What Friends?

Why Donald Trump Keeps Dissing America’s Allies in Europe and Asia

His venal approach to world affairs is an extension of his own personal ethics, or lack thereof.

Rick Wilking / Reuters

U.S. contribution to NATO common funded budget: $685 million.

Cost of U.S. Nimitz Class aircraft carrier: $8.5 billion.

Unprecedented peace and prosperity in Europe and Asia: Priceless.

For a man who assesses everything in terms of dollar signs, it’s no surprise President-elect Donald Trump sees global alliances as just another form of deal-making. One of the few consistent themes in Trump’s rhetoric going back decades has been a belief that America is being ripped off by the rest of the world. Trump’s conception of the national interest is an extremely narrow and pecuniary one with no time for considerations like common values.

Trump fails to grasp that while you can certainly put a price tag on military commitments to our allies, the value of preserving the liberal world order—which the United States built after World War II and has sustained ever since—far outweighs the numbers on any balance sheet. Indeed, even if our allies in Europe and Asia paid substantially less, or even nothing, toward their own defense, our alliances with them would still be worthwhile.

The American-led international system spans the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, having arisen from the ashes that were the European and Asian theaters of World War II. Under American tutelage and with its substantial largesse, vanquished enemies Germany and Japan were transformed into economically robust democracies. Today, both countries host large American military installations and they are the nexuses of U.S.-led alliance systems in their respective regions. At a time when rival powers like China and Russia are challenging the international norms governing, respectively, freedom of navigation (near the Senkaku island chain) and the territorial integrity of nations (in Ukraine), the U.S. role in upholding a rules-based global order is as critical as ever.

Previous American presidents have seen value in European and Asian alliances; however, Trump detects a swindle. Japan and South Korea, after all, are wealthy countries; why does the U.S. have to protect them from a predacious China and an unpredictable North Korea? “At some point,” Trump argues, “we have to say—‘You know what?’—we’re better off if Japan protects itself against this maniac in North Korea. We’re better off, frankly, if South Korea is going to start to protect itself.” Asked how Japan could “protect itself” should the U.S. withdraw its military presence from the region, Trump entertained the idea of Tokyo obtaining nuclear weapons, upending decades of American non-proliferation efforts.

Trump’s facts are wrong when it comes to the basics of the U.S.-Japan alliance. Tokyo annually pays Washington $2 billion in host-nation support to offset the costs of our military installations and stationing troops—to say nothing of all the money it funnels to American defense contractors for jets, missile-defense systems, and other military hardware. Furthermore, our military forces in Japan are not stationed there solely, or even primarily, for that country’s territorial defense but rather to maintain the balance of power against China, which is manifestly in America’s interest. Not for nothing did a former Japanese prime minister once refer to his country as an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” for the United States. All this suggests we would not be “better off” leaving our Asian allies to pursue independent nuclear arsenals and fend for themselves against an aggressive and revisionist Beijing.

Trump’s remarks about the European component of the liberal world order—the NATO military alliance in particular—are even more alarming. To be sure, presidents of both parties have long lamented the stinginess of European military budgets. (Earlier this year in Germany, for instance, President Obama complained that “sometimes Europe has been complacent about its own defense.”) But Trump is the first to suggest that our treaty obligations under the alliance’s mutual defense pact be conditioned upon members “paying their bills.” Understanding an alliance like NATO only in monetary terms misses its purpose completely. Take Denmark, which like most NATO members does not spend the recommended minimum 2 percent of its GDP on defense. Yet more Danish soldiers died per capita as part of the NATO mission in Afghanistan—undertaken in solidarity with the United States after terrorist attacks committed on our soil—than any other alliance member. Surely, that sacrifice in blood should count for at least as much as expenditures in treasure?

Yes, European countries ought to spend more for their own defense, not merely out of respect for the perpetually put-upon American taxpayer but also their own military preparedness. But this obsession with money fails to account for the true value of the Atlantic alliance, which lies beyond the financial contributions of its members. Today, thanks in no small part to the endurance of NATO, Europe is home to countries that both share our democratic values and are some of our biggest trading partners.

In treating foreign relations like a protection racket whereby nations seeking our friendship must pay tribute, Trump fails to comprehend both the nature and function of alliances—namely, how they’re valuable regardless of whatever monetary benefit they accrue us. How does one possibly enumerate the dollar value of something so intangible as the liberal world order, a vast system of security, trade, and diplomatic arrangements maintained by the forward deployment of American military forces and an interlocking web of institutions, treaties, and customs?

We take the international system for granted because its advantages—America’s return on investment, as our real-estate mogul president-elect might put it—manifests themselves in an absence of the political destabilization and armed conflict that plague other parts of the world, as opposed to the more tangible benefit of, say, a tax cut. Dependable alliances are a force multiplier for the United States, allowing us to achieve international goals that would be much more difficult, if not impossible, to accomplish on our own. Having troops deployed overseas, for example, allows us to project our power, deters adversaries, and is far less costly and logistically complex than shipping them out from the U.S. every time a crisis occurs.

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Because Trump’s worldview is utterly transactional and devoid of values, he cannot help but see foreign policy as a form of bartering exchange, yet another venue in which to cut his vaunted “deals.” Trump appears not to understand why we have friendly relations with a country like Germany (whose chancellor was one of the only world leaders he criticized by name during the campaign) and a strained one with Russia (whose murderous dictator he repeatedly praises and implores we ought “get along with”). For all his carping about China, Trump fixates solely on that country’s economic competitiveness and perceived duplicity, not its authoritarian system or repression of religious believers and other minorities. Indeed, Trump once praised the regime’s “strength” in violently suppressing the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest.

Trump’s venal approach to world affairs is an extension of his own personal ethics, or lack thereof. By all accounts, the president-elect does not have any real friends, that is, people whose company he seeks for anything other than business transactions and other forms of personal gain. Friendships, like alliances, require sacrifice, and Donald Trump has never sacrificed anything for anyone.

American foreign policy has always involved a competition between values and interests. Never before, however, have we had a president who so plainly speaks as if the latter utterly precludes the former. Usually, our values and interests are aligned. Indeed, if there’s anything we ought to have learned from the 20th century it’s that we have a stake in consolidating and expanding the community of democracies. Peace and prosperity in regions once wracked by nationalism and war, ensured by America’s overseas engagement, redounds inestimably to our benefit regardless of how much cash our European and Asian allies pay us.