Would Ron Paul Retrench the US from Korea?


Here is Steve Walt saying nice things about Ron Paul, and Layne has a nice recent piece in the National Interest, and another at ISQ, about looming US retrenchment.  Earlier I argued that I think lots of people in IR now both expect and want some measure of US pullback. The argument is pretty well-known by now – empirically, the US is doing more than it can afford, like the Iraq war (trillion dollar deficits and ‘overstretch’); normatively, we are violating far too many of our liberal values against a comparatively minor terrorist threat (torture, indefinite detention, unoverseen drone strikes). But I don’t see too much on what specifically could be cut if absolutely necessary. The British retrenchment east of Suez in the 70s is probably our best model, but of course, the Brits had different sets of commitments, so it’s not a great blueprint.

So I try below to compile a list of who would/could/should get the axe and who not. Just like the intense competition over the periodic BRACs, one could imagine US allies making their case for a retention of US bases, troops, aid, etc. In one of his speeches, I heard Ron Paul argue that we have 900 overseas bases, so the field of choice is very wide.

I can think of 3 basic criteria for judgment of whom should be cut loose and who not:

a. Direct US national security interest: This is fairly obvious. For example, no matter what the Israelis or Japanese may say, Mexico and Canada’s fate will always be more important to the US than theirs, because they so directly impinge on US security.

b. Need/Vulnerability: Some states may want the US to stay but don’t really need us. They just want to free-ride. Germany comes to mind. Modern Germany is irrevocably democratic, liberal, aging, with a small, barely deployable military, and surrounded by other democracies. There is no need to keep it ‘down’ anymore, nor is Russia a big conventional threat to Europe.

c. Values: Some places aren’t that relevant to US security, or they may have the means to defend themselves. But they represent crucial values in high-profile contests. SK is a good example. SK’s GDP is 26x NK’s; it can take care of it itself (even thought no one wants to say that publicly here). But the Korean stand-off has become a such global symbol of liberal democracy vs. tyranny, especially next to rising China, that US retrenchment would be see globally as a real setback.

So here is quick-and-dirty ranking of allies and commitments in order of importance:

1. Canada and Mexico: I imagine the Tea party would blanche at the idea of Mexico as one of America’s very highest national security priorities, but it is for the reasons mentioned above. Yes, Mexico is vastly more important to the US than Israel.

However, the rest of Latin America, including that now-pointless embargo of Cuba, really isn’t. How damaging has Chavez really been to the US? Honestly, if we were really strapped for cash and over-committed, we could cut the Monroe Doctrine loose. Latin America doesn’t really need us or the fairly condescending ‘Roosevelt Corollary’ anymore.

Strictly speaking, Canada does not need America commitment; Mexico does somewhat. But proximity alone means they are America’s most important allies. We can’t retrench from North America.

2. Saudi Arabia: Wait, what? But yes, it’s true. If you think about what the US needs (acute demand for cheap, reliable carbon, at least until the green economy gets on its feet), SA’s extreme vulnerability, and the pan-umma chaos that would result from its collapse, means that SA has to be very high on the list. I agree that places like Germany or Korea are more sympathetic, but they have also a lot more wherewithal to defend themselves. SA does not, so it needs the US more. The majority of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudis, and all were stewed in Saudi anti-western pathologies, yet we invaded Iraq??… Well, here’s why.

3. Taiwan: This one mixes need and values. Taiwan is modern and capable, but its opponent is so big, it will never even come close in that race. Also, Taiwan has emerged as a major global values contest relevant to China’s rise and Asia’s future order. Everyone’s watching. Given that China is a real long-term peer competitor to the US now, Taiwan has a global bellwether status. But is really important for US national security? Not really; that’s true.

4. India: This one mixes all 3 criteria. In Geopolitics, I argued that India will be America’s big future ally, because it shares  America’s values, and both its big threats – salafism and China. No other US ally does that. Bolstering India pushes back on Islamic terror in Asia and balances/distracts China, and reaffirms democracy in a region where democracy is often seen as a luxury that inhibits growth.

5. Indonesia: Here’s another unexpected one, but the argument is similar to India. If you think about places where a US presence could really make a difference (i.e., where we would get some dividend and not just encourage free-riding), then I think this is obvious too. For starters, it’s huge – the fourth biggest state in the world. It is a bulwark against salafism’s spread into the biggest community of the umma – southeast Asia. (No one ever seems to remember this, btw; Islam is a lot more than the Arabs and Persians.) As with India, there is a strong values case for supporting Indonesian democracy – its big, Muslim, and worried about China too.

6. Israel: I think the case for Israel is slipping. Yes, it is the only democracy in the Middle East, but not so much anymore actually. Arab Spring has changed a lot, and Israel’s own internal politics, especially its now effectively permanent occupation of the Palestinians, damages that ‘we’re the only state in the Middle East that shares US values’ line. This doesn’t mean we should abandon Israel, only that it’s rank is sliding. America’s national security interest in Israel is not particularly obvious now – the Cold War is over, S Hussein is gone, Assad is on the ropes. Nor is it clear that Israel really needs us. It needed us to survive the Yom Kippur War, but now? Its got the best military in the region, plus nukes. The real ‘values’ link between Israel and the US now is more tribal (a Judeo-Christian struggle against Islam) rather than liberal.

7. South Korea: Like Israel, the case for SK is slipping, primarily because SK so obviously outclasses NK. NK may be very scary, but a real SK military build-up (including vastly superior nukes) would be scarier still. SK’s GDP is at least 25x NK’s. Its military technology is two generations ahead. Its social capacity – health, education, institutional durability – vastly outstrip its opponent. Like Israel, SK needed us once, but not really anymore. Like the EU and Japan, wealthy SK has ‘graduated’ from the need for serious US extended deterrence. South Koreans I talk with about this worry about ‘abandonment,’ but then,  SK only spend 2.5% of GDP on defense. The US spends more than twice. That’s not free-riding as bad as Germany or Japan, but its still free-riding. If you consider that Taiwan or India would represent a greater return for the US’ extended deterrence investment, you understand why Ron Paul always mentions Korea as a basing obligation to eliminate. However, the intra-Korean contest has acquired a ‘freedom vs tyranny’ global profile. Like Taiwan, it is something of a bellwether now that would send big signal, especially now that we’re ‘pivoting’ to Asia. So the current US small commitment – 28.5k warfighters under USFK away from the DMZ – is probably about right.

Part two will come in four days

Cross-posted on Duck of Minerva.

Filed under: Foreign Policy, International Relations Theory, Korea (South), United States

Robert E Kelly
Assistant Professor
Department of Political Science & Diplomacy
Pusan National University