In the president's world, there is no higher question than “who’s getting paid?”
Donald Trump’s tangles with America’s traditional friends—on trade, military spending, handshaking—are well known. But on Sunday, in an interview with 60 Minutes, the American president distilled his revolutionary view of the country’s alliances in Europe, Asia, and North America, which have formed the foundation for U.S. foreign policy for decades, to its essence. Asked by Lesley Stahl about the tariffs he’s threatened to impose on allies such as Canada, Japan, and the European Union, Trump responded, “I mean, what’s an ally?”
American leaders have long clashed with allies. Yet Trump is unique in casting these allies not as occasionally problematic partners, but as direct threats to the United States—threats that, in many cases, are actually more dangerous than America’s customary enemies because they drain the country of its vitality while masquerading as a friend.
During his appearance on 60 Minutes, for example, Trump asserted, “Nobody treats us much worse than the European Union,” which he claimed was created in the post–World War II period “to take advantage of us on trade,” and he disputed the conventional wisdom in Washington that America’s system of defense, diplomatic, and economic alliances has helped the United States project power and promote stability in the world. “Are you willing to disrupt the Western alliance? … It’s kept the peace for 70 years,” Stahl noted. “You don’t know that,” Trump shot back.
Trump has been making this argument about the fatally overlooked threat from supposed allies for three decades; it appears, in fact, to be among his core convictions. Perhaps the most vivid articulation of his perspective came in a 1990 Playboy interview in which he focused his ire on Japan, the rising power of that era: “Japan gets almost seventy percent of its oil from the Persian Gulf, relies on ships led back home by our destroyers, battleships, helicopters, frog men. Then the Japanese sail home, where they give the oil to fuel their factories so that they can knock the hell out of General Motors, Chrysler and Ford,” Trump observed at the time. “Their openly screwing us is a disgrace. Why aren’t they paying us? The Japanese cajole us, they bow to us, they tell us how great we are and then they pick our pockets. We’re losing hundreds of billions of dollars a year while they laugh at our stupidity. The Japanese have their great scientists making cars and VCRs and we have our great scientists making missiles so we can defend Japan.”
This worldview helps explain why the president tends to describe America’s security commitments to and free-trade deals with allies as graver dangers to the national interest than, say, Russia’s aggressive actions against U.S. partners abroad. (In his 60 Minutes interview, Trump noted that while Russian President Vladimir Putin is “probably” engaged in assassinations and poisonings around the world, “it’s not in our country.”)
And it helps explain the president’s relatively restrained response so far to the disappearance and suspected Saudi-government-sponsored murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey. This isn’t about shielding the kingdom simply because it’s a long-standing U.S. ally in the Middle East. As Trump told Stahl on 60 Minutes, it’s primarily about not putting at risk the billions of dollars’ worth of weapons that Saudi Arabia has pledged to purchase from the United States and that the Saudis could buy from U.S. rivals such as China and Russia if the United States imposes sanctions over the Khashoggi case. “I don’t wanna hurt jobs. I don’t wanna lose an order like that,” Trump acknowledged.
The president has repeatedly expressed revulsion at the apparent targeting of a journalist and vowed punishment if the kingdom’s rulers are found to be behind the alleged hit. But he has also pointed out that Khashoggi, who lived in Virginia and wrote for The Washington Post, is not a U.S. citizen and did not vanish in “our country.” “We don’t like [what happened to Khashoggi] even a little bit. But as to whether or not we should stop $110 billion from being spent in this country … that would not be acceptable to me,” Trump recently told reporters in the Oval Office. “What good does that do us?”
The president’s world is one in which there are no friends and no enemies, just coldhearted, self-interested nations in the throes of zero-sum competition—either you have your pockets picked or you do the picking. And at the moment the United States is stuffing its pockets with cash from the House of Saud, whatever Saudi leaders may have done to forever silence a critic seeking to speak his mind.