Foreign Affairs

America’s Strategic Alliances Are a Slow Motion Trainwreck

December 11, 2019
Featured Image
A picture taken on July 5, 2017 shows a souvenir kiosk offering among others a drawing depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin holding a baby with the face of US President Donald Trump, based upon a propaganda poster showing late soviet leader Joseph Stalin holding a baby, in Moscow. It was a constant refrain on the campaign trail for Donald Trump in his quest for the US presidency: "We're going to have a great relationship with Putin and Russia." Now, weighed down by claims that Moscow helped put him in the White House, Trump is set to finally meet his Russian counterpart in an encounter fraught with potential danger for the struggling American leader. / AFP PHOTO / Mladen ANTONOV (Photo credit should read MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP via Getty Images)

Last month, French President Emmanuel Macron made a startling statement in an interview with The Economist: he said, “What we are currently experiencing is the brain death of NATO.” He emphasized the lack of strategic coordination between the United States and the rest of the alliance, and also singled out Turkey for its uncoordinated aggressive actions in Syria.

But perhaps most worryingly, when the interviewer asked if Macron still believed in NATO’s Article Five, the collective defense agreement—the very basis of the founding treaty—the French president responded, “I don’t know.” 

That Macron would publicly question the foundation of the North Atlantic alliance reflects not only his own misgivings about the United States’ commitment to NATO, but also a wider belief that the absence of American leadership has precipitated a complete re-thinking of European defense.

Macron’s words, which only a few years ago would have represented an earthquake in national security circles, barely made a ripple in a Washington, D.C., currently consumed with impeachment fever.

This was not an isolated case of the Trump Administration’s bull-in-a-china-shop foreign policy; rather, it was just the most recent example of reckless treatment of America’s allies. And lost amid the daily coverage of this White House’s norm-busting is the undeniable reality that this erratic ad hoc approach will have long-term consequences that are difficult to predict.

* * *    

The President that professes to be laser-focused on improving America’s economic fortunes by leveling the field of competition is doing a pretty good job of alienating our trading partners worldwide.

Among our leading trade partners—the European Union, China, Canada, Mexico, Japan, South Korea—it’s a trivially simple task to find examples of Trump and his appointees making statements and taking actions that will complicate the work of sustaining long-term relationships.

In September, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the United States wanted to explore a “reset” with the European Union, which as a bloc represents the United States’ largest trading partner. But Pompeo didn’t meet with either commission president Jean-Paul Juncker, or European Council president Donald Tusk, dramatically snubbing the sitting leadership in favor of incoming presidents Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel.

Perhaps the new administration in Brussels will be easier to deal with than Juncker and Tusk, but Pompeo’s December 2018 speech (in Brussels at the German Marshall fund, no less) in which he attacked the EU, the UN, the World Bank, and the IMF probably did not help relations.

The United States’ inexplicable quiet diplomatic downgrading of the EU’s mission to the United States last year was also not well received. And perhaps most inflammatory, President Trump, ahead of the June G-20 meeting, described the EU as treating the U.S. “worse than China,” concluding (ahistorically) that “European nations were set up to take advantage of the United States.”

The next few are easy to tick off the list: China (he almost immediately started a trade war which remains unresolved); Canada (moved to renegotiate NAFTA, insulted the prime minister); Mexico (demanded a border wall, made the “crime and rapists” comments to kick off his presidential campaign); Japan (demanded 4x increase in payments for U.S. troop presence, threatened tariffs on cars); Germany (lashed out at Chancellor Angela Merkel over NATO minimum defense spending); South Korea (threatened to withdraw U.S. troops unless they increase contribution by 5x) … and so on. One could be forgiven for wondering if it was part of some intentional coordinated effort to systematically alienate all of our closest allies.

Not that there aren’t some reasonable arguments underlying all the bombast. China has been stealing our intellectual property and gaming the international financial system for too long. Our European allies are notorious for their protectionist trade policies and underfunded armies. There is an undeniable problem with both crime and immigration on our Southern border. And our allies in Asia could be reasonably expected to make a greater financial contribution to their security. But the ham-fisted and histrionic way these points were driven home will make coming to solutions that much harder.

* * *    

Most American presidents find a foreign leader with whom they are simpatico. Reagan had Thatcher; Clinton and George W. Bush both had a strong affinity for Tony Blair; Obama reportedly had a warm relationship with Angela Merkel. 

But Trump seems to look outside America’s traditional alliances for company. While waiting to meet the often brutal and reportedly corrupt Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, he hollered out, “Where’s my favorite dictator?” His friendship with the xenophobic Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who is also buddies with Vladimir Putin, is well documented. He infamously exchanged “love letters” with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and he claims to be friendly with Chinese President Xi Jinping (though that personal relationship has so far yielded no apparent benefit in trade talks).

His first foreign trip—always a moment intended to convey symbolic importance—was to Saudi Arabia, whose status as an ally was dubious at best (even before they started murdering dissidents). And Trump has cozied up to Turkish President Erdogan as the latter moves further from NATO and closer to Russia and Iran. And of course we all remember Trump’s top secret one-on-one conversation with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, and his perplexing inability to say a bad word about the man.

American presidents should meet with leaders of adversarial nations—to advance American interests. But what strategic benefit has the United States obtained from Trump’s apparent kinship with these men? Conversely, what rewards have they secured from their relationship with him? It seems self-evident that the United States is on the losing end of that calculation.

* * *    

The thing is, alliances matter. Nations act in their own strategic interests, and international relations does not have to be a zero-sum game. Countries acting together can produce results that are greater than the sum of their individual influences. And countries that ally to create better deterrence are stronger and safer than those that choose to go it alone.

Moreover, the strategic alliances the United States has with NATO and countries like Japan and South Korea—which we tend to take for granted—are the result of heroic postwar investments and meticulous nurturing in the intervening decades. And it’s worth recalling that the now-expanded Europe that embraces nations of the former Warsaw Pact was never a sure thing; the investment of time and resources to enlarge NATO and the European Union was a strategic gamble that paid off.

The “old” Republican Party understood this. From the 1992 GOP platform:

“… Republicans understand that [peace] cannot be pursued by the United States alone. We therefore have harnessed the free world’s strength to American leadership. But such a strategy requires a president whose lead others will trust and follow. By forging consensus whenever possible, we multiply the impact of our nation’s power and principles.”

As with close friendships and personal business relationships, alliances require constant tending and careful attention. Those that expect them to be one-sided affairs are usually disappointed.

And when damaged or wrecked, these alliances won’t simply “reset” with the introduction of a new president or administration. Governments and people have memories, and you can be sure that the missteps, insults, threats, and demands made by this administration will be remembered far beyond its tenure.

* * *    

Following Macron’s remarks about NATO, Mart Helme, the Interior Minister of the tiny Baltic nation of Estonia told a Finnish newspaper that he, too, was concerned about NATO’s Article 5 commitment. He said, “We are also working on a plan B, which is what Estonia and the other Baltic States will do if Macron’s words prove to be true.” 

The United States stood with the Baltic States from their illegal annexation by the Soviet Union in WWII until their liberation after the fall of the Berlin Wall, steadfastly refusing to recognize them as part of the USSR. We called them “Captive Nations” and accepted their refugees. They always knew they could count on America through thick and thin.

What does it say about us that they now have doubts?

Marc C. Johnson

Marc C. Johnson is a security consultant, writer, and former CIA case officer. His Twitter handle is @blogguero.