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President Trump’s Response Half-Right on NATO

President Donald Trump stopped in Brussels to meet leaders of other NATO members. No international institution may better illustrate Public Choice economics than the transatlantic alliance, which survived despite the demise of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact. Indeed, NATO’s boosters now are proclaiming a grand revival.

Yet Uncle Sam is functionally bankrupt. He has around $200 trillion in unfunded liabilities, promises made with Trump NATOno money set aside for payment.

Indeed, the Congressional Budget Office warns that without responsible decision-making on Capitol Hill, and who wants to bet on that, the federal government will be back to trillion dollar annual deficits within a decade. The numbers will only worsen as the entitlement tsunami builds with the continuing retirement of baby-boomers.

Military outlays aren’t likely to survive unscathed. Domestic discretionary spending, the most easily controlled portion of the budget, accounts for less than 15 percent of federal outlays. The rest goes to Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid, interest, and the military. Which leaves the Pentagon as an inevitable target for cuts.

Moreover, the U.S. is busier than ever elsewhere in the world. The Trump administration has emphasized confrontation with North Korea. China’s aggressive assertion of its territorial claims in the Asia-Pacific creates the potential for a direct military confrontation with the U.S.

Before venturing to Europe President Trump hopscotched across the Middle East, promising to defend the Sunni monarchies, with talk of a Persian Gulf NATO, and reaffirming Washington’s commitment to Israel. In the background are the seemingly intractable wars in Afghanistan—America’s longest, by far—Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.

During the campaign candidate Donald Trump appeared ready to make serious changes. He derided European free- (or cheap-) riding and called the alliance “obsolete.” However, he appointed as Secretaries of Defense and State advocates of the status quo.

So, the administration pushes only minor changes in the alliance. For instance, President Trump complained that NATO was not active enough on terrorism. However, while combatting the latter warrants cooperation, a military alliance offers little in confronting such an asymmetrical threat. War is far more likely to encourage more terrorism, as in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He also sharply criticized Europe’s contribution to NATO. Despite extensive hype over the Russian Threat, only four European nations meet the alliance guideline of military spending at two percent of GDP. The rest of Europe falls short, some countries dramatically so.

Three years ago, even as NATO Europe’s collective military outlays were falling, members agreed that they should meet the two percent level. But collectively NATO Europe went from 1.44 percent of GDP to just 1.47 percent last year. No one believes that countries as different as Belgium, Germany, Italy, and Spain are going to double their defense spending.

It's a legitimate complaint, but squabbling over compliance with arbitrary standards adds little in practical military strength. None of which matters since no one holds members to account anyway.

The basic problem is that no European, at least anyone living outside of the Baltic States and perhaps Poland, actually fears a Russian attack. European governments and especially peoples see no reason to spend more on the military.

More fundamentally, while they like being protected by America, Europeans don’t need America to protect them. They have a larger economy and population than the U.S. and vastly bigger than Russia. The issue is not capability but willingness to do more militarily.

Which suggests that it is time for a different approach. The world has changed dramatically since the alliance was created almost 70 years ago. Washington should use the approaching anniversary to turn Europe’s defense over to Europe.

The Europeans should create a new security structure, perhaps NATO without America (or as an associate member), the European Union, or some other organization, to coordinate national forces and create international formations. Such an approach would provide a useful test of the relevance of the EU: can it fulfill the most fundament responsibility of any government, provide security?

At the same time, the U.S. should step back, shifting from the perpetual problem-solver to emergency back-up. Part of that process would be establishing a framework for continuing transatlantic cooperation in the many areas of mutual interest.

NATO played an important role during the Cold War. However, there’s no reason to preserve a seven-decade-old alliance in the midst of a radically changed world. It is time to adjust Washington’s foreign and military policy to match changing circumstances.

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