Politics & Policy

Willing Coalitions

We get by with a little help from our friends--but those friends can change.

The Bush administration has been accused of numerous foreign-policy sins, but nowhere, it seems, has it erred more dangerously than in its alienation of our “allies.” The problem, however, is that no one seems to know exactly who those allies are. We are fortunate, therefore, that Sen. Edward Kennedy’s speech at the Democratic National Convention provided us with a working definition: “We should have strengthened, not scorned,” he declaimed, “the alliances that won two world wars and the Cold War.” Words from such a source are worthy of serious examination.

In World War I, Britain, France, and Russia formed the basis of an alliance that fought Germany and Austria-Hungary. Until early 1917, American popular opinion–other than on the eastern seaboard–overwhelmingly favored neutrality. In that year Germany aggressively threatened two vital American interests: freedom of the seas and the Monroe Doctrine. As a result, the United States entered the war, but President Wilson refused to make the nation party to any of the entanglements that he believed had been responsible for the carnage in the first place. America never became part of the alliance facing Germany, remaining instead an “Associated Power.” Moreover, Washington refused to join the victors in the League of Nations, an early attempt to provide collective security.

In World War II, a three-part alliance–Britain and its empire, the United States, and the Soviet Union–fought Germany and Japan. No formal treaty bound these uneasy partners. Rather, despite the considerable trust and friendship between the Anglo-American principals, self-interest was the principal motivation: for the British, preventing German continental hegemony and preserving the empire; for the Americans, removing significant bi-coastal security threats and creating a more stable world order; and for the Soviets, national survival. It made sense for these allies to hang together rather than hang separately.

Problems arising from the French role in World War II continue to this day. Official France was notably absent from the Allied cause for quite awhile. The British, threatened by the French fleet, sank or interned a large part of it. French troops fought the British in Syria in 1941 and the Americans in North Africa in 1942. Security concerns prompted Winston Churchill to wait until the last minute before telling General de Gaulle about the 1944 D-Day invasion. There was no significant French military involvement in the landings, and the French have probably never forgiven the Anglo-Americans for invading their country without permission. To the extent the French government had war aims, they were probably best expressed in November 1940 by French Chief of Government Pierre Laval: collaboration with Germany so as to regain France’s rightful place in Europe.

Who “won” the Cold War remains debatable. Indeed, some would argue that it was settled rather than won, and that General Secretary Gorbachev should get as much of the credit as President Reagan. The main purpose of NATO, the principal American alliance involved, was to deter Soviet aggression rather than force a significant change in Moscow’s behavior. Europe refused to see the Cold War as a global conflict; most NATO countries perceived threats out of NATO’s theater as an exclusively American problem. Continental Europeans generally preferred the status quo, fearing that President Reagan’s attempts to change it were the actions of an unsophisticated cowboy. The French withdrew from NATO’s military structure in 1966.

So who are these allies that we have treated so cavalierly? To pursue Senator Kennedy’s definition, what do nations have to do to qualify as allies? Have been with us in all three of the engagements cited? That rules out Russia, Germany, and arguably the French. Have been with us in just one? Then almost anyone can play. The fact is, Lord Palmerston had it right over a century and half ago when he said: “We have no eternal allies and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and these interests it is our duty to follow.” Although he was referring to Britain, the observation applies equally to Washington policymakers today, regardless of party.

America’s eternal and perpetual interest is its own security, and that should be at the heart of any administration’s foreign policy. At most times these interests will coincide with those of certain other countries. We should not, however, expect that they will be the same countries at all times. Those who are with us will join us; those who are not will stand to the side. If we are realistic, we will agree with Palmerston that we too have no permanent allies–with possibly the exception of the British. So how should we describe those countries that, at a given time, find that their interests coincide with ours? It is clearly wrong to refer to them as allies in any lasting sense. Maybe “Coalition of the Willing” isn’t too bad a designation after all.

Michael Coles is a naval historian.

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