The Biden administration has finally ended the contentious negotiations begun by its predecessor with Seoul over the Special Measures Agreement, which governs host nation support for the U.S. military presence in South Korea. The South Korean government has agreed to increase its payment to $1 billion annually, a 13.9 percent increase.
That seemingly sizable increase is a great deal for the South, which would have to spend tens of billions of dollars more on its own defense without U.S. support. No wonder the South Koreans were happy, given how much of a climbdown that was from the position of former U.S. President Donald Trump, who began the process by demanding $5 billion annually. South Korea’s foreign ministry announced: “By smoothly addressing the key pending alliance issue early on after the launch of the Biden administration, South Korea and the United States demonstrated the robustness of the firm alliance.”
In contrast, the result is a bad deal for the United States. The agreement merely offsets some deployment costs. It does not address the much larger expense for Americans of adding force structure to protect the South. Every additional military commitment requires a bigger military—additional carriers, air wings, infantry and armored divisions, Marines, and more.
Obviously, Washington must spend on its own behalf. However, defense is reasonably easy for a country blessed with oceans to the east and west and pacific neighbors to the north and south. Deterring attack is simpler for the United States than for most other countries. Most of America’s military budget goes for what is effectively offense, to defend scores of other states, many prosperous and populous, others irrelevant to American security. Despite the Biden administration’s mantra about “strengthening alliances,” not all allies are equal or even worthwhile. Even good relationships should not be forever amid changing circumstances—witness the breakup of the “united nations” that won World War II.
To his credit, Trump challenged the bipartisan foreign-policy establishment’s treatment of alliance as a sacred cow. Unfortunately, he proved incapable of addressing the issues raised with even a modicum of civility, consistency, and intelligence, meaning his changes—even potentially good ones—were swept away.
The election of President Joe Biden convinced some countries that the good old days had returned. However, the world has changed. Populist political passions still swirl about the United States. Moreover, America’s current financial travails demonstrate the importance of adjusting foreign policy to circumstances. The United States is functionally broke.
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released its latest fiscal assessment in early March. The CBO predicted a deficit of $2.3 trillion this year, following $3.1 trillion last year. Red ink in 2021 alone would amount to 10.3 percent of GDP. Although deficits will drop as the pandemic’s impact recedes, the fiscal relief will only be temporary. As the agency says, “Deficits increase further in subsequent decades, from 5.7 percent of GDP in 2031 to 13.3 percent by 2051—exceeding their 50-year average of 3.3 percent of GDP in each year during that period.”
Unsurprisingly, the economic impact of the growing mountain of debt will be significant. According to the CBO: “By the end of 2021, federal debt held by the public is projected to equal 102 percent of GDP. Debt would reach 107 percent of GDP (surpassing its historical high) in 2031 and would almost double to 202 percent of GDP by 2051.”
The best-case scenario is bad: sharply increased interest payments. Much worse would be financial crisis. Warned the agency: “Debt that is high and rising as a percentage of GDP boosts federal and private borrowing costs, slows the growth of economic output, and increases interest payments abroad. A growing debt burden could increase the risk of a…