The Downside of Imperial Collapse
When Empires or Great Powers Fall, Chaos and War Rise
The presidency of Donald Trump seemed to throw the U.S. alliance system into disarray. In 2016, when still a candidate, Trump disparaged Washington’s traditional allies, dismissed NATO as “obsolete,” and claimed that maintaining military and financial commitments in Europe and elsewhere was “bankrupting” the United States. This tough rhetoric continued during his administration. After his withdrawal from a host of international accords, including the Paris climate agreement and the Iran nuclear deal, it seemed possible that Trump would also fail to fulfill long-standing commitments to U.S. allies in Europe and East Asia. The U.S. foreign policy establishment feared that the alliances underpinning the so-called liberal international order were in jeopardy.
So traumatic were these years believed to be that, on taking office, President Joe Biden, along with many in the Washington foreign policy community, rushed to reassure U.S. allies that order had been restored. “America is back,” declared Biden in February 2021. “We must recommit to our alliances,” asserted Secretary of State Antony Blinken at NATO headquarters in March. Chuck Hagel, Malcolm Rifkind, Kevin Rudd, and Ivo Daalder, two U.S. and two allied former statesmen and foreign policy elites, called for “a return to fundamentals” to reassure wary U.S. allies. In other words, the United States needed to undertake what Secretary of State George Shultz once called “gardening”: grooming allies, soothing their sensitivities, and signaling solidarity and cooperation.
But those calling for Biden to carefully minister to wounded U.S. alliances misunderstood what really happened during Trump’s presidency. The ostensibly great threat of Trump had little effect on Washington’s major allies. The Trump years did not alienate traditional U.S. allies so much as it exposed their chronic weakness and their reluctance to push back against the United States. Trump’s brazen and often distasteful behavior revealed a bald truth: U.S. allies will put up with more capriciousness, browbeating, and neglect than anyone expected.
The U.S. alliance system is built on hierarchy, dependency, and the stubborn persistence of American power. This network benefits the United States by supporting its efforts to achieve and maintain global influence, and it benefits U.S. allies by dramatically reducing their defense costs and increasing their trade gains. As a result, these countries are willing to tolerate U.S. actions that deviate from Washington’s traditional liberalism and multilateralism—such as Trump’s abuse and tariffs or Biden’s unilateral withdrawal from Afghanistan. There was also no sign that the allies feared abandonment or sensed a major decline in the relative power of the United States. Despite the sound and fury of recent years, U.S. alliances remain quite robust. The rhetorical agonizing over the need to assuage allies is unnecessary: the United States can pressure its allies far more than anyone imagined it could. No reassurance is required.
The United States’ alliances—whether multilateral arrangements such as NATO or bilateral agreements with states such as Japan and South Korea—are strikingly unequal. Diplomatic politesse about “friendship” or “partnership” obscures U.S. military dominance in all these relationships. U.S. allies—particularly those whose military capabilities have atrophied since the Cold War—are more accurately described as junior members of a patron-protégé relationship in which the patron can be simultaneously demanding and neglectful of its protégés. The substantial gulf in economic capacity and military capability between the United States and its allies pushes these associations toward hierarchy in practice, if not in form. That hierarchy, in turn, creates a dependency on U.S. power, permitting Washington to ignore militarily weak allies when it suits U.S. interests. There is little the neglected allies can do about it.
States around the world join and value alliances with the United States for two reasons: they face military threats on their borders, and they want access to U.S. markets. The United States is economically and militarily strong enough to act as an importer of last resort for smaller economies and to project power to defend weaker countries. Geographically distant enough to not pose a direct military threat itself, it is the ideal state for shifting local balances of power in favor of weaker states under threat.
The United States can pressure its allies far more than anyone imagined it could.
