Would Ron Paul Retrench the US from Korea?


Here is part two, and then a third, given just how much traffic this post has received (h/t to Stephen Walt and Andrew Sullivan).

Here is Steve Walt saying nice things about Ron Paul, and Layne has a nice recent piece in the National Interest, and another at ISQ, about looming US retrenchment.  Earlier I argued that I think lots of people in IR now both expect and want some measure of US pullback. The argument is pretty well-known by now – empirically, the US is doing more than it can afford, like the Iraq war (trillion dollar deficits and ‘overstretch’); normatively, we are violating far too many of our liberal values against a comparatively minor terrorist threat (torture, indefinite detention, unoverseen drone strikes). But I don’t see too much on what specifically could be cut if absolutely necessary. The British retrenchment east of Suez in the 70s is probably our best model, but of course, the Brits had different sets of commitments, so it’s not a great blueprint.

So I try below to compile a list of who would/could/should get the axe and who not. Just like the intense competition over the periodic BRACs, one could imagine US allies making their case for a retention of US bases, troops, aid, etc. In one of his speeches, I heard Ron Paul argue that we have 900 overseas bases, so the field of choice is very wide.

I can think of 3 basic criteria for judgment of whom should be cut loose and who not:


a. Direct US national security interest: This is fairly obvious. For example, no matter what the Israelis or Japanese may say, Mexico and Canada’s fate will always be more important to the US than theirs, because they so directly impinge on US security.

b. Need/Vulnerability: Some states may want the US to stay but don’t really need us. They just want to free-ride. Germany comes to mind. Modern Germany is irrevocably democratic, liberal, aging, with a small, barely deployable military, and surrounded by other democracies. There is no need to keep it ‘down’ anymore, nor is Russia a big conventional threat to Europe.

c. Values: Some places aren’t that relevant to US security, or they may have the means to defend themselves. But they represent crucial values in high-profile contests. SK is a good example. SK’s GDP is 26x NK’s; it can take care of it itself (even thought no one wants to say that publicly here). But the Korean stand-off has become a such global symbol of liberal democracy vs. tyranny, especially next to rising China, that US retrenchment would be see globally as a real setback.

So here is quick-and-dirty ranking of allies and commitments in order of importance:

1. Canada and Mexico: I imagine the Tea party would blanche at the idea of Mexico as one of America’s very highest national security priorities, but it is for the reasons mentioned above. Yes, Mexico is vastly more important to the US than Israel.

However, the rest of Latin America, including that now-pointless embargo of Cuba, really isn’t. How damaging has Chavez really been to the US? Honestly, if we were really strapped for cash and over-committed, we could cut the Monroe Doctrine loose. Latin America doesn’t really need us or the fairly condescending ‘Roosevelt Corollary’ anymore.

Strictly speaking, Canada does not need America commitment; Mexico does somewhat. But proximity alone means they are America’s most important allies. We can’t retrench from North America.

2. Saudi Arabia: Wait, what? But yes, it’s true. If you think about what the US needs (acute demand for cheap, reliable carbon, at least until the green economy gets on its feet), SA’s extreme vulnerability, and the pan-umma chaos that would result from its collapse, means that SA has to be very high on the list. I agree that places like Germany or Korea are more sympathetic, but they have also a lot more wherewithal to defend themselves. SA does not, so it needs the US more. The majority of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudis, and all were stewed in Saudi anti-western pathologies, yet we invaded Iraq??… Well, here’s why.

3. Taiwan: This one mixes need and values. Taiwan is modern and capable, but its opponent is so big, it will never even come close in that race. Also, Taiwan has emerged as a major global values contest relevant to China’s rise and Asia’s future order. Everyone’s watching. Given that China is a real long-term peer competitor to the US now, Taiwan has a global bellwether status. But is really important for US national security? Not really; that’s true.

4. India: This one mixes all 3 criteria. In Geopolitics, I argued that India will be America’s big future ally, because it shares  America’s values, and both its big threats – salafism and China. No other US ally does that. Bolstering India pushes back on Islamic terror in Asia and balances/distracts China, and reaffirms democracy in a region where democracy is often seen as a luxury that inhibits growth.

