“Toward a 21st Century ROK-US Alliance” was the title of a speech given by United States Ambassador to South Korea Kathleen Stephens this week to the Korean university at which the author has worked since the end of the last millennium. I instructed the students of my “English Speech Communication” class to attend, and gave them a copy of the same rubric that I use to grade their speeches that they might grade hers. My Korean students rated her poorly on “intelligibility” but found her PowerPoint slides pretty snazzy. She is, after all, a government employee, and from what I hear they have plenty of experience with PowerPoint.
I prepared the following question: “Madam Ambassador, our country is bankrupt. This so-called ‘ROK-US Alliance’ of which you speak is in its sixth decade and here we are today talking about adding ten more. Two-hundred-and-twelve years ago, George Washington advised us, ‘It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.’ Five years later, Thomas Jefferson advised us to pursue ‘peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.’ Is there anyone in the city named after our first president who takes seriously his sagacious advice? Is there anyone intent on sparing us the collapse that befell the Macedonian, Roman, Mayan, Ottoman, Spanish, French, British, French, and Soviet Empires? Anyone other than the Honorable Ron Paul, that is?”
I never had the chance to ask that question, nor even attend the speech. My son needed someone to watch him at that hour. Family first! It seems I did not miss much. “Standard diplomatic fare” was how a Canadian colleague described the speech. Even had I attended, it seems I would not have had my chance to speak truth to power; Madam Ambassador’s time was limited, and she took only two questions, both of them selected in advance. I know, because one of my student’s questions was vetted and approved.
This student asked about joint ROK-US efforts to prevent China’s designs on North Korea should that régime collapse. I met him before the speech, and tried to Socratically lead him to question why America should have any role in this at all, asking him what benefit it could possibly be to Americans (not American defense companies) to be involved in an imbroglio that South Korea, China, Japan, and Russia, as regional powers, could much better work out amongst themselves. My student answered that he had never once considered the possibility of American troops leaving before reunification. (What adjectives did Messrs. Washington and Jefferson use to warn us about alliances?)
They may want us here, but does it follow that we should maintain an alliance that we cannot afford and that serves no vital American interest?
South Koreans talk a lot about reunification, but they don’t really want it because of the expenses it would entail. They’re very happy to have America cover their defense, freeing up public funds to invest in a corporatist economy. What’s true of Korea was and is true for Germany, Japan, and every other country under our wing.
Empires of old used mercantilism to secure for themselves some benefits for imperial rule. (Even so, the empire business proved to be a drain on the home economy.) Americans enforce a kind of reverse mercantilism. We agree to open our markets to a certain degree to our protectorates while allowing them to keep theirs mostly closed to us.
What’s worse, American taxpayers have for decades been robbed to pay for World Bank and International Monetary Fund projects in protectorates abroad while America itself was deindustrialized. While other people make and sell things, our economy is expected to support 300 million people through our role as “global security exporter.” Is it any wonder why “Military Keynesianism” is seen as the only way out of the current economic morass?
Soon, Americans will hear a farewell and an inaugural address. Will George W. Bush’s make any reference to Washington’s Farewell Address, with its advice “to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world?” Will Barack Hussein Obama’s make any reference to that of the founder of his party, Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address, with its counsel of “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none?” Of course not.
The reason is to be found in Eisenhower’s Farewell Address to the Nation, when he spoke of the “unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.” He wanted to call it the “military-industrial-congressional complex,” but was advised against it. Now, any mention of Ike’s more modest phrasing is enough to get one exiled from political discourse.
Regardless of the empty rhetoric the speechwriters put into the mouths of the two bit players in next week’s drama, what we will get is what the military-industrial-congressional complex wants: permanent entangling alliances with all parts of the foreign world; peace, commerce, and honest friendship with none.
An American Catholic son-in-law of Korea, Joshua Snyder [send him mail] lives with his wife and two children in Pohang, where he serves as an assistant visiting professor of English at a science and technology university. He blogs at The Western Confucian.