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  • Ankit Malhotra


(Source: Jesco Denzel)

What better way to conceptualize the Trump presidency than a pictorial representation from 2018? In this particular photograph of world leaders such as those from the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Spain, and Belgium are observed looking in one direction, and President Trump looking in another. While only a photograph, it represents one of the biggest and most focal points of American foreign relations. This, in turn, also focuses on the future trajectory of foreign relations.

To understand and determine the future trajectory of foreign relations, we revisit the past to understand how we got here. Almost seventy years ago, the United States built a network of alliances that helped make it the most powerful state. Though, today, the existence of those alliances is in doubt. They were in trouble even before the Trump administration. Today, after Joe Biden assumed office, the world deliberates upon what America’s future could look like.

The United States was protected by two giant oceans. Thus, for the next one hundred and fifty years, America was alone until 1941. It is claimed that the "United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked." When Japan attacked a United States naval base, it shattered the idea that oceans could protect the United States any longer. Therefore, they allied with these countries and declared war on Japan and its allies. Together, they won the war, but faced a very different world in the aftermath of it.

After World War II, there were only two major powers: the United States and the Soviet Union. Europe was left toothless and economically torn after the devastations caused by the war. Some nations were worried about a possible Soviet annexation. To protect against that, the United States formed a collective alliance with eleven other countries: the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO. The agreement was simple: An armed attack on one member would be regarded as an attack on all, requiring every member to come to its assistance. However, the reality was far more complicated.

The United States had a robust military, while these countries had weak ones if any at all. That meant NATO was a guarantee by the United States to protect all these countries from attacks. It was risky, but it gave the US leverage over countries that now depended on them for protection. It used that leverage to align those countries with its foreign policy. Many allowed the United States to build military bases within their borders, giving the United States the first line of defence against the Soviets. However, the United States also saw threats elsewhere.

In 1948, North Korea had transitioned to a communist nation. In 1949, so did China. So the United States signed individual alliances with six more countries. The United States also signed a collective alliance with twenty-one countries in Latin America. By 1960, the Soviet Union was surrounded by countries that, if attacked, would trigger a war with the US. For hundreds of years, alliances had been used to fight and win specific wars. This was something new: the real gamble that the United States was taking was the idea that it would use alliances to keep wars from starting at all.

One of the first tests of this idea came to Berlin. The city lay deep in Soviet-controlled East Germany but was divided between the NATO countries and the Soviets. In 1961, the Soviet leader told the western powers to leave. Instead, the United States and its allies quickly moved troops into Berlin. The United States publicly committed to upholding its promise: In response, the Soviets built the Berlin Wall all through the city - and backed down.

The United States guarantee also helped prevent further wars in Taiwan and Korea. It proved that this system worked, but only if America’s enemies and allies trusted that the United States would follow through. Thus, for the next sixty years, the United States' presidents said it out loud. "A nation cannot remain great if it betrays its allies and lets down its friends." "We will strengthen our historic ties and assure them of our support and firm commitment.” And it worked: The Soviets believed it. World War III never happened. “The United States recognizes and welcomes the emergence of a free, independent, and democratic Russia." Between 1989 and 1991, the Soviet Union and its communist allies in Europe fell apart.

Now the United States was the world’s only superpower. Most of its allies were safe from invasion. However, for NATO, that created an existential question: should the alliance go out of business because its primary adversary had disassembled itself? Or should it find a new case for its being?

European leaders, and many American leaders, supported keeping NATO around, to support democracy and security in Europe. "Ultimately the best strategy to ensure our security, and to build a durable peace, is to support the advance of democracy elsewhere." "It would be a catastrophe for American interests if instability were to alter the current situation in Europe." In 1999, NATO added three former Soviet allies: Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary. It started intervening in conflicts outside of its membership. In 1999, it bombed Serbian forces fighting in Kosovo. It also aided in the United States invasion of Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and supported parts of the war in Iraq in 2003. Meanwhile, in Asia, the United States had stayed close to South Korea and Japan to counter North Korea. However, the fall of the Soviet Union had made the alliances with these countries harder to sustain.

