Earlier today, President Donald Trump cancelled his press conference at the NATO summit, called Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau two-faced, and abruptly left the summit altogether after video surfaced of Trudeau, Boris Johnson, and Emmanuel Macron talking about the American president with utter contempt.
Trump seemed surprised that, after three years of crapping all over America’s allies, they do not hold him in high regard.
There was the recent reduction in our NATO expenditure. A few days ago, he announced new tariffs on Argentine and Brazilian imports, coupled with a renewed threat of tariffs against French imports. On the top of tariffs on Canadian, Mexican, and European imports. On top of demanding that South Korea pay more for America’s military presence on the peninsula. On top of calling our southern neighbors rapists and murderers. On top of picking fights with the leaders of friendly nations, such as Germany, France, and Canada. On top of saying that he is “in love” with enemies, such as Kim Jong-Un. On top of insulting friends, as he did when he cancelled a state visit to Denmark because the country would not entertain the idea of selling Greenland to him.
This is the current state of American foreign policy.
Here’s the thing: Our relationship with our allies is not out of altruism. It is because we benefit from it.
Being the hyperpower can be burdensome, but it is, all things considered, a bargain at twice the price. The United States is, far and away, the biggest beneficiary of the global order that it has implemented. Because when you are the judge, the jury, and the executioner, you are free to pursue, as Alexis de Tocqueville noted in President Washington’s farewell address, enlightened self-interest.
Trump is dismantling this equilibrium through imprudence and pettiness.
Historically speaking, neighborhoods where one nation has significantly more military power than the others tend to be unhappy places. That’s not the case in our hemisphere.
The “unhappiness” we have in our neighborhood does not extend beyond illegal immigration to America from people who want to live and work and prosper alongside us.
As far as troublemaking neighbors go, this is one of the smallest problems a neighbor can cause. Again, historically speaking, the problems neighbors usually cause each other run more towards subjects like armed invasion.
We don’t have to worry about invasion from Canada or Mexico because they do not field militaries capable of projecting force. Why? Because in the global order America has created, we are their friends and they are not threatened by us.
This arrangement is not the natural order of things, but the result of conscious choices made by the United States over generations. If we make different choices, the arrangement might change. Maybe Mexico turns a blind eye to the cartels as they move north. Maybe they build up their military capabilities. Maybe they choose to align themselves with Russia or China. Maybe they would stop listening to us to crack down the Iranian-backed Hezbollah operatives in Mexico.
All of which would be bad for America and all of which are ample reason to tend diligently to our allies. Alliances are valuable things.
The Chinese know this. China has been begging the Argentines, Brazilians, and other states in our hemisphere to let them to invest in their countries. Having a rival power in our hemisphere is something we have avoided since the adoption of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823. We almost went to nuclear war against the Soviet Union during the Cuban missile crisis to preserve that arrangement. Angering our southern friends is an invitation for China to be at our shore.
South Korea just signed a security agreement with China. That’s bad. But an American state’s signing a security treaty with China would be much worse, because it would give Chinese military ships a reason to be in our neighborhood. And if you think the Chinese aren’t interested in such activity, think again. There’s a reason they’ve spent a decade building a blue-water navy and the South China Sea is just their first step.
The same goes for our friends in Europe. The more we anger them, the more we push them away. The more we push them away, the more difficult it is to work with them against our mutual adversaries. And if you think that the Russian threat against our European friends and the Chinese threat against our Asians friends are enough to maintain cooperation, think again. As the warming relations between South Korea and China show, this is false. Absent the reliable umbrella of American power, our friends will either seek to accommodate our adversaries or strike out on their own.
French President Macron recently suggested that it might be time for France and the rest of Europe to develop their own military capabilities. Donald Trump seems to think this is a good thing. It is not. The Europeans stopped their continental wars only when they stopped having militaries. With the rise of authoritarianism in Europe, we couldn’t pick a worse time to encourage re-militarization over there. We spent decades and a great many resources working to demilitarize and stabilize our allies.
And now Trump seeks to undo this work of generations for the sake of a few dollars and his vanity as a tough-guy negotiator.
Our alliance system is successful because it works on the comparative advantage theory: We provide each other what we can produce at the lowest cost. And the cost of paying for Europe’s security is significantly lower than a continental war in Europe or trusting the Europeans to deter Russia and China. Or the cost of having Europe embrace Russia and China’s adversarial stance toward us.
The United States created an alliance system based on dependency because we presumed that America’s unique, innate values would ensure that these relationships would never tend toward subjugation. And if we sought to protect our allies, not subjugate them, then the alliances could last in perpetuity.
The creators of this order never dreamed that one day America’s leader would be so foolish as to seek to throw these alliances away, like minor bits of rubbish.
It is impossible—literally, not possible—to put a price on a situation where allies welcome you to have your military bases in their countries while delegating to you their collective and individual security.
Because if you think peace is expensive, you should look at the price of war.