He takes a businessman’s bottom-line approach to the country’s foreign alliances, but President Trump’s drive to extract more money for the deployment of U.S. troops abroad comes with its own hefty price tag.
Analysts and military insiders say a string of recent incidents suggests that Mr. Trump’s decades-old argument that South Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia and other wealthy allies should pony up more for their protection has reached a far more confrontational stage and risks creating an image that the U.S. military is morphing into “mercenaries” available for hire.
The president’s increasingly insistent demands could chip away at vital American alliances despite assurances from military and diplomatic officials and nervous allies that the U.S. is not seriously contemplating troop withdrawals if Mr. Trump doesn’t get his money.
In the latest high-profile example, talks between the U.S. and South Korea broke down abruptly last month after the White House reportedly insisted that Seoul agree to a fivefold increase in the amount it pays each year for the roughly 28,500 U.S. troops stationed on the peninsula. South Korea this year will pay about $900 million, but officials there say Mr. Trump is seeking as much as $5 billion in 2020 and beyond.
The demand has sparked an uproar in South Korea. Newspaper editorials have compared the “notoriously peevish President Trump” to a “vicious landlord” and a “neighborhood bully shaking down a store owner in the name of protection.”
The U.S. administration reportedly is seeking a comparable increase in Japan’s yearly defense payments.
Since the early days of his presidential campaign, Mr. Trump has publicly bashed NATO allies for their often lackluster defense spending levels. He is expected to revive that message this week at a gathering of the alliance’s leaders in London.
Analysts say the president’s push, particularly as it relates to U.S. forces in South Korea, upends the nation’s post-World War II approach to troop deployments abroad and sends the wrong signal at the wrong time. Critics fear the bare-knuckle Seoul-Washington talks are meant to create a template for U.S. demands of other longtime allies.
“We’ve seen right now Korea is the first in the breach, both last year and this year,” said Bruce Klingner, a former CIA Korea deputy chief and now a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “In the past, the U.S. has said the cost of U.S. forces [on the Korean Peninsula] was $1.5 billion or so. And last year, Trump directed we’re going to get cost plus 50%, implying not only a transactional relationship but we’re going to make money having forces overseas.
“It implies our men and women in uniform … are mercenaries, and that’s certainly not the case,” Mr. Klingner said.
The mercenary idea is nothing new. Indeed, history is filled with examples of governments willing to pay for military manpower despite the risks.
From ancient times through today’s civil wars in Syria and Yemen, hired guns have played key roles in conflicts in Africa, Asia, Europe, North America and elsewhere around the globe.
In the latter half of the Middle Ages, the Italian “condottieri” rose to prominence as commanders of mercenary armies across Europe. Several centuries later, roughly 30,000 German mercenaries known as Hessians fought alongside British troops during the American Revolution.
By the 20th century, mercenaries largely had been relegated to history books. While not technically outlawed under international law, pacts such as the Geneva Conventions make clear that mercenaries are not provided the same legal rights and protections as a nation’s formal armed forces.
But recent conflicts have given mercenaries something of a rebirth. The U.S. relied heavily on private security forces to supplement the military missions in Iraq and elsewhere, although the front-line fighting was reserved for troops in uniform.
Russia’s Kremlin-backed Wagner Group fielded forces in Syria and has sent mercenary snipers into Libya to aid militia leader Gen. Khalifa Haftar in a fight against the United Nations-backed government in Tripoli. It is the most prominent example of the Kremlin’s increased willingness to offer highly trained mercenary military forces to help advance its own interests.
Mr. Trump appears to have set a precedent of sorts this fall when he made clear he was approving more U.S. troops and military equipment to Saudi Arabia in the wake of a suspected Iranian missile attack, in part because the oil-rich kingdom supposedly agreed to pay for them.
“They’ve agreed to pay fully for the cost of everything we’re doing over there,” he told reporters at a White House press conference Oct. 16. “That’s something you have never heard before, I think.”
The talks with Riyadh on paying for the troops “took a very short time,” Mr. Trump added, “like, maybe, about 35 seconds.”
Frustrated and alarmed
Although no one would equate outfits such as the Wagner Group to the U.S. military, mounting evidence shows that key allies are growing frustrated and alarmed at Washington’s expectation that American military support is dependent on money. The abrupt end to cost-sharing talks between South Korean and U.S. officials last month cast a spotlight on the deep differences between the two sides.
South Korean officials said they agree with Mr. Trump that cost sharing is appropriate but signaled that the reported $5 billion price tag is simply unacceptable.
“In principle, we have declared a burden sharing that is mutually viable. However, it is true that there is a significant difference between the overall proposal from the United States and our position in principle,” lead South Korean negotiator Jeong Eun-bo told reporters after the meeting.
The impasse comes amid a renewed push at denuclearization talks with North Korea, and it is imperative that Washington and Seoul show a united front against an often hostile, unpredictable Pyongyang. The money dispute has also led some in Seoul to question the long-term viability of the U.S. security umbrella and whether South Korea should seek either new allies or new resources at home to defend itself.
Although Mr. Trump’s insistence that allies pay more has come to the forefront during his time in office, research shows that the position is hardly new for a commander in chief.
Mr. Trump made many of those public comments during the 2016 campaign and his time in office, but he clearly held the belief long before launching his career in politics.
“You look, as an example, South Korea,” Mr. Trump said during a 2013 interview with Fox News. “Why are we doing this all free? We are not in that position as a country. They should be paying us for this. We send all those aircraft carriers over. All those ships, the planes, the bombers. And we get nothing out of it. Except in all fairness, they take most of our business.”
Mr. Trump also has marketed himself as the ultimate deal-maker. In the case of South Korea, observers say, the president likely told his negotiators to ask for $5 billion with the expectation that the two sides ultimately would agree to a lower figure.
But such a strategy carries its own set of risks.
“Allies are not real estate developers,” Mr. Klingner said. “Allies, like spouses, remember forever if you say spiteful things. You can’t just say, ‘It was all part of the deal. Let’s go have a beer.’ Allies remember when you say critical things, and they also remember if they feel they can’t count on you to come to their defense.”
Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow and director of research at the Brookings Institution, expects the U.S. and South Korea to come to some kind of an agreement that allows the White House to claim victory while stopping short of Mr. Trump’s maximalist demands.
Writing recently in The Hill newspaper, Mr. O’Hanlon said, “South Korea is already generous, however, it could probably find a few other very specific costs to cover, such as fuel for some American naval deployments that come close to the peninsula, and equipment such as chemical weapons protective gear that American forces probably need more in South Korea than anywhere else.
“Negotiators should look for clever ways like these to end the impasse between the two countries,” he said.
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