Memo to Washington: Stick to Promises You Can Keep


At the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore earlier this month, in front of the defense ministers of every country in the region except China and North Korea, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said, “The United States will not stand by while North Korea seeks to develop a nuclear-armed missile that can target the United States.” It’s a hard statement to take seriously.

The U.S. didn’t stop North Korea from developing nuclear weapons. It failed to prevent a satellite launch by Pyongyang last December, which (because of the technological overlap) was essentially a long-range ballistic missile test. And Pyongyang’s softening in recent weeks seems to have much more to do with a fear of Beijing’s ire than Washington’s.

If Hagel and his speechwriters meant that the U.S. is continuing a commitment to manage North Korea, then the statement does nothing but show Washington’s limits. There is no reason to expect that Washington will have any more success in the future – except perhaps with Beijing’s help. If he meant that the U.S. posture has changed, and now it won’t put up with Pyongyang’s behavior, then he is very late to the party.

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The problem is that for all Washington’s power, there are limits. Not all American strategic desires, even strong ones, can be achieved at acceptable levels of cost and risk. Some U.S. efforts to curb North Korea’s ambitions are, of course, sensible. But the phrase “will not stand by” is fantasy, especially when it isn’t accompanied by any significant change in policy. If America had any good options for preventing the DPRK’s nuclear development, it would have done something already.

A charitable explanation is that Hagel’s formulation was clumsy, although that’s unlikely given the audience. If it wasn’t an accident, then he has reiterated an undertaking without any thought to whether or not the U.S. can deliver. It’s the very opposite of Theodore Roosevelt’s exhortation to “speak softly and carry a big stick”.

Soon after Obama drew his red line on chemical weapons use in Syria, someone stepped nonchalantly over it. The moment for decisive action has passed; anything that Obama does now will be political damage limitation first and foreign policy second. And Tehran doesn’t seem seriously deterred or Israel particularly assured for all the talk of leaving “all options on the table” for dealing with Iran. America has no good options (military or otherwise) for preventing a determined Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Hagel’s words matter because so much depends on American credibility, particularly in Asia. American promises to support South Korea against an invasion by the North are central to stability on the Korean peninsula. Likewise, Washington’s alliance with Japan helps reassure Tokyo and restrain China – important during recent tensions surrounding the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea for example.

Of course these undertakings aren’t weakened much by Hagel’s theatrical language. We still believe that the U.S. would go to war for Tokyo or Seoul. But the danger is that Beijing will cross one of Washington’s red lines, and only then find out it was for real.

As Asia becomes more contested, there will be more temptation for empty rhetoric. It’s a way of trying to get hard power to stretch further without having to use it. But by bluffing, America is leaving it up to China to guess which promises are empty, and which are for real. That is a very dangerous game.

It’s appealing to assume that Beijing will be intimidated by American might, so won’t call any bluffs. The U.S. Air-Sea Battle concept is in part an attempt to reinforce that idea. But if Syria and Iran can defy the U.S., then China certainly can. Instead of convincing the world that the empty promises are serious, which seems to be its hope, Washington is leaving space for Beijing to mistake some serious promises for empty ones.

Washington can do almost anything. But it can’t do everything. America’s interests will be better served if its leaders only make promises they can keep. 

Harry White is an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. These views are his own.

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