Pick Your Fights Carefully
Terry H. Schwadron
July 5, 2018
My wife often reminds that if you go looking for trouble, you’re bound to find some. That seems to describe President Trump and his awfully bumpy approach to dealing with international leaders, particularly those who are supposed to be the friendlies.
I just cannot quite understand why Trump is picking a fight with several alliesfor not spending enough on defense — all in the name of supporting NATO, the treaty organization that all have rallied around.
At issue is Trump’s complaint that other nations are not spending 2% of GDP on defense, apparently concluding that the United States is left paying for their failures to pay up. In advance of a NATO meeting next week, Trump sent nasty notes to his fellow NATO allies to tell them they are shirkers, and threatening to reconsidering keeping U.S. troops in Europe.
In fact, that’s not how NATO gets its money. NATO has a budget to cover common civilian and military costs, The New York Times explained last year, and some NATO-owned assets are also commonly funded when they are used in operations. The United States pays 22% of those costs, according to a formula based on national income. None of the NATO allies owe on these contributions. Instead, Trump is referring imprecisely to a goal NATO has set for each member to spend at least 2% of its gross domestic product on its own defense each year. Only five of the 28 members currently meet that goal — the United States, Greece, Britain, Estonia and Poland.
In fact, the 2% guideline — not a legally binding requirement — came about in 2014 after Russia annexed Crimea and invaded parts of Ukraine, and even then identified it as a goal for 2024.
Why is 2% even the right level of defense spending for a nation? Americans spend more than 54% of federal budget on defense or about 3.5% of GDP.
Trump’s new round of letters is an impolite poke at the European allies. “The letters, sent in June, are the latest sign of acrimony between Trump and American allies as he heads to a NATO summit meeting next week in Brussels that will be a closely watched test of the president’s commitment to the alliance. Trump has repeatedly questioned its value and has claimed that its members are taking advantage of the United States,” said The Times.
What makes all this curious, of course, is that it comes amid a building tariff war that seems to be punishing allies (and U.S. consumers) and a summit with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.
What makes it weird is why now? You would think that in pursuit of America First, the president would want to show off a Big Stick wherever he can — which he is doing in general — but in response to some problem. What problem exactly are we trying to fix? If Trump truly believes that U.S. troops are deployed incorrectly, why is he insisting on an attack on allies over their defense spending rather than getting the Pentagon to come up with a better deployment plan.
After all, there are real international problems going on for which some actual cooperation would be helpful. Refugees continue to stream from war zones in Syria, people are starving in Yemen, there are nuclear weapons issues in North Korea and Iran, and yes, the Russians are acting out in election interference as well as in expansionist policies.
Instead, the president is focused on an incorrect assumption that seems to attract like some kind of shiny object. That he does so without providing an overview of U.S. military and diplomatic strategic goals, an assessment of our needs and costs, and a thoughtful review, if warranted, of our commitments to allies, is more than discomforting.
Indeed, why do we need to be spending as much as we do on American military efforts if we are working at the same time to withdraw. It no longer is such a longshot thought, for example, that Trump will agree to draw down U.S. troop presence in Korea or even from Europe.
I don’t understand our commitment in Afghanistan, in Korea, in the Middle East or, increasingly, in secret deployments across Africa — and from what I read, apparently neither does Congress. What we all can see is more respect and reliance on strongmen around the world, who each want to control regional affairs in ways that will reduce American influence, values, and eventually, prosperity.
Isolation is not a global policy. It is a retreat.
If that is the Trump goal, let’s deal with that, and have the appropriate debates in Congress and in public, and let’s knock off fake concerns about whether Germany ponies up more money for its own defense to meet an arbitrary goal.