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Column: Trump’s disdain for alliances backfires

Saudi Arabia
At least 17 explosive-laded drones and cruise missiles hit the world’s largest oil processing facility and a major oil field in Saudi Arabia on Sept. 14.
(Associated Press)

A strange thing happened when the Trump administration tried to recruit an international coalition of naval forces to protect oil tankers in the Persian Gulf this summer: Nobody wanted to sign up.

Almost nobody, anyway. Britain, usually America’s closest ally, said no — but then acquired a new prime minister, Boris Johnson, who said yes. Bahrain joined; the Arab kingdom is the landlord to the U.S. Navy headquarters in the gulf. Australia agreed to send an airplane and a frigate.

And that, until recently, was the entire coalition: four countries, only two of which contributed substantial forces. Even Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, whose oil was being protected, didn’t join up until last week.

Recruiting old allies to help protect the tankers that carry oil to help power the world’s economy shouldn’t have been so hard. But when a president denounces the idea of alliances, slams traditional allies as deadbeats, and changes direction without warning, even old friends hesitate to jump on his team.

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“President Trump has made it far more difficult to build coalitions and get people on our side when we need them,” Ivo Daalder, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, told me. “When you lose other countries’ confidence, restoring it is hard.”

Until recently, Trump’s “America first” disdain for international alliances was mostly a theoretical problem, a source of anguish to foreign policy traditionalists, but little more.

Now it’s a practical challenge too. The president will speak Tuesday at the United Nations General Assembly, hoping to help organize a collective response to Iran’s recent aggression, including its suspected role in last week’s startling missile and drone attacks against Saudi Arabia’s largest oil processing facility and a nearby oil field, sending global energy markets into a swoon.

But no other major nation appeared eager to join in a U.S.-led effort, whether it involves military action, economic sanctions or even mere diplomacy.

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Britain, France and Germany echoed the United States in condemning the drone and missile attack, but that part was easy. Unlike the White House, they didn’t point the finger at Iran.

And when Trump ordered new sanctions against Iran’s Central Bank on Friday, no other country joined in. The president acted alone.

Trump’s failure to build coalitions isn’t surprising. He has long described alliances as unnecessary entanglements that impose costs on the United States but offer few benefits.

In 1987, he derided President Reagan’s use of naval power to protect shipping in the Persian Gulf. “The world is laughing at America’s politicians as we protect ships we don’t own, carrying oil we don’t need, destined for allies who won’t help,” he said.

Last year, on a visit to Europe, he repeated his long-held suspicion of NATO, the military alliance that kept peace in Europe for more than half a century: “It is time that these very rich countries either pay the United States for its great military protection, or protect themselves,” he said.

Add the many complaints from other world leaders about Trump’s undiplomatic style — his exaggerations and lies, his unreliability, his refusal to consider the interests of anyone but himself — and you have a list of reasons they don’t view him as a trustworthy teammate, much less as team captain.

“Alliances are built on two things: mutual interests and mutual confidence,” Daalder said. “Trump doesn’t seem to get that.”

All this was predictable, and predicted, after Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran that had been painstakingly negotiated by his predecessor, President Obama. Trump insisted he would force Iran back to negotiations through stiffer sanctions and made a stronger deal.

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None of the five other world powers that had signed the accord agreed. They argued that the deal, flawed though it might be, was keeping Iran’s nuclear ambitions in check.

Britain, France and Germany had asked for time to seek changes that might induce Trump to stay in the agreement, and the president initially agreed. But in May 2018, as the Europeans believed they were close to a deal with Iran, Trump abruptly pulled out. The British ambassador in Washington, Kim Darroch, called it an act of “diplomatic vandalism.”

Then, when the White House launched a “maximum pressure” campaign with the avowed aim of crippling Iran’s economy, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo urged world powers to join in. The other signatories all refused and sought instead to keep the nuclear deal alive.

In June, after at least four foreign-flagged tankers were sabotaged in the gulf, Pompeo tried to build a maritime coalition, saying he hoped to recruit at least 20 countries. Then Trump weighed in.

“All of these countries should be protecting their own ships,” the president tweeted. “We don’t even need to be there.”

Since the attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure, however, White House aides say the president wants to marshal a joint international response. The allies are skeptical. France and Germany said the best solution was for the United States to return to the 2015 nuclear agreement and for Iran, which has violated some of its provisions in recent months, to do the same.

It’s especially piquant that Trump will use the U.N. as his platform to seek action against Iran. In his 2016 campaign, he dismissed the global organization as rife with “utter weakness and incompetence.”

Last week, he sounded a different note. “I’ve always felt the United Nations is very important,” he said.

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Now, in a crisis that is partly of his own making, he sounds as if he could use an ally or two. He’ll look for some at the U.N. this week — and wonder, perhaps, why he finds so few.


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