America Alone on the Eve of the President’s First Crisis
Above: President Trump speaks at the unveiling of the Article V and Berlin Wall memorials at NATO’s new headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, May 25th, 2017. Standing before an homage to the only time NATO’s collective defense mechanism has been used, the September 11th attacks, President Trump refused to assert U.S. support of the keystone of the treaty.
The widening diplomatic crisis in the Middle East may be documented as President Trump’s first international crisis, and his Administration is totally alone and unarmed. However, this diplomatic isolation on the eve of a crisis in Qatar is entirely of the President’s own making. While the origin of this predicament stretches back to the President’s incendiary campaign rhetoric, President Trump’s recent NATO and G7 sojourn was the turning point where leery allies decided to go it alone. Both the United States, mired in the President’s endless domestic political predicaments, and the UK, destined for weeks of political chaos in the aftermath of a catastrophic election for the ruling Conservative Party, have been rendered alone and friendless through ham-handed dealings with traditional allies, despite massively lowered expectations potentially giving the President room to breathe new life into transatlantic relations.
Beginning with the NATO summit in Brussels, President Trump failed to do what former US ambassador to the alliance Ivo Daalder said was the basic level of competence of an American President speaking about the alliance: Re-asserting American support for collective defense as outlined in Article V of the NATO treaty, and criticizing Russia for its bellicose actions in its region.
Rather than echoing his predecessors, President Trump proceeded to lecture alliance members on their financial commitments to their militaries, surprising even senior members of the military and national security apparatus. This inhibition to reassure America’s allies was so profound, that the President’s speech was altered to remove this exact pledge at so late a date that Pentagon and State Department language was altered without updates, effectively cutting them out of the decision. Instead, the President said, “This is not fair to the people and taxpayers of the United States. And many of these nations owe massive amounts of money from past years and not paying in those past years.” This statement is ironic in the context of the President’s earlier remarks in Saudi Arabia where he said, “we are not here to lecture.” – a tacit nod to the previous pressure on the Gulf state’s human rights record. Tone-deafness is not new to this President, but as a factual matter, there are many things the President gets wrong about defense spending and the internal dynamics of the NATO alliance.
The optics of the setting for the President’s hectoring cannot be understated. Part of NATO’s new headquarters building is a steel beam from the World Trade Centers – a reminder that the September 11th attacks are the only time in history that the collective defense mechanism of NATO was employed. To speak of the alliance as a transactional organization in such a setting ignores one of the most fundamental precepts of the alliance: it is the military wing of Western liberalism, predicated on fundamental, shared political values, not a country club with membership dues.
The issue of defense spending is especially complex. It is something that Democrats and Republicans alike have equally complained about, but this time is different. Spending was never mentioned in the same breath as collective defense. For each NATO member to spend 2% of their GDP on defense would certainly allow the alliance to more easily meet its goals, but looking at the number without context can be misleading.
There is something to be said about the optics of members’ commitment to the alliance, but with the increasingly asymmetrical nature of warfare, commitment and capabilities cannot be measured in dollar amounts. For example, Turkey met its 2% obligation for years and remains a high per-capita spender, but has been an unquestionably counterproductive ally by provoking Russia and maintaining a hostile relationship with Kurdish allies in the fight against terrorism. Perhaps more importantly, the United States so significantly outstrips other members of the alliance, that for every member to meet the 2% benchmark, save for Germany, is marginal in terms of the alliance’s supplies and capabilities. In reality, few allies actually meet the obligation, yet it persists. However, if the U.S. President questions the alliance’s necessity enough, this bedrock of European security could weaken.
If President Trump’s failure to deliver during the NATO summit were remarkable due to the high stakes nature of mutual defense in an increasingly threat-rich international order, his failure at the subsequent G7 meeting was remarkable for precisely how low the stakes were. The G7 meeting, where the United States, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United Kingdom typically meet to discuss issues they already agree on, was notable for the utter lack of collegiality between the leaders of the United States and its closest allies. Though infamously dull, the meeting produced a series of viral diplomatic missteps by President Trump, with shoves, golf carts, and death grips dominating coverage. Crucially, though, President Trump performed a repeat of his stunning omission of commitment to the United States’ role in the global community. President Trump added the threat of climate change and the general principle of international trade to the list of issues on which the United States will no longer take a leading role, despite a concerted influence campaign by the other G7 leaders. The fears that the President’s non-committal stance towards key global issues would result in concrete actions to withdraw the United States from the global stage were almost immediately by the President’s decision to end US participation in the Paris Climate Accord. This represented the second major international agreement that the President has axed on a whim, building on his January withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership.
The G7 meeting crystalized the mounting unease among American allies, prompting the legendarily cautious German Chancellor to remark that the days of European reliance on its American and British allies were “over to a certain extent.” However, this was merely the culmination of American allies’ distrust of the Trump Administration. Indeed, America’s erstwhile partners have been reorienting their relations away from the US for months, pursuing trade agreements among themselves and seeking new partners in international initiatives. The jilted 11 nations of TPP have agreed to go it alone, the EU is busily courting India and China on trade and finalizing an agreement with Canada, Mexico has pointedly stepped up trade outreach to Asia, and China and the EU have pledged to pick up the slack on combatting climate change. Indeed, the world is abuzz with international accords both present and future, leaving only the United States and its trusty sidekick the United Kingdom, for whom Brexit has reduced Prime Minister Theresa May to a beggar circling the globe in search of post-EU trading partners. President Trump’s refusal to commit to any meaningful international cooperation with its allies risks not only leaving America alone but leaving America behind as well.
Both the NATO and G7 meeting should have presented Mr. Trump with an easy win, a chance to spike the globalist football in a way none of his detractors could disparage, and to which none of his supporters would have paid attention. Instead, President Trump has accelerated the erosion of American influence by further incentivizing traditional allies to look elsewhere.
Charles Johnson is the Editor-in-Chief of Ramen IR. His writings primarily focus on Eurasia and the NATO alliance. He graduated with an MA in Russian and Eurasian Studies from Johns Hopkins University SAIS, and a BA in History and International Relations from Boise State University. He also served as a Volunteer in the Republic of Georgia with the US Peace Corps. Charles is currently a Research Associate at Boise State University’s Frank Church Institute. His Twitter is @
Matthew Brewer holds a Master’s Degree in European Studies and International Economics from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a degree in German Studies from Oberlin College. He was previously Director of Global Policy Development at Sorini, Samet & Associates where he covers issues including global political developments, trade, and tax policy.
Photo was captured from the following video and is Public Domain.