By Eric Edelman

Since the end of World War II, a major part of the international system has been the globe-girdling system of alliances created by the United States to maintain access to the global commons, facilitate international trade, enable U.S. projection of military power for forward defense, prevent the Soviet Union from dominating Eurasia, and preserve the norms-based world order. That system of alliances has been remarkably successful. It has been an enormous source of comparative strategic advantage for the United States and has made a major contribution to the successful conclusion of the Cold War.

Since the end of the Cold War, the far-flung U.S. network of alliances has aggregated additional military capability, restrained allies from pursuing disruptive policies, provided legitimacy for the use of force, given the U.S. government and military access to vital geographic points, and prevented important industrial capacity from falling into the hands of America’s adversaries. The alliance system thus remains one of the key tools for U.S. policymakers to manage a global order that is increasingly threatened by revisionist authoritarian powers, emerging new nuclear powers, and non-state actors including violent Islamic extremists, narco-terrorists, and super-empowered cyber criminals.

Nonetheless, for Americans, alliances are a bit of an unnatural act. The Founding Fathers established a long American tradition of avoiding what George Washington called “permanent alliances” and what Thomas Jefferson feared would be “entangling alliances.” The Founders’ views were rooted in a vision of free trade as the dissolvent of the mercantilist war system and the then-prevailing view that agriculture was the root of all wealth. Hence Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (1776) argued that America’s “plan is commerce, and that, well attended to, will secure us the peace and friendship of all Europe to have America as a free port.” Establishing a crude form of economic determinism that still influences many commentators on U.S. foreign policy today, he noted that U.S. agricultural products were “the necessaries of life, and will always have a market while eating is the custom abroad.” These ideas engendered an enduring sense that America’s inherent economic strengths could spare it the vicissitudes of international politics.[1]

These injunctions had profound consequences for American strategic culture and created an inherent ambivalence about alliance relationships. As Henry Kissinger has noted, “no country has been more reluctant to engage itself abroad even while undertaking alliances and commitments of unprecedented reach and scope.” America’s unique geographic circumstance, notably its separation from the rest of the world thanks to two large bodies of water, contributed to a culture of ambivalence with regard to alliances.  Hans Morgenthau saw it as the most durable element of national power, and historian C. Vann Woodward saw it as the basis of America’s “free security.” As he noted fifty years ago, “throughout most of its history the United States has enjoyed a remarkable degree of military security, physical security from hostile attack and invasion. This security was not only remarkably effective, but relatively free” because nature’s bounty had interposed itself between the United States and potential adversaries “in place of the elaborate and costly chains of fortifications and even more expensive armies and navies that took a heavy toll of the treasuries of less fortunate countries and placed severe tax burdens upon the backs of their people.”[2]

In truth, this “free security” before 1900 was something of a mirage largely attributable to the British Navy’s role in providing the United States with a shield behind which it was able to prosper. Although an era of “free security,” if it ever existed, is long gone, the notion has left a deep imprint on the American psyche and is no small part of the explanation for the traumatic impact of the 9/11 attacks on the United States.

The prevailing American aversion to taking on political obligations and alliance relationships underwent a paradigm shift in the 20th century. During World War II, in the wake of the colossal, global wars that had wreaked unprecedented carnage in both Europe and Asia, the bulk of the U.S. national security elite abandoned the dominant view that the nation could rely on a continentalist strategy of hemispheric defense in favor of globalism—a strategic posture that relied on alliances to aggregate military power and provide for forward military presence, and on power projection, which would allow the U.S. government to prevent a hostile power from dominating either Europe or Asia.

The alliance system thus remains one of the key tools for U.S. policymakers to manage a global order that is increasingly threatened by revisionist authoritarian powers, emerging new nuclear powers, and non-state actors including violent Islamic extremists, narco-terrorists, and super-empowered cyber criminals.

