The United States has long complained about allied contributions to its security partnerships. Every U.S. government has sought to recalibrate alliance burden sharing. Traditionally, Washington has sought more money from those partners, but in recent years the request has increasingly been for the ally to do more for the alliance, to take on more roles, capabilities and missions. The Japan-U.S. alliance over the last two decades has been a case study in this evolution.
No matter how contentious this process has been — and it has been very difficult at times — there has always been a mutual respect for both parties and for the institutions — the alliances — that are being discussed. There has been an understanding that while conditions have changed, these security partnerships benefit both countries, and that with some adjustments, they can and will continue to be relevant and mutually beneficial.
U.S. President Donald Trump is said to want to pursue a “cost plus 50 percent” formula for alliance financing; if so, he is rejecting the foundational premises of those partnerships. According to this proposal, host governments would pay all costs for stationing U.S. troops on their territory, along with an additional 50 percent. This formula would disregard all “in-kind” payments that other governments had made to support the U.S. presence, such as donations of land or construction, or taxes or duties that are foregone.
In some cases, allied government payments could increase 500 percent. Trump allegedly insisted on the formula in the recently concluded “Special Measures Agreement” negotiations with South Korea. He ultimately settled for an 8.2 percent increase, to $925 million, in a one-year deal, which means the “cost plus 50 percent” formula could be back on the table next year. Japan must be prepared for a similar demand when it commences negotiations over host nation support.
U.S. government officials have refused to comment on that specific proposal, but they insist that the Trump administration “is committed to getting the best deal for the American people.” If that is true, then the president should rethink his approach. Trump thinks of burden sharing in the narrowest possible terms: dollars and cents (and yen or won or euros). He explained his thinking in a speech to the Pentagon earlier this year, when he said “Wealthy, wealthy countries that we’re protecting are all under notice … We cannot be the fools for others.” In other words, he sees the forward-deployed U.S. military presence as only serving to defend allied countries: “protecting” them. He ignores the other value, both strategic and otherwise, of that forward presence.
For example, U.S. bases in Germany house medical facilities that have been critical in treating and saving the lives of countless U.S. soldiers injured in battle in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Those forward bases also allow the U.S. to project power more quickly to address regional contingencies. U.S. bases in Japan served as critical staging posts during the Vietnam War, and during the conflict in Afghanistan. They would be essential to efforts to defend South Korea in the event of another crisis on the Peninsula.
Those facilities are vital as the U.S. conducts freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea or defends sea lines of communication. Most critically, they are signals of U.S. commitment to the region. Japan may consider those bases vital to its defense, but other countries see them as tangible indications of the U.S. determination to stay engaged in Asia.
During the Persian Gulf War in 1991, Japan was criticized for pursuing “checkbook diplomacy”: It was accused of writing checks to other countries to defend its interests in the Middle East. The Trump proposal merits criticism for the same reasons. It implies that U.S. forces are essentially mercenaries, available for any government that is willing to pay the price.
There is a need to reassess burden sharing across U.S. alliances. U.S. allies can contribute more to their own defense as technologies proliferate, the capabilities gap between the U.S. and its partners closes and as the U.S. encounters more straitened financial circumstances. No matter what the ultimate division of labor and finances is, however, it is vital that U.S. decision-makers understand that those alliances do not exist merely to protect other countries.
Alliances are partnerships that advance the interests of both nations. They are foundations upon which rest a wide range of relationships: military for sure, but also diplomatic, economic and cultural. The failure to understand that basic premise is, in essence, a rejection of the core values and interests that hold a successful alliance together. Trump needs to understand that big picture before he does great damage to the U.S., its allies and the international system they support.