The Buzz

America’s Allies Have Friends in the Trump Cabinet

U.S. presidential elections are always keenly observed around the world and create at least some international uncertainty; the future trajectory of American economic, military, and ideational power matters everywhere.

Unprecedented in so many ways, this election brings to office an anti-establishment candidate who campaigned aggressively against what have been bipartisan pillars of U.S. international policy for over half a century – including commitments to free trade, alliances, and democracy promotion. With the world already facing turmoil in the Middle East, fragile economic growth, and rising threats from Russia, North Korea, China, Iran, and Islamic terrorism, it is little wonder that Donald Trump’s victory triggered more global angst.

The president-elect’s recent interview with The Times – in which he declared NATO obsolete (and disparaged the European Union) sent renewed tremors through allied capitals. Trump’s suggestion during the campaign that the United States may not honor its treaty commitments to any NATO country he believes is not paying its way spooked existing and aspirant members alike. His claim that the costs of America’s alliances with Japan and South Korea far outweigh any benefits – and his nonchalant suggestion that both acquire their own nuclear weapons – reverberated across North Asia and beyond. Trump has expressed similar sentiments over several decades, indicating his view will not be easily swayed.

Fortunately, last week’s Senate confirmation hearings should give anxious American allies some reason for encouragement. Both General Jim Mattis, Trump’s nominee for secretary of defense, and Rex Tillerson, his pick for secretary of state, had clearly gotten the memo that allies are looking for reassurance.

Mattis’s performance was particularly strong. Reflecting decades of service in military operations alongside coalition partners, he left no doubt about his commitment to U.S. alliances: “History is clear: Nations with strong allies thrive and those without them wither.” Mattis identified strengthening alliances as one of his top three priorities and emphasized the necessity of building personal relationships before crises break. He repeatedly underlined the importance to U.S. interests of America upholding its treaty obligations and working closely with allies in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, and specifically endorsed the role of extended nuclear deterrence. In statements he must have known would be contrasted with the president-elect’s views, he called NATO the “most successful military alliance probably in modern world history, maybe ever.” He also reaffirmed America’s security commitments in Asia and the importance of its forward-deployed military presence. Mattis recognized that the United States cannot take any of its allies for granted, yet also the reality that not all allies will be perfect partners.

Tillerson had a tougher time because of his business links with Russia and relative foreign policy inexperience – which showed in the imprecise language he used (seized on by the media) to describe standing up to further Chinese moves to militarize the South China Sea. But on alliances he too was solid, recognizing them as a key U.S. asset and proclaiming: “An America that can be trusted in good faith is essential to supporting our partners, achieving our goals, and assuring our security.” Tillerson put working closely with allies at the center of his answers on dealing with the threats posed by North Korea, maritime tensions in the East China Sea, ISIL, and Middle Eastern instability.

Yet rightly – not least at a time of rising threats, shifting power balances, and constrained U.S. resources – neither Mattis nor Tillerson let allies off the hook. Mattis made clear that allies also have to uphold their end of the bargain, while Tillerson said bluntly that the incoming administration would hold allies accountable. While prizing American alliances, this team will not be sympathetic to free-riders, who exploit not only U.S. generosity but also others who do pull their weight.

Of course one or two swallows don’t make a summer, and it would be naïve to dismiss the president-elect’s pungent and seemingly entrenched views. Foreign policy is just one of many areas where pundits, Congressional and business leaders – and U.S. allies and adversaries alike – are waiting to learn whether the president-elect’s stated views or more conventional opinions will prevail. Most likely it will be a mix. At a minimum, allies will certainly need to prepare themselves for a much more transactional approach in Washington. If President-elect Trump gets his own way on relations with Russia and pursues many of his campaign pledges on trade policy, the scope for tensions with allies (not to mention members of his cabinet and the Republican-controlled Congress) is considerable. Yet assuming Mattis and Tillerson are confirmed, allies seem assured at least a fair hearing at the Pentagon and Foggy Bottom.

Andrew Shearer is Senior Advisor on Asia Pacific Security and director of a new project on Alliances and American Leadership at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. He was formerly national security advisor to Prime Ministers John Howard and Tony Abbott of Australia.