At a recent election rally in South Carolina, Donald Trump said he would “encourage” aggressors such as Russia “to do whatever the hell they want” to Nato allies he considers to have not met their financial obligations.

Trump’s comments, however offensive, may merely be an electoral strategy.

Why should, say, a South Carolinian citizen see their taxes go towards defending faraway lands, especially if they believe these partners are not willing to pay equally?


This article was written by William Rees of the University of Exeter and is the opinion of the author and not necessarily that of the UK Defence Journal. If you would like to submit your own article on this topic or any other, please see our submission guidelines.


But there’s also a logic to his remarks that Europe should recognise, especially in light of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Many European nations need to build up their own security capacities again after years of lax spending on defence.

Regardless, such public comments from a presidential candidate have long been unthinkable. Since the second world war, America has sought out allies. What would it mean for the nation’s security, as well as that of the wider world, should they forego them?

Trump says he ‘would encourage’ Russia to attack non-paying Nato allies.

British precedent

The modern US-led global order is in many ways a modern iteration of something developed by Great Britain at the beginning of the 19th century. Britain used the peace negotiations that followed the Napoleonic wars (1803–1815) to try and limit the power of expansive land empires like that of defeated France.

The 19th century is sometimes referred to as “Pax Britannica” (British peace) because of the relative absence of conflict between major European powers, with the notable exception of the Crimean War (1853–1856). It lasted until a unified German state emerged as a land power in continental Europe in 1871, upending the security presumptions of the post-Napoleonic peace.

One of Britain’s key reasons for fighting two world wars against Germany was to maintain its version of a global order. But, in winning, Britain depleted its finances – and capacity to maintain an empire – through borrowing from the US.

The US had become the new economic heavyweight, with a military built up and spread by wartime necessity. Its adherence to basic principles meant the British did not resist America’s newfound global primacy.

Free trade was to remain sacrosanct. Sea trade routes were defended as these were (and still are) vital for US economic superiority. The US would also maintain the kind of alliances that the British tended to turn to during times of war, where coalitions of allies share the costs and persevere towards victory.

Lonely at the top?

The US would actively shape the world to its own liking in the post-war period. After the hyper-nationalistic conquests that were characteristic of its enemies in the first and second world wars, the US wanted no more empires.

It set up institutions dedicated to spurring free trade and global stability like the UN, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. And it formed alliances, most notably Nato, which included befriending wartime enemies like Germany and committing themselves to a long-term global role.

These alliances allowed the US to station troops overseas in strategic positions without having to administer a costly and potentially discontented empire, like the British and basically every world power had done before them.

Much of this was motivated by the Cold War. The Soviets had exchanged Nazi occupation of eastern Europe for their own. And it was widely believed that in the absence of US security guarantees, western Europe would also be invaded and made communist – an ideology that the US considered incompatible with its own.

The great power competition soon led to US involvement in other zones of communist activity, such as Asia. This was a period in which the US intervened in foreign governments and carried out or supported ethically questionable conflicts. For US politicians, however, it was generally bipartisan to believe that US intervention was justified by a bigger conflict between democracy and authoritarianism.

US power was also different to, say, the heyday of the Spanish empire in the 16th century. This empire did an excellent job of antagonising other powers and depleting its own vast resources in endless wars over honour and Catholicism.

Although certainly not universally loved, US power is not completely resented. This has much to do with America’s globally exported culture, from Hollywood to hip-hop. But also in how its power can be articulated as mutually beneficial to other nations, both in terms of trade and security.

We do not live in a peaceful world. But it is widely acknowledged that the world would become more dangerous if the US were to suddenly disengage. US security guarantees, for instance, disincentivise allies like Germany and Japan from developing nuclear weapons for their own safety.

Global security is American security

Supporting US allies, which was once a bipartisan issue in American politics, is becoming a zero-sum game – even though it is just about the most dangerous issue to do this with.

Bringing global security guarantees into question is exactly what states hostile to the US want. They know it weakens a world order that protects democracies, global trade, and weaker states that could otherwise be imposed upon militarily.

