Donald Trump Doesn’t Understand the Value of U.S. Bases Overseas
America’s alliances are not only a bargain, they’re vital to projecting power and maintaining global stability.
For the first time in seven decades, a leading U.S. presidential candidate is fundamentally questioning the usefulness of America’s overseas alliances and forward military presence, calling into question some enduring tenets of U.S. grand strategy. As this debate unsettles our allies in Europe, Asia, and beyond, the American people are asking: Have we been getting a bad international deal all these years? In this case, the answer is simple: The United States gets the better end of the deal from its forward deterrent posture than any other nation, and its value outweighs its current costs. Although U.S. officials often describe the advantages of this policy to our allies, we often neglect to say that this cost-effective policy fully supports and serves U.S. national interests.
Donald Trump, the candidate most critical of America’s alliance relationships, has specifically challenged U.S. policy toward NATO and Japan. Trump has stated that the United States cannot afford its current commitment to NATO. Yet, the United States currently pays only 22 percent of direct NATO spending, with Canada and European allies providing the remaining 78 percent. NATO’s direct cost-sharing arrangement is based on relative GDP among member nations, except in the case of the United States, which actually pays a discounted percent compared to every other NATO ally: U.S. GDP is just under half of the total GDP for all NATO members. It is true that U.S. indirect contributions to NATO, in the form of troops and materiel, are significantly higher than that of any other NATO ally. This is unsurprising, since the vast majority of NATO capabilities over the past 15 years have been deployed in support of a U.S. security priority: the post-9/11 campaign in Afghanistan (which Trump says he supports). Our NATO allies have not only made a military contribution to Afghanistan; they have suffered more than 1,000 deaths and many more casualties since 2001.
Meanwhile, Trump has attacked Japan as having cheated the United States in economic relations while free-riding on our mutual security treaty. His curiously anachronistic language from the 1980s ignores the fact that Japan has consistently invested more in the American economy than almost any other country. The Japanese government also recently passed legislation that stretches its pacifist constitution to authorize Japanese forces to increase support for U.S. forces in more missions and a broader geographic area. Trump has even called on Japan, along with South Korea, to consider nuclearizing.
Without reviewing here the history of Asian security dynamics, it is safe to summarize that such an approach could create significant conflict challenges in Asia that would threaten global economic stability. Asia is now home to two-thirds of total global economic growth; some 40 percent of U.S. trade goods pass through the region. American leaders understood the potential of Asia at the end of World War II. Having won the war, they sought to secure the peace and prosperity they envisioned could follow. That put a premium on securing access for the U.S. military in the region. This last point leads to one of the most common complaints about U.S. military posture — that overseas military basing is a bad deal for America. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Despite claims by Trump and others to the contrary, the agreements the United States has negotiated with countries such as Germany, Japan, and South Korea to base our forces there are advantageous. One Rand Corp. study estimated that Germany annually provides many hundreds of millions of dollars in support of U.S. forces there, some $830 million in 2009, the last year it examined. South Korea pays nearly $900 million, and Japan provides roughly $2 billion in yearly costs for forward-deployed U.S. forces. In fact, South Korea and Japan are paying $30 billion of the $37 billion in new facilities construction required for U.S. forces, including an unprecedented $3 billion from Tokyo for new facilities inside U.S. territory in Guam.
The alternatives to forward basing are financially and strategically challenging. One approach would be to find room to base U.S. forces currently in Japan, South Korea, and Europe — approximately 114,000 personnel — inside U.S. territory, forcing the United States to absorb the costs entirely. Those costs would include significant additional U.S. equipment if the United States wants to be prepared to project that force forward rapidly. For example, it takes about four U.S. aircraft carriers based on the U.S. mainland to maintain the presence of just one aircraft carrier in the Pacific. If we can base that aircraft carrier closer to an area of potential conflict, we need only a fraction of the expensive hardware to be built and maintained. Thus, even if host-nation support does not fully cover the costs of U.S. overseas basing, a forward American military presence is economically beneficial. An alternative is to cut all forward force structure from our military altogether, a strategically naive approach given current and projected challenges.
These hard facts are reinforced by our historical experiences. Two cataclysmic world wars in the 20th century amply demonstrated that it pays to maintain an international economic system favoring free enterprise and American industry and to protect that system with a network of relationships and alliances that together bring prosperity, protection, and freedom.
We have doubted this wisdom in the past and paid dearly for it. Take the case of South Korea. In January 1950, the United States appeared to write off defense of South Korea in Dean Acheson’s infamous “perimeter speech,” North Korea attacked that summer, and over the next three years, 36,516 Americans lost their lives reversing that attack and drawing a line for freedom on the Korean Peninsula. At a time when North Korea is conducting wargames for nuclear attacks on Washington and the Islamic State is planning terrorist attacks on the homeland, does it make sense for us to publicly throw into doubt our entire system of alliances and forward bases?
Yes, America’s allies must do more to invest in their own defense. Many are spending too little, focusing on the wrong investments, and relying too heavily on U.S. capabilities. Yet as Russia changes borders by force, China asserts itself militarily in the South China Sea, and the Islamic State unleashes violence around the globe, many allies are increasing their defense spending and cooperating more closely with the United States. Washington must reward their efforts, not leave them in the lurch. The United States has spent the last 70 years building the most impressive international alliance structure and overseas facility posture in the world. Now is not the time to casually and thoughtlessly toss this effort into the dustbin. Military alliances and overseas bases do cost money, but their value to America’s national defense and economic prosperity is worth every penny.
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