Intimate geopolitical partners don’t need to prove their loyalty. But states suspected of perfidy do. In light of Japan’s reluctance to send troops to fight in the Gulf War, the United States government grew skeptical of its commitment to American foreign policy goals. Japan was therefore one of the first allies to volunteer its support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
All the more counterintuitive, then, are the responses of U.S. allies to the Obama Administration’s decision to apply pressure to Israel, both at the Security Council and in John Kerry’s speech. Most states composed public responses to the week of diplomatic activity. They addressed their missives to a series of audiences—the United States, Israel, and their own domestic publics. But Britain, France, and Germany did not have John Kerry, or even President Obama, in mind as they imagined how America would interpret their statements. They thought, instead, of Donald J. Trump, who called Obama’s actions a “betrayal” and implored Israel to “stay strong” before his inauguration.
During Trump’s campaign, foreign leaders who opposed his candidacy faced a choice. They could criticize him for his proposals to ban Muslim immigration, re-institute torture, and undermine NATO, as well as for his history of sexual assault. Or, they could hedge their critique and hope to earn his praise and cooperation if he were to win. The French and Germans were more inclined to follow the first path, while the British often decided in favor of the second.
Now that Trump has, in fact, become the President-elect, the latter bet will, presumably, pay off. Leaders who opted not to call a spade a spade by haranguing Trump during the campaign won his favor. They can therefore afford, now that the election is over, to create distance between their public stances and Trump’s positions, so as to not draw the ire of states with contrary views. Leaders who criticized Trump, on the other hand, need to be more careful in hewing to his positions after the election, so as not to further alienate the United States government. This latter tack mirrors Japan’s choice to eagerly back the U.S. in 2003 after dragging its feet in 1990.
But world leaders’ reactions to the Obama administration’s diplomatic spat with Israel, in fact, followed the opposite logic.
In Britain, the Office of the Prime Minister published a statement arguing it was inappropriate for Kerry to “attack the composition of the democratically elected government of an ally.” This was a severe and rare rebuke to the White House, presumably calculated to draw Britain closer to Trump. But Theresa May was one of the world leaders who refrained from so vehemently opposing Trump during his campaign. She did critique him for his comments on Muslim immigration to the UK, but also resisted pressure to ban him from the UK in her role as Home Secretary. Plus, her (albeit tepid) support for Brexit means Trump likely does not consider her one of the globalist elites against whom he rails. In theory, then, she did not need to so be outspoken against the speech. A bold critique of Kerry ran the risk of alienating Arab countries and liberal Western partners, but she composed one nevertheless.
Unlike in Britain, reaction to Kerry’s speech was glowing in Germany and France. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Kerry’s words were “a warning and a reminder that the two-state solution must not become an empty phrase.” French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault called the speech “clear, courageous, and committed.” Steinmeier and Ayrault appear to have calculated that it was not in their interest to moderate their words to suit Trump’s sensibilities. But their governments were some of the most skeptical of Trump during the campaign. Theoretically, they, more than Britain, have a greater need to minimize their disagreements with Trump to salvage whatever good will they have with the President-elect.
Contrary to this conventional wisdom, those leaders who had opposed Trump during his campaign showed no signs of moderating their stances to gain his respect. Based on pure geopolitical interest, these calculations are questionable. Germany depends on the U.S. for nuclear assurance and trade, and France’s diplomatic credibility is heightened by the world’s perception that it is a close and valued partner of the United States. Distancing themselves from Trump could draw his ire and threaten their close relations with the US.
States have, of course, other motives when taking positions besides satisfying (or antagonizing) Donald Trump. Leaders have domestic constituencies, platforms on which they ran (if they are democratically elected), and their own views on issues that may incidentally diverge from or converge with Trump’s position. But the ubiquity of his positions in news coverage means that leaders are certainly not unaware of his views. Their own positions, then, are either a conscious rejection or deliberate embrace of Trump’s stances.
Those who see themselves as Trump’s ideological kin are eager to emulate his impulses—trading caution for caprice—in an effort to curry favor with the President-elect. But those who conceive of their political missions as opposing tribalism, like French and German Socialists, will not sacrifice principle for access to the U.S. president. We can explain these choices by focusing on the unprecedented dilemma foreign leaders face. Trump exhibits volatility and a constant need for validation. Those leaders who see him as a natural ideological partner, then, may fear losing his support more than they would avoid alienating a typical American president. Any sign of weakness, or any sliver of daylight between Trump and a peer president or prime minister, could doom prospects for collaboration. Those leaders who have expressed their disgust at Trump, however, may believe their past critiques of the President-elect have already rendered close cooperation with his administration unlikely. Why not, then, exhibit little care for his positions and take an independent stance, one which will be vindicated by posterity?
The age of Trump has sifted leaders onto two sides of a geopolitical channel. There are those who crusade to retain their spot on Trump’s ledger of leaders who are strong. And there are those who crusade to retain a spot on history’s ledger of leaders who were right.