US President Donald Trump meets with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in the Oval Office of the White House on 26 April 2019. Photo: Getty Images.

US President Donald Trump meets with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in the Oval Office of the White House on 26 April 2019. Photo: Getty Images. 

President Trump and the US Alliance System in Asia and Europe

Hans Kundnani explores the striking similarities, but also key differences, between the US alliances in Europe and Asia.


  • In-depth view
  • 18 Dec 2019
  • 8 min read


While the NATO summit was taking place in London in early December, I was in Japan, which prompted me to think about the similarities and differences – and the linkages – between the US alliance systems in Europe and Asia and how in each case these systems have come under pressure since Donald Trump became president of the United States. I started to wonder if the ‘hub-and-spoke’ system in Asia has some advantages over the multilateral system in Europe – which is particularly relevant because collective security in Europe may be being ‘bilateralized’ and in this sense it may be becoming more ‘Asian’. 

At first glance, the situation Japan faces looks strikingly similar to the one US allies in Europe face. Japan is dependent on the United States for its security in an analogous way to Europe – and Trump has criticized Japan for free riding in the same way as he has criticized European allies. In the summer, the United States asked Japan to increase its contribution to the cost of stationing US forces (‘host nation support’) to around five times the current level.  When asked about this at the NATO summit, Trump said he told Prime Minister Shinzo Abe: ‘We’re paying a lot of money. You’re a wealthy nation. And we’re, you know, paying for your military.’

This all sounds a lot like what Trump has been saying to Europeans on NATO and their own collective security. Japanese foreign policy analysts are therefore also following closely what happens in Europe and in particular the current debate about the future of NATO. As one Japanese commentator whom I met put it, the European security situation is a kind of a ‘mirror’ for them. Like their European counterparts, Japanese analysts are debating whether Trump is an aberration or a symptom of a deeper, more structural shift in US foreign policy and wondering whether they need a ‘Plan B’ for the possibility that they may at some point no longer be able to depend on the United States.

One commentator whom I met with in Tokyo, Norihide Miyoshi of Yomiuri Shimbun, saw a particularly interesting parallel between the US alliance systems in Europe in Asia. Since Turkey began its offensive in northeastern Syria in October, there has been much discussion of its future role in NATO. The US decision to withdraw troops from Northern Syria and the Turkish incursion was part of what French President Emmanuel Macron had in mind when he described the alliance as ‘brain dead’ in his interview with The Economist in November. But Miyoshi saw South Korea as playing an analogous role in the US alliance system in Asia – he saw it, like Turkey, as abandoning its commitment to the West and reverting to an older historical identity.

However, despite these striking similarities, there are also important differences between Japan and Europe. Although Trump has demanded that Japan pays more, he does not seem to question the US commitment to Japanese security in the same way as he does the US security guarantee to Europe. As Tom Wright has shown, Trump has been particularly hostile to Japan since the 1980s and, during the election campaign in 2016, he threatened to renegotiate the Japan-US Security Treaty. Yet within a couple of months of becoming president, Trump made an unconditional commitment to Japanese security and reaffirmed the treaty. Abe may have done a better job of dealing with Trump than the leaders of other US allies.

This summer, Trump once again called the Japan-US Security Treaty ‘unfair’, and said it would have to be changed – but also said he was not planning to withdraw from it. Nor has he talked about pulling out American troops. Moreover, whereas he is demanding that NATO allies increase their defence spending to 2 per cent of GDP as they have committed to, and has created uncertainty about whether the United States would defend them if they do not, he is only demanding that Japan increase ‘host nation support’, albeit dramatically – which is something quite different. So overall Japan seems to be in a better position than US allies in Europe.

This makes sense. Although Trump has dramatically increased uncertainty about the US commitment to its allies around the world, this sometimes obscures the structural shift in US foreign policy towards Asia, which began with the Obama administration’s ‘pivot’ and will likely continue after Trump. Europeans hope and believe that Trump’s successor will be more multilateral and committed to the need for allies – especially if he or she is a Democrat. But as the focus of US foreign policy shifts to the strategic competition with China, Asian allies like Japan – and even other Asian partners like India – will be more important than European allies.

The most fundamental difference between US allies in Europe and Asia is the degree of integration between them. In Europe, of course, the US alliance system is a multilateral one based on NATO and the principle of collective security. In Asia, in contrast, it is bilateral – a ‘hub-and-spoke’ system of security guarantees by the United States to individual countries. Europeans tend to assume the superiority of the multilateral approach – and they often encourage Asians to emulate it. But many foreign policy analysts in Japan prefer the bilateral approach – in particular, because of the greater flexibility it gives.

As US allies in Europe fight over the purpose of NATO and about burden sharing, it increasingly seems to me that the Japanese may have a point about the advantages of the bilateral system. It is far from clear that the hub-and-spoke system has been less successful in guaranteeing peace than the collective European system. Moreover, because the US alliance system in Asia is bilateral, there is also no equivalent of the collective commitment to spend 2 per cent of GDP on defence as in Europe – and the tensions it causes. Instead, each US ally in Asia simply negotiates its own security relationship with the United States.

This question of the advantages and disadvantages of the two different approaches is important because, as I have argued elsewhere, collective security in Europe may now be being bilateralized as the US security guarantee becomes increasingly differentiated based on the individual dynamics of NATO member countries and their relationship with the United States. In other words, Europe may be becoming more like Asia. After my trip to Japan, I wondered if perhaps that is not as bad as it might initially seem. As counter-intuitive as it may seem to Europeans, perhaps it could actually reduce tensions and ultimately make it easier for Europeans, together with the United States, to provide security for the continent.