New threat to U.S. in Korea
The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington.
Over the past seventy years, the U.S. forward military presence on the Korean Peninsula has come under recurring political pressure. In January 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson famously drew his defense line against communism in Asia between Japan and Korea rather than on the 38th parallel, inadvertently inviting Kim Il Sung’s invasion of the South six months later. In 1977, Jimmy Carter came into office promising to withdraw all U.S. forces from Korea until resistance from the Pentagon, State Department, Congress and Japan finally forced him to abandon his pledge with only the symbolic removal of an obsolete missile battery. President George H.W. Bush so feared Congressional pressure for a “peace dividend” on the Korean Peninsula after the collapse of the Soviet Union that he issued the East Asia Strategic Reports in 1990 and1992 to make the case for continuing deterrence against North Korea despite the new tranquility in Europe. During the Iraq War, Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld threatened to withdraw U.S. troops in a fit of pique over President-elect Roh Moo-hyun’s criticism of U.S. Forces and then deployed a brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division from Korea to Iraq without ever sending them back to the peninsula.
Today, the forward U.S. military presence on the Korean Peninsula faces criticism from U.S. President Donald Trump, who has stated more than 100 times that Korea is cheating the United States and troops should be withdrawn (according to recent research published by Victor Cha in The National Interest). When one searches the political horizon in the United States to see who else might be pushing for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the peninsula, however, there are very few supporters of the president’s view. The U.S. Congress passed a nearly unanimous resolution last year hailing the important deterrence role played by USFK and the centrality of the U.S.-ROK alliance to peace and stability in Asia. A CSIS study of Congress in September found very few members who advocated retreat from the world, the most notable being Senator Rand Paul from Kentucky. The Chicago Council on Foreign Relations found in its biannual public opinion survey last year that Americans’ support for defending South Korea was at a historic high.
Yet there is one quarter where resistance to U.S. overseas military commitments suddenly appears to be growing — and that is American universities and think tanks. The resistance does not come from any spontaneous student or faculty mobilization within those institutions, but instead from libertarian billionaire Charles Koch, who has opened his pocket book to help expand the number of self-proclaimed “realist” academics who advocate “non-intervention,” “offshore balancing” and “restraint” — or what others might simply call “retreat.” The intellectual advisers to the Koch initiative include scholars like Stephen Walt at Harvard and Barry Posen at MIT who have argued for years that the mainstream intellectual debate on foreign policy is dominated by unthinking internationalists in the Washington “blob” (presumably like me) who are paralyzed by decades of inertia or corrupted by the allure of prestigious political positions in government. The restrainers believe that they are creating opportunities for a new generation of scholars to challenge the conventional wisdom and to advocate policies that involve less American blood and treasure.
The immediate target of the restrainers is not Asia, but rather the Middle East and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Jewish intellectuals have been raising alarm bells about the movement from the beginning, since Walt and University of Chicago Professor John Mearsheimer were the authors of a controversial text in 2006 arguing that the Israel lobby was entrapping Americans in dangerous and expensive wars in the Middle East. Posen and other restrainers were critics of NATO expansion in the 1990s and are using the Koch platform to raise new questions about the American military commitment to Europe today. The restrainers call for “offshore balancing” in both Europe and the Middle East that would involve elegant balance-of-power diplomacy on the continent to minimize onshore military commitments and let U.S. allies carry more of their own defense.
In the 1990s, the restrainers universally called for offshore balancing in Asia as well, but the rise of China has split the movement. Mearsheimer has predicted a high likelihood of war with China and now advocates a containment strategy in Asia while Walt has criticized Trump’s proposals to withdraw from Korea as a dangerous disruption to the balance of power in the region. MIT’s Posen, on the other hand, continues to argue that withdrawal from Korea would give the United States more leverage in nuclear talks with the North while recipients of Koch funding on the left like David Kang at USC argue that a Sino-centric system in Asia would be inherently stable and minimize the need for American forward military presence and alliances.
I welcome a wholesome debate on the logic of American forward presence in the Pacific if that is really what the Koch Foundation intends. Such a debate might force the restrainers to move from theory to practice and fine-tune their realism in the face of concrete threats from China and North Korea. It might also shake the Blue House out of its own complacency about the future rational for the U.S.-ROK alliance.