With a biannual summit with America’s NATO allies fast approaching next month, a number of stories have come out recently documenting President Donald Trump’s view of the Atlantic alliance. Unsurprisingly given statements he has made since his campaign, the president neither understands how the alliance works, nor the benefits it provides. Recent news reports suggest that Trump believes America’s allies are not spending enough on defense; that “NATO is as bad as NAFTA;” the alliance is too costly; and the United States might be better served by a partnership with the alliance, similar to the one Sweden has, without being a formal member (though White House officials claim the last point was a joke).
There has been a great deal of concern over how the American president’s disdain for the country’s European allies plays into the hands of Russian President Vladimir Putin—who, the White House announced today—Trump will meet with in Helsinki following the NATO summit. But there is something equally concerning about the president’s views on the NATO alliance: his understanding of the purpose of military power.
Trump’s frequent invocation of the cost of the alliance as animating his opposition to it echoes his justification for suspending U.S. military exercises on the Korean Peninsula at the summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore earlier this month. Yet, as I noted in a Twitter thread following that summit, the fiscal justification is at odds with the president’s frequent boasts about the increased level of defense spending his administration has overseen.
Why does the president think the defense budget needs to be so large?
The United States spends a lot of money on its military. One of the major reasons why it does so is the need to project military power across transoceanic distances to defend allies, such as those in Europe and South Korea. If America’s allies increase the financial burden of defending the alliance, then the United States should be able to decrease its defense budget. If the United States decides it should no longer maintain these commitments, there is less need to project military power to Eurasia—and therefore little need to maintain its current level of defense spending.
Why is this important? Military power is an instrument of national policy. President Trump, however, seems to see it as a symbol: a manifestation of national—and, quite likely, personal—power. The military as an institution has little reason to push back against this view if it secures the resources necessary to fulfill its preferred strategy. Yet a military that serves symbolic purposes risks losing the limits its instrumental purpose places on its use.