Making Allies Pay More for Troops Will Cost the U.S. Dearly

(Bloomberg Opinion) --  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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. interests.) While it is not yet clear whether all or just some U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. interests than to put America first.

The U.S. 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 U.S. to preserve favorable balances of power in Europe, East Asia and the Middle East — 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 otherwise.

Alliances and forward deployments serve other U.S. interests as well. America can project military power into the greater Middle East because it has a network of bases and logistical facilities in Europe. These arrangements enable rapid U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. After all, the Pentagon would still have to feed, clothe and shelter its troops even if they were stationed at home — but the U.S. 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 U.S. alliances. Rather, his proposal seems almost calculated to drive up tensions within America’s most important relationships.

There is simply no way that U.S. allies are going to quintuple or sextuple the payments they make to Washington. This demand would probably be impossible to meet under any political circumstances; it will be particularly infuriating for countries whose leaders and populations have grown tired of being harangued by Trump. Given that Germans view Trump as being more dangerous than both Vladimir Putin and international terrorism, it would be political suicide for any German leader to give the president what he wants.

This doesn’t mean that Trump will come up empty. The president may simply intend “cost plus 50” as a negotiating ploy, and his administration can probably wring some more money out of allies that depend heavily on the U.S. NATO defense spending has increased since Trump made this issue the centerpiece of his transatlantic agenda, although the upward trend had started before he took office and probably has as much to do with Russia’s policies as with America’s. Just recently, a similarly hard-edged negotiating strategy got South Korea to boost its host nation payments by eight percent.

Yet the U.S. will also lose if it pursues financial gains through public confrontation. Relationships will be strained; mutual trust will erode; confidence that America can be trusted to exercise its great power responsibly will be further diminished. The cost-plus-50 idea reinforces one of the most damaging messages the Trump administration has been sending: That America now views foreign policy in purely and narrowly transactional terms, and that its friends had better get used to rough treatment at the hands of their superpower patron. That approach may help squeeze a few extra bucks out of America’s allies. But the cost, in damaged relationships and a degraded reputation, will be far too high.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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. Most recently, he is the co-author of "The Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order."

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