The Trump administration has embarked on a quiet bilateral campaign to extract more defense dollars from several countries, including South Korea and Saudi Arabia, saying they must pay more to fund American security missions and bases in their countries.
U.S. defense officials and diplomats last week wrapped up the latest round of negotiations with their South Korean counterparts, seeking to convince Seoul to subsidize costs tied to the tens of thousands of U.S. troops long stationed on the Korean Peninsula. For three days, American and South Korean negotiators discussed proposals for how much of the bill Seoul can afford to pay to support U.S. operations.
As with President Trump’s trade policies, the defense spending talks are a bid to put meat on the bones of the president’s “America First” foreign policy, and upend longstanding practices that Mr. Trump says burden American taxpayers while giving a pass to countries that can easily contribute more to their own safety.
The president’s unhappiness with some NATO allies over their failure to meet pledges on defense spending are well known, but administration officials say the campaign is even more broadly targeted.
“When you have wealthy countries like Saudi Arabia, like Japan, like South Korea, why are we subsidizing their military?” Mr. Trump asked at a September campaign rally in West Virginia. “They’ll pay us. The problem is nobody ever asks.”
Despite the sharp rhetoric, defense analysts say Mr. Trump’s frustrations have been shared by both Democratic and Republican presidents. What’s new, they say, is the openness with which Mr. Trump is demanding a rebalancing.
“This is not the first time we have had tough negotiations with allies … for hosting U.S. troops,” said former Obama administration defense official Hal Brands, now a senior analyst at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
But under Mr. Trump, such negotiations have taken on a much tougher, more transactional tone, Mr. Brands added. Even nations the Trump White House has assiduously cultivated, such as Saudi Arabia, have come under fire, even though the Saudis are major U.S. arms buyers and devote over 10 percent of the national budget to military spending — one of the highest ratios in the world.
Recounting a recent talk with Saudi King Salman, Mr. Trump told the same West Virginia rally, “I said ‘Saudi Arabia, you are rich, you have got to pay for your military. You have got to pay for your military, sorry.’”
Administration critics argue the White House’s brusque manner and blunt demands have only alienated allies, many of whom say their own contributions to the common defense are ignored in Mr. Trump’s criticisms. But proponents say Mr. Trump’s tough talk is paying dividends for a U.S. military already stretched thin by is various global commitments.
“[President] Trump uses his leverage in negotiations, and we have consistently seen that in his foreign policy,” said Jay Carafano, director for foreign policy studies at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation.
More defense money from allies to support U.S. operations in their home countries, as well as increasing American weapon sales to those nations, are part and parcel to downsizing the U.S. role in hot spots across the globe.
“It is important to the [overall] strategy” of the Trump administration’s foreign policy goals, Mr. Carafano said. “Building up [foreign] capacity is something these guys are big on. … We do not have enough stuff to be in all those places” indefinitely.
But if Mr. Trump is seen as “strong-arming” allies, Mr. Brands warned, those countries could respond “in a tone that is increasingly anti-U.S.”
The debate over Mr. Trump’s approach played out in Hawaii last week, as U.S. and South Korean negotiators how much more Seoul should pay to keep American forces in the country.
The four-day talk, which were part of the ninth round of negotiations the “Special Measures Agreement” — the deal underpinning the presence of U.S. forces on the peninsula — wrapped up Saturday. The terms of the current deal are scheduled to expire by the end of this year.
At issue is increasing Seoul’s current $851 million contribution to the U.S. military presence in the country. The majority of those funds go toward day-to-day operations for the 28,500 American troops stationed on the Korean Peninsula.
Washington’s proposal would require South Korea to finance operations and deployments of strategic assets, everything from aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines, should they be needed in response to a regional threat from North Korea or China.
The Trump White House has already taken the controversial step of suspending several major U.S. war games on the peninsula, as a goodwill gesture toward North Korea, who views the drills as a direct challenge to Pyongyang’s sovereignty. Mr. Trump has cited the cost of the exercises as one reason he did not mind suspending them.
Washington faced a similar diplomatic row with Japan over defense costs under the George H.W. Bush administration as it does now with South Korea, Mr. Brands noted. While negotiations were difficult, an effort by both sides to keep tensions to a minimum and a desire to reach a deal, he noted.
The Trump White House, conversely, “seems determined to drive up the friction as much as possible,” Mr. Brands said. “Unless you buy more of our gear, or pay more … we are going to think about rolling back our security commitments,” he added, characterizing the tone of the administration’s strategy.
Allies like South Korea or Japan or Germany could “simply say no and call our bluff … [and] start developing alternatives to reliance on the United States,” he added.
The sharper U.S. tone on greater defense spending has sparked a backlash, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel last week echoing a call from French President Emmanuel Macron for an expanded Europe-only army, strongly implying the Europeans could no long put their faith entirely in an alliance that included the U.S.
“Only a stronger Europe is going to defend Europe,” Ms. Merkel said.
But what is seen by some administration critics as strong-arm tactics is framed as tough love by White House supporters. “Its like your parents telling you to eat your vegetables,” Mr. Carafano said.