For this reason, U.S. alliances have weathered many past storms, from seemingly endless trade disputes between Japan and the United States since the 1970s to French and German opposition to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. U.S. allies tolerate Washington’s abuse of its position of strength because, from their perspective, it is worth the cost. The benefits of a world-class security guarantee and access to the world’s leading economy vastly outweigh the humiliations of Trump’s browbeating or the political costs of occasionally being pressed into unwanted foreign policy ventures, such as the so-called war on terror. The alternative—the massive cost of self-defense and the vulnerability of standing alone against the likes of China or Russia—is worse. It is in this sense that the United States is what former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called “the indispensable nation.” But this indispensability does not derive from the country’s adherence to democratic values or liberal norms. Instead, it comes from American power and the benefits gained from aligning with that power.
That blunt reality compels a reconsideration of the supposed crisis of the Trump years, when much of the foreign policy establishment feared that the White House was doing untold damage to U.S. alliances. Analysts may have fretted about Trump’s bullying and bristling antagonism, but the allies targeted did not seem hugely bothered. Their actual behavior during the Trump presidency did not suggest any attempt to defect from, hedge against, or drift away from the patronage of the United States.
Trump antagonized allies everywhere, but the examples of four core treaty allies—Germany, France, Japan, and South Korea—in the crucial theaters of Europe and East Asia are especially telling. Many analysts now continue to urge Biden to reassure these U.S. allies of Washington’s steadfast commitment, but it is hard to see the need. By the logic of those urging reassurance, Trump’s behavior should have pushed these countries away from the United States politically or strategically. But that was not the case. None of them tried to distance itself from the United States to protect itself from Trump’s unpredictability. To the contrary, they all flattered Trump. They tolerated his antics and did not risk expulsion from under the U.S. security umbrella. The Trump years have turned the conventional wisdom on its head: Washington has considerable room to neglect its allies without incurring reprisals.
Germany is arguably the United States’ most important partner in Europe, home to more U.S. troops and military infrastructure than any other U.S. ally. And naturally, Trump went out of his way to antagonize the country and its then chancellor, Angela Merkel.
Trump deeply disliked Merkel, speaking of her pejoratively in private remarks that were leaked. He complained on Twitter that Germany owed a “fee” to NATO, allegedly handed Merkel a made-up bill for back pay owed to NATO, and proposed withdrawing U.S. troops from Germany. He left the U.S. ambassadorship to Germany open for much of his term and then selected an intentionally polarizing figure, the commentator and right-wing Internet firebrand Richard Grenell, who hectored the German foreign policy establishment and promoted Trumpian populists throughout Europe. In short, Trump provided adequate cause for German elites to rethink their country’s relationship with the United States. Indeed, Merkel warned as early as 2017 that Europe could “no longer rely on allies” and that “Europe must really take our fate into our own hands.”
But Germany did precious little to end its reliance on the United States or take Europe’s fate into its own hands. Germany did not, for example, seek a serious side deal or separate agreement with NATO’s primary opponent, Russia. (The chancellor had already agreed with Russia to the creation of a controversial oil pipeline running from Russia to Germany—Nord Stream 2—before Trump came into office.) Merkel supported the 2018 renewal of sanctions against Russia over its meddling in Ukraine, and she routinely criticized Russia for its repression of internal dissent. The Trump years did not see any improvement in the tense, if businesslike, German-Russian relationship, much less a German turn against the United States.
Bullied by Washington, Berlin could have chosen to strengthen Europe as a political and military counterweight to the United States. Proponents of a stronger Europe have long talked about bulking up EU institutions, for instance, a move that would allow the continent to act more independently on the world stage. But institutional reform in Europe was at a standstill during the Trump years, and it remains so. Similarly, EU hawks have argued for decades for a stronger European defense program. Merkel herself seemed to embrace the notion of a more independent and capable European military after her first meeting with Trump. Germany, as the continent’s largest economy, would have to play an essential role in developing an integrated European military. But the Germans were indecisive, and nothing came of these rumblings. As in the years before Trump, there is still no European military or unified command, no sharing of large platforms such as aircraft carriers, much less weapons of mass destruction, and no joint strategic doctrine.
