Much Ado About Everything No 23: Withdrawal Symptoms

Could Donald Trump imminently agree to withdraw US troops from South Korea and announce US withdrawal from NATO?


US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo’s 1 February announcement that the US is effectively withdrawing from the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty serves as a timely reminder of President Donald Trump’s well-documented general disdain for international agreements which he believes constrain America in some way (irrespective of the extent to which Russia has been breaching the INF's terms). ‘Timely’ because, even within the next eight weeks or so, we could conceivably see two further withdrawal announcements from Mr Trump which would be significantly more momentous.

Korean Peninsula: Fulfilling a pre-election pledge?

In the run-up to his first meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore on 12 June 2018, Mr Trump stated categorically that the issue of withdrawing the US military (approximately 28,500 personnel) from the Korean peninsula was not on the table. This despite repeatedly pledging during his election campaign that he would withdraw the US garrisons not only from South Korea but also from Japan if America’s two allies did not meet the full cost of their presence there.

As yet, we have seen no indication that this will change for the second North Korea/US summit which is due to be held in Hanoi on 27/28 February, a meeting from which the US special envoy, Stephen Biegun, has publicly said he is looking for concrete deliverables, even though he has — realistically, in my view — conceded that Pyongyang is “unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons and production capability.

Nevertheless, Mr Trump’s sudden announcement on 19 December that he intended immediately and totally withdrawing US troops from Syria should serve as a warning that he is perfectly capable of emerging from a tête à tête with Kim Jong-un and announcing a deal which includes US withdrawal from South Korea. Admittedly, there has been some subsequent rowing back from the Syria announcement in the form of both a slower withdrawal than the President initially envisaged and the possibility of some of the troops currently in Syria moving to bases in Iraq “to watch” Iran. But it is still happening, thereby underlining that, in contrast to Mr Trump’s first two years in office, he has now surrounded himself with officials who sufficiently share his world view to be prepared at least to act as facilitators, rather than blockers, of presidential wishes which go against the established grain.

Furthermore, this has to be seen in the context of where things stand between the US and South Korea per se. The previous agreement on Seoul's contribution to the cost of the US garrison expired at the end of last year without a new one being finalised thanks to Washington's demand for a major increase. Where things stand today reportedly is that South Korean lawmakers have approved a one-year only deal involving a more modest increase which US officials have tentatively accepted. There is no question other than that Kim Jong-un will be well aware of this; and he may seek to exploit it.

[Comment: I have to question the wisdom of allowing the agreement over US forces on the Korean peninsula to lapse at this time. And it is certain that other US allies, perhaps most of all Japan given its geographic proximity and Mr Trump's repeated demands that Tokyo pays more of the cost of the US garrison there, will be watching closely to see how things unfold.]

I therefore have no difficulty imagining Mr Trump, who clearly really wants to close a deal with Kim Jong-un, signing up to something along the following lines:

  • North Korea offers to scrap all of its long-range missiles and to continue to desist from nuclear and missile testing;
  • The two sides agree to sit down to negotiate a peace treaty;
  • The US provides some immediate (additional — some food aid is already going to North Korea) economic and humanitarian aid short of actual formal sanctions relief (which probably is of more symbolic than substantive importance to Pyongyang to judge from a recently leaked UN report on sanctions-busting);
  • Mr Trump agrees to withdraw all US troops from the Korean peninsula once the peace treaty is signed and ratified, thereby fulfilling an election pledge which is popular with his all-important base back home.

There is no question other than that this would be seen (possibly wrongly) in some quarters as a big ‘win’ for Beijing and therefore run into some resistance from the security establishment in Washington. But there would likely be a considerable time lag between such an announcement and actual withdrawal, making it highly probable that Mr Trump would be able to move such an agenda forward reasonably freely as far as his domestic constituencies are concerned — and certainly as far as South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who clearly also wants formal peace between the two Koreas, is motivated (insofar as his views matter to Mr Trump). Nevertheless, any deal along these lines would raise serious questions about the longer-term stability of the East Asia region as a whole — not that such concerns are likely to stop Mr Trump, whose vision clearly does not stretch beyond 3 November 2020.

NATO: 70 and out?

Earlier this week, NATO formally announced that the summit to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Organisation will be hosted by the United Kingdom this coming December. Is it conceivable that Mr Trump may seize on either the 70th anniversary per se, ie 4 April, or the December summit to announce his intention formally to withdraw the US?

Mr Trump makes no secret of his dislike of the Organisation, which seems to run much deeper than his (legitimate) complaint that most other members are failing to hit the, admittedly non-binding, target of spending two percent of their GDP on defence. And it appears that he has seriously discussed the possibility of withdrawal with his officials — maybe even with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin!

If (and it may be a big IF) Mr Trump is briefed on a move by Italy to have expenditure on protecting civil infrastructure etc from cyber attack count toward the two percent, which will be aired (and probably rejected) by NATO Defence Ministers when they meet on 13 February, it may add fuel to a fire which is clearly smoldering, if not actually blazing, in the President's mind. And I doubt that other participants at this week's annual meeting of the high-powered Munich Security Conference will put too much weight on the inevitable reassurances from the American representatives there even though they will, no doubt, be made in good faith.

Certainly, Mr Trump has already given sufficient reason for concern in Congress for the House to vote overwhelming (357-22) last month to try to block any attempt by him to withdraw the US from NATO (with the Senate expected at least to debate the issue shortly). Legislators are unlikely, in my view, to be addressing this unless they believe that the risk is significant.

I cannot claim to be an expert on the US constitution but I would imagine that a similar degree of uncertainty prevails around the President’s right to withdraw the US from NATO without Congressional approval as I believe to be the case with NAFTA, on which I wrote in September 2017 — see here. So, it is likely that if Mr Trump were to make such a move he would be strongly opposed by Congress irrespective of any new legislation which may be passed in the interim. Nevertheless, the damage to America’s relations with its allies, perhaps especially in Europe where Mr Trump’s withdrawals of the US from the Paris climate change agreement and the Iran nuclear deal are arguably felt most acutely, would be considerable. But this ‘alone’ would be unlikely to stop Mr Trump, especially if he believes that it would pander to his base.


I should stress that I am not categorically forecasting either that Mr Trump will agree to withdraw the US garrison from the Korean peninsula when he meets Kim Jong-un (even conditionally) or that he will announce his intention to withdraw the US from NATO. But both actions would, in my view, be entirely consistent with a Trumpian foreign policy which Brookings-based expert Thomas Wright (writing in Foreign Policy) recently described as no longer unpredictable . Describing the first two years as more unpredictable as Mr Trump struggled with the foreign policy ‘establishment’, Mr Wright (consistent with the view I expressed earlier about the now near-unanimity within the Trump foreign policy team) continues:

“For the first time, it is possible to identify a singular Trump administration foreign policy, as the President’s team coalesces around his ideas. This policy consists of a narrow, transactional relationship with other nations, a preference for authoritarian governments over other democracies, a mercantilist approach to international economic policy, a general disregard for human rights and the rule of law, and the promotion of nationalism and unilateralism at the expense of multilateralism.”

And — underlining the importance of taking seriously Mr Trump’s oft-repeated withdrawal threats across the board, the early symptoms — he concludes as follows:

“Because [Mr] Trump was never going to change his worldview, his administration has had to be marked by either division or agreement on his terms. We now have the latter. Thus begins… the impact of a unified Trump administration on the world.”

Alastair Newton