The US protects these not merely as an act of charity, but also because they are in the vital interests of America’s own safety, even if it can seem indirect to some American voters or the politicians who recently held up aid for Ukraine.

Ironically, a worldview that sees raw, almost mercantilist, selfishness as the entirety of foreign policy is exactly the thing that the US’s global order of free trade and respecting national sovereignty has discouraged for almost a century.

If America First becomes America Only, it might be a world view that certain regimes wish to emulate. But morally, it will not do what the nation managed in the past. To convert souls to an American future.The Conversation

William Rees, PhD Candidate in Modern American History, University of Exeter

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Subscribe
Notify of
guest

19 Comments
oldest
newest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Frank62
Frank62
17 days ago

Fewer allies? If that criminal, lunatic, motor mouth, Trump regains the presidency the issue seems more likely the security of the free world with the USA becoming more isolationalist & accomodating to major dicators who threaten freedom. “Reckless, ruthless and careless,” seems to me to also describe him & I also fear he’ll drag the US into either another civil war or a slide into one party rule. The USA may become the unreliable ally, which would be music to the ears of the likes of Putin or Xi Xinping. I’m not a fan either of Biden given his sudden… Read more »

Last edited 17 days ago by Frank62
FOSTERSMAN
FOSTERSMAN
17 days ago

Trump the business man needs reminding how handsomely rewarded the American industrial complexes have been due to these alliances?

Spyinthesky
Spyinthesky
9 days ago
Reply to  FOSTERSMAN

America became ‘Great’ predominantly due to it. But then it never acknowledged that in the first place which is why it is arguing with itself now about why it seems to be disappearing, despite a rather flourishing economy compared to most.

ABCRodney
ABCRodney
17 days ago

I can’t stand Trump, the way he treats women is appalling, his continued efforts to ignore a riot in the US congress as being his fault etc etc etc. If he gets elected we are in deep trouble and amount of cooing, sucking up to him or anything else will get us out of the mess Europe (yes we Europeans) and NATO will be in. IMHO it’s time for the UK to sit down and have a serious conversation about how we deal with it collectively as European NATO not EU members. It isn’t like we don’t have Friends and… Read more »

Dragonwight
Dragonwight
17 days ago

The United States has a history of being isolationist, Trump knows this. Let’s face it the American population were content to sit back and rake in the cash from the British at the start of WW2 and let us fight it out with the nazi’s. It makes you wonder, if they’d have ever joined the war, if it wasn’t for Pearl Harbour. If they choose to go back down that route, more fool them. We need to make sure our own house is in order. Our defences are woeful. It beggars belief that not a single mention of defence was… Read more »

Last edited 17 days ago by Dragonwight
Spyinthesky
Spyinthesky
9 days ago
Reply to  Dragonwight

Roosevelt risked a lot supporting Britain as best he could there were times, like for example when US pilots were flying Catalina’s with British colleagues (who magically became Canadians) that had it got out could have cost his Presidency. Meanwhile fascist sympathisers like Ford and General Motors were more than happy to supply the German War machine and of course old man Kennedy was forced to be recalled under suspicion of being a German spy. It’s such duplicity that made America ‘great’ and no where is it stronger than in US business practice so we can well imagine the machinations… Read more »

Chris
Chris
16 days ago

Euro Anti-Trump media just reeks of whining about the gravy train coming to a stop. Guess you’ll have to turn down the welfare state a bit to pay for defense again.

Spyinthesky
Spyinthesky
9 days ago
Reply to  Chris

And people if you needed any spur to action this comment pretty much reveals the short sighted attitude across the pond who have many constituents, like they did in the thirties hold a soft spot and certain admiration for European dictators. Fact is the US makes a mint out of selling arms to Europe while doing its best to obstruct European companies competing on the World market so the only gravy train that will be coming to an end if Europe fails to retain independence would be the US one after that traditional act of selling to both sides evaporates… Read more »

Defence thoughts
Defence thoughts
16 days ago

The Romans learnt the value of allies after the Social War, the British learnt the value of allies after 1857. Let us hope that the U.S doesn’t have to have a similar experience to be reminded of the need for friends across the world.

