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KEI Spotlight

[Op-Ed] Is US a reliable ally?

October 11, 2023

This article was published in The Korea Times on October 11, 2023

by Troy Stangarone, Senior Director and Fellow, KEI

Is the United States a reliable ally? It’s a question that seems to increasingly be on the minds of South Koreans. Even with the creation of the Nuclear Consultative Group, questions linger about whether South Korea should take steps toward developing an independent nuclear capability or continue to depend on the U.S. nuclear umbrella.

With the prospect of Donald Trump’s return to the White House, Hamas’ brazen attack on Israel, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and North Korea’s growing weapons capabilities, questions about U.S. capabilities and reliability are bound to arise. They may also seem more salient with polling in the United States suggesting that Americans are also less willing to defend South Korea, but U.S. policy to date should ease some of those concerns.

Despite not being a formal ally, the U.S. has a long security relationship with Israel and that has come into play with Hamas’ recent invasion. The U.S. is sending air defense systems and munitions to support Israel’s defense against Hamas. It has also dispatched the Ford carrier group to provide support. Politically, it is working to dissuade Iran and Hezbollah from becoming directly involved in the conflict. The U.S. has and will continue to stand by Israel during this difficult time.

Ukraine is a more complex story. The existing U.S. security ties with Ukraine were much looser than those with Israel prior to Russia’s invasion, but Washington has been Kyiv’s strongest supporter in the war. It has rallied together a stronger NATO while providing Ukraine with $75 billion in aid, including $42.1 billion in military aid ― by far the largest amount. According to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy’s Ukraine aid tracker, the second largest supplier of military aid to Ukraine is Germany which has only provided $17.1 billion. Despite strong U.S. support to date, the efforts of some Republicans in Congress to end U.S. support for Ukraine raises doubts about U.S. staying power.

Neither Israel nor Ukraine has mutual defense treaties with the U.S., so there is no obligation for Washington to provide troops in these conflicts. This is different from the U.S. security relationship with South Korea. However, what they do demonstrate is the U.S. commitment to support its friends abroad.

Both conflicts also show that nuclear weapons do not deter all types of conflict. While undeclared, Israel’s nuclear weapons did not deter the largest attack on Israel in decades and neither the U.S. nuclear umbrella nor a South Korean nuclear weapon will deter small-scale North Korean attacks. Russia has consistently threatened nuclear strikes on Ukraine, but that has not deterred Ukraine or its supporters from providing it the means to defend itself.

If governmental support is strong, public opinion could be a factor that weakens that support on a political level. Recent polling by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs shows a majority of Americans willing to defend South Korea against North Korean invasion, but also down since last year and only at 50 percent. This level of support is higher, however, despite the decline, than any year prior to 2015. To an extent, the question is not so much why support for defending Korea has declined, but why it grew above historical levels during the late Obama years and the Trump administration.

If the shift in American support for defending South Korea in a historical context still looks strong, it could be concerning that there is a small majority of Republicans who are against doing so. Context may explain this change as well. U.S. political parties have been undergoing a shift in supporters with more working-class voters shifting to the Republican Party and more upper-middle-class and highly educated voters shifting to the Democratic Party. This trend has been accelerated by Trump and may help explain why Democratic support has strengthened and Republican views declined since 2020.

Other polling numbers also suggest strong Republican support for the alliance. In polling that I oversee for the Korea Economic Institute that was in the field just before the Chicago Council poll, 75 percent of Republicans believe that the U.S.-Korea alliance is in the interest of the U.S. In addition, 70 percent of Republicans believe that the U.S. should maintain or increase the current level of troops in South Korea. While these questions differ from the Chicago Council’s question, they do suggest that public support for South Korea among Republicans is relatively strong.

Concerns about U.S. reliability are understandable given the current state of the world, but U.S. support for Israel and Ukraine demonstrates continued U.S. reliability. U.S. public support for South Korea also remains relatively robust. In the long run, the best way to maintain that support and address potential concerns among Republicans is for Korean officials to talk to Republican voters. Republican voters don’t always agree with Trump, so making Korea’s case to the American public is critical.