Read: Iran is acting like the international villain of Trump’s policy
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.”
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.
Read: How to choose between the U.S. and China? It might not be that easy.
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.