Should the U.S. Even Bother Defending South Korea?

Of all the recent publication pieces made in the American press covering North Korea, two articles in particular stood out to me the most. The first was a piece by former Reagan Administration official Doug Bandow in which he poured proverbial cold water on the notion that the new North Korean premier was a liberal reformer just because he was a basketball fan. The second, by Max Fisher of the Washington Post, highlighted the degree to which the myth of North Korean military prowess served to legitimize the vicious dictatorship to the populace of that poor country. Each revealed in their own way the extent to which the North Korean government is both morally depraved and yet politically, if not militarily, manageable.

It is this latter reality that makes the recent statements made by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel all the more curious. Hagel affirmed the U.S. commitment to defend the Republic of Korea (ROK) from its communist northern neighbor. What makes this commitment curious is that it, unlike other U.S. defense commitments, relies primarily on philosophical grounds. To be sure, these grounds have historically transcended both president and party.

Still it seems rather odd that in a day of hard-headed fiscal austerity that foreign policy decisions can still be primarily justified on theoretical grounds. Compounding this oddity is the tendency of these theory-based policy decisions to assume a single default form: one supporting continual intervention regardless of context or cost or circumstance.

This is unfortunate, because theoretical arguments can cut both ways. In fact some of the most persuasive cases against this kind of commitment can be made from within these theoretical traditions themselves.

Before highlighting how these cases can be made, a word regarding the specifics of these theoretical traditions is in order. For those who may be unfamiliar with international relations, there are roughly three schools of thought that span the spectrum of American foreign policy thinking. At the risk of oversimplification, each school puts a premium on a certain kind of intervention.

Liberal interventionists value intervening in situations with a high humanitarian component, such as in civil wars or to prevent genocide or ethnic cleansing. Neoconservatives value interventions that promote American political and military hegemony in the world as a whole. This means that other great powers in any other region of the world can never be allowed to challenge American influence in those regions. Realists tend to only support interventions that meet a strict criteria that includes defending the homeland, defending vital "national interests," and ensuring that other great powers do not become all-powerful (i.e. hegemons) in their respective regions.   

Listed below are three brief examples of how the rationale of each of these three schools of could argue against the current U.S. defense commitment to South Korea. While some might take this use of these arguments as novel, it is their absence from the public discourse that is truly remarkable.    

Liberal Interventionists: The United States should not defend South Korea because South Korea is an affluent society that is not in desperate need of either security or humanitarian assistance.

Acceptable Past Interventions: Kosovo, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, and Haiti.

Ideal Present Intervention: Syria.

Neo-conservatives: The United States should not defend South Korea because such a commitment would divert already strained military resources from the real regional rival to future American hegemonic aspirations in the Pacific: China.

Acceptable Interventions: Afghanistan, Iraq and "global war on terror."

Ideal Present Intervention: Syria, Iran.

Realists: The United States commitment to defend South Korea is inappropriate and outdated for four reasons. First, North Korea poses no immediate threat to the United States or her vital national interests. Second, the Cold War is over and South Korea is more than capable of defending itself from its communist neighbor to the north. Third, such a commitment would strain other, perhaps more appropriate, defense commitments such as to Taiwan. Fourth and lastly, such a commitment would only serve to weaken the U.S. position vis-à-vis China in East Asia by diverting its resources into an unnecessary conflict.  

Acceptable Past Interventions: World War I (arguable), World War II, Korean War (arguable), First Gulf War, Afghanistan.

Ideal Present Intervention: None.