Seventy years later, we still retain enormous comparative advantage from our favorable geography which allows us to remain aloof from the many rivalries and clashes of interest that stimulate international conflict. The oceans have shrunk thanks to technological progress, but, as Samuel Huntington observed, American policymakers have used this advantage to maintain an “historically uniquely diversified network of alliances” that has preserved a balance of power in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East while also providing for the aggregation of military capabilities. These alliance relationships facilitated the creation of a “free world” bloc whose security underpinned the economic recovery of Western Europe and Japan, denied their territory or industrial potential to the Soviet Union, helped prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons by providing extended nuclear deterrence to allies, assisted in attenuating the historical antagonisms that had divided allies by promoting multilateral ties, and provided a legitimating function for military operations. From the military perspective the U.S. organizing role created a template for the formation of military coalitions and helped inform military modernization efforts around the world by establishing requirements for standards and interoperability.[3]

Despite legitimate and growing concerns that America’s traditional allies may be less able and willing to contribute to the common defense, they continue to provide the United States with vital geographical access to Eurasia. In addition, because potential competitors and adversaries like China, North Korea, and Iran have no natural allies, the access provided by U.S. alliances (and the potential that, if well led, these alliances can help complicate the defense requirements of putative rivals or challengers) is an enduring U.S. comparative advantage. Furthermore, the U.S. geographic position and track record as a security partner gives it an advantage in recruiting new allies and partners to deal with regional competitors or aspiring hegemons.

As the National Defense Panel (on which I served) noted in 2014, “the primary mechanism by which the United States has promoted its security interests and its leadership of the broader international order has been through the formation and maintenance of a wide network of formal alliances, such as NATO, treaties with countries like South Korea, Japan, Australia, Thailand, and the Philippines, and more informal but still deep partnerships, as with Israel and the Gulf states.” The NDP finding highlights the fact that America’s alliance relationships have taken three distinct forms: a multilateral, integrated defense alliance in Europe; a “hub and spoke” system of bilateral treaties in Asia; and a series of “special” relationships with implied defense commitments in the Middle East.[4]

NATO has been called “the most successful military alliance in history”, which, as former Supreme Allied Commander George Joulwan has said, “helped bring about the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain, the reunification of Germany, and the demise of communism in Europe.” It was and is a classic defense alliance, with a causus foederis enshrined in the obligation under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty to treat “an attack on one as an attack on all.” Growing out of the experience of World War II, it enshrined the strategic axiom of “Europe First” that had animated President Roosevelt’s Grand Strategy. Although some scholars and critics have accused the U.S. government of succumbing to an “imperial temptation” in taking on this obligation, the reality is that this was an “empire by invitation”, with the United Kingdom especially and the other West European powers insisting that “a U.S. defense commitment was the key to their political security and economic recovery.” The security underpinning was the basis for the “European miracle” of the 1950s and the re-emergence of Europe as one of the most prosperous regions of the world.[5] 

The U.S. defense commitment in the late 1940s actually exceeded America’s existing capabilities, but eventually the U.S. government adopted a strategy of forward defense— the stationing of U.S. troops and the deployment of nuclear weapons to Europe. From the beginning there were differences among the NATO members and between the United States and its allies about strategy, budgets, and policy. Nonetheless, as Henry Kissinger has noted, through the mechanism of the alliance, “America was tied to Europe by permanent consultative institutions and an integrated military command system—a structure of scope and duration unique in the history of coalitions.” The alliance not only brought about the results outlined by General Joulwan but also has adapted itself to the new, stabilizing the Balkans, orchestrating the demise of Muammar Qaddafi, providing a hedge against emergent Russian revanchism, and reassuring the new allies who were formerly part of the Soviet bloc. If it did not exist, in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Georgia, the annexation of Crimea and destabilization of Eastern Ukraine, we would have had to invent it anew.[6]

The U.S. alliance system in Asia evolved in a totally different way.  As former PACOM Commander Admiral Dennis Blair has noted:

The United States has approached security relations in Asia as a hub-and-spoke arrangement—with the United States at the center of bilateral ties among nations that, in turn, have limited bilateral, if any, military interactions and security arrangements with each other. U.S. bilateral treaties and security partnerships, backed by capable, forward-stationed and forward-deployed armed forces, remain the indispensable framework for deterring aggression and promoting peaceful development in the region.

