Donald Trump, for reasons that I’m sure made sense to him, decided to tell a story in a fundraising speech on Wednesday night about how he had claimed in a conversation with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that the United States has a trade deficit with Canada despite not knowing whether that was true. (It is not.) In the same speech, he threatened to remove U.S. troops from South Korea unless the country agreed to trade concessions. “We lose money on trade, and we lose money on the military,” he said. “We have right now 32,000 soldiers on the border between North and South Korea. Let’s see what happens.”
Explicitly tying together U.S. economic interests and military policy has long been a big theme for Trump, one he seems to be emphasizing lately, which might have something to do with the departure of more traditionalist voices like chief economic adviser Gary Cohn and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson from his administration. The idea that the country’s economic standing and national security are connected makes sense. But Trump’s attempts to draw that connection have been hampered by, first, his habit of talking to longtime U.S. allies, as in the Korea example, like he’s a neighborhood mobster demanding protection money from a deli owner and, second, his habit of making confident assertions on topics about which he is completely ignorant, as shown by the Canada example.
To take another instance, in announcing new tariffs on steel and aluminum imports last week, the Trump administration made dubious use of a law that authorizes such action in order to defend U.S. national security. If this was meant to counter the growing economic and military might of China, it was a strange way of going about it: China is only the 11th biggest exporter of steel to the U.S. And many experts are skeptical of the idea that America’s warfighting capacity is deeply affected by its reliance on imported steel, much of which comes from allies, with Canada being the largest supplier. (Canada and Mexico were eventually granted exemptions from the tariffs.)
Trump’s own secretary of defense, James Mattis, isn’t buying the security argument, writing in a memo released to the media that “U.S. military requirements for steel and aluminum each only represent about three percent of U.S. production. Therefore, DoD does not believe that the findings in the reports impact the ability of DoD programs to acquire the steel or aluminum necessary to meet national defense requirements.” The secretary’s words could very well turn up in a World Trade Organization challenge to the tariffs from the governments affected. Mattis said he was more concerned about “the negative impact on our key allies” from tariffs.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin also suggested in a recent interview that the president may set tariffs on European countries based on their financial commitments to NATO. “If we’re in NATO, he wants to make sure that NATO gets more money so that NATO can protect all of us and fulfill its goal,” he said.
Trump has been making misleading claims about the supposedly disproportionate amount of money the U.S. spends on NATO—including at NATO headquarters last spring—since early in his presidential campaign. Essentially he’s mixing two issues: The U.S. does pay more in direct contributions to NATO, because those contributions are based on the size of a country’s economy, and the amount—less than $500 million a year—is basically a rounding error in the U.S. defense budget. There is a longstanding disagreement, predating Trump, over how much countries spend on their own defense. NATO sets a nonbinding target of 2 percent of GDP, which only four countries other than the U.S. meet. This is also a little misleading and arbitrary: Greece met the 2 percent target, despite cutting its defense budget, because its overall economy collapsed, while China has been getting by just fine on 1.3 percent spending. You can certainly argue that European countries should be doing more to provide for their own defense, but NATO is not a restaurant tab that the U.S. has been left with.
Unfortunately, help does not appear to be on the way. In his first interview since being named director of Trump’s National Economic Council, former CNBC contributor Larry Kudlow shared an idea for the U.S. to lead a “trade coalition of the willing,” of “partners and allies against China.” As many pointed out, Kudlow is basically describing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the U.S.-led, China-countering multinational trade pact that Trump scuttled as one of his first acts in office.
Points to Kudlow, as well, for an apparently non-ironic use of “coalition of the willing,” which refers to both a war Trump has called stupid and an actual example of dozens of countries free-riding on U.S. military power without contributing anything.
The individual misleading claims and misunderstandings aside, the underlying issue here is Trump’s apparent view that the U.S. is getting scammed—that we don’t get anything out of our alliances and security guarantees. What this zero-sum view leaves out is the comforting fact that there has not been a major war among the industrialized powers of Western Europe and East Asia for the last half century. There are a lot of explanations for this state of peace, but these alliances and security commitments are at least a major part of it. Considering the number of U.S. lives lost and dollars spent in those wars last century, we’re getting a bargain.