The Atlantic

America’s Alliance System Will Face One of Its Biggest Tests Yet

The outcome of a U.S.–South Korea defense negotiation could transform America’s global footprint.
Source: Alex Wong / Getty / A l l i b u m / Shutterstock / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

SEOUL, South Korea—“If the United States believes that it doesn’t need an alliance with the Republic of Korea, I would say it’s okay. If the United States doesn’t want the alliance, we don’t have to beg for it.”

It was a stunning statement to hear in Seoul from one of South Korea’s highest-ranking officials, considering it was in regard to a nearly 70-year partnership forged by American and Korean soldiers who fought and died together during the Korean War. And it was a sign that well beyond South Korea, the United States’ system of alliances is buckling under pressure from President Donald Trump’s campaign to renegotiate the terms of America’s involvement with the world—to turn what used to be a basic tenet of U.S. grand strategy into a blunt question of financial grand totals. Seated in his ornate chambers in April, the speaker of the National Assembly, Moon Hee-sang, was answering my question about Trump’s demand for South Korea to shell out more money to keep American troops in the country, and his threats to impose tariffs on South Korean goods.

Just as striking as Moon’s comment was the context in which he said it. South Korea “was able to become what it is today thanks to the support of the United States,” he noted with appreciation in our interview, in remarks that were translated. But now, as one of the world’s top economies, it is prepared to “pay back” the international assistance it received by helping “share the burdens” of resolving global problems.

From the presidency of George Washington through World War II, American leaders shunned open-ended, entangling alliances with other countries. But that all changed after 1945, as the United States sought to avert another earth-shattering conflict and counter the Soviet Union by fashioning a new, U.S.-friendly international order. Washington established collective-defense treaties with numerous far-flung countries and military bases across Asia and Europe.

Trump, however, doesn’t seem to buy the argument that animated his Republican and Democratic predecessors: that the defense of U.S. partners is also a defense of U.S. interests in strategically vital regions.

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