Recently, hundreds of thousands of South Koreans filled the streets of Seoul near the U.S. Embassy to protest the South Korean governments decision to resume imports of American beef. The imports had been halted since the much overblown scare of mad cow disease of 2003. The accusation that the American beef is so tainted is a protectionist and nationalist canard because it has long been certified as safe. In reality, many South Koreans joined the protests because they felt the South Korean government of Lee Myung-bak has been too deferential to the United States.
These protests are just the tip of the iceberg. For example, South Korea has not fully opened its auto market to U.S. exports, while its own car sales to the United States have soared.
Perhaps South Koreans have forgotten that between 1950 and 1953, the United States lost 37,000 troops to help them beat back a North Korean invasion. Since then, U.S. forces in South Korea and nuclear weapons have deterred another attack by kooky North Korean leaders. Since the Korean War, under the protection of the U.S. shield, South Korea has grown from a poor, backward country into one of the worlds economic powerhouseswith a GDP of about 30 times that of its destitute North Korean enemy.
Despite plundering their colonies at gunpoint (for example, the Spanish Empire looted the gold from Latin America) and creating sheltered markets for their goods overseas (for example, British mercantilism), even the formal empires of old were not cost-effective, according to classical economists. The informal U.S. Empire that defends other countries abroad using alliances, military bases, the permanent stationing of U.S. troops on foreign soil, and profligate military interventions is even more cost-ineffective. U.S. forces cannot plunder, and rich allies, such as South Korea, excessively restrict their markets to U.S. goods and services.
South Korea is not the only wealthy U.S. ally to reap the rewards of a U.S. security guarantee, while not fully opening its market to the United States. Japan and most of the European NATO allies also do the same. The foolish U.S. policy of continuing to subsidize the defense of these now rich countriesall economic competitors of the United Statesallows them to reduce the drag that added defense expenditures would impose on their economies. Meanwhile, the U.S. economy has to bear the costs of defending the world.
Also, the U.S. has informal alliances with nations such as Taiwan and Israel and hands out significant direct and indirect defense subsidies to them.
Now that the worldwide Soviet threat has long passed, no excuse exists to provide welfare for rich allies merely to foster their security dependency on the U.S. Empire. All U.S. allies need to spend more on their own security; but they have no incentive to do so if the United States is willing to subsidize a shield against their mostly poorer enemies.
The United States should take the radical step of abrogating these outdated formal and informal alliances and security guarantees and gradually withdraw all of its forces from South Korea, Japan, and Europe. The phased withdrawal will give such nations time to build up their own defenses. If this route is taken, the United States, South Korea, and the other allies will be more secure, and the economic playing field will be made more level.
Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, and Recarving Rushmore.
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