Trump Keeps Kicking Allies When They're Down

The president's critical tweets after the London attack fit a pattern.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

“Faithful are the wounds of a friend,” the Bible observes—in other words, friends tell each other hard truths. For Donald Trump, that means suggesting on Twitter, in the raw moments after an explosion on a London train injured dozens on Friday, that the “loser terrorist” behind the blast was in “the sights of” British law-enforcement and might have been stopped had the authorities been as “tough” and “proactive” and “nasty” as he aims to be. Trump’s national-security adviser scrambled to make nice. Trump was describing his counterterrorism strategy, not indicting Britain’s, H.R. McMaster insisted. The United States, McMaster declared, “stands in solidarity” with the British people.” But on the other side of the Special Relationship, the wounds had already been inflicted. “I never think it’s helpful for anybody to speculate on what is an ongoing investigation,” British Prime Minister Theresa May shot back.

Trump has been lacing into traditional U.S. allies for decades now; back in the 1980s, he took out a full page newspaper ad arguing that supposed friends like Japan and Saudi Arabia weren’t paying enough money for U.S. protection. But as president, Trump has gone further, repeatedly kicking U.S. allies—in public and often on Twitter—when they’re down. He questioned the value of NATO and wavered on his commitment to defend its members just as the alliance grappled its greatest threat since the Cold War: a newly aggressive Russia. He berated London’s “pathetic” mayor Sadiq Khan for being insufficiently alarmed by terrorism on London Bridge, and made known his preferences in France’s presidential election after a terrorist attacks on the Champs-Elysees in Paris. He accused Qatar, which hosts the largest U.S. military base in the Middle East, of bankrolling terrorism while the Qataris were embroiled in a diplomatic crisis with Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies. He charged South Korea with “appeasement” shortly after South Korea’s immediate neighbor to the north tested a nuclear device with several times the explosive power of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In all of these cases, Trump’s critiques seemed to stem from the fact that he found vindication for his own views in the plight of his ally: NATO is spooked by a resurgent Russia because it needs reforms and is too dependent on U.S. military power; France and the United Kingdom are reeling from terrorism because they aren’t willing to countenance the harsh, politically incorrect measures, like a ban on immigration from certain Muslim-majority countries, that he is; Gulf countries are ostracizing Qatar because they’re finally addressing the roots of jihadist terrorism, as Trump urged in an address to the Muslim world in Riyadh. North Korea is detonating hydrogen bombs because, as Trump has been trying to tell people, the only way to counter Kim Jong Un’s threats is with more threatening threats.

Whether or not Trump’s criticisms are justified, however, the manner in which they’ve been aired risks placing significant strains on America’s friendships around the world. Alliances aren’t built in a day, and they can’t be destroyed in one either. But they’re vulnerable to death by a thousand cuts. To cite just one example: One reason it’s bad for North Korea to develop a nuclear-tipped long-range missile that can reach the United States is that this would undermine “extended deterrence”—the threat that America would come to the defense of its faraway allies, South Korea and Japan, in the event of a North Korean attack on those countries. If North Korea invaded the South, would the United States really protect Seoul if that meant exposing San Francisco to North Korean nukes? In tweeting about South Korean appeasement—not to mention sidelining allies in his responses to North Korean provocations and vowing to overhaul U.S.-South Korean trade, Trump is widening the very divisions between the United States and South Korea that North Korea is seeking to sow. In tweeting about the London attack, meanwhile, Trump has prompted public rebuke from an ally over an issue on which the U.S. and UK should be coordinating and cooperating, namely counterterrorism.

Trump’s unpredictability and skepticism toward historical U.S. partners has already thrown America’s alliances into flux, but that’s only compounded at fragile times like the aftermath of Friday’s violence in the London Underground. “Were I to be in office right now, the concern would be trying to [determine] what is exactly the [U.S.] policy that we’re going to have to count on,” Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the former president of Estonia, one of NATO’s easternmost members, told me recently. What happens when you can’t count on the American president at the moment you’d expect to count on him most?