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Illusions of alliances and the follies of burden-sharing

March 7, 2012

Dan Drezner recently pointed out some of the utter lunacy passing for foreign policy analysis from Representative Eric Cantor, who claimed that American policymakers must “not allow [Obama’s] administration to somehow speak contrary to what our ally thinks is in its best interest.” Drezner is rightly incredulous:

Step back for a second and ask yourself if this is true of any other U.S. ally.  A NATO member?  Nah, we disagree with them all the time.  Japan?  Nope, there was a pretty bruising fight with that country’s government on Okinawa bases just a few years ago.  Canada?  Hell, Mitt Romney pretty much made it clear that the U.S. is gonna get Canada’s oil and I heard nary a peep of criticism from the GOP foreign policy establishment.  I can’t think of a Latin American, Pacific Rim or Central Asian ally that meets this criteria.

However, while Israel may be an extreme case instance of this phenomenon, problems with discerning competing interests in cooperative relationships are a persistent problem in foreign policy. Unfortunately for the U.S., these problems are likely to increase – whether they involve Israel or not.

One of the reactions to the Bush administration’s assertive unilateral interpretations of the imperatives of U.S. leadership and hegemony has been a more ostensibly multilateral approach. Rather than trying to do everything ourselves, there has been a broadening consensus that the United States should not “go it alone,” and that rather than trying to take on a disproportionate share of the burden, it should seek to encourage allies to do more, and, in turn, reaffirm our commitments to them.

It’s well and good in theory, but in practice this creates a system of contradictory and sometimes perverse incentives. As I mentioned earlier in my post on the Concert of Europe, good diplomacy in multipolar systems benefits from flexibility, not commitment and rigid blocs of powers. As Christopher Layne said, in a balance of power system, the goal is burden shifting, not burden sharing. If, an offshore power managing a system of competing power centers, is taking up new commitments with other allies so they will help it on some number of its own commitments, it is likely to end up suckered, rather than adequately supported.

The goal of international security partnerships and coalition actions should not be to help others help themselves, but to help others help yourself. There is a certain danger of identifying burden-sharing and the preservation of alliances and partnerships not as instruments for pursuing U.S. interests, but as the interests in and of themselves. While it’s undiplomatic to say so, alliances for alliances’ sake tend not to be effective means of enhancing U.S. interests. Very often, it may drag the United States into conflicts that provide far more benefit to U.S. allies than to the U.S. itself – take the example of Kosovo, situated in a region with a relatively minor impact on U.S. national interests but of greater interest to, say, NATO’s Central European members. Or take Libya, which had negligible direct effects on U.S. national interests but extremely direct effects on the interests of France, which had an incentive to stem the flow of North African refugees and muscle in on previously unavailable economic and strategic opportunities by overthrowing a historic rival to French influence in North Africa.

Ostensibly, strengthening multilateral alliances or partnerships based on intervention has the benefit of reciprocity. Secretary Clinton explained the decision to give the U.S. a major role in the Libyan conflict, saying:

You know, we asked our allies, our NATO allies, to go into Afghanistan with us 10 years ago. They have been there, and a lot of them have been there despite the fact they were not attacked. The attack came on us, as we all tragically remember. They stuck with us. When it comes to Libya, we started hearing from the U.K., France, Italy, other of our NATO allies. This was in their vital national interest. The U.K. and France were the ones who went to the Security Council and said, “We have to act, because otherwise we’re seeing a really violent upheaval with a man who has a history of unpredictable violent acts right on our doorstep.”

There is a second logic to strengthening fora such as NATO and maintaining their credibility – they might crowd out alternative forms of defense cooperation and alternate balances of power. Preventing the formation of a “third force” of Europeans during the Cold War was a major influence on U.S. defense policy in Europe, and even after the fall of the Soviet Union, Madeline Albright insisted that the Common Defense and Security Policy of the EU not conflict or undermine NATO.

However, in a world that is multipolar, but still U.S. led, the logic of these arguments break down. While NATO may have contributed to Afghanistan in the past, economic pressure is likely to reduce the ability of European countries to conduct such power projection further afield at America’s behest. Additionally, particularly for operations involving large amounts of advanced military platforms counteracting Anti-Access/Area Denial threats or even conflicts such as Libya, the types of armed forces many NATO members currently field might not be of much use.

