Donald Trump has once again maligned close American allies – this time, Japan and South Korea. In an interview with the New York Times, Mr. Trump suggested that he would, although “not happily,” consider withdrawing from American bases in those countries unless the allies paid more of the cost of maintaining them.
Mr. Trump’s statements suggest that he views American military bases as real estate operations, which should only be maintained if the landlord gives a big enough break on the price of square footage. That view is not only dangerous but disrespectful to America’s armed forced. They may be volunteers, but they are not mercenaries. We do not hire them out to foreign powers provided that the price is right.
America maintains alliances, and forward based military forces, to protect American security and American interests. Of course alliances have value to the allies – that is why they enter into them — but our leaders negotiate them to benefit the United States.
America’s alliances with Japan and South Korea were concluded during the 1945–55 timeframe. For a half century before, the region had been the scene of constant rivalries, struggles for control by regional powers, and bloody wars. The United States had been drawn into two of those wars — in one case as the direct result of an attack on America’s homeland.
In addition, the American economy depends, then and now, on freedom of navigation through the region and uncoerced trade within it. No one denies the value of this trade to the United States; Mr. Trump may want the trade to occur on very different terms than it presently does, but he doesn’t want the Asian markets closed to the United States.
So after the Korean War the United States occupied the power vacuum in the Northwest Pacific. The object was to preserve an equilibrium that prevented war, aggression, and instability. The alliances with Japan and South Korea are the linchpins of that policy: They validate America’s leadership, manifest American presence, and provide the most efficient and effective means for the projection of American power when and where necessary.
If Mr. Trump has concluded that the Asian alliances are no longer necessary for these purposes, then he should advocate moving, in an honorable way, to withdraw from them. That would be a terrible mistake, but at least it would represent a coherent point of view. The one position which must be wrong is the position Mr. Trump is taking now: acknowledging that the alliances should continue — thereby recognizing their broader value to the United States — but then making their continuation depend on cadging more money out of the allies.
For the record, the United States maintains 14 installations in Japan with over 50,000 personnel from all the services. The installations include Yokosuka naval base, the headquarters for the Seventh Fleet. There are eight installations in South Korea, mostly Army but again including all the services, with about 25,000 men. The total cost of the bases in both countries is about $8 billion, of which the allies pay over a third.
Again, the priority mission of these forces is to signal America’s commitment to its treaty guarantees and thereby provide deterrence, primarily against Kim Jong-un’s nuclear provocations and North Korean and Chinese adventurism on the Korean peninsula and in the East and South China Seas. Removing the bases would of course not eliminate that mission or the need for funding to accomplish it; the forces would have to be stationed somewhere, and if they were based in the United States and rotated into the region, the total cost might well exceed what America is paying now.
Mr. Trump seems to think he could negotiate a better deal than the current arrangement. If so, more power to him. But that doesn’t strike me as a way to Make America Great Again. In fact, our allies and adversaries alike might well wonder how much America values its rights and safety, much less its greatness, if a president is willing to risk abandoning all three because his friends didn’t give him a big enough discount off the sticker price.