So, Donald Trump wants to turn America’s hegemony into a protection racket. Okay, then. How would those negotiations go?
First thing to do is estimate how much the U.S. could save by pulling out of Germany, Japan, and South Korea.
First take: billions and billions! The link goes to a 2009 study by the Commonwealth Institute. They get a cost of $127.1 billion for fiscal 2010: $132.1 billion in cost minus tribute host payments of $5 billion. (Page 9.) But that estimate is dumb. It simply pro-rates the defense budget by the number of personnel stationed overseas. Now, maybe some president might save all that money by simply downsizing the military. (Well, the Army would be “downsized” in that scenario; the Navy would be gutted.)
Since Trump has made it clear that he has no intention of shrinking the military, then those personnel will simply be redeployed back to the United States.
Second take: In 2013, the U.S. Senate took a look at basing costs. It estimated costs around $10 billion, 70% in Germany, Japan, and South Korea. (Page 1.) These costs do not include personnel costs or overhead: rather, they are the direct costs of keeping up the bases in those countries. German bases cost $4 billion. South Korean bases cost $1.9 billion. (Page 18.) Japanese bases cost $2.5 billion. (Page 40.)
But South Korea and Japan, unlike Germnay, pay pretty large portions of the U.S. cost! (Hold that thought on Germany; this is based entirely on the Senate report.) In South Korea, U.S. taxpayers foot only $1.1 billion of the cost; South Koreans make up for $800 million. (Page 21.) Japan, meanwhile, covers more than 70% of U.S. costs, to the tune of $1.8 billion per year. Until 2010, in fact, Japan covered all U.S. basing costs. (Page 41.) So President Trump might wrap up the American empire-by-invitation in Asia for savings of ... $1.8 billion. Get out of Germany at the same time and you save $5.8 billion per year.
Only you don’t! Consider the cost of transferring 7,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam: $19.3 billion. (Page 49.) Scale that up by the other 43,000 American forces in Japan and you get $119 billion to withdraw without demobilization. Add in the 29,000 forces in South Korea and you get $197 billion. Throw in the 36,000 troops planned to still be in Germany in 2017 and you get $296 billion.
Now, that is a one-time cost, not an annual flow. And it is likely exaggerated, since most of the Naval and Air Force personnel overseas will not be as expensive to relocate as the Marines. So lets arbitrarily cut the cost by 60%. 30-year treasury bonds are currently yielding around 2.5%. Call it an annual expense of $5.8 billion between 2017 and 2047.
$5.8 billion ≈ $5.8 billion. No savings. With interest rates at a near all-time low and shaving 60% off the topline estimate. Huh!
And now lets return to the German issue. Germany pays a share of American construction costs for our bases, but those costs are lumpy. In 2009, Rand estimated total German support to total $831 million. (Page 154.) If that number is accurate for other years, then the U.S. pays only $5.0 billion for our three main overseas presences. And $5.8 billion > $5.0 billion.
Third take: This big Rand report. It is long and complicated and does not cover the complete withdrawal option. But their minimum posture saves around $2.9 billion per year ... assuming that foreign contributions remained unchanged.
In other words, the American defense perimeter does not cost all that much.
Now we need to figure out what these cost estimates imply for the negotiations.
President Trump, in this world, cannot simply threaten to walk away, because that would cost him. He needs to make one of two additional threats:
- He is willing to incur costs to the United States if negotiations break down. That is, he tells his counterparts in Berlin, Tokyo and Seoul that he is willing to pay money to bug out unless our satraps allies fork over even more money. Good luck with that one.
He is willing to bug out and downsize the American military budget. Now those cuts do not have to be large for us to come out ahead — we are talking maybe 1% of the total defense budget — but they would need to be made.
So, yeah, I suppose a cost-cutting President Trump could threaten to cut American military spending unless those foreigners pay us more. But unless he is willing to resort to an outright protection racket, he would net us 1% of the military budget on the threat of making a 1% cut in the military budget.
Yeah, that makes sense. Totally worth it. After all, it isn’t like you could just, you know, cut the military budget without threatening our allies ...