The United States and South Korea have negotiated an agreement on sharing the cost of basing U.S. troops on the peninsula, and the outcome raises the question of why the Biden administration bothered to negotiate in the first place. For the agreement simply endorsed the offer made by the Koreans under the Trump administration. In fact, it clearly signaled to America’s other security allies that under Mr. Biden, the United States will revert to its pre-Trump policies of permitting them to skimp on outlays for their own defense, thereby needlessly exposing the American homeland to the risk of nuclear attack by the adversaries these alliances are supposed to resist.
Let’s begin by remembering why the link between these decades-old alliances and nuclear risk exist in the first place. As I’ve written repeatedly (and most comprehensively here), it resulted from an early-Cold War period American decision to give up on the hugely expensive idea of using U.S. conventional military forces to deter threats posed by the old Soviet Union, China, and North Korea, and rely instead on intimidating these foes by brandishing nuclear swords.
Non-nuclear U.S. forces, however, still played a vital role in this strategy. Their purpose was serving as “tripwires.” It was the prospect of their being destroyed by their superior enemies that was deemed likely to spur U.S. Presidents to use the nukes to save them, and creating the prospect of escalation to full-scale, intercontinental nuclear exchanges that would prevent the initial aggression to begin with.
Of course, if such deterrence failed, and a full-scale nuclear war broke out, the U.S. homeland would probabl become a casualty. But in those days, the gambit wasn’t completely crazy. In the first place, the security of the allies being protected (mainly Western Europe and Japan) was arguably vital to America’s own security. In the second place, for most of the Cold War, the United States possessed either a nuclear monopoly over the potential adversaries, a meaningful edge, or parity. And even the latter was considered adequate to keep the nuclear retaliation threat credible. In the third place, during the early Cold War decades, the allies – all of which were devastated by World War II – simply couldn’t mount serious defenses of their own.
These days, though, the alliances situation has changed dramatically. Most of the allies can still be considered vital assets for the United States. And all of them are now wealthy enough to build militaries capable of self-defense. But they choose not to, preferring instead to rely on those American military tripwires to deter attack and use their national resources elsewhere, thereby ensuring the continuing nuclear threat to the United States.
Significantly, the major ally that always and still has the least significance to America’s safety and well-being has been South Korea. In addition, the ally-adversary wealth gap is clearly widest between South Korea and its economically impoverished, Stalinist northern neighbor. But because of Seoul’s defense free-riding, because North Korea now has built an impressive nuclear arsenal and is nearing the capability of reaching the continental United States with its missiles, and because not even the alliance-skeptical Trump administration elected to remove the tripwire and thus eliminate any reason for North Korea to threaten, much less actually strike, U.S. targets, the alliance-related nuclear danger to America remains and (given North Korea’s unpredictability, could well be greatest) where running this risk is least justifiable.
Not that the Trumpers ignored the situation completely. Before his administration began, the former President did reveal some awareness of alliance-related nuclear security problems – especially in Asia. And although this theme quickly vanished from the list of stated Trump alliance concerns, he did vigorously press all the major allies, including South Korea, to boost their military budgets and pay more of the costs of hosting U.S. forces. In fact, during his term, the former President continued his pre-inauguration threats to remove some of the American forces from South Korea in order to turn up the heat on Seoul. (He actually ordered a troop drawdown from Germany for the same reasons).
The allies – including South Korea – and their enthusiasts in the bipartisan globalist U.S. foreign policy establishment predictably cried “foul,” contending that Trump had turned American alliance policy into a base exercise in “transactionalism” and “shakedowns,” and none more loudly than candidate Joe Biden last year. In an October op-ed for a South Korean new agency he made clear his determination to return to pre-Trump coddling regardless of the nuclear risk to his own country.
“As President,” he promised, “I’ll stand with South Korea, strengthening our alliance to safeguard peace in East Asia and beyond, rather than extorting Seoul with reckless threats to remove our troops.”
And unfortunately for anyone who would put America’s security first, he’s been true to his word. The latest agreement specifying South Korea’s payment level for the 28,500 American troops stationed in harm’s way right up against the Demilitarized Zone that divides the peninsula had run out in 2019. Deadlocking the talks since then had been Trump’s insistience that Seoul roughly quintuple its last agreed-on figure of about $920 million annually to about $5 billion, and consent to renegotiating the amounts each year rather than every five years. (One news account reported that this demand didn’t come from Trump himself, and that the administration eventually decided to call for a 50 percent first-year hike.)
Biden’s solution? Secure a marginal increase from 13 percent to 13.9 percent in the last annual payments offer reportedly made by South Korea. Thereafter, Seoul will boost its yearly contributions at the same rate as it increases its defense budget – which of course by definition remains woefully inadequate, since despite some recent military spending progress clearly spurred by America First-fueled anxieties, it would still require South Korea to depend on American support. (Incidentally, different accounts of the exact terms have been reported here and here.)
The result? The South Koreans are happy that the Biden administration is dealing with them in “ mutually beneficial and rational manner” and not in “a transactional fashion.” A State Department spokesperson was tickled that the deal has kept the “Biden-Harris Administration’s commitment to reinvigorating and modernizing our democratic alliances around the word to advance our shared security and prosperity.” The Mainstream Media’s globalism cheerleaders are impressed that Mr Biden is farsightedly willing to “cut allies a break to build unity in competition against China and Russia.”
And Americans are still one temper tantrum by Kim Jong Un away from either sitting by and watching nearly 30,000 of their soldiers overrun in an invasion, or trying to save them from total destruction and South Korea from armed conquest with nuclear attacks that could bring a North Korean warhead down on a major American city…or two…or three.
P.S. All indications are that the Biden administration is going to stage a rerun with Japan – though as indicated above, this ally is at least more important than South Korea.