Drifting apart? The U.S.-ROK alliance at risk

Reiss, Mitchell B.
March 2009
Korean Journal of Defense Analysis;Mar2009, Vol. 21 Issue 1, p11
Academic Journal
Given the success of the U.S.-ROK alliance over the past five and half decades, it is far easier to envision that it will remain undisturbed than to imagine major change, let alone the end of the alliance. Yet past history is no guarantee of future success. Major shifts in American foreign policy, new transnational challenges and a changing political, economic, and security environment in Northeast Asia, call into question whether the alliance will last another 10 years, let alone another half century. By the start of the twenty-first century, the United States had increasingly conceptualized the alliance in regional or even global terms, whereas the ROK military, despite some impressive blue-water naval assets, was still wedded to the mission of peninsular defense. Ideally, the United States would like the ROK to join with U.S. forces in addressing regional and global contingencies, in addition to fulfilling its primary missions to deter and, if necessary, defeat North Korea. Yet America's reorientation of its forces on the Korean peninsula and the ROK's military transformation were driven more by domestic political concerns than by jointly shared security imperatives. As a result, larger questions about the future of the alliance went begging. With both partners transitioning to new force structures, these measures portended an alliance that was drifting apart, not a maturing alliance that was becoming a more equal and cohesive partnership. Questions remain unanswered, or even unasked, about whether the two partners agree on the strategic environment in the region and the respective roles both should play. Although there have been discussions on the “future of the alliance,” these have focused on U.S. base realignment and other details, not on the future security environment in the region and its larger strategic implications. It is these offshore missions, not North Korea, where threat assessments will likely diverge and where alliance disagreements will arise in the future. In short, the two parties have yet to confront the full implications of the military and defense decisions of the past few years, often undertaken unilaterally and attuned more to domestic audiences than to strategic realities. The ability to paper over a lack of common purpose and shared vision may be useful as a temporary placeholder, but it will not provide an adequate foundation for the future viability of the alliance. The good news is that consensus exists in both countries that the alliance needs to be preserved; the bad news is that charting the way ahead is neither easy nor obvious. The risk is that without the development of a clear and common vision of a shared future with defined and mutually agreed-upon roles, the United States and South Korea will gradually drift apart, along with a partnership that has proved so successful over the past half century.


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