While rare, arguments in favor of abandoning the U.S. alliance with South Korea are not new, and are always reduced to narrow cost–benefit transactions. The Donald Trump-like simplicity of this approach obscures an honest assessment of the issue and the purported solution. The case of Korea is instructive of the numerous high risks and hidden costs in libertarian arguments about U.S. foreign policy.
As he has occasionally done for decades, Doug Bandow of the libertarian Cato Institute recently reanimated the “abandon Korea” argument in The National Interest. His justifications change slightly over time to adapt to circumstances, but the punchline remains. There are many reasons to take issue with the libertarian line of reasoning about Korea and alliances in general — especially given recent research findings. I nevertheless limit my focus here to the hidden costs of libertarian reasoning, measured in terms of foreign policy fallout.
A basic understanding of causes and consequences in international relations is crucial to any fair consideration of foreign policy, yet familiarity with even crude causal relationships seems entirely missing from arguments to abandon the Republic of Korea, one of America’s oldest and most directly threatened allies. Three basic insights from international relations highlight some of the hidden costs of a libertarian approach to the U.S.–Korea alliance.
First is the opportunity cost of war prevention altogether. Bandow assigns no value to the war prevention role of the U.S. presence in Korea, yet even fairly dovish scholars like David Kang acknowledge that the deterrent effect of the U.S. military presence is what keeps the peace on the Korean Peninsula. The fact that South Korea is capable of self-defense does not mean it is capable of deterring North Korean on its own, or that the departure of U.S. forces from the peninsula won’t lead to North Korean military adventurism. North Korea’s history of violence shows that even U.S. power has been insufficient to prevent low-intensity North Korean attacks. So if you’re South Korea, and your capital city of ten million people is within artillery range of an egoistic dictator armed with nuclear weapons, you don’t want to take any chances by messing with a successful deterrence equation, and neither should the United States. The logic of confrontation and conflict still prevails in Korea. As long as that remains the case, removing the U.S. alliance from the picture puts in jeopardy a precarious peace that has managed to hold for more than 60 years.
Second, were the United States to abandon South Korea, the global taboo against nuclear proliferation would dissolve and new nuclear powers would emerge, starting with South Korea. The spread of nuclear weapons is inimical to U.S. interests, which is why the United States maintains a massive bureaucracy dedicated to the issue of arms control and disarmament. When South Korea’s President Park Chung-Hee saw indications of U.S. abandonment in the 1960s and early 1970s, he launched a clandestine nuclear program that was only shut down in response to U.S. assurances. And after North Korea’s multiple attacks against South Korea in 2010, a discourse among the country’s policy elites emerged calling for an independent nuclear capability, something that the majority of South Koreans favored at the time. South Korean elites have linked their willingness to refrain from going nuclear with the continuation of the U.S. alliance. If South Korea, an otherwise upstanding member of the international community, violated the nuclear nonproliferation norm, it would need to be punished and isolated like its neighbor to the north, or otherwise risk a norm violation cascade, since norms die when actors witness norm violations going unpunished. But perhaps Bandow simply doesn’t see the value in preventing the emergence of new nuclear states.
Third, if this alliance were to end, the United States would jeopardize the credibility of its other commitments in Asia and possibly in Europe. Reneging on a given commitment doesn’t necessarily destroy a country’s credibility everywhere, but it does erode the credibility of comparable commitments made under comparable circumstances. The U.S.–Korea alliance serves the purpose of guarding against the most proximate danger in the region, making it the only place in the world where a U.S. alliance is being directly tested (a “hoop test” in social science-speak). If in this singular observable test, the United States is seen fleeing from the scene — especially if the justification is that the situation has become too dangerous, as Bandow argues — then other states are likely to reason that U.S. commitments to Japan, to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, or even to NATO won’t hold up to challenges.
This not only reduces U.S. throw-weight in the international system; it raises questions in the minds of opportunists and expansionists about what the United States is willing to defend. But while an inability to make credible threats and promises would trouble any rational person in business or politics, Bandow doesn’t seem to be bothered by burdening the United States with such a cost, since he hints that ending the U.S.–Korea alliance should be part of a larger unwinding of U.S. commitments in Asia and Europe.
Bandow and I agree on at least one thing: The Korean Peninsula is rife with geopolitical volatility. But where he sees the danger of North Korea as a reason to bail on our commitments, I see it as reason to stand fast, lest we create a far worse fate for ourselves.
Dr. Van Jackson is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks, a Visiting Fellow at the Center for a New American Security, and a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Rival Reputations: Coercion and Credibility in U.S.–North Korea Relations (Cambridge University Press). Follow him on Twitter: @WonkVJ.