Defense spending is an obvious area where more resources could have strengthened Berlin’s hand when facing Washington. But Merkel declined to invest more in her country’s military during the Trump years. As a percentage of GDP, German defense spending stood at 1.15 percent in 2017, 1.17 percent in 2018, and 1.28 percent in 2019. In terms of military strategy, meanwhile, German officials made no effort to separate from the Americans. The closest thing Germany has to a formal grand strategy is presented in an irregularly updated white paper on national security. The most recent dates from 2016, a revealing date in and of itself: Trump’s rhetoric and the resulting indignant talk of European self-reliance did not prompt German officials to update their formal strategy.
France was the U.S. ally most likely to respond to Trump with meaningful policy shifts. Under former President Charles de Gaulle, France partially withdrew from NATO in the 1960s. It pursued a somewhat independent foreign policy during the Cold War and has long explicitly promoted the notion of a stronger pan-European defense posture as a counterweight to the United States.
True to form, Trump sought to dominate and embarrass French President Emmanuel Macron. During a 2017 visit to Paris, Trump forced Macron into a bizarre, 29-second white-knuckle handshake. The next year, he showily brushed dandruff off Macron’s suit in front of the media at the White House. As he did with Merkel, Trump often slid gleefully into a war of words with Macron. After a 2018 spat over nationalism, Trump tweeted, “Emmanuel suffers from a very low approval rating,” and then, peevishly, “Make France Great Again!” After Macron criticized Trump’s disdain for NATO at the alliance’s summit in 2019, Trump struck back, calling Macron “nasty, insulting, and disrespectful.”
Given France’s history of an independent foreign policy, here was an opportunity to reorient the country’s relationship with the United States. But Macron, like Merkel, sought to appease and flatter Trump. Macron himself admitted in 2018, “Our relationship with the United States is absolutely critical. Fundamental. We need it.”
Macron sought to appease and flatter Trump.
Macron’s behavior during the Trump years revealed just how dependent France was. Unhappy with Trump’s abuse, France might have pursued separate deals with Russia, the traditional opponent of the Western alliance. But the French made no such effort to go around the United States or any attempt to emulate de Gaulle’s partial defection from the alliance. As did Germany’s, France’s relationship with Russia remained measured and did not noticeably improve. France continued to support the regular renewal of sanctions against Russia after its annexation of Crimea in 2014. France, like Germany, cleaved to the antagonistic NATO line on Russia.
France also did not forcefully seek a European military arrangement as a substitute for a U.S.-based alliance. The French government did make at least rhetorical gestures toward greater military integration among European allies. For years, Macron has variously called for European defense autonomy, an EU army, an end to European dependence on U.S. arms, and so on. But this posturing merely borrowed from the familiar stable of French Europeanist rhetoric. European military initiatives, such as the Eurocorps, a small, mostly symbolic force of just 1,000 soldiers, or the Combined Joint Expeditionary Force, a small Anglo-French rapid-reaction force, remain embryonic. EU member states are no closer to forming large multinational military units or sharing heavy weapons platforms. Competition between France and Germany also makes this regional consolidation harder. Germany still suspects that France’s vision of continental unity actually means yoking German economic power to French foreign policy ambitions.
France’s defense spending as a percentage of its GDP is higher than Germany’s. But like German spending, French spending did not tick upward in the Trump era. In 2017, France spent 1.91 percent; in 2018, 1.85 percent; and in 2019, 1.86 percent. These sums are not enough to buttress an EU army or make a more audacious bid for Gaullist independence.
Nor did France revise its strategic approach to the United States. France’s primary grand strategy statement is its 2017 Defense and National Security Strategic Review, complemented by the shorter 2021 Strategic Update. The 2017 document emphasizes traditional French themes about strategic autonomy (from the Americans) and Macron’s particular interest in having France lead a European defense posture. The 2021 update renounces a breach with the United States, mentioning Trump only once in passing commentary about “mistrust” and his “transactional approach.” Even the Biden administration’s decision to pursue the so-called AUKUS agreement in 2021, which led Australia to cancel a submarine contract with France in favor of having the submarines produced by the United States, induced only a short-lived diplomatic row between France and the United States, before Macron and Biden announced that they were putting the matter behind them. If anything, the incident revealed France’s appreciation of the mood of the U.S. foreign policy establishment. Paris seemed to be stirring up a dispute to get attention from Washington precisely because it recognized U.S. fears about antsy allies and knew that it could exploit them.
