What most distinguishes Trump’s critiques from those of previous U.S. presidents—who at times complained about free-riding friends and acted unilaterally when partners were perceived as obstacles to pursuing U.S. interests—is that Trump’s grievances aren’t just about having to expend more resources than America’s allies, or about expending those resources on alliances that aren’t demonstrating their value. They’re also about what Trump apparently considers the supreme folly of investing in alliances that harm or even constitute direct threats to the United States.
As Trump seems to see it, allies—with their free-trade deals and military alliances and unending expectations of preferential treatment—tie down the United States, Gulliver-like, and infringe on its sovereignty. They cynically take advantage of their superpower patron while cloaking their naked self-interest in the high-minded language of multilateralism and shared interests. They flourish by exploiting America’s largesse and sapping the United States of its strength. (Hence, perhaps, why Trump is blasting Germany for buying gas from Russia—and not from the energy-rich United States—while depending on the United States to defend it from Russia.) Trump’s gripes about the “$151 Billion trade deficit” with the European Union or the U.S. spending “at least 70 percent for NATO” are really just numerical ways of saying the United States is getting screwed by supposed friends who are laughing all the way to the bank.
This is why the president reportedly likes to refer to longtime American partners such as Canada, France, and Germany as “so-called allies” and to claim that these allies “don’t care about us”—only themselves. It’s why, at a rally in Ohio this spring, he declared, “Our friends did more damage to us than our enemies. Because we didn’t deal with our enemies. We dealt with our friends and we dealt incompetently.” And it helps explain Trump’s fluid, transactional, and iconoclastic approach to foreign policy, which is predicated on the notion that the United States has to stop looking out for the world and start looking out for itself.
In Trump’s conception of the world, it seems, everyone is a frenemy: a selfish competitor, be it Germany or Russia or North Korea, to be coerced or courted depending on what Trump believes suits American interests at any given moment. And everything—including decades-old friendships and animosities—is up for negotiation. Nothing is sacred.
“We have to explain to him that countries that have worked with us together in the past expect a level of loyalty from us, but he doesn’t believe that this should factor into the equation,” a senior Trump administration official recently told The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg.
These ideas of Trump’s, moreover, are not new; they appear to be among the president’s core convictions. In 1987, he took out a full-page ad in several newspapers calling on the U.S. government to “tax” allies such as Japan and Saudi Arabia so that the American economy could “grow unencumbered by the cost of defending those who can easily afford to pay us for the defense of their freedom” and whose “stake in their protection is far greater than ours.” In a 1990 Playboy interview, he argued that “our country needs more ego” because “our so-called allies” have “outegotized this country” and made “billions screwing us” by controlling “the greatest money machine ever assembled and it’s sitting on our backs.” A President Trump, he said, “wouldn’t trust anyone. He wouldn’t trust the Russians; he wouldn’t trust our allies.” (Ahead of this week’s NATO summit, Trump deployed strikingly similar language, accusing America’s allies of being “worse” than its adversaries by “robbing” the U.S. “piggy bank.” He also lamented that the United States disproportionately supports NATO even though it “helps [the Europeans] a lot more than it helps us.”)