In short, America’s friends increasingly believe that the United States looks out for itself, not others. And for good reason
Every year, experts issue reports assessing the various risks and dangers to global security and prosperity. This year the Council on Foreign Relations, for example, highlighted the risks of terrorism, cyber-attacks, mass migration, organized crime, and potential conflicts relating to Iran, North Korea, Iraq, Syria, Venezuela and Afghanistan. But it is increasingly clear that the greatest global uncertainty is none other than the United States.
Many observers will blame U.S. President Donald Trump for America’s unpredictability, and there is much truth to that claim. Indeed, unpredictability is a central feature of Trump’s approach. Shortly after winning election, he even stated: “We have to be unpredictable, and we have to be unpredictable starting now.”
Trump has followed through on this promise. On North Korea, he threatened “fire and fury” before exchanging friendly notes with dictator Kim Jong Un. On Iran, Trump unilaterally canceled the nuclear deal and then brought the region to the brink of war by killing Qasem Soleimani. On China, Trump has called President Xi Jinping his “great friend” but puta 25% tariff on hundreds of billions of dollars in trade. These actions have involved serious economic and security risks for the U.S. and its friends and allies, many of which the president does not appear to have fully considered.
Although Trump claims to be a deal maker, the deals he has struck have been largely hollow. Trade agreements with Mexico, Canada and Japan relied on watered-down terms first negotiated under the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which the president rejected almost immediately after his inauguration. The Iran nuclear deal is gone, with nothing to replace it. The Paris Agreement has also been jettisoned, with no alternate plan for slowing climate change. The one truly new plan Trump has proposed – a Middle East peace plan – was dead on arrival. And now the Trump administration is threatening to withdraw from the New ST ART Treaty in early 2021.
Where Trump’s unpredictability has done the most damage, however, is with U.S. allies and partners. Unpredictability can be valuable with adversaries because it leaders a wider berth. But U.S. allies and partners need to be confident in U.S. actions in order to coordinate policies in the short term and build trust in the long term. Trump’s unpredictability has made it nearly impossible to trust him. And foreign publics have taken notice.
A recent poll by the Pew Research Center shows that only 29% of people outside the United States have confidence in Trump to do the right thing in world affairs (behind Russian President Vladimir Putin). In Europe and North America, the numbers are even worse, with only 8% of Mexicans, 13% of Germans, 20% of French, and 28% of Canadians having confidence in Trump. In Southeast Asia,
77% of experts polled by the ASEAN Studies Centre at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute say that U.S. engagement with the region has decreased or decreased substantially under the Trump administration.
In short, America’s friends increasingly believe that the United States looks out for itself, not others. And for good reason. Trump stated so explicitly in his inaugural address, saying: “We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs.” It should come as no surprise, therefore, that when asked whether a change in U.S. leadership would increase confidence in the United States, 60% of Southeast Asians s.aid yes.
But there is no promise that the American public will replace Trump this November. In fact, if a strong economy is behind him, Trump is a slight favorite to win reelection according to many election models. In this sense, Trump is not just a cause of American unpredictability, but also its leading symptom. The turn toward populism in the United States is reshaping both political parties, and it is helping candidates who question the value of America’s continued engagement in the outside world.
So how should Japanese friends deal with an increasingly unpredictable United States? This is not the question that Japanese friends wanted to be asking on the 60th anniversary of the U.S. -Japan Security Treaty. But it is the one they must consider. After all, the alliance’s admirable past performance is no predictor of future accomplishments, particularly with contentious cost-sharing negotiations around the corner. The United States does not have forces abroad only to protect our friends, but because that is the most effective way of protecting America’s own interests. The alliance is driven not by charity, but by self-interest.
Yet, Trump is asking Japan and South Korea to increase the amount of host nation support they provide to the United States by roughly a factor of four and a factor of five, respectively. This is a huge ask, and one not befitting of an alliance but rather of a mercenary force. The U.S.-South Korea relationship is already at real risk, with U.S. officials publicly criticizing Seoul and some South Korean commentators calling for alternatives to the alliance.
Tokyo should also brace itself for increased political and economic pressure from Washington. The Trump administration has invoked tariffs on U.S. allies over their steel and aluminum exports; tariffs on autos might be next. Japanese leaders will have to be tough in their negotiations and continually try to redirect their U.S. counterparts to focus not on burden-sharing payments but on real allied capabilities. This task, however, may ultimately prove fruitless. Trump has not made a career of listening to such carefully reasoned arguments.
The reality for Japan, therefor, is that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his successors may have to consider options for a Plan B. Plan A, of course, is sustaining the U.S. Japan alliance. But a Plan B might increase Japan’s own independent capabilities and seek to strengthen ties with other regional powers. We are already seeing some of this behavior in Abe’s outreach to Xi and Putin.
For many years, the United States worried that political instability in Japan would put the U.S.- Japan alliance at risk. Japanese politicians and investors looked to the United States for its open markets and political stability. But Trump has ushered in a new era. Now it is the United States that is the primary uncertainty not only in the alliance, but also on the world stage. Navigating this new reality will require a more flexible approach from U.S. allies and partners. As Yogi Berra reportedly said: “Prediction is hard. Especially about the future.”