Paradoxically, the system arose in the aftermath of the outbreak of the Korean War, when the U.S. government was seeking to reassure its European allies in the immediate aftermath of the North Atlantic Treaty ratification. U.S. leaders also feared being “entrapped” by some of our Asian allies in a larger war not of American making. In that sense, our security treaties with Korea and Taiwan were as much pacts of restraint as they were defense treaties.

Japan was the linchpin of the entire system. The U.S.-Japanese security alliance was predicated on a grand bargain in which Japan renounced its past reliance on military force and acceded to an American defense protectorate based on the nuclear umbrella in exchange for generous access to military bases in Japan and a low international profile. It was a strategy of dual containment directed against both the spread of communist influence in Asia and any atavistic instincts to remilitarize Japan. 

Restoring and managing America’s far-flung network of alliances will be one of the main tasks of a new Presidential Administration in 2017.

Although the “hub and spoke” system lacked the multilateral integrated military structure of NATO, it, too, rested on the notion of forward defense and power projection to reassure allies of the credibility of U.S. commitments and to deter aggression by the Soviet Union or the People’s Republic of China. Despite the passage of 65 years and the enormous economic transformation of Asia, including the rise of China, the original U.S. alliance system remains largely intact and continues to underpin regional security.[7]

American security relationships in the Middle East have followed an altogether different pattern. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire the dominant outside powers in the Middle East were Britain and France. During World War II, Britain had the main responsibility for the Middle East as a theater of operations, but the United States established positions in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Iran that guaranteeing it would play some role in the region’s fortunes after the war’s end. Initially in the postwar period, the U.S. government was inclined to allow Britain to play the role of senior partner in a region that appeared to be ripe for potential penetration by the Soviet Union. Over time, as the sinews of British power weakened, the U.S. government assumed a ever larger role in the region’s security culminating in the Britain’s abdication of defense responsibilities east of Suez in 1971 and the assumption by the United States of responsibilities for maintaining regional security and guaranteeing international access to the region’s energy resources. 

As the cooperative Anglo-American rivalry played out in the Middle East, there were fitful attempts to create an alliance structure. One such effort culminated in the Baghdad Pact, but none of them ever came close to bearing the weight of NATO. As Henry Kissinger has observed,

in the end, America was drawn into the Middle East by the containment theory, which required opposition to Soviet expansion in every region, and by the doctrine of collective security, which encouraged the creation of NATO-like organizations to resist actual or potential military threats. Yet, for the most part, the nations of the Middle East did not share America’s strategic views. They thought of Moscow primarily as a useful lever to extract concessions from the West rather than as a threat to their independence.[8]

U.S. efforts to establish alliance relationships foundered on the realities of decolonization and the retrocession of Anglo-French power from the region, as well as the establishment of Israel. Over time, the special relationships with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Iran that were established in World War II were complemented by a special relationship with Israel and Egypt as part of a broader strategy to contain both radical Arab nationalism and Soviet power. The Iranian revolution of 1979 and the resulting Shi'i theocracy bent on spreading its revolutionary doctrine throughout the region created a major disruption and set in motion a new wave of religious-based extremism in both Shi'a and Sunni variants. The other special relationships, however, have survived the habitual turmoil of the most volatile region in the world. Whether they will continue to survive an Iran nuclear agreement remains to be seen.

Restoring and managing America’s far-flung network of alliances will be one of the main tasks of  a new U.S. Administration in 2017.  It will be especially challenging because the Obama Administration’s grand strategy has systematically undermined America’s alliances. A brief examination of the Administration’s “grand strategy” will cast some light on the challenges facing us in the areas of alliance management and coalition maintenance. 

