The election of Donald Trump as U.S. president has rocked the U.S. security establishment and its allies around the world. President Trump has questioned the security guarantees that underpin the Pax Americana in speeches, personal conversations with world leaders, and – of course – on Twitter. He has claimed that allies are “ripping the United States off,” dismissed NATO for being “obsolete,” and mused that the time may have come for Japan and South Korea to develop their own nuclear weapons. He insists that U.S. allies have to pay and do more for their defense. Many in the United States and abroad have decried these statements as destabilizing and dangerous; The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists captured the general mood by moving their doomsday clock 30 seconds closer to midnight in response to Trump’s inauguration.
This concern is massively overblown.
Rather than weakening America’s web of alliances, Trump’s aggressive statements and erratic behavior will most likely strengthen the American-led security architecture during his presidency. This is good news for world peace because strong American alliances and strong American allies can deter rivals from launching destabilizing challenges to the predominant order. Trump’s aggressive communications strategy and his “America First” approach to international negotiations have already frightened allies into doing something his predecessors could not: increase defense spending. Fear of abandonment has changed the nature of the defense debate in allied capitals in Asia and Europe. The question is no longer whether defense spending should increase, but how much. U.S. allies in Europe are now scrambling to produce concrete plans for how they will increase defense spending in time for President Trump’s first visit to NATO in late May 2017.. His perceived unpredictability is also making military provocations and risk-taking by America’s adversaries less likely.
Trumpology is Misleading
The concern triggered by Trump’s election stems in no small part from the rise of what I call “Trumpology” – the incessant scrutiny of Trump’s personality, his statements, and his tweets. Trumpology is a new growth industry and the media embraces it because it fits their definition of a newsworthy story perfectly. Trump’s communications generate all the criteria journalists look for in a good story: conflict, anxiety, comedy, theater, and outrage. This helps media companies, even those attacked by Trump, sell advertising like hotcakes. Many experts now spend their time putting Trump’s words under the microscope, seeking to identify all the disasters they might create. In addition, psychologists have been busy analyzing his personality and upbringing in order to explain why he is acting so weird.
The American intelligence community has used personality profiling since World War II to better understand how leaders in closed authoritarian systems such as Iraq, Iran, North Korea, and Russia think and act. The results have been useful on occasion, but the study of personalities and intentions is insufficient with respect to predicting foreign policy actions and outcomes. One must also analyze the consequences and the opposition that proposed actions are likely to generate. If one considers the consequences of undermining existing U.S. alliances and how much opposition such action would trigger, one gets a far more positive picture of Trump’s impact on world security than the doomsday scenarios that Trumpologists have mass-produced since his election.
Consequences for U.S. Allies
Since the late 1940s, U.S. allies in Europe and Asia have based their national security on the assumption that the United States will assist them in a crisis. This assumption and the post-Cold War downsizing of Europe’s military forces have rendered Europeans incapable of conducting even relatively small-scale military operations without substantial American support. NATO’s air war against Libya (2011) and the French intervention in Mali (2013) are two recent cases in point. Neither operation would have been possible without American logistics, lift, munitions, intelligence, and other forms of support. The situation in the same in Asia: Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan have all based their defense forces and defense spending on the assumption that the U.S. cavalry will come to their rescue if necessary.
If Trump degrades or withdraws these security guarantees, the allies will face a stark choice between deterrence and appeasement. In Europe deterrence is the most likely choice because the big three (Germany, France, and the United Kingdom) are strong enough to constitute the core of a new alliance that can credibly deter Russia. In Asia, China will become so strong that most states bordering the East China Sea will have no choice but to appease Beijing and accept its hegemony. Regardless of the outcome, both Europe and Asia would face a period characterized by high instability and a heightened risk of war. Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan would seek to develop nuclear weapons. In Europe, Germany and Poland would have a strong incentive to do the same unless France and Britain extend their nuclear umbrellas over them. Indeed, all of these countries, except Poland, either contemplated the development of nuclear weapons (Germany and Japan) or had active nuclear weapons programs during the Cold War (South Korea and Taiwan).
