Trump ran on a promise of putting America first. He has argued that American allies aren’t paying their fair share, he appears to want a détente with Russia, and yet he also wants to massively increase funding for the U.S. military. While Trump might represent a reaction against American overseas commitments, his ascendency to the presidency actually makes great power conflict more likely because it is generating massive levels of instability and undermining the global institutions underpinning the peaceful, American-led liberal order. As I have argued before, the American alliance network is the bedrock upon which the current global order rests. It is not cheap to maintain, but it also represents a net gain for the United States, which is able to utilize its allies to ensure peace. Trump’s calls for American retrenchment might appeal to populist voters tired of foreign interventions, but Trump’s foreign policy is not in the interests of the United States and risks inadvertently generating a great power war.
While Trump’s unpredictability will likely grant him some leverage over “free-riding” allies, it also creates corrosive dynamics that undermine America’s global position. For example, by signaling that he might not be willing to defend NATO allies, Trump has created uncertainty over America’s resolve. Historically, this has led to disastrous miscalculations and great power war. For example, Austrian emperor Franz Joseph believed that his invasion of Serbia in the summer of 1914 would not elicit a response from the other European great powers. German Kaiser Wilhelm II similarly believed that the risk of a global war breaking out over the Balkans was relatively low because the British sent mixed signals about their willingness to intervene on the side of the Entente. Clearly, the Germans and Austrians seriously miscalculated, and their mistake led to tens of millions of deaths and the collapse of three empires. But their erroneous assumptions were not entirely their own fault, as unclear signaling from the Entente powers led them to underestimate allied resolve. This kind of miscalculation was also evident during the Korean War. At first, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin restrained his North Korean client from invading the South because he feared a conflict with the United States. However, after U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson announced America’s “defense perimeter” in Asia and conspicuously failed to include the Korean Peninsula, Stalin green lit the North Korean invasion of the South. In hindsight, we all know that the United States actually was willing to defend the South and deployed significant military power to halt and reverse Kim Il-sung’s invasion. However, it’s not difficult to see why Stalin miscalculated. Trump is creating the same conditions that led to the WWI and the Korean War by constantly questioning the value of NATO and the utility of America’s alliances in Asia. Indeed, Trump is all but inviting revisionist states like Russia and China to test American resolve, and this could potentially spark a major war.
Even if American adversaries don’t miscalculate, though, American allies might. We are already seeing allies respond to Trump’s threats to pull out of NATO. For instance, Germany has massively increased its defense budget because it believes that it might be the only power willing to stand up to Putin, and it wants to ensure that the Bundeswehr is sufficiently capable of defending NATO’s eastern borders if Trump chooses to side with Putin against America’s allies. The strengthening of the German military is certainly a positive development for everyone. However, Trump’s statements might also lead to more pernicious side effects. For example, many American allies lying in exposed positions might adopt a strategy of Finlandization, seeking accommodations with American adversaries in order to secure themselves against aggression. Typically, states prefer to balance against rival powers. However, if effective counterbalancing is deemed impossible, countries are forced to bandwagon with rising powers in order to secure their autonomy. This was the strategy of Finland during the Cold War as well as a number of German states during the Napoleonic Wars.
The United States currently possesses an unmatched alliance network that allows it to project military power anywhere in the world. However, if the U.S. fails to uphold its end of the bargain and refuses to guarantee the security of its allies, America’s global partners might begin to defect to regional adversaries. This would severely weaken America’s position in the world and increase the risk of a power transition war, as rising powers exploit America’s relative decline by making a bid for hegemony.
Beyond creating structural weaknesses in the liberal order and generating dangerous uncertainty over America’s willingness to protect its friends and allies, Trump also faces a problem of policy. Frankly, his grand strategy is utterly incoherent. He wants détente with Russia, yet he simultaneously wants to tear up the JCPOA and massively increase pressure on Iran. This is a particularly bizarre policy view, as Iran is a regional ally of Russia, and it’s incredibly difficult to see how Trump could improve U.S.-Russian relations while simultaneously deliberately provoking one of Russia’s regional allies in the Middle East. Trump’s views on China are also peculiar, as he wants to punish Chinese currency manipulation (which, by the way, is non-existent) while also weakening America’s position in Asia by rejecting the TPP and berating U.S. allies in Asia over their level of defense spending.
Obviously, nobody – including Donald Trump – knows what kind of foreign policy the Trump administration will pursue. Trump seems to have very few fixed views, and his stated foreign policy goals stand in sharp contrast with the more hawkish views of traditional Republican politicians. What is clear, however, is that Trump has generated massive uncertainty and has destabilized the international order. While this might help him in the short term by granting him greater leverage over allies, it presents long-term challenges, such as the weakening of the American alliance system and an increased likelihood of inadvertent wars occurring over entirely preventable miscalculations. Trump might claim to be a great deal-maker and businessman, but when it comes to foreign policy, his “grand bargains” will likely only destabilize the global order, forcing the U.S. to engage in even more costly wars.