Americans actually like being the world’s policeman

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On Friday came the sad news that Charles Krauthammer hasn’t long to live. Long a fixture on Fox and in The Washington Post, he’s written his last column. But some might think that his moment had passed years ago, back when he was the intellectual voice of a neoconservative foreign policy that has since been entirely repudiated by Donald Trump.

Or has it?

Trump’s campaign slogan was “America First.” But there is an ambiguity in the phrase, for it might refer to two different and quite inconsistent goals, both of which Trump championed.

On one hand, America First might mean a retreat from neoconservative adventurism. Trump told us to expect a return to realism, where the touchstone would be American self-interest. We’d go after Islamic terrorists, but only because they pose a threat to Americans. That didn’t mean isolationism, but it did imply we’d abandon anything that looks like the pursuit of world dominance.

On the other hand, America First might refer to the idea that the United States is and should be the world’s greatest country. The country with the greatest economy, the most vibrant culture, the best universities. And also the strongest military. In his May 2016 foreign policy speech, Trump promised to rebuild our military.

Trump also said we’d have to make our NATO allies pay their fair share on the military, the 2 percent of GDP guideline the alliance adopted in 2006. Most NATO members fall far below that, and Americans tend to see this as evidence of bad faith. But the question isn’t why Canada spends 1.3 percent of its budget on it. That’s entirely rational. What’s puzzling is why America spends so much more on its military than it’s called on to do.

As a share of GDP, the US spends 3.1 percent on the military. In total dollars, this amounts to more than the next eight countries combined, including Russia, China, India, France and Britain. After the fall of Communism, we enjoyed a “peace dividend,” and American military spending fell from 5.7 percent of GDP in 1991 to 2.9 percent in 2001. After 9/11, and with the Iraq war, it rose again, to 4.7 percent in 2010, but with Obama it fell again to 3.1 percent.

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