Consequences for the United States
Prominent American scholars such as John Mearsheimer, Barry Posen, and Stephen Walt have long recommended that the United States withdraw most of its forces from Asia and Europe because the costs of the existing onshore presence dwarf the benefits. In their view, the existing security guarantees amount to “welfare for the rich” and increase the risk of entrapment in wars that do not involve American national interests. They believe that the United States would be much better off by copying the offshore balancing strategy that the British Empire employed in Europe before World War II. This would involve providing support to shifting alliances and coalitions in order to prevent a single power from establishing a regional hegemony on the European continent.
Offshore balancing has clear limitations and did not serve the British well in the end: it threw them into two world wars that brought the empire to its knees. Britain’s fate highlights the weakness of offshore balancing: a loss of the ability to shape the security politics onshore decisively. The failure of British offshore balancing dragged the United States into both world wars. America’s decisions to help its allies in Europe defeat Germany proved costly in blood and treasure.
Since then the United States has benefitted tremendously from the onshore balancing strategy it adopted after World War II in both Asia and Europe, where it stationed its forces permanently to deter aggression. This presence, coupled with the allies’ military dependence, enabled Washington to shape development in both regions to align with U.S. interests. Washington repeatedly gave their allies offers they could not refuse. U.S. economic assistance programs provided to allies in the wake of World War II came with conditions that forced the recipients to buy American goods and liberalize their markets in ways that were highly beneficial to American firms. Washington forced Great Britain and France to withdraw their troops from Egypt during the Suez Crisis (1956), coerced Germany to support U.S. monetary policy (1966 to 1969), and leaned on many allies to stop their nuclear weapons programs and join the Non-Proliferation Treaty (1968) that made such weapons illegal, including Japan, Germany, South Korea, and Taiwan.
Military dependence on the United States also induced many allies to support U.S.-led wars in faraway places that did not affect their national security directly. The Afghan War and Iraq War are two recent cases in point. The allies closed their eyes to issues like secret detention and extraordinary rendition programs, the use of torture, and the massive surveillance of their own citizens that has characterized the War on Terror since 9/11. Allies have given the United States access to bases, facilities, as well as their airspace and territorial waters. This facilitates U.S. power projection globally. Finally, many allies buy American weapon systems as a way of maintain inter-operability and their security guarantees. The F-35 is the latest and greatest example of this.
The consequences of a U.S. military withdrawal from Europe and Asia would be dramatic. The United States would lose most of its military bases in Asia and Europe, American firms would find it much harder to gain access to Asian and European markets, the American defense industry would lose billions of dollars, and European allies would stop supporting the United States militarily in faraway conflicts. As a result, the United States would lose its global power status and be reduced to a regional power with limited say in the management of Asian and European security. This is why it will not happen. This outcome is not only at odds with America’s economic interests, but it is also completely at odds with the widely shared belief in American exceptionalism and greatness. This is a belief that Trump and his supporters also embrace. Most Americans continue to view their nation as the greatest power on earth with an obligation to lead and make the world safe for America’s universal values.
Trump is Scaring Allies into Spending
But if the costs of abandoning allies are prohibitive, why is Trump threatening to do so? Nobel Prize laureate Thomas Schelling’s work on game theory suggests an answer. Schelling demonstrated in his seminal Strategy of Conflict (1960) that it may be advantageous to appear mad or unpredictable, because it may induce your negotiating partners or opponents to give greater concessions that they otherwise would. In this perspective, Trump’s statements and seemingly erratic behavior make a lot of sense as a negotiation tactic aimed at pressuring U.S. allies to increase their defense spending. Trump’s predecessors in the White House have tried to do this for years without success; previous administrations have repeatedly warned its European allies that NATO was in danger of becoming irrelevant if the Europeans continued to cut their defense spending. Yet most European allies paid scant attention to demands from the Obama administration to stop freeriding and honor their own commitments to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense. Few European governments saw a pressing need to increase defense spending because the Obama administration reacted to the Russian annexation of the Crimea by enhancing its military presence in Europe.
