is this report set to become the latest incarnation of the Committee on the Present Danger, a private lobbying organization that once peddled fears to encourage antagonistic policies with the Soviet Union that hastened the US’ militarization?

Report to serve as a basis for the US defense budget

Shortly after the Cold War ended, the US adopted a strategy of being capable of winning war on two major fronts. In the 1990s, it sought to acquire the necessary capabilities to emerge victorious in wars against two “rogue states”: Iraq and North Korea.

While there was some difference in terms of whether it intended to take care of one rogue state before moving on to the second or attempt to fight both of them at once, the two big wars at the time were assumed to be against moderately armed countries that did not have nuclear capabilities.

During this period, the Soviet Union’s collapse meant that Russia was no longer perceived as a threat, while China was no match at all for the US. The George H.W. Bush administration maintained US military capabilities at Cold War levels, pushing a national strategy geared to establishing the necessary capabilities to simultaneously win both wars with the aforementioned rogue states.

In contrast, the US today is seeking the capabilities to overcome both Russia and China simultaneously.

After having referred to China as its biggest threat over the past few years, the US has resumed its references to the Russian threat after the eruption of war in Ukraine. Raising the possibility that those two countries might threaten its interests — either jointly or singly — Washington has stressed the need to establish the military capabilities to win wars with both of them at the same time.

That prospect was made official last month by “America’s Strategic Posture: The Final Report of the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States.”

“Today the United States is on the cusp of having not one, but two nuclear peer adversaries, each with ambitions to change the international status quo, by force, if necessary,” the report warned.

It also stressed, “The new global environment is fundamentally different than anything experienced in the past, even in the darkest days of the Cold War.”

It stands to reason, then, that the US would require even stronger military capabilities than during the “darkest days of the Cold War.” The commission called for “capabilities beyond the existing program of record.” Its report stressed the need for “either or both qualitative and quantitative adjustments in the US strategic posture,” including increased production of intercontinental ballistic missiles, strategic bombers, strategic submarines and even nuclear warheads.

Not only that, but it also referred to the need for stronger tactical nuclear capabilities, including tactical nuclear weapons deployed in Europe and the redeployment of them in the Indo-Pacific region. It further indicated the need to develop and deploy weapon systems with stronger capabilities to survive a first strike and break through missile defense systems.

Although the commission’s report contained predictions for the years 2027 to 2035, it stressed that the measures are urgently needed and that the reinforcements of the US’ military capabilities and their foundation should start now.

To be sure, this was a congressional report, not an official policy decision by the White House. It’s not as though there’s a consensus outside the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States either. The US Senate, for one, does not fully agree with the commission’s conclusions.

But within the commission, at least, the Republic and Democratic members of Congress are on the same page with their strategic posture assessment.

And that commission is not an ad hoc body but a bipartisan congressional organization established last year based on the National Defense Authorization Act, with the aim of reviewing the US’ long-term strategic posture and suggesting alternatives. The latest report will serve as a basis for reviews of the US defense budget, and the Department of Defense will examine it closely when drafting its defense plan and budget.

More importantly, the report was announced unanimously by members of the commission, despite the severe polarization currently visible in US politics.

US hegemony on shaky ground

The commission states that North Korea’s missile testing and nuclear development activities are having a negative impact on the security of the US and its Asian allies. It also voiced a sense of alarm about North Korea being “on pace to deploy nuclear-armed intercontinental range missiles in sufficient numbers that could potentially challenge US homeland ground-based ballistic missile defenses.”

Voicing support for the (already failed) goal of “complete, verifiable, and irreversible nuclear disarmament” of North Korea, the commission suggested that “if there are opportunities for interim dismantlement steps, they should be pursued in conjunction with the US Allies, consistent with nonproliferation considerations.”

But the report did not give the sense of dwelling on the same old songs. Instead, it underscored a situation that demands a stronger strategy in terms of the scale, types and combat posture of the US and its allies’ conventional military capabilities. Failure to establish such measures, it warned, would inevitably increase the US’ reliance on nuclear weapons.

The immediate response from experts was to share concerns about the content, which they saw as more belligerent than that of the Biden administration’s Nuclear Posture Review report.

The Federation of American Scientists predicted that the implementation of this content more in line with a defense industry report than a congressional one would accelerate the arms race with Russia and China and reduce the likelihood of arms controls. The magazine Foreign Affairs published an analysis suggesting it would be possible to deter Russia and China without increasing nuclear weapons.

The biggest question is whether the US can even cope with this kind of armament expansion.

The strategic posture report stepped around the question of the actual budget. At the same time, it acknowledged the importance of military alliances and the need to strengthen and expand them.

“The Commission believes it is in the US national interest to maintain, strengthen, and when appropriate, expand its network of alliances and partnerships. These relationships strengthen American security by deterring aggression regionally, before it can reach the US homeland, while also enabling US economic prosperity through access to international markets,” the report said.

But the world has already gotten the memo that the US is not the same superpower it was during the Cold War era. The country that deployed its forces around the world, lavished economic and military support on its allies, and opened up its own markets no longer exists. All that’s left is one that backs up Ukraine in its fight against Russia, while calling on its allies to provide Ukraine with more support.

In the Middle East, the US fully supports Israel — but the moment Israel emerges victorious in its war with Hamas, it will wind up holding the poisoned chalice of defeat. The US influence that it benefited from in the Middle East is poised to evaporate like a mirage.

The Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States called for realizing the “American dream” as the one ring to rule them all. For South Korea, it is unclear whether that means a dream or a nightmare.

By Suh Jae-jung, professor of political science and international relations at the International Christian University in Tokyo

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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