The New Neutrality

TOKYO – Throughout the Cold War, the Soviet Union used every imaginable threat and inducement – including the ultimate prize of reunification – to bring about a neutral Germany. But German leaders of both the left and the right, from Konrad Adenauer to Willy Brandt, spurned every Soviet offer. Will authoritarian mercantilism now succeed where communism failed?

Countries join alliances, or entities such as the European Union, because these groups make the benefits and obligations of membership as unambiguous as anything in international relations can be. For Germany and South Korea, however, relationships with historic allies – NATO and the United States, respectively – appear to be changing before our eyes.

Through their huge purchases of goods, with promises of even more to come, today’s authoritarian/mercantilist regimes in Russia and China may be about to achieve by commerce what the Soviets could not achieve by bribery and threats. And the scale of that commerce is breathtaking, with German exports to China growing from $25.9 billion a decade ago to $87.6 billion in 2011, while South Korea’s exports have increased from $53 billion to $133 billion during the same period of time.

A form of stealth neutralism, indeed, appears to be entering both countries’ diplomacy. Witness Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent trip to South Korea, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s unwillingness to impose effective sanctions on Russia for its intervention in Ukraine, and the business-only focus of her just-concluded visit to China. In both Germany and South Korea, the idea that historic alliances may offer fewer tangible benefits than tacit neutrality – particularly in terms of exports – appears to be taking root, especially among business elites.