Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump once again managed to get foreign policy experts reeling in horror when he recently declared he would not necessarily come to the defense of America’s allies in NATO if elected President. As reported in the New York Times, Trump said he would help fellow NATO members only if “they fulfill their obligations to us.” Earlier this spring, Trump sounded a similar theme of quid pro quo when he proposed that America pull its troops out of South Korea, expressing concern that the Koreans weren’t contributing enough to the cost of maintaining a U.S. presence.
Many outside the Beltway may ask what’s wrong with asking allies to pay their bills as a condition of support or suggesting that the United States bring home troops who can easily be redeployed abroad. The answer is that these suggestions are incredibly dangerous.
But understanding why requires more explanation than the tweets that all too often now substitute for thinking. In fact, Trump’s casual endangerment of America’s most crucial alliances is already causing diplomatic problems abroad and posing a real threat to our national security, even though he’s still only a candidate.
The first thing to understand is the ability of strong alliances to act as a deterrent against all-out war. Technically, the NATO treaty only requires the United States to “consult” if a member state is attacked. But the reality is that for 50 years, no one has doubted that an attack on a NATO nation would involve a war with the United States. And because American troops have remained deployed in NATO countries and would be in the firing line of an attack, our guarantee has never been in question. The result of this assurance is that there has been no war – that is what deterrence is about.
As soon as it becomes uncertain, however, whether the United States would respond to an act of aggression, the risk of miscalculation grows and with it the chance of war. If Russian President Vladimir Putin thinks that a President Trump might not respond, he is more likely to stage a land-grab in the Baltics. Yes, President Trump could decide to respond after the fact. But then his choices would be between an all-out war with Russia or the loss of a democratic state to tyrannical occupation, along with a huge increase in fear for all other NATO nations. By leaving America’s position uncertain, the risk of confrontation and war becomes much larger.
Deterrence is also one reason why it would be a bad idea to bring home U.S. troops from Korea, as Trump has suggested. In fact, Korea poses an interesting example of why this is a particularly bad proposal. It is very possible that the first Korean War was launched after a speech by President Harry S. Truman’s Secretary of State, Dean Acheson (one of the architects of NATO, incidentally), suggested that Korea lay outside the defensive perimeter that included Alaska, the Philippines and Japan.
While the Truman Administration worked at the time to correct this misapprehension, it was too late. Ultimately, it took three years of fighting and over 54,000 dead Americans to correct. North Korea is now a far more dangerous and nuclear armed state than it was at the time of the first Korean War.
Korea’s capital, Seoul, lies just 35 miles from the North Korean border. Without America’s continuing close presence as a deterrent, the temptation for the North to launch a quick power play and then dare the United States to respond and risk nuclear confrontation would be much larger than it is today.
Trump badly misunderstands the role of America’s commitments around the world in maintaining global peace and stability. And he is also wrong to use financial commitments as a measure of whether other countries are pulling their weight – i.e., to judge whether America is getting a “good deal.” For one thing, it’s important to remember that states may be paying their dues in more ways than cash. Lithuania, for example, has sent troops to Afghanistan as part of its solidarity with NATO and support for the United States. On a proportional basis, tiny Lithuania has suffered more casualties than American has. This kind of solidarity does not easily translate into a dollar sign bottom line. Second, America is not in fact footing the whole bill as the world’s peacekeeper. In truth, in countries such as Korea and Japan, the host nation pays a substantial share of the cost of keeping our troops deployed.
In addition to the risk of war, calling America’s commitments into doubt carries further risk. Because of our size and power, friends and enemies make decisions based on what they think we will do. When we leave our intentions unclear, then they have to guess. Small allies may easily give way to pressure from hostile powers because they do not know if they can rely on us. States may seek other, more dangerous ways of finding their own security if they cannot trust us. South Korea has always avoided developing nuclear weapons because of the American guarantee. Calling our alliance into question would likely start a discussion in Korea of whether they ought to have their own nuclear weapons. Playing fast and loose with nuclear proliferation is not a mark of responsible statesmanship.
The possibility that Trump could be elected is already sending shockwaves through allies, according to what I hear from diplomatic colleagues. Capitals abroad are starting to ask whether the security structure that has kept the world from a major war for half a century is ending. There is no possible U.S. interest that justifies raising such doubts. There are less dangerous ways of pressing allies to pay more for their own defense. In fact, contributions in NATO states, while still less than we want, have been rising.
Trump is displaying not only his ignorance of the details of the issues but a lack of ability to weigh the risks that his words create. This is not about being politically correct. This is about keeping the United States and the world safe.