How U.S. Allies Are Adapting to "America First"

Trump and World Order at One

Trump at the White House, July 2017. Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

At the dawn of the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, I predicted in Foreign Affairs that Trump’s “America first” agenda would set in motion tectonic forces beyond his control. As the ground shifted beneath their feet, longtime U.S. allies would lose confidence in U.S. leadership and credibility. They would adapt by hedging their bets, moving away from alignment with a United States no longer willing to promote and defend the liberal world order that it had sustained since 1945. The evidence for this hedging would be in adjustments by U.S. allies to their approaches toward geopolitics, economics, and climate change.

One year after Trump’s inauguration, the liberal order has not collapsed. But it is in distress as the president turns his back on the world the United States made to embrace a nationalist and isolationist foreign policy. Although they still hope that Trump’s abdication of global leadership is a temporary aberration rather than a lasting inflection point, U.S. allies and partners are making contingency plans.


The tendency toward hedging is most marked in transatlantic relations, the bedrock of the post-1945 liberal order. At NATO’s Brussels summit in May, Trump rattled Europeans by suggesting that his country’s commitment to the alliance was contingent on their reimbursing American taxpayers for U.S. military expenditures while declining to endorse Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which covers collective defense. Although he belatedly affirmed the United States’ commitments two months later, Europeans got the message. “The times in which we can fully count on others are somewhat over, as I have experienced in the past few days,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said after the Brussels summit.

Europeans have hardly abandoned the Western alliance, but Trump’s unpredictability is spurring them to take greater responsibility for their own defense. In June, EU member states launched a new European Defense Fund, promising to increase their own defense spending by 4.3 percent. Beyond bolstering the continent’

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