As I said over the weekend, that Atlantic article on President Obama’s foreign policy based on a series of lengthy interviews is an unusually rich vein of material. So let’s keep mining! Since its most newsworthy aspects so far have been judged to be Mr. Obama’s views on America’s allies, let’s focus on them.
The quick and dirty: The bipartisan foreign policy establishment (including its journalistic wing) is just aghast that the president has derided many of the nation’s main treaty and less formal allies – including the United Kingdom – as “free riders.” And on this matter, Obama could not be more on target. At the same time, just as with his pessimism on the Middle East, he hasn’t even begun to follow up policy-wise in ways that are not only logical, but vital for avoiding major future troubles.
As the article by Jeffrey Goldberg reminds, the president has dressed down London for skimping on defense spending while the United States has borne an outsized share of the Western security burden. The British responded by – minimally – meeting a spending goal long endorsed by Washington, but Mr. Obama still complained bitterly about the history of many allies’ “holding our coats while we did all the fighting.’”
Indeed, he largely blamed his failed intervention in Libya on “Europe and a number of Gulf countries who despise Qaddafi, or are concerned on a humanitarian basis, who are calling for action. But what has been a habit over the last several decades in these circumstances is people pushing us to act but then showing an unwillingness to put any skin in the game.” And he fingered both current British Prime Minister David Cameron and his then French counterpart, Nikolas Sarkozy, by name.
Also harshly criticized by the president: Saudi Arabia and other arch-conservative Persian Gulf monarchies, which he has accused of “intensifying” (Goldberg’s language) the outburst of “Muslim fury” seen in recent years by “heavily” funding the spread of Islamic fundamentalism.
Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens spoke for many in the nation’s professional foreign policy community when he wrote that Mr. Obama’s remarks to Goldberg “are so gratuitously damaging to long-standing U.S. alliances, international security and Mr. Obama’s reputation as a serious steward of the American interest that the words could not possibly have sprung from the lips of the president himself.”
But as shown by this essay by the Washington Post‘s David Ignatius, criticism has hardly been confined to neoconservatives. Indeed, Bloomberg View columnist Eli Lake delivered probably the ultimate slap at this facet of the “Obama Doctrine” – at least in the eyes of the nation’s chattering classes. He called it Trump-like.
The president certainly can be faulted for indiscretion while still serving in office. As Ignatius notes, candor can indeed be destabilizing. But such judgment questions aside what’s most important to know is that the president is unquestionably right on the merits. Unless you doubt that the Gulf Arab monarchies are funding the spread of one of Islam’s harshest, most medieval strains? Or believe that America’s allies in Europe and Japan have ever shouldered a remotely appropriate share of the load for what is after all their own defense?
As documented in this 2000 journal article of mine, since early in the Cold War, American administrations have struggled to convince or pressure leaders in London, Paris, Bonn (and then Berlin), and Tokyo alike to increase their military budgets both in absolute terms and as a percentage of overall alliance defense spending. All of these efforts have failed, even though Washington consistently used the most indulgent, and least sensible, criterion for success imaginable – raising allied spending to equal U.S. efforts.
If national security policy was a game, such an outcome would of course be “fair.” But when it comes to promoting and defending American interests, this approach has created a false equivalence in stakes, and led the United States to expend greater-than-necessary amounts on the military, and face greater-than-necessary risks. For however important America’s interests in securing Europe or Japan and the rest of East Asia from Soviet, Russian, and Chinese threats, the allies’ interests in defending themselves are infinitely more important – and indeed, vital.
But U.S. burden-sharing efforts also failed for the same reason that has frustrated President Obama’s own ambitions: a stubborn unwillingness to recognize the inescapable dynamics of free-riding. For just like his Cold War and post-Cold War predecessors, Mr. Obama has continually sabotaged his burden-sharing strategies by endlessly declaring not only that allies and their regions are vital American security interests, but that their security and America’s are indivisible. So naturally, allies for decades have concluded that they have no need for much military exertion given Washington’s conviction that their downfall would be completely unacceptable. Ditto for coalition warfare in third countries, like Libya. Whether for moral or strategic reasons, the Obama administration never indicated that it could take the situation or leave it. So countries like the United Kingdom and France understandably – and entirely predictably – chose to take the easy way out.
The bad news – not for the nation as a whole, but for the often grandiose ambitions of its leaders – is that without reliable allies, many of their foreign policy objectives do, as they fear, become impossible to achieve. So just to pick through President Obama’s remarks to Goldberg, say goodbye (at least often) to “establishing norms that benefit everyone, and even to “doing good at a bearable cost,” to “promoting values, like democracy and human rights,” to “making the world a better place,” to “bending the world toward justice,” and especially to “leading the world.”
The good news – not for America’s professional foreign policy community, nearly the whole of which believes deeply in the urgency of these goals, but for the nation as a whole – is that neither U.S. security nor prosperity requires achieving any of them. As I’ve explained repeatedly, America is geopolitically secure enough and economically self sufficient enough to achieve adequate levels of security and prosperity even in a badly failing world.
Better yet, both this security and prosperity can be further enhanced without more overseas engagement. And even if strengthening the U.S. capacity for self-reliance in all dimensions wasn’t eminently feasible, assigning it a much higher priority would be essential precisely because America’s allies have proven themselves so utterly feckless for so many decades.
Moreover, there’s an even more compelling argument for disengaging from America’s current security commitments and pursuing a more independent course than recognizing their major limits as multipliers for American power. In this increasingly dangerous, unstable world, these ties are entirely too likely to embroil the United States in conflicts it’s better off avoiding. As analysts at the Cato Institute in particular have warned, when their deterrence power fails, they tend to become “transmission belts of war.”
And these belts remain in place throughout the world – albeit on scales smaller than during the Cold War. On the one hand, it’s true that international tensions in places like Europe and much of Asia are considerably lower than between 1945 and 1990 (with the Korean peninsula a notable exception). On the other hand, the threat to the United States from an ideologically hostile superpower with global ambitions is greatly reduced as well.
Fortunately for President Obama and the nation, the United States hasn’t yet been trapped into defending alliances and regions that, however important, don’t justify exposing the American homeland to the risk of major war. But because for all his frustrations with the allies, he hasn’t thought through the consequences of clinging to these outmoded arrangements, his successor is less likely to be so lucky.