Paul Pillar

The Impulsive Approach to Managing Alliances

Donald Trump has gone so far beyond the bounds of what once was considered presidential, or decorous (without even getting into what is, from a policy point of view, wise or prudent) that criticisms that were once aimed at past presidents, including Trump’s immediate predecessor, now seem like something that must have been said a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.  Remember how Barack Obama’s political opponents on the right, such as those found in the pages of the Weekly Standard, portrayed him as being a “self-referential” person who thought “it was always about him”?  That never was an accurate portrayal of a leader who, notwithstanding his place in history as the first African-American president, endeavored to steer stories away from his personal role much more than in the other direction, as consistent with the peroration in Mr. Obama’s farewell address, in which he said, “I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change — but in yours.”  This criticism of President Obama now seems especially laughable, given a new occupant of the White House who practices extreme narcissism, is fixated on trumpeting himself and his brand, and who repeatedly changes the subject—no matter what the occasion, whether it is an appearance before the wall memorializing fallen CIA officers or an observance of Black History Month—to his own accomplishments, or his support, or his crowds, and how the mainstream media do not report on such things in a way that conforms with his self-image.

Or do you remember how President Obama’s opponents would criticize him for supposedly damaging relations with America’s allies and being too soft on its adversaries?  Laughable again (if damage to alliances didn’t have serious consequences), given how the new president has caused more distrust and damage in two weeks with some of the oldest and closest U.S. alliances than most past presidents could inflict in four years.  Probably the low point in those two weeks was Mr. Trump’s bullying phone call with the prime minister of Australia, which has been an especially loyal and selfless ally fighting alongside the United States through a century of wars, including even ill-begotten ones.  Before Trump cut the call short, he managed once again to consume time boasting about how big his election victory supposedly was.

Among old U.S. allies in the European Union, the distrust and damage already have gotten to the point that the president of the European Council lists the Trump presidency as one of the biggest threats the EU currently faces, right alongside an assertive China, an aggressive Russia, and radical Islam.  In Britain, another of the very closest of U.S. allies, the government of Theresa May is having to temper its reactions to Trump in the interest of not burning any economically important post-Brexit bridges, but it still must answer to an electorate in which nearly two-thirds of the people consider Trump to be a threat to international stability.  The speaker of the House of Commons has announced his opposition to any invitation to Trump to address Parliament when he visits the United Kingdom.

European reactions to Trump are partly wrapped up in issues involving security guarantees and the future of NATO, but the responses are based on much more than that.  Trump’s opposition to the EU itself ignores how much the United States shares with the Europeans an interest in success of the great European experiment in integration.  That experiment is an overcoming of the historical national antagonisms that have bloodied the continent and that the United States, at great cost in its own blood and treasure, has had to help fix. 

Lesser but more immediate costs flow from much of the damage that is being inflicted on relations with close and not-so-close partners and allies.  Insulting the Australians is all the more regrettable given the importance of Australia as a partner in dealing with the Chinese challenge in the southeastern portion of the Pacific basin.  Strained partnerships elsewhere are a blow to effective counterterrorist cooperation, especially in the Muslim world.  Trump’s insulting of the Mexicans has caused a nationalist backlash in Mexico that is likely to hurt cooperation on matters such as drug trafficking.