In other words, even though non-US coalition states conducted the majority of sorties in Libya, it still had to take a much larger role in suppression of enemy air defense, refueling, intelligence, and other tasks which would be even more critical for an intervention further afield. The further afield the conflict, the less burden-sharing with Europe makes sense – U.S. assets would be even more disproportionately necessary for conducting a similar campaign in Syria or attacking Iran. But if NATO, for geographical and logistical reasons, can only be expected to conduct interventions in the European “near abroad,” then what use is supporting voluntary (i.e., non-Article V) NATO interventions to the U.S.? Orienting U.S. military assets and potential interventions in the European neighborhood made sense when a major threat to the U.S. – the USSR – was in the neighborhood, but Serbia, Libya, and similar states do not threaten U.S. interests nearly enough to make the interest in toppling their governments nearly as important to Washington as it might be to Berlin or Paris.

Similarly, now that there is no longer the threat of pro-Soviet Arab regimes enabling the expansion of Moscow’s influence in the Mediterranean and Gulf, the strategic utility of supporting Israeli security in, say, the Levant, is now much less significant. Indeed, it was never that significant to begin with, as Reagan recognized when the death toll of U.S. intervention in Lebanon began to rise. Indeed, for the past two decades America has been trying to restrain Israeli involvement in the Gulf (whether during the Persian Gulf War or Iran today). Potential Israeli aid in a war with Iran is another example of the sometimes dubious benefits that cooperative interventions advertise. While Israel could help with the initial strike, this would be the area America needs the least assistance in. Israel could not secure U.S. facilities and personnel in the Gulf, nor could it keep open the Strait of Hormuz. Relative to their interests in the war, the unintended consequences of the war might fall disproportionately upon the United States. And what could Israel offer in return for such cooperation? Mostly help in areas that the U.S. has far less interest in.

Flexibility in foreign relations will become increasingly important in a multipolar era. Many of the institutions and alliances the U.S. developed in the Cold War era, where the U.S. had hegemony over the First World and much of the Third, and posited as the basis for a global international order in the years since U.S. hegemony expanded into the Second and rest of the Third, will no longer provide the same benefits they did before. In particular, as rival centers of power emerge and U.S. hegemony retrenches itself, attempting to lock in hegemony through old alliances will become an increasingly poor strategy.

During the Cold War, the nature of the Soviet threat was relatively static. As Kennan identified them, control or denial of the industrial centers of Western Europe and East Asia remained relatively fixed objectives. With more great powers involved, however, the number of potential flash points, pressure points, and areas of interests broadens, or at least their geographical concentration disperses. In such a scenario, a country that may be an adversary or competitor in one region of the world may become a potential partner in the other. The more bipolar a system is, the more these sorts of relationships are unlikely to occur. In Europe, the death pangs of Anglo-French colonial ambitions elicited U.S. opposition to British and French policy in the Suez, and temporary U.S. cooperation with the Soviet Union. Similarly, the rise of China in East Asia provided an opportunity for the U.S. and China to cooperate against the USSR even as the Taiwan issue remained unresolved.

In Europe during the 19th century, such shifting alignments or even near-simultaneous competition and cooperation was extremely common. Russia and France remained persistent rivals to Britain during the Concert period, but British alignments varied in turn. Notably, it was not British withdrawal from the world, but the means by which Britain sought to multilateralize the maintenance of the status quo, which solidified the alliance system that would help plunge Europe into war.

Britain joined the Entente with France and Russia not simply to contain Germany, but to address more direct threats to Britain’s interests outside of Europe. Russia and France were not simply potential continental hegemons, even more than that they were pressing threats to Britain’s expansive empire outside of Europe. France challenged Britain’s African possessions, particularly British influence in Egypt and the Sudan (but also Indochina). Russia, of course, threatened a wide range of British interests from the Mediterranean, to the Persian Gulf and Central Asia, to East Asia, where Russia pressured British interests through threats to or influence in Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, and China.

For all the talk about German Weltpolitik, it was Russian and French geopolitical reach which proved the greater problem for Britain in the late 19th century, and the amelioration of that problem through Entente required increasing levels of British support for Russian and French interests in places such as Turkey and Morocco. Britain further sought to retrench commitments afar and broaden its burden-sharing by granting more influence to the U.S. in the Western Hemisphere and signing an alliance with Japan which greatly increased its power in the Pacific. While critics of declinism have decried Britain’s failure to lead the world, the disaster which would befall the global and European system was far more the result of Britain’s attempt to preserve its hegemony through burden-sharing, supporting its allies, and maintaining its credibility. Britain locked in an alliance system that preserved the status quo abroad, but made the European status quo unbearable for Germany, and simultaneously exposed Britain to defensive commitments in mainland Europe.

