Trump’s demand for reciprocity with allies

On trade access and defense spending, he seeks an equality that requires rewriting the West’s social contract.

AP Photo
President Donald Trump leans back to talk to from left, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Polish President Andrzeji Duda, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa during a group photo of NATO heads of state and government in Brussels, Belgium, on July 11.

Twice in two months President Trump has met with other Western leaders, first at an economic summit in June and this week at a gathering of NATO nations. A common theme? Mr. Trump’s demand for reciprocity  in both trade and defense spending between the United States and its allies.

Trump asked for more access to European markets for American farm goods, for example, while insisting that other NATO countries spend about 3.5 percent of gross national product on their military forces – as the United States does – not the agreed target of 2 percent by 2024.

“All allies have heard President Trump’s message loud and clear,” said NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg at the summit in Brussels. “We understand that this American president is very serious about defense spending, and this is having a clear impact.”

On trade, Trump has slapped tariffs on imports from allies in an aggressive attempt to win an opening for more exports of US products and services. In response, a few European nations have eased restrictions on US imports.

“At a time when nations have become so unwilling to play by the rules and restore reciprocity, tariffs are a wake-up call to the dangers of a broken trading system that is increasingly unfree,” warns Trump’s economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, in a Washington Post op-ed.

Trump says he is making up for the mistakes of past US presidents who gave away too much in both trade talks and in forming alliances during the cold war and afterward. Instead of seeing the US as a superpower making generous concessions for the sake of global order, Trump has in effect asked the US to be treated as an equal. Or as Gary Cohn, Trump’s former National Economic Council director, put it: “You treat us the way we treat you, or we’ll treat you the way you treat us.”

In all this, Trump has asked Americans to be patient while he plays tough with demands and tariffs in order to somehow achieve a greater good. “There may be a little pain for a little while, but ultimately for my farmers ... you’re going to do much better,” he told supporters in Michigan last April.

Is there a moral claim in Trump’s demand for reciprocity, even if his tactics and tweets can sometimes be crude?

Equality is often the basis for reciprocity in relationships. It opens doors for negotiations and allows for the creation of a social contract in which all sides find it easier to acknowledge the other’s interests. Yet it is hard to tell how US allies will respond.

In a speech this week, Tony Abbott, former prime minister of Australia, said, “Being America’s partner as well as its friend will be even more important now given Trump’s obsession with reciprocity.”

In each summit with allies, Trump keeps hammering on reciprocity. Many of those allies agree in principle and some are conceding to his demands. A new contract on trade and defense is slowly being written within the Western alliance. The fact that these leaders keep meeting is a testament to their hope to find common ground – among equals.

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