Foreign Relations & International Law

In Defense of a Helsinki Conference for Asia: A Response to Sam Roggeveen

Philip Bobbitt
Wednesday, June 13, 2018, 1:53 PM

Over the course of the past months, I have elaborated a proposal in various venues for a resolution of the cr

Published by The Lawfare Institute
in Cooperation With

Over the course of the past months, I have elaborated a proposal in various venues for a resolution of the crisis precipitated by North Korea’s development of a nuclear weapons capability to strike the U.S. homeland.

Following the dramatic meeting in Singapore of President Trump and Chairman Kim Jong Un, there is a greater need than even before for some comprehensive program that would guide the next steps in achieving regional security and denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

At the center of this proposal is an international conference for North Asia—convened by China and the United States—which would draft a peace treaty ending the Korean War, formally recognizing the current borders of the Koreas and their regimes, and committing all parties to the inviolability of those arrangements. The precondition for this treaty would be North Korea's agreement to surrender its nuclear weapons, dismantle its nuclear weapons facilities, and submit to the kinds of intrusive inspections specified in the Iranian nuclear agreement (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action). The heart of the proposal, however, is the offer by China of an extended nuclear deterrent to North Korea. These three elements—Chinese extended deterrence, North Korea denuclearization, and a final peace treaty signed by China and the United States—are key conditions for the proposal. Its success depends upon all three of these elements.

A week ago, Lawfare published an extensive critique of my proposals, “Helsinki in Asia: A Response to Philip Bobbitt,” by the Australia strategic analyst Sam Roggeveen. That paper consists of thoughtful criticism and analysis as well as its own proposal. In the present paper, I would like to respond to both parts of Roggeveen’s essay.

Roggeveen and I agree that North Korea’s development of a deliverable nuclear warhead capable of striking the U.S. homeland has brought about an historic change in the strategic context. The problem created by this change begins—but does not end—with the threat of “decoupling”, the fear on the part of U.S. allies in the region that the U.S. would not be willing to put its cities at risk of destruction in order to protect them. As we will see, Roggeveen is not as distressed by this development as I am. He thinks that U.S. alliances in the region are unsustainable in light of China’s inevitable rise, have been continued out of habits that arose in the Cold War, and will soon prove too costly to maintain anyway. He suggests the United States try to get a promise from the North Koreans to cancel their ICBM development in exchange for U.S. forces leaving South Korea and leave it at that. He realizes that—absent a guarantee that only China can give—there is no possibility of North Korea pursuing denuclearization, whatever they may be saying publicly. But he does not believe that China would ever give such a guarantee, because he thinks things are moving too decisively in China’s favor as it is.

Roggeveen’s is a rich and penetrating critique, as one would expect from the Lowy Institute, and it is worth engaging in depth. The main point I would make at the outset is that if Roggeveen is right that U.S. alliances are neither sustainable nor worth the trouble sustaining, then my proposals are largely beside the point. Sometimes he speaks as if he is only jettisoning the U.S.-South Korean alliance; at other times he recognizes that if his arguments are sound, they mean an eventual U.S. withdrawal from the region generally. Sometimes he acknowledges that this would be an historic defeat for the U.S. Thus his paper concludes,

[T]hanks to the twin pressures of North Korea’s ICBMs and China’s rise, the future of [America’s post-war Asia] alliance network is under unprecedented strain. And for the United States there is no really overwhelming reason to resist that strain. So the U.S. has little choice but to offer North Korea the permanent withdrawal of its forces on the peninsula while getting the best deal it can for them.


[The U.S.] has tried since the Clinton Administration to stop North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, that effort has, regrettably, failed.

He does not think that North Korea would accept the guarantee I have proposed, or that China would make that offer in the first place. So let’s begin there.

Roggeveen claims, “[w]hy Bobbitt believes North Korea would prefer to rely on China rather than [go to a launch-on-warning protocol or complicate damage limitation strikes by enlarging its arsenal] is not clear.” I doubt he really means that my views lack clarity; rather this is a polite way of saying that they don’t make sense.

I suppose this is a matter of judgment. No one knows how quickly the U.S. would be able to exploit developments in technology that have made surveillance far cheaper and potentially so ubiquitous, advances in detonation that resolve the fratricide problem and AI-assisted computation that would make targeting more accurate. But I do not think it is rash to assume that neither North Korea nor China would really like to find out. Nor do I think the threat of going to a launch-on-warning protocol is an obvious choice for North Korea; as I have mentioned before, one does not commit suicide for fear of death. Such a step could hardly be a reassuring one for the members of the North Korean leadership however committed they might otherwise be to the Kim dynasty. A “Jonestown” solution can scarcely be preferable to relying on a Chinese guarantee.

The U.S. is not about to attack China, only partly because of a fear of retaliation. That makes the Chinese guarantee quite valuable in a way that attempts to dodge U.S. advances in high technology can never be.

Roggeveen concedes that “Beijing would like to … have its great-power status formally recognized through an agreement with the United States.” Later, he continues that “China would benefit from the kind of agreement Bobbitt proposes, but it would benefit even more from a deal which formalizes U.S.-South Korea decoupling” and removes U.S. forces altogether. That’s probably true, but decoupling isn’t the only option or really even the main driver of the crisis. It is rather the potential for “uncoupling,” by which the U.S. indicates its willingness to risk sacrificing South Korean lives in order to destroy North Korea, that is driving the crisis and driving President Moon’s effort to remove U.S. forces from the peninsula. Such a possibility is terrifying to Seoul but hardly comforting to Beijing.

