Can Obama Play the Trump Card with Allies?


Donald Trump’s recent remarks suggesting that the U.S. commitment to NATO might only extend to those allies that “pay their fair shareset off a stir within both the United States and allied countries. Indeed, this statement is only the most recent in a string of controversial pronouncements about international affairs that could, if enacted, upend America’s system of alliances. Trump has also suggested that, as president, he might withdraw troops from and abandon U.S. allies, including South Korea and Japan. A number of observers argue that these remarks are dangerous, as they risk emboldening Russian aggression in Europe and may lead allies to consider obtaining nuclear weapons.

However, there is a potential upside. President Obama — and, if she wins the election, President Hillary Clinton — may be able to use the domestic pressure that Trump claims to represent to more effectively persuade allies to increase their contributions to the common defense. The result could be a reduction in America’s overseas military footprint without a net cost to global stability. Obama himself has remarked that the problem of free-riders is one that vexes his administration. Trump’s candidacy may represent an opportunity to mitigate the problem, at least temporarily.

Obama’s ability to play the “Trump Card” with allies has both theoretical grounding and historical precedent. Political scientist Robert Putnam argues that bargaining between states should be seen as a “two-level game,” in which policymakers are forced to strike bargains that are not only satisfactory to the opposing side’s leadership, but which are also satisfactory to the domestic audiences of both sides. In this way, policymakers facing a skeptical domestic audience may actually be in an advantageous position. Such domestic pressure may force their counterparts in the other state to accommodate them or else risk the bargain’s collapse.

The Trump Card in History

Indeed, the historical record shows that presidents have often played the role of “good cops” while using domestic actors as “bad cops” to more effectively put pressure on allies, particularly on the burden-sharing issue. Japan’s trade surplus with the United States throughout much of the 1970s and 1980s, for example, provided fertile ground for Congressional demands for increased contributions, including calls for a “security tax” worth 2 percent of Japanese GDP in the early 1980s. While policymakers in the executive branch did not take the same tone, domestic pressure facilitated their efforts to secure Japan’s agreement to increase its defense efforts and expand its defensive sea lane perimeter to 1,000 miles from its coasts. Similarly, in his attempts to persuade South Korea to send troops to South Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson made frequent reference to how helpful South Korean participation would be in his efforts to persuade Congress to continue approving aid for South Korea.

The Johnson and Nixon administrations faced perhaps the greatest level of public, and especially congressional, pressure to withdraw U.S. forces from allied soil, as the cumulative and ongoing toll of the Vietnam War put the costs of protecting allies into sharp relief. Most notable among these were the efforts of Senator Mike Mansfield, who between 1966 and 1974 put forward a number of resolutions and bills which proposed to reduce U.S. troop levels in Europe. Henry Kissinger was candid about this during a meeting of the Defense Program Review Committee in 1971: “They’ve just got to believe that the situation is serious. A Mansfield resolution will surely pass if they don’t make a bigger effort.” As a result, Johnson and Nixon secured concessions from allies on the burden-sharing issue, including increased defense spending during the early 1970s and continued West German arms purchases to “offset” the foreign exchange costs of U.S. troop deployments in the country.

Will the Trump Card Work for Obama?

Trump’s statements on the issues of burden-sharing and U.S. security guarantees show that isolationist sentiment is alive and well in the United States, and that such feelings are linked to perceived free-riding. Obama may be able to make the case that allies would be better served by hedging their bets at the prospect of a Trump presidency by increasing their contributions. Moreover, even if Trump loses the election, Obama and then Clinton may be able to draw on the Trumpian movement as evidence that the burden-sharing issue is salient in American politics, and that allies need to do more in order to avert the emergence of another public figure who proposes withholding or limiting U.S. protection in response to perceived free-riding.

But to use the Trump phenomenon as a bargaining chip would entail risks. History suggests that signs of retrenchment are likely to make allies reconsider their reliance on the United States. This could take the form of pursuing nuclear weapons, reaching out to U.S. adversaries, or charting a more neutral, independent course. Each of these has historical precedent, particularly during the early 1970s, as doubts about U.S. reliability mounted. South Korea and Taiwan both launched nuclear weapons programs in response to perceived U.S. disengagement. Meanwhile, West Germany pursued a separate understanding with the Soviet Union and East Germany, Australia vocally opposed U.S. policy in Vietnam, and the Japanese considered their options for autonomous, even non-aligned defense.

Recent events and emerging trends suggest that the United States continues to face these risks in the present. Russia has been attempting to make inroads with U.S. partners around the Persian Gulf with efforts that include diplomatic cooperation in forging a peace settlement in Syria, as well as nuclear assistance. Similarly, Greece — a member of both NATO and the European Union — has deepened its economic and defense ties with Russia, which could raise questions about its long-term willingness to participate in the sanctions regime against Russia. And as China continues to rise, increase its military capabilities, and assert its maritime claims in the East and South China Seas, Japan may also be tempted to go it alone rather than remain dependent on a potentially unreliable United States.

As Thomas Schelling argues, threats are most effective if they can also be coupled with the assurance that the threat will not be acted upon if the other party complies. As such, to the extent that the Obama administration uses Trump to put pressure on allies, it must also go to great lengths to reassure them that the United States has the ability and willingness to protect them in the long-run. In this way, the European Reassurance Initiative, with its emphasis on increased U.S. military presence in Central and Eastern Europe, is especially important as a signal of the United States’ continued commitment to NATO. It may not be sufficient, however, particularly for allies less concerned with Russia and more concerned with the threat posed by terrorism and the Islamic State, and with the influx of refugees from Syria.

It is important to note that there are differences between Trump’s pressure and the pressure that domestic actors have often applied on U.S. policymakers in the past. Members of Congress who propose withdrawing U.S. forces from allied soil or making strong demands of allies are elected officials who can wield direct influence over U.S. spending and foreign policy. By contrast, while he may enjoy the loyalty of a significant chunk of the electorate, unless elected, Trump holds no political power — and it is far from clear that he would gain or lose votes on the basis of allied burden-sharing performance. Thus, the Obama administration may not be able to credibly threaten negative consequences — or promise positive consequences — based on allies’ compliance with U.S. burden-sharing demands. Nevertheless, even if he does not become president, what matters is not only Trump the candidate, but what he may represent — and thus, who might take up the mantle of the free-riding issue in the future.

While Trump’s candidacy raises challenges for U.S. relationships with allies, it is important to recognize that it may also create openings for favorable bargaining. These opportunities must be managed deftly, however, lest the United States undermine the bargaining chip that its security guarantees provide it.


Brian Blankenship is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Political Science at Columbia University, studying international relations. His research interests focus on alliance politics, and his dissertation studies reassurance and burden-sharing in U.S. alliances.