Ripped Off

What Donald Trump Gets Right About U.S. Alliances

Donald Trump at a rally in North Carolina, September 2016. Mike Segar / Reuters

When Donald Trump, the Republican presidential candidate, criticized NATO in a number of interviews earlier this year, he was challenging the foundations of the United States’ military strategy. His attack on Washington’s conventional wisdom has unsettled the U.S. security establishment no less than it has the foreign governments that depend on it, and has drawn criticism from across the political spectrum.

Trump, however, is right. U.S. policy toward its allies really is “obsolete,” as Trump termed NATO. The United States remains remarkably secure and faces no serious—let alone existential—threat akin to that formerly posed by the Soviet Union, the enemy that most U.S. alliances were formed to oppose. Moreover, Washington’s Asian and European allies are prosperous and industrialized states that are more than capable of protecting themselves.

Unfortunately, U.S. strategy currently appears to endorse the idea that whatever is, must forever be. But the fact that Washington has defended countries for decades does not mean that it should continue doing so indefinitely, whatever the costs. Alliances should be a means to an end rather than an end in themselves, and in this case, that end should be to increase U.S. security.


Critics of Trump have been quick to invoke the danger of reducing U.S. strategic commitments in the face of a newly assertive Moscow. For instance, Anthony Cordesman, a strategic analyst at CSIS, has warned against “giving up Europe to Russia.” No one wants this outcome. But the point is that Moscow cannot have Europe unless the European Union, which possesses a greater population and GDP than the United States (not to mention Russia), allows it to do so. The Europeans are fully capable of defending their own interests without U.S. help, and the ancillary benefits to Washington of military cooperation, such as base access, do not require the extension of security guarantees.

The Europeans are fully capable of defending their own interests without U.S. help,

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