Gen. Douglas MacArthur said that old soldiers never die, they just fade away. It seems that old military commitments also never die. But they also don’t fade away — they live on forever.
That’s certainly the case with America’s security guarantee for South Korea (officially the Republic of Korea or ROK). The “Mutual” Defense Treaty — which in practice only runs from Washington to Seoul — was inaugurated in 1953. The treaty made sense at the time. The United States had to fight a bloody war to rebuff a North Korean invasion, as well as subsequent Chinese intervention. The ROK, an economic wreck and political autocracy, would not long have survived without American support.
But the ROK long ago surpassed North Korea (officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or DPRK) economically and developed into a genuine democracy. The Cold War ended, stripping the DPRK of its big power supporters. The DPRK became an international pariah while the South became one of the world’s big 12 economic powers. Seoul even began shipping money, food, and other aid to North Korea.
So why are U.S. troops still occupying the Korean peninsula?
Time for a Rethink
The continuing U.S. presence in Japan, currently at 33,200 troops, makes even less sense. Having disarmed the imperial power at the end of World War II, Washington had little choice but to defend it. Moreover, American forces acted as a “cap in the bottle,” as Major General Henry Stackpole famously put it, reassuring Tokyo’s neighbors.
But Japan long ago enjoyed an economic miracle that turned it into the world’s second-ranking economic power. Regional suspicions of Japan have not disappeared, but the prospect of renewed Japanese aggression is about as great as the likelihood of an invasion from Mars. North Korean aggressiveness and Chinese nationalism have generated greater popular support in Japan for a more active defense and foreign policy.
Yet nothing’s really changed with America’s military role. The United States maintains bases and troops in both nations and guarantees the security of both states. American force levels have come down, but American responsibilities remain the same. Increased Japanese and South Korean wealth have led Washington to demand that Tokyo and Seoul do more, but the U.S. government just wants greater assistance to promote its own priorities.
Local opposition has forced some reconsideration of some base facilities. Okinawa remains a sore point between the U.S. and Japanese governments, while the United States and ROK have been negotiating over the South’s share of base relocation and garrison support costs. However, the idea that the United States should step back and turn over regional security duties has occurred to almost no one in Washington.
But now is the time for a complete rethink of American security policy, including in East Asia. It doesn’t matter whether John McCain or Barack Obama is the victor on November 4: Washington’s insistence that its allies remain subordinate belongs in the wastebasket of history.
Old Commitments, Poor Justifications
Alliances, bases, and deployments should be a means, not an end. During the Cold War they helped preserve fragile allied states from potent enemies, but that world has disappeared. Instead of retiring the outmoded institutions, U.S. policymakers turned them into an end, to be preserved irrespective of changing circumstances. Officials have worked to come up with new justifications for old commitments. Now, Washington talks about using military alliances to address issues such as refugees, environment, and drug trafficking, as if Army divisions and Marine expeditionary forces have anything to do with solving such problems.
Reason No. 1 to drop America’s East Asian security commitments: they’re expensive. The principle cost is not the overseas bases, since both South Korea and Japan provide varying levels of host nation support. The biggest expense is for the additional units necessary to back up America’s promises to go to war. The worst policy would be to threaten action without possessing the means to act. The United States spends as much on the military as the rest of the world combined and more in real terms than at any point since World War II, but not to defend itself. It spends that much to defend everyone else. The United States has sprinkled nearly 800 military installations around the globe, improving Washington’s ability to meddle in the affairs of other nations. But as the attacks of 9/11 demonstrated, despite all of its money and power the Department of Defense is ill-equipped to actually defend America.
The only way to cut costs is to cut commitments. The deficit is $400 billion this year and will top half a trillion dollars next year. Total military outlays, including for Afghanistan and Iraq, will run an incredible $700 billion in 2009. The only way to reduce that figure is to start doing less.
