One criticism of Donald Trump’s foreign policy is that it was “transactional.” In 2020, Joseph Nye lamented Trump’s “transactional myopia.” And last week in his speech to the Munich Security Conference, President Biden argued that “our partnerships have endured and grown through the years because they are rooted in the richness of our shared democratic values. They’re not transactional.”
They should be.
To get this out of the way up front, transactional isn’t a perfect synonym for Trumpy. Complaints about Trump’s habit of describing alliances as protection rackets or his struggle to separate his interest from the national interest or his boorish style are separable from complaints about transactionalism. (All presidents use their own personal style and mental shortcuts, including Trump.) Trump’s idiosyncrasies aside, the alternative to transactionalism is sentiment and reflexive tribalism.
Think about international trade, or immigration, or international law. Free traders and protectionists both make their arguments in terms of what’s good for their country. Immigration restrictionists and liberalizers both argue that their preferred policies would benefit the country. Those who favor and those who oppose the International Criminal Court argue in terms of the national interest. It is hard to conceive of these openly transactional debates in any other way.
To suggest by contrast that international security–alliances, troop deployments, and wars–should be something other than transactional is bizarre. But huge swathes of the foreign policy establishment do it.
In 2010 remarks at the Brookings Institution, for instance, then‐Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested that:
there are certain commitments, as we saw in a bipartisan basis to NATO, that need to be embedded in the DNA of American foreign policy and not sort of beginning and ending in fits and starts.
Similarly, in his presidential campaign Foreign Affairs article, Biden wrote that NATO:
transcends dollars and cents; the United States’ commitment is sacred, not transactional. NATO is… an alliance of values, which makes it far more durable, reliable, and powerful than partnerships built by coercion or cash.
This kind of thinking pervades the foreign policy establishment. In remarking on Biden’s Munich Security Conference address, Heather Conley of CSIS remarked that:
This was a homecoming speech — the prodigal American son has returned to the transatlantic family. This was not a time to raise family squabbles or traumas.
This is airy romanticism. If an alliance is embedded in our DNA, or if it is not secular but sacred, or if the alliance is a family to which we, the prodigal son, have returned, then it is impervious to critical scrutiny. (For readers reeling at the prodigal son metaphor, Patrick Porter has you covered.)
It should not require the CRISPR to examine or shrink America’s alliance commitments. Thinking of alliances as immutable and non‐transactional is the antithesis of the founding admonition contained in George Washington’s farewell address of 1796 that:
It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world… Taking care always to keep ourselves, by suitable establishments, on a respectably defensive posture, we may safely trust to temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies.
There is no extraordinary emergency in Europe.
In a 1990 essay examining the meaning of the end of the Cold War, Jeane Kirkpatrick noted that “foreign policy elites often have different views than those of popular majorities,” warning against foreign policies lacking public support. She concluded that essay by arguing that “most of the international military obligations that we assumed were once important are now outdated. Our alliances should be alliances of equals, with equal risks, burdens, and responsibilities.”
To judge what are equal risks, burdens or responsibilities requires transactional thinking: What assets and liabilities do we have, what do they have, and is an alliance in our interest? The alternative is romance and sentiment.