March 31, 2009 — March 31, 2009 - The United States and the Republic of Korea (ROK) have one of the most formidable and durable military alliances in the world. This alliance 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 in Washington 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 U.S.-ROK alliance's future are elusive. Cooperation on the Korean peninsula itself often brings the partners into conflict, most often with Seoul seeking a more conciliatory stance toward Pyongyang than Washington prefers. Can two partners so often at odds on their most proximate and pressing challenge really expand their cooperation effectively? Some analysts also warn of alliance creep. Would continuing the military alliance be a costly strategic error based more on nostalgia than a sober assessment of both sides' national security needs? Finally, although it has made tremendous strides, South Korea is a young and populist democracy and a relative newcomer to the world stage. Is the ROK ready to take on a greater role in the Asia Pacific and beyond, in ways that support mutual U.S. and South Korean interests?
Asia is one foreign policy area in which the United States has scored well over the past eight years, in part because a broad and pragmatic center remains dominant in America's Asia policy community. Similarly, strong bipartisan commitment to the U.S.-Korea alliance has been and will continue to be critical in order to strengthen the relationship.
Yet, 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's tremendous sacrifices to support U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq helps explain why it is often referred to as a top-tier ally. While South Korea has also been a key supporter of American combat operations in Iraq, more often than not Seoul's strategic utility is overlooked.
This is unfortunate because Korea offers the best potential for a change in focus from narrow shared interests to broad global aims. Japan is limited by its constitution and political turmoil; Australia is near the limit of its relatively small force; and the Philippines and Thailand face internal challenges that keep them from being significant partners beyond their own borders. Korea, on the other hand, has large and well-trained ground forces, substantial power projection capabilities, great naval potential, and a battle-ready military that has been at a high state of readiness for generations.
The U.S.-ROK alliance has the potential to be one of the bedrock partnerships of U.S. and international security for decades to come, one of intrinsic rather than narrowly strategic value. Among the obstacles it faces, though, is complacency. Recent changes in the alliance -- particularly the transfer of wartime operational control (OPCON) to the ROK and the relocation of U.S. forces to the south of the peninsula out of "hair trigger" range -- could provide the foundations for greater collaboration if properly and actively managed. Otherwise these changes could also herald a degradation of the commitment and confidence in the partnership on both sides.
Finally, non-military and particularly economic issues seem to dominate the long-term future of the alliance, and are likely to play a significant role in determining its global potential. Failure to ratify the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA) could unnecessarily hasten perceptions in Asia of a protectionist American trade policy; a lack of cooperation and collaboration on overseas development assistance (ODA) could also undermine the alliance's potential.
Professional alliance management and attention will be critical for advancing the transformation of the U.S.-Korean military alliance into a more meaningful strategic partnership. Getting the key principles on the peninsula right will allow the United States and South Korea to coordinate and integrate their power to support mutual interests -- from humanitarian relief and peacekeeping operations to maritime security and counterproliferation. Understanding the alliance's background is key to shaping this possible future. To paraphrase Kierkegaard, alliances can only be understood backward and inward, but they must be directed forward and outward. The U.S. should recommit itself to just such a forward-looking and broadened alliance with South Korea.Related: