This week President Bush announced a global realignment of U.S. military forces to take place over the next several years. The proposed realignment will decrease U.S. presence in Germany and South Korea, bring some units home and shift others to bases in newly allied countries such as Poland, Romania and Uzbekistan. This global realignment is not only overdue, but vital in protecting U.S. security and global stability for decades to come.
The obvious conventional wisdom is that we no longer need a large number of heavy armored units in Germany to protect Western Europe from a Soviet invasion. These units can be replaced with smaller, lighter and more rapidly deployable units, some with the Stryker vehicles, to react quickly to any regional contingency, including terrorism.
Over the past several years, the Department of Defense under Donald Rumsfeld has increased strategic airlift capacity, and this means that more troops can be based in the continental United States and be deployed overseas only as needed. This move should ease hardship on military families and bring about some economic rationalization in basing costs.
The situation is more complicated in the case of South Korea. Former presidential candidate Gen. Wesley Clark sharply criticized the plan to withdraw some troops from South Korea on the grounds that the North Korean threat still persists. However, Clark’s criticism is off the mark. The main threat from North Korea is its nuclear arsenal. Its conventional forces have been worn down by the country’s economic failure, technological obsolescence and even starvation.
Economically vibrant South Korea, on the other hand, dwarfs North Korea in military spending and boasts increasingly high-tech weaponry. South Korea is capable of defending itself against the North’s conventional forces, and the South’s leaders, in fact, feel comfortable enough to deploy 3,600 troops to Iraq.
The U.S. presence in South Korea has been largely a “trip-wire” for some time, a demonstration of U.S. resolve to help defend South Korea. Some reduction in U.S. military presence there in no way detracts from that function. In fact, the presence of U.S. forces near the demilitarized zone — that is, within North’s artillery range — has made them hostages of sorts in dealing with North Korea’s nuclear provocations. Thus, if anything, the administration’s plan to relocate most of the U.S. forces in Korea to south of Seoul, outside the North’s artillery range, and to withdraw other elements stateside improves our ability to react to future North Korean provocations.
Beyond these immediate military considerations, what is implicit in the realignment of forces is the future realignment of U.S. alliances worldwide. The alliances with Western European nations such as France and Germany had rested on a shared threat from the Soviet Union that no longer exists. What’s more, some of our old allies now actively oppose U.S. interests, as can be witnessed by French courtship of China, including their first ever joint naval exercise, with the United States as the potential opponent.
In the future, our interests will converge more closely with those of newly free nations such as Poland, Romania and Uzbekistan as well as traditional allies such as Great Britain, Singapore, Taiwan and Australia that are apprehensive about a dominant Franco-German axis, a resurgent Russia or a rising China. Indeed, by altering our force posture to help these nations balance rising regional powers, we effectively serve our own national interests, as well.
Neither force structures nor alliances are permanent. The Bush plan to realign American military forces increases America’s flexibility to deal with changing realities of the international security environment.
James J. Na is a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Discovery Institute (www.discovery.org), a Seattle public policy center.