2016 Elections

Trump's Attempt to Rewrite NATO Will Backfire

Renegotiating alliances would be disastrous for the U.S., but great news for Putin.

To Russia with love.

Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Donald Trump’s foreign policy speech lays out what would be a disastrous course for the U.S. with regards to Russia and European security. On the other hand, for Europe and its eastern neighbor, the disengagement he is proposing might work out quite well -- just not in the way Trump intends.

Trump’s most specific statement -- an extremely rare occasion when he decided against extemporizing -- was a threat to U.S. allies across the Atlantic and Pacific: 

We have spent trillions of dollars over time – on planes, missiles, ships, equipment – building up our military to provide a strong defense for Europe and Asia. The countries we are defending must pay for the cost of this defense – and, if not, the U.S. must be prepared to let these countries defend themselves.

Trump proposed a summit with North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies and “a separate summit with our Asian allies” to discuss, among other things, “a rebalancing of financial commitments.”

That would be a tough discussion, if only because it’s not easy to figure out how much of U.S. military expenditure actually benefits its foreign allies. The publicly available data on the U.S. budget are not specific enough. Will Trump want European allies to pay for the 34,000 U.S. soldiers stationed in European command area of operations? Or is he perhaps just talking about the 2014 European Reassurance Initiative (ERI), to assuage fears engendered by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Ukraine, and the Europe-based missile defense program?

If it's one or all of these, the math is relatively easy. The U.S. force in Europe is about the size of the Dutch military. In 2015, according to NATO, the Netherlands allocated $9 billion to defense, so that number can probably be used as an approximation. The ERI cost $800 million in 2016, and the Obama administration expanded it to $3.4 billion for 2017, most of the money going toward an increased presence of U.S. personnel and heavy equipment, and the rest for infrastructure, exercises and investments in potential NATO expansion. For the European missile defense program, the Department of Defense requested $630 million for 2017.

A total of $13 billion would not be worth the argument for Europeans. The combined military spending of all European NATO members reached $234.8 billion. If a President Trump put a choice before the European nations -- pick up this bill or see the military alliance dissolve -- they would likely grumble a little and pick up the bill, largely because what protects them is not the actual U.S. presence and the relatively insignificant budget that funds it. It’s the entire U.S. military might, backed up by enormous spending -- $650 billion in 2015. It is also the U.S. nuclear deterrent.

But Trump seems to have something much more sweeping in mind. This isn’t simply a rehash of the long-standing U.S. insistence that allies meet their commitment to spend 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense or greater sharing of the burden of U.S. bases. His aim is apparently a complete rewriting of the Alliance agreement. As the Brookings Institute’s Thomas Wright put it, “Trump is asking the allies to pay for a significant share of the U.S. defense budget that enables the United States to be militarily present in Europe and Asia. This would run into hundreds of billions of dollars per year.”

Trump appears to want Europeans to pay for the full force of a U.S. security guarantee, the way medieval kingdoms paid mercenary armies for protection. That would be much harder to price, and the line between fair payment and extortion would probably be too thin for Europeans to even contemplate negotiating a deal.

There is something else in Trump’s speech that makes his stand on European security unexpectedly palatable. As U.S. president, he wants to improve relations with Russia -- the country that presents the biggest theoretical security threat to Europe, a much bigger one than any terror militia such as the Islamic State could ever present:

I believe an easing of tensions and improved relations with Russia -- from a position of strength -- is possible. Common sense says this cycle of hostility must end. Some say the Russians won’t be reasonable. I intend to find out. If we can’t make a good deal for America, then we will quickly walk from the table.

The best thing about this statement -- and about several others in the speech -- is that if it reflects Trump’s true intentions, it makes a detente with Russia utterly impossible. Putin, who has praised Trump as “brilliant,” has now heard him say the U.S. will try some arm-twisting, “from a position of strength,” that the U.S. won the Cold War and that it was the U.S., under Ronald Reagan, that got Mikhail Gorbachev to bring down the Berlin Wall. These assertions fit with Putin’s oft-expressed belief the U.S. is Russia’s eternal rival, always trying to beat and subjugate it. Trump the political novice pays no lip service to the will of the Russian and German peoples to end communism. To listen to him talk, the fall of the Soviet Union and the German unification were U.S. victories.

Putin won’t do any kind of deal on these terms. He keeps stressing he wants “respect”; Trump’s speech is full of disrespect for Russia’s greatness.

After President Trump has alienated America’s European allies because they wouldn’t fund the U.S. defense budget, and after he’s angered Russia with childishly imperialist rhetoric, there’s not much for Europe and Russia to do but draw closer together. The Europeans have something Putin wants: investment, technology, trade, safe banks for his cronies. Offering these nice things to Russia would defuse the security threat. For his part, Putin doesn’t really want military conquests on NATO territory; havens for Russian money are more important. This would perhaps be a better basis for lasting peace than the U.S. military deterrent, and it would be a dream situation for Putin. In a stroke, he would regain all he lost by attacking Ukraine.

Europe has no qualms about doing a deal with Turkey’s authoritarian ruler, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, when his help is needed to resolve the refugee crisis. Having fallen out with the U.S., it will just as easily do a deal with Putin. It hasn’t done so yet in part because of U.S. pressure.

It’s hard to say how such a rapprochement will be in U.S. interests, but then, when did Trump ever make any sense, whether he improvised or read from a piece of paper?

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net

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