It's mostly just a blip in recent history, something most people have probably forgotten, but in 2003, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld threatened to withdraw American troops from South Korea.
Anti-Americanism was at an all-time high at the time, fueled by anger over the invasion of Iraq and South Korea's own media feeding the sentiments. Much was made of a Korean Gallup poll that found some 53 percent of South Koreans had negative views of the U.S., and at one point South Koreans were taking to the streets daily to protest the American military presence in their country, calling on U.S. troops to leave.
Perhaps most insulting were the U.S. media dispatches that reported how "South Korean students did not seem to know much about their own history, including the fact that it was actually North Korea that invaded the South in 1950, and that the United States was the deus ex machina that saved South Korea from communist invaders," according to the Japan Policy Research Institute.
South Koreans had decided they did not like the U.S., entire generations of Korean children weren't taught that more than 50,000 American service members died to defend their country, and thousands of civilians were demanding a U.S. exit. So Rumsfeld and the Department of Defense made ready to grant the South Koreans their wish, and started on plans to withdraw the 38,000 American servicemembers in the country.
The response probably gave South Koreans whiplash.
"We ask Secretary Rumsfeld, do not withdraw American troops at this time," Song Young Gil, an official in then-President Roh Moo Hyun's party, told The New York Times. "If the alliance is equal, Americans should heed the voice of the Korean government."
If South Koreans hate the U.S. so much, why ask the Americans to stay? Because just 35 miles from the South Korean capital of Seoul was the demilitarized zone, the paper-thin barrier marking the end of South Korea and the beginning of North Korea, ruled over by an unpredictable dictator who was not shy about making threats to nuke the south and shatter the fragile peace that held for half a century. Practically weekly, Pyongyang was issuing outlandish threats to drown its enemies in "a sea of fire," to "mercilessly wipe out the aggressors," to " fire our nuclear-armed rockets at the White House and the Pentagon."
To this day, American troops remain in South Korea. In fact, there are 28,000 of them. And while South Korea pays a small portion of the cost, American taxpayers foot the majority of the bill -- the billions of dollars it costs to keep them there each year.
That arrangement, and others like it, was exactly what Donald Trump was talking about when he spoke to The New York Times about foreign policy in an interview published July 20.
It's what he meant when he said half-century-old pacts and policies need to be reviewed as the U.S. moves forward and prioritizes its own problems over the problems of the rest of the world. And it's perfectly consistent with the things he's been saying about foreign policy for a year now.
Not only does the U.S. pay for troops and bases in South Korea, troops and bases in Japan, troops and bases in Europe -- U.S. taxpayers also foot the bill for the massive and sophisticated network of defenses that watch over those countries. It's U.S. taxpayers who have money taken out of their checks to fund the radar installations and missile batteries that protected those countries from the Soviets, and continue to protect them from potential threats originating from powers like Russia, North Korea and Iran.
And while the U.S. is paying for those defenses, it's also operating at a loss with its trading partners -- the same partners it protects.
“This is not 40 years ago,” Trump told the Times. “We are spending a fortune on military in order to lose $800 billion. That doesn’t sound very smart to me.”
As Fortune notes in a July 2 article, since the end of the Cold War, European countries haven't spent much money on national defense, or even put much thought into it. That's changing now, with a newly aggressive Russia, civil war raging in Syria, a refugee crisis impacting the entire continent, and the ever-present threat of terrorism.
For a long time, America has been knocked as being the world's police. Now that a presidential nominee from a major party is calling for reflection and possibly scaling down America's military footprint, policymakers and analysts are clutching their pearls, saying Trump's proposals are unthinkable.
Much of what Trump has said is reasonable. If allies have signed defense pacts, but refuse to honor the terms of those pacts with their relatively tiny contributions to the cost, why should the U.S. risk the lives of its service members -- and spend billions of dollars -- coming to the rescue of those countries? If trade agreements are so unbalanced that entire American industries are wiped out, why stick to those agreements?
And with that, of course, comes the predictable criticism that Trump doesn't have foreign policy experience and doesn't know what he's talking about, as if President Barack Obama wasn't a half-term senator before he became president, as if presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton weren't governors with no foreign policy experience before they assumed the nation's highest office.
Trump hasn't said any of his foreign policy ideas would be written in stone if he becomes president. He's merely said that these things are worth thinking about, that arrangements that worked in the 1940s and 1950s might not be beneficial in 2016 and beyond.
Altruism is noble, but a country that's $19 trillion in debt shouldn't be the world's sugar daddy. Maybe it's time someone with financial smarts takes the reigns from the politicians who put us in debt in the first pace.
“We are going to take care of this country first,” Trump said, “before we worry about everyone else in the world.”
Sources: Politico, The New York Times (2) (3), The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, Huffington Post, Japan Policy Research Institute, Los Angeles Times / Photo credit: Staff Sergeant Jason Gamble via Wikimedia Commons