Attention, U.S. Allies: This Is Not a Drill
America's traditional partners have to start thinking of ways to bargain with, and appease, a potentially hostile U.S. president.
America’s allies were deeply shocked by Donald Trump’s election. Hillary Clinton was a known quantity, and they expected her to win comfortably. Most importantly, she would provide continuity — not only in the sense of building on President Barack Obama’s policies but also, and much more fundamentally, as someone committed to the institutions and practices of the international order that the United States did so much to create and sustain after World War II.
With his attacks on free trade, and over-regard for strongmen such as Vladimir Putin, Trump offered a nightmare vision of everything they feared. His attitudes toward women and race challenged cherished beliefs and shared values. His public statements were bold, apparently often unscripted and occasionally contradictory. There was no past experience in public office by which to set expectations. No coherent statement of political philosophy to study for guidance. No memories of overseas visits intended to get to know allies and their concerns.
No matter, they thought, he was too extreme to be elected.
Now that Trump has been elected, foreign governments do not have the option afforded his domestic opponents of keeping their distance and preparing for the next election. They have no choice but to send him their congratulations and arrange their first meetings. They also must look for reasons why, despite the evidence of the campaign, that this is a man with whom they can do business. He is, after all, not the first leader to come into office with only a passing acquaintance with the multitude of foreign-policy questions facing his country, so perhaps they have an opportunity to explain to him why it is all going to be far more difficult than he assumed. The situation is hardly optimal, however. He is the most powerful man in the world, yet few have any idea of what he will actually do after the inauguration, and the clues he has left can only be viewed with the greatest apprehension.
Relationships matter in foreign policy. Trump may surprise American allies with his charm and apparent interest in their views. Yet they will still be wary of making public declarations of esteem. They know that many among their own populations are deeply alarmed by Trump and wish their governments to constrain rather than encourage him. While Obama was wildly popular (at least in Europe) as representing the best of America, Trump, with his bombast and crudity, is seen to represent the worst. There is no stardust to rub off on alliance leaders when it is time for photo shoots with the new president. As things stand, Trump will get a more rapturous reception on the streets of Moscow than of Berlin. There is also a fear, again largely in Europe, that Trump’s election may encourage local nationalists, who have become more of a presence over the past few years and who could yet make breakthroughs in France and Italy.
Essentially, U.S. allies must hope that President Trump will be very different from Candidate Trump and, for the moment, talk and act as if this is the case. They will be searching for evidence that his past flip-flopping will continue, with a swing now to moderation and reasonableness. They will be scrutinizing his first public remarks and appointments to key cabinet posts. Will reassuring faces sit in the top positions on the National Security Council, State Department, and Pentagon? Might it be the case that, whatever his current intentions, he will become a prisoner of the national security bureaucracy, living by what Obama called the “Washington playbook” and doing what he is told for a quiet life? Might it even be the case (as many conservative Republicans have long suspected) that he is something of a closet moderate? Is it not likely that he will be preoccupied with his dealings with Congress, as his promise of big infrastructure spending and other deficit-expanding programs proves out of tune with his party’s desire for some fiscal discipline?
The challenge for the allies will be to accept that this is a man who has reached power by denouncing much that they hold dear. They will also have to recognize that they will be obliged to make their own concessions. Their priority must be to avoid massive disruption to the international order. Will he accept the agreements reached by his predecessors, for example on climate change and Iran’s nuclear program, or will he tear them up?
The first open question is trade. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) was already in trouble before the election and must now be assumed dead. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) has been signed but has yet to be ratified. It is hard to see how this will happen now, despite the anguish this will cause the 11 other signatories to the deal and the wry smiles that will result in Beijing, against which the agreement was directed in key respects. At the same time, he has also threatened tariffs on China, though Beijing has made clear the extent of the retaliation the United States could expect if the new president embarks on a trade war. Although we can assume that the era of continued reduction of tariffs and removal of other barriers to trade may be coming to an end, the most pressing question is whether existing trade agreements and the World Trade Organization are now under threat, as the United States takes unilateral action to protect particular industries. In these circumstances, and in light of his disobliging remarks about Mexico, can NAFTA survive? If he acts more cautiously, then it will not be because of the entreaties of allies to follow the economic logic of the division of labor and comparative advantage but because the big U.S. exporters will have explained the effect his actions would have on American jobs.
