The Bill for ‘America First’ Is Coming Due

In this image from file video provided by UK Ministry of Defence, British navy vessel HMS Montrose escorts another ship during a mission to remove chemical weapons from Syria at sea off coast of Cyprus in February 2014.

UK Ministry of Defence via AP

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In this image from file video provided by UK Ministry of Defence, British navy vessel HMS Montrose escorts another ship during a mission to remove chemical weapons from Syria at sea off coast of Cyprus in February 2014.

Two of America’s closest treaty allies have announced military efforts explicitly designed to exclude the United States.

In this crowded and enervating week of news, it would have been easy to miss two small but consequential signs of the damage President Donald Trump and his team have done to America’s standing in the world. Two of America’s closest treaty allies have announced military efforts explicitly designed to exclude the United States. Australia is “seeking to cement its status as the security partner of choice for Pacific nations” by establishing an expeditionary training force. And the United Kingdom wants to create a multinational force to ensure freedom of navigation in the Strait of Hormuz.

It’s not a coincidence that allies are striking out on their own. Countries in the Pacific worry that the U.S. is forcing them to choose between their economic connections to China and their security relationships with the U.S. And while forcing this choice, the U.S. is also publicly calling the security guarantees into question—President Trump did so before arriving in Japan for the G20 summit. Meanwhile, European allies blame Trump-administration tactics for Iran’s decision to lash out at shipping in the Gulf. That’s why British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt stressed that the purpose of the multinational force was to dissociate European governments from U.S. policy toward Iran. Hunt explicitly said, “It will not be part of the U.S. maximum pressure policy on Iran because we remain committed to preserving the Iran nuclear agreement.”

As it happens, these efforts are consistent with Trump’s insistence that allies do more for themselves. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo responded to news of the British initiative by saying, “The responsibility … falls to the United Kingdom to take care of their ships.”

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Related: The US Should Be Strengthening Deterrence. The Opposite Is Happening.

The sad reality, however, is that America’s European allies cannot protect their ships without American help. Even the French Foreign Ministry had to admit that any European effort would “naturally have to be co-ordinated with the US on the operational level.” The International Institute for Strategic Studies estimates that it would cost European countries $110 billion to defend freedom of navigation. That is more than the annual defense budgets of Britain and France combined. It isn’t happening anytime soon, regardless of brave talk about “European strategic autonomy.”

Pacific nations, moreover, may not want Australian military training, for fear of antagonizing China when Australian security guarantees are not on offer, and wouldn’t suffice against a threat of China’s magnitude anyway.

An America Firster might not see much to dislike here. In the past 70 years, the U.S. has allowed more and more of the security burden to migrate from allies onto the U.S. Both of this week’s initiatives would relieve some pressure from U.S. forces as the U.S. tries to prioritize its efforts away from the Gulf to manage the China challenge. Both are undertaken by trusted American allies. They may prove to be the harbinger of a more balanced relationship among strong states of the West.

That would be a good outcome for the U.S.—but only if allies were choosing to do more consistent with American interests. They are not. The U.S. had a proposal for maritime patrols in the Gulf that its European allies declined to join. If the U.S. doesn’t act in concert with others, it will have less absolute power.

To take a financial example, European Union countries did not develop a so-called special-purpose vehicle for funding business with Iran to support American efforts—they are building means to circumvent dollar primacy because they object so strenuously to American policy on Iran. The SPV won’t succeed in the near term, but it shows that America’s European allies are so rattled by Trump’s Iran policy and so exasperated by the profligacy of U.S. sanctions that they’re looking to limit American financial power.

America’s friends are choosing to dissociate themselves, believing their interests are better served without American strength. It seems the rest of the world is losing faith that the U.S. is a reliable partner, sober and taking others’ interests into account as well as its own. The U.S. is ceasing to be a country that its allies come to for help solving problems. On the contrary, America’s allies think the U.S. is the cause of their increasingly tenuous security.

The Australian and British initiatives may not succeed. But the very fact of these proposals is proof that relations with close allies have frayed in systemically significant ways. This is what it looks like when the American-led international order comes to an end.

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