Sharing the burden without sharing a strategy

According to Brookings, as the 2018 NATO summit begins in the shadow of President Donald Trump’s letters to allies demanding greater defense spending, the issue of burden-sharing once again will dominate the agenda. Though Trump’s consistent berating of allies may indeed spur higher defense spending, effective burden-sharing depends on a foundational belief in shared interests. The administration’s “America First” outlook, however, has prioritized U.S. autonomy above all else—an approach that may maximize short-term U.S. freedom of action, but at the expense of American influence and power over the long run.

Sovereignty has been the leitmotif of the Trump presidency. From the early days of his campaign, then-candidate Trump promised to “never enter America into any agreement that reduces our ability to control our own affairs.” He made headlines focusing his first U.N. speech on the concept—employing the word 21 times. The theme continues to motivate his rallies. Trump and key members of his team, like National Security Advisor John Bolton, reflect a school of hard sovereigntists who view external constraints on U.S. freedom of action as damaging to American sovereignty and interests.

Yet, as Stewart Patrick outlines in The Sovereignty Wars, sovereignty is not a unitary concept but rather a multifaceted one, the pieces of which are often in tension with each other. Enhancing one aspect of sovereignty comes at the expense of another. In the case of alliances and burden-sharing, this tension manifests most clearly in tradeoffs between a country’s “sovereignty-as-autonomy” and “sovereignty-as-influence.” A nation, consequently, must balance its ability “to make and implement decisions independently” against whether acting alone provides an “effective capacity to advance its interests.”

From the beginning, U.S. membership in NATO has forced compromises between autonomy and influence. The United States has consistently sought engagement while jealously guarding its independence.