5. Indonesia: Here’s another unexpected one, but the argument is similar to India. If you think about places where a US presence could really make a difference (i.e., where we would get some dividend and not just encourage free-riding), then I think this is obvious too. For starters, it’s huge – the fourth biggest state in the world. It is a bulwark against salafism’s spread into the biggest community of the umma – southeast Asia. (No one ever seems to remember this, btw; Islam is a lot more than the Arabs and Persians.) As with India, there is a strong values case for supporting Indonesian democracy – it’s big, Muslim, and worried about China too.

6. Israel: I think the case for Israel is slipping. Yes, it is the only democracy in the Middle East, but not so much anymore actually. Arab Spring has changed a lot, and Israel’s own internal politics, especially its now effectively permanent occupation of the Palestinians, damages that ‘we’re the only state in the Middle East that shares US values’ line. This doesn’t mean we should abandon Israel, only that its rank is sliding. America’s national security interest in Israel is not particularly obvious now – the Cold War is over, S Hussein and Qaddafi are gone, Turkey is moderate, Assad is on the ropes. Nor is it clear that Israel really needs us. It needed us to survive the Yom Kippur War, but now? It’s got the best military in the region, plus nukes. The real ‘values’ link between Israel and the US now is more tribal (a Judeo-Christian struggle against Islam) than liberal.

7. South Korea: Like Israel, the case for SK is slipping, primarily because SK so obviously outclasses NK. NK may be very scary, but a real SK military build-up (including vastly superior nukes) would be scarier still. SK’s GDP is at least 25x NK’s. Its military technology is two generations ahead. Its social capacity – health, education, institutional durability – vastly outstrip its opponent. Like Israel, SK needed us once, but not really anymore. Like the EU and Japan, wealthy SK has ‘graduated’ from the need for serious US extended deterrence. South Koreans I talk with about this worry about ‘abandonment,’ but then,  SK only spend 2.5% of GDP on defense. The US spends more than twice. That’s not free-riding as bad as Germany or Japan, but its still free-riding. If you consider that Taiwan or India would represent a greater return for the US’ extended deterrence investment, you understand why Ron Paul always mentions Korea as a basing obligation to eliminate. However, the intra-Korean contest has acquired a ‘freedom vs tyranny’ global profile. Like Taiwan, it is something of a bellwether now that would send big signal, especially now that we’re ‘pivoting’ to Asia. So the current US small commitment – 28.5k warfighters under USFK away from the DMZ – is probably about right.

Please continue to part two.

60 thoughts on “Would Ron Paul Retrench the US from Korea?

  1. Agreed on South Korea and Taiwan. I think South Korea and America would both benefit from US withdrawal whilst North Korea would lose on its portrayal of SK as occupied territory (which is bought by SK’s nationalist left). NK also knows that America has been a restraining influence on SK and that post US withdrawal SK would strike harder again provocations. Perhaps most importantly though, China would have less excuse to support NK and less reason not to further cooperate with SK.

    In contrast, Taiwan is where the US is needed (not necessarily bases, but it at least needs to be sold appropriate US equipment and supported in international forums). Taiwan has been almost abandoned by the West allowing Beijing to exert increasing influence over its politics and economy.

    It’s always ironic that SK and Taiwan don’t get on better (or at all) anymore, considering their long term predicaments.


    • That’s a good comparison. I hadn’t thought of it that. And yeah, Taiwan does seem to be fading away…

      I think the US commitment in Korea is about more than just Korea now. SK could really deal with NK alone if we pushed them. It would be painful, expensive, and they don’t want to do it, but the capability is there. Increasingly, this is about China. This is way to signal that the US is staying in Asia and won’t let China become like Wilhelmine Germany – a regional bully who ignites an arms race.


  2. This is very interesting. I’m not challenging your prioritized list, but I’m curious as to what exactly the USA needs to protect or change in Canada and Mexico. Canada is currently more stable than the USA, and its vast northern expanse of, well, frozen rocks doesn’t make it an obvious target (yet). Mexico is more problematic, but I think you overlook that despite its drug terrorism its economy and infrastructure has improved considerably over the last decade.

