By Alex Ward
Contrary to popular belief, President Donald Trump has a coherent worldview: the United States does not get as much from the world as it should, and the main goal of American foreign policy should be to change existing structures and arrangements to ensure the most benefit for the American people. And while it may appear Trump’s foreign policy is now turning more conventional, it is important to remember that Trump does not have coherent policy understanding to make the world he envisions come true.
This is a major problem for Northeast Asia—a region, like many others, that pines for stability—and especially for South Korea. Besides Trump’s more provocative, but unlikely, statement during the campaign, namely, that South Korea along with Japan should acquire nuclear weapons to protect themselves, his foreign policy has three big implications for South Korean policy planning.
First, South Korea cannot assume that Trump prioritizes its security or economic well-being. US Secretary of Defense James Mattis did very well on his recent “apology tour” to South Korea and Japan. In a readout of his meetings with ROK Minister of Foreign Affairs Yun Byung-Se and Minister of National Defense Han Min-Koo, it said that Mattis’ trip demonstrates the “priority the Trump Administration places on the Asia-Pacific region, and on strengthening the US-ROK alliance.”
Those are nice words, but if the first few weeks of the administration, not to mention the entire campaign, have shown anything, no long-standing alliance or partnership is safe. Trump has questioned German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s leadership, imperiled relations with Mexico, and even found a way to push Australia away. If South Korean leaders assume Trump may not someday purposefully or inadvertently weaken the US-ROK relationship, they should think again.
Trump is a one-man “red team.” He has come into the Oval Office with a zero-based approach to U.S. foreign policy. Any deal, any partnership, any alliance is up for renegotiation if Trump does not feel it is helping Americans more than helping the ally. Therefore, the day may come where Trump decides prioritizing South Korea’s security or economic well-being is no longer in America’s interest. The alliance’s perseverance is now not a guarantee.
Second, South Korea could establish itself as an important ally of this administration if it takes a hard stance against North Korea. North Korea’s missile test of a Pukguksong-2 received condemnation from China, Russia, Japan, South Korea, and the United States. It reminded the global community that North Korea remains a threat to regional and global stability. For the Trump administration, it rightfully worries that North Korea may someday launch a missile at the American homeland, something Trump promised “won’t happen!”
If there is a way for South Korea to ingratiate itself with the new White House, it must demonstrate itself a willing partner to deter North Korean aggression. The Trump administration has made clear its top three national security priorities will be China, Iran, and counterterrorism, primarily defeating ISIS. If South Korea can help in any way contain North Korea—and frankly keep it off of the President’s desk—then Seoul will be seen more favorably in Washington. The results of the South Korean presidential election will likely affect how the Trump administration views South Korea down the line.
Lastly, it’s about us, not you, anymore. In Trump’s inaugural address, he made the following statement:
We assembled here today are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital, and in every hall of power. From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this moment on, it’s going to be America First. Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families (emphasis mine).
In other words, do not expect the animating purpose of America’s relationship with South Korea to be about giving it the security and economic backing it needs to continue to grow. Now, as Janet Jackson would say, the question America will continue to ask is “what have you done for me lately?” Where once the United States simply wanted a strong partner in Northeast Asia, the Trump administration now wants a bilateral partner that helps bring jobs mostly to Middle America. This would mean manufacturing jobs that would otherwise go to young South Koreans, many of who pine for steady employment today.
Under Trump, the United States sees itself as “regular” country in the sense that it will unabashedly seek its own interests and not greatly contribute to global security and stability—just like most other countries. America will, at least for now, no longer be the leader of the free world and the liberal international order.
Dealing with America, then, will be a major challenge for South Korea. Seoul, and other world capitals, must answer the following question: how to keep the United States happy while also ensuring maximum benefit for their own citizens? Indeed, Trump now makes it so allies must first ask how they can help America instead of the other way around.
It is a new global paradigm. South Korea, like everyone else, must deal with this new reality.
Alex Ward is the Associate Director of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from Gage Skidmore’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.