February 18, 2009 — February 18, 2009 - Despite critical reviews of the South Korea-U.S. alliance, much has been accomplished over the past decade, but it should be no excuse for apathy.
Washington and Seoul should seize the prospects for strategic gains and bold departures in the initial months of President Obama's administration.
Policymakers in Korea and America should also use the momentum of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's historic visit to South Korea as a means to further enhance dialogue and cooperation on a number of strategic issues.
Relevance is perhaps the most important catalyst for the alliance's vitality. Defining the relationship in a forward looking manner will be critical for the new Obama administration and silencing alliance naysayers.
It will no longer be sufficient to think of the alliance as solely driven by the peninsula's security concerns ― namely, North Korea. In the coming years, the United States and South Korea must begin to embark on a process to broaden the strategic aperture for alliance-based cooperation to focus on global issues.
A global U.S.-Korea alliance should focus on the growing intersection between transnational phenomena and state security challenges ranging from climate change and energy security to humanitarian relief operations.
The United States and the Republic of Korea (ROK) have one of the most formidable and durable military alliances in the world. It has preserved peace and stability in Northeast Asia and ensured nuclear restraint among Asian powers. It has weathered extreme domestic unpopularity in South Korea and pressures to reduce U.S. overseas defense obligations.
During the lifetime of this military alliance, the junior partner has transformed from a war-battered, backward military dictatorship into a prosperous democracy with the world's most wired population and one of the world's largest economies.
Most American and Korean strategists agree that the value of the alliance goes far beyond security on the Korean Peninsula. Yet the contours of the future of the ROK-U.S. alliance are elusive, and despite high-level attention from U.S. and South Korean officials' alliance, skeptic's views continue to prevail and dominate news stories and discussions in Seoul.
These arguments are animated by fears of abandonment and entrapment. Cooperation on the peninsula, according to entrapment naysayers, often brings the partners into conflict, most often with Koreans seeking a more conciliatory stance than the Americans seek with Pyongyang.
The abandonment camp continues to suggest that America's changing military footprint on the peninsula ― characterized by transfer of operational control for wartime missions and relocation of U.S. forces from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) further south ― is an indication of America's strategic withdrawal from South Korea.
These views raise hard questions that require answers. As a new administration takes control in Washington and faces an unprecedented array of global challenges, America is looking to reset and revitalize its alliances for the 21st century.
U.S. power has been sorely tested over seven years of war, and no U.S. alliances have escaped unscathed by demands to support the ``global war on terror" and the controversial invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, with their lengthy and inconclusive stabilization and counterinsurgency requirements.
Allies have been asked to do extraordinary things in support of missions that most viewed, at best, with skepticism.
Facing a relative decline in its unipolar power, global financial turmoil, and more transnational threats ― from climate and energy security and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to terrorism and extremism ― the United States is regaining its appreciation of constructive, mutually beneficial partnerships. Outside of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the most critical are with America's treaty allies in Asia: Japan, Australia, South Korea, Thailand, and the Philippines.
Asia is one foreign policy area in which the United States has scored well over the past eight years. A broad and pragmatic center remains dominant in America's Asia policy community. Likewise, a strong bipartisan commitment to the U.S.-ROK alliance has been and will continue to be critical to strengthening of the relationship and broadening the scope of alliance-based cooperation. But the way forward is not without any controversy or disagreement. In the region, Japan is viewed as the preeminent U.S. partner and China the most worrisome potential adversary.
Australia has sacrificed tremendously to support the U.S. in military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and is often referred to as a top-tier ally ― a prominent club. South Korea has also been a key supporter of American combat operations in Iraq, but more often than not, Seoul's strategic utility is overlooked, which is unfortunate, because Korea offers the best potential for a change in focus, from narrow, shared interests to broad, global aims.
Korea offers the U.S. a strategic partnership that will be critical in the coming years. As the tides of influence continue to shift toward Asia, Washington must think strategically about further strengthening and expanding alliance-based cooperation to focus on myriad issues beyond the peninsula.Related: