WASHINGTON – Is U.S. President Donald Trump whipping America’s allies into shape or is he simply using them as whipping boys? One of the longest-running debates surrounding Trump’s foreign policy is whether he is strengthening U.S. alliances by demanding that allies and friends contribute more to the common defense, or weakening them by trying to extract as much money as possible from countries that depend on Washington’s protection.
Trump’s treatment of one U.S. ally, South Korea, has been at the center of this debate, as a result of fraught cost-sharing negotiations surrounding the American troop presence on the Korean Peninsula. It is entirely appropriate for American officials to ask, from time to time, whether a given alliance is performing as well as it should be. Unfortunately, the course of U.S.-South Korean relations over Trump’s three years in office offers a case study in the wrong way to put an alliance under pressure.
Trump’s distaste for the U.S.-South Korea alliance has always been a bit odd. Unlike, say, Australia, South Korea confronts a serious military threat on its doorstep, in the form of a nuclear-armed North Korea. And unlike, say, Germany, South Korea has a highly capable military and spends significantly — 2.6 percent of GDP — on defense. It is hard to think of a U.S. ally that takes its own security more seriously than South Korea. Yet Trump has nonetheless given Seoul plenty of reason to feel uncomfortable.
On the campaign trail in 2016, Trump broached the idea that South Korea should build its own nuclear weapons, so that Washington could pull back from defense commitments in East Asia. As president, Trump threatened to withdraw from the South Korea-U.S. free trade agreement and employed high-pressure tactics to secure a modest revision of that accord. Trump later made significant changes to the everyday workings of the alliance — even suspending regular military exercises — without consulting South Korean officials.
Since 2018, the president has also set off cost-sharing crises by demanding vastly increased host-nation payments (payments made to partially offset the cost of stationing U.S. troops), most recently demanding a whopping five-fold increase in the roughly $1 billion that Seoul pays annually. The administration has argued that the existing host-nation payments do not fully cover the cost of stationing U.S. troops in South Korea or other countries, such as Japan and Germany — a statement that, while technically true, wrongly implies that America itself derives no other benefits from its presence. Amid these negotiations, Trump has periodically ordered the Pentagon to consider U.S. troop withdrawals from the Korean peninsula.
So what is all this meant to achieve? There are two ways of making sense of Trump’s behavior.
The first might be called the “tough love” theory of alliance management — so labeled by former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. Pressure tactics, under this theory, are used to make an alliance work better. They play a vital role in jolting lethargic allies out of strategic complacency and pushing them to contribute more to the common defense — more money or, far better, more military capability. Short-term friction is a small price to pay for a long-term improvement in collective strength. The purpose of putting an alliance under strain now is so that it will perform better when the critical test comes.
The second, and far less charitable, way of making sense of Trump’s approach might be termed the “protection racket” theory of alliance relations. Here America’s aim is not so much to increase collective defense capability as to reap unilateral economic gains by extracting more cash from countries it protects. The long-term vitality and cohesion of the alliance is less important than the rents Washington can charge as a result of its global military power.
Most of Trump’s advisers favor, and have sought to implement, the first theory of alliance management. And in fairness, those officials can point to initiatives in other U.S. alliances — such as enhancement of NATO’s Eastern defenses — as evidence that the approach has merit. (It should be acknowledged, though, that many of those initiatives predated Trump, and many of them have been driven forward more by the actions of U.S. competitors, such as Russia, than by anything Washington itself has done.)
Yet it has always strained credulity to think that Trump himself sees alliance relationships as anything other than financial transactions. His statements, going back decades, have focused more on the balance of costs and payments within U.S. alliances than on the ability of those alliances to meet external threats. It is hard to spin his treatment of South Korea in any other way.
After all, Trump’s burden-sharing showdowns with Seoul have had little to do with enhancing the alliance’s overall capabilities. They have been focused, rather, on generating direct payments to the U.S. And although it is not unreasonable for Washington to seek modestly higher levels of compensation for its force presence in South Korea, the administration has repeatedly made financially nonsensical demands that would be politically impossible for any South Korean government to meet.
Meanwhile, the president has weakened the alliance by suspending military exercises that U.S. and South Korean forces use to maintain readiness and improve their ability to work together, and doing so without even a heads-up to South Korean officials. All this has happened, moreover, as relations between South Korea and Japan have nose-dived in a way that will make it harder to achieve trilateral cooperation against North Korea or China — just as the U.S.-China rivalry is deepening and the North Korean nuclear crisis seems set to resume.
This is not the sort of behavior one expects from a leader who is really trying to improve the long-term health of the alliance. Which is perhaps why the Congress, including many of the president’s GOP allies, want to protect the alliance from Trump by making it far harder for him to unilaterally withdraw American troops from South Korea.
The pity of all this is that Trump’s narrow transactionalism is giving the sometimes-nasty work of alliance management a bad name. There is no rule that says the U.S. must always use kid gloves in dealing with its allies. There are times when making a partnership work requires some very hard bargaining.
During the Cold War, for instance, the U.S. had rough diplomatic battles with its allies over defense spending, military strategy, East-West trade relations, and many other issues. Yet Cold War policymakers understood that it only made sense to wage those battles over issues that were truly crucial to the future effectiveness of the Western coalition.
Trump has picked more than his share of fights with the allies, South Korea chief among them. But he has generally done so in search of narrower and, in the grand scheme of things, relatively trivial financial gains. That’s not tough love. It’s strategic self-harm.
Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
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