The Fiscal Impact of an “America First” Foreign Policy
Mitchell Stern, Fiscal Policy Contributor
Throughout his presidential campaign, Donald Trump has described his unique foreign policy views as being “America First.” By using this term, he broke with prior Republican candidates (including most of his rival candidates in the primary) on the foreign policy front by rejecting nation-building and calling for allies to pay more for their defense among other things. Regardless of how one might feel about Trump’s candidacy, he deserves credit for bringing these issues up. These policies would be very helpful in getting government spending to finally come under control.
First, let’s examine Trump’s call for allies to help take care of their own defense. NATO treaty obligations require member nations to spend at least 2% of their GDP on defense so as to not require the NATO pool of resources. As of now, only 5 countries-the US, UK, Greece, Poland and Estonia-have met that requirement . The US in particular currently spends 3.6% of GDP on defense, by far exceeding the rest. Meanwhile, the rest of NATO spends 1.5% or less. American largess and lack of will to require these allied nations to contribute for defense mean that most of these countries will not increase their spending to reach their required spending levels. America providing for Europe’s defense made sense when half the continent was dominated by the Soviet Union, but in the modern era, it would be much more reasonable for the nations of Europe to pay for their own defense, rather than relying on the US to provide for their security. Only pressure from the US will enable America to ensure its allies meet their treaty requirements-and by extension get the chance to reduce the current levels of spending that buries us deeper and deeper under debt.
Another issue to examine is Trump’s criticism of nation-building. Trump’s view on wars is very different from Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, but also from George W. Bush. The key deviation is that, in addition to only waging wars in defense of the US rather than aimed at spreading democracy, after defeating threats to the US, American troops should get out as fast as possible rather than stay there to remake the country in America’s image. While sadly lacking on detail here, Trump’s general premises are accurate on this issue. Since 2001, the war and occupation of Afghanistan have cost $685.6 billion. The Iraq War, which Trump did not take long to reject, cost $814.6 billion. Combined, that’s a total of nearly $1.5 trillion in spending, the bulk of which was on nation building in these countries. $17 billion was wasted in Afghanistan alone, on a failed effort to fight heroin production, roads the country cannot maintain, useless and underused aircraft and $43 million on one single gas station. Rejecting unnecessary wars and refraining from long-term occupations of countries after America does go to war would go a long way towards reining in federal spending and reducing the debt.
It is important to take notice of the fact that simply because spending is being done in the name of national security doesn’t actually mean it is strengthening US security or national interests. As demonstrated above, there is quite a bit of overspending being undertaken by the US on nation building and on allies’ defenses and not addressing this sort of waste will leave the country stuck in an endless expansion of spending and increases in the national debt. While there is reason to be skeptical of Trump actually reducing spending levels, these proposals of his give reason for some optimism about the odds of him actually pursuing lower levels of government spending. It is little wonder his staunchest opponents on the right are also those who tend to favor higher levels of military spending and oppose any talk of limiting it, such as Bill Kristol. Ultimately, though, the ever-growing national debt is one of the biggest long-term threats to the United States and figuring out ways to keep all spending, including defense spending, under control needs to be our top priority.
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