“We have a MASSIVE trade deficit with Germany, plus they pay FAR LESS than they should on NATO and the military. Very bad for U.S. This will change.”
President Donald Trump’s tweets and foreign policy moves have made him a laughingstock, but the damage they have done to our standing in the world and to our own interests is no laughing matter.
Trump is not the first American leader to lecture the Europeans about military spending, just the least informed. It is a fundamentally flawed position. Europeans don’t spend for defense the way we do, but not because they lack seriousness or political will, or because they are free riders who refuse to shoulder their share of the defense burden. They spend less on defense because they do not agree with the over-militarized approach to foreign policy that they see from the United States, whose military spending is already larger than that of the next eight highest-spending countries combined.
We would do well to study rather than condemn the European approach to foreign policy. And the American public needs to understand that more spending for defense does not mean more security. As the Afghanistan and Iraq misadventures have demonstrated, the exercise of military power can make us less secure. I made this point more than a decade ago when I was chairman of the U.S. National Intelligence Council, warning (all too accurately) that Iraq under U.S. occupation would prove to be the breeding ground for the next generation of terrorists.
I take Trump’s crude remarks on Germany personally. In 1989-92, I was part of the diplomatic team under President George H.W. Bush that helped negotiate German unification and the collapse of the Soviet empire. We and the Germans forged the closest possible partnership, and our successful management of the end of the Cold War enabled the U.S. to draw down its huge military presence in Europe, leaving it to our allies, led by Germany, to take the lead in Europe.
The Germans stepped up to the task, even while maintaining the historic partnership with the U.S. Trump is throwing this away. He seems to think there is another “deal” out there and that this one can be discarded. No, President Trump: There is only one NATO, only one trans-Atlantic partnership, the work of more than a dozen U.S. administrations before you. If you throw these achievements away, we are left with nothing.
What is needed is not America-first bluster or infantile tweets but a sustained effort to reinvigorate and modernize the alliance. Here’s a start: We should restore and then increase the budgets for the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development, and signal our readiness to re-enter the Paris agreement. In return the Europeans should step up their timetable for meeting the agreed commitment to increased defense spending.
The trans-Atlantic alliance, the strongest and most enduring in history, is much more than a defense pact. It has endured despite periodic disputes because it is built on the solid foundation of shared values and common interests. Alliances, like marriages, prosper when both sides respect that their partners have different priorities and when they understand that compromise and adjustment are keys to a successful relationship.
The alliance is also more than an arena for economic competition. The global trading system, with the U.S.-European trade relations its driving force, has been an enormous benefit to America’s prosperity and well-being. Of course, we, like Germany, will defend our own economic interests and protect our citizens, and we have ample means of doing so – most of them domestic measures that have little to do with trade imbalances. Instead, Trump is focusing on things he can do with the stroke of a pen – like backing out of the Paris agreement and the Pacific trade pact – with disregard for the consequences. This is not leadership. This is not strength.
We are at a turning point in our nation’s history. There are few signs that Trump will change, so one must place our hope in America’s institutions and look to the “enablers” – his foreign policy team, which has gone along with too much already, and Republicans in Congress – to show some political courage … by putting America first.
Robert Hutchings is the Walt and Elspeth Rostow Chair in National Security at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin. He was dean of the school from 2010 to 2015.
Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying this guest column shows NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg (center), alongside President Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel at NATO headquarters. (Photo: Christian Hartmann/Reuters)