The burden-sharing burden
The author is the Krause Distinguished Professor at the Graduate School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California in San Diego. He is the author with Marcus Noland of the Witness to Transformation blog at https://piie.com/blogs/north-korea-witness-transformation.
Among the many embarrassments of the Trump administration’s foreign policy is its relentless strategy for renegotiating defense burden sharing with its allies. The rapid rotation of top American officials through Seoul in recent weeks — including the Secretary of Defense — is designed to bring pressure to bear. But those overseeing the negotiations are also surveying the potential damage of pushing to secure a $5 billion South Korean contribution.
It is only fair to acknowledge that all alliances face questions about burden-sharing. As Korea has matured into an advanced industrial state, it is reasonable to revisit mutual commitments and look for ways to expand cooperation.
And it is also a mistake for Korean negotiators to limit the discussion to categories of expenditure formally outlined in the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). These include some of the costs for South Korean employees on U.S. bases; the construction of some military facilities; and logistical support. The U.S. clearly spends well in excess of these needs, including for exercises and indirect costs associated with the wider U.S. defense posture in the Asia-Pacific.
Yet the current impasse is largely the result of the chaotic way in which foreign policy is made under President Donald Trump. The script follows a standard series of steps.
First, candidate — and now president — Trump makes exaggerated claims to rouse supporters, in this case that the allies are contributing little if anything to their defense. Moreover, he claims that the allies add nothing to American capabilities. The implication: the United States does not need the allies.
Second, the president promises that the problem is going to be solved through an exaggerated “win,” in this case, a $5 billion South Korean contribution. To date, however, there is not a single piece of official analysis in the public domain that justifies this number. It was simply made up by the President, and — you guessed it — repeated at a political rally in May as an applause line; the number is devoid of any clear rationale.
Third, the president outlines strategies that are designed to increase U.S. “leverage,” one of the President’s favorite words. In this case, these strategies include the move to annual negotiations on burden-sharing. With this simple change in approach, the President has now guaranteed that alliance relations are going to be characterized by ongoing political tensions as far as the eye can see. On the South Korean side, these tensions are only intensified by looming National Assembly elections in April that will force politicians on both sides of the aisle to take positions.
Moreover, there are at least rumors that the entire exercise with South Korea is little more than a way to soften up Japan and Germany, which are also slated to renegotiate their cost-sharing agreements.
Fourth, the administration’s focus on burden-sharing has necessarily complicated the wider strategic landscape and had a number of unintended consequences. Negotiations with the North Koreans appear to be going nowhere. Japan-Korea relations have fallen to their lowest point in years. U.S. efforts to secure Korean support for its Indo-Pacific strategy have secured only the most tepid and minimal response. In short, all of the issues of true consequence are pushed onto the back burner.
Finally — and where we are now — political appointees and dedicated diplomats committed to the alliance scurry around trying to clean up the mess, which is political as well as strategic. Note how Trump’s excessive demands are providing talking points to President Moon’s political opponents, who are claiming a “crisis” in the alliance, even if it has been largely manufactured by the president. Moon has been forced to respond on other fronts, including with respect to Japan. At what point does the president’s strategy generate real political blowback, as the Korean public tires of being underappreciated and bullied?
Support for the U.S.-Korea alliance in the United States is broad and deep, with politicians on both sides of the aisle fully aware of the growing importance of U.S. allies as uncertainties emanating from China and Russia increase. Both past and current secretaries of Defense and State have said the right things when visiting Seoul and their statements of support for the alliance should be taken seriously.
But as long as Trump is president, South Korea will have to live with the uncertainty generated by a personalist foreign policy. The U.S. will almost certainly have to back down from its maximalist $5 billion demand, as the president has been forced to do on other issues such as the Muslim ban or construction of the wall. Hopefully, the president will be able to package any increases as a win, and the Moon administration would be advised to craft a package that allows for claims of victory on both sides. If not, expect more bitterness and rancor. For this alliance, the election of 2020 cannot come soon enough.