On the security side of the equation, the president has pursued a few unorthodox moves, such as his North Korean summitry and abrupt attempt to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria. A case can be made, however, that not all that much changed. The rogue actors the United States has traditionally sanctioned were sanctioned harder. NATO endured, the U.S. alliance system in the Pacific Rim persisted.
During the past two weeks, however, it seems like a lot of the subterranean pressures that existed on the security side of things are breaking to the surface.
On NATO, French President Emmanuel Macron gave one hell of an interview to the Economist this month in which he said, among other things, “To my mind, what we are currently experiencing is the brain death of NATO.” When asked why, he made it very clear who was to blame:
Just look at what’s happening. You have partners together in the same part of the world, and you have no coordination whatsoever of strategic decision-making between the United States and its NATO allies. None. You have an uncoordinated aggressive action by another NATO ally, Turkey, in an area where our interests are at stake. There has been no NATO planning, nor any coordination. There hasn’t even been any NATO deconfliction. A meeting is coming up in December. This situation, in my opinion, doesn’t call into question the interoperability of NATO which is efficient between our armies, it works well in commanding operations. But strategically and politically, we need to recognise that we have a problem.... what will Article Five mean tomorrow?
Macron has his own motives for pushing this line — namely, he wants to reinforce European defense cooperation. The Germans immediately and persistently pushed back on Macron’s argument. Secretary of State and soon-to-be Kansas senatorial wannabe Mike Pompeo was more equivocal, telling reporters a day after Macron’s interview, “If nations believe that they can get the security benefit without providing NATO the resources that it needs, if they don’t live up to their commitments, there is a risk that NATO could become ineffective or obsolete.”
In the Pacific Rim, the Trump administration is making some disruptive choices. It has ramped up its demands for Japan and South Korea to pay more for hosting U.S. troops and bases. In the case of Japan, Foreign Policy’s Lara Seligman and Robbie Gramer report, “The administration has asked Tokyo to pay roughly four times as much per year to offset the costs of stationing more than 50,000 U.S. troops there,” leading to a bill as high as $8 billion. This request was made this summer, but needless to say the Japanese have pushed back hard.
The Trump administration had practiced a similar brand of hardball toward South Korea. Last week CNN’s Nicole Gaouette reported that after contentious negotiations last year over basing fees, the United States had asked South Korea to pay five times what it is paying currently. The South Koreans were unhappy with the request. On Tuesday, the bilateral negotiations went from bad to worse. My Washington Post colleague Min Joo Kim reported, “The United States broke off talks with South Korea on Tuesday over how to share the cost of the two nations’ military alliance, injecting fresh tension into the relationship over Washington’s demands that Seoul pay sharply more.” Kim quotes the lead U.S. negotiator blaming South Korea for making proposals that “were not responsive to our request for fair and equitable burden sharing.” When asked about it, Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper said South Korea is a “wealthy country” that “can and should contribute more.”
Meanwhile, in completely unrelated news, South Korea just agreed to stronger security ties with China.
Again, the timing of all this is odd, since it is not like U.S. efforts to reduce tensions with North Korea are going well. They’re not, they’re really, really not.
What is going on here? According to Gaouette, “Military officials have told CNN they are distressed ... and that they have been concerned the President’s foreign policy decision making could increasingly be shaped by his concerns about the 2020 election campaign or impeachment pressure.” That would be fully consistent with what we have learned in recent months about the president’s approach to Ukraine — he views foreign policy as a means to secure his personal political ends.
In a macro sense, this is how any elected leader approaches foreign policy. Successful foreign policy bargains should lead to stronger support at home. If Trump does secure more money from South Korea and/or Japan, or greater burden sharing from NATO, then he would trumpet that in his reelection campaign. What, Trump supporters will ask, is the harm in that?
There are two harms. The first is that, as documented here and here, Trump’s bargaining record in international politics is atrocious. He is putting key alliances at risk. He might cadge an extra $1 billion all in. The way this administration has gone about negotiating, however, suggests it will be lucky to meet that mark.
The second is the collateral damage Trump will wreak with allies along the way. For an administration that claims to be focused on great power competition, it sure seems to be doing everything in its power to shed allies and partners. This administration is acting as though friends like Japan and Germany drag down U.S. power.
What is worrying is what happens if an increasing fraction of U.S. allies believe Trump is dragging them down. The damage caused by this administration on the broader U.S. security architecture would be irreparable.