National Security & Defense

Maintaining Alliances Puts ‘America First’

Flying the flag aboard USS Mobile Bay in the Indian Ocean, September 2011. (US Navy)
Less America on the world stage would mean more Putin, more ISIS, more China.

Let’s consider for a moment painful historical facts. Since the founding of the American republic, the United States has found itself sucked into three significant continental European wars, at immense cost in American blood and treasure. Most Americans, of course, remember the two world wars, which collectively cost more than 500,000 American lives, with total casualties (killed and wounded) of roughly 1.4 million. Less remembered is the War of 1812, with American conflict against Britain in large part a response to British provocations during its war with Napoleon’s France. That war was far less costly but did result in a British land invasion that was repelled only after the king’s forces burned Washington, D.C., to the ground.

So it’s safe to say that European stability is squarely within America’s vital national interests. And it’s not just Europe. Asian instability and conflict resulted directly in the attack on Pearl Harbor. Expansionist, universalist jihadist Islam despises America independently of our support for Israel. The United States is the most powerful nation in the world, with the most powerful, connected economy in the world. The notion that our national interests are somehow best served through power vacuums that have historically led to great power conflict is fantastical, at best.

In other words, American leaders have maintained a bipartisan commitment to European and Asian alliances since World War II not because they’re running the world’s largest international military charity but because they do, ultimately, put “America first.” Indeed, within the conservative movement, there has long been a broad understanding that American military hegemony in many ways was the very definition of “America first” — because without such hegemony, power vacuums could and would be filled largely by hostile interests. Historically, it is the Left that has wobbled on those commitments. It is the Left that has placed American resolve in doubt. Now, it’s Trump’s GOP that is doing so.

If the United States Navy pulled back from the Pacific, who would fill the void? The Chinese or the Japanese? Or would there reemerge a historical race among the great powers for dominance, a race that would pose an unacceptable risk of sparking exactly the kinds of conflicts that have ultimately led to large-scale American loss of life? If America refused its NATO security guarantees , and the alliance consequently unraveled, who would fill the void? Are we sure that it’s Britain and France? Or do we once again see the European powers revert to type — especially with Russia demonstrably set on playing by its old rules?

EDITORIAL: Trump’s Reckless Foreign Policy

Again and again, when you hear people touting the slogan “America first,” you hear them arguing for “America less” — a diminished nation, one that reverts to the status it had before the world wars, when a less-powerful country enjoyed the free navigation of the seas (largely guaranteed by the Royal Navy, not our own) and focused on opening up its own, vast “near-abroad.” But those days are gone, never to return. The world’s largest economy (with one of the world’s largest populations) depends on a high degree of global peace and global security to maintain its way of life — to maintain even the basic notions of an “American dream” in which our kids have a chance to do better than their parents.

When it comes to the American economy and American influence, less is not more. Of course that does not mean that more is always more, either. We can’t be everywhere. We shouldn’t intervene everywhere. Even our colossal economy has its limits in supporting and maintaining a powerful military. We still have to pick and choose our battles.

Less America means more ISIS. Less America means more Putin. Less America means more China.

But the new “America first” (which bears considerable resemblance to the old “America first”) isn’t content with saying no new entanglements, no new wars. It questions the viability and necessity of our most enduring alliances — the alliances that we know have kept the peace on the European continent since 1945, that we know have prevented even worse conflict in Asia since World War II. The argument now is that we should hold our allies hostage, dangling their national security (or, in some cases, their very existence) before their eyes in a “put up or shut up” relationship that destroys trust and fails to acknowledge the very real benefits that America receives from its closest international alliances.

A quest for international peace and international economic liberty — twin forces that have lifted billions from poverty and have helped dramatically increase opportunities and standards of living here at home — is now sneered at as “globalism.” And rather than fighting over the wisdom of any given alliance or treaty or intervention, a temptation is emerging to condemn the entire international structure as inherently bankrupt.

#related#Yes, our NATO allies should pay more for their own defense. Yes, there is a free-rider problem in both the Europe and the Pacific, but a world in which NATO partners spend, say, 0.5 percent more of their GDP on defense is only marginally better than the world we live in today. A world in which NATO dissolves over an American snit-fit over the failure to upgrade a few brigades of infantry or add a new F-35 squadron is substantially worse. The fact remains that NATO soldiers have bled and died since 9/11 in the common defense of our nation, and any indication that we, in our turn, would not honor our treaty obligations is both strategically foolish and morally repugnant.

Before advocating radical change, it is wise to think hard about the likely alternatives. And under a world that featured “America less,” who would assert more? President Obama’s feckless, inward-focused foreign policy has given a preview. Less America means more ISIS. Less America means more Putin. Less America means more China. None of those developments are good for the country we love. Want to put America first? Don’t throw away its alliances. You won’t like who arises in our place.

David French — David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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