Confusion, Unforced Errors, and the Costs of Having No Strategy
Presidents are said to lack an effective grand strategy when they allow the ends and means of American foreign policy to drift out of balance. Walter Lippmann called it solvency: the idea that the United States must not entertain international ambitions that outstrip available resources. To pursue an insolvent strategic approach, Lippmann argued, would be to saddle the nation with an intolerable burden of risk. At some point, all overcommitments are exposed as unfulfillable promises -- jarring moments of truth that spark domestic recrimination and international instability in equal measure.
Under Trump, America’s grand strategy is more than just insolvent: it’s non-existent. Not only has the administration failed to find an alignment between ends and means -- there isn’t even agreement over what the ends and means ought to be. Does the President want to ensure U.S. primacy or shrink America’s global role? Does he believe in militarism or retrenchment? Is the United States interested in making the world economy fairer (“leveling the playing field”) or abandoning globalization altogether? The answers to these questions seem to change with alarming frequency.
Not surprisingly, Trump’s erratic approach to international affairs has made it difficult for the United States to maintain its alliances with foreign nations. From Europe to East Asia to the Middle East, several of America’s allies seem to have concluded that their long-term security interests might no longer depend upon closeness with the United States. French President Emmanuel Macron’s candid remarks that the NATO alliance has been left “braindead” by Trump are only the latest example of this growing sentiment.
How could it be otherwise? During his first year in office, Trump famously declined to endorse NATO’s mutual defense clause despite being given multiple opportunities to do so, only relenting because of sustained pressure from his exasperated team of advisers. More recently, he has ordered the withdrawal of U.S. funding for NATO’s collective budget, has called the U.S.-Japan alliance “unfair,” and has insisted that South Korea pay an exorbitant $5 billion in exchange for U.S. forces being based on the Korean Peninsula. These are pretexts, perhaps, for curtailing America’s commitments to its most important allies in Europe and the Asia-Pacific.
The problem is not that Trump is uniformly hostile to America’s strategic partners. If this were the case, foreign leaders would at least have a clear sense of U.S. foreign policy in the age of Trump. But Trump is no isolationist. He has ordered thousands more U.S. troops to bolster the defenses of nations such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Poland, and he has even suggested the conclusion of a new mutual defense treaty with Israel. These are not the actions of a President who rejects the notion of collective security altogether.
Rather, the trouble with Trump is that he has not articulated a clear and reliable vision of how U.S. alliances serve America’s self-interest. Are some alliances worth defending as ends in themselves? If so, which, and why? If not, are collective security arrangements at least an appropriate means by which the United States should pursue its core national interests? How valuable are they in comparison to unilateral applications of U.S. power? Three years after Trump scored his shock triumph in the Electoral College, no foreign leader can be sure of the answers to these questions.
The truth is that there are no general principles that guide Trump’s approach to alliances. There are some strategic partnerships that Trump views as extensions of his personal friendships with foreign leaders -- those with Israel and Saudi Arabia, for example. At other times, Trump treats allies as little more than tributaries of a U.S. Empire, as with Japan and South Korea. And then there are those allies that are having to get used to the idea that President Trump simply does not care a great deal about their security.
Trump’s failure to offer reassurance about the role of alliances in American grand strategy will severely weaken U.S. power and influence in the world for a long time to come. Even if this is not readily apparent at the moment, the problem will confront US leaders at some point. This will come about either when the United States faces an international crisis that it cannot manage alone, or when some future U.S. leader tries to implement a coherent grand strategy but finds themselves conspicuously lacking that unique power asset that every president since Harry S. Truman has deemed invaluable: an unparalleled system of formal and informal alliances to anchor and amplify U.S. power in every part of the globe.
Even those who scoff at the “liberal” international order and advocate a less activist role for the United States should be desperately unhappy with Trump’s mishandling of U.S. alliances. While realists and restrainers often balk at the steep costs that go along with sustaining the largest network of alliances the world has ever seen, their goal of reducing America’s overseas commitments will be difficult to meet unless likeminded allies can be convinced to share the burden of providing international security. In other words, alliances are still an important means at America’s disposal even if the desired end is something much less than liberal hegemony.
Trump, of course, has no long-term goal in mind when he trashes America’s alliance system. His wrecking-ball approach to U.S. alliances will do nothing to turn today’s junior partners into tomorrow’s self-sufficient pillars of global security. For all his bluster about being an expert dealmaker, the president fails to understand that foreign powers will only pursue policies that align with U.S. interests if they can be somewhat sure that their place in American grand strategy is etched in stone. By leaving America’s allies guessing about his administration’s intentions and those of his successor, Trump will leave behind an international architecture that is much less conducive to American peace, security, restraint, and retrenchment.
For more than 70 years, one of America’s unique power resources has been its global network of formal and informal alliances. No matter what “ends” they have oriented their foreign policies toward achieving, generations of U.S. leaders have recognized the advantages of maintaining stable and credible alliances. In just three years, Trump has done lasting damage to this irreplaceable source of international influence. America is much weaker as a result. It will remain so long after Trump exits the Oval Office.
Peter Harris is an assistant professor of political science at Colorado State University. You can follow him on Twitter: @ipeterharris.