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South Korea and Trump’s Clumsy Alliance Management

Andrew Yeo doesn’t expect [1] the election of Moon Jae-in as South Korea’s new president [2] to disrupt the U.S.-ROK alliance that much:

Narratives of crisis in the U.S.-South Korea alliance, however, are misplaced. After conducting research on the role of norms and alliance management, my co-author and I argue that alliances among democratic partners tend to demonstrate greater resilience and flexibility relative to alliances that lack any norms of democratic consensus. In particular, policymakers in Seoul and Washington share a strong consensus on the value of the security alliance.

It’s true that there has been a consensus about the value of the alliance in the past, but this may underestimate the strains that Trump has already put on the alliance with his erratic and confusing positioning in just the last few months. He has simultaneously alarmed [3] South Koreans that he might trigger a major war and worried them that he might try to make a deal that would affect them without consulting them. His ignorant claim [4] that Korea used to be part of China outraged the South Korean public in another needless provocation.

More recently, Trump has declared [5] that South Korea will have to pay for the THAAD missile defense deployment (contrary to an existing agreement), and then McMaster reassured [6] them that it isn’t so. Adding to the confusion, there are reports that Trump became furious [7] with McMaster for contradicting his random statement, which creates the impression that McMaster’s attempt at reassuring Seoul doesn’t reflect the administration’s real position.

Trump’s first statement prompted Moon’s camp to question [8] whether their government should have allowed the deployment in the first place. The new government is now likely to review the entire policy and may end up scrapping it all together. Given that the deployment has already prompted Chinese economic [9] boycotts [10] of travel to South Korea and South Korean firms, South Korea is already “paying” for THAAD with lost business and increased tensions with Beijing. There is understandable wariness about proceeding with the missile defense system as a result, and Trump’s clumsy interventions have only given South Korea’s government more reasons to reconsider the arrangement. Persuading the new South Korean leadership that the deployment is worth those costs would be a challenge at the best of times, but it is bound to be more difficult when our allies don’t know which statements from our government to believe and which to dismiss as more of the president’s gas-baggery.

In order to manage an alliance successfully, there has to be some basic understanding of the allied country’s interests and concerns, and Washington has to treat the ally with some respect. To date, the Trump administration seems to lack the former and has failed to show the latter. The alliance will presumably survive, but unless the administration coordinates and consults with Seoul much more than it has the alliance will deteriorate steadily over the next few years.

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9 Comments To "South Korea and Trump’s Clumsy Alliance Management"

#1 Comment By collin On May 9, 2017 @ 4:33 pm

We can endlessly preach how out right confusing Trump’s foreign policy is anybody. The point I don’t see is what South Korean most wants here. I am fine with Trump asking SK to pay for the missiles but is that what they want for defense? Or why pursue their issues when Trump is getting aggressive with NK?

Also, wouldn’t this be the place for Rex Tillerson to understand South Koreas interest and convene them to Trump who both act and comment accordingly. (Include McMaster as well) SK is main example of the problem of Tillerson SOS and Trump’s lack of interest with diplomacy. (Does the new leader of SK want cake?)

#2 Comment By D S Tanner On May 9, 2017 @ 4:34 pm

“Treating an ally with respect” is precisely what Trump is incapable of. “Our allies are screwing us” is probably the *only* thing he’s been consistent on for thirty years.

#3 Comment By rayray On May 9, 2017 @ 5:05 pm

Like many a narcissist, Trump is overly obsessed with how a person makes him feel about himself first and foremost.

This necessarily obfuscates the truth about who they really are, what they really want, and how they should be treated.

Given that everyone must surely know by now that Trump lacks judgement, is ignorant and tends to shoot first and aim…never – shouldn’t someone be managing him?

#4 Comment By here and there On May 9, 2017 @ 6:22 pm

I think world leaders know who he is and treat him accordingly. The real question is, then, who are they actually talking business with, if not with him?

#5 Comment By a spencer On May 9, 2017 @ 7:48 pm

Carla Jean Moss: I ain’t got the money. What little I had is long gone, and there’s bills aplenty to pay yet. I buried my mother today. Can’t pay for that neither.

Anton Chigurh: I wouldn’t worry about it.


Anyway, I suspect President Pence will have a more restrained approach.

#6 Comment By jk On May 9, 2017 @ 7:53 pm

S. Korea will not kick the US out as they are too dependent on US security like Japan.

And the Neocons like McCain will make it a point to up the freebies and freeriding if any country threatens to do so since that is slap against American exceptionalism that they so desperately crave since that is written in the Constitution.

#7 Comment By Furbo On May 10, 2017 @ 6:22 am

We are in S. Korea at the behest of the S. Korean Government. They can ask us to leave at anytime, and we’ll take our toys and go home.

from my vantage point, Pres. Trump hast he Chinese re-thinking their relationship and goals for their client state much like a parent silently re-evaluates the validity of procreation when their 3 yr old throws a tantrum in a store. That’s impressive. Pres. Trump authorized the missle strike in Syria on a base where there are Russian soldiers billeted, he even gave the Russians a half hours notice. The Russians have state of the art Anti Aircraft/Missile systems in Syria. They stayed on weapons hold – probably because the Russians agree with Trump that chemical weapons on civilian populations cannot be allowed to become ‘mainstream’. God knows we’d be better off if he were quieter – but I believe he’s starting strong in foreign affairs.

#8 Comment By Slugger On May 10, 2017 @ 11:12 am

Like almost all Americans, I don’t know much about Korea. I haven’t studied their history, don’t speak Korean, and have never visited. I do look at the South Korean press online occasionally and more recently. I was struck how calm they are about NorK while our leaders and press are full of dire statements. My conclusion is that the real danger is that today’s technology allows a nation with an economy smaller than Vermont to have nukes and 500 mile ICBMs. We put a lot of pressure to bear in order to stave off the day when there are fifty nuclear powers in the world. What happens on the Korean peninsula is much less important.
Suppression of nukes is a worthwhile goal. The proper strategy to achieve this goal should be debated. Belligerence out of a comic book might not be the best strategy (or maybe it is).

#9 Comment By Rossbach On May 11, 2017 @ 10:58 am

All of this still begs the question of why, 64 years after the end of the Korean War, the US is still holding itself responsible for the defense of South Korea, which is more than capable of defending itself from its neighbor to the North.