Fort Trump shows US serious about making allies pay ― Peter Apps

MARCH 15 ― President Donald Trump might be rolling back USmilitary commitments in Syria, Afghanistan, South Korea and much of mainland Europe, but there’s one place the opposite is true. The Pentagon is considering a massive new base ― dubbed “Fort Trump” ― in Poland to house a US armoured division.

The reasoning is simple. Poland’s right-wing government, desperate to deter Russia and win US favour, has offered to pay $2 billion (RM8.1 billion), perhaps more, for the presence of US troops. It’s a precedent that alarms many of America’s allies, particularly Nato friends in Europe, and one that the USpresident seems keen to apply much more widely.

Last weekend, Bloomberg reported Trump wanted several countries with a large US troop presence, including Japan and Germany, to pay not just the full cost of US forces there, but also an additional 50 per cent premium. The suggestion has outraged many foreign policy insiders in Washington and beyond. But it is also the clearest sign yet that as the 2020 election looms, Trump intends to double down on rhetoric that America’s allies should pay more for their defence or risk Washington walking away.

In another clear sign of this, the Pentagon budget submitted this week, broadly ramping up US military spending to face an increasingly assertive Russia and China, pointedly stripped back designated funding for US military activities in Europe by one tenth. The currently $6.5 billion European Deterrence Initiative, which supports US military training and other activities, had steadily increased since Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine.

The United States will continue to rotate troops through eastern Europe, the Pentagon says. But it will cut back building new infrastructure and training programs unless, as in Poland, regional governments promise to pay.

It’s a significant ― and much more isolationist ― shift from the position taken by successive US administrations since 1945, almost all of which regarded the US troop presence overseas as an investment that would hopefully secure long-term peace and give America a much greater ability to influence events as and when it wished. At its most extreme, it risks the perception that an ongoing alliance with the United States will endure only as long as the money keeps flowing.

For all the focus on Trump, this may yet be a much wider trend in US policymaking. Several of the emerging Democratic contenders for 2020 ― particularly leftist Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders ― are scarcely less isolationist than Trump. And while the US foreign policy mainstream remains highly committed to Nato and other alliances, their influence on more unorthodox policymakers, including future presidents, may not be what it was.

Even among figures committed to Nato and other allies, frustration is rising. Data released Thursday showed overall Nato defence spending rising in most countries in 2018, with particularly dramatic rises in the Baltic states and other eastern and northern nations close to Russia. German spending in particular continued to lag. Only six European nations reached the Nato target of spending 2 percent of gross domestic product on defence, a target Trump last year suggested should itself be doubled.

Whether or not the Polish “Fort Trump” ― a name initially apparently jokingly given to it by Polish President Andrzej Duda ― goes ahead is far from clear. Some European analysts are openly sceptical, saying Warsaw would do better to throw its lot in with European partners in a less transactional relationship. Polish officials are due to discuss the Fort Trump proposals this week with their US counterparts, and the results will be closely watched by other US allies.

Trump must hope talking tough and demanding payment from US allies plays well in his electoral heartland. Whether it makes broader strategic sense, however, is a different question. America’s patchwork of military outposts ― particularly major centres such as Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany ― are central to its ability to operate globally. Pushing allies to contribute runs the risk of unravelling a host of meticulously negotiated arrangements, including those central to US counterterrorism operations in the Middle East and Africa.

Many US allies already make a significant contribution. By some estimates, Japan ― whose bases are central to almost all US military operations in the Pacific and Southeast Asia ― already meets some 75 per cent of the US$5.5 billion annual cost of the US presence. Adding a further 50 per cent premium, however, as Trump apparently wishes, would more than double this. Given the controversial nature of the US military presence, it is far from clear. Any Japanese government would willingly accept such terms.

Still, Trump appears to be sending a much broader message: that while previously the United States actively preferred close involvement in the defence arrangements of its friends and partners, it would now much rather they did that work themselves. To an extent, that is increasingly becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy ― in Europe, in particular, where leaders such as French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have paid much more attention to integrating their defences since Trump’s 2016 election victory.

They are probably right to do so. Until his ouster in December, US Defence Secretary James Mattis was furiously travelling the world, reassuring America’s allies of Washington’s ongoing commitment. Those days, however, seem to have gone. Both Moscow and Beijing continue to be increasingly aggressive in their own immediate neighbourhoods and the less concerned they are over a potential U.S. response, the more assertive ― and potentially dangerous ― they are likely to be.

Whether it is ever built or not, the true legacy of “Fort Trump” ― as well as the wider isolationist mood music from the Trump administration – may simply be that America’s allies start looking further beyond their relationship with Washington. That might be exactly what the president and his supporters wanted. But it may not make the world a safer place. ― Reuters

* Peter Apps is a writer on international affairs, globalisation, conflict and other issues. He is the founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think tank.

** This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.