Good presidents learn while they are in office. Donald Trump, however, is doubling down on many of the same bad ideas he campaigned on. A recent example is an initiative his administration is reportedly developing to force US allies to pay far more for hosting American troops and bases. The initiative flows naturally from the president’s desire to get even with countries that have supposedly been taking advantage of Washington for years. But its costs will be far higher than any financial gains it delivers.
As Bloomberg News reports, the proposal is known as “cost plus 50.” It would require many US allies to cover the full cost of stationing American personnel on their soil, plus a premium of 50 percent. This would represent a huge hike in the payments US allies currently make, multiplying them by five or six in some cases. (Some allies might receive a discount if they tailor their policies to suit US interests.) While it is not yet clear whether all or just some US allies would be targeted, countries such as Japan, Germany and South Korea would presumably be in the crosshairs, given that Trump has repeatedly derided them as ungrateful free-riders.
At first glance, making US allies pay more for American protection might seem reasonable. But the cost-plus-50 proposal is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of why Washington has alliances in the first place, and it is more likely to undermine US interests than to put America first.
The US doesn’t have alliances as a matter of charity. It has them because they contribute powerfully to American security, influence and prosperity.
A key lesson of World War II was that it is critical for the US to preserve favourable balances of power in Europe, East Asia and other regions — to ensure that an aggressor does not dominate one of these regions and harness its resources. The best way of doing so is to strengthen friendly nations within key regions, by reassuring them that the US will defend them in a crisis, and to deter potential aggressors by clearly conveying that any bid for dominance will run head-first into American power. The US has paid the costs associated with alliances and troops stationed abroad as a way of avoiding the far-higher costs of fighting the wars that might erupt
Alliances and forward deployments serve other US interests as well. America can project military power because it has a network of bases and logistical facilities in Europe. These arrangements enable rapid US responses to global crises, and they promote greater interoperability and military-to-military cooperation with countries around the world. Washington’s global military presence is equally critical to patrolling key sea lanes and safeguarding the global commons — tasks that are essential to America’s prosperity and the world’s. Finally, this military strategy provides Washington with unmatched international influence. As scholars have documented, the US has been able to negotiate better trade deals, restrain nuclear proliferation, and get enhanced cooperation on counterterrorism because its allies are willing to invest in their relationship with the country that helps defend them.
To be sure, basing American troops overseas also benefits the host countries, and so it is fair to ask that they cover some of the cost. But most US allies — particularly the wealthy allies that so annoy Trump — already do this, through host nation support payments. These payments, which can be up to roughly $1 billion annually for countries such as Germany and South Korea, make alliances a relative bargain for the US After all, the Pentagon would still have to feed, clothe and shelter its troops even if they were stationed at home — but the US would forfeit the benefits it gets from posting service members overseas. According to research conducted by the RAND Corporation, host-nation payments offset a substantial portion of the premium that Washington pays to station troops abroad instead of garrisoning them domestically.
These host-nation payments are renegotiated from time to time, and Washington has occasionally asked its allies to chip in for major endeavors such as the Persian Gulf War in 1991. Yet Trump does not appear to be pursuing a reasonable, good-faith effort to reallocate burdens within US alliances. Rather, his proposal seems almost calculated to drive up tensions within America’s most
Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments