America Is Back. But Can Allies Ever Trust It Again?

Fears of another Trump make it even more urgent that allies work with Biden now.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel deliberates with then-U.S. President Donald Trump at the G-7 summit Charlevoix, Canada, on June 9, 2018.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel deliberates with then-U.S. President Donald Trump at the G-7 summit Charlevoix, Canada, on June 9, 2018. Jesco Denzel /German Government Press Office via Getty Images

Despite U.S. President Joe Biden’s long history as a supporter of liberal internationalism, Washington’s allies are deeply scarred by the last four years. Today, former President Donald Trump remains the second most likely person to be inaugurated as president on Jan. 20, 2025. (Biden, presuming he runs for reelection, is seen as the most likely.) For U.S. allies thinking about reinvesting not only resources, but also trust in their relationship with the United States, the prospect of a second Trump administration is reason for pause. They might understandably ask: “Why should we invest anew in the United States when you might give us Trump again in four years?”

That’s why many of the United States’ friends, as they watched Trump’s second impeachment proceedings unfold, hoped the U.S. Senate would bar him from holding federal office forever. Even as the specter of right-wing nationalist populism remains, having clarity that Trump himself would not return to run for president in 2024 would have given U.S. allies a measure of confidence that they could work with the Biden administration to renew relationships without worrying that their work might later be torn asunder.

For all his bluster, the return of Trump to the White House is quite unlikely. Even so, such a comeback would not be wholly unprecedented: More than a century ago, Grover Cleveland left the White House after one presidential term and returned to the office four years later. But Cleveland was a hard-nosed policy wonk whose anti-corruption and pro-business policies attracted support across party lines. In his unsuccessful first bid for reelection in 1888, he won the popular vote, even as he lost the Electoral College. Trump, it’s fair to say, is no Cleveland.

But let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that Trump—or another figure who surfs on Trumpist political waves—does return to power four years from now. In that scenario, what should U.S. allies such as Japan and Australia in the Pacific and Britain, France, and Germany in Europe do now?

From the perspective of these partners, there is no alternative to the United States no matter who sits in the White House—whatever the country’s flaws, it remains the obvious and indispensable partner in dealing with both regional and global challenges. Without disputing the wisdom of Europe’s pursuit of so-called strategic autonomy, one may nonetheless acknowledge that being autonomous does not require one to abandon cooperation. If Europeans recognize that their own strategic interests are more likely to be advanced in partnership with the United States, then their objective should be to secure a partnership with Washington that is as robust, reliable, and resilient against future strain as possible.

“Why should we invest anew in the United States when you might give us Trump again in four years?”

This conclusion, in turn, should lead to two shifts in European thinking. First, they should seek to work with the Biden administration to ensure that U.S. engagement with partners and allies can be shown to deliver dividends to the American people—and, indeed, to ensure that they can make the case for trans-Atlanticism to European voters, too. Second, they should shift from seeing the United States as the singular and permanent cornerstone of the international network of democratic alliances to seeing Washington as a participant that—just like other participants—must be intentionally knit into institutions, processes, and habits of cooperation.

Trumpism, like other forms of populism, is not principled; it is opportunistic. If the United States is to have another Trumpist president, one of the ways U.S. allies and partners can secure a stable partnership with Washington is to help make such partnerships more popular among American voters. Biden’s national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, has written and spoken extensively about a foreign policy for the middle class and has promised to use the well-being of families in Topeka, Kansas, or Toledo, Ohio, as a measuring stick for Biden’s foreign-policy decisions. U.S. partners and allies should work with the new administration to help deliver on this promise. That doesn’t mean abandoning their own interests in trade agreements or climate talks, but rather prioritizing areas of overlap that will pay dividends for the American middle class.

To be clear, this is not about Americans or Europeans kowtowing to populists. Rather, it’s about disarming them. In the long term, workers in Detroit and Düsseldorf, Germany, both have an interest in a world that can protect their dignity, security, and welfare. In the near term, leaders on both sides of the Atlantic can do a better job of paying attention to those workers’ daily bread as the leaders work to make the world safe for future generations of Detroiters and Düsseldorfers.

The challenge posed by China, both economic and political, is a growing concern on the left and the right in the United States. The European Union has its own interests in a strategic approach to China and has identified it as a “systemic rival.” So the EU and its member states should work with the Biden administration to ensure that the U.S. strategy for managing competition with China rests in part on robust cooperation with the EU. The Europeans’ goal, in essence, should be to ensure that if a Trumpist comes to power, he or she will inherit a situation where damaging the relationship with the EU will be as politically unattractive as abandoning West Germany would have been for Ronald Reagan.

In addition to helping make international cooperation more popular in the United States, partners and allies should work with the Biden administration to rebuild and strengthen the institutions and practices that underpin that cooperation. Their goal should be not only to marshal effective collective action on shared challenges but also to make cooperation “sticky”—that is, to create incentives for continued participation and exit costs for defectors. Effective international institutions, agreements, and ongoing collaboration can helpfully bind governments, including the United States’, to the mast when the siren call of unilateralism and transactionalism returns.

This workstream includes obvious steps such as modernizing and strengthening NATO and expanding military-to-military cooperation in both Europe and Asia through joint strategic planning, training, and exercises—habits of cooperation that attract deep institutional investment from the U.S. Defense Department. It also means building out strategies and diplomatic engagement to tackle new challenges. In 2020, the United States suffered the most severe cyberattack in its history. Democratic partners and allies should look to enhance and expand cooperation on the resilience of democracies against authoritarian regimes seeking to weaken them by undermining democratic governance through the use of cybersecurity and other emerging technologies. Progress on building an allied approach to dealing with these threats will mean new networks of cooperation that tie different parts of the U.S. government to their counterparts in other countries.

Institutions, agreements, and collaboration can bind Washington to the mast when the siren call of unilateralism returns.

Washington’s democratic partners should also enthusiastically embrace Biden’s invitation to work together to defend democracy against internal and external threats. Biden’s plan to host a Summit for Democracy, with the fight against corruption at the top of the agenda, is an opportunity for the United States and its allies and partners to tackle one of the root causes of populist backlash—and one of the key vectors for malign foreign influence in many advanced democracies. A successful collaborative effort to counter international corruption could make would-be populists less likely to succeed and constrain their damaging behavior when they do.

There is no way to turn back the clock: Some of the near-absolute confidence that the United States once engendered among its allies will never return. Even if Trump is treated as an anomaly and singular aberration—an assumption no serious analyst of U.S. politics advances—the experience of the last four years has shattered a basic assumption that was an often unspoken but foundational premise for all of Washington’s alliances: that the United States would always be the long pole in the tent, and that its domestic democratic institutions were invincible.

But that should make those who believe that pluralistic constitutional democracies remain the best protection for human dignity—and the best platform for human flourishing—even more committed to renewing democratic alliances. Even if allies cannot ignore their worry that Trump may return, that does not lessen the strategic wisdom of their working with the United States to bolster the resilience of democratic states in the face of global challenges and the perfidy of authoritarian regimes. Indeed, it arguably makes that work even more urgent: The best strategy for U.S. allies to protect their own interests in the face of a possible future second Trump administration is for them to work as effectively and efficiently as possible with the Biden administration today. If there’s a lesson to take from the last four years, it is that the work of democracy is never done and that any one of us may stumble. And when we do, we need a network of friends to help us get back up and find our path again.

Daniel Baer is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former diplomatic fellow at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies. He was U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe from 2013 to 2017. Twitter: @danbbaer