Study: Trump’s Wrong About the Cost of Keeping U.S. Troops Overseas
The new study shows that any savings from scaling back U.S. security ties abroad would be outweighed by big losses in trade and GDP.
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump says the cost of keeping troops overseas and protecting allies is bankrupting the United States. But a new study has crunched the numbers and found that America’s security commitments are a net economic gain, to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars.
Researchers at the RAND Corp. think tank looked at security treaties and the presence of U.S. troops around the world, along with bilateral and regional trade trends. The authors concluded America’s military footprint abroad — and its array of security accords — bolsters U.S. bilateral trade and even trade among American allies.
Without those treaties and troops, U.S. trade would suffer. The study estimated the cost of cutting back the U.S. presence overseas would be more than three times any savings gained by lower defense spending.
Trump has alarmed allies from Tokyo to Berlin — and Republican national security experts — with his campaign rhetoric that questions the benefits of alliance arrangements and the value of keeping American troops overseas. He has suggested that Japan and South Korea should acquire nuclear weapons of their own to protect themselves, and that if he was commander in chief, the United States might not come to the aid of some NATO states.
Asked by CNN in March about his views on the advantages of U.S. military commitments, Trump said: “There’s a benefit, but not big enough to bankrupt and destroy the United States, because that’s what’s happening. We can’t afford it. It’s very simple.”
Some advocates of reining in the U.S. military’s global footprint have estimated that the savings from a major retrenchment overseas could amount to more than $139 billion.
But the RAND study estimates that a 50 percent cut in security commitments could reduce U.S. bilateral trade annually by up to $577 billion, excluding trade with Canada and Mexico. That would represent roughly 18 percent of the country’s total trade. The drop in trade would mean an annual decline in GDP of about $490 billion, according to the study.
“Policymakers who reduce these commitments would face not only the immediate problems of how and where to make the reductions but also the future problems of a poorer United States,” the study said.
U.S. security treaties and deployed forces tend to reduce insurance costs for companies and provide stability as well as a measure of confidence for a business looking to enter a new market, said the study’s lead author, Daniel Egel, an economist at the RAND Corporation and a professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School.
“From a broader perspective, it makes it cheaper to do trade,” he told Foreign Policy. “If you have these security commitments, you don’t need as many assurances. “
Diplomats have long argued that U.S. military commitments provide tangible and intangible benefits, by establishing a rapport with a government that can eventually result in broader trade ties.
The study, however, did not find conclusive evidence that U.S. troops or treaties prevented or contained wars.
The U.S. military has about 250,000 service members stationed in about 150 countries and has various security commitments with about 140 nations. In most cases, the American footprint is small, and all but 50 countries are home to fewer than 25 American troops.
Experts and fact-checking sites have already rejected Trump’s portrayal of U.S. overseas commitments, pointing out that the cost of keeping troops in allied countries is often miniscule.
Host nations usually cover a myriad of costs associated with the American forces. Japan, for example, spends about $4 billion a year on base-related expenses. And numerous allies also buy billions of dollars worth of U.S.-made weapons and aircraft, while Washington spends relatively small sums on training and military education in those countries. Foreign military aid and training makes up 0.16 percent of all U.S. government spending.
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