Allies Hope for the Best from Trump, Must Plan for the Worst

Donald Trump might still morph into a more conventional president, but allies cannot take chance.

Donald Trump Jens Stoltenberg
Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey and Donald Trump of the United States listen to Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg of NATO making a speech in Brussels, May 25 (NATO)

American allies are coping with Donald Trump’s disruptive presidency in similar ways, a collection of essays in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs magazine reveals:

  • All feel they need to step up and defend the liberal world order as Trump is determined to put “America first”.
  • They worry that a new era of American isolationism could make the world poorer and less safe.
  • Leaders are doing their best to rein in Trump’s worst impulses and most of their voters understand the need for pragmatism, although they have little faith in this president.


Natalie Nougayrède, a columnist for The Guardian, reports from France that Trump’s election has not sparked a groundswell of hostility toward the United States as a whole. There are no serious calls to withdraw from NATO’s integrated military command structure a second time. Nor is there widespread opposition to President Emmanuel Macron’s diplomacy with Trump.

For Macron, antagonizing the new US leader simply carries too many downsides — above all, the prospect of jeopardizing cooperation on counterterrorism. French officials see national security as paramount.

Those same officials do sense an opportunity: With the United States looking inward, France could reinvigorate the European project as a way of restoring its own leadership.

French power is no substitute for American power, of course. But with the United States’ image, global role and reliability newly uncertain, Europeans feel a void that someone must fill — and France thinks it should at least try to do just that.


Germany is less keen to go it alone, writes Stefan Theil, the editor of Handelsblatt Global Magazine:

As difficult and unpredictable as Trump can be, Germany has no choice but to engage with him.

Few countries are more dependent on the open world order America leads. Germany earns a massive 46 percent of its gross domestic product from selling goods abroad. America alone buys 9 percent of its exports.

Germany has taken a more active role in integrating European armed forces, but the public remains wary of military leadership. Hence Angela Merkel’s support for Macron. If Europe must invest more in its defense, better it be led by the French than the Germans.


A similar pacifism holds back Japan, argues Takako Hikotani of Columbia University.

Like Germany, Japan cannot afford to lose American military support. But like Germany, it needs to do more to preserve the liberal democratic order, which now lacks leadership from Washington:

This will mean a role reversal for Japan: rather than being the beneficiary of a liberal order led by the United States, it now must do everything it can to save that order — and keep the United States from withdrawing from it altogether.

So far the record is mixed. Japan couldn’t persuade Trump to remain in the Trans Pacific Partnership, but it is now leading an attempt to keep the trade pact alive.

It is also in the process of finalizing a comprehensive free-trade agreement with the European Union and reconsidering its relations with China. Prime Minister Shinzō Abe has declared that Japan is ready to cooperate with Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative, which seeks to link Asia and Europe by land and sea.

Abe’s approach to Trump is pragmatic. As long as he manages the relationship successfully, the Japanese will be willing to overlook the controversial aspects of Trump’s presidency, according to Hikotani:

Trump is often portrayed as a bully in Japanese media, but many people in Japan seem to have decided that it is better to have the bully on your side.


Mexicans don’t feel the same way.

Shannon K. O’Neil, a Latin America expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, writes that attitudes are so negative that President Enrique Peña Nieto is struggling to justify patience.

The reason is that Mexico has arguably been hurt by Trump’s policies the most. His coming to power immediately led to a sharp decline in foreign investment in Mexico. Mexican families canceled their vacation plans to the United States. Mexican students decided against spending a semester or two in the country. Like Japan, the country was disheartened by Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership.

Yet the countries are still bound by commercial and personal relationships. America is Mexico’s biggest trading partner by far. Some 11 million Mexicans reside in the United States, in addition to the nearly 25 million Americans of Mexican heritage. More than a million Americans live in Mexico. Severing ties is out of the question.


Trump is no less popular in America’s neighbor to the north and Canada also relies disproportionately on trade with the United States: 76 percent of its exports go there.

Yet Jonathan Kay reports that rather than sowing division, Trump has largely united Canada’s political class — in favor of free trade and openness to the rest of the world:

[T]he rise of Trump has made Canadians more conscious of the pluralistic values that inform their society and more full-throated in their defense of those values. In an unintended way, Trump has done much to give Canada the elevated international stature it has long craved.

Justin Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister, has been hailed as the “anti-Trump” in progressive circles, but his policy is not one of confrontation. Rather, it is avoiding giving Trump a pretext to act on his protectionist impulses.


Australia’s prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, insisted Trump honor an immigration deal the country made with his predecessor, Barack Obama. But beyond an acrimonious phone call between the two, relations have been largely unchanged, writes the Lowy Institute’s Michael Fullilove.

Most Australians still consider the alliance important. Only three out of ten feel Australia should distance itself from the United States.

Some argue for an accommodation with China, but Fullilove doubts Australia could so easily cast off an old ally and throw in its lot with a new prospect.

Rather, he argues, the island should hedge against the risk of future Chinese rashness by keeping the United States deeply engaged in the region and strengthening its own connections in Asia:

That means working with China when their interests overlap but also thickening its ties with Asian democracies such as India, Indonesia, Japan and South Korea. Greater cooperation with likeminded regional powers can be an important hedge against the dual hazards of a reckless China and a feckless United States.

United Kingdom

David Goodhart believes the United Kingdom may be better off under Trump. His opponent, Hillary Clinton, would probably not have rushed a post-Brexit trade deal with the country. (Although it remains to be seen if Trump will make good on his promise.)

Managing relations with Trump’s America is a careful balancing act for the British. Their withdrawal from the EU makes the transatlantic “special relationship” more significant than ever, but staying too close to a divisive president could complicate their other diplomatic relationships.