As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump insisted that U.S. allies were receiving a cheap-ride on American security guarantees. He suggested that they pay more, otherwise, Washington might not feel compelled to meet U.S. treaty obligations. Now that Trump has been elected, there is rising anxiety among American allies that such a scenario might come to pass. Exposed allies like South Korea feel this most acutely; within twenty-four hours of Trump’s victory, South Korea’s president, Park Geun-Hye, made sure to phone Trump.
There is a necessary debate to be had with U.S. allies on burden-sharing. Unfortunately, Trump to date has cast the debate in a bean-counting light: how much do allies pay for this or that American capability? This could easily degenerate into a he-said-she-said contest over who paid how much for this lightbulb or that paperclip. While there is space for America’s wealthiest allies to pay more, such a frame casts the U.S. military in a mercenary role at odds with the liberal values that underpin most American alliances. This is why Trump’s claim that America should have taken Iraqi oil fell so afoul of the foreign policy community; it smacked of war spoils-taking.
Such bean-counting misses the real issue, which is allies’ willingness to spend more of their own resources on their own defense and power projection; their commitment to developing hi-tech, highly trained forces capable of inter-operating with the contemporary American military; and their general strategic seriousness.
Burden-Sharing Conflicts Are Endemic to Alliances
As early as President Eisenhower’s “New Look,” the United States has tangled with European members of NATO especially over their proper contributions to the larger effort. Such issues have also cropped up regarding America’s Asian allies since the 1980s. At that time, Japan was thought to be overtaking the United States, in part because its military spending was so low due to the American guarantee. Later, as North Korea nearly collapsed in the wake of the Cold War, this critique was expanded to South Korea. Writers at the National Interest have been at the forefront of these arguments.
The numbers are indeed disturbing. Only four of twenty-eight NATO members meet the recommended defense-spending floor of two percent of GDP. Japan spends an astonishing one percent of GDP on defense, while South Korea spends around one-half to one-third of what it otherwise would against the North Korean threat. All these states are wealthy enough to spend more. American officials have lobbied for this for years, and Trump may be the “unpredictable” figure necessary to finally achieve this — by threat unfortunately, if not by persuasion.
Improving these numbers in aggregate is significantly more important than zero-sum fights over allied payments to the United States, which Trump has highlighted. Burden sharing agreements get very complicated very quickly. It is difficult to determine the precise nature of expenses as well, given hard-to-calculate opportunity costs for land use, road construction, environmental damage, and so on. Many U.S. allies could indeed pay more, and for G-20 allies like Britain or Japan, there is really no excuse for the relationship not to be at least 50-50. But treating even close U.S. allies as clients-for-cash is sure to provoke a domestic backlash over what would be portrayed as a shakedown. More importantly, it misses the forest for the trees: the larger American interest in pushing allies to spend, do, and think more themselves. The real goal is not to tear down U.S. alliances over demands for cash, but to build them up through greater allied seriousness of purpose.
Expanding Allied Capabilities and Imaginations
Trump’s goal should be to encourage U.S. allies to spend more of their own resources on forces and doctrine. Sure, allies could pay the United States more, but far more valuable would be their own ability to carry more of the load. Multilateral operations carry greater international credibility, relieve operational tempo stress on the U.S. military, and signal to opponents that they face a full-bodied international coalition of serious, committed democracies — not just the Americans yet again. The failure of Britain and France to sustain their air operations over Libya in 2011 is emblematic of allied atrophy, as was the U.S. support required by many allies who sent forces to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Almost every major U.S. ally has cut its capabilities since the Cold War, relying on what disgruntled American analysts call “Uncle Sucker” – the U.S. willingness to step in at the last resort when allies are stressed. In Europe we saw this where the Balkans crises of the 1990s and the recent Ukrainian conflict were pushed onto the United States. In Asia we see this in the South China Sea, where locals like Japan, Australia, and India should be far more engaged. Further, only a few U.S. allies still train enough and are technically sophisticated enough to inter-operate with American forces. Lagging allied capabilities have become a genuine interoperability handicap that a cash handout will not fix.
These declining capabilities reflect a larger collapse of strategic imagination. The real problem with U.S. allies is not tribute payment but infantilization. The case for European military integration has been obvious for decades, made even more obvious by Putin’s growing troublemaking. But the American military shield permits minor issues like Greece to capture the continental agenda. If the Trump threat finally convinces Europe to build an EU army, that is no bad thing. In Asia, Japan’s famous pacifism is a wholly artificial construct made possible by the U.S. guarantee, as is South Korea’s continuing strategic obsession with Japan rather than North Korea or China. In all cases, the U.S. guarantee shrinks strategic horizons and permits domestic particularities and obsessions to overwhelm obvious geopolitical realities.
Seriousness, Not “Better Deals”
Trump’s lifelong obsession with dealmaking, and his instinct to read negotiations as zero-sum, likely stand behind his demand for more allied money. Indeed America’s wealthiest allies could pay more. In South Korea, for example, there is no reason for Seoul to refuse to pay for THAAD missile defense which will mostly shield South Koreans not Americans. But these are minor issues compared to the larger need for U.S. allies to get serious about their capabilities and strategies. America’s Eurasian allies are all closer to the action than the United States. On Russia, Germany and the EU should be taking the lead; on China, Japan should be out front; on North Korea, South Korea should take ownership, and so on.
The alternative to America’s current internationalist-interventionist foreign policy consensus is not simply isolationism or retrenchment, as that consensus endlessly insists. Instead of demanding cash under threat of abandonment, as Trump has hinted, his administration should direct the burden-sharing debate toward allied foot-dragging. The point is not to cast American alliances into doubt, but to reinvigorate them with greater allied strategic seriousness. Allies would be wise to listen, lest a more Trumpist GOP take an even harder line in the future.
Robert E Kelly is an associate professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science and Diplomacy at Pusan National University.
Image: The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyer JDS Ōnami sails in formation with other JMSDF ships and ships assigned to the USS Kitty Hawk Carrier Strike Group. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Navy