War Stories

Base Instinct

Trump thinks U.S. military deployments are a protection racket, and nothing will convince him otherwise.

Members of the U.S. Armed Forces walk past a headquarters in Germany.
Members of the U.S. armed forces walk past headquarters after the change in command at the United States European Command at the Patch Barracks in Stuttgart, Germany, on May 3, 2016.
Marijan Murat/Picture Alliance via Getty Images)

President Trump will soon demand that any country hosting U.S. troops on its soil must pay for their full expenses—plus a premium of 50 percent for the privilege.

The new policy, reported in Bloomberg on Friday, provides another example of Trump’s blinkered view of the world and his misconceptions about the sources of American power.

Underlying his mistrust of allies and his humbug hostility toward spending even a shilling on their security is the notion that the United States has been deploying troops in other countries, for these past 70 years, entirely for their benefit and not at all for ours—that the foreigners have been shaking us down and that it’s time we get some of our money back. It’s a view of alliances not as organizations formed to pursue mutual interests but rather as a protection racket.

Trump doesn’t seem to realize five crucial facts about these relationships.

First, these alliances serve to maintain and protect the international order that the United States created after World War II, not as an act of altruism but as a way to advance U.S. interests across the globe, politically, economically, and strategically. Some call this imperialism or globalism. Whatever its label, like it or dislike it, it has been a key source of America’s wealth and power all these decades.

A case could be made—and respectable analysts have made it—that we should scale back or abandon the costly, sometimes deadly, commitments that come with this dominance.

But Trump is not making this argument. If he truly wanted a retraction of America’s military presence, why is he requesting $750 billion for military spending in the budget that he’s submitting to Congress on Tuesday, a 5 percent increase over the $716 billion that he approved last year? Only a small percentage of that sum goes to the defense of U.S. territory. The vast bulk is spent on troops, ships, aircraft, and other forces earmarked to deter or fight wars overseas.

The second thing Trump doesn’t realize is that, given America’s global interests and given his willingness to spend more money than any president ever has to defend them, it makes sense to base some of those troops and weapons overseas.

Keeping troops abroad does cost more than keeping them in the United States. If all the overseas bases were closed, and all the troops, planes, ships, combat vehicles, and so forth were brought home, one cost analyst (who asked not to be identified because of the issue’s political sensitivities) estimates the savings would amount to about $12 billion.

But that $12 billion—just 1.6 percent of the defense budget—does buy some things. If a war broke out and the troops, planes, ships, combat vehicles, and so forth had to be sent back to a war zone, they would need someplace to disembark, mobilize, set up logistics, do maintenance. It would also be useful for them to have trained with local troops so they could fight well together. Without bases, it would be impossible to do any of those things. Sending troops and weapons overseas—say, from the United States to Europe or Asia or the Middle East—takes a long time. The war would probably be over by the time a large number of the troops and their equipment would arrive. The whole point of alliances—to build confidence, promote training, deter adversaries, and stave them off if they attack—crumbles without overseas bases. If defending allies is in U.S. interests, then overseas bases are too. And if it’s not in U.S. interests, then we can slash the defense budget by a lot more than $12 billion.

The third thing Trump gets wrong is that the United States benefits from foreign bases in ways that don’t benefit the host country at all. For instance, Germany, which hosts more U.S.
bases than any other country, is home to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, a top-notch hospital that has treated thousands of U.S. troops wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan; if their medevac flights had been forced to fly to hospitals stateside, many more soldiers would have died on the way. Germany is also home to Ramstein Air Base, a transit and refueling site for many U.S. combat planes traveling to and from missions in the Middle East and South Asia. Finally, Stuttgart is the home of the headquarters for U.S. Africa Command, which has greatly expanded operations against jihadi militants since Trump took office.

Again, if Trump decided never to fight wars in the Middle East, South Asia, or Africa, these facilities wouldn’t be needed. But he has decided to continue them, and so they are needed—and for military operations that have nothing to do with the defense of Germany.

Fourth, our largest allies—and the main sources of Trump’s ire—are already sharing the cost of U.S. bases on their soil. Together, Germany, Japan, and South Korea host three-fifths of our bases and nearly all of the larger ones. Japan pays the United States $5 billion a year—about 75 percent of the total cost of maintaining the bases there. Germany pays $1 billion a year—28 percent of the costs. South Korea just upped its annual reimbursement from $830 million to $924 million, just under half the total expense.

Finally, for all their value, overseas bases hold only a small share of U.S. troops—193,000, or about 15 percent of the 1.3 million active-duty military personnel. This is not a big drain.

There may be too many overseas bases, and they may be inefficiently allocated. A 2013 report by the Rand Corporation presented some reshuffling plans that could save as much as $3 billion a year without harming national security. But if the United States wants to remain a superpower (a status that Trump doesn’t want to give up), overseas bases are essential. That being the case, it’s in our interests for the hosts to feel like partners instead of shakedown clients.