China strongly advocates what Xi Jinping coined in 2013 “a new type of international relations” with one of its key elements being “developing international relations with partnerships rather than alliances.”
The Chinese leader champions such an approach probably mainly because of his awareness that, while his rising country is vying for global pre-eminence, it has only one defense treaty ally – North Korea, its troublesome communist neighbor.
Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which, like Xi’s China, is competing with the United States for global influence, fares a little better as through the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), it has a few allies. Yet, as noted, the other members of this Moscow-led bloc – which include Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – are either weak or not loyal enough.
By contrast, with a wide range of multilateral and bilateral defense arrangements it has nurtured and led since the end of the World War II, the US has more than 50 allies around the world. These include Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, Australia, South Korea and Japan.
Such a dense network of alliances has been, at least until recently, one of the fundamental sources of America’s global reach and power as, thanks to its friendship with these countries – with almost all of them being wealthy and democratic – Washington can extend and project its values and power around the globe.
But since he entered the White House, with a narrow, transactional, unilateral “America First” foreign policy, Donald Trump has undermined, if not gradually upended, the United States’ post-1945 alliances and the Washington-led liberal international order.
Since he entered the White House, with a narrow, transactional, unilateral ‘America First’ foreign policy, Donald Trump has undermined, if not gradually upended, the United States’ post-1945 alliances and the Washington-led liberal international order
Trump’s actions and declarations at two recent major events show he has devalued America’s traditional alliances and its role as the leader of the free, liberal world.
The first concerns the summit of the Group of Seven large democratic economies in the Canadian province of Quebec on June 8-9.
In the run-up to the summit, he slapped tariffs on aluminum and steel imports from Canada and America’s European allies. He arrived at the two-day gathering late and left it early. Rubbing salt in allied wounds, he called for Russia to be reinstated into the group, from which it was removed in 2014 after Moscow forcefully annexed Crimea away from Ukraine.
All of these soured his meeting with the leaders of Canada, Japan, France, Germany, Italy and the UK, which are the United States’ closest, biggest and strongest friends.
In fact, because of Trump, as Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, who attended the summit, noted in his remarks on June 8, while the G7 summit in Italy last year – the first gathering attended by Trump – was already “the most challenging G7 in years,” this year’s summit was even more so.
At a press conference at the summit, Trump angrily denied any rupture in his interaction with the other G7 leaders, rating his relationship with them 10 “on a scale of 0 to 10.” He also blatantly objected to the view that the US alliance system was shifting under his watch, branding any suggestion over such a downturn as “fake news.”
But despite his claims to the contrary, en route to Singapore to meet North Korea’s dictatorial ruler, Kim Jong-un, Trump tweeted personal attacks on Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and said he had told his representatives not to endorse the previously agreed summit communiqué.
Commenting on Trump’s decision to withdraw from the statement, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said: “In a matter of seconds, you can destroy trust with 280 Twitter characters,” adding that it would take much longer for the Western allies to rebuild the lost trust.
This was the first time since the group’s first summit in 1975 that the world’s most industrialized democracies ended their annual meeting in such an acrimonious manner.
What is worth noting is that the communiqué is very accommodating. It emphasized “the crucial role of a rules-based international trading system” and the need to “fight protectionism,” but also acknowledged “that free, fair and mutually beneficial trade and investment, while creating reciprocal benefits, are key engines for growth and job creation.” The latter part is clearly Trump’s position.
More crucially, what lies at the core of this communiqué is its assertion that the G7 leaders are “guided by [their] shared values of freedom, democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights and [their] commitment to promote a rules-based international order.”
Such common values and commitment have, in fact, bonded the seven major industrial nations together for more than four decades and enabled them to find common voice not only on key international economic matters but also on other pressing political and security issues.
For instance, given their commitment to support a rules-based order, they decided to expel Russia in 2014 and continue to condemn Moscow’s “illegal annexation of Crimea.” They also “remain concerned about the situation in the East and South China Seas and reiterate [their] strong opposition to any unilateral actions that could escalate tensions and undermine … the international rules-based order.”
