God Save Us From Our Allies


There is an old saying that reminds foreign policy practitioners that “the only thing worse than having allies is not having allies.” That statement was often repeated during the bloodiest parts of the Second World War, when the British and Americans were squabbling over how best to liberate Europe from the Nazi scourge. Similar comments were made throughout the heady days of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, when American leaders would sit in shock at the perpetual laxness of their allies in Europe and Asia when it came to resisting Soviet irredentism (or, at times such as during the Suez Canal Crisis, when those allies would overstep their bounds and jeopardize American national security).

Similarly, in the post-Cold War era, when both the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations engaged in grave excesses, skeptics of the unilateralist and interventionist foreign policies would make the same arguments. Yet, it could be that America’s allies are our greatest problem.

In his fantastic book, Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy, Barry R. Posen describes two sorts of American allies: the “cheap riders” and the “reckless drivers.” This is an interesting riff off the classical realist conception of “buck-passing” and “free-riding.” Posen defines cheap riders as, countries who “do quite a lot for their own security and to make the United States happy. They could, however, do more, but they do not because the United States carries the weight.” Posen lists most of the NATO countries (particularly countries like France and the United Kingdom), as well as Asian states such as Japan or even South Korea as being “cheap riders.”

As for “reckless drivers,” Posen argues that these are countries that “do the wrong things.” He believes that these allies “take bold actions that may harm U.S. interests, or even their own.” According to Posen, countries like Israel (though, he and I would quibble over the issue of Israel, only because in the Middle East the principle of “you have to dance with the one who brought you” is in play), are a major impediment to American national security, since they very often push the boundaries of acceptable behavior.”

For Posen, this problem is compounded by the fact that, “The United States has proven itself incapable of disciplining these allies, despite their small size and relative dependence on the United States.” He further lists Iraq as a reckless driver (though the book was written in 2014 and published in 2015, meaning that much has since changed. Still, his point is understood).

I have long argued for serious changes to the structure of both NATO and the European Union. I have also spent a considerable time encouraging our allies in Japan and South Korea to fully develop their military capabilities to both counteract China’s meteoric rise, as well as North Korea’s endless nuclear threats. Traditionally, American foreign policy hands disbelieved that our allies were capable of creating (and in the case of Japan and Germany should not be allowed to develop) a serious force to counteract major threats. This assumption was first made during the earliest phases of the Cold War.

To be sure, at that point in time, much of the world was still rebuilding from the decimation of the Second World War: Europe was in ruins and Japan was little more than charred remains of its former imperial glory. However, by the 1960s, most of America’s major allies in Europe and Asia were restored to a reasonable level of strength that, had they opted to divert some of their growing wealth into the creation of believable, independent armed forces, they would have added significantly to America’s deterrent effect against the Soviets.

Instead, American policymakers insisted that the United States do the proverbial heavy-lifting in their alliances. Obviously, the American penchant for controlling events which might precipitate the deployment of American military forces into battle was at play (something similar was at play during both world wars as well). However, the assumption was a lazy one–particularly by the time that exclusive trade with the rich United States had fully rebuilt Europe and Asia. These countries were wealthy and modern (in the case of Japan during the Cold War, their technological capabilities were second-to-none). Yet, America’s allies eschewed building their indigenous forces up, opting instead to buy into America’s tricky promise of extended deterrence to prevent catastrophe.

The brilliant Cold War-era international relations scholar, Paul K. Huth defines “extended deterrence” as:

“A situation in which policymakers […] threaten military retaliation against another state in an attempt to prevent that state from using military force against an ally (or protégé) of the defender. The objective of extended deterrence is to protect and defend allies from attack rather than to prevent a direct attack on one’s own territory.”

In the context of the Cold War, this was still an amenable paradigm. After all, the world was threatened by the Communist bloc as led by the nuclear-armed Soviet Union. Although, in the aftermath of the Cold War, the United States not only continued with its extended deterrence model, but Washington offered newly freed states in Europe (and elsewhere) extended deterrence. Thus, Washington had rapidly (and idiotically) engaged in overextended deterrence.

By the time the Global War on Terror rolled around after September 11, 2001, the United States found itself committed to fighting an entirely new kind of conflict with alliances and a military force conditioned to fight against the Red Army. To compound matters, when America looked around for allies to assist it in going into Afghanistan, it found that NATO in particular would have been more of a burden. While the U.S. ultimately accepted NATO assistance, it was on an ad hoc basis that eventuated in the creation of an entirely new entity known as the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

Even worse, when the George W. Bush Administration decided to engage in its long romp in the deserts of Iraq in 2003, age-old American allies, such as Germany and France, actively opposed the Americans–even going so far as to align with the Russian Federation in an attempt to push the Americans away from invasion.

Meanwhile, the world had changed fundamentally since the Cold War. In the Cold War, as noted above, we were united with our allies in a common, ideological struggle. We had little choice but to prevent the Soviets from “running the table” in Europe (and Asia). So, we were committed to keeping our allies safe, even if they were either unable or unwilling to stand up on their own.

