If President-elect Trump wants to make America great again, he will have to make America’s allies also great again. The United States cannot be great if it is insecure. And it cannot be secure without a robust set of alliances with states located near its rivals in Eurasia. But over the past few years many U.S. allies have grown worried that Washington has lost interest in protecting them, and some may become more friendly to our rivals than to us. America’s greatness is to a large degree predicated on the resilience and capabilities of her alliances.
The President-elect can start by learning from the mistakes of the outgoing Obama Administration. Hoping for a utopia of no-nuclear weapons and seeking to superimpose a naive vision of harmonious multilateral institutions over the hard reality of geopolitical competition, the Obama Administration contributed to making U.S. allies anxious and even wobbly. It had sought a reset with Russia, struck a deal by paying ransom to Iran, and responded timidly to aggressive Chinese behavior in the South China Sea—all failed attempts at a great power bargain or accommodation over the heads and interests of our allies. The supposed benefits of Washington’s accommodating position never materialized; the rivals became only more aggressive while U.S. allies began to doubt its security commitments.
The lesson is that the United States cannot be made great by deals with its rivals. Allies make America great.
Allies give the United States an edge over its rivals. The geopolitical frontier stretching from the Baltic and Black Seas through the Middle East and to the Pacific Ocean is where U.S. security begins. U.S. allies located there are the first responders against threats to the stability of this frontier, guaranteeing that the United States competes in Eurasia rather than fights on its own shores. Without allies or with allies that are teetering the United States would have to choose between a much larger military presence in Eurasia or a retreat behind the false security of the oceans that are more highways than moats. A glum choice between considerably higher costs and much greater security risks.
The importance of allies to U.S. greatness is made apparent by the revisionist powers that seek to peel America’s friends away. Russia and China in particular have been lurking around seeking any opportunity to tilt in their favor (or at minimum against us) the diplomatic posture of nearby states. The failure of the Obama Administration to get the Trans-Pacific Partnership may be another opening for Beijing to extend its influence. Russia has also been probing the strength of NATO in its neighborhood, aspiring to weaken its cohesion and thus undermine what it considers to be its main enemy. U.S. rivals know that America’s alliances are a key source of her geopolitical greatness. We should learn from them.
Allies must certainly do more. Trump is not alone in bristling at the minimal defense spending of many U.S. allies. In 2011, for example, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates criticized allies in Europe without mincing words: The United States has a “dwindling appetite” to defend allies that do not want incurs costs in their own defense. In many allied capitals Trump’s election has generated fears that this “dwindling appetite” to provide security would translate into a disengagement greater than under the outgoing Obama Administration. A dangerous moment, to be sure, but these fears can be harnessed to strengthen allies.
There are positive signs coming from some allies that have already been spending more on defense. The Trump Administration should encourage and aid this trend. For instance, it should vigorously promote and ease the acquisition of U.S. weapons and technologies by the most vulnerable and hence eager-to-arm allies. A “buy American first” approach is not just good for U.S. manufacturers; it makes eminent sense strategically because it integrates our allies even further into our own capabilities.
Moreover, and most importantly, the incoming Administration has to reassure U.S. allies that the security guarantees will continue to be respected. Only under the protective umbrella of the United States will these allies will feel that it is worthwhile to expend resources to rearm themselves. There is no guarantee that our allies, sensing disinterest in Washington, will underwrite by themselves the status quo of their regions. On the contrary, they may seek a bargain of their own with the revisionist power. A feeling of isolation does not necessarily encourage a more aggressive effort to defend oneself.
There is another source of opportunity to make U.S. allies great again: the rising tide of leaders who are more assertive about their nations’ sovereignty—a trend particularly evident in Europe. The belief in supra-national governance as a font of international harmony is crumbling in the face of real security problems such as terrorism, mass movement of populations, and reactivated rivalry with aggressive powers. Europe’s electoral landscape is dotted with individuals of dubious character and political platforms with worrisome tints, but the broad trend is one of reasserting the primacy of the sovereign state. One potential outcome—and one that the new Administration should cultivate—is that individual states, focused on their own national priorities and autonomy, take their own security seriously again by investing in the necessary capabilities that have atrophied over the past decades. States that value sovereignty tend also to value their ability to defend themselves.
The U.S. rivalry with Russia, Iran, and China is enduring and, as proven by the diplomatic failures of the past years, cannot be resolved by accommodation. These competitors—nay, enemies—are here to stay. U.S. security will not be found in some supposedly as-yet-undiscovered friendship with them, but in the real and existing set of alliances we already have.
The new President should bet on the latter.