Trump did not alarm the United States’ Asian allies as much as he did its European ones. Analysts in East Asia did not fret about the collapse of the liberal international order as much as their counterparts in Europe and in the Washington foreign policy community did. The leaders of Japan and South Korea both vigorously flattered Trump. As a British journalist in Japan put it, “The Japanese saw Trump as just another loud American.”
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe massaged Trump’s ego. Abe repeatedly took Trump golfing, his favorite sport. They took selfies on the green, and Abe even gave Trump a gold-plated driver. He brought Trump to a dinner with the Japanese emperor. Abe’s most obsequious gift was a baseball hat embroidered with the words “Donald & Shinzo Make Alliance Even Greater.”
Still, Trump’s rhetoric on Japan was provocative. Although he avoided personal attacks on Abe, Trump decried, as he often did in regard to other countries as well, trade imbalances with Japan; threatened enormous tariffs on Japanese automotive exports; and complained about the scale of U.S. defense contributions to Japan. He also publicly disagreed with Abe on the severity of the North Korean missile threat in 2019 and, with his usual brusque tone, inveighed against Japanese pacifism. “If Japan is attacked, we will fight World War III,” he said on Fox News. “But if we’re attacked, Japan doesn’t have to help us at all. They can watch it on a Sony television.”
In the face of all these insults, Japan, like Germany and France, bent to accommodate Trump. Tokyo did not strike substantive side deals with any local opponents, most obviously China but also North Korea and Russia. Trumpian demands for concessions might have pushed Japan to resolve its disputes with these countries—including wrangles with North Korea over the fate of abducted Japanese people and with Russia over the ownership of the Kuril Islands. But Japan did nothing of the sort.
Nor did it make many lateral moves to strengthen ties with other U.S. protégés. The most obvious target of such an effort would have been nearby South Korea. Instead, Japanese–South Korean relations deteriorated during the Trump years, as the United States stopped bothering to calm tensions between the two over Japan’s past imperial behavior in Korea. Since Biden became president, Japan has aligned somewhat more closely with Taiwan, Australia, and India, but only under the aegis of U.S. regional leadership. As Biden has pushed back against China over Taiwan, Japan has followed suit. Tokyo has reached out to Canberra and New Delhi within the rubric of the U.S.-led Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad. Japan did make an effort to save a Pacific-area trade deal—the Trans-Pacific Partnership—from which Trump withdrew. But the replacement deal, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, was an economic move to expand trade ties, not an effort to contest U.S. security leadership in East Asia.
Defense spending was an area in which Japan had room to grow. Before Trump, Tokyo spent less than one percent of GDP on defense, an astonishingly low figure for a state adjacent to China and with great-power pretensions. But Trump’s demands changed nothing. Japanese spending on defense barely budged during his presidency, staying stuck at around 0.9 percent of GDP. Japan relied on U.S. guarantees while mollifying Trump with flattering gifts.
At the level of strategic doctrine, Japan made no changes in the Trump period. Its current National Security Strategy dates to 2013 but is still in force. A short write-up of the strategy by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2016 lists its second objective as “strengthening the Japan-U.S. Alliance.” None of the three other U.S. allies’ national security strategies, not Germany’s, or France’s, or South Korea’s, prioritizes the U.S. alliance as centrally as Japan’s doctrine does. All of Trump’s bellicosity and sharp elbows did not affect Japanese policy choices or defense spending. Japan chose to ride the tiger instead.
Of all the major U.S. allies, Trump seemed to harbor special disdain for South Korea. In 2020, he allegedly told a meeting of U.S. governors that South Koreans were “terrible people.” As with other allies, he complained regularly about the United States’ trade deficit with South Korea and the costs of U.S. military support for the country. He repeatedly gestured toward pulling U.S. troops out, and observers feared that, if reelected in 2020, he would actually try to do so. Trump personally intervened in U.S.–South Korean cost-sharing negotiations, demanding that Seoul raise its $1 billion contribution to $5 billion. Trump also ordered a revision of the U.S.–Korea Free Trade Agreement, signed during the George W. Bush administration, even as he hinted that U.S. car and steel tariffs would carry on regardless. He even called South Korean President Moon Jae-in an “appeaser” of North Korea in 2017 and repeatedly said he did not like dealing with Moon, while making clear his preference for the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, with whom he supposedly “fell in love.”
