IntelBrief: How to Lose Friends & Energize Adversaries: The Myopia of a Transactional Approach to U.S. Alliances

Since the beginning of the Trump administration in January 2017, there has been a focus on scaling back the number of U.S. troops based overseas, not just in Afghanistan, but also in Germany and South Korea.

While difficult to measure in purely economic terms, the political, military, and human benefits of U.S. alliances are clear—regional stability and projecting power and influence in parts of the world that remain potential tripwires for major conflict.

Throughout his tenure President Trump has incessantly harangued allies about the cost borne by Washington in maintaining the alliances that have served as the bedrock of U.S. foreign policy since the end of World War II.

By alienating allies and provoking adversaries, the United States has been left unprepared to deal with the emergence of budding partnerships, including Beijing’s growing relations with both Moscow and Tehran.

Since the beginning of the Trump administration in January 2017, there has been a focus on scaling back the number of U.S. troops based overseas, not only in conflict zones like Afghanistan, but in countries like Germany and South Korea, longstanding U.S. allies and close partners in geopolitically vital regions. The United States currently maintains a force of approximately 28,500 troops in South Korea. Northeast Asia remains a volatile neighborhood, with nuclear armed North Korea and an assertive China flexing muscles, while American allies Japan and South Korea seek to preserve regional stability. Yet last week the Wall Street Journal reported that the Department of Defense was reviewing several scenarios to reduce the U.S. troop presence in South Korea. Troop reductions in Asia would be in line with how the Administration is operating elsewhere, including in Europe– in Germany, troops were cut from 34,500 to 25,000 recently, with further possible reductions on the way.

The Trump administration claims that the United States is being taken advantage of and that other countries, especially wealthier countries like Germany and South Korea, should pay more for their own defense. But this approach is myopic. What President Trump fails to recognize and cannot seem to understand is that the benefit provided by alliances and troop deployments in countries like Germany and South Korea is measured in conflicts not fought. These are concepts that may be difficult to measure in pure economic terms, but in political, military, and human costs, the benefits are clear—regional stability and projecting power and influence in parts of the world which remain potential tripwires for major conflict. Conflict prevention, through a robust U.S. military presence and cooperation, is often overlooked because it difficult to assign prevention a dollar value. When discussing the nature of U.S. alliances the Trump administration has tended to focus solely on what the United States provides to its allies, and has failed to grasp how much U.S. allies offer in return. Allies are a strategic force multiplier for the United States and alliances serve to deter aggressive actions by near-peer competitors and growing regional powers.

Throughout the tenure of his administration, U.S. President Donald Trump has incessantly harangued allies about the cost borne by Washington in maintaining the alliances that have long served as the bedrock of U.S. foreign policy since the end of World War II. On its face, asking allies to contribute more to their own defense, whether by contributing more to alliances like North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) or exploring possible cost-sharing agreements that might be more equitable is not necessarily wrong. However, publicly complaining, threatening, and denigrating allies is counterproductive and is unlikely to achieve its stated objective while simultaneously leading to a broader rift in the relationship. Security cooperation and building partner capacity, while critical pillars of U.S. defense policy, are merely one facet of a broader portfolio of U.S. foreign policy.

When countries like Russia see the United States browbeating Germany, or North Korea and China witness members of the Trump administration publicly debate the value of its alliance with Seoul, it provides U.S. adversaries with opportunities to exploit. By alienating allies and provoking adversaries, the United States has also been left unprepared to deal with the emergence of budding partnerships, including Beijing’s growing relations with both Moscow and Tehran, respectively. A reduction in troops will fundamentally undermine the interests of some of the United States’ most critical allies, not to mention the interests of the United States itself, beyond the sheer dollars and cents calculation. The COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated that alliances are more important than ever, and the ability to work with allies beyond defense-related issues will be even more essential in the future. Non-traditional security threats like global pandemics and climate change stress the need for cooperation and multilateralism to meet challenges that do not recognize borders or sovereignty. Such threats impact all nations, no matter how wealthy or technologically advanced.

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