In a future multipolar era, the United States would be wise not to bind its fortunes with the fate of such a broad alliance or coalition of power, even – perhaps especially – if the United States remains the strongest power among equals (as Britain remained in naval, financial, and many other terms). While there is much talk of the dangers of military unilateralism, multilateralism clearly is not without its own dangers. Indeed, as U.S. hegemony wanes, its ability to craft multilateral institutions to suit its own interests wanes, while the ability of other powers to push their own prerogatives through multilateral security arrangements increases. Simultaneously, America’s continued offshore position and status as, at the very least, primus inter pares will make it difficult for the U.S. to leverage contributions to partners’ local security to cooperation out-of-area. A diplomatic approach more willing to embrace flexibility, maneuverability, rather than increasingly relying on co-dependency and credibility.

U.S. military posture will also have to change to reflect these geopolitical and diplomatic realities. A force reliant on masses of troops and pre-positioned equipment in countries with which relations could be in potential flux is ultimately one less useful and less responsive to the challenges of a multipolar era. Naval and aerial forces will need to be able to operate at longer ranges and from bases further back than previous standards, both due to diplomatic considerations and the increasing power of A2/AD capabilities. Units operating on land will need to be better able to operate from and with such a maritime-centric force.

Most of all, though, the U.S. needs to recognize that alliances must serve interests – they cannot be considered interests in and of themselves. Nor do common enemies necessarily cement alliances. In burden-shifting, a potentially hostile state seeking to project or maintain its power in multiple regions may not pose an equal threat to U.S. interests in all of them. Take Iran, whose efforts in the Levant are far less problematic for the U.S. than mobilization in the Gulf. Or China, whose attempts to maintain internal stability and exclude foreign meddling in the western landlocked interior are far less of an issue than similar attempts at consolidation and power projection in Taiwan and the South China Sea. Indeed, a truly flexible policy might seek to cooperate with a state on one set of issues or region while attempting to undermine it in another, at least during peacetime. When asking what U.S. security commitments to a country, region, or institution should look like, policymakers must think hard about the end state they wish to achieve and the interests they wish to see further – and plan their diplomacy accordingly. Burden-sharing is well and good, but burden-shifting is better – and thinking more carefully about what burdens we really ought to be taking on or concerning ourselves with is better than either.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 7, 2012 9:38 am

    Great post!

    There is a book by the Canadian philosopher/nationalist John Ralston Saul -The Collapse of Globalism and the Reinvention of the World- in which he draws the analogy to the international environment of the later 19th century and the early 21st century.

    Saul thought that the Crimean War signaled an end to the international order created after the Napoleonic War by the Congress of Vienna, and began a more internationally anarchic period of competition between nation-states. Saul believes that the Iraq War was analogous to the Crimean War and signaled the return of an era of national competition.

  2. Lynn C. Rees permalink
    March 8, 2012 9:09 pm

    The legitimist order was generational muscle memory, cemented by the shared experience of men whose political order had been to its core by 25 years of war. Legitimism was overthrown by two men, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte and Otto von Bismarck, born at the tail end of Bonaparte’s regime (1808, 1815). Their formative memories were of indignities suffered to maintain legitimism rather than those of an ancien regime at the edge of extinction.

    Prussian conservatives from the generational cohort preceding Bismarck’s such as the Gerlach brothers instinctively deferred to Austrian or Russian leadership. They broke with Bismarck, their former protege, when they realized that he would violate every unwritten more undergirding legitimism if need be. Wilhelm I, a living relic of legitimism, was uncomfortable with Bismarck’s program at first. Bismarck barely survived the king’s discomfort with challenging sacral Habsburg authority. Bismarck’s ability to burst into tears on demand won him enough space to crush Denmark, a success he could build on. Given a 100 year sucker in Louis-Napoleon W. Bonaparte, Bismarck seized his coattails and overthrew the legitimist order.

    NATO, the EU, the UN, and other “post-war” (meaning post-World War II) institutions are the generational muscle memory of the men who fought World War I and then led their nations through its sequel. As soon as their children came to power, that order started to wobble. As soon as their grand children came to power, it was running on fumes. All it will take is another 100 year sucker and the vestiges of the post-World War II will come crashing down.


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