He’s called Mexicans rapists, pledged to make them pay for a wall between us and mused about the usefulness of torture. But believe it or not, Donald Trump agrees with President Obama on at least one matter of international relation: Our European friends are stiffing us on the bill for their own defense. Now that Republicans have settled on their nominee for Obama's job, Trump’s policies, or what passes for them, will be scrutinized. On this one, he’s right.
That sentence makes the gag reflex kick in. This is a man, after all, who criticizes Obama’s sensible deal with Iran to curb that country’s nuclear drive, and whose excursion into foreign policy speechmaking last month left analysts head-scratching over omissions and seeming contradictions. Trump pledged cooperation with Muslim allies while banning Muslim immigrants and brandished a tariff saber at China while saying he’d persuade that country to make North Korea play nice. The speech had its share of the billionaire’s boilerplate bombast (“President Obama has weakened our military by weakening our economy. He’s crippled us with wasteful spending, massive debt, low growth, a huge trade deficit and open borders.”)
There’s simply no good reason why wealthy nations can’t pay more to protect themselves.
But when he added that “our allies must contribute toward their financial, political and human costs … of our tremendous security burden,” he repeated a generations-old meme of American leadership.
I’ll show a bit of middle-aged leg: I remember the 1980s’ call for such “burden sharing” from progressive politicians like Colorado Congresswoman Pat Schroeder. Almost two decades into the 21st century, we’re still bearing, not sharing, the bulk of the burden.
Despite Obama’s urging our NATO allies to dedicate 2 percent of gross domestic product to defense — and despite Europe’s concern about growing Russian belligerence — a report last year found that only four of our 27 alliance allies hit the target. We cover three quarters of NATO spending.
“We have spent trillions of dollars over time,” Trump said in his speech, “on planes, missiles, ships, equipment, building up our military to provide a strong defense for Europe and Asia. The countries we are defending must pay for the cost of this defense …” That imperative becomes even clearer when you look at the poor, current state of defense spending overall.
At $600 billion annually, the U.S. military budget is half again as big in inflation-adjusted terms as it was before 9/11, yet we have fewer active duty and reserve troops, even after two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Meanwhile, unnecessary military bases and over-budget weapons continue sucking away the taxpayers’ money. In other words, we’re spending, and wasting, billions on the military.
I’m not arguing that Trump is fit to be commander-in-chief ... but he’s channeling the wisdom of generations of American defense thinkers
Getting the Europeans to ante up isn’t isolationist. There’s simply no good reason why wealthy nations can’t pay more to protect themselves. Failing to do so, suggests Stephen Kinzer, a Brown University senior fellow in international affairs, is not only a waste of American money, it imperils our interests:
“The United States no longer needs to militarily dominate Europe. If European countries feel sufficiently threatened to want to maintain a military alliance, they should do so. As long as the United States continues to dominate NATO, however, we subsidize European countries that are unwilling to pay for their own defense and remove any incentive for them to see accommodation with Russia—while preventing the improvement of US-Russian relations, which would strengthen our security.”
I’m not arguing that Trump is fit to be commander-in-chief. By temperament and inexperience, he’s not. But he’s channeling the wisdom of generations of American defense thinkers in calling for more equitable burden sharing. Whoever wins in November must become a pain in our allies’ necks on this.