The Poverty of Libertarian Thinking about the U.S.–Korean Alliance

September 9, 2015

Unless we stand fast with our allies, we might open the door to a far more dangerous world.

For special access to experts and other members of the national security community, check out the new War on the Rocks membership.

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.

We have retired our comments section, but if you want to talk to other members of the natsec community about War on the Rocks articles, the War Hall is the place for you. Check out our membership at!

4 thoughts on “The Poverty of Libertarian Thinking about the U.S.–Korean Alliance

  1. As I recall Mr Bandow also looked askance on the ROK army being under the command of Americans. Which completely ignores why that is so. The South Koreans want to know that if the Nork’s invaded, that the US would come to the rescue. And that would be far more likely were the forces so committed, along with those already there, were under American command.

    And the presence of American troops act as a form of trip wire. The Norks might be willing to try their odds against the South, but if American troops are right there at all times, they would have to know that any such thing would necessarily involve us. The deterrent effect should not be ignored.

  2. Minor point but when I was an exchange student at the Korean Air Force Staff College, the Korean students I asked about the US withdrawing from the peninsula, first and foremost framed in terms of money, saying they couldn’t afford to replicate the capabilities we bring. Only a handful of the 80 or so of my classmates would also frame it in the terms espoused in this article. Small sample size but in my experience as a Korea Foreign Area Officer, it would seem the Koreans themselves see continuation of the alliance largely in terms of cost avoidance.

  3. Mr. Jackson, I couldn’t agree more w/ your core points but I have to point out–haven’t we already “abandoned” South Korea at least in terms of forward based forces? Our troop level in Korea has decreased consistently since the Carter years and today, as of June (I believe) we no longer have a forward-based heavy force. Instead we will rotate an armored brigade every three or six months.

    Part of “engagement” with the rest of the world meant establishing cultural bonds between servicemembers, their families, and the host nation population. Think of all the German kids who learned basketball and baseball from American G.I.s You don’t get that experience w/ rotational TDY force.

    At this point, with less than 30,000 Army troops in Korea, we might as well withdrawl any combat-coded forces and move to entirely supportive structure. A structure where we can receive deployed/TDY forces as needed but where the permanent Army footprint is minimal. Our two Air Force wings in Korea should probably continue as they have–thought it would not be too hard to combine them under one Wing and discard unneeded property

    Perhaps the overall C-in-C in a potential future Korean War should be an American–if only because the overwhelming follow-on support will be from America–but for all practical purposes as much authority as possible should be given to the South Koreans. If we had maintained 50,000+ GIs in Korea we might have a game in this fight. But we didn’t and we need to accept we are going to be holiday force in South Korea.

    1. The problem with that calculation is that it leaves out China. A Korean War without American involvement would have China attempting to restrain the North, and likely siding with the South.
      With American involvement, there would be an overwhelming demand for Chinese to intervene on the side of the North. The Korean War is foundational in Chinese thinking, and there is also an emotional component where North Korea is their only vassal state and ally.
      So we can either try turning China into an asset, or making them our enemies again. There’s pro’s and cons to both, but there isn’t one clear answer, certainly