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Despite my great respect for America’s uniformed military and for the civilians who try to manage the nation’s huge defense establishment, many of them have just reminded us that they have long suffered from a big, fat blind spot when it comes to U.S. foreign policy and its relationship to trade and economic policy.

Seventeen former Secretaries of Defense and leading generals on Thursday released a letter expressing their “strongest possible support” for President Obama’s proposed Pacific Rim trade deal and its trans-Atlantic counterpart. According to the signers, who included Colin Powell (a former Secretary of State to boot), and former Pentagon chiefs Leon Panetta, Chuck Hagel, Robert Gates, and Donald Rumsfeld, as well as former U.S. Iraq commander and CIA chief David Petraeus, “There are tremendous strategic benefits to [the two deals] and there would be harmful strategic consequences if we fail to secure these agreements. In both Asia-Pacific and the Atlantic, our allies and partners would question our commitments, doubt our resolve, and inevitably look to other partners. America’s prestige, influence, and leadership are on the line.” Needless to say, the letter claims that the economic benefits of these pacts would be “substantial,” too.

But its predictions of strategic disaster flowing from rejecting the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) stem from fundamental misunderstandings of how and why America’s main alliances are structured and work. More specifically, these former leaders either don’t or refuse to recognize that U.S. allies need the United States much more than the reverse, and similarly, they have lined up with America because their own self-interest desperately requires it.

After all, whatever benefits Americans get from these arrangements, the United States is located thousands of miles away from any rivals that could seriously threaten it, and retains more-than-ample power to deter attacks on the homeland from any minimally rational adversary. (Alliances have no apparent potential to strengthen U.S. security against non-rational enemies armed with weapons of mass destruction.) The allies, however, are all located very close to countries that can cause them major grief, and Washington’s assistance is especially prized not only because it is abundant, but because it comes from a power too far away to dominate them in any meaningful sense.

It’s true that, during the Cold War, major fears were expressed about Western Europe “Finlandizing” itself and agreeing to some form of informal Soviet hegemony. And one concrete problem could have ensued – Moscow could have interfered with U.S. efforts to supply Middle East military ventures through European bases. But if no such scenario unfolded during those decades, why would it emerge given the much weaker state of contemporary Russia? Even weirder, given the enormous American potential recently revealed for substantial energy independence, and given Europe’s continued reliance on the Middle East, control of the continent would put the onus on Vladimir Putin to defend the free flow of oil from that dysfunctional region, and generally police it. More power to him.

For their part, America’s Asian allies have significant reasons to kowtow to China – mainly because so many of them are connected with the PRC economically through the vast multinational manufacturing production complex the region has become. At the same time, commerce (properly understood) also prevents East Asia from simply casting its lot with the Chinese and excluding the United States in any (further) meaningful way. For America is by far the single biggest national customer for the products turned out by their export-heavy economies. China is way too poor, way too protectionist, and way too export-led itself to serve as a substitute.

The former military leaders are on firmer ground in suggesting that America’s allies have reason to doubt U.S. defense commitments. But that has nothing to do with the fate of trade deals. Instead, it reflects chronic doubts about whether the United States would risk its own security on their behalf, especially against nuclear-armed adversaries. Washington’s traditional response has been stationing U.S. forces (and during the Cold War, their families) directly in harm’s way, to increase the odds that attacks on the allies would claim U.S. victims. Thus American leaders would be left with no real choice but to respond in kind, the allies would recognize this, and adversaries would be further deterred.

Since the Cold War’s end, these American “tripwires” have been thinned out, but they’re still deployed in Korea, Japan, and Germany. The big new commitment questions raised in Europe have concerned the conspicuously complete lack of permanently stationed tripwires in the newer NATO members that were once part of the Soviet bloc but that still may be in Putin’s sites. In the Far East, the credibility of the American deterrent, as I’ve written, is being undermined by the ongoing development of Chinese and North Korean nuclear forces capable of striking American territory and largely invulnerable to retaliation or preemption. Neither trade deal being pursued by the president has the slightest chance of easing these doubts.

There is one way that the TPP could bolster the American stake in East Asia’s security status quo – if the deal had any real promise of reducing the region’s main predatory trade practices and turning U.S. commerce with it from a net loser to a net winner, or something close. But since these Asian practices (and barriers) are generally informal, and carried out by bureaucracies that are expert at keeping secrets from foreigners, they’ve been difficult enough for Americans even to identify and document, much less combat effectively.

Finally, it’s vital to point out that, for all the alarms sounded by these former military leaders about using TPP specifically to offset China’s rise and economic influence over its neighbors, not one of them has ever registered a single complaint about the wealth and technology (including defense-related knowhow) that American policy has showered on China for literally decades. This apparent ignorance of the first maxim of strategy – don’t enrich and empower your enemy – shows that these former defense officials and senior generals and admirals may not deserve to be taken seriously even on many national security questions, let alone on trade issues.

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