- Authors: Do it yourself is Trump’s message for countries overseas
- It’s fine to press others in burden-sharing, but US can’t risk retreat from leadership, they say
On Tuesday, Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland pointed to Merkel’s comments and said, referring to America, “The fact that our friend and ally has come to question the very worth of its mantle of global leadership puts into sharper focus the need for the rest of us to set our own clear and sovereign course.”
If Trump succeeded in conveying any coherent message to the world amid the hand-slapping, orb-glowing and prime minister-shoving of his first overseas trip and its immediate aftermath, it was this: Do it yourself. If you’re a Middle Eastern country, take care of terrorism yourself. If you’re a NATO country, handle Russia yourself. If you’re a low-lying country or city along the coast, deal with climate change yourself.
This isn’t a new theme for Trump. It seems to be what he means by “America First.” It’s his message to China regarding North Korea: Fix it. It’s his message to Mexico regarding the wall: Pay for it. And so on.
In their most ferociously Hobbesian moment, McMaster and Cohn wrote: “The president embarked on his first foreign trip with a clear-eyed outlook that the world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage. We bring to this forum unmatched military, political, economic, cultural and moral strength. Rather than deny this elemental nature of international affairs, we embrace it.” In other words, it’s now every country for itself out there.
In fairness to Trump, the basic idea of getting other countries — especially rich and powerful ones — to bear more of the burden for addressing international challenges is neither a bad idea nor a new one. That concept has, at times, animated presidents of both parties, especially since the end of the Cold War. President Bill Clinton pushed Western Europe to help Eastern Europe catch up after the Berlin Wall fell. President George W. Bush pushed Pakistan to address terrorist threats emanating from its own backyard. President Barack Obama pushed the Europeans to contribute more troops to Afghanistan and to sanction Iran’s nuclear program.
But there’s something very different between this longstanding, bipartisan effort and Trump’s approach. Other presidents have understood that getting partners to step up requires the United States to step up, too, with the types of capabilities that only America can bring to bear. Trump, however, isn’t offering anything — he’s just browbeating others and telling them to do it themselves. The former approach was burden-sharing. Trump’s is simply unburdening ourselves of the world’s problems — which, alas, we can’t afford to do.
In these and other cases, the United States did not pass the buck to other nations but focused our efforts on unique capabilities only we could offer. Thus, the Syrian Kurds have made critical advances against key ISIS strongholds because the United States has provided carefully synchronized precision strikes from the air — the type of air support that only the United States is able to provide.
Likewise, investing heavily in partners’ counterterrorism efforts has yielded progress in areas such as the Lake Chad Basin region in Africa because the United States has paired that investment with sharing the type of intelligence and training that only America’s collection resources and high-end counterterrorism military units can provide.
Telling other countries to do more because we’ll focus on what we do best makes sense — and it works, in a world defined by cooperation for the benefit of all, rather than zero-sum competition. But that hasn’t been Trump’s approach. He’s simply told leaders from the Middle East to Europe to do more, spend more, take on more — so we can do less, spend less and take on less. What’s in it for them?
Some have argued that Trump’s approach will force these countries to step up because they’ll realize the United States won’t be there for them. That might prove true in certain limited instances. For example, Merkel’s comments may, in fact, be a sign that NATO members will start spending more on their own security.