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Trump’s Bold East Asia Defense Financial Burden-Sharing Campaign

November 21, 2019 in Economics

By Ted Galen Carpenter

Ted Galen Carpenter

President Donald Trump’s repeated demands that the NATO allies pay more of the costs for collective defense have received abundant attention in Congress and the foreign policy community. Defenders of the status quo, alongside media personalities, have screeched that Trump has put in jeopardy Washington’s sacred transatlantic security architecture. But the president’s complaints about U.S. allies free-riding on America’s security efforts are not confined to Europe. As far back as the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump criticized Washington’s East Asian allies, especially South Korea and Japan, for similar laxity.

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He has now launched a new phase in his effort to secure greater financial burden-sharing. The first salvo was his demand that Seoul agree to a five-fold increase in its annual payment to offset some of the costs of U.S. troops stationed in that country—a boost that would bring the total to $4.7 billion. Just days later, he called on Tokyo to quadruple its payment for U.S. forces deployed in Japan from $2 billion to $8 billion. There is now rampant speculation that he will adopt a similar stance toward the European allies, especially Germany, leading up to the NATO summit in early December.

In one sense, Trump’s demands are logical and long overdue. Historically, empires typically do not subsidize their security dependents. Washington’s policy since the late 1940s is an oddity in that respect. U.S. leaders have long complained about how its allies shamelessly allow the United States to pay for their security, but they have never taken substantive actions to halt this financial tactic. And despite Trump’s bombast during his presidential campaign and first months in the office about an America First foreign policy that would insist on greater burden-sharing, his actions followed the pattern of impotent grousing. Indeed, one of the Trump administration’s first actions was to dispatch Secretary of Defense James Mattis on a mission to reassure the NATO members and the East Asian allies of Washington’s undying dedication to their security. As with previous administrations, such fawning undercut any incentive the allies might have had to alleviate U.S. alliance burdens.

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