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Front-running Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has done it again: He’s scandalized the American political and foreign policy (and therefore media) establishments with his charge this week that the United States is spending too much on defending Europe via its membership in the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) alliance. And once again, he’s hit the nail much closer to the head than the nation’s political leaders and self-appointed national security experts.

Most of the responses to Trump make one or both of two main points: First, that the NATO commitment isn’t very expensive at all; and second, the aftermath of yet another major terrorist attack in Europe is the last time when anyone should be questioning this most important of U.S. ties to the Continent – including for America’s own sake.

Yet the first allegation is nonsense. In large measure it’s based on the costs of maintaining NATO as an organization. This sum is indeed miniscule compared with the overall U.S. military budget or the size of the whole American economy. But it also has virtually nothing to do with the real costs of fielding and deploying the military forces – both nuclear and conventional – that do the actual defending even in peacetime.

Surprisingly, this figure isn’t easy to identify. Why not? Because the Defense Department doesn’t break out most of  its budget by expenditures for major regions of the world. The one major exception: its funding requests for what it calls Overseas Contingency Operations – money used to pay for ongoing missions like Middle East wars (including attacks on ISIS), counter-terrorism campaigns, and the like.

Significantly, one Europe-related category is now listed. It’s called the European Reassurance Initiative, and as the Pentagon openly states, its components – notably increasing the American military presence in Europe – are mainly directed at newly assertive Russia. Last year, this program alone cost more than the U.S. contribution to the NATO budget – $789 million versus $514 million. And the Defense Department wants to quadruple the amount for next year.

At the same time, these totals don’t begin to take into account the full costs of the American military commitment to Europe. A rough idea of how great they could be can be gleaned from one of the few systematic efforts to analyze the geography of the defense budget – by the brilliant and iconoclastic former Pentagon official Earl C. Ravenal. Ravenal’s work unfortunately dates from the Cold War era, but it does provide a sense of the yawning gap between those NATO organization budget figures and truly comprehensive numbers.

According to Ravenal, the NATO commitment accounted fully half ($129 billion) of the 1983 $258 billion proposed Pentagon budget. Critics responded that even without NATO/Europe responsibilities, the nation would still need to maintain many of the forces both stationed on the Continent and assigned to it under various contingencies. But they never explained why. So Ravenal’s statistics look pretty reasonable to me.

The current (fiscal year 2016) Pentagon budget request is $585.2 billion; therefore, using the Ravenal methodology, we’d get just over $300 billion devoted to Europe’s defense. But this figure would also be highly misleading. After all, U.S. priorities have changed dramatically. During the Cold War days, the United States regularly maintained more than 300,000 troops in Europe, along with their families. Today, European deployments are down to about 50,000. Moreover, the United States keeps many fewer nuclear weapons in Europe as well (although these arms have always been relatively cheap.) Today, the region commanding the greatest American military resources is the Middle East. (And to add to the complications, many of the forces and other assets in Europe support Middle East deployments and combat, too).

Nonetheless, even taking these historical changes into account, it must be clear that the American commitment to Europe is costing at least tens of billions of dollars annually, and possibly more. Given these totals, given their likely increase, and given the risks (including nuclear) still run by the United States to help defend the Europeans, it sounds perfectly reasonable to ask whether Americans are getting adequate bang for this national security buck – especially considering how wealthy Europe is today, and how meager its own military spending.

But doesn’t the United States need European cooperation to help fight ISIS and other terrorist threats? Unquestionably, the more assistance the United States can get, the safer it will be. And since Europe seems to be such an important target for ISIS in particular, the ability to access European intelligence about the Islamic States would appear to be invaluable.

Three questions, however, need to be answered by the Establishmentarians. First, why would that intelligence access need to depend on keeping today’s NATO ties fully intact? Why couldn’t Washington and the Europeans be able to keep working together on the terrorism front without Americans underwriting Europe’s nuclear and conventional defense against other threats? Would the allies, for example, withhold this information if the United States drew down its military presence further? Fits of pique of course can never be ruled out. But wouldn’t the Europeans then risk losing their access to U.S. intelligence and other forms of assistance?

Second, just how good is European intelligence? According to this new examination of Belgium’s anti-terrorism efforts, little confidence is justified. In fact, overall European counter-terrorism activity is unimpressive at best. On the one hand, these countries will surely get up to speed in the wake of recent attacks. On the other hand, it’s nothing less than amazing that they’ve dawdled so long considering how much closer they are located to the Middle East than America is. So maybe once the initial outrage at the Brussels attacks fades, Europe will go back to business as usual, with all that implies about how helpful to the United States its countries can actually be.

Third, will the Europeans ever get their military act together?  Of course, these countries are potentially valuable as military allies in the air and ground fighting against ISIS in the Middle East. But there can be no question that the performance has lagged badly. And even though some signs of increased European military spending are finally appearing, they won’t turn into significantly greater capabilities for many years.

Some believe that Trump’s remarks simply represent an attempted bluff, and that his real aim is to convince the allies to bolster their capabilities. If so, the dynamics of free-riding are likely to doom this ploy as they have so often in the past. But if Trump is signaling a belief that U.S.-European security relations need major changes, and that a rigorous, unsentimental look at costs and benefits, risks and rewards could well justify much less U.S. involvement in the Continent’s defense, the result might easily be a much safer America, and a mainstay of foreign policy conventional wisdom that he’s made look just as foolish as the political conventional wisdom.

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