It is a heartwarming testament to the irresistible logic of the U.S.-led international order and the power of the alliances that maintain it that President Donald Trump cannot indulge his isolationist impulses beyond the occasional outburst. It is increasingly difficult to deny that Trump most certainly would trade American dominance for the illusory temptation of a self-sufficient global order if he could. In stark contrast to the president’s theatrical displays of machismo, it’s clear that Donald Trump is deeply uncomfortable with American power.
The president’s most recent expression of hostility toward American hegemony and the allies that are crucial to it occurred on Wednesday when he lashed out at Japan for no apparent reason. Though he conceded that the U.S. would honor its mutual defense obligations with its ally in the Pacific if it came to that, Trump asserted that the alliance is a one-way street. “If we’re attacked, Japan doesn’t have to help us at all,” Trump said in an interview with Fox Business Network host Maria Bartiromo. The Japanese, he added, “can watch it on the Sony television, okay, the attack.”
Trump bundled his criticisms of Japan with his perennial irritation toward America’s NATO allies, which he criticizes for failing to meet their obligations (specifically, the requirement that member states spend the equivalent of 2 percent of GDP on defense). But Trump also regularly singles out for reproach NATO members that do meet that spending threshold, which suggests that his attacks are only veiled expressions of loathing for foreign alliances in general. This instinct is once again laid bare in his inexplicable condemnation of Japan.
America’s WWII-era adversary may be constitutionally committed to peace, but it maintains one of the strongest militaries on earth. It has more than 300,000 active and reserve personnel in uniform, over 1,500 military aircraft, 288 fighter aircraft, and a blue water navy that includes four aircraft carriers and is among the most capable in the Pacific. Japan spends the equivalent of only 1 percent of its GDP on defense, in part because it has the third largest GDP of any other country. That expenditure has increased in recent years, but not as a result of presidential hectoring. Tokyo is spending more on defense in response to the increasing instability of its neighborhood.
The same could be said for NATO. Its members began to steadily commit more to their own defenses only after 2014 when Russia invaded and annexed sovereign territory in Europe for the first time since 1945. American policymakers might appreciate the increased commitment to security from its allies, but no one should welcome the circumstances that made this change of heart an imperative.
It becomes clear, however, that Trump’s antipathy toward America’s allies has nothing to do with the soundness of the individual alliances when the president is threatened with a military crisis, as the ongoing conflict with Iran has demonstrated.
In the last two months, Iran has been implicated in assaults on six foreign merchant vessels, and it has claimed responsibility for an attack on a $130 million American surveillance drone—an attack that reduced U.S. reconnaissance capabilities over the crucial Strait of Hormuz. Trump’s response to these unacceptable provocations was to vent his frustration with America’s prohibitive naval dominance and to fantasize about ceding control of the waves to America’s adversaries.
“China gets 91 [percent] of its Oil from the Straight [sic], Japan 62 [percent, & many other countries likewise,” the president barked on Twitter. “So why are we protecting the shipping lanes for other countries (many years) for zero compensation. All of these countries should be protecting their own ships on what has always been a dangerous journey.”
“We don’t even need to be there in that the U.S. has just become (by far) the largest producer of Energy anywhere in the world!” he continued. “The U.S. request for Iran is very simple – No Nuclear Weapons and No Further Sponsoring of Terror!”
It is beyond the scope of this or any blog post to explain to the American president why it would not be in American interests to sacrifice control of strategic commercial shipping lanes to the People’s Republic of China. In fact, it’s more than a little irritating that the subject is even up for debate.
It’s hardly unreasonable to expect the American president to understand that U.S. naval dominance preserves the global marketplace that has led to an unprecedented revolution in prosperity and human welfare since the end of the Cold War. Moreover, the commander-in-chief of the American armed forces should be able to grasp that America’s prohibitive military power serves U.S. interests by preventing competing powers—ally and adversary alike—from engaging in armed competition with their peers and carving up their neighborhoods into spheres of influence.
“A world without U.S. primacy will be a world with more violence and disorder and less democracy and economic growth,” the political scientist Samuel Huntington wrote in 1993. “The sustained international primacy of the United States is central to the welfare and security of Americans…” You don’t have to be a reflexive interventionist or a committed nation-builder to subscribe to this understanding of what constitutes American grand strategy. The president neither subscribes nor seems to understand.
To the extent that Donald Trump has presided over a relatively conventional big-“R” Republican foreign policy, it is in spite of his instincts and attributable to the conventional Republicans with whom he is surrounded. If you take the president at his word, he’s not happy with the relative stability that has so far characterized his presidency. If Trump isn’t careful, he might just get what he’s wishing for.