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International Coalition-Building and its place within the Trump Administration

Marina E. Henke, Associate Professor of Political Science at Northwestern University, and Professor of International Relations and Director of the Centre for International Security at the Hertie School is the joint-recipient of the 2019 Lepgold Book Prize at Georgetown University’s Mortara Center for International Studies. Her award-winning book, Constructing Allied Cooperation, argues that pivotal states deliberately build multinational coalitions through bilateral and multilateral diplomatic connections. In this interview, given prior to the 2020 presidential election, Henke spoke about formulating allied cooperation, and how this applies to President Trump’s impact on the global reputation of the United States. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Question: You have studied international coalition-building extensively, so based on the 80 empirical observations you studied in Constructing Allied Cooperation, how can states successfully overcome issues through collaborative action? Is there a set formula to achieve such a result?

Marina Henke: Generally, there is a perception in the literature – but as well as the public eye – that international collective action occurs if you have a large number of states interested in the same collaborative outcome. That outcome could be climate change, or it could be what I'm interested in – peacekeeping and military interventions – but it could also be immigration policy and so forth. It is under these circumstances that collective action occurs.

However, in my research, I found that this is not exactly the case. Most instances of collective action occur because one or maybe two states have a very intense interest in a given collaborative outcome and they then persuade and bargain other less interested states into participating in the joint action.

In short, collective action doesn't occur automatically because there is a preference of interest – it is actually the result of negotiations.

Q: In your 2017 article, “The Politics of Diplomacy: How the United States builds Multilateral Military Coalitions,” you wrote that allies band together, not because they share threat perceptions, ideologies, norms, and values, but rather the “entirety of bilateral and multilateral ties.” Could you expand upon how you came to this conclusion? Is coalition-building purely political?

MH: Most scholars and policymakers really underestimated that states are very diverse, and their threat perceptions are very diverse as well. Even if you have atrocious human rights violations happening, let's say, for example, Myanmar, Sudan, or Rwanda – for some states, this really hits a nerve, but for other states, the leaders might say “that’s so far away”. Some states don't have the luxury to look at what's happening on a different continent because they're suffering themselves, economically, politically, and so forth – but doesn't mean that they do not care at all; it's simply a question of priority. I don't take a cynical perspective of this: countries are just very complex. Means are always scarce and needs and preferences are very different – that's just the reality of life.

So given these distinct preferences, those states that are highly motivated to launch a collection project need to actively build multilateral coalitions and they often do this by using their bilateral and multilateral ties as tools. These ties provide information and trust. Both are critical for successful negotiations.

Q: Is there a difference between what the coalition-building process looks like for successful versus unsuccessful operations?

MH: If all coalition members were intrinsically motivated, that means, if they all believed that achieving a given joint outcome (e.g. stopping human rights violations in Myanmar) was of critical importance, then, yes, the probability of reaching that goal is enhanced. But the truth is, this “perfect” coalition rarely exists. There are always some states in a coalition that care a bit less and this “lack of motivation” can impede the success of a coalition to a certain degree.

Q: Has President Donald Trump been successful with coalition-building during his presidency, given that he has backed out on multiple international coalitions like the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and the Paris Accords? What are the future implications of these withdrawals? Will there be a lasting impact beyond his administration? Does it diminish U.S. influence in future coalition actions?

MH: Has he been very successful in coalition building? No, but he also hasn't tried. Bush had tried and Obama had tried – they were involved in all sorts of coalitions. Trump, on the foreign policy front, is too skeptical of anything that is multinational.  

Q: Biden has stated he would rejoin the Paris Climate Accord upon taking office. Is coalition-building something that can recover the lost connections? Do you have to work much harder to repair those relationships?

MH: Many diplomatic relationships are maintained by diplomats. Some of them got dismissed during the Trump administration, or couldn't do their work. But many diplomats persisted. Of course, all of this can be recuperated – it can be retroactive. What got hurt during the Trump years was the U.S.’s reputation. But can this be recovered? Absolutely. It just requires some serious work.

 Interview by Yunkyo Kim (WCAS '22)