America’s Asian allies have been unnerved by President Donald Trump’s dismissive rhetoric about alliances based on cost/benefit grounds, and his decision to dump the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. That’s part of the reason Defense Secretary Jim Mattis traveled in Asia to calm nerves in Tokyo and Seoul. America’s European allies are also deeply unsettled by Trump’s bad-mouthing of NATO and inclination to view alliances as business transactions. Part of Mattis’s and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s job description is to help a president who shoots from the lip and whose understanding of geopolitics is skin deep.
Mattis’s domestic audience is no less important than his interactions with foreign leaders. Much of the American public could use a refresher course on the value of alliances. Alliances are one important way in which the United States separates itself from other major powers. Russia has Belarus. China has North Korea and Pakistan. The United States has alliance partners that span the globe. These partners benefit from U.S. defense ties, while Washington benefits from their geography, bases, expeditionary forces and military capabilities. Forward-deployed U.S. forces provide visible bonds of common purpose. It would be senseless to loosen these bonds at a time when Russia and China are flexing their muscles and when uncertainties abound about America’s direction. Backtracking would invite risk taking, and risk taking could invite crises and clashes, the outcome of which could alter power balances in Asia and Europe.
The Pentagon is already taking steps to reaffirm and strengthen the NATO alliance. It is rotating the presence of U.S. air, ground and sea-based forces in Europe. It is conducting bilateral and multilateral training exercises with allied forces. Military equipment is being prepositioned in the Baltics and elsewhere. Infrastructure is being improved. These and other measures are being carried out under the aegis of the Pentagon’s European Reassurance Initiative. The Obama administration requested $3.4 billion in fiscal 2017 for these initiatives – quadruple the funding for the previous fiscal year. One clear indicator of the Trump administration’s thinking and Congressional intentions toward NATO will be whether this $3.4 billion investment in collective security is slashed or increased. Follow the money, as well as Trump’s rhetoric.
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