But like the other allies, South Korea was largely unaffected. Moon and his first foreign minister waxed lyrical about Trump’s “courage,” “determination,” and “leadership.” After publicly warning Trump in 2017 not to attack North Korea, Moon pivoted to flattery, even floating the idea that Trump would merit a Nobel Peace Prize should he meet with Kim. The blatant pandering and lack of seriousness of this suggestion was an open secret in South Korea.
South Korea had good reason to drift away from the United States, but it did not.
South Korean behavior supported this assertion. Despite Trump’s contempt—and Moon’s left-wing politics with its tradition of anti-Americanism—the relationship between Seoul and Washington remained much as it was before. During the Trump presidency, South Korea made no changes to its otherwise businesslike relationship with Russia, and its relations with China remained fraught. Regarding North Korea, Moon did not make a breakthrough, despite a vigorous effort to reach a détente.
South Korea could have responded to Trump’s disdain by trying to bury the hatchet with Japan and strengthen its ties with the other major democratic power of the region. After all, both countries’ fear of abandonment by the United States under Trump created room for rapprochement. Instead, the opposite happened. Moon doubled down on the traditional anti-Japanese line of the South Korean left, provoking a small crisis with the United States in 2019 when he resisted an intelligence-sharing deal with Japan. In the face of Trump’s derision, South Korea could have strengthened its hand by increasing its defense spending. It did so—but only slightly, and as part of long-term military modernization efforts planned well before Trump came to office.
At the strategic level, South Korea remained—and remains—yoked to the U.S. military presence on the peninsula. The most important marker of this integration is that operational wartime control of the South Korean military has yet to return to the South Korean government even after 20 years of discussion. Should war break out with North Korea, a U.S. general would still command the South Korean army in the field. The U.S. military forces on the peninsula also remain deeply integrated with the South Korean military, and the tempo of joint training exercises has picked up since Trump left office. South Korea last published a national security strategy in 2018. It emphasized outreach to North Korea but, critically, did not frame such overtures as a substitute for the alliance with the United States.
South Korea had good reason to drift away from the United States. Trump repeatedly publicly condemned it, and it is governed by a coalition with roots in anti-American protest. But it did not. Like the actions of the other allies, Seoul’s approach was to flatter and persevere, not bolt.
Each of these four allies chose to tolerate Trump’s abuse rather than distance itself from Washington. This choice was a reflection not of Trump’s persona or acumen but of the reality of U.S. power. However humiliating, accommodating Trump was cheaper than the potential costs of distancing themselves from the United States.
Perhaps U.S. allies restrained themselves. They might have seen Trump as a bizarre, one-off outcome of the unusual U.S. presidential election system, and so they politely chose to bite their tongues. Had Trump been reelected, the allies might then have shifted to more independent foreign policies. But that seems unlikely. These allies had faced the erratic consequences of the U.S. presidential election system just a little more than a decade before. President George W. Bush was maligned as a unilateralist cowboy who led a hyperpower into an aggressive, unnecessary war. But when Bush was reelected in 2004, nothing happened. Then as now, the structures of the U.S. alliance system stayed intact, and the core European and Asian protégés remained committed to their U.S. patron.
Trump may have raised the hackles of the U.S. foreign policy establishment more than he alarmed the governments of allied countries. But even if Berlin, Paris, Tokyo, or Seoul was so perturbed by Trump that it felt compelled to do something, its options were limited and costly. Would it suddenly pursue an independent foreign policy at great expense in the face of Chinese and Russian power? These allied governments and the strategy documents they produced never seriously considered alternatives to an alliance with the United States, even under a possible second Trump term, because those choices were all too costly.
