President Trump’s Incoherent Foreign Policy Strains Alliances
“October surprises” are traditionally reserved for American election politics, but this October both the Saudi-Khashoggi Affair and the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) beg to redefine the phrase. While unconnected, both cases are the newest additions to the ongoing exhibition of a confounding U.S. foreign policy. An aggressive and inconsistent approach, this foreign policy alienates friends and threatens the broad security benefits afforded by long standing alliances.
After the twin opening salvos of quitting the Paris Climate Agreement and the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), and serious jabs at the NATO alliance and NAFTA, newly elected President Donald Trump sent a clear message that alliances or agreements not explicitly benefiting the United States would now receive increased scrutiny. Even unquestioned partnerships with relatively benign neighbors such as Canada have come under heavy fire. Recall Trump insulting Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, by calling him “dishonest” and “weak” in an unsuccessful attempt to provoke Canadian capitulation during the NAFTA negotiations. The Globe and Mail, Canada’s most widely read weekly, said that “relations between two of the world’s closest allies are now at a perilous low.”
One relationship that until last month had not received due scrutiny was that between the United States and Saudi Arabia. While the two countries do not share values, they have deeply shared security concerns in the greater Middle East — among them Iran, regional energy transport stability, and anti-terrorism cooperation.
However, the Saudi war in Yemen, which the United States supports, has produced nothing but a humanitarian crisis, mass starvation, and the horrifying discovery that U.S. bombs were used to destroy a school bus. And now, Turkey is alleging Saudi foul play in the disappearance of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Initially, Trump accepted several official Saudi excuses, refusing to question the Saudi line to supposedly preserve a lucrative arms deal. However, this defense does not hold as the arms deal would hardly be in any jeopardy. The Saudi military already relies heavily on U.S. weapons systems and interoperability prevents too much investment in a competitor’s systems without a significant military overhaul.
It is possible that Trump waited so long to criticize Saudi Arabia in order to preserve his sanctions-based Iran Strategy, which seeks to coerce Iran into relinquishing its ballistic missiles program and support of Syria, Hezbollah, and the Houthis in Yemen. The continued availability of Saudi oil is crucial to this strategy as it will lessen the impact of sanctions on global oil markets. However, Trump’s decision to unilaterally pull out of the Iran Nuclear Deal has further isolated the United States from traditional allies while weakening his strategy; European allies, along with Russia and China, are actively trying to circumvent some of these sanctions while keeping the Iran Nuclear Deal alive.
Also consider the Trump administration’s decision to exit the INF Treaty. The action itself has its fair share of defenders on both sides of the aisle. Supporters credibly argue that both parties have technically violated the treaty. More importantly, leaving the treaty gives the United States greater latitude in responding to China’s Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2AD) Strategy which relies heavily on the ground based, mid-range launchers and missiles eliminated by the treaty.
However, despite the strategic flexibility afforded by leaving the treaty, the United States is making no assurances to its European partners, all of which rely on the treaty to refuse Russia ground-based nuclear weapons capable of threatening them. Trump is possibly using withdrawal from the INF as a tool to pressure European countries, especially NATO allies, into beefing up their own defenses. Yet, this calculated response is not a given. While NATO members are mostly meeting the required 2% GDP defense spending goal, most European countries are reluctant to spend significantly more on defense without broader U.S. support, thus further entangling themselves with Russian interests.
This development is unsurprising as the United States has, in light of the withdrawal, made no effort to reassure its European allies. For example, the United States did not consult affected allies, attempt to negotiate alternatives, such as restricting the treaty to Europe, or establish a plan to deter Russia’s probable buildup of restricted weapons. Even in Trump’s NATO statements, he shows ignorance or disregard, possibly both, of the efforts member states have made to accomplish their defense spending goals and instead chooses to berate them as freeloaders.
The consequences of these extreme contradictions could be severe. Post WWII, the United States built a security framework meant to undergird its ability to influence and direct the foreign policies of its allies. These are now being put at risk whether through negligence — the administration’s lack of concern for a post INF, post NATO Europe — or inexplicable inconsistency — Trump’s kowtowing to Mohammed bin Salman, and snubbing of closer friends. European nations might strengthen their own defenses, but the United States will have lost vital influence over them. The United States can continue with punishing sanctions, but as is the case with Iran, the United States will not be able to count on other nations to follow its lead. If that is the case, then what is Trump’s foreign policy really accomplishing?