    I suppose because I’m in SK I overstate its importance, but as you say, the optics of an American presence here probably justify its continuance more than real military purpose. Perhaps Ron Paul is capable of such nuances (probably not) but there is also the option of scaling back numbers in each country as opposed to binary staying/leaving. Paul does have a point when he wonders what on God’s green earth America is doing protecting Germany.


    • Well I was trying to think of what places are most important for the US. The number one places have to be our neighbors. That strikes me as blatantly obvious. I put that in there, in part because I go to conferences all the time where Europeans, Korean, Israelis, etc. fight over who is the most important ally of the US. So let’s just set the record straight – it’s the Canadians. Yes, the country Koreans love to hate because of pot-smoking English teachers who mails themselves dope from Vancouver really is vastly more important to the US than, say, Japan. That Canada is very stable – I certainly agree – doesn’t really change its importance. It just doesn’t mean it gets much attention.

      As for Korea, I agree. It’s all about the optics now. They don’t need us, just like a lot of Europeans. They just want us, because they don’t want to spend on a modern military. And for the US, NK is more about China than proliferation and such now.


    • Canad isn’t “an obvious target (yet)”? A target of whom? The only entity on the planet that is any danger to Canadian sovereignty and territorial integrity is the United States. Terrorist organizations, for all the hysteria that the US media give them, are capable of occasionally blowing a few things up, but the idea that the US or Canada will ever be taken over by them is nonsense. And given Canada’s entire federal budget of around C$250b is less than the US’s military budget of over US$650, Canada could bankrupt itself on tanks and guns and still never defend itself from the US.

      So whenever someone touts out nonsense of worries about Canada succumbing to Sharia or foreign invasion or being taken over, I have to ask, “by whom?”


      • Yes the threat level against Canada is very low but the importance level of Canada is enormously high. Setting aside the fact that the Canadian state sits plop atop the entirety of the continental U.S. there’s also the fact that Canada is the US’s #1 (far and away, no competition, eat it Saudis) supplier of energy to America and we’re not just talking oil (though they’re #1 there too) but also hydroelectric. They’re also massive providers of food and raw materials. There’s just no comparison with any other state.

        Not even Mexico is very close; the US is at least used to half heartedly poking at the Mexican border, the Canadian border is guarded by a handful of bored state troopers and the occasional roaming moose and has pretty much been that way since 1812. Also while Mexico is a huge American trading partner on its own its energy, primary industry and manufacturing industries pale in comparison to Canada’s.

        If you gave a well informed America hater a magic marker and told him he could cross one state off the globe and instantly turn its territory into a hostile American enemy infested wasteland there’s no country he could choose that’d hurt the US more to X off than Canada.


      • Well said. This is sorta what I was thinking too. The geography is pretty obvious to my mind.

        Nice website, btw. Never heard of the Canadian Council for Democracy, but it looks pretty sharp. What is your role there, if you don’t mind the question?


      • I’m embarrassed to admit it but I’m supposed to be a contributor. Alas my talents lie in commenting in response to content more than creating content on my own. But my contributors are sharp as tacks, I can’t recommend them enough.


      • I don’t disagree with any of that. I don’t think Canada is under any meaningful threat, although a commenter at a different website said that Canada needs US support in the coming tangle with Russia over the de-glaciated Arctic Ocean. (I hadn’t really thought of that).

        Nevertheless, what I meant to suggest is that Canadian (like Mexican) stability is a central national security goal of the US – far more important than places like Israel, SK, or India – simply out of proximity. I think we forget that. No one talks about Canada, because it’s not a mess, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t top the list of US allies.


      • I do think that by the 2050-2080 period one of the biggest territorial disputes will be in a de-glaciating Arctic. Denmark and Canada will need to trade in some of their “but everyone loves us!” nice-guy image in order to protect their interests against Russia who is already taking exploratory steps to stake their claims. The US in terms of square miles is the minority interest of the 4 arctic players, but could very well prove to be the needed ally if Canada and Denmark aren’t prepared to push back on Russia alone.