The costs of delinking from the U.S. military, for instance, would be high. Germany, France, and Japan spend less than two percent of their GDPs on their militaries and are decidedly uninterested in matching the U.S. figure of over three percent. Worse, most U.S. allies are now tacitly dependent on the United States for the logistical and administrative depth required by modern combat operations, as illustrated by France and the United Kingdom’s dependence on U.S. logistics in the 2011 intervention in Libya and Japan’s and South Korea’s dependence on the U.S. Navy to participate in antipiracy actions in the Indian Ocean.
Any attempt to meaningfully hedge against the United States would require substantial spending increases, massive expansions of recruitment (including the expansion of conscription in South Korea), and other costly moves that might rankle taxpayers and voters. Erstwhile allies would also risk the economic ramifications of falling afoul of the United States. Access to the world’s largest open market is crucial for their growth, particularly for export-driven, mercantilist economies such as Japan and South Korea. Trump made clear his willingness to leverage allies’ trade dependence and target allies with tariffs.
But perhaps the most powerful factor keeping the allies bound to the United States is the reality that they don’t really have anywhere else to turn. For democracies, a certain scorn for allying with dictatorships is natural, and options such as rapprochement with China or Russia or an inter-Korean federation have obvious political risks. The persistence of the animosity between Japan and South Korea and of the competitive rivalry between France and Germany would complicate efforts by these powers to band together on their own. Humiliation by Trump was a small price to pay in the absence of better options.
The U.S. alliance system is predicated on hierarchy and dependency. Trump’s treatment of U.S. allies was boorish and unnecessarily hostile, likely driven by egotistical cravings for status and masculine domination. A general contempt for his behavior is appropriate, but that behavior also illuminated, however harshly, two long-standing truths about U.S. alliances.
These relationships are deeply unequal. This point is frequently obscured by U.S. rhetoric about solidarity and standing “shoulder to shoulder” with allies. Such language masks fundamental power imbalances and the fact that U.S. alliances ultimately rest on an alignment of interests. As the political scientists Patrick Porter and Joshua Shifrinson have argued, the American predilection for calling allies “friends” breeds false expectations and encourages allies with underpowered militaries to assume Washington will tolerate their piggybacking on U.S. defense guarantees. Because of their shared liberal values, U.S. allies are also inclined to believe that the United States will solicit and respect their opinions. But these allies then complain of bullying when U.S. indifference to their viewpoints lays bare the fundamental asymmetries of their relationships with the United States, as happened under Trump and as happened again last summer when Biden withdrew from Afghanistan while ignoring NATO allies’ objections. To remedy this, U.S. allies should address the root causes of Washington’s ability to ride roughshod over them: their low defense spending and their consequent weak power projection capabilities.
The U.S. alliance system is not in decline.
The Trump years also underlined the fact that the U.S. alliance system is not in decline. A wider liberal international order—reliant on reasonably liberal behavior from nondemocracies, especially China, in a rule-bound trading network—may indeed be eroding. But the more limited, patron-protégé arrangement between the United States and its core allies in Europe and Asia appears stable. U.S. allies still want this structure.
Ideally, the United States would behave solicitously toward and cooperatively with its allies. Trump’s crude belligerence was both reprehensible and, in practical terms, pointless. But the record of the Trump period strongly suggests that, although desirable, it is not necessary for the United States to be diplomatic in its relations with its allies. U.S. alliances are asymmetric and are becoming more so as the power projection capabilities of the junior partners atrophy. The United States has a lot of unused leverage to push its allies even harder. It can neglect them without reprisal, even if many commentators do not think it should. Trump produced a clarifying moment; for a few years, he starkly revealed that U.S. allies have a high threshold for mistreatment and bullying. Attestations of American decline, which would likely entail the defection of U.S. allies to other patrons, are exaggerated.
This realization should allow the Biden administration to demand more from U.S. allies than most administrations have asked for in the past, particularly in the realm of defense spending. The United States can at times bully its allies because they rely on American power. The politesse of reassurance may be desirable and decorous, but U.S. allies are not about to abandon their patron.