Trump Ignores the Reason America Defends the World

Fend for themselves?

Photographer: Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images

One obstacle to envisioning a Donald Trump presidency is his tendency to contradict himself, often violently. His fervid plans to "take out" terrorists' family members and to ban Muslim U.S. citizens from re-entering the country, to choose just two examples, were short-lived.

But on one issue, Trump has been consistent: his criticism of U.S. allies for not paying their fair share for the "cloak of American protection." This week he got more specific. In an interview with the New York Times, Trump declined to say whether the U.S. would defend the Baltic states, which are members of NATO, if they came under attack by Russia. "Have they fulfilled their obligations to us?" he asked. He also clarified that he was against maintaining the U.S. naval presence in Asia and ground troops in South Korea.

If he means it, this represents a stunning reversal of 70 years of U.S. military policy. It also makes no sense whatsoever.

First, while Trump is correct that most NATO members don't meet the alliance's goal of spending 2 percent of gross domestic product on their militaries, the states on Russia's western flank come the closest. Poland and Estonia both reach the bar, and Latvia and Lithuania have pledged to do so by 2020. Among major powers, the U.K. -- which already spends 2.1 percent of GDP -- and Germany are both ramping up their military budgets.

Free Riders or Vital Partners?
Defense spending by NATO members as percentage of GDP in 2015
 
Source: NATO
Note: Iceland has no standing army.

Second, Trump's insistence that it would be "a lot less expensive" to deploy U.S. forces from domestic bases in a crisis is based on shaky assumptions. South Korea, Japan and Germany pay billions to host U.S. troops; the top U.S. commander in South Korea has said it would actually be more expensive to base those forces domestically. Imagine the cost and time wasted if a carrier strike group responding to Chinese aggression in the Pacific had to be deployed from San Diego instead of Yokosuka, Japan.

The biggest cause for alarm, however, may be Trump's casual dismissal of a global system that the U.S. invented and which has served it well for decades. Going back to the early days of the Cold War, the U.S. chose to dominate the free world's efforts to contain global communism rather than rely on voluntary efforts from its allies. In part, this was out of a hesitation to re-arm Germany and Japan. But it was also intended to avoid the sorts of deal-making and coercion necessary to get friends on board every time a crisis or concern arose.

This is not to say that the U.S. is averse to forming coalitions of the willing when necessary, such as against Saddam Hussein in 1990. But with Vladimir Putin's Russia getting more adventurous by the day and China looking to exert ever more control over the region's waters, it is not a good time to offend America's closest allies and tell them to fend for themselves.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.