9 April 2018

The United States' Concerned Allies

Under the Trump Administration, the United States’ foreign policy has changed in many ways, alarming many of the US’ longest and closest allies.  Some of these changes in US foreign policy under President Donald Trump are new to the US.  For example, the president’s apparent support for US allies developing their own nuclear weapons and his lack of interest in promoting democracy abroad are a major change of direction for the United States.  On the other hand, the inwards-approach of President Trump’s foreign policy and his support for many isolationist policies harken back to an earlier time in US history, when these policies were the mainstays of US foreign policy. 

As the US remains the world’s strongest power, these changes in foreign policy have real meaning and have an impact that is felt around the world.  Perhaps no one is more affected by these changes than those countries that have been the United States’ closest allies in recent decades, as they have aligned their foreign, economic and defense policies very closely to those of the US.  As such, should these changes in US policy persist, they could dramatically alter the alliances and relationships that the United States has cultivated for a very long time.

The United States leading allies have many concerns with the change in direction in US foreign policy.  These concerns include:

  • The United States’ inward turn leaves many of its allies exposed to major security threats from rival powers.
  • The US has been responsible for the defense of many of its leading allies in Asia and Europe and this has resulted in many of these allies having limited defense capabilities as well as a dependence on many US defense systems.
  • The United States has often prevented revisionist powers from taking action to improve or restore their geopolitical position in many strategic areas of the world, actions that may impact the US’ key allies.
  • The US has been the champion of the current global trade and investment system that has underpinned the growth and prosperity of so many of the US’ leading allies.
  • Without robust economic and security leadership from the United States, global risk levels will rise, impacting many US allies.

A number of the leading allies of the United States have signaled their concerns over the recent changes in US foreign policy.  These allies include: 

  • Canada: Given Canada’s location next to the United States, it is inevitable that Canada is dependent upon the US as a trade and investment partner, and that its defense is largely guaranteed by the United States.  The recent changes in US policy have led to concerns in Canada that its trade and investment relationship with its giant neighbor could be disrupted.
  • Japan: As its demographic collapse leads to a relative decline in Japanese power, Tokyo has found itself increasingly dependent upon the United States for its security.  As Chinese power rises and as North Korea’s nuclear program progresses, Japan stands much to lose should the US continue to turn inwards.
  • South Korea: The United States’ large military presence in South Korea has helped to guarantee South Korea’s security, but there are fears in Seoul that the Trump Administration’s actions towards North Korea could provoke a conflict on the Korean Peninsula.  At the same time, South Korea knows that it needs to maintain a tight relationship with the US in order to support its long-term independence amid a sea of much-larger neighbors.
  • Australia: The United States and Australia have a long and close relationship that is among the strongest for both countries.  However, some in Australia are fearful that an inwards turn by the US would leave it exposed to threats that could mount if tensions in the Asia-Pacific region worsen, particularly given Australia’s small population in relation to its neighbors to the north.
  • Central and East Europe: As Russia becomes more assertive in central and eastern Europe, many of the countries in this region are fearful that, should the US reduce its military presence in Europe, they will be exposed to many forms of Russian aggression.  Moreover, as most European countries have seen their defense capabilities decline in recent years, a reduced US presence in Europe would significantly alter the balance of power in that region.
  • United Kingdom: As the United Kingdom prepares to withdraw from the European Union, it will need to strengthen its already considerable economic ties with the United States.  As such, the British government is hopeful that it will be able to sign a free trade deal with the US and other countries as soon as it leaves the EU.  However, it may find that the Trump Administration will be a difficult negotiating partner that will demand favorable terms for the US.

It remains to be seen if the recent changes in US foreign policy will prove to be just a blip on the radar or if they will become entrenched after the Trump Administration is out of office in 2021 or 2025.  Nevertheless, it is clear that these recent changes have altered the perception of the United States in the eyes of the US’ allies and rivals.  Furthermore, a great deal of confusion remains in place, particularly given the inconsistent message going out from the US president and his administration on many foreign policy issues.  For many of the United States’ leading rivals, this has already led to them moving to take advantage of the changes and uncertainty wrought by the shift in US foreign policy.  Should the US choose not to react to the actions of its rivals, the US’ strategic position in the world could be altered, even if the US maintains its significant lead in military and economic power over these rivals.  As for the United States’ allies, they are likely to grow increasingly concerned over the threat of an even more inwards turn by the United States at a time when geopolitical risk levels are on the rise, a development that will continue to raise alarm bells in the capitals of many of these allies.