By winning the US presidential election on Nov 8, Donald Trump is becoming the 45th president in American history. He is the first president without any government service experience since Dwight D. Eisenhower, making his future foreign policy uncertain and unpredictable. US allies are feeling much pressure, mainly due to Trump’s words on the US alliance system during the campaign. He said that the US allies should pay more for the US security guarantee, otherwise they will be responsible for their own defense.
Whither the US Alliance under Trump Administration
For Trump, this is reasonable on logic and facts. Logically speaking, he upholds the idea of “America First”. All policies must put the United States national interest as the benchmark and the goal. In Trump’s view, the United States wins the respect from others not by deeply participating in international affairs, but by making the United States itself more powerful. In other words, the United States needs to get its home in order, to invest in the domestic affairs like infrastructure, economic development, employment growth and immigration control. To some extent, it is also consistent with the characteristics of his merchant’s identity, considering costs and benefits wisely and sensitively.
In fact, the defense spending of the majority of NATO members is far less from its setting level: military spending accounts for 2% of their gross domestic product. President Obama has also expressed dissatisfaction on this point. Trump thinks it is unsustainable and unfair. Among the US allies in Asia, Japan, South Korea and the Philippines have sovereignty disputes with China. With China’s comprehensive strength growing, the allies increasingly hope to use the United States to balance China, and gain profits from the China-US rivalry. However, it could increase the risk of US falling in conflicts with China in the region. Thus, Trump sees big defects in the existing alliance system and wants changes.
However, it does not mean that the United States will abandon its alliances, mainly for the following reasons: First, the alliance system remains critical for the United States to maintain its globally dominant position. Whether during World War II, or in the Cold War, to maintain and strengthen the alliance became the power multiplier of the United States, which has been proven by history. Today, the United States is facing a more challenging world, non-traditional and traditional security intertwining, especially the more prominent pressure coming from big powers’ competition. Thus, it is vital for the US primacy to modernize and consolidate the alliance system, not abandoning or weakening it.
Second, the inertia of the alliance system works. The US alliance is achieved by signing the official treaties between/among the related states and forms a certain legal relationship. The termination of alliance also needs to go through rigorous legal process, and cannot be overturned by one person’s wishes. From this point of view, the alliance system has formed a certain institutional framework, and also produced a relatively stable path of interdependence. In the absence of momentous change, its operation will not be influenced subversively.
Third, the US foreign policy-making mechanism constraints. There are many actors in US decision-making in international affairs. The President is only one of them. The Department of State, the National Security Council and the US Congress have their voices on foreign policy. In other words, the president’s foreign policy preferences may be challenged by different ideas, disagreements, and the final decision is likely to be a compromise between the parties.
Fourth, Trump’s personal experience limits. Trump is a novice in politics and even more unfamiliar with foreign affairs, which may limits his influence in the field of foreign policy. Trump is likely to be more dependent on its security team. Therefore, to access the direction of the US alliance policy requires more attention to the preferences of his security team.
Moreover, compared with diplomatic issues, the new administration is facing more challenges in domestic affairs, which is also more critical for Trump’s re-election four years from now. For a Trump administration, with the edge of the Republican-controlled Congress, it is urgent to promote domestic policies and reforms. The alliance issue, therefore, is not among the top priorities.
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- Jeffrey A. Bader John C. Whitehead Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution
- Tom Watkins Advisor, Michigan-China Innovation Center
- James Carter Professor, Saint Joseph’s University
- Yanzhong Huang Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations
- Lucio Blanco Pitlo III Lecturer, Chinese Studies Program, Ateneo de Manila University