A NATO for Asia
Helping South Korea despite itself.
Ellen Bork & Gary Schmitt
Weekly Standard
December 11, 2006

A bit of history comes to mind in the wake of South Korean president Roh's refusal delivered at the recent APEC summit in Hanoi to sign up as a full participant in the Proliferation Security Initiative, the U.S.-led effort to prevent North Korea from trafficking in weapons of mass destruction.

In November 1983, the West German parliament voted to approve the deployment on German soil of medium-range Pershing II missiles as a deterrent to the Soviet Union's SS-20s. The Bundestag's approval, on a relatively close vote, came despite large antimissile demonstrations and broad public support for continued negotiations with the Soviet Union.

Both Chancellor Helmut Kohl and former chancellor Helmut Schmidt strongly supported the deployment. To be sure, in advance of the vote, Schmidt criticized the Reagan administration's "missionary ideological course" and defended dialogue with Moscow--but he then implored his party to "force themselves to be rational" and support deployment. The Social Democrats "cannot influence anyone to reason and moderation if the Soviet Union can exploit our actions and at the same time the people of the United States feel they have been left in the lurch," he argued.

Even allowing for his criticisms of the United States, Schmidt felt strongly about his country's mutual security obligations as a member of NATO and the difference between the totalitarian state on his border and the democratic friend that deterred it.

The same cannot be said of South Korea. In recent years, despite the tens of thousands of American troops there and the U.S. commitment to help defend it, South Korea has reacted to North Korea's nuclear program, missile tests, and grotesque human rights abuses with little concern for U.S. policy initiatives either toward North Korea or the security of the region. Now, South Korea's refusal to participate in the Proliferation Security Initiative raises the question: Would Seoul behave differently if Asia, like Europe, had a regional security organization committed to the survival of freedom and democracy?

Currently, our Asian security arrangements run along bilateral lines from regional capitals to Washington. For decades, the conventional wisdom has been that this "hub and spokes" structure works well enough and that the multilateral system that has safeguarded Europe's security for decades would not work in Asia. Speaking of the applicability of a NATO-like organization for the region in 2002, then Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said, "East Asia's a very, very different situation [from Europe], where the diversity of countries, the diversity of interests doesn't call for that kind of structure."

Asia's supposed "diversity of interests" generally refers to lingering anger over Japan's wartime aggression and brutality. Certainly, visits to the Yasukuni war shrine by Japanese leaders have hardly helped put those animosities to rest; indeed, they have given Beijing, in particular, a tool to stoke anti-Japanese fires throughout the region. Moreover, when NATO was being built, its core consisted of democracies like Great Britain, France, and West Germany. In contrast, Washington's key Asian allies at the time were more of a mixed lot: defeated Japan and democratic Australia on the one hand, authoritarian South Korea and the Republic of China on the other.

The situation of course has changed since them. A wave of democratization that began in the 1980s swept up the Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan. Indonesia has joined the democratic club as well.

New security problems have also emerged. In addition to the nuclear and missile threat posed by North Korea, China's economic growth has enabled it to develop a military capacity that now not only threatens Taiwan but is of growing concern to Japan and East Asia as a whole.

None of these momentous changes is reflected in Asia's multilateral organizations, which downplay the importance of democratic principles and emphasize trade and talk instead. Not surprisingly, Washington's efforts to have these organizations take on security roles are so far largely unproductive. In the meantime, China has begun to assert a regional leadership role which increasingly comes at the expense of the United States.

The objection that Asia's past is an obstacle to updating the region's security arrangements misses the point. In fact, tension between Japan and other countries in the region--especially in light of Tokyo's desire to revise its pacifist constitution and take on a greater role in global security affairs--can be best managed by enmeshing Japan in a multilateral alliance of democracies.

Other problems would also be best solved within such a framework. For example, the incentives and constraints of an alliance structure could help Indonesia to transform its military into a transparent, humane force under civilian control. Much in the manner of NATO (and the European Union of recent years), such an alliance would serve as a magnet to countries that have not yet democratized and could help to prevent backsliding in those that have, be they Thailand or the Philippines.

The historical parallels between West Germany in the 1980s and South Korea today are striking: Both had a population divided between a ruthless totalitarian system and a free, democratic society; anti-American sentiment runs strong in both, especially among the young. Both also have leaders who must strike a difficult balance between their publics and their international obligations.

The major difference may be that one belonged to an alliance committed to safeguarding a free society with the help of its loyal friends, while the other sees its alliance with the United States as serving little more than a set of interests narrowly conceived.

Ellen Bork is deputy executive director of the Project for the New American Century and Gary Schmitt is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.