alliances, allies, burden sharing, China, defense spending, Financial Times, Germany, James Mattis, Japan, NATO, North Atlantic treaty Organization, North Korea, nuclear war, Our So-Called Foreign Policy, Russia, smothering, South Korea, Trump
Decades ago (literally!) I came up with an insight that’s stood the test of time pretty well. When my main professional focus was American foreign policy, I began realizing that the best way to describe the U.S. approach to its major security alliances with East Asian and European countries was to call it a “smothering strategy.” That is, American leaders were trying not only to protect Japan and Western Europe specifically from communist aggression. They were also trying to make sure that those critical regions never exploded into major war again – and principally, that Germany and Japan never resumed their roles as aggressors.
The characteristic U.S. solution? Washington would try to smother these German and Japanese impulses by removing their need to conduct any kind of independent foreign policies of their own in the first place. That’s why the United States pledged to take care of both their national security interests (with dangerous nuclear defense commitments) and their economic interests (by opening its economy much wider to their exports than vice versa). As a result, for decades, Germans (and other Europeans) and Japanese could avoid the expenses of maintaining big military establishments and concentrate tightly on the peacetime pursuits of life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness – not to mention building great wealth.
How good was this insight? To me, the proof of the pudding was America’s determination to preserve these alliances almost unchanged even after the Cold War ended, the Soviet Union disappeared, and China had not yet launched a drive to boost its influence in East Asia. To put it bluntly, U.S. leaders were still terrified that, if they were forced to face the world on their own once more, the Germans and Japanese would go bonkers again.
But this past week came some evidence that the smothering strategy is still firmly in place – despite the election of an American President who has complained loudly as a candidate as well as in office about how these arrangements are inexcusable rip-offs of the American public and especially taxpayers. At a big national security conference held each year in Germany, Trump administration officials expressed alarm at the prospect that some European initiatives to boost military spending that have barely advanced past the talking stage could might result in European forces at least sometime operating independently of their alliance with the United States – the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) – and even excluding America.
According to a Financial Times account of the meeting, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis reacted by insisting that these European Union “defence plans…enhance Nato’s common defence rather than detract from it. And he put down an important marker: there was, he said, a clear understanding that common defence is a Nato mission that belongs to Nato ‘alone’.”
In other words, the Trump administration has now fallen into both of the traps that ensnared U.S. alliance policy during the Cold War. It has assured the allies that its commitment to their defense is absolute – including the risk of fighting a nuclear war on their behalf – thereby gutting any incentives for them to stop “free riding” on the United States militarily and bearing a greater share of the defense burden. And it has made clear that, although it wants the allies to assume more responsibilities for their own defense, it opposes the allies gaining any more control over their own defense. Instead, the United States must remain firmly in charge.
As a foreign policy realist, who believes that national interests are much more important than particular alliances, and can clash with the preservation of these alliances, I don’t blame the Trump-ers for wanting to have their cake and eat it, too on this score – i.e., more allied resources to use as Washington wishes. Nor do I blame the Europeans for wanting as much defense assistance from Americans as they can get while continuing to skimp on their military budgets.
But as an American, I wish the administration would recognize two fatal flaws in this alliance strategy status quo. The first is the un-realism of straining to freeze alliance structures in place when the common enemy that represented their raison d’etre has been gone for nearly thirty years. The second entails the needless dangers created by continuing to provide nuclear guarantees – and the tripwire forces needed to draw it into Armageddon – for these allies when not even the partial revival of Russian and Chinese threats (along with North Korea’s development of ever more advanced nuclear weapons) has fostered consensus in how to handle them.
Of course, dissolving these alliances will entail risks. But the risks of trying to square these circles look far greater. And when considering the nuclear threats they now pose (from those North Korean as well as Chinese forces that are much more capable of credibly threatening the United States with nuclear attack, along with Russia’s Cold War holdover arsenal), they look harder to justify than ever.