Sunday, November 17, 2019

The State of American Allies in the Age of Trump

I continue to think that the big change in the departure of SecDef Mattis is not that Trump has lost his guardrails but that it has caused others to lose their ability to engage in wishful thinking.  Macron's "brain death" comment might be read as self-serving since France, including under Macron, has generally sought to build up a European replacement to NATO.  However, the basic statement--that there is no one in the US engaging in the thinking that is required to lead NATO--is on target.

How so?  Each NATO summit is preceded by a series of Ministerials--meetings of Foreign Ministers (North Atlantic Council FM or NAC/FM) and Defense Ministers (NAC/D).  In between those, there are plenty of meetings within DC and between those in DC in the Pentagon and State and their counter-parts in Canada and Europe.  These meetings push agendas--items to be considered and ultimately some reaching a state of consensus.  But what happens when there are few people at State and the Pentagon staffing those desks?  What happens when the Secretary of State is more interested in promoting the next apocalypse as part of his vision for the rapture and also focused on Kansan politics?  When the SecDef is distracted by other alliance messes (see below)?  Well, we might have counted on the Brits to game the system in the old days, but Brexit has caused a fair amount of brain damage and distraction in London.  So, the alliance is not moving forwards and figuring out how to adapt to the various changing dynamics, including Turkey becoming more aligned with Russia.

The funny thing is that NATO is, compared to other places, a good news story.  The moves made in the past to create deterrence and deny Putin a fait accompli in the Baltics are in place, are working, and have yet to be undone.  How about elsewhere?

Things are looking awful in East Asia, where folks were worried before about being abandoned and being drawn into a war at the same time (rarely does one get gored by both horns of the alliance dilemma at the same time, but that is Trump's gift).  Now, they are mostly worried about abandonment.

First, let's focus on "diplomacy"
What has diplomacy gotten the US and its allies from North Korea?  Kim Jong Un has gotten heaps of recognition and pats on the back, in addition to the US cutting back on exercises in the region, and he has given up what?  Nothing.  Diplomacy is about give and take, and thus far KJU has taken and not given, and Mr. Art of the Deal has given and not taken.

Second, let's focus on "burden-sharing."  Trump's focus on all allies has been on getting paid, not on how the allies are helping the US pursue its interests.  Because as we know from Ukraine, what matters is Trump's interests, not America's.  The latest salvo is Trump demanding Japan and South Korea pay 4x or 5x more than they are currently paying for the basing of US troops.  As a reminder, these troops are not there because of American altruism but because of American interests:
  1. Conflict in these regions would be bad for the US economy in a huge way
  2. Keeping Europe and East Asia free has long been seen as important for American security--also, better to prevent a war than have to enter one halfway through, a lesson learned after a couple of world wars.
  3.  If the US wants to contain China, these bases and these countries are damned handy.  Threatening to pull out unless these countries pay up, protection-racket style, is good for China, bad for the US. 
Back in 2016, one reason I got the election wrong is that it was so obvious that Trump would be bad for US alliances, and I thought there were enough Republicans who cared about US national security that it would tip the balance.  I was wrong about that.  NeverTrumpers may be a thing, but they are small and not a relevant voting bloc.  The question is now the 2020 election because the damage to American alliances is severe but may be somewhat (not entirely) reversible.  After eight years of Trump?  Not so much.

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