      • You are now the second person to argue this to me. I suppose so, although I’d like to hope that we ‘save’ the polar ice-cap. *sigh* I guess not. Also, that 2050+ timeline really pushes the calculation of interest way out. And isn’t the ice-cap supposed to melt long before then anyway?


      • You know, I’m not sure about when it’s supposed to finally be melted (assuming no further preventive steps are taken) . You’re right about 2050 being too far out for the conflict to boil, though. Russia is sending submarines under the ice cap currently (and even landed a flag).
        I think Canada will stay #1 in terms of importance (I agree with your list, although would say Brazil has some India-esque potential) and I suppose where I am going with all this is that I think the relationship will become more obvious and (perhaps) honest. An American alliance for Arctic oil rights could very well end up being a quid pro quo in exchange for access to Canada’s high water tables. With all the talk about future ‘water wars” we may need Canada as much–or more–than they need us. I could very well see the “friendship” being more equal and evident to average Americans. In 2012 I suspect more Americans benignly forget the US-CA alliance and would be more prone to name the the UK or Israel as “America’s Best Friend”. If the water wars/arctic oil territory dispute heat up I could see that changing.


      • I think that’s right. Lots of commenters seemed to find it counterintuitive that I listed Canada first, but the arctic race is a good reason for that beyond the sheer geography I mentioned. Thanks for reading.


  3. Mr. Kelly,
    I enjoy reading your blog but I think you would come across as much more credible and dignified if you dropped such sophmoric attacks as “I imagine the Tea party would blanche at the…”. They add nothing to your arguments and detract from your otherwise fine work. They have caused me, at least, to rethink whether I should continue to read your blog…


  4. Pingback: Say Ron Paul Won…Which US Allies would get Retrenched? (2) Japan? | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

  5. …SK not free-riding as bad as Germany or Japan…

    or perhaps the US is pissing it’s wealth up against the wall, so to speak.


  6. This is interesting analysis but I think Israel being on this list without Egypt or Turkey being mentioned pretty much sums up the short sighted nature of a lot of foreign policy opinion in this country. Turkey is a (mostly) stable, (mostly) democratic, nation of 90 million Muslims that served as the buckle in America’s global belt of allies holding the line against the old USSR. They retain a great deal of importance as a model for how Muslim nations can resist Islamic fundamentalism and embrace modernism. Vastly under-stated has been how they served as a model for the Arab Spring. Egypt likewise has great value as an ally though we’ll have to wait to see how the political changes there shake out. If you need to defend Saudi Arabia then Egypt is the not only the gateway to European markets for Saudi oil, but culturally and politically Egypt matters in Arab world politics in a vital way. Incidentally, $2 billion a year was cheap considering what we got in diplomatic returns during the late cold war. Israel by contrast is a case where we really should be asking what exactly are we getting for our money. Strategically, Israel is valueless, symbolically they’re a reverse rabbit’s foot and this odd relationship grows more dysfunctional by the day. If it was me, that’s where I’d look to cut the spigot.


    • Hmm, yeah. Good point. I did include Egypt in the top 10 in the second half of the post: http://asiansecurityblog.wordpress.com/2012/06/02/say-ron-paul-wonwhich-us-allies-would-get-retrenched-2/. But I didn’t include Turkey, and yeah Turkey might be higher up on the food chain than Israel. Gotta think about that one some more. Israel’s internal politics is getting harder and harder to sqaure with liberal democracy, but it is still far ahead of its neighbors on those basic benchmarks, (including Turkey, which has taken a turn for the repressive under the AKP) and it is militarily the most capable state in a tough region.

      Good criticism. Thanks.


      • Israel definitely should be replaced by Turkey on this list. You correctly identified the source of our current entanglement with Israel; ie it’s based on a visceral, primal affinity for the nation rather than strategic value.

        Turkey has fought in wars for the US; it was one of only a few NATO allies to fight alongside america in Korea. And it fought very well. It’s fought in Afghanistan and in Bosnia as well. it hosts a major Air Base. It’s mostly democratic, with one of the fastest growing economies in the world. It has a modern, well respected military (the 3rd largest in NATO). And, as Nate mentioned, it has huge cultural value in the Muslim world; many Muslims openly say they want to follow the Turkish model of government.

