Donald Trump, a former president of the U.S. and a prominent candidate for the upcoming presidential election in November, made a number of comments disregarding the value of alliance again. He talked about when he was asked during a NATO summit that he attended as a former president whether the U.S. would still defend a country if it were invaded by Russia even if the nation didn’t pay. Trump answered, “No, I would not protect you. I would encourage them (Russia) to do whatever the hell they want.” While his comment was made during his election campaign, it is a risky idea considering Russian President Vladimir Putin’s belligerence. It resembles the Acheson line declaration that the U.S. made in 1950 near the Far East defense line to include Japan but exclude Korea. The declaration was one of the factors that caused former North Korean leader Kim Il Sung’s misjudgment and led to the Korean War five months later.
The recent comment made by the former president reveals his disregard and ignorance about alliances, reconfirming the existence of the Trump risks. All participating countries of a military alliance – be it a collective defense system, such as NATO with 32 countries including the U.S., Canada, and European countries, or a one-on-one alliance, such as the ROK-U.S. alliance – benefit from the alliance. Yet, only Trump, among the previous and current presidents of the U.S., repeatedly shares the idea that they are losses for the country. If he wins the presidential election again, the presidents of Russia, China, and North Korea might underestimate the U.S.’s willingness to build alliances and efforts to maintain stability.
His comment raises concerns about the future of the ROK-U.S. alliance. First, he approaches alliances only from the monetary perspective. It is true that most NATO member countries did not keep the promise to raise their national defense budget to two percent of their respective GDP by 2024. However, his comment of not defending NATO countries from Russia’s evasion is absurd. Second, he believes that he can nullify the written agreement of mutual defense solely based on his wish. Article 5 of the NATO agreement states that a joint response should be made if a member country is attacked. If the U.S. doesn’t comply with such a written agreement, how is it going to maintain its leadership in alliances forged with South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Israel, etc.? It raises concerns that the U.S. might disregard Article 3 of the ROK-U.S. Mutual Defense Agreement.
He repeated the same comment twice in front of a camera. While his disregard for alliances was only partially translated to actual policies during his presidency due to opposition from security advisors, his second term in office with a larger share of figures loyal to him is unpredictable. He has been using the idea of “Why the U.S. should spend its money and sacrifice its people’s lives for other countries” to win votes. South Korea should be prepared for his requests to increase South Korea’s share of defense costs and to reduce the size of the U.S. Forces in Korea in case of his reelection. Furthermore, Trump might engage more with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, or South Korea might have to make greater efforts to address global conflicts.