However, as Tusk rightly points out, what is now worrying is that such an order “is being challenged” and, more “surprisingly,” it is being threatened “not by the usual suspects, but by its main architect and guarantor: the US.”
Trump’s disregard for the United States’ long-held ties with its allies is also manifested by what he stunningly announced after his meeting with Kim Jong-un on June 12 in Singapore.
In return for the young ruler’s vague and tepid commitment to “work toward the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” the US president decided to end annual military exercises with South Korea and expressed his desire to withdraw the 32,000 US troops from his ally.
It’s astonishing that he made such an announcement without consulting South Korea and Japan, another key regional ally. It is even more shocking that he publicly adopted Pyongyang’s own rhetoric, calling the exercises, which Seoul and Washington have long insisted are strictly defensive in nature, “war games” and “provocative” and said canceling them would save a lot of money.
Trump’s comments have unnerved the United States’ regional allies, with Japanese Minister of Defense Itsunori Onodera saying America’s military presence and exercises with South Korea were “vital” for East Asian security, while they have delighted China, the United States’ main geopolitical rival. Chinese state-run Global Times editorialized that if the US stops the exercises, China’s “suspension for suspension” proposal, “would come to reality.”
Trump’s comments have unnerved the United States’ regional allies, while they have delighted China, the United States’ main geopolitical rival
Immediately after Trump’s post-summit conference, in an attempt to curb fears, America’s Defense Department, which, like Seoul and Tokyo, was blindsided by his comments, issued a statement assuring that “our alliances remain ironclad, and ensure peace and stability in the region.”
Still, this assurance will not dissuade the concerns Trump’s comments sparked among America’s key Asian allies and partners about the United States’ future engagement with the region.
In a foreign-policy speech in April 2016, Trump, then the Republican presidential candidate, said: “Our friends are beginning to think they can’t depend on us. We’ve had a president [Barack Obama] who dislikes our friends and bows to our enemies.… We’ve picked fights with our oldest friends, and now they’re starting to look elsewhere for help.”
He then went on to pledge that he would “work with our allies to reinvigorate Western values and institutions … seek a foreign policy that all Americans … can support and which our friends and allies will respect and totally welcome” and develop “a coherent foreign policy based upon American interests and the shared interests of our allies.”
But now, under his presidency, the opposite of all of these is happening. Such a reality disheartens the US-led order’s supporters while gladdening its opponents.
Writing in The New York Times a few days before the G7’s 44th summit, Tusk, who was also Poland’s prime minister from 2007 to 2014, observed: “There are people in Europe who seek closer ties with Russia and China, as an alternative to the existing order” created by the US.
An opinion piece in Sputnik, a Kremlin-backed news outlet, said Trump’s all-out spat with European leaders at the Quebec summit vindicated what Russian President Vladimir Putin already envisaged 10 years ago.
The Global Times reported: “A G7 photo of a stern-looking Angela Merkel [Germany’s chancellor] staring at a seated Donald Trump with crossed arms has triggered waves of memes on Chinese cyberspace as Net users compare the strained atmosphere at G7 with the cooperative spirit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).”
The China-led SCO, which consists of China, Russia, India, Pakistan and four Central Asian countries, held a summit in the Chinese city of Qingdao on June 9-10. India, the world’s biggest democracy and a country that the Trump administration considers a key partner of its Indo-Pacific strategy, attended as a full member for the first time.
Whether the SCO, which Beijing initially regarded as China’s answer to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization but has increasingly focused on economic-related issues, “will grow into a new model for international cooperation” as the People’s Daily, China’s top paper, envisages, is open to debate.
In any case, like Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping must be pleased to see Trump’s fractured relations with the United States’ key trans-Atlantic friends and the anxieties he has caused among Washington’s main Asian allies.
In just a few tweets, comments and actions during the past week, Trump has greatly weakened the global alliances and influence Washington has nurtured and maintained over the past seven decades while hugely empowering China and Russia – the two countries his own administration regards as “revisionist powers” and America’s top security challenges.