What Trump Gets Right About Alliances

The president is correct to call the bluff of rich allies who free-ride on U.S. military might.

By Michael Moran, an author on political risk and macroeconomic trends.
U.S. President Donald Trump arrives for the NATO summit at the Grove hotel northwest of London on Dec. 4.
U.S. President Donald Trump arrives for the NATO summit at the Grove hotel northwest of London on Dec. 4. Christian Hartmann/AFP/Getty Images

It may seem odd to praise U.S. President Donald Trump’s handling of key American alliances during a week when he denounced remarks by Emmanuel Macron, the president of France—one of the few countries capable of expeditionary warfare or exercising influence beyond its borders—as “very, very nasty” at a gathering of NATO leaders. Nor is it right to excuse his destabilizing rhetoric and reckless policies that cast doubt on the organization’s future, on the presence of U.S. troops in South Korea, and on the treaty that has governed U.S. troops on Japanese soil since 1960.

Yet Trump’s tantrum diplomacy, as disruptive as it looks, has produced the most significant shift in global burden sharing since the Cold War, with Canada and the European members of NATO set to spend approximately $130 billion more on their own defense in 2020 than they did in 2016. That still leaves a majority of NATO nations spending less than 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense—the figure that NATO members have pledged to allocate by 2024—but the achievement is still significant.

To be sure, one might argue that Russian President Vladimir Putin has done far more to prompt the change in spending; it’s no coincidence that the three Baltic states, Poland, and Romania are among the handful of NATO’s 29 nations clearing the 2 percent GDP defense spending hurdle this year. But Putin’s aggressive behavior can be traced at least to the Russo-Georgian War of 2008, more than a decade before the coming spending hikes. Trump will, and by rights can, take some credit for the change.

With attention focused on NATO’s 70th anniversary summit taking place near London, it is easy to overlook something more significant going on a half a world away. Japan and South Korea are facing even less subtle pressure to raise their games than NATO, and they have far less scope for resisting it.

On Tuesday, for instance, talks between the United States and South Korea resumed in Washington. The heart of the discussions is a U.S. demand that Seoul pay as much as $5 billion annually to cover to cost of the 28,500 U.S. troops stationed there, a force left in place after the 1953 Korean War armistice to deter North Korean aggression.

The demand—widely viewed as an outrageous negotiating gambit by Washington—would effectively quintuple what South Korea currently pays, about $900 million this year, a figure that already went up by 8 percent just last year. Experts agree that the annual cost to the U.S. taxpayer of the U.S. presence in South Korea is about $2 billion.

Yet even if Trump’s actual demand is unreasonable, the reasoning behind it has some merit. Maintaining troops in South Korea, the administration argues, is about more than feeding, arming, and paying them. It’s also about maintaining the intelligence and logistical services necessary to keep them safe, the naval and air capabilities to support their exercises and training, not to mention the far more expensive capacity to respond in force with reinforcements and offensive operations if North Korea were ever to strike—something that is in South Korea’s interest.

In effect, like the businessman he is, Trump is unwilling to provide all these services at the current prices: less than cost. Nor is he willing, necessarily, to do it at cost. He wants the U.S. security guarantee to take the form of an insurance policy, and he’s just put Seoul on notice that its premiums are going to rise this year. The only question is by how much.

A similar demand was presented to Japan in November. Tokyo currently pays $2 billion annually to defray the cost of stationing 54,000 U.S. personnel on its soil in dozens of bases large and small, including the U.S. 5th Air Force, the III Marine Expeditionary Force, and the headquarters of the world’s most powerful naval force, the U.S. 7th Fleet.

Japan is in a slightly stronger position to say no. Unlike South Korea, the agreement under which it currently contributes does not expire annually. It has until March 2021 to find the Trumpian bottom line, and it’s not hard to imagine Prime Minister Shinzo Abe rooting hard for the Democrats to win the White House in the meantime. Yet at the end of the day, Japan will not simply be able to walk away from the negotiations without giving something. Its security challenges have only increased as China has overtaken it economically and looms ever larger as a regional rival.

Of course, money isn’t everything. As ridiculous as such a statement might sound to the occupants of the current White House Situation Room, the fact is that alliances are not zero-sum games. Allies can be pushed too far.

Poorly handled relationships can nudge otherwise friendly states toward neutrality, a strategic goal Russia and its Soviet predecessor have pursued with regard to NATO and Germany for decades. Paternalistic relationships have a way of causing the lesser party to seek its independence. The Philippines ejected U.S. forces from U.S. Naval Base Subic Bay in 1991 for just such a reason, depriving the United States of a forward presence in an important theater. Egypt threw out Soviet advisors in 1972 after Moscow refused to supply it with front-line offensive weapons, inviting the United States in to fill the gap.

Could Trump’s roughshod approach push Japan or South Korea into China’s embrace? Or convince NATO that some form of negotiated appeasement of Russia’s ambitions would be better than standing up for abstract principles like democracy and self-determination? Perhaps, but the one NATO ally Trump handles with kid gloves, Turkey, is precisely the one drifting further and further out of its orbit. Making nice seems to have little practical effect.

By any measure, most NATO members have freeloaded shamelessly on the United States, particularly since the brief period of cooperation with Russia that followed the end of the Cold War.  By 2009, the year after Putin’s Russia seized Georgian territory by force and showed its true colors, the European members of NATO were still spending will below the organization’s threshold. The commensurate U.S. figure that year was about 5 percent, depending on what one includes as “defense.”

The fact is, the post-Cold War calculations made by European, Canadian, South Korean, and Japanese leaders—that the United States would fill every void and throw money at every problem—was never going to be sustainable. The idea that these rich, advanced nations couldn’t possibly defend themselves was a bluff. The United States even arrogantly encouraged this view, buying into the delusional concept that it would own the 21st century as thoroughly as it commanded the last two decades of the 20th.

Trump, for all his lack of tact and strategic vision, for all the risk embedded in his reckless talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un or his mishandling of policy in the Middle East, is dead right to call the burden-sharing bluff.

Michael Moran is an author, documentarian, and commentator on global affairs and a senior executive at Microshare, a global Smart Buildings data intelligence and sustainability firm.