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

White House/Pete Souza
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.

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.

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.

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Comments (26)

  1. Submitted by joe smith on 10/26/2018 - 09:05 am.

    If waiting and doing nothing worked, we’d have the best alliances ever and marshmallows stacked to the ceiling. We give our allies (and enemies) tax dollars to the tune of Trillions, allow them outdated, one sided trade deals and fight their battles for them, what does the USA get?? We get thousands of Central Americans coming up to our border demanding access to our country……
    Let’s “lead from behind, do nothing and pretend everything is fine….. That didn’t work.

    • Submitted by Dan Landherr on 10/26/2018 - 11:33 am.

      We haven’t been invaded lately by any country. Maybe those alliances are worth something after all.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 10/26/2018 - 12:32 pm.

      Wow Mr. Smith. Trillions? Please detail for me the just how we give our friends and enemies Trillions. Please name countries, and amounts.

    • Submitted by Brian Gandt on 10/26/2018 - 01:55 pm.

      I’d say what we’ve done since WWII has worked pretty well up until recently. If a treaty or agreement is outdated, then work on a renegotiation, rather than a logic poor abandonment of such treaties/agreements.

      I’m guessing that “caravan” is the new “Benghazi”?

      Speaking of giving tax money to adversaries:

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 10/26/2018 - 03:46 pm.

      Give me your tired, your poor,
      Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
      The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
      Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:
      I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 10/26/2018 - 06:36 pm.


      Let me google that for you….

      Total US foreign aid less than 50 billion a 2016.

      To get to a trillion dollars,multiply that 50 billion by 20 years–but given inflation and spending changes, in all of post WW2, the US hasn’t spent a trillion yet on foreign aid.

      Hmm, and do you know those “foreign aid” dollars are, in great part, re spent on our wars of choice and the associated reconstruction.

      And the largest recipient of foreign aid has been Israel over the years.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 10/29/2018 - 09:11 am.

      I’m not sure I want to know the answer to this, but I have to ask: How does NATO lead to “thousands of Central Americans coming up to our border demanding access to our country?”

      • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 10/29/2018 - 01:42 pm.

        As AZ Senate candidate Martha McSally complained in her last debate: (to paraphrase) “why all these questions about healthcare, can’t we get on to something important like the caravan?”

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/26/2018 - 09:26 am.

    The ruler – in the middle ages – might make alliances with other rulers, but everyone else was an underling, and hardly worth consideration. That worldview, that he was somehow elected to be “ruler,” permeates the current occupant of the Oval Office, and is blatantly on display for anyone who wants to observe it. Virtually every public or semi-public action, from “fake news” talk to disparage the media and an inconveniently fact-based world to pulling out of alliances because “Who cares if the other signatories benefit, as long as we do?” to making political enemies in Congress and Governor’s mansions around the country of people who don’t support him personally, are all the hallmarks of someone both massively insecure (hence the constant bragging, and continued attacks on an opponent who was defeated in the electoral college two years ago), and accustomed to absolute and unquestioned authority, often (though not always) a characteristic of those born to wealth and privilege.

    Trump has no understanding of alliances because, as Eric and Mr. Sullivan have laid out, working alliances are not the zero-sum lens through which Mr. Trump views the world. They require cooperation, not competition, or at least require more cooperation than competition. Either way, Trump generally views consideration of the other party’s point of view as a sign of “weakness,” and as the recent bomb scare and immigrant caravan illustrate, is apparently incapable of either empathy for others or consideration of the “big picture,” in these cases the larger society of which he’s the purported leader.

    What Mr. Trump doesn’t understand about alliances is of a piece with what Mr. Trump doesn’t understand about governing, or doing business, or marriage, or parenting. They’re not all about him.

  3. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/26/2018 - 09:28 am.

    It would be much easier to talk about what Trump DOES understand.

  4. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 10/26/2018 - 12:11 pm.

    If you notice–Trump deals only in bi-lateral agreements where he must be the “winner” and the other person be clearly the “loser”.

    Win-win is not in his vocabulary, and a win-win-win-win (etc) multilateral agreement is something he has no experience with.

    In his business experience, he was always in one-on-one negotiations and he used the same bag of tricks with person across the table. He doesn’t know how to function in a multi-lateral agreement, where in under his rubric–he has to be the winner and everyone else needs to be the loser. That dynamic doesn’t work when the number of “loser” participants significantly outnumber the sole “winner”–why would anyone freely come to such a negotiation or agreement?

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/26/2018 - 02:36 pm.

      And of course he was a lousy business man who generally lost money on his ‘deals’.
      Where he made his money was bankruptcy court and the IRS.

  5. Submitted by Mike Chrun on 10/26/2018 - 01:48 pm.

    We are the richest and most powerful nation on earth, yet Trump drives the narrative that we are suffering immensely because other nations keep taking advantage of us. Likewise, there is a good portion of Trump true believers who live extremely comfortable lives, partly due to the fact they are white and have reaped that fact to their advantage. Yet, these people think the deck is stacked against them and feel threatened by people who are poor and desperate and maybe darker than them. Doesn’t matter if you are the United States or some guy in Minnesota. Look out for yourself and to hell with anyone else.

    Feelings of inferiority and bullying compensation explain a lot.

  6. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 10/27/2018 - 10:44 am.

