If the Trump administration finally completes its wholesale divestiture of U.S. global leadership, July 19, 2019 may go down as the fateful fire sale of Pax Americana. On that day the administration responded to a very real military threat by offering to lead a coalition, effectively, of information sharing. Even among our most loyal followers there were few takers.
That was the day Iran seized a British tanker in the Persian Gulf after having attacked six ships in the perilous waterway, the peak so far of an escalating crisis prompted by the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign and de facto oil embargo of Tehran. As the dominant military power and enforcer of freedom of navigation in the vital energy corridor dating back four decades to the Carter Doctrine, the United States could traditionally be expected to honor the “special relationship” with Great Britain and come to the aid of its closest ally.
But the Trump administration doesn’t have special relationships, and it does deals rather than doctrines. “The responsibility in the first instance falls to the United Kingdom to take care of their ships,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared on July 19, articulating the “every nation for itself” principle at the core of the administration’s “America First” foreign policy. Pompeo was only echoing his boss, who days earlier had distanced the United States from any responsibilities in the Persian Gulf, through which one fifth of the world’s energy flows. “We don’t even need to be there in that the U.S. has just become (by far) the largest producer of Energy anywhere in the world!” President Trump tweeted, before warning Iran against attacking “anything American” (emphasis added).
Sensitive to the optics of the U.S. superpower abandoning its allies in the midst of a crisis of its own making, Central Command stepped in on July 19 and announced it was forming a multinational maritime coalition to protect shipping and freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf, dubbed “Operation Sentinel.”
But after reviewing the parsimonious terms of the Operation Sentinel deal, few countries were willing to join. Far from joining a protective, U.S.-led maritime picket line, participants were offered only U.S. surveillance and intelligence information. They would still be responsible for defending their own oil tankers, which would presumably be more likely targets of Iran for participating in the U.S.-led coalition. One high-ranking military source described the concept to me as more of a “neighborhood watch” than an exercise in collective defense. Even Britain initially demurred, before changing course and joining the coalition under orders from new Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is beholden to Trump for an expected trade deal should Britain withdraw from the European Union this fall.
“It’s hard to create a coalition of the willing when you are only offering partners intelligence that they will probably be unable to act on, even as you put a big target on their back for being associated with the United States in its showdown with Iran,” said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here. Coalition partners haven’t forgotten the disastrous repercussions from the U.S.-led Iraq invasion of 2003, he notes, and, more broadly, they doubt the Trump Administration has a workable strategy.
“Trump and his administration keep repeating the message that, we’re not interested in looking after our friends around the world, and that alliances are just a way for partners to stick the United States with a big tab,” he said. “We thus shouldn’t be surprised that countries are starting to hedge their bets on U.S. reliability, and reevaluating and rebalancing their dependence on the United States. I would argue that is creating a messier, less secure and less prosperous world.”
Farewell to Alliances
What concerns many expert observers is that the number of global hot spots continue to burn, with no successful “deals” to lower the temperature in geopolitics. No denuclearization is happening in North Korea, no renegotiation with Iran, nor resolution to the failing state of Venezuela. Regional rivalries are worsening worldwide as opposing sides dig in their heels in the absence of mediation. The U.S. trade war with China threatens a global recession, and the collapse of arms control agreements portend a likely nuclear arms race with Russia. The Trump administration confronts all of these crises with a decimated Foreign Service and increasingly shaky alliances.
This leaves us with a world of less willing allies, devaluing what has traditionally been the United States’ greatest strategic advantage and force multiplier over authoritarian powers like Russia and China. In a stunning reversal, even the United Arab Emirates (UAE) — once dubbed “Little Sparta” by former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis because of its reliable support for U.S. military operations and its anti-Iran pugnacity – has recently begun to distance itself from the administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign.
While the United States was deploying naval reinforcements to the Persian Gulf in recent weeks in response to Iranian threats to U.S. shipping, for instance, the UAE government dispatched a coast guard delegation to Tehran to talk maritime security. UAE officials have recently called for a de-escalation of the Iran crisis, distancing themselves from Trump’s bellicose rhetoric.
Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum also recently positioned UAE as a key node in China’s “Belt and Road Initiative,” China’s massive propaganda and infrastructure project designed to link Beijing with more than 60 countries around the world. The goal? U.S. military officials believe China is trying to build their version of America’s global alliances and partnerships and create a logistics web to enable a globe-spanning Chinese military of the future.
