One of the perverse benefits of being a strategy wonk in Washington these days is getting to observe the anxious ally parade. Over the past year, officials from virtually every key U.S. ally have repeatedly visited Washington in an effort to determine what to make of the Trump administration and how best to cope with it.
As a broad generalization, most of these officials relate some version of what Shadow Government’s Colin Kahl has termed, aptly, the 80/20 rule. They are cautiously encouraged by the fact that perhaps 80 percent of U.S. policy appears to be proceeding more or less normally. NATO’s enhanced forward presence is proceeding, U.S. spending on the European Deterrence Initiative(formerly the European Reassurance Initiative, or ERI) has increased, freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea have continued and even been intensified, and day-to-day working relationships with U.S. allies remain fairly robust. Yet most officials are also quite alarmed by the fact that this 80 percent continuity came only after President Donald Trump considered dramatic breaks with established policy — withdrawing from the Iran deal and the North American Free Trade Agreement, pulling out of Afghanistan, lifting sanctions on Russia, and so on — and no less by the other 20 percent of U.S. policy. They lament Trump’s incendiary and self-defeating rhetoric; the innate, visceral skepticism that Trump obviously feels toward America’s longest-standing friends and partners; his obvious preference for autocrats over democrats; his retreat from global leadership on trade and climate issues; and his tendency to inject instability, incompetence, and incoherence into U.S. policy across a broad array of issues.