Guest article: To Trump or Not to Trump

By Peter Viggo Jakobsen*

Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president has rocked the U.S. security establishment and its allies around the world. Trump 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 moving their doomsday clock 30 seconds closer to midnight in response to Trump’s inauguration.

This concern is massively overblown.

Trump’s aggressive statements and erratic behavior will most likely strengthen America’s web of alliances. 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. The question in allied capitals is no longer whether defense spending should increase, but how much. In Europe allies 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.

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 because Trump’s communications meet all the criteria journalists look for in a good story: anxiety, comedy, conflict, and outrage. Many experts now spend their time putting Trump’s words under the microscope to identify all the disasters they might create. In addition, psychologists are 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 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.

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. 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 withdraws these security guarantees, the allies will face a stark choice between deterrence and appeasement. In Europe, deterrence is the most likely choice because Germany, France, and the United Kingdom are strong enough to constitute the core of a new alliance that can 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 outcomes, Europe and Asia would face a period characterized by high instability and a heightened risk of war. Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan would likely develop nuclear weapons. Germany and Poland would have a strong incentive to do the same unless France and Britain offer them nuclear protection.

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.

Offshore balancing did not serve the British well in the end, however. 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.

The United States has benefitted tremendously from the onshore balancing strategy it adopted after World War II in Asia and Europe to deter Communist aggression. Its permanent military presence, coupled with the allies’ military dependence, enabled Washington to shape developments to align with U.S. interests. Washington repeatedly gave their allies Mafia-style 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 (1966-1969), and thwarted nuclear weapons ambitions and programs of many allies, including Japan, Germany, South Korea, and Taiwan.

Military dependence on the United States also induced many allies to support American wars in faraway places that did not affect their national security directly. Since 9/11 allies have sent troops to Afghanistan and Iraq, closed their eyes to secret detention and extraordinary rendition programs, the use of torture, and the massive surveillance of their own citizens. Allies have given the United States access to bases, facilities, as well as their airspace and territorial waters. Finally, many allies buy American weapon systems to maintain inter-operability and their security guarantees. The F-35 is the latest 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, American firms would find it much harder to gain market access, the American defense industry would lose billions of dollars, and European allies would stop supporting the United States militarily in faraway conflicts. The United States would be reduced to a regional power with little say in the management of Asian and European affairs. This is why it will not happen. This outcome is not only at odds with America’s economic interests, it is also completely at odds with the widespread belief in American exceptionalism and greatness that Trump and his supporters also embrace.

But if the costs of abandoning allies are prohibitive, why is Trump threatening to do so? Schelling’s classic work on game theory suggests an answer: it shows that you can obtain greater concessions in negotiations by appearing mad or unpredictable. 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. 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. 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 promised to increase defense spending after his first phone conversation with Trump. In Germany Trump’s election triggered a hitherto unthinkable public debate on whether Germany should develop nuclear weapons.

President Trump’s unpredictability will also put America’s opponents on the defensive. 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 calculating what President Trump might do. It is easy to imagine him giving the order to down a Chinese or Russian plane to demonstrate that “America is great again.”

Paradoxically, Trump’s tweets and theatrics are good news for world peace. They create unpredictability and anxiety that the United States can use to obtain greater concessions from friends and foes. The likely result is strengthened U.S. alliances and U.S. opponents that will favor negotiation over provocation in their efforts to settle differences with the United States and its allies.

A longer version of this article first appeared on War on the Rocks, March 2, 2017.

* 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.