However, since the Cold War, not only is the world having to contend with the ongoing Global War on Terror, but we are also witnessing the resurgence (somewhat) of Russia; the rise of China; the expansion of Iran in the Middle East; and the instability caused by North Korean nuclear brinksmanship. In no way are countries like Great Britain or France impacted by China’s rise in the same way that the United States or Japan are. Similarly, there is little concordance between Japan and Israel over Iran’s growth in the Middle East.

In fact, even within the various regions there is discord among America’s allies. The “mainstream media” smothers us daily with absurd, borderline Russophobic reportage over Russia’s much-hyped threat to the world. But, in Europe–the one continent is most directly affected by Russia’s return–many American allies remain unwilling to increase their defense spending to counteract the Russians in any meaningful way.

The wealthiest country in continental Europe (and de facto head of the European Union), Germany, continues ignoring calls from Washington to increase their defense expenditures to meet the baseline requirement of two percent national GDP per NATO membership. More interestingly, Germany (as well as France) appears intent on sidling up to those pesky Russians with increased energy deals. But, in neighboring Poland whose eastern border straddles Russia’s, Warsaw is screaming for greater levels of protection both from its so-called allies in Western Europe, as well as from the United States.

Just remember Barry Posen’s definition for “cheap riders”: these countries act according to their own, national interests–irrespective of whatever claims to one-world utopianism they may espouse. For many of these countries (like Germany or Japan), it is simply in their national interests to keep the United States deeply enmeshed in their national security (even if the national security of these states has little bearing on American national security or its grand strategy).

These allies reap both a financial bonanza from our continued, institutionalized protection of their countries, as well as a military freebie: whatever funds that would traditionally have gone toward their military development and maintenance are freed up and invested elsewhere in those countries, despite these states being mostly wealthy, advanced democracies with highly-skilled populations. Since these states remain deeply committed to their own national interests, they will inevitably invest and develop their military capabilities beyond what they currently are only if they truly perceive an external threat to their security.

Thus, when it comes to funding the NATO alliance (and standing firm against the Russian Federation), it’s obvious that these states do not view Russia as the level of threat that the media portrays Russia as.

Given this, why should we? What would happen, however, if the United States drew down its level of commitment to Europe (spare me the usual Russia will invade and destroy everything and everyone bit)?

Formal military alliances, such as NATO, were instrumental in helping to defeat the Soviet Union and end the Cold War. Today, they are little more than bloated, multinational bureaucracies interested only in perpetuating its own existence. Little thought was ever put into the level of commitments that would be needed from the United States to maintain the security of America’s allies following the end of the Cold War.

Further, few dared to wonder how perpetuating the NATO alliance might agitate traditional strategic rivals, like the Russians. Or, as the Cigarette Smoking Man from the hit television series, The X-Files, once quipped about the end of the Cold War, “Haven’t you heard? There are no more Russians anymore.” This facetious line from a science fiction villain in a 1990s conspiracy television series perfectly encapsulates the dominant assumption of the transatlantic elite.

Even as the United States giddily expanded its overextended deterrence to new states along the Russian periphery in Europe, many of these countries (as well as the more traditional NATO members) either could not or would not contribute to their own defense, thus placing an increased burden on the United States. In the high-rolling times of the 1990s and early 2000s, this was an acceptable commitment in the eyes of most Americans.

But, after the 2008 Great Recession, many of these commitments need to be reassessed. We are in an odd place where the United States has made so many commitments to its allies, that those alliances which were originally designed to make us stronger are weakening the United States. More troublingly, the alliances which were entirely defensive in nature–meant to prevent war from occurring–are, in fact, precipitating conflict today! Fundamental change in our perspective is, therefore, needed.

Didn’t George Washington himself warn us of the danger of entangling alliances with Europe (or elsewhere for that matter)? 

The time for unitary, holistic, international defense directly controlled from Washington, D.C. is over. The world is simply far too complex and multipolar. Traditionally, the United States preferred to maintain its role as “offshore balancer” for many of these troubled regions of the world. John Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt advocate for offshore balancing as a legitimate exercise of American power because:

“Washington would forgo ambitious efforts to remake other societies and concentrate on what really matters: preserving U.S. dominance in the Western Hemisphere and countering potential hegemons in Europe, Northeast Asia, and the Persian Gulf. Instead of policing the world, the United States would encourage other countries to take the lead in checking rising powers, intervening itself only when necessary […] By husbanding U.S. strength, offshore balancing would preserve U.S. primacy far into the future and safeguard liberty at home.”

This is a role we must return to–especially in today’s age of mediocre economic growth, constrained budgets, and internal political instability throughout much of the Western world. America’s allies must do what they can, when they can, against whomever they perceive as a threat. The United States will always have their backs; we will gladly provide intelligence and logistical support to these states.

In certain cases, such as Japan or Poland, the United States must be willing to assist in the development of indigenous nuclear deterrents. However, it is simply not in America’s interest to pick fights with Russia or other states unless it those states threaten America’s global primacy (by rising to dominate either Europe, Northeast Asia, or the Persian Gulf).

Conversely, in the case of South Korea, the United States cannot just make a peace deal with North Korea simply because Seoul wants to have an agreement. Our allies will only understand this message once we take a more restrained and balanced approach to the world–particularly in the hotspots of Eurasia.


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