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The Trump Administration Misses the Point Again about Burden-Sharing

Summary:
President Trump and his advisers are beating the drums again about the need for greater burden-sharing by U.S. allies. In early August, Trump demanded that South Koreans pay “substantially more” than the current 0 million a year for defraying the costs of U.S. troops defending their country from North Korea. Just days later, Richard Grenell, the U.S. Ambassador to Germany blasted that country’s reluctance to spend more on defense and its continued reliance on U.S. troops for protection. “It is offensive to assume that the U.S. taxpayers continue to pay for more than 50,000 Americans in Germany but the Germans get to spend their (budget) surplus on domestic programs,” Grenell told a German news agency Complaints about allied “free riding” did not begin with the Trump administration.

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President Trump and his advisers are beating the drums again about the need for greater burden-sharing by U.S. allies. In early August, Trump demanded that South Koreans pay “substantially more” than the current $990 million a year for defraying the costs of U.S. troops defending their country from North Korea. Just days later, Richard Grenell, the U.S. Ambassador to Germany blasted that country’s reluctance to spend more on defense and its continued reliance on U.S. troops for protection. “It is offensive to assume that the U.S. taxpayers continue to pay for more than 50,000 Americans in Germany but the Germans get to spend their (budget) surplus on domestic programs,” Grenell told a German news agency

Complaints about allied “free riding” did not begin with the Trump administration. Earlier generations of frustrated U.S. policymakers voiced similar sentiments. As I discuss in a recent article in the American Conservative, though, the obsession with financial burden-sharing misses a far more fundamental issue. The tendency of U.S. allies to skimp on their own defense spending and instead free ride on the bloated U.S. military budget certainly is annoying and unhealthy for America. But the more serious problem is that Washington’s array of promiscuous defense commitments to allies and security dependents is increasingly imprudent and illogical.

Not only are such obligations a waste of tax dollars, they needlessly put American lives at risk, and given the rising danger of nuclear war in some cases, put America’s existence as a functioning society in jeopardy. American military personnel should not be mercenaries defending the interests of allies and security clients when America’s own vital interests are not at stake. Even if allies offset more of the costs, as Trump and Grenell demand, we should not want our military to be modern-day Hessians. U.S. leaders need to move beyond calls for financial burden-sharing and engage in burden shedding—eliminating security commitments that now entail more risks than benefits.

The world has changed greatly since the end of the Cold War, and Washington’s security policy should reflect those new conditions. Germany and the other members of the prosperous European Union are now fully capable of providing for Europe’s defense. Indeed, European governments ought to take responsibility not only for the continent’s security, but for addressing developments on Europe’s perimeter relevant to that security. It makes little sense for the United States 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 of continuing to provide a security shield for South Korea has changed dramatically since the days of the Cold War. Not only is South Korea 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 U.S. homeland with nuclear warheads. Similarly, Washington’s implicit defense commitment to Taiwan has become far riskier than it was in previous decades, given China’s surging military power and Beijing’s increasing determination to compel Taiwan’s reunification with the mainland.

Greater financial burden-sharing by Washington’s allies will not improve the much more important risk-benefit calculation; it merely will make the U.S. government a better compensated provider of de facto mercenaries. American forces—and the American population as a whole—still will incur greater and greater risks. If the Trump administration is serious about an “America First” foreign policy, it must address that problem.

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