Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party. He runs TRD Policy
One by one, the oilman and generals supposed to provide “adult supervision” of Trump’s foreign policy have fallen. Without Rex Tillerson (Secretary of State; fired), HR McMaster (National Security Adviser; resigned), John Kelly (Chief of Staff; sidelined) the President is taking control of America’s international relations. General Jim Mattis, hunkered down at the Pentagon, excepted, this is now Trump’s Administration, and policy will be made in his image.
Trump holds one truth to be self-evident, that America’s been stiffed — not by its enemies — but by its allies. They do so, he is convinced, by means of what we might call twin deficits: a trade deficit, which he seems to think actually involves foreign countries charging America money to trade with them; and a defence deficit, where America’s democratic allies in Europe and Asia get American protection – which they could afford to pay full price for – at knockdown rates.
He takes the man in the street’s idea that the trade deficit is like a company’s profit and loss account: where “selling” (exporting) more than we “buy” (import) as a nation, should allow us to distribute the income to our shareholders (citizens; taxpayers). But all a trade deficit or surplus measures is a record of the proportion of things that companies buy from or sell abroad: it doesn’t in itself affect the amount of profit they make, and therefore the money available for their workers or shareholders. When Trump puts up tariffs he makes buying or selling across borders more expensive. What that does for the trade deficit depends on what the companies do. When it caused Harley Davidson to move production outside the US, it reduced US exports instead of increasing them, making the trade deficit bigger.
Trump’s trade policy is merely foolish. It imposes costs on American and foreign companies to try and meet an irrelevant target. Worse, the foreigners fight back with tariffs of their own in the hope of deterring further idiocy.
His alliance policy is dangerous. For all of recorded history, smaller powers have tried to prevent a single country dominating. Immediately after the Second World War, with the United States (temporarily) producing half of world output, resentment might have been expected to produce a Soviet-led attempt to “balance” US dominance. That it didn’t had something to do with Soviet brutality; but it was also because the US put both hard power (its military might) and soft power (democratic values) at the service of Western Europe and it allies elsewhere. Even during the Cold War, exceptions to this rule, most clearly in Vietnam and South America, where the US tried to win by imposing its will instead of using its power to support countries sympathetic to American values, stand as foreign policy failures.
The US-led international order has endured because it gave its other members in Europe and Asia a stake in its alliance system. But the secret of its stability was in many ways the others’ chosen dependence on the US for their security. There’s no question that Western Europe and developed Asia have the economic resources to defend themselves. But military dependence on America allowed them to spend money on other things, while ruling out a hard power combination against America. Good for the allies’ budgets, and good for American security.
But Trump doesn’t understand this. He thinks low non-American defence spending exploits America. He has written to allies, demanding they increase their defence budgets. He even suggested that NATO’s Article V should only apply to countries that paid their way, calling into question the deterrence on which the alliance is based. Next week’s NATO summit will be a crucial test of the Trump Doctrine: pay up, or you’re on your own. The subsequent bilateral meeting in Helsinki between Trump and Putin may be more ominous still.
What should allies of the United States do about it? The complacent view is that we should do nothing. Trump may not be in office much longer. If Nate Silver’s data-intensive polling analysis, is right, the Democrats have a high chance of retaking the House of Representative, and drowning the “orange menace” in impeachment proceedings. His politics is a blip, and normal service will be resumed after he leaves office.
But even if Trump goes, Trumpism – a sense that America is spending too much on the defence of rich countries in Europe and Asia that can afford to protect themselves – will continue. And if he does not (especially if he wins re-election), domestic internal turmoil in a bitterly divided America will continue. We can’t rely on the traditional US-led order being restored.
Finally consider the risks of getting it wrong: if too little is spent, and Trump or Trumpism continues, Putin could take advantage of European defence penny-pinching to put further pressure on the Baltic states or Poland and expand Russia’s sphere of influence to a size inversely proportional to his own height. But if the non-American parts of the Western Alliance increase their defence budgets to fully meet the two per cent spending target without fiddling the figures, what’s the worst that could happen? A more balanced alliance of democracies, able to contribute to global security, contain Moscow and check an increasingly assertive Beijing.
By demanding that American allies spend more on their own defence, Trump is unwittingly doing us a favour. Low European and Japanese defence budgets may have been be good for America, but they don’t help us any more. The world’s getting more dangerous and our defence budgets should expand to cope.