Continued American military presence in Europe and East Asia has drawn vigorous criticism from President Donald J. Trump, who questioned the U.S. security commitment to allies. How much does it cost for the U.S. to keep military bases abroad?
Back in 2016, Trump said this: “As far as Japan and other countries, we are being ripped off by everybody — we’re defending other countries. We are spending a fortune doing it. They have the bargain of the century. All I said is, we have to renegotiate these agreements, because our country cannot afford to defend Saudi Arabia, Japan, Germany, South Korea and many other places.”
The reason why Trump doesn’t understand the rationale behind defending very rich countries such as Germany and Japan is because he doesn’t read history. The U.S. doesn’t protect its allies in Europe, Middle East and East Asia for charity, but as part of its longstanding strategy to ensure its security and economic prosperity. Failing to do so gave rise to two devastating world wars and imperial nations such as Nazi Germany and Japan challenging American superiority in the world.
The U.S. doesn’t only defend U.S. allies in East Asia against China, but also defends China against Japan with the goal of making the region safer and more peaceful. In the same way, the U.S. doesn’t only defend Europe against Russia or from other threats, but also maintains peace among major powers in Europe. Left unchecked, last century showed that revisionist powers such as Italy and Germany may seek hegemony on the continent.
This policy is called offshore balancing — a strategy that prevents any peer competitor to dominate three regions in the world: Europe, Middle East and East Asia. The U.S. will do whatever it takes, including expending blood and treasure, to make sure that no single nation dominates in these three regions.
The recent National Security Strategy document surprisingly got this grand American strategy right, but it is doubtful that Trump will follow it. His consistent attachment to so-called “America First” policy is not about defending American interests abroad, but more of an isolation if terms are not favorable to the president’s taste. His threat to cut off foreign aid to countries, which include top recipients such as Egypt and Jordan, for spearheading a U.N. vote on Jerusalem is a case in point.
The argument that allies are “ripping off” America is a myth. Aside from the fact that host nations are partially covering U.S. basing costs, the U.S. actually gets a lot more in return, directly and indirectly. Countries like Japan, South Korea and Germany are paying off a significant part of costs of maintaining American troops and bases in these countries. With a little expenditure, the U.S. gets to project power in distant continents and fulfills its goal of preserving peace. In a nutshell, it doesn’t cost much for the U.S. to keep its military bases abroad. Let’s take a look at how the U.S. benefits from defending its allies.
The U.S. has 80,000 military personnel in Europe, more than half of which are stationed in Germany. 15,000 military personnel and Sixth Fleet are stationed in Naples, Italy, allowing the U.S. to project power in the Mediterranean, Middle East and North Africa. It adds to the military capability of European nations to deter threats from Russia and helps the U.S. build a robust collective security alliance that in turns would defend Americans when necessary. These allies are covering one-third of U.S. basing costs, nearly $2.5 billion annually, costing the U.S. little to keep military bases in Europe.
These forces are also key in guaranteeing the defense of Italy and Germany against unlikely threats from its European neighbors, eliminating the need to maintain large militaries that could lead to another major war in Europe. The U.S. invested tens of billions of dollars in rebuilding the continent after the World War II (Marshall Plan) and more than 70 years of peace in Europe made the continent the largest trading partner of the U.S. — $700 billion in trade volume.
The U.S. military base in Incirlik, Turkey has been key in fighting against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, saving the U.S. long and costly flight from the Gulf and Iraq. It also houses dozens of nuclear weapons as part of U.S. nuclear security umbrella for Turkey, discouraging its only Muslim NATO ally to go nuclear against Russia.
East Asia and Pacific
While it seems today that U.S. security strategy in East Asia is designed to contain China, it was initially put in place to curb Japanese imperial ambitions, which wreaked havoc in the first half of the previous century. China was in fact so weak for so long that until the 1990s, there was always a concern that rising Japan could seek hegemony in the region if it is allowed to translate its economic might into military muscle. Now Beijing is aggressively trying to break up American commitment to its allies in the region and makes rapid moves to dominate the South China Sea.
The U.S. currently has 74,000 military personnel in South Korea (29,000) and Japan (45,000), including the Seventh Fleet in Japan. The U.S. has a small fleet in the Phillippines, a basing right in Singapore and over 2,000 troops in Australia. This military presence, mostly compensated by host nations, enables the U.S. to wield enormous power in a region increasingly threatened by ambitious China.
Japan is the world’s one of the biggest economies and is the fifth-largest American trading partner, with $200 billion trade volume. It compensates 75 percent of U.S. basing costs — $4.4 billion. Even in Japan, whose constitution prohibits to build large-scale, offensive military, the U.S. cost to keep military bases is minimal compared to what it gets in return.
South Korea, which pays 40 percent of U.S. basing costs ($850 million), is the sixth-largest U.S. trading partner, with $115 billion trade volume.
U.S. military presence in Singapore, the Phillippines and Australia helps preserve one-third of the world’s total maritime trade ($5.3 trillion), $1.2 trillion of which is with the U.S. The U.S. aircraft carriers and navy ships are policing vital straits and South China Sea to ensure freedom of navigation.
The Middle East
The Middle East is important for the U.S. because it has the world’s largest energy reserves. Based on its record, the U.S. is committed to knocking out any power that seeks hegemony in the region. From Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait to Iran’s attempt to control the region, the U.S. military presence in the region ensures that no nation is dominating the Middle East.
Due to ongoing wars in the past two decades, the U.S. military engagement in the region has been very costly, tarnishing its reputation as a global power, eroding its credibility and contributing to calls for military retrenchment from the world. Especially due to the unnecessary invasion of Iraq and the poorly managed and lengthy war in Afghanistan, the U.S. failed to spend its military might where it was required.
The U.S. has nearly 40,000 military personnel in the Middle East. The U.S. Fifth Fleet is in Bahrain and has 28,000 military personnel in Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar. It ensures the free flow of the world’s one-third of oil and 16 percent of natural gas, protects U.S. allies against Iran and helps countries deal with terrorist groups that threaten the U.S. and its allies. Kingdoms cover 60 percent of the costs, around $650 million. Recent offensive campaigns against ISIS in Syria and Iraq made these military bases indispensable. The U.S. spends less than half in keeping these bases in the Gulf.
It’s evident from these alliances and security commitments that the current rules-based global order policed by the U.S. is the one that best serves U.S. interests. Here is how President Trump views it:
“If they’re [allies] not going to take care of us properly, we cannot afford to be the military and the police for the world. We are, right now, the police for the entire world. We are policing the entire world.
You know, when people look at our military and they say, “Oh, wow, that’s fantastic,” they have many, many times — you know, we spend many times what any other country spends on the military. But it’s not really for us. We’re defending other countries.
So all I’m saying is this: They have to pay.
And you know what? I’m prepared to walk, and if they have to defend themselves against North Korea, where you have a maniac over there, in my opinion, if they don’t — if they don’t take care of us properly, if they don’t respect us enough to take care of us properly, then you know what’s going to have to happen?
It’s very simple. They’re going to have to defend themselves.”