As Colin Dueck has argued in The Obama Doctrine, the President has pursued a strategy of retrenchment and accommodation. He has sought to reduce American military structure and commitments, particularly in areas like the Middle East where he believes the United States is overinvested, and he has reached out to America’s adversaries—China, Russia, and Iran—in order to conciliate their grievances and make them responsible regional actors in the international system. He wants them to be, as people used to say in the 1960s, “part of the solution and not the problem.” Unfortunately, this prioritization of attending to adversary complaints over the needs of allies has subjected America’s closest traditional alliance relationships to enormous strain. That is so because the outreach to adversaries has not only been unsuccessful, but also appears to have encouraged more aggressive policies by Russia, China, and Iran.[9]

The most visible case of a damaged alliance is the contentious and dysfunctional relationship that has developed between the U.S. government and that of Israel. But the same dynamic is at work with traditional U.S. Gulf allies and Egypt, as well. It is also visible to a lesser degree in relations with our Asian allies, who have expressed concern about the durability of U.S. commitments, not to mention some of the newer post-Cold War members of NATO.  

In some “neorealist” academic circles there is a view, perhaps shared by key officials in the Obama Administration, that alliance management does not require enormous effort, since states tend to balance major powers in the international system rather than bandwagon with them. Former Secretary of State Shultz has suggested that the practitioner’s view is somewhat different. He has likened alliance management to gardening, noting that state-to-state relationships are like tender flowers that need fairly constant time, attention, and watering. The work of alliance management can be burdensome. It is time consuming, emotionally draining, and requires frequent consultations by senior officials. As Lawrence Eagleburger once wrote to former Secretary of State Dean Acheson from the U.S. Mission in NATO, “I always admired your vision in inventing NATO, but eight months here have led to some second thoughts. Like sex, NATO is a good thing to be knowledgeable about, and to experience on occasion. But it can become a bit wearing.”[10]

Repairing the damage done over the past eight years to America’s alliances will require an enormous diplomatic effort that must be sustained for some years and based on the notion that alliance management is one of our most important strategic advantages. That advantage will need to be nurtured and extended in a new and potentially more difficult environment. 

One of the most problematic issues in alliance management over the years has been burden sharing. The United States after World War II, essentially established a defense protectorate guaranteeing the security of its allies with its nuclear umbrella. The willingness of the U.S. government to do so created a classic public goods problem. As economists Mancur Olson and Richard Zeckhauser explained, the economic theory of alliances there is “a tendency for the ‘larger members'—those that place a higher absolute value on the public good—to bear a disproportionate share of the burden.” The issue of burden sharing has been a neuralgic point among the allies since the early 1950s.  It is likely to become an even more trying task as cultural shifts, demographic decline, and economic pressures diminish the resource levels that allies are willing to devote to defense.[11] 

Left unattended, this situation will call into question the actual aggregation of power that is one of the fundamental purposes of pursuing alliances. Alliance managers will have to develop more creative approaches to recommending that allies spend their scarce euros, pounds, and yen on specific military capabilities that complement U.S. forces rather than the full spectrum forces that they maintained during the Cold War. The U.S. government will also need to consider a more explicit division of labor with allies by encouraging them to procure the means to impose costs on potential adversaries as part of the first line of defense, enabling the United States to reinforce collective defense with the capabilities that are a manifestation of its unique global reach.

First and foremost the new Administration will have to rebuild our defenses and demonstrate quickly both the resolve and capability to defend our allies.

The U.S. government will also want to seek new partners to deal with the growing range of threats to regional security. India, Vietnam, Indonesia, and the UAE are all partners who have developed a closer range of defense relationships with the United States over the past decade. Although it is unlikely that they will become treaty allies, these “special” relationships have much potential for further development that will complicate the calculations of China and Iran, for example, in seeking to pursue their ambitions to revise the security order in their respective regions. The prospects for new partnerships, however, will depend heavily on the new partners' perceptions of America's reliability and commitment to its existing allies. The U.S. government will also need to construct informal coalitions that build on our relations both with treaty allies and other types of partnerships.  The international landscape is shifting quite rapidly, and U.S. alliance policies will need to become more agile to cope with the increasing pace of change.

As the United States continues its effort to manage global order in the 21st century, it will undoubtedly rely on the main tool that it is has employed for the past 70 years: its system of alliance relationships. But there will be some differences to accommodate the vast changes that have accompanied the transition to an information age. New alliance relationships are likely to be more informal and flexible than the legally binding, treaty-based alliance vehicles of the past. The Europe-first approach will shift over time toward a balance of effort more focused on Southwest and East Asia. The heavy emphasis on forward defense and presence is likely to give way to a greater emphasis on access to bases, persistent and habitual training relationships, co-production and purchase of selected advanced weapons platforms, and U.S. punitive strikes. U.S. Special Forces will be a ubiquitous presence among our allies (both state and non-state). Flexible and informal coalitions like the Proliferation Security Initiative are likely to be a tool of choice in the volatile and uncertain international environment that is likely to face the next President.

