Around the world, our allies are worried. Here in South Korea, President-elect Donald Trump’s unexpected election victory has fueled a deep sense of uncertainty about the future of American leadership in Asia and the world. Government officials and foreign policy experts are scrutinizing every Trump utterance about South Korea, trade and security made during the campaign, and they don’t like what they find. As I have been asked repeatedly during my stay here, does he really believe that the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement kills American jobs, that South Korea does not contribute substantially to the costs of basing our soldiers here, or that South Korea and Japan should defend themselves against the “maniac of North Korea,” including by acquiring their own nuclear weapons?
A similar frightened discussion about the credibility of the United States’ commitments is occurring in Japan, Australia and most countries in the NATO alliance. In conversations, emails and public statements I get from foreign policy officials from Estonia to Canada, the question is always the same: Does Trump really believe all the crazy things he said on the campaign trail about our allies?
Historically, uncertainty never enhances alliances. As a candidate, Trump suggested that his unpredictability could increase his negotiating leverage, keeping those on the other side of the table guessing as to what he might do next. That strategy might work when negotiating construction contracts and may even be effective in deliberations with foes, but it does not work with allies. Above all else, uncertainty about our security commitments to our allies tempts our competitors. We don’t want Russia challenging our commitments to our NATO allies, North Korea poking at our fortitude to defend the Republic of Korea or China testing the waters about our staying power in Asia.
As his first order of business regarding foreign policy, President Trump should reset relations with all U.S. allies before thinking about a reset with Russia or anyone else. Reassuring allies in Europe and Asia is actually low-hanging fruit: Three signals could change the negative dynamics in our alliance relationships overnight.
First, President Trump could state clearly that our resolve to defend our allies is not conditioned by what our allies pay us for security. Alliances are not protection rackets. Early in his administration, President Trump could add credibility to his statements by expressing support for recently announced but not yet implemented enhancements of our defense commitments to our allies, such as the deployment of the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system in South Korea or the $3.4 billion increase in defense spending planned for Europe to enhance our contributions to NATO deterrence against Russia.
In the second paragraph of such reassurance statements, Trump could then affirm his desire to pursue new burden-sharing arrangements with our allies. Regarding our Asian allies, he could start that conversation by acknowledging the facts about the serious expenditures that Japan and South Korea already provide to underwrite the costs of U.S. troop deployments in these two countries. Doing so would create the permissive conditions for renegotiations about upping their share. Regarding NATO, Trump could simply reaffirm existing policy; every ally should spend 2 percent of its budget on defense. No one would balk, incremental change would begin to happen, and Trump could declare victory.
Second, to further reset relations with our allies, President Trump should moderate his hostile campaign pronouncements about free trade. Here in Seoul, business and government leaders fear the negative consequences for the South Korean economy of 45 percent tariffs on all Chinese goods, since Korean companies provide many of the parts for products assembled in China that are then sold to the United States. More generally, all of our allies in Europe and Asia would suffer from global economic declines triggered by a trade war between the two largest economies in the world. Trump needs to back away from these extreme ideas, which are gross violations of our own World Trade Organization obligations, and instead take a more pragmatic, evolutionary and cooperative approach.
Trump also could reassure allies in Europe and Asia by continuing, not stopping, negotiations over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with our European partners and agreeing to explore amendment — not complete abandonment — of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in Asia. Prematurely walking away from the TPP full stop would be particularly insulting and destabilizing to our Asian partners who have already signed the agreement. President Trump must understand that our retreat from the TPP would create a vacuum for China to fill with its own Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.
Third, President Trump could utter the words “democracy,” “freedom” or “liberty” when describing what makes our alliances special. As one senior Korean official told me this week, “Trump only talks about money, and never about values.” It might be too much to hope that President Trump might commit to promoting democracy abroad, but at least he could pledge to defend democracy abroad.
Unlike some other foreign policy rethinks, signaling support for our alliances would not alienate Trump’s core electoral constituencies. On the contrary, public opinion polls show deep support for our alliances among the American people. And a reset with our allies would be cheap, requiring mostly rhetorical statements, confirming existing commitments and adding very few new resources. So, for an easy and early win in his new administration, President Trump should focus first on resetting relations with our allies; Russia can wait.
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