“The United States cannot continue to be the policeman of the world,” President Donald Trump said on his trip to the American air base in Iraq on Dec. 26, 2018. “It’s not fair when the burden is all on us, the United States.” Trump also commented that “America shouldn’t be doing the fighting for every nation on earth, not being reimbursed, in many cases, at all. If they want us to do the fighting, they also have to pay a price.” The president’s remarks can be understood as his policy that the U.S. will no longer act as the world’s policeman unless other countries offer to help. Although this is not the first time the U.S. commander-in-chief has displayed his pessimism about America’s role as a global policeman, his recent statement is alarmingly different and therefore should not be taken lightly. This time, he is backing up his words with action, including an announced U.S. withdrawal from Syria.
Some say that Trump was pointing to South Korea with his remarks about additional contributions from U.S. allies for four consecutive days. The two countries reportedly failed to secure an agreement on the American leadership’s demands for far greater burden sharing during the tenth round of defense cost-sharing negotiations. Some argue that given the impasse, the American president’s comments carry a message: Washington may draw down the U.S. presence in South Korea unless Seoul steps up its contributions.
According to U.S. media, Trump is pushing for a hike in contributions of at least 50 percent from its close ally, which not only easily exceeds the 2013 increase but sounds ludicrous considering that America has failed to exhaust the 2013 contribution and has carried the balance forward every year since. Moreover, more factors have contributed to the cutbacks in Seoul’s annual fees than factors which justify an increase. For example, American troops stationed in South Korea are less likely to conduct emergency training exercises as there have been fewer military provocations by the isolated regime this year. Meanwhile, U.S. troops stationed in South Korea not only contribute to the military capability needed to deter North Korea’s nuclear program, but serve America’s strategic interest, which includes stabilizing the region and checking China’s rise. In this context, Trump’s narrative that the South is the only beneficiary of American troops based there is no different from saying that the U.S. will continue to enjoy the advantage of being the world’s policeman but will no longer bear the burden.
The South Korean government needs to deal firmly with U.S. pressure. There is no doubt that the U.S.-South Korean coalition should remain strong to resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis, but this does not mean that South Korea needs to give in to unfair demands. In the medium and long term, the Moon Jae-in administration needs to be prepared for a possible redeployment of U.S. military forces stationed in the country, which might be triggered by Trump’s isolationism. It would be unwise to have an unnecessarily inflexible approach to the redeployment issue. In addition, it is necessary to conduct an open-minded discussion about the status of American troops in South Korea being necessary for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and construction of a peaceful situation in the region.