    I get a lump in my throat every time I see and hear another former Obama-presidency appointee in any Cabinet or administrative position speak: they are so smart, so informed, so articulate about the intricacies of policy. Like Jake Sullivan, they come across as American patriots, using all their skills on behalf of the country, not for themselves or for one President in a line of many. They are not ideologues, and certainly not screamers. They’re working for all of us.

    Under Obama (and under Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry), the US had experts with decades of knowledge and experience in their arsenals of statecraft. They had long views. Trump has forced the ouster or hundreds of State Department experts–not to mention experts in the EPA and Agriculture and Interior, etc.–who are NOT political appointees but seasoned diplomats or environmental scientists, leaving most Cabinet departments starved for personnel who can accomplish their legal mission. FEMA is one example, among others, in Homeland Security. Or the IRS.

    Trump can’t talk about much of anything in detail, nor does he think long-term. What an embarrassment of a government we now have!

  7. Submitted by Gary Fredrickson on 10/28/2018 - 12:09 am.

    This article is an opinion about President Trump by an advisor in the Obama administration. The resulting comments, except for one, sounds like an echo chamber bashing our president. And yes, like it or not, he is our president.
    Jake Sullivan was an advisor in the Iran nuclear negotiations. How anyone could seriously examine this deal and think it was a good idea for the U.S. and our number one ally in that area, Israel, is beyond comprehension. Yet he is so smart, so informed, so articulate as one poster said. Was he also an advisor to Hillary Clinton or President Obama when that administration let Russia get control of 20% of the U.S. uranium reserves? Maybe he was the one who advised Hillary to use her own private unsecured server.
    Another poster, Mike Chrun, must be an amazing clinical psychologist or something because he can diagnose a mental disorder that Trump has from afar.
    All people are flawed. I can attest to that personally. Trump has his flaws just as every president has had. He also has his strong points. Trump is fundamentally a businessman, a builder, a salesman,a deal maker and naturally sees problems from a different perspective than say, a political science major or a lawyer. He sees a problem and says,” How can we fix this?” I know this may shock most of the people reading this column but many of us believe that he is exactly what is needed right now.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/28/2018 - 03:20 pm.

      A lot of ad hominem; little content.

    • Submitted by Don Wallen on 10/28/2018 - 04:30 pm.

      Lies? or just lack of knowledge

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/28/2018 - 06:37 pm.

      Once again:
      He was a lousy business man who generally lost money on his ‘deals’.
      Where he made his money was bankruptcy court and the IRS.
      And when the Dems regain the House they will have access to his tax returns, and we’ll see just how far in debt he is, and whose money he’s living on.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 10/29/2018 - 09:14 am.

      “He sees a problem and says, ‘How can we fix this?'”

      Baloney. He sees an Obama-era initiative, and decides to scrap it. He then proclaims that he will come up with something that must be better because it has his name on it. “Fixing it” is not a part of his thought process.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 10/29/2018 - 01:50 pm.

      Clinton and Obama did not give Russia 20 percent of our uranium reserves. That is a false claim that has been repeatedly debunked and advanced by people who don’t understand the facts. And that gets to the heart of the problem here – Sullivan is working with facts, while Trump and his people traffic in ignorance and lies.

      Trump is not a deal-maker. He is a guy who inherited a ton of money and failed in nearly every business venture he ever tried.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 10/29/2018 - 02:11 pm.

      Weird that some military people in both Israel and the U.S. don’t share your view of the Iran nuclear deal. Likely because, like Sullivan, they are looking at the actual facts. Sadly, we have a reality TV host as president instead.

    • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 10/29/2018 - 03:43 pm.

      “He sees a problem and says,” How can we fix this?” I know this may shock most of the people reading this column but many of us believe that he is exactly what is needed right now.”

      And I could respect your beliefs and have better recognition of Trump’s positive traits if for not the the single biggest problem WE ALL SHOULD HAVE with him:

      The disregard for the truth. Lies at 2 to 3 times the frequency of any previous President. Trump is not always right and Obama was not always right. You are not always right and I am not always right. If we actually need to accomplish something between us we need to mutually acknowledge that facts exist, determine those facts, and reach a reasoned compromise based on the facts. If it is 60/40 split on the facts, 60 gets the majority influence on the reasoned compromise.

      Trump HAS NEVER acknowledged being wrong on anything, never accepting that some one else is more correct on the facts and working for that reasoned compromise.

      Not only is he right all the time, we had all better agree that he is right or we would be “an enemy of the people”.

      Sorry Sir; this makes him anything but “what is needed right now”.

  8. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 10/28/2018 - 05:27 pm.

    It’s time for Trump defenders who claim he’s this Great Businessman to read up on the several devastating biographies of him that now exist, plus most importantly, the recent long and super-detailed NYTimes article on Trump’s finances (you can find it on-line).

    It traces Trump from his beginnings, and includes how he had to be repeatedly bailed out–into the early 1990s before his death–by his father, Fred Trump. Plus, how Donald Trump made millions stiffing his contractors (“So, sue me!” knowing it would cost them more than he owed them to sue him for payment), and the multiple instances of tax fraud he, his father, and his siblings and his children have committed. The family is basically crooked. Not Hillary.

    Trump had better hope that he gets reelected so it will be a long time before NY State officials can bring him to trial on much of that tax fraud, and that the conservatives he’s appointed to the Supreme Court will keep affirming that a sitting president can’t even be investigated (the Kavanaugh position).

    I tire of Trump supporters trying to push this Great Businessman concept on us all. It’s not true; he’s His Father’s Spoiled Son, into his late 50s when Fred Trump died.

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