Mutual interests see US allies keep faith with Trump
French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel both visited US President Donald Trump in Washington late last month. As the two European leaders tried to persuade Trump to save the Iran nuclear deal and avoid imposing steel and aluminum tariffs on the EU, among other issues, the visits raised questions about which countries remain strategic partners for the US under the Trump presidency.
A potential strategic partner is a country that possesses economic, military or diplomatic weight or has an important geostrategic location. The US has long sought to build relationships with states that offer such assets, some of which have specific alliances with Washington and others that have a less formal but still valuable partnership.
The foreign policy elements of the broad Trump administration — including the Department of Defense, Department of State and National Security Council — have not made significant policy changes regarding which states are considered the most important strategic partners. NATO states, Israel, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Japan remain at the top of any list for many administration officials. On his first trip abroad as Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo visited Brussels, Riyadh, Tel Aviv and Amman — all traditional US strategic partners.
There are many similarities with the Obama administration, though the Trump White House has avoided any sense of a “pivot to Asia” and has warmer relationships with some countries, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia. There remains a strong desire within the government, as noted in the publicly available summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy, to develop deeper partnerships in the “Indo-Pacific” region. Western Hemisphere countries and Africa are mentioned but given less attention and importance than Europe, the Middle East and Asia.
Time will tell whether US global standing can maintain alliances even when public opinion is strongly against Donald Trump.
Kerry Boyd Anderson
The president himself, however, takes a somewhat different view. The White House generally appears to consider Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UK as key partners, arguably alongside France and Japan. Much of Western Europe has very negative views of Trump, and he certainly does not express much warmth or interest in some of the most important historic US allies in Europe.
Trump’s interest in foreign countries appears largely driven by his relationships with the leaders of those countries; when he gets along well with a leader or admires him, he is far more likely to express an interest in US relations with the country. Unlike some of his advisers, who are more experienced in foreign policy, he appears to have little interest in building long-term partnerships that would outlast individual leaders, instead being more focused on immediate issues and meetings.
Economic weight and relations are deeply important to any global strategic issue, but a typical Washington list of top US strategic partners tends to omit its most important economic partners. China is the US’ largest trading partner, followed closely by Canada and then Mexico, but publicly available government strategy documents and official speeches tend to portray China as a rival, not a partner, and ignore Canada and Mexico. There is more coherence between the top sources of foreign direct investment into the US and its typical strategic partners, with traditional European allies and Japan in the top group, but again Canada is often taken for granted.
In addition to the views of the White House and the broader government, the American public has opinions on which countries are its most important strategic partners. In a 2017 Pew Research Center poll regarding which countries Americans see as “top foreign policy partners,” the UK easily came in first, followed by China, Germany, Israel, Canada, France, Russia and Japan. However, the poll found an interesting divide between Republicans and Democrats in some cases, notably Israel, which came in at number two among Republicans but did not make the top eight among Democrats.
Americans have different views of their key partners than their partners do of them. For example, Pew has reported that Germans say the US is their second most important partner, after France, but only 12 percent of Americans place Germany among their country’s top two partners — instead it ties with Israel in third or fourth place in overall Americans’ views. This is not surprising. Given the US’ outsize economic, military and diplomatic weight in global affairs, it is natural that many countries see Washington as a top partner. The US does not have a potential partner of equal weight, so it forms partnerships with a wide array of countries.
At the same time, in an increasingly multipolar world, the US cannot easily act alone — nor does it want to. The Obama administration emphasized partnerships and greater global burden-sharing, while the Trump administration stresses “America First” and calls on its allies to do more.
Fortunately for Washington, mutual interests have so far played a greater role than public opinion in shaping partnerships. Pew polls have shown a significant decline in global public views of the US president since Obama left the White House; in all countries polled except Israel and Russia. Nonetheless, for now, partnerships continue despite negative public views of Trump.
An early 2017 Pew poll found that “a majority or plurality” in most countries believed relations with the US under Trump “will remain about the same,” though people in most countries polled were more likely to feel negative than positive about relations. In another example, even though a majority of Germans have a negative view of current relations with the US (while a majority of Americans, interestingly, have a positive view of relations with Germany), Merkel still came to Washington. Time will tell whether the strategic global weight of the US can hold together partnerships even when publics strongly distrust its leadership.
- Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 14 years’ experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risks. Her previous positions include deputy director for advisory with Oxford Analytica and managing editor of Arms Control Today. Twitter: @KBAresearch