The Corner

National Security & Defense

Why Alliances Matter

As regular readers know, I write mostly about the armed forces, but there are other tools of power and influence that America needs to protect its national security.  Alliances are one of those tools, and Donald Trump has made the subject timely because of his recent comments regarding NATO

I don’t agree with Mr. Trump’s approach to NATO. But I don’t want to ridicule him for raising the issue either. Nothing is so sacred that it can’t be discussed; in fact, it’s long past time for American leaders to really think about the fundamentals of our foreign policy, including long standing policies like NATO.

Alliances are a means to an end; they are high-order means, to be sure, but means nevertheless. A good alliance serves the ends of all the parties to it, which is why they enter the alliance in the first place. 

So what is the end, for America specifically, served by its alliances? In fact, what is the ultimate end of our foreign policy? If American foreign policy were a firm — one of Donald Trump’s businesses, perhaps — what would its strategic mission be?

It’s this: America manages risk in the world, so as to prevent both aggression against its vital interests and armed conflict, or at least escalating armed conflict that could trigger the use of weapons of mass destruction or spread and become a general war. 

Note that this statement of America’s strategic mission puts America First. Mr. Trump is right to insist on that, and not just because the primary responsibility of any government is the welfare and safety of its own citizens. 

The ambitions of the whole world for freedom, and peace, are tied irrevocably to the fortunes of the United States. America is still the last and best hope, not only of its own people, but of all mankind. For that reason, as well as for reasons of national prudence, the United States must always tend first to its own strength and security. As John Quincy Adams said, “America is the friend of liberty everywhere, but the custodian only of its own.”  

What has changed since Adams’ day is not the goal of our policy but the means we use to achieve that goal. The game changers were the two World Wars of the last centuries; they showed that that the United States cannot wall itself off from escalating conflict in strategically important parts of the world. The enduring lesson of those wars was that the cheapest and safest way for the United States to protect its own interests is to move actively to deter or contain aggression at its early stages, before our options have been reduced to surrendering our rights or fighting a major war under unfavorable circumstances.

So how does the United States do that? What are the highest order operating principles we have followed to achieve our strategic goals?

First, the United States plays a global leadership role, by which I mean that America moves at the forefront of events in regions of the world important to us. The idea is to control events, insofar as possible, rather than to be controlled by them — to use our influence, and to organize the forces that support us, to anticipate and defeat risk before it grows into a major threat. 

Second, the United States maintains robust tools of national power, to give presidents acceptable options in a crisis. Those tools include both hard power (the armed forces) and soft power (diplomacy, intelligence, economic sanctions, etc.).

Third, America builds and nurtures alliances with nations that have common interests. Alliances validate American leadership, spread the burden of our policy, and build a culture of collective security and common action. Managing the risks to American interests is largely a question of building coalitions against them; alliances — when they are based on a real community of interests — represent a ready-made coalition in a crisis.

It would be the understatement of the year to say that America’s post-war Presidents have not always chosen effective tactics to implement these principles.  But when they have chosen well – even tolerably well – the principles worked to achieve the strategic ends. 

Harry Truman was able to stop Communist expansion in Europe, without war, by breaking the Berlin blockade with the peaceful use of air power, and by rebuilding the forces of democracy in Western Europe through the Marshall plan. Jack Kennedy was able to get missiles out of Cuba in 1962, without bombing the island, because he had an effective Navy. Ronald Reagan used the combined power of American military and economic strength, and the NATO alliance, to contain and pressure the Soviet Union until it collapsed. More recently, Congress imposed economic sanctions on Iran to stop it from developing a nuclear weapon – and the sanctions were working until President Obama abandoned them.

Even the limited war in Iraq — marred as it was by poor decisions at the highest levels in the early years — eventually achieved success on the battlefield, and would likely have achieved its strategic goals but for the Obama Administration’s decision to abandon Iraq at the end of 2011.

America is in trouble now not because the principles are not sound but because President Obama has systematically repudiated them.  He has led from behind rather than from the front.  He has enervated the tools of power, hard and soft.  And he has undermined our allies and partners all over the world (with the notable exception of Asia), including the British, the East Europeans, the Israelis, Egypt and the Gulf States.

America’s formal alliances have worked over the years because the allies share America’s broadest strategic objectives.  Like the United States, they don’t want to invade their neighbors; like the United States, they respect (most of the time anyway) international law and the national rights of other countries; and like the United States, they vastly prefer peace to war.

That’s why these countries are allies rather than adversaries or potential adversaries.

Yes, the allies are often difficult to deal with. But would they be easier to deal with if they weren’t allies? If the alliances didn’t exist, would they be more or less likely to align themselves with American positions? Or to use the colorful language of Lyndon Johnson — language that Mr. Trump would appreciate — do we want them “inside the tent pissing out, or outside the tent pissing in?

Yes, the allies should spend more on defense. But the United States has traditionally borne the biggest burden of allied defense for reasons that make sense both in terms of the alliances themselves and America’s broader interests: (1) we are the most powerful, (2) we insist upon, and get, the leadership role in the alliances, (3) Germany and Japan are the two partners who could most substantially increase their military capacity, and for obvious historical reasons, the smaller allies have been uncomfortable with that possibility (though that is changing in Asia) and (4) presidents have judged that the leverage necessary to get additional military contributions is better used getting support for other aspects of America’s agenda.

By all means a President Trump should get additional allied contributions if he can. But, given that the amounts at issue are in any case quite small, is it worth risking the alliances themselves to get them? As regards NATO, do we want to risk even greater disunity in Europe, even less support for the United States in international forums, even more Russian aggression, and the military basing rights by which America protects its global interests, to get the Italians or Belgians or Danes to spend another minute fraction of their GDPs on defense? 

One of the reasons Americans complain about allied contributions is because they have been led to believe the United States is spending a huge proportion of its own wealth on defense. That is not true; we currently spend about 3 percent of our GDP on sustaining the military, plus about another half a percent on current combat operations, mostly in Afghanistan. The amount fluctuates, and it certainly ought to be morebut under any circumstances it would be orders of magnitude less than the cost of allowing global risk to escalate into global war. 

In fact, the whole rationale of America’s post-war policy, including the various alliances, is to make a minimal ongoing sacrifice over time to vastly reduce the risk of the periodic cataclysms that engulfed the world in the first half of the last century.

The risk of such a cataclysm is now growing, not just in Europe, but in the Middle East and Asia. Certainly we need a debate, and the additional clarity it might engender, about how to stop it.  But I highly doubt that such a debate would result in a reasoned decision to endanger the alliances that have been such an integral part of the architecture of American security. America First and America Great are the right objectives, but an America without allies — an America Alone — is not the right way to achieve either.

Jim Talent, as a former U.S. senator from Missouri, chaired the Seapower Subcommittee. He is currently the chairman of the National Leadership Council at the Reagan Institute.


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