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"President Trump’s Backward Steps on Forward Defense" by Malcolm Cook

2018/72, 13 June 2018

The commitment to forward defense by successive US administrations is the basis for the US network of alliances and security partnerships in East Asia. Forward defense posits that it is better to address potential overseas threats to the US homeland and deter potential overseas conflicts that could entrap the United States as close to the source of the threat as possible.  

The grand strategies of US allies and security partners are premised on this commitment’s continued credibility. North Korea and China have long criticized US forward defense and its consequences as provocative, destabilizing, and a Cold War relic. Libertarian critics of forward defense in the US have criticized its fiscal burden and potential for free-riding by allies and security partners.

President Trump, when asked during his press conference after his historic Summit with Chairman Kim Jong-u on 12 June about the  Summit joint statement’s commitment to US security guarantees to North Korea, replied,

We have 32,000 soldiers in South Korea. I would like to be able to bring them back home. That’s not part of the equation. At some point, I hope it would be. We will stop the war games which will save us a tremendous amount of money. Unless and until we see the future negotiations is not going along like it should. We will be saving a tremendous amount of money. Plus. It is very provocative.

When asked whether this unilateral, indefinite cancellation would include all military exercises, President Trump responded, “We have done exercises working with South Korea for a long time. We call them war games. I call them war games.”

President Trump adopted the language of North Korea, the assumptions of the libertarian critics, and reversed these exercises’ strategic purpose. These exercises are a security guarantee to South Korea and a deterrent to North Korean aggression against South Korea. They are the operational manifestation of forward defense.

Yet, now, their cancellation – apparently to the surprise of South Korea - is reinterpreted as a security guarantee to North Korea. Given that President Trump has at most 6.5 years left in office, the timeline for achieving his hope of bringing home the US soldiers forward deployed in South Korea is shorter than most estimated timelines for the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of North Korea.

Presidential words and decisions matter.
     
Dr Malcolm Cook is Senior Fellow at ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.
 
The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.