Sovereignty: Building Block or Stumbling Block in Resolving Northeast Asian Security Disputes? – Thoughts from Alley McFarland

The second panel on International Law and Relations included John Feffer of the Institute for Policy Studies, who discussed how the concept of sovereignty connects to current security issues in Northeast Asia. Feffer presented an interesting view the role of sovereignty in these disputes, looking at how increased nationalism by the US, China, and Japan has exacerbated tensions related to North Korean nuclear power. Feffer in particular looked at recent changes in the US concept of sovereignty. While the US position on sovereignty has typically aligned with that of China, Feffer argued that President Trump’s “America First” philosophy and discussion of sovereignty pushes US policy closer to that of North Korea, at least rhetorically. President Trump has neglected previous US focus on multilateralism, creating a vision of the world that stresses the internationally recognized borders of a country and its right to govern without interference. Feffer stated that this more closely reflects the North Korean view of the world, but that these similar perspectives do not help resolve the current nuclear dilemma in Northeast Asia.

When looking at the issue of nuclear power in Northeast Asia, Feffer stressed the fact that the current status quo establishes a double standard, where some powers are allowed to have nuclear weapons while others are not. This double standard creates tensions in Northeast Asia where North Korea argues it has a sovereign right to have a nuclear weapons program in order to defend itself. Feffer noted that North Korean rhetoric on sovereignty is way to veil its desire to use nuclear weapons to alter the balance of power on the Korean peninsula and to bargain for international legitimacy. While this is an important point he made, it would be beneficial to further discuss the use of sovereignty as a rhetorical tool to assert national goals or interests. At times his discussion of sovereignty seemed separate from other regional interests in nuclear weapons. For example, his discussion on South Korea’s consideration of developing its own nuclear program seemed to stem more from anxiety over US military and economic commitment than issues of sovereignty. Consequently, it would be helpful for the coherency of his argument to further connect other national concerns with the concept of sovereignty.

Ultimately, Feffer asserted that this double standard creates an unstable status quo with North Korea remaining as an unofficial nuclear power. The volatility of the status quo grows with the assertions of sovereignty by regional players. Consequently, Feffer proposed three non-military alternatives to the status quo. In the first scenario he described a “normalization” of the sovereignty of North Korea, South Korea and Japan so that these three countries could directly negotiate a deal to bring North Korea into the international community while curbing its nuclear program. However, this is unlikely to occur in the near future given concerns over Japanese rearmament in the Korean peninsula and South Korean anxiety over US removal. A second scenario includes what Feffer called a “smudging of sovereignty” that would involve the US scaling back its right to conduct military exercises in the region and North Korea limiting its sovereign right to test nuclear weapons. Feffer stated that the US has rejected this deal, but argued that President Trump could adopt this tactic if he could present the compromise as his own. However, it is also important to note that in order for Americans to accept this compromise there would need to be a de-escalation of rhetoric on the North Korean threat. Finally, he suggested that regional powers could circumvent the nuclear issue by focusing on multilateral cooperation in other areas such as on the environment. This engagement could then spill over to other issues such as security. While this is an interesting and appealing proposition, Feffer’s argument would benefit from further explanation on how cooperation in environmental policy would create what he referred to as a “virtuous circle of engagement.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *