The Debate

How Trump Is Already Damaging US Alliances

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The Debate

How Trump Is Already Damaging US Alliances

Trumping up reassurance in East Asia alliance management.

How Trump Is Already Damaging US Alliances
Credit: Donald Trump image via R. Gino Santa Maria /

The U.S.-Japan and U.S.-ROK alliances have survived the Cold War, drastic regime change, and global economic turmoil, but can they withstand a full-on assault by U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump? Trump’s fiery, and even racist, rhetoric has U.S. allies worried about the future direction of U.S. foreign policy and presence in East Asia.

When examining alliances, scholars and alliance managers have focused on the importance of credibility and positive signaling. Allies need to know that the United States will help deter regional threats. However, few have called attention to the impact of negative signaling during presidential campaigns. Allies pay attention to election platforms to ascertain domestic support for possible shifts in U.S. foreign policy. Allies not only need reassurance that potential threats can be deterred, but also that the United States will neither entrap them in unnecessary conflict nor take the alliance for granted. Donald Trump’s rhetoric rings alarm bells on both fronts and alliance managers need to reassure Japan and South Korea that business will continue as usual even during regime transition.

Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know

A leadership transition is a difficult time for alliances. It took President Barack Obama years to assure South Korea and Japan that East Asia mattered in U.S. foreign policy after signaling a shift away from the more proactive Bush Doctrine. Even after the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia,” which included significant economic, political, and military investment, many allies remained dissatisfied with U.S. foreign policy in the region.

Trump has sent far worse signals to Japan and South Korea. Beyond the careless love affair with Vladimir Putin and a general lack of foreign policy prowess, Trump has taken tangible actions that have strained the credibility of the alliances. First, Trump has adopted an exceedingly aggressive stance toward China, accusing it of currency manipulation, stealing American jobs, and “cheating.” He has threatened China with a 45 percent tariff if it does not “behave,” an action that is offensive at best and a violation of international norms and laws at worst. After seemingly backing off such fiery rhetoric, Trump has reiterated his negative stance toward China to garner middle America votes. His inconsistent views make it difficult for U.S. allies to predict U.S. foreign policy and increases tension for regional stakeholders. Japan and South Korea must deftly balance their relationships with the United States and China, and increased pressure on China may force them to take unnecessarily bold actions. Chinese state media has already begun to respond to his rhetoric, criticizing U.S. democracy and claiming the United States would be a threat to the world under Trump.

Second, Trump’s ire has also fallen on Japan and South Korea. Trump has accused both states of cheating and security freeriding, even proposing that the United States could withdraw its forces from both states. Not only do such positions ignore the complex trade relationships between the countries, but also the major economic contributions that Japan and South Korea have made in hosting U.S. forces. In 2015, Japan renewed its host-nation support agreement, and currently pays $1.6 billion annually to host U.S. forces. In 2014, South Korea renewed the Special Measures Agreement, which was a 5.8 percent increase in South Korea’s payments from the previous agreement, amounting to $866 million annually. These major contributions do not come cheap for alliance managers and government leaders who expend significant political energy, especially when the alliance creates backlash from local populations who question the necessity of such a large American footprint on their soil. With the rise of China, nuclear North Korea, and protests against the Futenma Base in Okinawa, now is not the time to to call into question the status of the alliances.

Third, Trump’s ludicrous policy platforms cast doubt on the viability of U.S. foreign policy. The Korean media recently called attention to discontent in Washington, noting that “50 Republican national security leaders, including former Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, issued an open letter saying they are united in opposition to a Trump presidency that they said would ‘make America less safe’ and ‘diminish our standing in the world.’” In a recent interview, retired General Mike Hayden stated that the U.S. armed forces would refuse if Trump gives an unlawful order. When such a high-level military member openly questions the judgment of a possible commander-in-chief, doubt is not only cast on the alliances, but the Republic itself.

Last, Trump’s lack of personal knowledge or expert advisers is dangerous. Trump wants to increase the strength of the U.S. armed forces and increase U.S. power projection capabilities. However, like his wall, he wants others to pay for it. Japan and South Korea already bear significant costs for hosting U.S. forces, financially and politically, and will only question the alliance if they are treated as less than equal partners. Normally, weak leadership can be mitigated with a capable team, but Trump has not shown any ability to form a knowledgeable team in regards to the U.S.-Japan and U.S.-ROK alliances. Allies like seasoned establishment policymakers as they bring stability; yet Trump can only offer mavericks and outcasts.

Damage control

Ben Carson recently gave a ringing endorsement of Trump, stating that “even if Donald Trump turns out not to be a great president…we’re only looking at four years.” Unfortunately, Trump has already done significant damage to the alliances that will take years to repair — even before the general election. As one Japanese security manager recently stated, “Trump exemplifies the worst in American stereotypes, loud, brash, and arrogant.” Even if Trump does not win, he has revealed an ugly underbelly of U.S. popular sentiment that does not care for its allies. True, the United States pays high costs for having to defend Japan and Korea, but it gains the priceless ability to project power in Asia. By spilling blood on the battlefield with the Koreans and promoting democracy and regional stability with the Japanese, Americans have been allowed to maintain tens of thousands of troops on its allies’ sovereign territory. These are allowances that should not be taken for granted.

Trump’s popularity is a domestic issue and if he wins, alliance managers must respect the democratic process. Yet, they can do much more to reassure Japan and South Korea that the alliances are still viable. First, alliance managers must reassure allies that Trump’s popularity is built on a small section of the political electorate and he is unlikely to win the general election. Trump’s anti-establishment platform is more of a reflection of voter discontent with how Washington has handled the post-2008 economy than a sign of dissatisfaction with the alliances. Building strong understanding of political and cultural issues between the allies is important to alleviating fears of drastic change. Second, U.S. officials must reassure Japan and South Korea of the importance of the alliance and continue Obama’s “pivot to Asia.” Third, policymakers should institute principles, guidelines, and policies that last longer than any particular leader. Fourth, increased annual Track II and Track III meetings and joint-exercises will help increase understanding and further tie U.S. security policy to Japan and South Korea.

Tom Le is an Assistant Professor of Politics at Pomona College. He was a Non-Resident Sasakawa Peace Foundation Fellow at CSIS Pacific Forum and 2013-2015 Fulbright Fellowship at Hiroshima City University in Japan.