alliances, allies, America First, burden sharing, deterrence, Financial Times, globalism, James White, Joe Biden, military spending, North Korea, nuclear weapons, Our So-Called Foreign Policy, South Korea, tripwire, Trump
I know that there’s lots more to say about last week’s outrageous Capitol Hill riot and its political and even broader fallout, but sometimes a news development comes along that’s so underappreciated and at the same time so poorly reported that I just couldn’t resist weighing in right away.
I’m talking about decisions being made in South Korea to become more militarily self-reliant, and the way they were reported in the Financial Times a week ago. The article, by Edward White, had it all as far as my Trump-y, America First-type worldview is concerned: an (apparently unwitting account) of signs of a clearly emerging potential triumph for this approach to U.S. foreign policy; a comparably stinging (and unwitting) rebuke of its globalist counterpart; a complete failure to mention the benefits for the United States (as opposed to the impact elsewhere) coupled with attempts by globalist supposed experts focusinf singlemindedly on the downsides and ignoring the consequences for Americans; and just plain sloppy journalism.
As known by RealityChek regulars, the news that long-time military ally (or protectorate, depending on your point of view) South Korea is revving up its defense spending is an unalloyed good for Americans. For decades, Seoul’s skimpy military budgets, which remained modest despite the country’s phenomenal economic progress, required the United States to supply the conventional forces needed to defend it against a North Korean attack.
The large American troop contingent stationed right at the Demilitarized Zone, directly in the North Koreans’ invasion path, might have made sense when Washington had no reason to fear any conflict going nuclear, and indeed viewed its possession of these arms as a pillar of its strategy of protecting South Korea by deterring aggression (because North Korea had no nukes of its own that could hit the U.S. homeland in retalition). But since North Korea is at the least so close to possessing this capability, the American units have turned into a tripwire all too likely to expose Americans to these risks, thereby rendering the U.S. nuclear guarantee a prime example of policy masochism. (This post described the changing Korean peninsula and overall Asian security environment, and its implications for U.S. strategy, back in 2014.)
As also known by RealityChek regulars, President Trump has displayed some awareness of this situation, and, as White has reported, has pressed the South Koreans to get their self-defense act together – though in his often typically incoherent way, focusing almost entirely during his term on securing more South Korean financing of the expenses of deploying the U.S. forces on the peninsula than on planning to withdraw, and thereby eliminate the nuclear risk to America that their presence creates.
But White’s article cites evidence that Seoul has interpreted Mr. Trump’s harangues about rip off-obsessed allies as a clear sign that the United States is no longer a reliable ally, and that South Korea needs to build the manpower and especially weaponry it will need if the United States flies the coop. Especially interesting is the apparent South Korean conviction that these preparations must be made even though alliance fetishizer Joe Biden will become President on January 20.
Clearly, nothing could be better for the United States, and just as clearly, Trumpian impatience – following decades of coddling free-riding by globalist American leaders – deserves most of the credit. Even if Biden has no intention of withdrawing the American troops and bolstering his own country’s security, at least one major argument against such a step would be eliminated if South Korea became self-reliant.
But none of this side of the equation will be found in the article. Instead, South Korea’s stated new strategy is depicted as an regrettably inevitable result of “Mr Trump’s treatment of long-term allies.” And of course, grave risks abound, including the chance that “The build-up could send unintended signals of aggression or weakness, inviting miscalculations or adventurism from countries including North Korea, China and Russia.”
Typically, however, these experts ignore the screamingly obvious: If the U.S. troops leave, any miscalculations or adventurism would be problems for South Korea and its neighbors, not for the United States.
As for the sloppy journalism, that comes in when White tries to show that South Korea has already been an impressive military spender:
“South Korea’s annual defence bill is already high compared with those of many countries of a similar size and wealth. Military spending as a percentage of government expenditure was 12.7 last year, according to Stockholm Peace Research Institute data, ahead of 9.2 per cent in the US and the UK’s 4.5 per cent.”
To which the only serious response is, “Seriously?” Because why should anyone except an apologist care how Seoul’s defense spending compares with similarly sized or wealthy countries, much less with the United States’? After all, almost none of these countries lives in what’s probably the world’s most dangerous neighborhood, with an utterly deranged, nuclear-armed regime right next door for starters? Given South Korea’s (great) wealth, and North Korea’s impoverishment, the only important gauge of the adequacy of Seoul’s military budget is whether it can meet South Korea’s needs. And obviously, there’s a long way to go in this respect.
Moreover, even anyone who puts any stock in the numbers mentioned by White needs to ask themselves why the emphasis is on percentages of government spending? What actually counts is percentage of gross domestic product (GDP, or the entire economy). Because it’s the share of total national resources devoted to defense that genuinely makes clear the priority it enjoys. And with 2.7 percent the figure for highly insecure South Korea, according to the latest available data, and 3.4 percent that for the highly secure US of A, the only accurate way to describe defense as a South Korean priority is “not real high.”
Don’t get me wrong: As a sovereign country, Seoul has every right to skimp on defense spending. It also has every right to try to make another country bear an outsized measure of cost and risk for this decision. But the equally sovereign United States has every right to refuse to keep playing Uncle Sucker, especially when North Korea’s nuclear weapons make the stakes so potentially catastrophic. America’s outgoing President understood this, however imperfectly. Anyone believing that America’s security (especially from nuclear attack) needs to come first for Americans should be hoping that the nation’s incoming President quickly gets on this wavelength.