If you think this title is too harsh, and especially if you agree with his view that maintaining U.S. alliances must be central to American foreign policy-making, you need to ask yourself this: How can some of the major points President Biden made in his speech Friday to an audience containing heads of major allied governments accomplish anything but keep the United States needlessly paying outsized costs for these arrangements and even worse, running major risks that include nuclear attack, for no good reason whatever?
As known by RealityChek regulars, downsides of American security alliances both in Europe and Asia that arguably were acceptable during much of the Cold War period have become terrifying and – because stemming from stubbornly hidebound thinking and consequent policy inertia – downright inexcusable more recently. That’s because physically devastated allies literally helpless against aggression in the earliest post-World War II decades, but nonetheless retaining vital economic and therefore military potential, had fully recovered by the mid-1970s, and because their continued defense free-riding led Washington to station sizable military units (and their dependents) directly in harm’s way.
The idea was that this U.S. presence’s very vulnerability to superior conventional forces from the Soviet Union and North Korea would deter aggression to begin with. Forit would all but force a U.S. President to approve saving these American lives with nuclear weapons – whose use could trigger an all-out mutually devastating conflict.
This gamble could be defended when the United States enjoyed clearcut nuclear superiority over the Soviets, a nuclear monopoly and near-monopoly over the North Koreans and Chinese, respectively – and when allies and their potentially crucial assets were still down and out. But for many years, the nuclear gap has closed in Europe and the the monopoly and near-monopoly in Asia vanished, and all allies in question have been amply wealthy enough to defend themselves. So Washington’s refusal to adjust means that the nation could well see nuclear warheads land on its soil because the Europeans, Japanese, and South Koreans have been permitted to be military deadbeats. Could any policy be more recklessly perverse, or determined to reward irresponsibility and cynicism?
Despite loudly griping about allied defense free-riding, raising the temperature in periodic defense burden-sharing negotiations, and rearranging some troop deployments in Europe, Donald Trump never frontally and comprehensively challenged the status quo, at least while President. Would a second term have been different? Who knows?
What is clear, especially from this latest speech by Mr. Biden, is that the United States will now be doubling down on this entire literal Americans Last strategy.
For not only did the President repeated the pre-Trump standard Washington endorsement of the core principle of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) that “An attack on one is an attack on all. That is our unshakable vow” – which inevitably tells the allies that they can continue free-riding militarily to their heart’s content and count on American protection no matter how potentially disastrous the consequences for the American people.
He actually praised “Europe’s growing investment in the military capabilities that enable our shared defense” even though these expenditure will be definition be utterly inadequate as long as their level leaves a military gap that American conventional and nuclear forces still need to fill.
Further, in declaring that he would not view U.S. alliances as “transactional” he assured America’s so-called partners that their relationships with Washington need involve no give and take whatever, thereby guaranteeing that these opportunistic governments would raise their chronic free-riding to much loftier levels, and that Americans would bear more of the costs and risks of these arrangements than ever.
And most foolishly of all, Mr. Biden explicitly told the Europeans (and consequently the Asians) that, after the stormy Trump years, it was up to the United States “to earn back our position of trusted leadership.” That is, the kinds (long overdue) burden- and therefore risk-sharing criticisms made by the former President were completely illegitimate, and that whatever ailed the alliances resulted from Trump’s America First words and (much more modest) deeds, not from decades of allied risk- and burden-shirking.
Of course, Mr. Biden’s words were actual U.S. policy for decades before the Trump years. That’s why these arrangements became so dysfunctional from any sensible American standpoint in the first place. But by making this approach explicit, and giving the Europeans and Asians official license for their longstanding “heads we win, tails America loses” priorities, the President has not only gravely weakened his own country’s safety and prosperity. He’s destroyed whatever legitimate hopes ever existed that multilateralism and collective security could ever adequately serve any reasonable definition of American interests.