Not all U.S. foreign policy ends in a debacle. The Biden administration’s precipitous, unilateral withdrawal from Afghanistan destroyed hopes of freedom and security there and has shaken our allies’ trust in Washington’s commitments to them.
But foreign policy done well has the opposite effect. Exhibit A: the enduring alliance between the United States and South Korea.
The alliance was first forged in war. Shortly after the 1953 Armistice Agreement, the United States and South Korea entered a Mutual Defense Treaty. To this day, the U.S. remains true to that security commitment to South Korea, with more than 28,500 U.S. service members stationed in Korea and close military consultation and cooperation. America’s steadfast military support has, in turn, encouraged Seoul to advance values it shares with Washington: democracy, economic freedom, respect for human rights, and much, much more.
As the years have passed, these shared values have bound the two nations closer and closer. This is not to say that relations have never been strained. For example, Washington and Seoul have often differed on the best way to deal diplomatically with North Korea. And former President Donald Trump recently roiled the relationship by demanding that Seoul pick up a significantly larger share of the cost of keeping U.S. troops in Korea. Yet despite numerous ups and downs—or perhaps thanks to them—Washington today considers the Republic of Korea a model ally.
Indeed, the bilateral relationship is one of the most successful ever built. Once a recipient of U.S. economic development assistance, South Korea now boasts one of the most resilient and competitive economies in the world.
The May 21 White House summit between Joe Biden and Moon Jae-in highlighted several areas where the two nations could work together to drive both economies forward-looking alliance. The leaders spoke of cooperative efforts in emerging tech, climate change, and space policy. That discussion marked a clear transition in U.S.–South Korea relations from that of a purely security/military alliance to a more far-ranging partnership.
Bilateral trade and investment activities have expanded over time, with the big boost coming with the implementation of the first U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement in 2012. Since that agreement, bilateral total trade flows have increased to over $170 billion, with both U.S. services exports and Korean goods exports rising by around 35 percent. Foreign direct investment has also increased markedly. Since 2012, South Korean investment in the U.S. has nearly tripled, to over $55 billion, and U.S. foreign direct investment to South Korea rose almost 50%, to over $40 billion.
Despite those impressive gains, though, much more can be achieved through innovative avenues that can capitalize on both countries’ shared strengths. For example, both the U.S. and South Korea have innovative, technologically advanced manufacturing sectors. That creates a common interest in trying to understand how technical innovation—touching everything from robotics to artificial intelligence—will affect their prosperity as well as security in the 21st Century.
To that end, Washington should work with Seoul to create a pragmatic framework of policies that can promote core 5G technologies, enabling greater and more strategic commercialization of secure telecommunications networks. Obviously, this would provide major security benefits for both nations as well.
Similarly, the need for timely and strategic bilateral cooperation on cyberspace ought to be self-evident to Washington and Seoul. The severity and complexity of malicious cyber-attacks in both nations have intensified over the past few months—with China and North Korea thought to be behind the vast majority of these attacks. America and South Korea ought to be joined at the hip in working to counter cyber-attacks.
None of this should be construed as suggesting that governments are smarter or more capable of meeting these challenges than the private sector. The latter remains the real generator of innovation and understanding. Governments need to figure out how to take advantage of what the private sector has to offer and then help companies and government agencies share their insights and information in ways that enhance everyone’s security while protecting intelligence sources and corporate intellectual property rights. It’s the kind of conversation forward-looking governments—especially two long-time allies—should engage in.
Next year will mark the 10th anniversary of the implementation of the first U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement. In the run-up to that milestone, Washington and Seoul should work together to reinvigorate their proven economic partnership and to move it to the next level by working together to deal proactively with emerging challenges like cyber security.