Donald Trump isn’t done destroying American military alliances. After battering NATO, demeaning the support of allies in Afghanistan and Iraq, abandoning allied forces in Syria, and generally treating every other nation with ill-disguised contempt, Trump is ready to make it clear that he doesn’t think American forces are defending freedom. He thinks they are mercenaries.
Bloomberg reports that Trump is “drawing up demands” for the nations that currently host America’s overseas forces to pay up. Not pay up as in paying a share of the cost, because they do that already. Pay up as in paying all the cost, and then some. Trump intends to demand that U.S. allies cover the full cost of all U.S. military deployed to their countries, plus “50 percent or more for the privilege of hosting them.” That’s a “privilege” that few countries would be willing to pay for, and a recipe for ending a policy that has been the backbone of America’s military strategy for over 60 years.
As of 2016, America had 1,356,000 active military personnel and another 811,000 in reserves. But well before Trump took office, the numbers of those forces deployed overseas had reached record lows. Even including the military deployed to active conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the number of troops stationed overseas slipped below 200,000 in 2016. That’s the first time there have been so few American forces abroad since before the Korean War.
Concern about deployment costs would seem to be an odd worry for Trump, considering that he has insisted on huge increases in the military budget—including adding more to programs than the Pentagon requests. The purpose of America’s nearly 800 foreign bases, stations, and outposts is both to act as a deterrent against attacks on the host countries, and to provide the forward positions for deploying forces in a neighboring region. And all of them, 100 percent of overseas operations, are there to defend the United States.
The 200,000 are there so the other 2,000,000 don’t need to be.
That doesn’t mean that every overseas position is strategically vital, or even necessary—many are not—but American forces deployed overseas are there primarily to support the mission of not having to fight. The largest numbers of those forces are deployed to Japan (38,800), Germany (34,600), and South Korea (24,000). In each case, the purpose of their being there is not to defend the countries they’re in for the sake of those countries, but to be there in hopes that their presence will go a long way to making sure a conflict that would drag in the United States and others doesn’t start in the first place. And for 60 years, it’s worked.
But Trump has an obsession with overseas U.S. military, somehow reading it as a “gift” to the host nations—even when the current governments of many of those nations are none too happy about the U.S. troops parked on their property. Those nations currently do pay a portion of the cost of those troops, but Trump’s demand would see them playing five to six times as much. And the mere idea that the United States would make such demands and express the idea of hosting forces as a “privilege” is likely to have some host countries treating them to “vacation”—back in the U.S.
Trump’s recent trip to Europe had many current NATO members seriously talking about expanding their connections with Russia. If Trump pushes through this change, it will undoubtedly add to that shift. And in Japan, and elsewhere in the region, it could lead to serious re-evaluation of how to handle an aggressive, constantly probing Chinese military. In South Korea, it would be hard to read the demand as anything more than simple extortion.
Under the pretense of “saving money,” Trump has steadily destroyed the military and political connections that have held back large-scale conflicts for decades. If he is not working in service to Vladimir Putin or Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping, he’s certainly doing both a huge favor.
Meanwhile, Trump has already declared he wants to expand the size of the U.S. military. Which means that someone is certainly going to make some money, because just bringing the current overseas forces home would require housing numbers of people equivalent to the population of Little Rock or Salt Lake City.