The defining maxim of the Trump administration’s approach to foreign policy, at least according to the president and his surrogates, is “America first.”
The underlying idea behind this slogan is that the U.S. pays far more for global security than any other country and, in doing so, disadvantages itself economically. Advocates of ‘America First’ policies argue that our allies, especially those in Europe, take advantage of our willingness to provide for their security and use the money they save on defense to improve the quality of life of their citizens.
If nations around the world were to pay for their own defense and maintain militaries large enough for the U.S. to reduce its global military presence, they argue, the U.S. could be much wealthier.
Those who seek to defend NATO — and other international institutions which rely upon the global military presence of the U.S. — often work tirelessly to poke holes in this view of the world. Still, they struggle to put together convincing arguments to challenge President Trump’s ‘America First’ worldview.
The reason it’s so difficult to argue with the president’s points is that he’s not really wrong. The U.S. does carry a disproportionate burden in paying for global security, and this burden does disadvantage us economically.
The U.S. accounts for 35% of all global defense spending, easily more than any other country. The GDP of the U.S. accounts for about 15% of global GDP, meaning that we do spend disproportionately on defense.
What’s more: If we consider the spending of only the U.S. and its allies — eliminating big spending rivals like China and Russia — the situation becomes even more dramatic. U.S. spending accounts for 72% of the aggregate defense budget of NATO’s 29 members. The next biggest contributor, the United Kingdom, accounts for just 5.8% of total NATO defense spending.
President Trump got a lot of flak recently for claiming that the U.S. “was paying for anywhere from 70 to 90 percent of [NATO].” Naturally, President Trump didn’t get the facts completely correct. Our defense budget does make up about 70 percent of the combined defense budgets of NATO’s
member nations, but this is not money that the U.S. is directly sending to NATO to be spent on European defense; it is our entire military budget. Still, the general idea that he was expressing is not incorrect.
The second part of the ‘America First’ worldview is that the U.S. could benefit economically if it did not pay such a large share of the cost of global defense. This is also hypothetically true.
If the U.S. were to share the financial burden of global defense evenly with other countries, it could reduce its military budget significantly. If we were to direct this spending to other programs — things like healthcare, infrastructure or education — we would more efficiently cycle government spending through the economy, our overall GDP would likely increase and the quality of life in the U.S. would almost certainly be higher. Some have even pointed out that the U.S. defense budget is large enough to pay for public college for all Americans.
It seems, then, that the ‘America First’ worldview is pretty much correct. Where President Trump goes wrong is in explaining why the U.S. pays so disproportionately for global defense.
According to the administration, our allies take advantage of us and our politicians are simply too stupid to realize that they are being duped. The reality is more complicated and less convenient.
At the end of World War II, Europe’s armies and economies were decimated. The U.S. had reached an unprecedented level of military might and western governments felt that they needed immediate protection from the Soviet Union. Throughout the next few decades, the U.S. was happy to provide economic and military support to Europe to contain the spread of global communism, European governments were happy to devote their efforts to rebuilding their nations rather than their militaries.
Today, our global military presence serves less to contain communism than to safeguard U.S. interests and influence around the world. Still, Americans are not keen on giving up the power and security that comes with being the world’s only true superpower.
In fact, the irony of the right’s embrace of ‘America First’ foreign policy is that conservatives are the biggest proponents of protecting America’s military superiority. While President Trump is correct in arguing that the U.S. pays more for global security than any other country, his solution to the problem is to force other countries to pay more for their defense without actually having the U.S. pay less for it. In fact, the administration continues to push for increases in U.S. military spending while complaining about being taken advantage of by our allies.
If our allies increased their military spending while our military budget continued to rise, it would benefit no one, and it could even threaten global stability. At the moment there is little risk of war between major western powers because of our military superiority over our allies. If European nations began to increase their standing armies, war in Europe would become a genuine possibility for the first time since WWII.
While President Trump likely does not care about whether or not ‘America First’ makes sense as a foreign policy principle — as long as it fires up his base, it is doing its job — those who wish to debunk the worldview should stop trying to prove that the rest of the world pays its share for defense and focus instead on asking whether or not Americans really want to lose the security and influence that comes with being the world’s undisputed military leader.