Many of former President Donald Trump’s supporters vigorously dismiss fears that he’ll damage U.S. alliances during a second turn in office. In an April 2 Wall Street Journal op-ed entitled “Trump Was Good for America’s Alliances,” for example, former Trump White House official Alexander B. Gray asserts that the “global foreign policy elite is sowing needless fear around the world” about a second Trump term. Gray argues that Trump merely sought new solutions to old problems and pushed NATO allies to pull their weight, that Trump’s language was rough but effective.

That and similarly optimistic takes by other Trump supporters could give some inside a second Trump administration the latitude to shape a more constructive narrative of ally relationships, a sort of off-ramp from a potential wreck, but the claims won’t stand serious scrutiny. The rules-based international order that most of the world depends on, including the United States, is built on alliances. Those alliances cannot be maintained without a clear understanding of what constitutes a friend and likewise what makes for an adversary, a delineation that Trump has historically blurred.

Take NATO, the premier U.S. alliance that had kept general peace in Europe for many decades after World War II, with tragic exceptions such as the full-scale wars of the former Yugoslavia and until at least Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine and seizure of Crimea. NATO has shown remarkable resilience, celebrating its 75th birthday this year. Certainly Trump was right to push for greater military spending by NATO allies, but so were the other U.S. presidents since Eisenhower who did the same, usually to little avail. European allies should be doing more to contribute to the alliance, especially Germany, which must reverse the decline of its military capacity since the end of the Cold War.

The good news is that the trend is now moving in the right direction. The February commitments by Chancellor Olaf Scholz at the Munich Security Conference to increase German defense spending to 2 percent of GDP in the 2020’s and 2030’s (up from 1.5 percent before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine) is a promising first step, though more needs to be done. But it wasn’t Trump’s demands (or efforts by previous U.S. presidents) that spurred such action. The increase in defense spending by NATO allies came about due to a sudden (and belated) understanding among western European allies triggered by Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 – finally they grasped that Vladimir Putin’s Russia is indeed a threat to them as well. In essence, the Germans and French realized that the Poles, the Baltic States, and other Central and East European countries had been right in their alarmed viewed of Russia’s intentions since Putin’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine.

If European allies in NATO sustain their declarations and initial steps to shore up defenses and their defense industrial base, that would be good for NATO and overall transatlantic security. Of major European countries, the Poles are in the lead by GDP, with their defense spending now increased to an estimated 3.9 percent of GDP, twice the NATO benchmark and set to rise further. A future President Trump might claim credit for a general European military buildup and express a new commitment to NATO based on the assertion, however dubious, that his rough rhetoric “saved” the alliance. In that case, the allies may well choose to accept that assertion, however distasteful, for the sake of the transatlantic future. Politics is not for the purist.

Trust and Reliability

But to argue that Trump’s tough love is good for American alliances is not just a stretch. It’s false. NATO will not stand or fall solely through burden-sharing. To be effective, NATO’s military capacity must be coupled with trust, reliability, and a foundational understanding of the importance of presenting a united front to deter aggression. In Trump’s infamous declaration just two months ago that he would let Russia do “whatever the hell they want” to a NATO member country not meeting defense-spending benchmarks, he signaled clearly that he sees NATO’s Article 5 obligation to regard an attack on any NATO ally as an attack on all as conditional and transactional. That does substantial damage to the alliance, and NATO’s chief adversary, Vladimir Putin, is keenly aware of that.

A conditional and transactional commitment is no commitment at all; rather, it is an invitation to bargain away transatlantic security in exchange for whatever Putin can offer. Historically, Trump has seemed to have an inverted relationship with NATO allies and Putin — playing hardball with allies while simultaneously cozying up to Putin.

It’s not just tactics. Trump’s isolationist rhetoric and the arguments that underpin it recall the original America First sentiment of the early 1940’s, characterized by indifference to European security, dismissal of common democratic values that unite Europe and the United States, and sympathy with aggressive dictators. Hitler then, and Putin now.

