The Debate

Trump’s Mafia Diplomacy Rattles South Korea

Recent Features

The Debate

Trump’s Mafia Diplomacy Rattles South Korea

Trump fundamentally misunderstands the function of U.S. alliances, but others are working to mitigate the damage.

Trump’s Mafia Diplomacy Rattles South Korea
Credit: Flickr/ Gage Skidmore

A shady business operation run by a close-knit family.  A transactional approach to politics.  A willingness to use the prospect of protection to extort money from others.

Is this a description of the mafia, or how the president of the United States operates?

Sadly, it’s both.  Throughout the 2016 campaign and the first 100 days of his presidency, President Donald Trump has treated U.S. alliances as protection rackets, viewing our commitments around the world as a favor we extend to countries in return for money. The latest example of Trump’s mafia diplomacy: his preposterous remarks last week that we may renegotiate or terminate our free trade agreement with South Korea, “a horrible deal made by Hillary,” and his claim that he “informed South Korea it would be appropriate if they paid” for the $1 billion Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) ballistic missile defense system we are deploying to defend against the North Korea threat. These comments betray a serious misunderstanding of how our alliances work.

Our alliances are not gifts or services we sell. Alliances are investments that provide returns for both parties in many different ways over a long period. The returns boil down to two things: what bad outcomes do we avoid because there is an alliance (deterrence), and what good outcomes for U.S. interests happen that otherwise would not occur without an alliance (a force multiplier effect)?

Security Investments Prevent Costly Conflicts

Deterrence is the primary function of the security alliance. When we invest in South Korean defense capabilities, we increase the probable costs to North Korea of an attack on South Korea and reduce the likelihood that such an attack can succeed. Investing in South Korean security is an investment in preventing a costly new Korean War.

THAAD is the latest in the critical defense capabilities we are jointly bringing to South Korea to counter the North Korean missile threat, but given China’s strong opposition to the system, some in South Korean politics have talked about reassessing the THAAD deployment. By asking Seoul to pay for the system, Trump has taken the public narrative on THAAD away from Korean sovereignty and security and made it about burden sharing. Worst, this comes as South Korea heads into a volatile presidential election on May 9 that could determine how Seoul handles the alliance over the next few years.

Security Leads to Economic Gains For Both Countries

As a security alliance succeeds, it begins to provide returns that go beyond simply preventing war. That’s because the security of a country provides the overall framework for economic development, investment, society, and culture. Without the U.S. security guarantee, South Korea would have been far more vulnerable to North Korea. It would not have been able to focus its resources on economic development, and foreign investors would have considered South Korea too risky for substantial investments. Instead, South Korea has grown to become one of the world’s most advanced economies. As its economy has grown, South Korea has reinvested many of those economic gains here in the United States. Hyundai’s $1.7 billion Montgomery, Alabama auto manufacturing plant, for example, employs more than 3,000 people — not to mention 72 suppliers who have brought their businesses to North America because of the plant.

Prosperity also creates new demands and new markets — which is why U.S. exporters of everything from California pistachios to Maine lobsters have done so well under the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA). Rolling the KORUS FTA back in any way will hurt both economies, increase South Korea’s dependence on China, and obstruct one of the key ways we get the value of our security investment in South Korea back.

More Economic Capabilities Lead to More Global Contributions

Finally, as South Korea has become more secure and more prosperous, it has brought its increasing capabilities to bear on tough challenges far beyond the Korean Peninsula. Seoul has spoken out in support of international law in the South China Sea, sent response teams to Sierra Leone to tackle the Ebola crisis, and participated in humanitarian assistance and development projects around the world. By applying its capabilities to these challenges, South Korea acts as a force multiplier for the interests and values we share around the world.

In sum: our alliance started with the U.S. investment in South Korea’s security against the North Korea threat, but as security brought prosperity, Seoul multiplied the value of that investment many times over by using its growing strength to invest in our own economy and help us tackle regional and global challenges. We pay a relatively small price for an alliance that does an enormous amount of good and deters costly conflicts in the region.

Is Trump capable of understanding this? Or will he continue to apply the mafia standard for alliances?

What We Can Do

U.S. National Security Adviser General H.R. McMaster has made it clear he does not wish to contradict the president in public. That would be entirely appropriate under any normal leader. But we now have a commander-in-chief who poses an unprecedented threat to U.S. national interests. McMaster, along with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis, must undertake a campaign of energetic public reassurance that shows the United States understands the alliance not as a mafia racket, but as a mature and equal partnership that provides many times the value of our investment.

In the meantime, alliance hands in Washington are working overtime to make sure the alliance remains strong. But to accomplish that, we need help from the Korean people. We need Koreans to reject the negativity and skepticism that Trump brings to the alliance and instead embrace hope in our shared future. Nothing would empower Trump more than a loss of faith in the alliance in South Korea or the emergence of anti-U.S. rhetoric and policies.

As for me, my faith in the alliance has never been stronger. Here’s why.

Fifty-five years ago, an 18-year old Korean boy from a rural village spent eight days with a host family in California.

His name? Ban Ki-moon.

Over the decades, as Ban rose through the ranks of the South Korean Foreign Ministry, he kept in touch with his host mother. As UN secretary general, he visited his “American mom” whenever he could. One photo from a recent visit shows Ban beaming as he hugs his American mom, her head resting on his shoulder.

In 55 years of ups and downs in the U.S.-South Korea alliance, Ban’s relationship with his host mother, like countless other connections between American and Koreans, has endured. Stories like his are far from uncommon. Our alliance is more than one president; one government; one period in time. Our alliance is not a partnership of convenience between governments — it’s a friendship built on lasting bonds of affection and understanding developed between people. The intemperate comments of one U.S. president who didn’t win the popular vote cannot undo these deep ties.

We face tough times. But South Korea has many friends in the United States, and we will never, ever stop fighting for the alliance. We’re counting on the Korean people will help us. Katchi kapshida — let’s go together.

Mintaro Oba is a former U.S. diplomat specializing in South and North Korea policy.