Trump has changed the game completely. In line with Schelling’s expectations, his perceived unpredictability is adding credibility to the threat that he might actually withdraw U.S. forces even if it is not in the United States best interest to do so. There is genuine concern among U.S. allies about what Trump might do if they do not take immediate steps to increase their defense spending. Many have already taken steps in this direction, or signaled their intention to do so. In December 2016, Japan adopted a record high defense budget, which allocated considerable funds to the procurement of American equipment, notably F-35s and missiles. The South Korean government reacted to Trump’s election by vowing to increase defense spending significantly if he insists on it. Likewise, the Danish Prime Minister Lars Loekke Rasmussen promised to increase defense spending after his first phone conversation with Trump. In Germany Trump’s election triggered a hitherto unthinkable debate on whether Germany should develop nuclear weapons.
Trump cannot take sole credit for the newfound allied attentiveness to longstanding U.S. demands. The Japanese defense budget has been increasing in recent years due to growing concerns about China. Russia has had a similar effect on the defense budgets of the eastern NATO members. However, Trump has made a crucial difference by completely changing the debate on defense spending in allied capitals, significantly strengthening the hands of the proponents of increased defense spending in allied governments. The 2016 IHS Jane’s Defence Budgets Report consequently expects European NATO allies and partners such as Finland and Sweden to boost their defense spending by about $10 billion over the next five years.
Trump’s Unpredictability Deters Rival Risk-Taking
That Schelling’s logic applies equally well to President Trump’s dealings with America’s opponents has already been pointed out by other commentators. They have referred to Nixon’s madman theory of negotiation, which holds that America’s opponents will tread more carefully if they perceive the president to be unpredictable or crazy. It has been debated at some length whether Trump is using this theory in a rational manner to extract concessions from U.S. adversaries, or if he is “a madman in practice.” Regardless, the point is that President Trump’s unpredictability makes it next to impossible to calculate the risk of escalation involved in challenging the United States militarily, a concept also highlighted by Schelling. President Obama’s reluctance to threaten and use force likely emboldened China and Russia to take greater military risks in Eastern Ukraine, Syria, and in the East and South China Seas. While Beijing and Moscow could be fairly confident that Obama would not take military counter-measures, they have no way of knowing what President Trump might do. It is very easy to imagine him giving the order to down a Chinese or Russian plane to demonstrate that “America is great again.”
In this way, Trump (intentionally or not) reduces the risk of military confrontations with China and Russia. This gives both states greater incentive to prioritize diplomacy over coercion in their efforts to settle disputes with the United States and its allies. Similarly, Trump’s characterization of the nuclear agreement with Iran as “the worst deal ever negotiated” gives Tehran strong incentive to honor it in both letter and spirit for fear of a potentially much worse alternative if it collapses. Some are deeply worried that Trump versus Kim Jong-un will prove a highly explosive combination, which is understandable since North Korea has employing the same negotiating tactics as Trump for decades with considerable success. While the outcome of this confrontation is difficult to call, the disastrous consequences of war are likely to lead to mutual restraint. Moreover, concern about what Trump might do will induce Beijing to redouble its efforts to persuade Pyongyang to be less provocative.
Good News for World Peace
Paradoxically, Trump’s tweets and the theatrics are most likely to enhance world peace. They create unpredictability and anxiety that the United States can use to obtain greater concessions from friends and foes. It is admittedly still early days, but all indications are that Trump will succeed in coercing his allies in both Asia and Europe to increase their defense spending significantly. Few of them will reach 2 percent of GDP in the next year or two, but he has set in motion a process that will make most allies spend far more much faster than they otherwise would have. His unpredictability is also an asset in America’s dealings with its opponents such as China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia. They will all need to think twice about provoking the United States and its allies militarily because they have no way of calculating how President Trump will react. Neither friends nor foes can be certain that Trump will not do something that a rational cost-benefit calculating actor would not. U.S. allies used to regard American threats to withdraw its forces as bluff because the costs of doing so would be prohibitive, and the same logic has induced American opponents to engage in military risk-taking with little fear of U.S. military retaliation. With Trump in the White House, this logic no longer applies. This is good news because the likely result is strengthened U.S. alliances and U.S. opponents that are more likely to favor negotiation over provocation in their efforts to settle differences with the United States and its allies.
Dr. Peter Viggo Jakobsen is an Associate Professor at the Royal Danish Defence College and a Professor (part-time) at the Center for War Studies at University of Southern Denmark.