“I know the Sheikh and other UAE leaders, who along with the Saudis thought Trump was their guy for pushing back against Iran. More recently, they have become disenchanted with the president, because they are not sure what the U.S. strategy is, and they look around and see Trump’s really erratic behavior all around the world,” William Cohen, a former Defense Secretary and Republican senator from Maine, told me in an interview.
“They saw President Trump threaten ‘fire and fury’ against North Korea, and now he’s exchanging love letters with Kim Jong Un as North Korea tests missiles near South Korea and Japan, and Trump says he doesn’t care. They see how poorly Trump treats our allies in Europe, and how he has initiated a devastating trade war with China,” said Cohen, currently president of the global consultancy The Cohen Group. “So, for allies it is really disconcerting when the U.S. president sends erratic and contradictory signals all the time, and they don’t see a strategy behind any of it, nor can they predict what the U.S. policy will be on any given day given Trump’s constant tweets. So the UAE distancing itself from the administration is an important canary in the mineshaft concerning the state of U.S. alliances worldwide.”
The spectacle of the United States trying to rally its allies and finding most of them unwilling to join a coalition is a symptom of a profound malaise in international affairs. When asked to explain what an “America First” foreign policy meant early in Trump’s presidency, former National Economic Council head Gary Cohn argued that “America first is not America alone.” Cohn is gone, however, along with many members of Trump’s original cabinet and the so-called “Axis of Adults.” That axis included former Defense Secretary Mattis, who resigned in protest last December over Trump’s poor treatment of allies, chummy relations with dictators and despots, and wildly impulsive swings in policy positions even in matters of war and peace.
“My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues,” Mattis wrote in his resignation letter. “Because you have the right to have a secretary of defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position.”
Trump’s current team, to include Pompeo and uber-hawk John Bolton as National Security Adviser, certainly are better aligned with Trump’s nationalistic worldview. Together they have redefined “America First” as a unilateralist and coercive approach to foreign policy, one driven by Trump’s transactional instincts, impulsive moods and frequently dismissive attitude towards alliances.
Trump constantly berates allies over burden-sharing, routinely ignores their counsel, and publicly questions the value of the United States’ treaty commitments. When it was recently revealed that the U.S. military was within minutes of launching a punishing military counterstrike after Iran shot down an unmanned U.S. drone, allies likely to be caught in the crossfire such as Great Britain and the UAE were reportedly aghast that they were not forewarned, much less consulted.
Just before arriving in Japan for a recent G-20 Summit, Trump threw the meeting into turmoil by declaring that a decades-old security pact between the United States and Japan – a pillar of stability in the Asia-Pacific region dating back to the post-World War II era — was “unfair” and must be changed. As multiple North Korean missile tests were causing alarm in Seoul earlier this month, Trump tweeted that “talks have begun” for South Korea to pay “substantially more money” for U.S. troops deployed to the peninsula. An uncomfortable South Korean Foreign Ministry was forced to contradict the U.S. president’s tweet, stating that cost-sharing talks had not started. After receiving another “beautiful” letter from Kim Jong Un last week, Trump parroted the North Korean dictators complaint that ongoing joint exercises between the U.S. military and its South Korean counterparts were “ridiculous and expensive.”
Trump also routinely threatens to impose tariffs on America’s closest partners around the world, to include Canada, Mexico, Japan, South Korea and the entire European Union of 28 friendly democracies. In terms of America’s bedrock security alliance, NATO, Trump has consistently disrupted its meetings with grandstanding and public displays of rancor.
When asked in a “60 Minutes” interview why he would risk dismantling an alliance structure that has underwritten unprecedented peace and prosperity for more than half a century, Trump succinctly summed up his worldview. “I mean, what is an ally? We have wonderful relationships with a lot of people. But nobody treats us much worse than the European Union.” This says much both about Trump’s attitude and his knowledge. Of course, the European Union is not an ally of the United States, though many of its members are NATO allies.
Ivo Daalder, former U.S. Ambassador to NATO, is now president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Last year he co-authored the book “The Empty Throne: America’s Abdication of Global Leadership,” whose predictions of a leaderless and dangerously unstable international order have begun to look prescient.
“The post-World War II international order was created and maintained by American leadership, based on the premise that the United States was willing to bear more global burdens than other nations because it sustained an international order that made Americans more secure, prosperous and free than at any other point in our history,” Daalder says. President Trump and his administration, he argues, are simply not interested in American leadership in that traditional sense.
