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Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Calling on Germany and Japan

President Donald Trump makes me long for the days of President George W. Bush —  something I would have thought impossible. But I agree with Trump on one point, in the same way that I agreed with President Ronald Reagan that the national 55 mph speed limit had to go.

The U.S. spends 3.3% of its Gross Domestic Product on the military. Compare the figures of our major allies:

  • South Korea = 2.7%
  • France = 2.3%
  • Australia = 2.0%
  • United Kingdom = 1.9%
  • Italy = 1.5%
  • Germany = 1.2%
  • Spain = 1.2%
  • Japan = 1.0%
  • Canada = 1.0%
The outliers are Germany and Japan, each of which has a large GDP and can afford to spend more. Before the Berlin Wall came down, Germany did spend more. They cut their military spending to the bone when the pressure went away. But now Vladimir Putin has increased pressure on the Baltic states, and it's time for the Germans to step up. Similarly, as China strengthens its military, it's time for the Japanese to step up. NATO adopted 2% as a guideline in 2014, and that seems like a reasonable number to me. I am not a reckless hawk, but neither am I an absolute pacifist. I believe that nations must maintain reasonable defenses against aggression.

The wallet of every American is being raided to provide cover for nations that can and should carry more of the burden themselves. There is an enormous "opportunity cost" to American citizens when we allocate 3.3% of our GDP to the Pentagon. That's too much. 2.5% should suffice. One reason why we spend 3.3% is to fill gaps left by the Germans and the Japanese. Trump is right to raise this point, although his absurdly boorish behavior distracts from the issue.

When Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany recently said that Europe can no longer depend on the U.S. for defense, I would agree with her if she meant to say that Europe cannot depend on the U.S. to a disproportionate extent. But it's unhelpful and inaccurate for her to characterize an American request for fairness as turning our backs on Europe.

I'm aware that the Germans and the Japanese were militaristic threats to the entire world less than 75 years ago. There is an irreducible risk that they could become militaristic again, but it seems to me that such a risk is acceptably low — and certainly far lower than the risk of Russian or Chinese aggression.

Lastly, Americans should applaud that France takes its military commitments and remember that France rejoined NATO fully. Disregard the comedy of Robin Williams; the modern French military is quite capable. Did you know that the left flank of the ground invasion of Iraq in 1991 was primarily French? They performed very well.