The Washington Post published on Saturday an article entitled “The 66-year alliance between the US and South Korea is in deep trouble.” Among the prominent reasons given for the troubled bilateral ties is Washington demanding more financial contribution from South Korea as the cost for hosting US troops. According to CNN, negotiations between the two countries on defense cost-sharing issues ended abruptly on Tuesday.
South Korea is not the only ally the US is targeting over defense spending. US President Donald Trump’s administration has also asked both Japan and its NATO allies to pay more. As Japan’s special measures agreement with the US, signed in 2016, will expire in 2021, the issue of military cost will directly affect relevant Washington-Tokyo negotiations. “The US and Japanese governments will be entering their own cost-sharing negotiations in late 2019/early 2020, meaning Japan is a near-term target of the Trump administration’s campaign against ‘free-riding’ allies,” reported the Diplomat in December 2018.
US military cost negotiations reflect looming contradictions between Trump’s “America First” policy and Washington’s need to maintain its alliance system. After the WWII, Europe and Asia were left in ruins, and the US allies were in urgent need of support in the face of external security challenges and internal reconstruction tasks. In order to establish and consolidate an international order and mechanism with itself as the core, the US needed the support of a strong system of allies. With this strategic understanding and consensus, the US and its allies can generally benefit from such an alliance system, despite their differences.
But the Trump administration’s view of the world and the US role in it has changed. It believes “peace through strength” is the correct way to cope with current challenges and thus changes the US perception and positioning of its allies.
Trump believes that safeguarding the security and prosperity of the US should not be bound by the international system, which is a sign that the current US administration no longer sees defending its core position in international order as a long-term strategic goal.
According to Trump, while the US is protecting the security of its allies, they should pay more, and US allies should coordinate with Washington in the latter’s regional and global strategies, rather than stressing the strategic freedom.
This is evident in the attitude of the US toward its European allies. In pursuit of self-interest, the US has adopted different approaches in its European policy, regardless of the real difficulties and needs of the continent.
On one hand, the US constantly emphasizes the commonality with Europe at the level of values. Washington even claimed to unite European countries with common values against so-called revisionist countries.
But on the other hand, when it comes to climate change, the Iran nuclear deal, free trade, the US and Europe have very different ideas. The Trump administration’s emphasis on “America First” policy is at odds with multilateralism advocated by Europe.
In addition, with the UK likely to formally divorce the EU, Germany and France differ in philosophy and policies from the US, Washington intends to bypass traditional European major powers and seek new strategic fulcrum in Central and Eastern Europe.
In the past, for the purpose of containing adversaries and maintaining a dominant status in international order, the US has, to a certain extent, taken a genuine interest in the affairs of its allies, nurtured their development, ensured their security, and made sure that their internal politics did not slide to either left-wing or right-wing extremism. To do this, the US need not win every economic competition or every trade agreement. At that time, US allies in Europe and Asia had long accepted US leadership as a prerequisite for peaceful development.
However, the US is now fully retreating from the international order and obligations in its alliance, hiding the deep uneasiness and suspicion of its own strength under the seeming pursuit of fair relations. By abusing its dominant position in the alliance system to pressure its allies, the US will only further fuel its allies’ fear of abandonment and their desire for strategic dependence, thus facilitating the gradual decoupling of allies.
The author is an assistant research professor at the Institute of American Studies, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations. GLOBAL TIMES