If you listen to much of the rhetoric coming from Donald Trump during the campaign, you would think that America's allies are a bunch of useless leeches that drain American strength. Indeed, he all but implied that Making America Great Again and America First meant that we needed to rethink our alliance relationships. Fortunately, at least some of this rhetoric has been tempered after the Inauguration, but it raises the question: was candidate Trump right that our alliances sap our strength? To me, the answer is an emphatic NO.
The U.S. alliance network comes in four forms. First, we are members of multilateral security alliances. This includes NATO (Europe, Iceland and North America) and ANZUS (US, Australia and New Zealand). Second, we have formal bilateral agreements with several countries, including South Korea, Japan, and the Philippines. Third, we have informal, but quite strong security understandings with some countries, most notably Israel and Taiwan. Finally, we have lots of security arrangements that make limited formal commitments, including agreements with many Middle Eastern nations.
The scope of this alliance network is huge: over 60 nations that produce 75% of the world's economic network have have a total population of $2 billion people. This is in marked contrast to our major peer competitors. Neither China nor Russia have more than a handful of small allies, and these alliances are, by and large, usually momentary alliances of convenience or exist on paper only.
Given this extensive U.S. alliance network, there are two possibilities: either these alliances are entangling arrangements that drain us economically (Candidate Trump's view) or they are a core strategic advantage for the U.S. (my view).
In my experience, our alliance network is a huge strategic advantage for several reasons. First, in both Europe and Asia, our alliances have kept the regions secure and peaceful, which is no small thing considering that NATO includes two nations that are often at odds (Turkey and Greece) and two of our Asian bilateral partners (South Korea and Japan) have a rocky relationship even in the best times. Our economic prosperity is a direct result of this peace and stability.
Second, our alliance network allows us a global reach. We have bases around the world that allow us to respond quickly to national security threats anywhere in the world. Our bases in Europe and the Middle East, for example, were critical to our rapid response to the September 11 attacks. Moreover, our allies have come to our aid. NATO helped us after September 11th (including flying AWACS planes in the U.S.), and our NATO allies fought with us in Afghanistan.
Third, it is hard to overstate the simple relationship advantages that come from our alliances. I knew well and worked with the top Defence Ministry lawyers in several countries (especially the UK and Australia) and that relationship was critical in working on common problems (or disputes). Most senior U.S. military officers have known their alliance nation counterparts for years since we train and exercise with our allies. And our diplomats similarly know their counterparts very well. These relationships, built over years, are critical when we face cries or difficult problems.
Finally, to a remarkable degree, our allies are good at getting us not to do stupid stuff. And we have prevented our allies from doing the same. I wish we had listened to the French before we invaded Iraq, but there are actually other examples where we listened to our allies and wisely stepped back from military action, as Tufts Professor Michael Beckley explains:
Against this limited evidence of entanglement are numerous cases in which alliances restrained the United States. Allies dissuaded the United States from escalating the Korean War and crises in Laos and Berlin, and struggled in vain to prevent the United States from entering or escalating other conflicts, the 2003 Iraq War being only the latest major example. Indeed, instances of alliance-induced restraint are evident even within the ªve cases of entanglement discussed above: in the 1954–55 Taiwan Strait crisis, concerns about European alliances discouraged U.S. policymakers from bombing the Chinese mainland and publicly committing to defend Jinmen and Mazu; in the Vietnam War, allies impeded U.S. entry into the war and then repeatedly implored the United States to get out; and in Bosnia and Kosovo, U.S. allies initially restrained the United States from lashing out violently and then provided all of the NATO ground forces and most of the postconflict peacekeepers for the eventual operations.We should obviously continue to evaluate whether our current security agreements make sense, and a little jaw-boning to urge our allies to pay more for the common defense makes sense. But we also need to remember that the alliance network created since Wold War II has served us well, and is a key element of our national power.