America’s allies should be forgiven if they are confused about where American foreign policy is headed. Who isn’t, given the go-it-alone recklessness of Donald Trump’s presidency? Over the past few years, Trump has sowed strategic chaos, and his foreign policy, if one can call it that, brought new meaning to the word incoherence. President-elect Joe Biden will be better almost by default. But has Trump changed America so much that the world cannot count on it ever being normal again?
Not only did Trump pursue a love affair with North Korea’s nuclear-armed dictator and remain smitten with Russian President Vladimir Putin, he also championed Brexit and badmouthed America’s European allies, when he was not undermining them outright.
At the annual Munich Security Conference in 2020, French President Emmanuel Macron and German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier both acknowledged that Trump has fundamentally damaged the transatlantic alliance. Their message was clear: If Trump had won a second term, the historic partnership that has long constituted the geopolitical “West” would never be the same. Prudent world leaders were doubtless preparing for even more instability and uncertainty had Trump been re-elected.
But in Paris and Berlin, as elsewhere in Europe, the reaction to Trump was not just about his bullying, trade tactics, or divisiveness. Europeans saw his administration charting a course that rejected the transatlantic security relationship and its central role in US global engagement more generally. Biden will ditch the unconstrained unilateralism. But even with a new approach, the damage Trump has done will not be repaired easily, or alter views among European leaders that the continent increasingly will need to fend for itself.
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Trump’s treatment of US allies in Asia has given Europeans ample warning to be prepared for more deterioration in the security relationship. Despite the North Korean nuclear threat and China’s growing power, Trump tried to turn America’s crucial alliances with South Korea and Japan into pay-as-you-go relationships.
Fortunately, Biden understands what Trump does not: that US defence pacts with those two countries have underpinned East Asia’s stability for 70 years and paid off handsomely for the US. Trump viewed both relationships as “bad deals”, and Biden will need to persuade Americans to turn away from his transactional diplomacy.
Moreover, Trump was not the first US president to lean heavily on jingoistic rhetoric, and putting the MAGA (“make America great again”) genie back in the bottle may not be simple for Biden.
Both South Korea and Japan can attest to the fact that “America First” was no mere slogan. With the Host Nation Support Agreements that determine the details of America’s presence in each country up for renegotiation this year, Trump repeatedly threatened to withdraw US forces from both countries unless they paid more for what he called American protection. Biden will have to work hard to restore Japanese and Korean trust as he seeks to renew these agreements.
In fact, South Korea and Japan already share mutual defence costs, and have underwritten the US military presence in Northeast Asia for decades. South Korea pays more than 40% of the operating costs of US forces stationed there; Japan provides US$2 billion ($2.7 billion) per year to support 54,000 US troops; it purchases 90% of its military hardware from US companies.
For nearly a year, Trump administration officials have demanded that South Korea quadruple its current US$1 billion in financial support. Add to that leaks describing possible US troop withdrawals and the announcement in July that 12,000 US forces would leave Germany. Clearly, Biden’s administration will need not only to devise a new negotiating strategy, but also to reboot the US security guarantee.
Even with Biden in charge, the currently testy political relationship between South Korea and the US (which walked out on the earlier base talks) means negotiations won’t be easy. In Japan, formal talks began last month, and the government has until March 2021 to renew its agreement. Trump’s defence officials told their Japanese counterparts to expect the same treatment as South Korea. Biden will certainly change that script as well. But Japan’s new prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, likely still expects arduous negotiations, albeit without the take-it-or-leave-it attitude that raised questions about the durability of America’s security guarantees. A simple return to treating allies like allies should go a long way for Biden.
Sadly, Trump’s malignant legacy will survive his departure. With everything from health care to climate change begging for Biden’s attention, foreign policy is certain to take a backseat to domestic priorities. For US allies, patience will remain a virtue. Righting the wrongs of the Trump years will take time. As he has said at least since 1990, Trump wanted to reshape America’s defence arrangements and radically alter its role in the world. Trump may be a pathological liar, but he kept his word on this issue. — © Project Syndicate
Kent Harrington, a former senior CIA analyst, served as national intelligence officer for East Asia, chief of station in Asia, and the CIA’s director of public affairs.