President Trump is once again beating the drums about the need for greater burden-sharing by U.S. allies. The latest example is his demand that South Koreans pay “substantially more” than the current $990 million a year for defraying the costs of American troops defending their country from North Korea.
This is not a new refrain from the president. Most of Trump’s spats with NATO members have focused on the financial aspects of burden-sharing. Yet the nature of his complaints leads to the inescapable conclusion that if allies were willing to spend more on collective defense efforts, he would have no problem maintaining Washington’s vast array of military deployments around the world.
Trump’s obsession with financial burden-sharing misses a far more fundamental problem. Certainly, the tendency of U.S. allies to skimp on their own defense spending and instead free ride on the oversized American military budget is annoying and unhealthy. But the more serious problem is that so many of Washington’s defense commitments to allies no longer make sense—if they ever did. Not only are such obligations a waste of tax dollars, they needlessly put American lives at risk, and given the danger of nuclear war in some cases, put America’s existence as a functioning nation in jeopardy. American military personnel should not be mercenaries defending the interests of allies and security clients when their own country’s vital interests are not at stake. Even if treaty allies offset more of the costs, as Trump demands, we should not want our military to be modern-day Hessians.
Unfortunately, the current situation is not unprecedented. During the Persian Gulf War, President George H.W. Bush expressed satisfaction that allied financial contributions offset most of Washington’s expenses. That was undoubtedly true. Indeed, according to some calculations, the United States may have ended up with a modest profit. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia were especially willing to contribute financially to support the U.S.-led military campaign to expel Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait. Japan, still agonizing over the alleged limitations on military action that its “peace constitution” imposed, asserted that while it could not send troops, it would contribute funds to the war effort. All three countries practiced rather blatant “checkbook diplomacy.”
The Persian Gulf War was surprisingly short, and U.S. forces incurred far fewer casualties than anticipated. However, the immediate costs were merely the beginning of an expanded American security role in the Middle East that has proven to be disastrous. The checkbook diplomacy payments of 1990 and 1991 did not even begin to offset those horrendous, ongoing costs in treasure and blood.
Financial considerations aside, it never served American interests to become the onsite gendarme of the Middle East. Those who saw the Persian Gulf War as a low-cost, perhaps even no-cost, venture from the standpoint of finances were incredibly myopic. America’s role as Hessians for Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and other powers undoubtedly benefited the ruling elites in those countries, but it clearly has not benefited the American people.
Yet Trump’s security policies continue to evince similar myopic impulses. During the 2016 presidential campaign, he repeatedly criticized NATO members for their lack of burden-sharing, and he even indicated that Washington’s defense commitments to an “obsolete” alliance might be reconsidered. But when the allies pledged greater defense spending at the 2018 NATO summit, Trump’s grousing was replaced by praise and expressions of alliance solidarity. He greeted with even greater enthusiasm the Polish president’s offer to offset construction costs if the United States built a military base in Poland—even though such a move would deepen already worrisome tensions with Russia. The American Conservative’s Daniel Larison put it well: “Trump is often accused of wanting to ‘retreat’ from the world, but his willingness to entertain this proposal shows that he doesn’t care about stationing U.S. forces abroad so long as someone else is footing most of the bill.”
The overwhelming focus of Trump’s burden-sharing goals continues to be financial. His administration shows little receptivity to independent defense policy initiatives on the part of allies. Indeed, he and his advisers, especially National Security Adviser John Bolton, show outright hostility to proposals for a European Union army or other manifestations of greater Europeans-only security efforts, even though they would seem to constitute meaningful burden-sharing. Bolton has blasted such initiatives as “a dagger pointed at NATO’s heart.” Washington simply wants the allies to pay more for its own defense protection.
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Instead, U.S. leaders need to engage in burden-shedding—eliminating security commitments that now entail far more risks than benefits to America. For example, it makes little sense to retain, much less add, obligations to defend small, strategically insignificant countries on Russia’s border. The risks of such a provocative stance clearly outweigh any potential benefits. Likewise, the risk-benefit calculation to continue providing a security shield for South Korea has changed dramatically since the days of the Cold War. Not only is South Korea now a much stronger country economically, one that can build whatever forces are needed for its defense, but North Korea is now capable of inflicting grave damage on U.S. forces stationed in East Asia and will soon be able to strike the American homeland with nuclear warheads.
Greater burden-sharing efforts by NATO members or South Korea will not change that more important risk-benefit calculation. The American people deserve a far more substantive policy change.
Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in security studies at the Cato Institute and a senior editor at The American Conservative, is the author of 12 books and more than 800 articles on international affairs. His latest book, NATO: The Dangerous Dinosaur, is forthcoming in September 2019.