Trump’s Position on Treaty Commitments Has Already Hurt America
The GOP presidential nominee has succeeded in altering and undermining the nature of America's alliance relationships.
Donald Trump can always be counted on to upset a long-standing apple cart. He did it again in his most recent interview with the New York Times. He made clear that in his view, America’s treaty commitments, for decades a cornerstone of its national security policy, are not binding. Instead, they are subject to any sort of conditionality that the president might choose to impose.
For Trump, that conditionality is budgetary. If a given ally, or group of allies, do not contribute their fair share according to Trump, they can no longer rely on America coming to their aid in case of an attack by an aggressor. And it will be Trump — assuming, as he does, that he is elected president — who will determine what a fair share might be.
Trump was referring specifically to a Russian attack on one of the three Baltic states, all of which are NATO members. By asserting that they could well be on their own were Russia to seek to reoccupy them, Trump was doing more than abandoning allies who for five decades, from 1940 to 1990, the United States had considered “captive nations.” He was serving notice that he perceives Russia as far more benign than do the Europeans or the previous leaders of both major American political parties. Perhaps that should come as no surprise. Russian President Vladimir Putin was one of the first major figures to support Trump’s candidacy for president. And American presidents have a long tradition of rewarding their earliest supporters once elected. Since Trump cannot award Putin an ambassadorship (then again, who knows, maybe he can?), the Republican nominee might as well grant the Kremlin the right to invade one or more neighboring states.
Rather than maintaining oversees bases, Trump asserts that it would be far more efficient for American forces to deploy from the United States. Such a policy would solve the problem of underutilized bases and would obviate the need for a new round of base closures. And it would no doubt delight a non-insignificant number of members of Congress. On the other hand, the redeployment of forces back to the United States may not result in cost savings when — not if — an aggressor threatens America’s overseas interests. The cost of stationing American forces abroad is not borne by Washington alone. Host nations such as Japan and South Korea make a significant contribution toward covering those costs.
Moreover, forward deployments have had a major deterrent effect on potential adversaries. In the absence of a prompt American response to aggression, such deterrence will no longer be as credible as it has been until now. Instead, an aggressor could be sorely tempted to attack an erstwhile American ally, whose security is important to those very economic interests that Trump values so highly, and that he would have to deploy forces to defend. Wars always cost more than deterrence; by inviting a war that would draw in American forces, Trump would actually end up growing defense budgets to a far greater extent than he seems prepared to acknowledge, or worse still, fully comprehend.
Trump also fails to realize that forward deployments have long represented a tacit bargain between America and its allies. By stationing forces on allies’ territory, Washington ensures that the battles it fights will take place on foreign soil. That has been the case since the nineteenth century. Allies and friends accept the risk of war on their territory because the presence of American forces renders war far less likely. Trump would change all that.
Whether or not he is elected president, Trump has already succeeded in altering and undermining the nature of America’s alliance relationships. He has planted in the minds of NATO and other American allies a seed of doubt about Washington’s reliability that will not disappear regardless of who is the next occupant of the White House. His increasingly frequent and explicit statements about the diminished utility of alliances have opened a Pandora’s box that will not be closed easily.
Trump has forced European and Asian allies to rethink their options. Several Central European states have already developed ties to Putin that are too close for American comfort, and more may follow down the same path. Similarly, the Arab Middle East, and perhaps even Israel, may build upon their own increasingly close ties with Russia. And the smaller Asian states may decide that it is better to look to Beijing rather than rely on an ambivalent America for security.
Trump is a master salesman. He has a knack for dominating media headlines. Unfortunately for America, he is selling a policy that could have disastrous consequences for the security that he so loudly claims to promote. Sadly, it is the headlines, rather than their content, that are uppermost in Trump’s mind. America is already paying a high price for the snake oil that he is marketing as “America First.” The more he repeats his sales pitch, the higher that price is likely to be.
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