        Israel, on the other hand, has fought in no wars for the US and requires enormous political, financial, and military costs. We expend diplomatic energy shielding Israel from the UN, and spend billions on bribes to arab dictators to ensure that their populace does not rise up against Israel (which ends up entrenching the thugs in power and makes the people hate the US), and we give them cutting edge technology which they sometimes sell to third parties like India and China. We are basically subsidizing their defense industry. It’s one of the richest nations in the world, and yet we throw billions at it, and what exactly do we get? When Obama wanted a settlement freeze, Israel basically spat in his face. When Biden and Petraeus warned that Israel’s actions were making it unsafe for Americans in the middle east, Israel did nothing to change course. In fact, they accelerated settlement building and the demolishment of Palestinian homes.The amount we get from “our closest friend” is a pittance compared to what we put into the relationship.

        And btw, and interestingly enough, we actually have NO formal defense treaty with Israel. Look it up. None. And yet, look what happened when Israel attacked a Turkish civilian boat last year. American politicians were denouncing and cursing the turks and pretty much willing to throw a formal NATO ally under the bus for our lil friend.

        It’s insane.


      • Yeah, I could be persuaded of this if Israel continues this suicide course of colonizing the West Bank and making a two-state deal impossible. But I am less fearful than Walt or Andrew Sullivan on this; I still think a deal can be arranged. Maybe I am wrong. I do also think that Israel has been a mostly reliable ally in a tough neighborhood for us, like Taiwan, whose position is analogous to my mind. Next, while hardly endorsing the ‘tribalism’ of a religious bond, I do think that salafist jihadism is a genuine threat to the West and that Israel could be a helpful ally (and could be much more so if it could just finally control itself better). That is not to suggest that invading Iraq, torture, drone wars and all the rest of the illegal and awful stuff of the GWoT was good or right. But I do think the Middle Eastern pathologies that created 9/11 are a long-term challenge to the West. This is why I put Israel, India, and Indonesia on the list. They all help contain the spread of ‘binladenism’ (for lack of a better word).

        And here is where Turkey confounds me. Like everyone else, I am glad the military has been pushed out of power. But the AKP has turned out to be kinda semi-islamist creepy in its own way. This is why I ultimately ranked Egypt at 10 and would put Turkey close the bottom also. I am not completely persuaded. Maybe I am a recovering neocon…


  7. How are Canada and Mexico tied as our “most important allies”? The U.S.’s relation with Canada is stable, largely set and frankly dull for a variety of reasons, all good. The “drug war,” the increasing violence that comes with illegal drugs, the existence of large aggressive organized crime networks, the very drugs themselves, the various issues related to illegal immigration and Mexico’s place in Latin America all make Mexico a much more pressing concern and thus “important ally.”

    Can we imagine our relation with Canada being much worse or much better? And within that extremely limited realm of possibility (of improvement of deterioration of relations with the Great White North) would it really make any difference? Whereas things could get worse or better with Mexico in ways that would truly make a difference.

    What’s more, it’s all too easy to envision scenarios where our relations with Mexico could matter even more than they do now. The same simply can’t be said for Canada.

    If this piece was just an opportunity to fill space and/or give commentators a chance to knock Israel I apologize for my naivety. But, man, I think you really have to fudge “most important” to put Canada in a tie with Mexico.


    • Well, I would argue that just because Canada is boring (in a good way) doesn’t make it less important. For example, the US trades with Canada more than any other country. As you say, we don’t think about that too much. Maybe Canada just gets less attention, which is correct for the reasons you list.

      That last paragraph strikes me as unnecessarily mean-spirited. This was a good faith effort to rank America’s allies. How Andrew Sullivan or anyone else excerpts it is beyond my control. I thought placing Israel at 6 was somewhat generous actually given Nate H’s smart insights above.

      Thanks for reading.


      • Point about trade conceded.

        Still, how is Mexico in 2012 not a greater “Direct US national security interest” than Canada? Ditto the V. word in “Need/Vulnerability”?

