The starting point is money. The most immediate concern, shared with previous administrations and across party lines, is that U.S. allies are not allocating sufficient resources to their defense and the security of the alliance. President Donald Trump has made it abundantly clear that allies, in particular wealthy ones, that are not contributing to security must change their posture—and quickly. Verbal support of the alliance will never replace the necessity of material support; a security commitment is credible only when backed by capabilities and not just words. As Trump said in his 2017 speech in Warsaw, “Words are easy, but actions are what matters. And for its own protection […] Europe must do more. Europe must demonstrate that it believes in its future by investing its money to secure that future.”
The goal is to jolt allies out of their torpor. Undoubtedly, the bluntness of President Trump and of his administration makes some allies—especially those who have been laggard in their defense spending—uncomfortable. And it is entirely possible that the indolence of a few allies, especially in Europe, will persist and may even morph into disdain for their American protector. But it would be irresponsible for any political leader, in the United States or in Europe, to sacrifice alliance security in exchange for alliance solidarity. Solidarity is a great asset but is an empty word without capabilities.
The Trump administration has backed its commitment to U.S. alliances with money and actions, even when it does not benefit the United States directly. For instance, in Europe, it continues to build the European Phased Adaptive Approach, despite some opposition in Washington. This is a defense system that will protect Europe from short to medium-range ballistic missiles: the United States, that is, is spending money to defend Europe, not the North American homeland. Moreover, the administration is requesting an increase of $1.7 billion (for a total of $6.5 billion) for the next fiscal year for the European Deterrence Initiative to improve the readiness of U.S. and allied forces in Europe.
The administration is also pushing hard to oppose the aggressiveness of Russia, Iran and China. To punish Russia for its war against Ukraine, as well as for its meddling in elections, the Trump administration has implemented several rounds of sanctions against Russian entities and individuals. In the case of Iran, it has abandoned the pretense that a “plan of action” (the JCPOA which was not even an “agreement,” and certainly not a treaty) had slowed down Tehran’s regional ambitions, extending from the Mediterranean to the Gulf of Aden, and its nuclear aspirations. And with China, it is clear that competition rather than cooperation is the term that reflects more truthfully the strategic reality—and a Confucian “rectification of names,” as National Security Council Senior Director for Asian Affairs Matt Pottinger has called it recently, was long overdue. Vice President Mike Pence reinforced this point by saying that the United States will not back down in this competition and will reassert, for instance, its rights of free navigation in the South China Sea.
In all cases, the policy is to repel—and not to accommodate—the various forms of aggression by these revisionist powers. And the most immediate beneficiaries of this policy are not the United States, but its allies, in particular those in close proximity of Russia, Iran and China. In other words, the United States is placing its bets on the existing allies and is pursuing a policy of supporting them by counterbalancing the revisionist powers.
It is, of course, to be expected that not all allies are thrilled with such an assertive policy. The posture of accommodating rivals pursued under President Obama generated fears of abandonment among the most vulnerable allies. Now, it is the opposite: a policy of counterbalancing and competing with the rivals threatens the commercial appetites of some states. An egregious case is Germany. De facto defenseless, with a defense spending just a bit above 1 percent of its GDP, Germany is pursuing a gas pipeline project with Russia, the Nord Stream 2. Germany’s neighbors, especially those on its eastern border, oppose this project because, once completed, it will increase Europe’s dependence on Russian gas. It will also bypass Ukraine, depriving it of transit fees and exposing it further to Russian blackmail. Despite European and U.S. pressure, Germany is hell-bent on this project, trading its long-term security (and certainly the security of its allies) for short-term business benefits. A consistent U.S. policy of opposing Russia, therefore, threatens these commercial ties. A similar situation arises also out of the firm American opposition to Iran. The EU, led by its foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini for whom the JCPOA was a personal achievement, is trying to keep trade with Iran open despite U.S. sanctions, setting up a separate payment system. Mogherini thus sides with Iran, rather than with an ally, the United States—going against the interests of other U.S. allies and partners, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia.
The fact, therefore, that some U.S. allies are unhappy with this administration’s tough posture toward common rivals and enemies is not a sign that Washington now does not support its allies. On the contrary, the attempts by some allies to circumvent sanctions against Iran or to solidify Russian influence over European energy markets undermine alliance security and solidarity.
The competition with Russia, China and Iran is enduring and we cannot wish it away. To prepare for it, and ultimately to prevail, the United States has to be open to all options but with the awareness that some are unlikely to bear fruit in time or at all. U.S. allies remain the best option. But they must be capable, confident and willing to oppose, rather than to appease, common enemies.
Jakub Grygiel is an associate professor in politics at The Catholic University of America (Washington, dc). For the past year, he served in the Trump administration as a senior advisor on the policy planning staff in the Department of State. His latest book is Return of the Barbarians (Cambridge University, 2018).