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Former Clinton advisor Jake Sullivan on what Trump doesn’t understand about alliances

As Sullivan summarized Trump’s attitude: “What’s wrong with a dog-eat-dog world, if we’re the biggest dog?”

Then-President Barack Obama, far right, talking with then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, center, and then-Deputy Chief of Staff to the Secretary of State Jake Sullivan at the US-ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in 2012.
White House/Pete Souza

To explain — at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute yesterday — the trouble with Donald Trump’s approach to international relations, Minneapolis native and former Obama State Department official and Hillary Clinton campaign adviser Jake Sullivan brought up a famous psych experiment involving children and marshmallows.

In what is known as the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment, a child would be told that if he could wait for a few minutes, alone in a room with a marshmallow, without eating it, he would be given a second marshmallow and could eat them both whenever he liked.

Researchers followed the children for years afterward and found that those who were more able to defer gratification had more successful lives, as measured by SAT scores, educational attainment, body mass index and other measures.

That conclusion, according to the Wikipedia article on the experiments, has been disputed, although I do believe that patience and an ability to defer gratification and keep the big picture in mind are useful qualities in a person, and, perhaps, in a nation.

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But what does that have to with President Trump? As Sullivan explains it, Trump inherited many bilateral alliances and multilateral agreements (NATO, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris Climate Accords, and others, even the United Nations) many of which Trump thought were sucker deals for the United States because we are so strong and rich, we could drive much harder bargains to get more favorable terms.

The way Trump looks at it, Sullivan said, the game of deals is about winning and losing, not about cooperating or maintaining an alliance structure.

In Trump’s view, Sullivan said, anything that smacks of multilateralism, any mechanism by which many small nations can band together, is bad for the big, powerful, rich nations.

In bilateral deals, a big, rich nation like the United States can throw its weight around. As Sullivan summarized Trump’s attitude: “What’s wrong with a dog-eat-dog world, if we’re the biggest dog?”

The trouble with that view (according to Sullivan and leaving aside, for example, the problem that if the breakdown of the Paris Accords leads to climate doom, or the undermining of NATO leads to a nuclear war, that won’t make anyone a winner) is that even if you can get better trade terms from Canada, Mexico, Europe, etc., such single-minded zero-sum outcomes will erode the strength of U.S. alliances.

NATO, NAFTA and the Iran nuclear deal are all part of the constant work of building and strengthening alliances, Sullivan said. The United States is at the center of an enormous web of alliances. Our chief geopolitical rivals, Russia and China, have very few allies.

But our alliances thrive when our allies see benefit in being our allies. What will it do to our structure of alliances, if our allies feel that we are seeking to benefit at their expense, or that the United States views every negotiation as one that the other party has to lose, so the United States can “win”?

“Russia and China are thrilled to the see United States burning up its alliances,” Sullivan said. “They would kill for alliances like ours” but don’t have means of building up such a structure. Previous presidents and other U.S. leaders who have built ours understood that maintaining such an alliance structure requires us to make sure our allies feel that the relationship works for them, too.

But that approach to building and maintaining an alliance structure requires a patient, long-term strategy. Sometimes, the United States must take pains to make sure its allies are also benefiting. This, Sullivan suggests, is something Trump doesn’t understand. He’s like the kid in the room with the marshmallow who says: “Why should I wait? I’m gonna eat that marshmallow right now.”

Sullivan said he believes the “the [multilateral] structures that the United States and its allies have built are flexible, adaptable, resilient” enough to withstand one term of Trumpism. but he’s not so sure about two.