SINCE EARLY in his administration, President Trump has advanced the profoundly wrongheaded notion that close U.S. allies such as Germany, Japan and South Korea are not “paying” enough for the U.S. troops stationed on their territories, which in Mr. Trump’s blinkered view are there only to defend foreign nations, not to advance U.S. security. A series of aides have endeavored to divert him from threats to withdraw American forces; the allies have offered modest additional funding.
Now, with his reelection campaign faltering, Mr. Trump is headed toward tossing aside restraints and ordering troop withdrawals that could inflict far-reaching damage on the U.S. strategic position in both Europe and Asia. Last month, Mr. Trump ordered the pullout of a over a quarter of the U.S. forces stationed in Germany, delivering a huge gift to Russian ruler Vladimir Putin, who wishes for nothing more than the disintegration of the NATO alliance.
The Wall Street Journal further reports the Pentagon has delivered options to Mr. Trump for cutting back the 28,500 U.S. troops in South Korea. That would be a boon not just to North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un but also to the Chinese regime of Xi Jinping, which dreams of pushing the United States out of East Asia. It would clash conspicuously with Mr. Trump’s campaign theme of toughness on China, and hand presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden an easy talking point.
Yet “countless discussions” with his national security team, as former national security adviser John Bolton described it, have failed to dislodge Mr. Trump’s fixed notion that host nations should pay the United States the full cost of stationing troops on bases — plus a 50 percent premium. In the case of South Korea, the president wants a payment by Seoul of $5 billion a year — or more than five times the subsidy it currently provides.
According to Mr. Bolton’s memoir, Mr. Trump repeatedly browbeat South Korean President Moon Jae-in about the issue, once telling him “the U.S. lost $4 billion a year for the privilege of South Korea selling us televisions.” Mr. Moon tried to compromise, raising the South Korean payment to $926 million in 2019 and offering $1 billion a year over the following five years. Mr. Trump wouldn’t have it: “Get out of there if we don’t get the five-billion-dollar deal,” he demanded, in Mr. Bolton’s account.
The result has been an impasse, with only a partial deal for 2020. And now, predictably, come the leaks about a potential pullout, along with public threats from Mr. Trump’s mouthpieces. “We want to bring troops from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, from South Korea, Japan and from Germany,” Richard Grenell, Mr. Trump’s former ambassador to Germany, told a German newspaper last month. Americans, he claimed, “are getting a bit tired of paying too much for the defense of other countries.”
Actually, polls show public support for NATO and other alliances remains strong. Certainly that’s true in Congress, where there is bipartisan support for legislation making a reduction of U.S. troops in Germany or South Korea conditional on a Pentagon certification that it would not harm U.S. security. Unfortunately, the Trump administration previously has made a mockery of such requirements; stronger action may be required to protect these vital alliances.