“Trump never even uses the word ‘leadership.’ Instead of leading, he always talks about ‘winning,’ which is a very different approach,” says Daalder. “He doesn’t think in terms of multilateral alliances or coalitions, because everything to him is a two-way real estate transaction in which he is always trying to gain leverage to squeeze the other guy and ‘win,” however he defines that word. As a consequence other nations are adopting a similarly narrow, nationalistic perspective, and doing their own thing regardless of what the United States says or wants.”
Great Britain, perhaps the closest U.S. ally, not only initially rejected calls to join Operation Sentinel, but it tried to create a rival coalition that would help counter the administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran and avoid war. With the Trump administration cheerleading for Brexit, fanning the flames of rightwing nationalism in Europe, and calling into question NATO’s bedrock commitment to collective defense, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have called for the creation of a “true European army” — not a new idea but one that has new momentum as a rebuke of the United States’ leadership of NATO. Turkey, another once-close NATO ally that hosts a strategic U.S. military base, has recently tilted decidedly towards Moscow, going so far as to purchase a Russian air defense system against the strenuous objections of Washington, D.C and other NATO capitals. Last week the Turkish military appeared poised to invade northern Syria to expel U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters, before backing off at the last moment.
In South America, a coalition of nations that initially supported U.S. efforts to effect a peaceful transition of power in Venezuela has recently broken ranks as the Trump administration continues to heap crippling sanctions and embargoes on a country already in free fall. “Venezuela is a glaring example of how a strong coalition of nations supporting the ouster of [Venezuelan dictator Nicolás] Maduro has fractured over the Trump administration’s unilateral pursuit of a ‘maximum pressure’ campaign, without bothering to even try and bring other countries along,” said Daalder.
Firefighter or Arsonist?
Around the world, destabilizing regional rivalries have also reemerged that complicate Washington policy and work against U.S. interests. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have ignored repeated U.S. requests to drop their feud with neighboring Qatar, which hosts a major U.S. military base, thus weakening the common front against Iran. Great Britain is stumbling towards the precipice of a “no-deal Brexit” this fall that will divide Europe and potentially provoke economic calamity. Close U.S. treaty allies Japan and South Korea are engaged in a nationalistic feud that may threaten U.S. efforts to constrain North Korea and push back against an increasingly aggressive China. India and Pakistan are once again fighting over the status of Kashmir, which has provoked two previous wars among the nuclear-armed rivals.
“What all of those regional disputes have in common is that the Trump administration was complicit in exacerbating the conflicts,” said Kori Schake, a former National Security Council official in the Bush 43 administration, and currently deputy director-general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London. After his first overseas trip as president to Saudi Arabia, she notes, Trump was seen as giving a green light to the blockade of Qatar. “So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off,” Trump tweeted after his visit. “They said they would take a hard line on funding extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar.”
Last week National Security Adviser John Bolton joined a long line of Trump administration officials cheerleading for Brexit, traveling to London and telling his hosts that the U.S. supports a “no-deal” exit from the European Union, which the British government’s own secret assessment says would result in “catastrophic collapse in the nation’s infrastructure.” Despite the Japan vs South Korea dispute threatening a critical U.S. intelligence sharing arrangement for monitoring North Korea, President Trump has dismissed trying to mediate the conflict. Why? Because it would be “like a full-time job.”
“President Trump operates on the belief that there is no cost to setting all the boats rocking at once in international affairs, making everyone constantly insecure about what’s going to happen next, and, in that sense, his administration has acted not in the traditional U.S. role as a firefighter trying to keep these regional conflicts in check, but rather as an arsonist setting them ablaze,” said Schake. “So what ‘America First’ has achieved is an international order that is much more chaotic and prone to conflict.”
Nicholas Burns, formerly the State Department’s third-ranking official and a U.S. Ambassador to NATO, is now a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. “The American success story of the past 70 years was based on an understanding that in a complex and very dangerous world, we prosper when working together with like-minded democracies that share our values and principals. That was the lesson the World War II generation took from the disastrous isolationism in this country during the 1920s and 1930s,” he says.
But President Trump, Burn says, has “demonstrated no commitment to democratic values, and he has shamefully disavowed the alliances and partnerships we carefully built over many decades.” Trump is “dismantling the multilateral trade system, creating a world not of cooperative trading partners but of zero-sum competitors. He is also unique among post-World War II presidents in believing that mediating and deescalating disagreements among nations is not in his job description. So ‘America First’ has turned out to be a very isolationist and go-it-alone foreign policy, and it is bringing the world to crisis.”
James Kitfield, a regular contributor to Breaking Defense, is a senior fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.