The bad news for our allies is Trump might win. The good news is he probably won’t.
JUL 18, 2016
SEOUL — Even thousands of miles from home, there is no escaping Donald Trump. I was in South Korea last week and found that, just as in the United States, the soon-to-be Republican nominee is a top topic of conversation.
Trump has been vocal in his belief that the U.S. gets “practically nothing” for defending South Korea from “that madman” — Kim Jong Un — who has received credit from Trump for his skill in consolidating power. “South Korea should pay us and pay us very substantially for protecting them,” Trump says, suggesting that if Seoul doesn’t pay up, he will remove U.S. troops. He has made similar threats to Japan, Germany and other U.S. allies.
Koreans are befuddled. They already pay handsomely to support the 28,500 U.S. troops in their country. South Korea contributes about 50% of the cost of their upkeep, more than $800 million a year, making it cheaper for the U.S. to keep forces there than at home.
Like other U.S. allies, South Koreans want to know whether Trump will win and, if he does, will he make good his threats? And — the most difficult question of all — does his rise presage a new era of isolationism in which Washington will abandon longtime friends such as South Korea, which has developed into an economic and political success story under U.S. protection?
The bad news, I told them, is that if Trump won, he’d have the authority to pull out U.S. troops if he wanted. Congress would be unlikely to stop him, in spite of the obvious benefits from a U.S. troop presence that prevents the outbreak of another Korean war, keeps South Korea from going nuclear, and contributes to the overall stability of one of the most economically important regions in the world. The good news is that Trump is unlikely to win, I said, citing estimates by FiveThirtyEight.com that he has only a 36% chance of prevailing.
The further good news, if you value the U.S.-South Korea alliance, is that, in my view, relatively little of Trump’s appeal is due to his bashing our allies. His popularity can be explained by his celebrity, by his unconstrained and unconventional way of talking, and by his willingness to tap dark sentiments — racism and nativism — that other politicians shy away from.
No doubt Trump’s complaints about supposedly ungrateful allies also have some fans, but it’s not as if there was a mass movement calling for the pullout of U.S. forces from the Korean Peninsula, where they have been stationed since the end of World War II. The last time a withdrawal from South Korea was seriously discussed was during the Carter administration. Even most Trump supporters aren’t outspoken on the issue. This is clearly a passion of the reality-TV star himself. If he loses in November, U.S. troops will remain in South Korea with little dissension.
Trump’s complaints about free trade, unfortunately, resonate more in spite of the consensus among economists that trade is an engine of prosperity. Hillary Clinton has joined him in opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free trade pact that many South Koreans hope to join. That her position is transparently insincere is scant comfort. The very fact that she now feels compelled to oppose it, after having backed TPP as secretary of State, shows just what a tough sell trade has become.
But is an American leadership role in the world also unpopular? Not according to the Pew Research Center. In a poll released in May, Pew found that the share of Americans who believe the U.S. does too much abroad has declined from 51% three years ago to 41% today, while 27% say the U.S. does too little. That change can be explained by the growing threat from the Islamic State terrorist group. At the same time, 55% of Americans support maintaining America’s status as the only military superpower, and 73% say they want the U.S. to play a leadership role in combination with other countries.
In short, most Americans are a lot less isolationist than Trump. Assuming he loses in November, the U.S. will continue to pursue an internationalist policy as it has done since 1945.
But I don’t blame South Koreans for being nervous. I’m nervous myself. There’s still an outside chance Trump could win because Clinton is such a weak candidate. As I told my South Korean hosts, if you’re worried about what Kim Jong Un could do with his 20 or so nuclear weapons, just imagine what Donald Trump could do if he got his hands on the thousands of weapons in the U.S. nuclear arsenal. The greatest threat to world peace now emanates not from Tehran or Pyongyang but from Trump Tower in midtown Manhattan.