A second defense of Trump’s approach to alliances comes from those, like Elbridge Colby, who make the argument that the U.S.-European alliance is too costly for the United States to maintain in face of what they claim is the larger threat from China. With limited resources, Asia-firsters maintain, the United States must make choices, and focusing primarily on Indo-Pacific security is the right one. Therefore, as their argument goes, the United States must pull back from commitments in Europe, letting the Europeans deal with Putin’s Russia and take the lead on supporting Ukraine.

The need to keep commitments commensurate with resources is a venerable strategic principle. But undermining European alliances ostensibly to make Asian alliances more credible would leave both alliances in worst shape. Again here, alliances depend on reliability and credibility, and those qualities are indivisible. Weakening one alliance will weaken all. You don’t increase your credit score by failing to pay your electric bill so you can concentrate on your gas bill.

To effectively counter China, the United States must rely on its European alliances as well as those elsewhere. Security cannot be partitioned between Europe and Asia. And this is well-understood by the strongest U.S. allies in Asia – South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan; they support Ukraine and the ongoing U.S. commitment to Europe because they understand the importance of addressing challenges to the liberal world order collectively, rather than by imposing a hierarchy. European allies understand this as well, and keep saying in private and public — that Europe will be better-placed to help deal with China if it’s not left alone to deal with Putin’s Russia.

The importance of alliances goes beyond hard security concerns. The common values that underpin these relationships such as democratic freedoms, rule of law, and human rights provide the foundation for the trust, reliability, and respect necessary to bolster mutual defense. For NATO, in particular, the essence of the deter-to-defend strategy is fully dependent on reliability among partners, which cannot be developed without this deep trust and shared understanding.

Shared Economic Interests

Beyond the NATO alliance, shared economic interests provide another justification for the critical importance of strong alliances. The economic relationship between the European Union and the United States is worth $7 trillion. If America hopes to contend with China’s economic heft, it will need the Europeans. Threats by the Trump campaign to impose extreme tariffs of 10 percent minimum on all imports would have an outsized impact on Europe, one of America’s top trading partners. These tariffs would be particularly damaging to Germany and other export-focused EU countries. According to a study by the German Economic Institute (IW), Germany’s GDP would drop by a projected 1.2 percent by 2028 if these tariffs were enacted. This is sure to damage U.S. relations not only with Germany but also with chief trading partner and economic ally the EU, and thus would compromise a relationship that is key to effectively contending with a rule-breaking China. And independent from the ramifications for the U.S.-Germany relationship, the same IW study mapped out possible implications for the U.S. economy should Trump be elected, finding sizable potential impact to the U.S. GDP under different scenarios following a Trump election.

Trump indicates that, should he be re-elected, he wants to leave a legacy of a strong foreign policy towards Beijing and make an effective stance against the heavyweight that is China’s manufacturing and export capabilities. To succeed, he will need to do so with consensus-building, not by, as economics writer Noah Smith put it, “punching down” on America’s allies or “retreating behind a fortress of tariffs.” China is simply too big economically for the United States to take on alone. A more effective foreign policy in a second Trump term would require him to differentiate real friend from clear foe and contain the indiscriminate “toughness” that defined his first-term approach to foreign policy.

Assertiveness directed towards America’s adversaries, reassurances to America’s closest allies, consistency in messaging, and an understanding that isolationism is ineffective could facilitate a more effective foreign policy in a second Trump administration. Trump’s opposition to assisting Ukraine took six months to overcome, and damaged Ukraine and U.S. credibility for no good reason. Passage of Ukraine assistance, at last, stops the bleeding. But the damage remains. Trump’s apparent and last-minute acquiescence in letting the aid advance is welcome, but such vacillation is no foundation on which to base alliances or U.S. strategy.

No one benefits by America going at it alone, and that includes America.

IMAGE: Heads of state and government, including French President Emmanuel Macron (7th L), German Chancellor Angela Merkel (8th L), U.S. President Donald Trump, British Prime Minister Theresa May (5th R), and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (3rd R), mingle after posing for a “family photo” during the opening ceremony at the 2018 NATO Summit at NATO headquarters on July 11, 2018 in Brussels, Belgium. Trump used the summit to press NATO member countries to pay more towards the alliance’s mutual defense. (Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images)