Again, this is a matter of judgment: If China really is destined to an inexorable rise to become the regional hegemon Roggeveen believes, I would think this counsels patience on China’s part and the avoidance of risk. Nurturing an independent nuclear power on its border, deeply motivated by an implacable desire to unify the peninsula, is hardly a development Beijing would contemplate with equanimity.

As an alternative to my proposal, Roggeveen suggests “a peace treaty with North Korea with one of its provisions being the permanent removal of U.S. forces in South Korea in exchange for North Korea’s agreement to end its ICBM program.” I admit that it is an occasion for chagrin to realize that my proposals have had so little apparent traction with the current administration while Roggeveen’s plan not only sounds like something the president might propose—and that South Korean President Moon Jae-In would endorse—but could have come from a presidential speech. But nothing in the Singapore agreement precludes my proposals, and its ambitious aims are hard to achieve without them.

Finally, Roggeveen identifies the key disagreement between us as one over why the United States is in Asia in the first place—and whether it should remain so. As he explained to me in correspondence, “Ultimately this criticism of Professor Bobbitt’s proposal centres on a difference over the value the United States gains from its alliances with South Korea and Japan (as well as my own country, Australia.) Bobbitt encourages Americans not to forget ‘the fundamental point of why we are in the region in the first place.’ What is that point?”

I made the case in my previous essay that the U.S. presence in Asia stems from a commitment to “stabilize a world order committed to the rule of law, the peaceful settlement of international disputes, and—above all—the freedom of peoples to pursue their own national destinies without intimidation from their neighbors.”

Institutions were created and supported that encouraged free markets and open trading arrangements, government by representation, and security cooperation because we believed these were means to achieve our ends. Indeed, to secure these freedoms in Asia and in Europe, the United States ran really dreadful risks to its homeland.

To this, Roggeveen replies,

Those days are clearly over … China is likely to have a much larger economy than the U.S. in coming decades, and with economic power will come strategic and military power. … So just to maintain the status quo in Asia, the U.S. will have to make enormous investments in its Asian presence—so big that they are likely to be economically and politically unattractive. … It will be difficult for the U.S. to muster the resources and national resolve to win a sustained struggle against a challenger with these advantages. There is certainly no indication that Trump has any appetite for it ...”

I suppose we shall soon see. In an era of black-market missile technology—in which North Korea was an eager participant—I cannot conceive that the U.S. would accept a mere promise to end North Korea’s ICBM program even with an accompanying promise to admit limited inspections. Roggeveen is aware of this and has written me that “one strength of [his] ICBM-for-U.S. forces swap is that, if the U.S. permanently withdraws from south Korea [sic], Pyongyang doesn’t have much of an incentive to cheat on its promise to cut its ICBMs. After all, the whole point of the ICBM program was to push the U.S. out.”

I disagree. The “whole point” of Kim’s nuclear program is to maintain the Kim dynasty in power, which is actually enhanced by exaggerating the U.S. threat and promising reunification. Once the U.S. willingly leaves, what is to prevent the North from attempting reunification by further nuclear threats? And why wouldn’t the U.S. then be estopped from parrying these threats when it discovers that North Korea has lied and retains the capacity to strike the U.S. homeland?

I suppose one might say: Who cares? If the U.S. position is doomed, why not get it over with, without violence? A compelling answer to this is that a violence-free future is hardly assured by capitulations and the abandonment of allies; it just means that when violence comes, our position to resist is weaker. Nor is it impossible that, without a careful but imaginative and realistic plan to offer as the basis for negotiations, the ultimate result of the Singapore meeting will be recriminations that lead to violence.

My answer, however, doesn’t depend on such speculation. My answer is that a deal such as Roggeveen’s will not only unnerve America’s regional allies, it will take a toll on U.S. resolve and self-confidence. The United States will seek and find leaders to reassure us that nothing was really lost, that Americans were suckers to tie their security to that of other countries, that we were smart to get out while the getting was good.

Isn’t it wiser to at least pursue the proposals I have offered without simply assuming that they will be rejected? For if they should be successful, they will undergird a structure of peace in the region for which the United States has already sacrificed so much and which is compatible with China’s ascent if not, however, its ascendancy.

That there are some in the administration and in academia that appear to endorse Roggeveen’s views should not be disheartening. On the contrary, it is encouraging that the debate is joined by a scholar of such depth and seriousness. Even if we disagree, I’ll bet he would share my admiration for this poem by Shu Ting (translated by Carolyn Kizer):


Perhaps these thoughts of ours

will never find an audience

Perhaps the mistaken road

will end in a mistake

Perhaps the lamps we light one at a time

will be blown out, one at a time

Perhaps the candles of our lives will gutter out

without lighting a fire to warm us

Perhaps when all the tears have been shed

the earth will be more fertile

Perhaps when we sing praises to the sun

the sun will praise us in return

Perhaps these heavy burdens

will strengthen our philosophy

Perhaps when we weep for those in misery

we must be silent about miseries of our own


Because of our irresistible sense of mission

We have no choice

Philip Bobbitt is the Herbert Wechsler Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the Center on National Security at Columbia Law School and Distinguished Senior Lecturer at the University of Texas. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences and a former trustee of Princeton University. He has served in all three branches of government, during seven administrations, most recently as a member of the External Advisory Board of the CIA. He has published ten books, chiefly on U.S. constitutional law, nuclear strategy, and the history and evolution of the State. His most recent work is Impeachment: A Handbook (with Black, New Edition) (2018).

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