Another reason to tell Japan and South Korea that they are on their own is the risk of war. Admittedly, conflict doesn’t look likely for either country, but the United States could rest much easier if it wasn’t the ultimate guarantor of both countries’ security. With security commitments to both governments and troops on the ground, America is stuck if war breaks out. And the mess in Georgia demonstrated how local politicians who expect U.S. support often behave in utterly irresponsible ways.
It was one thing to risk conflict over distant allies during the Cold War, when everything seemed to be connected to everything else. But it makes far more sense today for the United States to sit back and play the role of off-shore balancer. That is, if a crisis develops that has global implications and that cannot be contained by America’s friends, then Washington could consider intervening. Otherwise America should stay out.
South Korea and Japan can defend themselves. North Korea is an international and diplomatic wreck. The South seeking American support against the North is like the United States requesting international assistance to deter an attack by Mexico. Indeed, though the latest ROK Defense White Paper declares that “the North Korean army is a clear and present threat,” Seoul is busy subsidizing the DPRK. That’s strange behavior if Pyongyang is poised to launch a new aggressive war. South Korea’s increasingly close relationship with China, including expanded military exchanges, makes aggression ever less likely from that direction as well.
Japan obviously has the wherewithal to construct whatever military force it believes to be necessary to deter Chinese and North Korean aggression. It isn’t Washington’s job to decide what that is. But it makes no sense for the United States to provide those forces instead.
North Korea’s nuclear program obviously remains a concern, but America’s conventional deployments offer no help in that regard. And Washington’s 26,000 troops on the peninsula provide the North with plenty of nuclear hostages. Bring them home and the United States could make Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions a regional rather than an American issue.
Friendly nations will do a lot more to protect themselves if they can’t rely on America to bail them out. For South Korea, with roughly 40 times the GDP and twice the population of the North, to remain vulnerable to a DPRK attack is frankly ludicrous. There is no principle of geography on the Korean peninsula that dictates the southern country will always have fewer tanks than the northern one. It’s a matter of ROK policy. And that’s fine — if Seoul isn’t relying on the United States to make up the gap.
The same with Japan: It could do a lot more to build up a defensive force, purchasing interceptors and frigates rather than building up a large army, which would unnerve Tokyo’s neighbors. If Japan decided it didn’t need to do any more, that would be fine too. But friendly states should take charge of their own security destinies and stop relying on Washington for aid.
Finally, downplaying America’s military role would improve overall U.S. relations with other countries. The continuing presence of bases and troops creates endless local grievances. Part of that reflects nationalist frustrations with the foreign control that inevitably accompanies foreign garrisons. There are also the inevitable problems that come from putting a large number of young American males in the middle of a foreign country and culture.
The U.S. government has a particular image problem with young South Koreans, who tend for instance to view America as a greater threat than North Korea. But anger towards Washington extends well beyond universities; the recent protests against U.S. beef imports were directed at far more than the fear of consuming unsafe food. As a result, President George W. Bush received a less-than-friendly reception when he visited in early August. In Japan, the heavy concentration of U.S. bases in Okinawa has spawned strong opposition to America’s presence in that province. Without the presence of U.S. military forces, which emphasize Washington’s dominance, the bilateral relationships would be closer to ones of equals, with greater emphasis on private economic and cultural ties rather than on government-to-government geopolitical relations.
Washington is filled with the mantra of “change,” as both the Obama and the McCain campaigns vie for support. But both major political parties represent a status quo in which the United States must forever remain dominant everywhere, subsidizing prosperous and populous allies, occupying and transforming failed states, and micro-managing world affairs. Other than disagreeing over policy toward Iraq, Barack Obama and John McCain are marching in geopolitical lockstep.
There are, of course, many foreign policy issues over which reasonable people can reasonably disagree. But the disappearance of any need to defend countries that have grown wealthy while their potential enemies have dissipated is not one of them. It’s time to let America’s Cold War commitments, especially those in Asia, just fade away.