Trump Is Abandoning Security Cooperation

What America Loses By Going It Alone

Trump at a NATO Summit in Brussels, July 2018 Reinhard Krause / REUTERS

U.S. President Donald Trump’s distaste for international cooperation is well known. For decades, he has denounced U.S. allies for “taking advantage” of the United States. According to a recent article in The New York Times, he has repeatedly expressed a desire to withdraw the United States from NATO. But international cooperation covers a lot more than treaty alliances and multilateral organizations. Every year, countries sign dozens of security agreements covering everything from biological weapons to defense research. The United States used to be a leading player. No longer. Under Trump, the flood of new security partnerships has slowed to a trickle. That is bad news for U.S. security.


Military alliances, such as NATO, are the best-known instrument of security cooperation, but they cannot address every concern. Governments also sign specific agreements on a wide range of issues, military exercises and training, peacekeeping, counterterrorism, personnel exchanges, defense policy, and the development and sale of weapons. The result is a sprawling web of protocols, memoranda, and treaties, often referred to as “bilateral security agreements.” My research on this topic shows that governments use these agreements to provide the legal frameworks that allow soldiers, diplomats, bureaucrats, and spies from different countries to work together every day. Such agreements are meant to tackle modern threats: terrorism, cyberattacks, transnational rebel movements, biological and chemical weapons, piracy, and trafficking in dangerous materials.

Security agreements matter because most countries have few traditional alliances; narrower partnerships help fill in the gaps. Governments sign between 150 and 200 of them each year. Many such partnerships are ambitious, encompassing the full scope of military relations between the two countries that sign them. The United States and South Korea, for example, have signed an agreement regulating their joint military exercises, another creating several joint research projects between their defense industries, and another on cybersecurity. Other agreements focus on specific threats. The United States’ hundreds of security agreements include a deal with Indonesia strengthening security protocols for biological pathogens, one with

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