On trade, climate, foreign aid, and more, America’s allies wonder what U.S. policy is — and who, if anyone, can take America’s place.
- By Emily TamkinEmily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. She writes for FP’s The Cable, a real-time take on the news in Washington and the wider world. She has been at FP since the fall of 2016, before which she was an associate editor at New America, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. She has a B.A. in Russian literature from Columbia University, an M.Phil. in Russian and East European studies from the University of Oxford, and studied Soviet dissidence in archival centers in Moscow, Tbilisi, and, on a Fulbright, in Bremen — all of which means that at FP, she writes when she can on Russia and Central and Eastern Europe.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson testified last week before Congress, seeking to defend the wisdom of slashing his own budget by more than one-third while sketching his vision of American diplomacy in the years ahead.
But unlike in years past, U.S. allies aren’t poring over Tillerson’s testimony for meaningful signals of what U.S. policy is or will be; diplomats from around the world are learning that what Tillerson says is not necessarily a reliable guide to U.S. policy. The problem is that nothing much else is, either.
It’s not that diplomats can’t meet with relevant officials from the administration — several say access has actually increased under Trump. It’s that those meetings often end with more questions than answers. That makes it hard to dispel the unease and concern that gripped many U.S. allies during last year’s presidential campaign, when President Donald Trump tore up the U.S. foreign-policy playbook and has yet to find a new one.
“Even if we do get meetings” with the Department of State, a European source told Foreign Policy, “most of the time what happens is that they speak in personal capacity — they don’t have capacity to speak for the administration.”
The same is true for the National Security Council at the White House, “including on very sensitive issues.” People say, “I cannot speak for the president, because I’m not sure what his position on this is.”
That lack of clarity isn’t limited to nitty-gritty points of policy. More than five months into the Trump administration, many allies and even rivals are still trying to figure out how the United States now sees its role in the world. Trump came into office blaring an “America First” message, and despite repeated soothing noises from some administration officials, has, especially in non-military matters, redoubled his rhetoric ever since.
Or, as Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland put it in a speech earlier this month, the United States “has come to question the very worth of its mantle of global leadership.”
After a tumultuous first meeting between NATO and Trump, German Chancellor Angela Merkel reiterated late last month that Germany could no longer fully rely on others.
Even Chinese President Xi Jinping has pleaded with Trump to uphold the international order, particularly when it comes to the open trading system that Washington has defended for 70-odd years. The Communist Xi used his speech in Davos, for example, to caution against economic isolationism.
If friends and foes alike are fretting about the course Washington is on, that’s because since the end of World War II, the U.S. role has been, as Hillary Clinton once put it, echoing former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, “the indispensable nation.”
The U.S. military underwrote global security for allies and others; Washington built and buttressed an open, global economic order that fueled decades of prosperity; and the United States sought, if imperfectly, greater global security by promoting values like human rights and democracy. And if the whole world has benefited from those decades of a stable order, few have benefited as much as the United States.
“We have so taken for granted these inherent stable structures that is the international system, that ensures U.S. leadership, security, and prosperity,” Heather Conley of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told FP.
The prospect of the United States abdicating that role, in whole or part, is cause for worry for plenty of countries. For one diplomat from Eastern Europe — historically and painfully aware of the fickleness of great-power promises for small, vulnerable countries in the heart of Europe — it defies even speculating about.
For U.S. allies even closer to the potential front lines, they are hoping that past really is prologue.
“The United States is and will remain an indispensable foreign and security policy partner for Estonia and for all of Europe. The leadership of the United States in key security issues is important and we expect it to continue,” said Maria Belovas, director general of the communications department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Estonia.
“Estonia and the United States have always had good relations and our cooperation is continuing as expected — in a very practical and positive manner. Obviously we follow U.S. positions closely and if anything remains unclear we turn to our friend and ally for clarification.”
There are reasons to be seeking clarification. Trump pointedly refused to reaffirm U.S. commitment to NATO’s sacrosanct Article 5 mutual-defense guarantee at the big Brussels summit last month, only to reaffirm it later, in a stateside venue with no European defense chiefs present.
The U.S. retrenchment is apparent on issues from trade to climate change. Seventy years ago, the United States created the forerunner of the World Trade Organization to exorcise the protectionist demons that turned the 1930s into a “dark valley.” A quarter century ago, President Bill Clinton pushed the creation of the North American Free Trade Agreement. And even though then-Sen. Barack Obama railed against NAFTA on the campaign trail, the cornerstone of his legacy was meant to be a pair of sweeping, multilateral trade deals in Asia and Europe encompassing the bulk of the global economy. Trump killed the first and is leery of the second, frustrating U.S. allies who’d gone to the mat to sell the ambitious deals to skeptical publics.
“We would aspire for a free and fair trade regime governing the Asia-Pacific region,” a Japanese diplomat said, rather than the bilateral accord the administration seems to favor.
“We still believe the U.S. will come back to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. That is our hope. But of course the U.S. has its own sort of agenda for the time being, so it might not happen immediately.”
Washington’s reluctance to keep carrying Freeland’s “mantle” of global leadership creates a quandary for everyone, because nobody else is willing or able to take its place. And history shows that the global system, like nature, abhors a vacuum.
China has been hankering for a place in the sun all century — but, like Augustine, doesn’t want it quite yet, and Beijing’s values aren’t the same as those long preached by Washington or Brussels.
Japan under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is happy to shoulder a bigger role in regional defense and security — but that could put the government on a collision course with China, and even with the people of Japan, who are still, broadly speaking, pacifistic. And as seen in the scramble after the U.S. withdrawal from TPP, Tokyo is hard-pressed to drive Asian economic integration on its own.
Europe has been roused from its groggy decades — more because of the threat from a resurgent Russia than from Trump’s admonitions to spend more on defense — but hasn’t sought to play more than second fiddle for almost a century. (“We don’t see ourselves acting as new superpower or pretending to be one,” said the European diplomat.)
“We are ready to carry our part of the burden,” Gérard Araud, French ambassador to Washington, told reporters this week. But “we prefer by far to do it with our American friends.”
Photo credit: JONATHAN ERNST/AFP/Getty Images