Second on the agenda is the formal alliances. The question is not whether they will be formally abandoned but whether they will be drained of all meaning as the United States fails to back allies when crises develop. In the Asia-Pacific region, there are already major concerns. Will Japan feel supported if China starts to push harder on the contested islands that have been claimed by both countries? This is a region that has benefitted enormously from open trade in recent decades and that looks to the United States to keep the peace. A U.S. president who has no sympathy for their predicament and sees no reason why Americans should take risks on their behalf leaves them deeply insecure.
Then there is the question of America’s relationship with its NATO allies — which bears, in turn, on the question of Trump’s intent to develop a partnership with Russian President Vladimir Putin. That intent is quite astonishing and may even do some good, given recent paranoia in Moscow and the speed with which relations have been deteriorating. But Putin, having already invested in Trump (some would say he was instrumental in his election victory), will now expect to be repaid in some fashion. He will likely request that Trump offer support to the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the lifting of related sanctions, and the reduction of U.S. support for Ukraine.
Trump may recognize that there are risks in building a partnership with Russia on the basis of such concessions. If he provides lots of concessions without gaining anything in return, he could lose face, and public standing, in the United States. (Trump will have to recognize that there is still an anti-Russian majority in the Senate.) And even on Trump’s terms, U.S. interests with Russia do not overlap completely. His plan to remove all environmental restrictions on U.S. energy companies will push energy prices down, to the further detriment of the Russian economy. Trump has also been hawkish against Iran, especially on its nuclear deal with the Obama administration, but Tehran has been an ally of Russia’s in Syria.
Trump will also find that any suggestion that he is ready to substantially appease Putin will aggravate anxieties in NATO countries, especially those geographically close to Russia. He no doubt will respond by noting their reluctance to fund their own defense. Indeed, he will not be the first senior American figure to do so. There is no reason why the Europeans should not do more. Germany, France, the U.K., and Italy each have bigger GDPs than Russia. If they do commit to increased defense spending, it might impress Trump, as he could claim a victory in getting the allies to up their game. But their real motivation for spending more would be the fear that they can no longer rely on the Americans. Underlying every decision in European capitals will be the anxiety that without U.S. leadership Europe will become even less politically cohesive and that local divisions will be aggravated.
There appears to be a real risk in the European Union that the set of arrangements that has long served the continent well may be starting to unravel. This can’t be solely attributed to Trump. It is more that his victory has thrown into sharp relief not only their insecurities and frailties but also their failures. The idea of the “West” as a dynamic and benign force in international affairs has lost its credibility, and its political class is now treated with suspicion. There are reasons for populist mistrust, including the lingering impact of the 2008 financial crisis and the belief that ordinary people suffered while those responsible survived unscathed; the consequential struggles of the eurozone; the aura of failure surrounding the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan; the continuing threat of Islamist terrorism; and the tensions caused by mass migration. Ambitions have been scaled back in the face of constant, wearying demands for humanitarian action and disappointment with efforts to promote good governance and democracy. In other circumstances, America’s traditional allies would have handled the challenge posed by Trump with greater self-confidence.
It will take time before the world has clarity on how it will now respond. It is often the case that clarity comes not as a result of the steady development of policy but because of events — the unexpected crisis that tests the new administration while it is still coming together and demands high-risk decisions of lasting importance. These may be crises of national security, but they are as likely to be economic crises, where the nationalist instincts of Donald Trump may work against the wider needs of the international community. A Trump White House, especially if it is led by an inexperienced team, may be tempted during a crisis to make apparently symbolic gestures without causing serious upset that nonetheless have serious unintended consequences.
If crises can be avoided, the emphasis for U.S. allies should be on patience. After all, it will take much of the next year before all the new administration’s key posts are filled with political appointees and are confirmed. Over time, Washington’s bureaucracy may get the new president under control so that he learns not to make impromptu commitments and waits until he has been properly advised on the implications of alternative policies. Candidate Trump proposed a series of radical and disruptive initiatives, but, as with his predecessors, President Trump will discover that he is more constrained than he imagined. On this optimistic view, there will be more continuity than currently expected.
We shall see. From the early days of the postwar order, allies have worried about the possibility of an American president with Trump’s worldview. The only hopeful way of thinking about what awaits is as a test. If the global order can survive Trump, it may be that it can survive anything.
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