Commentary: Trump’s transactional approach is eroding global alliances

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The United States has for decades deployed large numbers of its military forces overseas. Today, some 170,000 troops are stationed in more than 150 countries. But the vast majority of them are based in just three nations: Germany, Japan and South Korea.

That is no coincidence. During the last century, the United States fought devastating wars in all three countries, and its continued military presence there has ensured an enduring peace ever since. That peace has been the foundation of prosperity, not only for the three countries themselves, but for Europe and Asia as a whole. And for the United States, which has benefited greatly from having strong alliances and an open trading system in both regions.

Long before he became president, Donald Trump derided these troop deployments and security relationships as costly to the American taxpayer and faulted America’s leaders for not getting anything in return. Back in 1987, he published an open letter to the American people urging that “America should stop paying to defend countries that can afford to defend themselves.” Instead, we should make them “pay for the protection we extend as allies.”

Thirty years later, Trump has sought to put these ideas into practice.

He has threatened to withdraw U.S. troops from South Korea unless Seoul agreed to pay $5 billion a year, a fivefold increase, to compensate Washington for the cost of deploying 28,000 troops there. Japan, administration officials have said, needs to quadruple its payments from $2 billion to $8 billion a year to help offset the cost of deploying 54,000 U.S. troops on its territory.

And earlier this week, Trump announced that he had ordered a nearly 30% cut in the 34,500 U.S. troops based in Germany. “We’re protecting Germany and they’re delinquent,” Trump said. “That doesn’t make sense.”

Trump is hardly the first president to fret about allies as free riders, unwilling to do their part for the common defense. But he is the first to look at alliances purely in terms of dollars and cents. He sees alliances not as institutions to advance common interests and protect common values, but as transactional relationships in which the U.S. provides protection only if paid for doing so.

Given the rising danger from Russia to Europe and of China and North Korea in East Asia, allied capitals have been increasing defense spending for some time. And it’s possible that Trump’s threats may succeed in further bolstering spending by them in the short term.

But in the long term, Trump’s transactional approach will undermine U.S. and allied security. What holds alliances together is an understanding that the security of one is vital to the security of all. At their core, they are based on the idea that when faced with common threats — whether from great powers, rogue states or global challenges such as climate change, pandemics or terrorism — working together is far more likely to succeed than standing apart.

Yet, the effectiveness of alliances ultimately resides in members being confident they can rely on one another to help ensure their security and come to their defense. Unfortunately, when it comes to the U.S. these days, that confidence is being eroded by the transactional approach pursued by Trump and his administration.

“The times in which we could rely fully on others,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel lamented a few years ago, “they are somewhat over.” Instead, Germany and Europe will need to “take our fate into our own hands.”

Some may welcome ending America’s decades-old military cooperation with Europe and Asia (and elsewhere), convinced that former allies can take care of themselves. That likely includes Trump himself, who last week told West Point graduates that it shouldn’t be “the duty of U.S. troops to solve ancient conflicts in faraway lands.”

While it’s possible that our allies in Europe and Asia will band to deter the growing dangers from Russia, China and North Korea to their security, however, it’s just as likely that they will accommodate themselves to these competing powers.

That would not be in America’s security interest. In fact, as competition with Russia and China heats up, keeping allies on our side is as important today as any time in the past 75 years.

Fortunately, most Americans understand this all too well. According to a 2019 survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, 74% of Americans believe U.S. alliances make us safer, 73% believe NATO is essential to our security and large majorities agree that relations with Japan (78%), Germany (75%) and Korea (70%) strengthen U.S. national security. And while Americans realize that our alliances in Asia and Europe benefit our allies, more than 60% believe they benefit the United States as well.

Alliances have been at the core of America’s national security for more than 70 years. For good reason. They provide more security at less cost than fighting wars. We lose them only at our own peril.



Ivo Daalder is president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a former U.S. ambassador to NATO.


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