US allies are already worried about another round of Trump

US allies are already worried about another round of Trump

Originally published in The Atlantic.

What should America’s allies do if the leader of the free world doesn’t care about the free world or want to lead it?

Most of America’s allies would like Joe Biden to win the U.S. presidential election in November. He has been a fine president. His foreign-policy team is first-class. But what if Donald Trump should win instead? In the aftermath of Biden’s poor debate performance, the anxieties in allied capitals are spiralling.

Allied leaders know that Trump views their countries not as friends but as freeloaders. As president, he threw shade on the principle of collective defence and carelessly handled the intelligence that allies provided to Washington. He threatened to withdraw U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula and Europe.

So what should America’s allies do if the leader of the free world doesn’t care about the free world or want to lead it? In this ghastly scenario, they should retain their independence and their equilibrium — and be pragmatic.

Trump’s instincts run counter to the worldviews of most U.S. allies. If he isn’t an isolationist, he is certainly iso-curious. America’s allies, by contrast, favour internationalism. He is bitterly opposed to free trade, whereas most allies benefit from it. He enjoys the company of autocrats such as Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un, whereas most allies are democracies. Finally, Trump is dubious about alliances themselves, even though both China and Russia would dearly love to have alliance networks as powerful and cost-effective as that of the United States.

The last time Donald Trump served as president, allied leaders fell into three categories: critics, sympathisers, and pragmatists. Angela Merkel was a prominent critic who never seemed comfortable with Trump and publicly contradicted him on refugees, tariffs, and other issues. During the 2018 G7 meeting in Canada, Merkel posted a striking photograph on Instagram that appeared to show her and other leaders confronting Trump, who sat in a defiant pose with his arms crossed.

But picking a fight with the world’s most powerful person is not always smart. Allies rely on the United States, which has the capacity to project military power anywhere on Earth, to protect them from adversaries such as Russia and China and provide essential public goods. Being at daggers drawn with Washington is rarely in an ally’s interest. Merkel’s poor relations with Trump, for example, contributed to his 2020 decision to withdraw 10,000 troops from Germany — a decision that President Joe Biden later reversed.

The second model for allies during the Trump administration was that of sympathiser. The former Australian prime minister Scott Morrison was a sympathiser: He identified himself politically with Trump, even joining the then-president in Ohio in 2019 to address a crowd of Trump supporters. Trump told the gathering that Morrison was “a great gentleman”; Morrison replied, “Together we are making jobs great again.”

In May this year, during the criminal trial at which Trump was convicted on 34 felony counts, Morrison visited him at Trump Tower. “It was nice to catch up again, especially given the pile on he is currently dealing with in the US,” Morrison later posted on X. “Good to see you DJT and thanks for the invitation to stay in touch.”

Sympathisers figure that they need to get close to Trump in order to influence him. True, Trump’s administration was animated by egomania and narcissism, and Trump relishes flattery. Praise can lead to goodies such as investment, political support, and decorations. But being intimate with Trump is unlikely to be popular back home — or good for the soul.

The pragmatists included former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Japan operates in a tough neighbourhood, facing security threats from China and North Korea and maintaining awkward relations with South Korea and Russia. Tokyo relies on Washington, and so Abe worked hard on his personal relationship with his fellow conservative Trump. In November 2016, Abe was the first world leader to call on the president-elect at Trump Tower. Over the next four years, he had dozens of conversations with Trump in meetings, on the phone, and on the golf course. In 2019, he arranged for Trump to be the first foreign leader to meet with Japan’s newly enthroned Emperor Naruhito.

Abe was courteous and attentive without sacrificing his dignity or submerging himself in Trump’s political identity. He stayed in close contact with Trump in order to avoid the nasty surprises other allied leaders endured. Rather than immediately contradicting Trump’s misstatements in their conversations, Abe tended to deflect and return to the point later. As a businessman, Trump was a fierce critic of Japanese trading practices and ran newspaper advertisements accusing Japan and other allies of “taking advantage of the United States” by failing to pay for the protection Washington provided. But through his skilful dealings with Trump in office, Abe managed to soften that hostility. As president, Trump was well disposed to Japan and even signed off on a trade deal between Washington and Tokyo.

Another former Australian prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, was also a pragmatist. “Whether in the Oval Office or on the playground, giving in to bullies encourages more bullying,” Turnbull recently wrote in Foreign Affairs. “The only way to win the respect of people such as Trump is to stand up to them.” So when Trump threatened to walk away from an Obama-era deal between the United States and Australia on asylum seekers and to impose tariffs on Australian steel and aluminium imports, Turnbull argued with him. He did so mainly in private, however, resisting the temptation to talk down to Trump in public. In their meetings, Turnbull also made much of their shared business backgrounds.

Criticising Trump is risky for an ally’s national interest. Sympathising with him is risky for one’s self-respect. The best way to thread the needle is to be pragmatic. Don’t sneer, but don’t gush, either. Assemble your arguments carefully and make sure they relate to Trump’s interests. Fight your corner where required, preferably in private. Find common ground with Trump where you can, without betraying your values or doing something you will later regret.

A lot of leaders will find the prospect of fraternising with Trump distasteful. But they need to grimace and bear it. The alternatives — to turn away from the United States or hug Trump tight — are worse.

Allied leaders will also need to work closely with other parts of the U.S. system, including Congress, the agencies, and the military. And they should work much more closely with one another. Trump is not wrong when he says that many allies have become overreliant on America’s security umbrella. They should build up their own national capabilities and work with one another to reinforce the liberal international order that Trump disparages even as it is being undermined by Moscow and Beijing. As beneficiaries of that order, U.S. allies will have to serve as its bodyguards.

Trump’s plans to “make America great again” neglect a fundamental pillar of American greatness — its system of global alliances. If he is re-elected, allied leaders will need to retain their autonomy, balance, and perspective. Like everything else in life, the Trump era, too, shall pass.

Areas of expertise: Australian foreign policy; US politics and foreign policy; Asia and the Pacific; Global institutions