Returning from the World War I armistice commemoration in Paris, President Donald Trump reemphasized his view of America’s European allies. “We pay for large portions of other countries’ military protection,” he wrote on Twitter, and “it is time that these very rich countries either pay the United States for its great military protection, or protect themselves.” Trump’s criticisms are, of course, nothing new—since the 2016 campaign he has routinely highlighted the ways in which free-riding allies purportedly take advantage of American largesse.
But underlying the president’s position lies an assumption that is now worthy of close consideration: that the United States defends Europe, and stations troops on the continent, based on an impulse that is either fundamentally charitable, anachronistic, or both. As a result, it follows that we’ve been played by allies enriching themselves under our protection. Trump seems to believe that such altruism merits gratitude; the French, he observed, were “starting to learn German in Paris before the U.S. came along.”
The truth, however, is that the U.S. helps Europe because, in so doing, it helps itself. Twice in the first half of the 20th century, the United States went to Europe to end wars that had engulfed the world. These were not acts of charity, but of national self-interest. Following the Second World War, American leaders resolved not to permit such catastrophes to reoccur. Their solution was to remain in Europe, commit to its defense, and deploy troops there as a way to keep the peace. The bargain has been straightforward: America gets bases and a guarantee that we won’t have to fight alone; European allies get protection from the world’s foremost military. All get stability and peace on the continent.