        Yes, if Canada succumbed to the Taliban it would pose quite the problem – what with its location and all. Likewise if our ally India decided they wanted to annihilate us with nuclear arms we’d have a rather nasty situation on our hands. Neither seems very likely. And neither need then be given additional “importance” points because of the extremely remote possibility of trouble, given either Canada’s dangerous location or India’s nukes.

        Mexico would seem to heavily tilt its “importance” score over Canada in two of your three stated criteria (“national security interest”, this in a host of ways detailed in my prior comment; “vulnerability,” also in a host of ways, all much, much greater than those posed of Canada). More than enough to compensate for any shared “values” on, say, the greatness of Wayne Gretzky or the rock band Rush that some our fellow natives may share with our neighbors up north.

        I apologize if I seemed snide before. Still, I felt and still feel there’s an inherent silliness to the equation of Mexico and Canada given your own criteria.

        It was kind of you to respond to my initial comment and you need not respond to this one, but my central point remains: given the stated three criteria, only in an abstract, almost ahistorical sense is our relationship with Canada as “important’ as ours is with Mexico. And your discussion of South Korea, for instance, makes it clear that you’re very much looking at the situation today at this juncture in history.

        Best wishes.


      • I guess I could be convinced that Mexico should come before Canada, but I still think Canada has a lot more to offer. Its values congruence is clearer. Its border is longer. The trade and security relationship is our oldest and most critical given the geographic proximity. It hasn’t been alienated from us before like Mexico has. Were that to happen, we would suddenly put Canada high on the list. That Canada is dull doesn’t reduce its importance. For similar reasons, I put Indonesia on the list. For example, just because everyone worries about Iran, doesn’t mean Indonesia isn’t way more important to the US in the medium-term

        I don’t want to go around in circles on this. I guess we just disagree. Thanks for reading.


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  10. I think Taiwan is important from a values perspective. It’s status does not make much sense as it has been de facto independent from China since 1950 (or arguably before). The U.S. should not cease protection of the only Chinese democracy just for our economic interests with China. Before we built up China to where it is today, we should have encouraged Taiwan’s emergence as a recognized independent nation, especially after it became a democracy. It is far more deserving of independnece than Kosovo or South Sudan.


    • My inclination is to agree with this, but you realize of course that Taiwanese independence would provoke a war with China? This is why I put Taiwan in the top 10 though. There we really can get some bang for our commitment buck and not just encourage free-riding


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  13. As far as sharing opponents (Salafists and China) goes, I have one big contender:
    That Russia and China currently get along is due an aggressive USA, particularily evident in the strikingly different behaviour by China and the USA when Russia fell.
    I wouldnt neccesarily call India a whole lot more democratic than modern Russia either.
    Both India and Russia have election, both do in theory and usually (as long as stakes dont get too high, but then, high stakes legal things are soemthing else in the USA too) in practise have rule of law, both have large issues with corruption.

    The big difference between them is the “bad history” of Russia and the USA, while the USA does not have as much of a bad history with india.
    Concerning current military potentials, the Russians blow the indians straight out of the water too.


      • I contend that Russia is a democracy, if you look at Putins track record, and compare his track record to that of the opposition (either communists who messed up the USSR or straight Oligarchs or liberal “Sapadniks” who messed up democratic Russia before Putin), his approval rating is not terribly suprising. There is simply no particularly compelling alternative to him for most Russians, and that is not really his fault too.
        The Russians dont want an Oligarch like Prokorov, they dont want the Communists, and they dont want the liberals either.

        Imagine that the Republicans or Democrats get into power, slash the GNP by about 80%, loose Texas and California to Mexiko (which now tries to Mexikanize the American population there), allow Chinese military bases in Canada and Mexiko, allows China to take over Taiwan and/or Iran to attack Saudi Arabia, eliminate the middle class by stupid economic policies for the benefits of some select few and orders tanks to open fire on the White house. How many votes would the get in the next 30 years?
        That is the “liberals” track record in Russia in the eyes of the Russians. And that, not any kind of “police repression” or “unfair elections” (there is police repression and there are not totally fair elections, but the “liberals” would be a lost cause for the next 50 years without those anyway)

        Putin isnt great, but Russian prefer him over this. And also over the incompetent communist opposition to his left, or the “totally nuts” nationalists.


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