Since the end of the Cold War, U.S. leaders have recognized the need to establish a more balanced relationship with friends and allies. Under the Bush Administration there was a policy of coalitions of the willing, a recognition that in the absence of an existential threat to the survival of all, only some members of formal alliances would be willing to participate in wars that were not for their survival. U.S. national security policy still assumed that the United States would be required to play an active, even central role in the defense of friends and allies.
The Obama Administration has gone even farther, arguing that global security must be a shared responsibility and the United States cannot sustain a stable international system alone. It would be better in many instances for the United States to play a less prominent role in local and regional security and place more of the responsibility on partner countries. This is particularly important in dealing with insurgencies and terrorist threats but is clearly applicable to other concerns. The 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) states that “strong regional allies and partners are fundamental to meeting 21st century challenges successfully. Helping to build their capacity can prevent conflict from beginning or escalating, reducing the possibility that large and enduring deployments of U.S. or allied forces would be required.”
The idea is that our friends and allies want to and must be encouraged to do more for themselves, particularly when it comes to dealing with the challenges of stability, terrorism and insurgency. To that end, the QDR articulates a new policy calling for “building partnership capacity.” The focus of this initiative is clearly on weak nations, those with problems of governance and institution building, economic development, political fragmentation, a history of violence and weak security capabilities.
But we have no similar approach for addressing the wants and needs of more established and capable allies. Such an approach must also recognize that our friends and allies no longer move in lock-step with us, witness the recent decision of the Dutch Government to withdraw its troops from the NATO contingent in Afghanistan. At the same time, we have an interest in their security as well as to the stability of the regions in which they live. What is at issue is the ability of these friends and allies to act in their own defense in the event of aggression, with or without the United Sates.
What is required is a strategy that empowers self-defense. The centerpiece of this approach would be to seek out ways that enable our friends and allies to do more for themselves, better integrates our forces and theirs, contributes to regional deterrence and lowers the burden and footprint for the United States. Empowerment was key to the way NATO operated; everybody brought what they had to the party but there were ongoing efforts to develop collective capabilities and to set minimum standards for national contributions.
Empowering self-defense will be critical to maintaining regional deterrence. Where adequate self-defense capabilities exist, friends and allies will be more likely to resist intimidation and to join with the United States in resisting aggression. We are already seeing a version of this concept being employed in the Middle East with the expanded sales of U.S. air and missile defense systems to our Persian Gulf allies. Deterrence is enhanced both by the presence of new and powerful defensive systems in the region and by the close connection between regional military capabilities and U.S. global military posture.
U.S. international arms will play a central role in a strategy of empowering self defense. We must assure that our friends and allies have the wherewithal, not just weapons systems but training, logistics and sustainment and enablers, for their own defense. To the extent that friends and allies can only acquire second-class capabilities, cannot gain access to critical enablers or does not receive adequate training, they will not be empowered, and the burden will not be lifted from this country.
A strategic appreciation of the role of U.S. arms sales in empowering self-defense will recognize the value of having friends and allies operate the same equipment as that of the U.S. military. NATO’s performance in operations in the Balkans and the Middle East was clearly improved when common capabilities were available. When nations possess the same weapons systems they can establish close bonds through training activities, exercises and logistic and sustainment efforts.
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