Assessing Alliances in the Time of Great Power Competition
Careless talk costs lives. That propaganda poster from wartime Britain should hang in the Oval Office. Even Donald Trump’s staunchest defenders struggle to justify his abrupt withdrawal, announced off the cuff in a phone call with the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, of the U.S. special forces who were protecting the Kurdish-controlled zone in northern Syria. Nor has anyone tried to elaborate on his ahistorical justification—that the Kurds “did not fight at Normandy” (in fact, Kurdish troops did take part in allied campaigns against Hitlerites in Iraq, Greece, and Albania).
President Trump may declare victory and go home (and to be fair, ending involvement in foreign wars was a campaign promise). But what kind of victory? Turkey is now wiping out the Syrian Kurdish militia, once America’s staunchest and most effective regional ally. The Islamic State will now regroup. Americans may forget the jihadists. But they have not forgotten America. True, Syria was a mess, not least because of the Obama administration’s disastrous shilly-shallying in the early days of the uprising against the regime in Damascus. Rather more blame attaches to the Europeans for their approach, which combines over-confidence, incoherence, complacency, and stinginess. Despite all that, Mr. Trump’s move has made a bad situation worse.
But the damage is wider. Dumping the Kurds also highlighted what was already the most troubling aspect of his administration’s foreign policy: its erratic treatment of allies. Given the way Trump has treated the loyal Kurds, who have lost thousands of lives fighting alongside the Americans against IS, why should Poland, the Baltic states, or any other ally, trust the United States to defend them in a crisis? These countries too have shed blood in U.S.-led wars, in faraway countries like Afghanistan and Iraq, where they had no interest beyond loyalty.
One answer is that Trump will not make the same mistake twice; even loyal Republican allies are aghast at his reckless behavior. With the impeachment battle looming in Congress, he can ill-afford to lose allies on Capitol Hill by mistreating allies elsewhere. Another, more cynical explanation is that the Kurds were expendable. U.S. interest in the Middle East is waning thanks to the shale boom and energy independence. Counterterrorism has dropped down the agenda. Great Power competition is now the centerpiece of the Trump administration’s national security strategy. The European allies are a bulwark against Russia. The Kurds do not play in that league.
If they are wise, the European allies will also rally to the U.S. side in its struggle against China. In particular, they should throw their weight behind the Three Seas Initiative (TSI). This is the U.S.-backed rival to China’s 17+1 project, which offers selected European countries infrastructure and soft loans in exchange for political favors to Beijing. The TSI got off to a splendid start at a Warsaw summit three years ago, graced by Trump himself. But it has struggled lately. Next year’s summit in Estonia will be a chance to give it new life.
That may shore up alliances for now. But any U.S. foreign policy engagement now depends on the answer to two unforgiving questions. Does the United States have a vital interest at stake? And—more unpleasantly—how does it affect Trump? Washington has lost its appetite to be the world’s policeman. Allies, coddled for too long, will have to raise their defense spending, their risk appetite, and their readiness for innovative, taboo-busting cooperation. Those who complain that these changes will be difficult should count their blessings. The Syrian Kurds, stateless, lightly armed, and isolated, never even got the chance to try.
October 17, 2019