July 20, 2020

Restoring Strategic Competence

How to Manage Northeast Asian Alliance Dilemmas amid a Nuclear North Korea

Executive Summary

For the foreseeable future, America’s Northeast Asian allies Japan and South Korea must live in the shadow of a nuclear North Korea, whose capabilities they cannot match. During the Obama and Trump administrations, North Korea dramatically expanded and improved its ability to hold Japanese, South Korean, and even U.S. territory at risk with its nuclear and missile arsenal. Despite high-profile summitry and promises to the contrary, there is no sign that this imbalance will be rectified, and its continuation exacerbates regional risks and ally insecurity.

The mounting North Korea threat is compounded by poor timing—U.S. policy has proven exceptionally erratic, unreliable, and risk-prone in recent years. The very existence of Japan and South Korea depends on strategies built around a partnership with the United States that has become shaky, and on faith in the competence of U.S. statecraft—which both countries are starting to perceive as a risk rather than a source of security.

Ally perceptions of U.S. strategic incompetence generate real costs and risks for the United States and Northeast Asian security. If the United States continues to squander its deepest relationships in Asia, the allies could become rivals with each other, increase risks of nuclear instability, play a spoiler role in U.S. regional strategy, withhold basing and access rights to U.S. forces operating in the region, and potentially take independent aggressive actions against North Korea that unintentionally escalate to war.

A Guide to Restoring Alliance Management in Northeast Asia

Former Secretary of State George Schultz famously likened alliances to gardening—do the laborious work of tending to the needs of your garden in hopes that one day it might bear fruit. This report urges U.S. officials to embrace Secretary Schultz’s gardening metaphor for statecraft. It proposes a series of guiding principles for alliance management and a number of specific initiatives. Together, these recommendations offer the best hope of restoring ally perceptions of U.S. strategic competence and avoiding the costs of further alliance deterioration.


  • Align Word and Deed—The United States should avoid making threats—toward North Korea, China, or allies—unless it intends to fulfill them, avoid making promises in private that contradict what U.S. officials say in public, and avoid statements from U.S. officials at any level that appear in tension with others from the government.
  • Engage in Proportional Risk-Taking—Brinkmanship is for rogues. The National Security Council should enforce a risk aversion bias in U.S. decisionmaking about Northeast Asia. While North Korea or China might present extreme scenarios that require the United States to manipulate risk to stave off war, as a general rule the threat that leaves something to chance is not going to serve alliances well in a context where the risk-taker’s rationality is in question. To the extent the United States decides it needs to leverage rather than reduce risk in the region—whether through military signaling or attempts to change the balance of military power—it should seek ways of doing so that share or distribute the risk with allies, making them stakeholders rather than just clients.
  • Consult before Deciding—The United States should commit to consulting with its allies before it makes decisions that impact them. This did not happen during the 2017 nuclear crisis, during the 2018 summit diplomacy processes, or when the United States levied a bill for alliance burden-sharing that quadrupled overnight the amount demanded. If alliances are to be the priority that U.S. officials often claim, then it is in the U.S. interest to consult with them accordingly.


  • Refrain from Alliance Taxation—U.S. burden-sharing negotiators should agree to an in-principle provision that the United States will not seek compensation for new costs associated with troop basing and deployments without first consulting with allies about the pending financial imposition.
  • Forge an Alliance Innovation Base—The United States should construct a community of practice focused on advanced technology protection and innovation with Japan and South Korea. Because it represents a costly signal of America’s long-term investment in its allies, this should help strengthen the credibility of the U.S. general commitment to forward presence and alliance defense in Northeast Asia.
  • Launch an Alliance Wargaming Group—The Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD), in conjunction with Japanese and South Korean counterparts, should establish a full-time, trilateral Track 1.5 office staffed by think tank experts and civil servants from Japan, South Korea, and the United States. In this trilateral setting, analysts would conduct war games, tabletop exercises, scenario analysis, and simulations that would become inputs for strategic decisions in all three governments.
  • Provide a “No Missile Deployment” Promise—The United States should commit to Japan and South Korea that it will avoid requesting deployment of Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF)-range missiles to their territory except as a last resort, and that it will investigate both the salience of any potential missile gap with China and alternative ways of potentially remedying it.
  • Establish a Trilateral Strategic Security Dialogue—The State Department, in partnership with OSD, should propose an official, senior level, trilateral Strategic Security Dialogue with Japan and South Korea focused on not only extended deterrence but also nuclear stability concerns. To avoid biases and blind spots, the scope of extended deterrence conversations within the alliance needs to broaden and encourage discussions about measures that do not just strengthen the nuclear umbrella, but that can enhance stability and ultimately make the umbrella less central to regional security.
  • Modernize Deterrence Posture in South Korea—The United States should modernize its deterrence posture in South Korea to emphasize rapid-reaction capabilities. U.S. troops need to show, in partnership with South Korean forces, that they are capable of prevailing in limited conflicts with North Korea without follow-on forces from off-Peninsula. Modernization done well has the potential to reinforce the U.S. alliance commitment while lowering overall troop numbers in South Korea, enhance deterrence of North Korean military adventurism, and reduce risks of nuclear war.