Moreover, the new U.S. Administration will have to take as its point of departure the enormous damage that has been done to U.S. alliances by the policies of the Obama Administration. A great deal of effort will be required in this regard. First and foremost the new Administration will have to rebuild our defenses and demonstrate quickly both the resolve and the capability to defend our allies. Many of our treaty allies, as well as prospective partners, believe the United States is losing its military dominance and lacks the will to defend them. This will take enormous personal effort on the part of a new U.S. President and other senior national security officials.

In particular, the role of U.S. extended nuclear deterrence, long the underpinning of our treaty alliances, is likely to persist into the future, a fact that will require modernizing all three legs of the U.S. nuclear tripod, but mustering the budget resources, while necessary, will not be sufficient to rebuild the damaged credibility of our extended nuclear deterrence commitments. The failure to enforce the Syria redline, the serial retreat from long-held positions on nonproliferation policy in the Iran nuclear negotiations, and the total failure of the Administration to stand by the assurances to Ukraine contained in the Budapest Memorandum of 1994 have severely undermined the faith of our allies around the world in U.S. assurances and commitments. Attention to this set of issues must be an early priority for a new American leadership.

The diplomacy of alliance management, a skill set that has atrophied since the Cold War, must be reinvigorated. Alliance management for the next President and senior U.S. officials will not only be something important to know about but also something to practice constantly, no matter how wearing it might be on the participants.

[1] Thomas Paine quoted in Felix Gilbert, The Beginnings of American Foreign Policy (Harper and Row, 1965) pp. 42-3, and Walter LaFeber, The American Age:  United States Foreign Policy at Home and Abroad since 1750 (W.W. Norton, 1989), p. 19.

[2] Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy (Simon and Schuster, 1994), p. 18, Hans Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace (Alfred A. Knopf, 4th ed., 1967), p. 106; and C. Vann Woodward, The Future of the Past (Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 76-7.

[3] Samuel Huntington, “The U.S.—Decline or Renewal?” Foreign Affairs, 67:2, pp. 91, 45.

[4] William J. Perry and John P. Abizaid, co-chairs, Ensuring a Strong U.S. Defense for the Future:  The National Defense Panel Review of the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review (United States Institute of Peace, 2014), p. 6.

[5] General Joulwan quoted in “NATO Enlargement: The American Viewpoint,” U.S. Foreign Policy Agenda:  An Electronic Journal of the U.S. Information Agency, 2:4, p. 19; Geir Lundestad, “Empire by Invitation? The United States and Western Europe, 1945-1952,” Journal of Peace Research, 23:3, pp. 263-77. Over time this morphed into an effort to create an integrated Europe in order to accomplish the double containment of Germany and the Soviet Union; see Lundestad, Empire by Integration: The United States and European Integration, 1945-1947 (Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 3-4.

[6] Kissinger, Diplomacy, pp. 818-21.

[7] Dennis C. Blair and John T. Hanley, Jr., “From Wheels to Webs: Reconstructing Asian-Pacific Security Arrangements,” Washington Quarterly, 24:1, pp. 7-17.

[8] Kissinger, Diplomacy, pp. 525, 527, 533.

[9] Colin Dueck, The Obama Doctrine (Oxford University Press, 2015).

[10] George P. Shultz, Turmoil and Triumph (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1993), pp. 128-9, Eagleburger to Acheson, May 7, 1970, Dean Acheson Papers, Yale University, Sterling Memorial Library, Box 9. I am grateful to Professors Walter LaFeber and Frank Costigliola for drawing this letter to my attention.

[11] Mancur Olson Jr. & Richard Zeckhauser, “An Economic Theory of Alliances,” The Review of Economics and Statistics, 48:3, pp. 268, 270.