The Impulsive Approach to Managing Alliances

February 6, 2017 Topic: The Presidency Foreign Policy Region: United States Blog Brand: 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.

The seemingly offsetting moves the new administration has made to improve relations with a couple of other countries have been comparably coarse and ill-focused and have had the effect of emboldening the other government to take destructive actions.  The recent flare-up of combat in eastern Ukraine probably has causes on both sides of that conflict, but it certainly is plausible that Trump’s professed bromance with Russian president Vladimir Putin has made Putin feel less inhibited in stirring the Donbass pot.  An apparent failure by the Trump administration to anticipate such events has led to improvised shuffling, including a condemnation of Russian actions at the United Nations followed by a confusion-generating statement that doesn’t seem to recognize that there is any fighting going on inside Ukraine and not just on a border.

A clearer cause-and-effect relationship can be drawn between Trump’s actions and the sudden acceleration by the right-wing Israeli government of settlement construction in the occupied Palestinian territories, including an announcement of the first entirely new settlement in several years, without any pretense of this being merely normal growth of an existing community.  As the New York Times coverage of this development aptly put it, the Netanyahu government “seemed to take Mr. Trump’s inauguration as a starting gun in a race to increase construction in occupied territory.”  Here again, confusion then reigned in the Trump administration’s response, as the White House had to deal with the inescapable truth that the Israeli colonization project is a major impediment to peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while trying to find words that would distinguish its position from the Obama administration’s policy and not trigger the dyspepsia among Netanyahu’s supporters that comes from any mention of a Palestinian state.

Besides being a mess in its own right, the early Trump approach toward alliances and foreign partnerships provides a data point for the ongoing discussion among observers of the administration over the extent to which, on one hand, there is method in the madness and some sort of grand strategy is being played out, and on the other hand, what we are seeing is mostly a function of the non-strategic idiosyncrasies of the man at the top.  Surely there are larger aims to be found within the White House and specifically in the Bannon-Flynn hard-Islamophobic wing.  But most of the mess in management of alliances does not appear to serve those aims and instead is to be explained in terms of the style and not the substance of Donald Trump.  It is best explained in terms of this one man’s impulsiveness and thin skin and habits honed in a bankruptcy-sprinkled business career.  Those habits include never acknowledging a mistake and always striking back hard at anyone, foreign or domestic, who has anything critical to say about him or his actions.

Image: Donald Trump speaks to supporters at a campaign rally. Fountain Hills, Arizona. Flickr/Creative Commons/Gage Skidmore