Those relationships in a lot of ways went adrift. That created something of a soft strategic underbelly in Southeast Asia. Some United States' leaders began to question the cost of those alliances. The United States had asked NATO allies to spend 2% of their GDP on defence, but few countries were meeting that goal. Hence, they urged NATO along with South Korea and Japan to increase their spending-while still reaffirming its promise to back its allies. “Their cause is America's cause.” “We will defend our allies and our interests." Still, these alliances were drifting nonetheless, membership increased, and in 2004 NATO had added seven more members —including these three, known as the Baltic States.

Leaders in Russia became concerned that NATO had reached its borders. After it made plans to grant membership to Georgia and Ukraine, Russia decided to act. Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, then Ukraine in 2014, preventing either country from joining NATO. However, those invasions had another purpose: one could think about Russia's invasion of Ukraine as a prelude to what could happen if Russia decided to make a quick fait accompli grab in the Baltics.

Russia was building up a massive military presence along its border, and now its willingness to invade its neighbours raised an uncomfortable question: Would the United States and its allies be willing to go to war to defend one of these small countries?

In Asia, China developed a similar strategy. Since the end of the Cold War, China had become the second-biggest economy in the world. It built a military and missile stockpile capable of controlling this whole region.

Both Russia and China have developed military strategies that seek to demonstrate to American allies that the United States cannot protect them.

They have also introduced strategies that advanced their regional interests, but in ways that would not trigger a United States response. Russia began launching cyber attacks all over Europe and spreading disinformation in support of radical politicians.

In the South China Sea, China turned remote reefs into man-made islands with military bases on them. All in an area disputed by many countries. It also issued huge loans and built infrastructure projects in dozens of countries around the world, giving them not just economic leverage in those places, but political leverage as well. Russia and China left the United States and its allies scrambling to respond, and without triggering a treaty commitment that might result in their cooperation to defend their mutual interests. All of this is designed to force America’s allies to doubt its commitment, and potentially peel off from each other, and the US. However, how the United States should deal with this was unclear.

Then, in 2016, it elected a President who took things in a dramatically new direction. "We've defended other nations' borders. Subsidized the armies of other countries. It’s going to be only, America First." President Trump’s view was that many international agreements were inherently unfair to the United States and that the United States could get a better deal by negotiating relationships with each country. Thus, he pulled the United States out of several agreements previously made with allies. He considered withdrawing from alliances unless the allies spent more on defence. “NATO members must finally contribute their fair share and meet their financial obligations."

Trump made a fair point. In 2016, many allies were still under their spending goals. He demanded that NATO, South Korea, and Japan dramatically increase it or face consequences. "South Koreans cost us five billion dollars a year, and they were paying about 500 million, for $5 billion worth of protection. And we have to do better than that.” In 2020, he pulled 12,000 troops out of Germany. This caused the United States' allies to further doubt its promises. In some cases, it made them move closer to their adversaries. Even the United States' closest allies in Asia, like Japan, have increasingly deepened their ties with China. What we are starting to see is a set of hedging behaviours, in case the United States does not return to the status of a predictable ally.

Joe Biden has been one of the most vocal supporters of the United States alliance system as a senator, former Vice-President and now, the President, who is running on a platform that would pull America’s allies closer. However, the limitations of these alliances are also the reason the United States is in this situation, to begin with. How to update this decades-old system is a daunting question. What is certain is that Russia and China will keep trying to separate America from its allies. Joe Biden is touted to have a huge amount of power over what to do about it. He will have to answer something that every American ally is wondering: whom does the United States want to be in the world?

Cover Image: Foreign Policy Research Institute

About the author: Ankit Malhotra is studying Law at Jindal Global University. He is the co-founder and President of the Jindal Society of International Law.

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