Allies, Alliances, and the Fourth Strategic Offset
Weakening America’s global alliance structure is the most damaging thing a president can do for U.S. national security. The alliance structure, built on NATO and other formal treaty agreements as well as key partnerships, is a unique American asset offsetting the growing economic and strategic power of China, as well as Russia’s military and geographic advantages. Moreover, if America continues making the wrong moves with its allies, and its adversaries make the right moves, our allies could eventually become their allies, or at least be unwilling to stand with us when we need them.
The American tradition of isolationism is as old as the country itself. Presidents Washington and Jefferson both inveighed against permanent or entangling alliances. They were wise men, and that was the right policy for the time, but that was then. This is now, and what was wise at the end of the 18th century is folly in the 21st century.
Why did our founding fathers eschew entangling alliances? We hear much today about fragile and failing states. At the dawn of the 19th century, the United States was a fragile state at risk of failure. Remember the Shays Rebellion, the Whiskey Rebellion, the Fries Rebellion, and the Burr Conspiracy? The country returned to war against Britain in 1812. American leaders were rightfully fearful of foreign powers; the British and the French were both militarily superior, and there was the perceived threat from the indigenous Americans in the great unknown interior. Above all the epic challenge of building a successful new state from the wilderness would be profoundly handicapped by entanglement in the perennial conflicts of foreign powers.
By the beginning of the 20th century, the United States was a major global economic and political power, yet still reluctant to become entangled in European wars. When in June 1914 a handful of bullets in Sarajevo ignited the war to end all wars President Woodrow Wilson wanted to maintain American neutrality. It was only with the onset of German submarine warfare and the Zimmerman telegram which revealed a German scheme to support Mexico if Mexico were to attack the United States—only then did the United States enter World War 1, just a few months before it ended in 1917.
While the European economies were crushed, and Russia descended into civil war, World War 1 was a catalyst for America’s growing industrial might. Yet rather than seize that opportunity to exert global leadership, the United States withdrew once again into its habitual isolationism. The power vacuum it left eventually led to the rise of Nazi Germany, and the inexorable path to World War II.
The devastation of World War II was like nothing before imagined, leaving 60 million dead, only two remaining superpowers—the United States and the Soviet Union—and the most terrifying weapon ever invented, the atom bomb which incinerated hundreds of thousands in a matter of seconds. These horrors followed by the Soviet Union’s post-war seizure of Eastern Europe, and the emergence of the communist threat on a global scale together finally convinced American leaders of the need for a global alliance architecture for collective security and containment.
The immediate post-World War II era was one of modern history’s great inflection points. During that period, with only a few false starts like SEATO and CENTO, the global architecture for collective defense and security was built that still protects us today. NATO, in particular, is arguably the most successful political and military alliance in history. In Europe, for 40 years NATO kept “the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union two years later, some questioned the continuing relevance of NATO, even arguing that in the post-Cold War world NATO was obsolete. The wisdom of preserving history’s most successful alliance soon became apparent, however, as the carnage in the former Yugoslavia required a multilateral intervention. NATO’s establishment in 1949 was followed other agreements including the ANZUS treaty binding the United States to Australia and New Zealand, and later treaties with Japan and South Korea. The basic global architecture has survived for 75 years.
The 21st century has brought technical, political, social, and economic change of unprecedented magnitude and velocity. The tempo of these changes has been tetrational. Globalization has created phenomenal opportunities as well as great vulnerabilities. International terrorism and transnational crime have become weaponized by adversary states that attack U.S. interests in the ambiguous gray zone between peace and war.
The National Security Strategy of 2017 and the National Defense Strategy of 2018 both warn of the return of great power conflict and identify Russia and China as posing the greatest threats to U.S. national security. They acknowledge the containment of the nascent nuclear power of Iran and North Korea, as well as the residual threat from international terrorism and transnational crime as additional ambient threats. To those, some add to the equation the threats of climate change and pandemic outbreaks.
The problem with transactional foreign policy is it does not add up. The aggregate of individual bilateral deals in foreign policy, whether good or bad deals, does not equal a strategy, and inevitably fails to appreciate the forest for the trees. With a foreign policy based on individual bilateral deals, the United States might well end up with many deals yet less security.
Consider the primary challenges to U.S. national security noted above; which of these can be successfully met by America alone? Russia and China are continental states with increasing global reach. The United States will need allies around the world to counter their challenges in the Indo-Pacific region, in the Baltics and Eastern Europe, and even in Africa and Latin America. To effectively stem North Korean and Iranian nuclear aspirations will require allied collaboration. Terrorism, crime, climate change, and pandemic diseases respect no borders and can only be countered by extensive multilateral collaboration. What the United States needs today is not better deals, but better relationships.
Strong international relationships, alliances, and partnerships are built on mutual respect, predictability, and trust and must be cultivated. “Trust cannot be surged.” Certainly not by threats and bullying. The global alliance structure for national and international security forged by the United States has taken 75 years to build. It is a unique asset that is the envy of every adversary; it is indeed the fourth strategic offset to the growing technical, economic, and military power of our adversaries.
The perverse consequence of failing to nurture our global alliance architecture is that a framework for the self-protection of U.S. national interests could eventually become a framework for American encirclement. When our allies lose faith that they can count on America’s unambiguous commitment to collective defense, they too will become transactional and seek alternative arrangements. Our Asian allies, whose largest economic and investment partner is already China, will recognize that their security is inextricably entwined with China, the Philippines, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka are already looking in that direction. Like Finland during the Cold War, our European allies may conclude that the benefits of security arrangements with Russia outweigh the benefits of an alliance with the United States. To an extent, we see this already happening with certain Eastern European countries. The European Union and China have just completed significant trade talks in the wake of America’s recent trade bellicosity.
Now that some of our most steadfast NATO allies have reluctantly realized that Europe can no longer rely on the United States for security, who will be next? The architecture that once ensured containment of our Soviet adversary could ironically become the architecture of our own encirclement as the ties that bind our allies to our adversaries become stronger than those that tie us together.
The giants of America’s foundation understood the unique context of their times, the challenges and opportunities. If our current leaders wish to emulate the wisdom of their forefathers, they will best do so by understanding the unprecedented challenges of our times, and embrace the wisdom of a 20th century giant. “There is only one thing worse than fighting with allies, and that is fighting without them.”
Michael Miklaucic is a senior fellow at National Defense University Institute for National Strategic Studies, and the editor of NDU's journal, PRISM. He has served in various positions at the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Department of State, including chief operating officer for the USAID Office of Democracy and Governance, and rule of law specialist in the Center for Democracy and Governance. In 2002-2003, he served as the Department of State deputy for war crimes issues.
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the authors, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. government.