Farewell Uncle Sam, hello Uncle Donald

The Trump administration is undermining some of America’s closest alliances

Gideon Rachman




All over the world there are countries that rely on the protection and leadership of the US. But dependable old Uncle Sam seems to have gone on a long vacation — and his malicious twin, Uncle Donald, has taken up residence in the White House. The result is confusion and soul-searching among some of America’s closest allies.

Three countries — Britain, Australia and Japan — exemplify the problem. All three pride themselves on their close relationships with the US. All three are currently led by centre-right governments that would normally expect good relations with a Republican president.

And yet all three have seen their prime ministers humiliated or put in excruciatingly awkward situations by Mr Trump. The most recent example came with the president’s retweeting of anti-Muslim videos from a far-right group in Britain. The result has been an unseemly, unprecedented and wholly unnecessary row between the US president and the British prime minister. Mr Trump’s much-deferred “state visit” to Britain is now disappearing into the dim-and-distant future.

Theresa May is simply going through the kind of bruising encounter, already experienced by Malcolm Turnbull, the Australian prime minister. His first phone call with Mr Trump degenerated into a row after Mr Turnbull asked the president to uphold a US-Australian agreement on resettling refugees.

Shinzo Abe, the Japanese prime minister, has skilfully avoided embarrassing showdowns with Mr Trump. But no amount of bonhomie on the golf course can disguise the fact that Mr Trump’s election led to a calamity for the Abe government. On his very first day in office, the new US president repudiated the Trans-Pacific Partnership — a multi-nation trade deal that Mr Abe had made the centrepiece of his economic and security policies.

Despite these humiliating rebuffs, the British, Australian and Japanese governments have all gritted their teeth — and attempted to humour Uncle Donald. All three countries face challenges that make them more anxious than ever to cling to the US. The rise of China has made both Japan and Australia determined to bolster the American presence in the Pacific. Britain is struggling with Brexit and dreams of a new trade deal with the US.

Dependence on the US is also deeply embedded in the foreign and security policies of the three nations. So they are all holding on to the hope that Uncle Donald’s advisers will keep America roughly on course, until reliable old Uncle Sam reappears once again.

The pliant attitudes of Britain, Japan and Australia might lead Mr Trump to conclude that dishing out the occasional humiliation to close allies is a cost-free exercise. But that would be excessively complacent. For while official policy remains unaltered, Britain, Japan and Australia are all now having public debates about their relationship with the US that highlight the possibility of radical changes in the future.

The Turnbull government has just issued a white paper which asserts that “Australia will continue strongly to support US global leadership”. But some prominent Australians argue that basing their nation’s foreign policy on an alliance with the US is not a sustainable long-term option. Hugh White, a former senior official who is now an academic, has long argued that China will displace America as the dominant power in the Pacific. Mr White believes that the election of Mr Trump is a “massive additional blow” to Australia’s traditional reliance on the US.

The crisis over North Korea could bring Australian doubts about Mr Trump to a head. Mr Turnbull has said that Australia would join a war on the Korean peninsula “if there is an attack on the US”. But Australian officials warn that the situation would be very different if a Korean war is initiated by a US pre-emptive strike. In that case, Australia would not fight alongside America — breaking with the precedent established in two world wars, Korea, Vietnam and Iraq.

The Korean crisis and the erratic nature of the Trump administration are also causing soul-searching in Japan. Mr Abe remains determined to hug the Americans close. But only 24 per cent of Japanese say they trust Mr Trump to “do the right thing” in world affairs — compared with 78 per cent who trusted former president Barack Obama. These plummeting levels of faith in US leadership mean that hitherto taboo ideas are entering the public debate in Japan — with the left pushing for a rapprochement with China, and the right advocating much faster rearmament.

Britain’s options seem even narrower than Japan’s, because the UK is locked into longstanding relationships with the US over intelligence and nuclear weapons. But Brexit has demonstrated that the British public is willing to consider policy shifts that seem inconceivable to the establishment. Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition Labour party, has a long record of anti-Americanism — and may now find the British public much more in tune with his own deep suspicion of Washington.

Given his disdain for US allies, Mr Trump probably does not worry too much about the views of the UK, Japan and Australia. But America’s network of alliances — such as the US-Japan security treaty, Nato and the Anzus treaty — are bedrocks of US power. If those alliances are allowed to crumble, America’s global power would crumble with them.

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