Through a mix of inaction and imprudent action, the United States is eroding two of its closest alliances. After risking nuclear war in a failed bid to reverse North Korea’s nuclear weapons capability, Washington has allowed North Korea not only to retain its nuclear arsenal in full, but also to make unprecedented advancements in size and quality. The United States has attempted to extract dramatically increased financial payments from Japan and South Korea while depending on both as part of U.S. competition with China. And while the U.S. strategy for a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” is premised on a regime of free and fair trade, the U.S. tariff regime—which has impacted friends and rivals alike—amounts to outright mercantilism. U.S. allies have picked up on a common thread running through these inconsistent and incoherent actions: incompetence in the realm of strategy.

If the United States squanders its deepest relationships in Asia because of strategic incompetence, the allies could become rivals with each other, increase regional risks of nuclear instability, play a spoiler role in U.S. regional strategy, withhold basing and access rights to U.S. forces operating in the region, and potentially take independent aggressive actions against North Korea that unintentionally escalate to war.

Given the stakes, the United States has a substantial interest in ensuring its allies perceive that it understands and helps ameliorate their strategic vulnerabilities. But how might it actually do so? What policies, principles, or processes would help the United States offer the best chance of keeping Northeast Asia stable while preserving the credibility of its extended deterrence commitments to Japan and South Korea?

This report makes the case for a risk management approach to extended deterrence with Japan and South Korea, an approach aimed at restoring both ally confidence and perceptions of U.S. strategic competence. U.S. alliance policy in Northeast Asia must address intersecting problems—the North Korean nuclear and missile challenge, ally fears of abandonment and entrapment, and perceptions of U.S. volatility and poor judgment. Therefore, this report recommends a series of actions and principles for U.S. policy to reduce Japan’s and South Korea’s vulnerability to the North Korean nuclear threat, address their abandonment-entrapment fears, and demonstrate that the United States has not lost the strategic acumen necessary to keep them and the region secure.

The remainder of this report proceeds in three parts. The first describes growing fears and uncertainties—of abandonment and entrapment—that Japan and South Korea have experienced during the Trump era, and how perceptions of U.S. strategic incompetence inflame both fears. The second part explains the geopolitical consequences of failing to attend to ally trepidation, consequences that include arms competition between Japan and South Korea, increased nuclear-related risks in Northeast Asia, and the potential of both allies to play the role of strategic spoiler in U.S. grand strategy as they hedge against the uncertainty created by U.S. words and deeds. Finally, this report recommends a series of principles and actions that aim to improve perceptions of U.S. reliability and restore ally faith in U.S. strategic competence.

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  1. For the history of how this happened, see Van Jackson, On the Brink: Trump, Kim, and the Threat of Nuclear War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).
  2. Trump, for instance, tweeted after meeting Kim Jong Un, “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat [sic] from North Korea.” Donald Trump (realDonaldTrump), June 13, 2018, 5:56 a.m., Twitter.


  • Van Jackson

    Former Adjunct Senior Fellow, Indo-Pacific Security Program

    Dr. Van Jackson is a former Adjunct Senior Fellow with the Indo-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), an American political scientist, and...

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