Jacob Heilbrunn, editor of the National Interest , spoke with Richard Burt in late March in Washington, DC. Burt is chairman of the National Interest ’s Advisory Council and a former assistant secretary of European and Canadian affairs and U.S. ambassador to Germany.
Jacob Heilbrunn : Both Donald Trump and President Obama seem to have one thing in common: they complain about “free riders”—our allies in Europe and Asia that are relying on the American military to protect them rather than spending on their own defense. What’s your take?
Richard Burt : I do agree with those who argue that one of our great advantages is that we have a number of allies, and some of them are themselves strong, both in Europe and in Asia. At the same time, I agree with Donald Trump that there is a free-rider problem. I just noticed today, for example, an editorial in the Financial Times where Nicholas Burns, a former ambassador to NATO, notes that the United States contributes about 75 percent of NATO’s defense budget. But then he goes on to argue—well—there’s nothing really new in that. We’ve done it for many years, so that’s the price of leadership.
The reality is, that kind of equation is not sustainable. The American people are not going to be willing to pay for three-quarters of combined Western defense spending for a Europe whose GDP is larger than that of the United States. So there is a fundamental free-rider problem—both in the case of NATO in Europe, as well as Japan, South Korea and to a lesser extent Australia in Asia. The Europeans can’t have it both ways: they can’t on the one hand ask for American leadership and expect American protection and worry as they do about the threat of terrorism or—at least in parts of Europe, Russian aggression—and at the same time spend a vastly smaller portion of their budget than the United States does. Germany, which is of course the strongest economy, the strongest country in Europe, spends just a little over 1 percent of its GDP on defense, while the United States spends almost 4 percent of its GDP. So over time, that equation has to change.
I’m a supporter of American alliances because they do enhance our power worldwide, but if our allies aren’t prepared to bear the necessary burdens and take steps that strengthen U.S. security, then we will have a problem. I want to emphasize that point: We have allies not so we can just demonstrate our capacity to support them and thus demonstrate our status as a superpower; we have allies because we believe that it strengthens our international position. But it’s becoming increasingly difficult to make that case to the American voter. And Donald Trump has tapped into that growing recognition amongst the American population.
Heilbrunn: And Hillary Clinton?
Burt: I see Hillary in this case as a kind of voice for the conventional wisdom.
Heilbrunn: She’s more conventional than Obama, isn’t she?
Burt: I think she reflects the Washington think-tank consensus laid out in Jeffrey Goldberg’s Atlantic article that Obama is resisting. She is what I would call a liberal interventionist. While not a neocon, she is clearly willing to use American power, and, where necessary, pursue a unilateralist policy in order to promote not American interests so as much as American values abroad.
Heilbrunn: How would you feel if, under President Clinton, you had Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and Deputy Secretary of State Robert Kagan?
Burt: If you see the sorts of things that Strobe has been saying recently about Vladimir Putin and Russian foreign policy, it’s become increasingly difficult to distinguish between Strobe Talbott and Robert Kagan. So one thing that has happened politically in the last twelve months—as Republicans have begun to have very serious second thoughts about a kind of neoconservative-driven foreign policy and as more and more Republicans either support a policy of greater realism or nationalism—is that neoconservatism is looking for a new home. Indeed, as politicians like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have adopted more policies of foreign-policy realism or nationalism, and as Republican candidates like Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, who really reflected the dominant neoconservative school of thought, have fallen by the wayside, the neoconservatives may be forced to find a new home in the Democratic Party.
Heilbrunn: How do you rate Angela Merkel’s performance over the past year? Did she become, unusually for her, giddily optimistic about integrating refugees from Syria, and has her policy boomeranged?
Burt: In effect it has. I think Angela Merkel may be an example of where the Europeans have begun to believe the idea that the EU is a “soft-power” superpower too seriously. I think her well-meaning open-door policy towards migration has certainly proved to be politically wrong in Germany itself, because it’s fed the more ethnocentric elements in the populist right in Germany, but also, in the aftermath of Brussels, I think it has also shown that the Europeans have conspicuously failed to protect their own borders. She’s an astute enough politician in Germany to kind of correct those earlier mistakes, and there’s nobody on the horizon in Germany at this point that can really challenge her.