At his first Cabinet meeting of the year—not long after the secretary of defense had resigned, protesting the president’s attitudes about America’s allies—President Donald Trump revisited a pet peeve of his. The United States had been, he said, “taken advantage of by so many countries on our military,” and he focused in particular on Afghanistan.
Previous presidents have been humbled that the first-ever invocation of NATO’s mutual-defense clause was to protect the United States after the September 11 attacks, and viewed the common undertaking in Afghanistan as proof of allied solidarity. The current leader of the free world, however, does not credit allies for shedding their blood alongside Americans in Afghanistan these past 19 years. Instead, Trump said: “I’ve heard past presidents, ‘Well, they’re involved in the Afghanistan war because they sent us 100 soldiers.’ And yet, it’s costing us billions and billions of dollars.”
America’s leadership of the international order is of a type unique for a dominant power: Previous superpowers had to force countries into compliance; the U.S. instead designed an international order. Successive American governments largely played defense of liberal states and incentivized transitions to democracy, but rarely coerced compliance. As Dwight Eisenhower described the strategy, military force would be used to deter predation by the Soviets, while the magnetism of America’s freedoms and prosperity lured states into cooperation. And it worked, keeping the United States and its allies prosperous and largely safe for the past 70 years.