Spyinthesky
Spyinthesky
9 days ago

Great words, the Americans as we have even heard on this thread can’t get out of their minds how they twice saved Europe. They totally fail (their greatest talent being the rewriting of history since 1776) to comprehend that had the Japanese not forced them into a war and then Hitlers stupidity in declaring war on them thus bringing them into the actual real war, that the bigger picture would almost certainly have led to their own demise, the question only being if it was to be by Germany or Russia and there would never have been the greatness MAGA… Read more »

Jonathan
Jonathan
14 days ago

The problem I have is that there is a core of truth in what trumps says…it’s just that I don’t really think he gives much of a shit about truths and wise decisions. But the truth is the US is the only western power that has been paying close to the requirements for reasonable defence at 3.5% GDP..European nations are not spending what they should and the 2% min is for NATO is well below the floor of what nations should be spending to manage the present geopolitical risks. Our enemies are using a mercantile strategy against the west and… Read more »

Chris
Chris
14 days ago
Reply to  Jonathan

US at risk from china. 😂 That’s a laugh.

As soon as they figure out how to cross a Pacific Ocean with 70 nuclear attack submarines swimming in it.

Jonathan
Jonathan
14 days ago
Reply to  Chris

What do you think will happen if china invades Taiwan and the USN reacts into the western pacific..it will be a bloodbath for both navies…there will then be a long drawn out conflict between the two most powerful nations on earth..economically, politically, industrially and militarily..if you don’t think the U.S. would not come out of that conflict completely mauled you have not read the same evidence base as I have…and I’ve widely read the very best research around a likely china U.S. conflict. Two nations the size of the US and china don’t go toe to toe without profound pain… Read more »

Spyinthesky
Spyinthesky
9 days ago
Reply to  Jonathan

Indeed even US run computer war games in any conflict around Taiwan showed decimation for a US fleet 5 out of the 6 runnings of various potential scenarios. I doubt the odds are getting better since they were run. Taiwan goes and western industry and markets are decimated for years so hardly a win win scenario. The only thing holding China back is that such damage and conflict will hit its own economy very badly too for some time as it still relies on western markets and thus it balances risk against benefit but the time will come and personally… Read more »

Spyinthesky
Spyinthesky
9 days ago
Reply to  Chris

Oh dear and that’s why we are all sleep walking into a threat of our own design. Cut off an Octopus’s tentacles and the head becomes a simple target later, if you even need to bother.

Even the Americans are concerned about the number of submarines they will have available by the way to give a more literal an answer, so that’s nothing to sneer at.

Spyinthesky
Spyinthesky
9 days ago
Reply to  Jonathan

Spot on it is in our joint interests, sadly Europe has neglected its defence probably in part to try to calm the very Russian ‘fears’ post Cold War it is now exploiting as an excuse to attack anyway only exacerbated by said defence weakness. Meanwhile the US understandably pissed by this accepted dereliction of duty is running right into the Chino/Russian trap and going all isolationist. What do they say about what comes before a fall? Liberal democracies cannot survive in isolation economically or in defence (Ancient Greece might have taught us that surely) and the US may think it… Read more »

John Boulton
John Boulton
14 days ago

Dr. William Rees is spot on with his article, but many of the comments below are misplaced. Many I think miss the whole point. Trump also said that for those countries who are prepared to pay the 2.5% of GDP on defence as agreed at their acceptance into NATO, he would 100% stand with them in their defence against any aggressor. In another statement he says that the USA pays 90% (I know that is wrong it is more like 80%) of the NATO budget with the remainder – 20% – coming from the remaining members. Britain pays less than… Read more »

Spyinthesky
Spyinthesky
9 days ago
Reply to  John Boulton

Again very naive, see my explanation above of what the future would almost certainly have been for the US had it not been forced into the Second World War which itself only happened because by almost a miracle Britain did not capitulate. The US had both a very close shave and a near miss on the circumstances that drove its post war economic supremacy even if we all tend to stupidly take it all for granted now. Fact is that is even more certain now if the US goes isolationist. A friend said to me weeks back I don’t think… Read more »

Val
Val
13 days ago

No Country came to take Britain’s plinth. No we are here, in this mess.