Does the United States need allies in the 21st Century? If so, what kind of allies does it require? Although the United States has collaborated with many nations throughout its history, including in pursuit of its independence, the U.S. experience with formal alliance relationships is relatively recent. Where the United States established such relationships it was almost always in the context of war. Allies were sought and alliances created for the purposes of opposing a common foe, establishing a favorable political/military balance of power, defining the front lines in the struggle between opposing alliances and acquiring forward bases of operation for the projection of power.
The United States appears increasingly at odds with many of its allies regarding the seriousness of threats to their security and the appropriate means for addressing them. Europe essentially is free from the scourge of inter-state violence. The people of that continent, perhaps rightly, are preoccupied with deepening and widening the grand experiment that is the European Union. Many European governments do not see their nations seriously threatened by the combination of radicalism and technology that animates U.S. national security strategy.
Although U.S. alliance relationships generally served it well during the Cold War, new circumstances have given rise to questions regarding both U.S. alliance requirements and the criteria for the selection of allies. Foremost among these is the absence of a common enemy sufficient in power and malevolent intent so as to necessitate that like-minded nations put aside their natural differences in the interest of a common struggle. The global war on terrorism does not meet this test. Moreover, there are no readily identifiably conflict boundaries such as those that arose at the end of World War Two to serve as the front lines for alliance formation.
Another reason the United States entered into alliances was to augment its military capabilities. During the Cold War, alliances allowed for the creation of integrated command structures and coordinated military planning, extensive international training and, on occasion, common military procurements. This reason certainly appears less of a motivating factor at present. Few U.S. allies can provide significant military capabilities beyond those required for their own self-defense. Because of a lack of interoperability, U.S. forces often find it problematic, at best, to operate effectively alongside even long-standing allies.
Recent events in Iraq do underscore the need for access to regions and locations of interest to the United States and for basing and overflight rights in those regions. Yet, as those same events demonstrate, a longstanding alliance relationship with a country of interest is no longer a guarantee of access. The experiences of the global war on terrorism suggest that it will be difficult for the United States to anticipate where it will need to send troops or establish bases and thus, with whom it should establish alliances.
If there are fewer positive reasons to establish or maintain alliance relationships, negative incentives may still exist. The existing U.S. alliance structure brings with it a wealth of experiences, habits and traditions that can continue to lubricate relations among the members. These alliances can also serve as a hedge against the resurgence of more capable security challenges. The United States also may wish to maintain alliances to prevent erosion of stability or the possible rise of competitors. Finally, the United States could seek to maintain existing alliances to ensure that competitive power constellations do not emerge.
What attributes should the United States look for in allies for the 21st Century? Is it more important that prospective allies mirror the U.S. perception of threats or that they share a common political and economic heritage? Democratic and Republican Administrations alike have stressed the importance to U.S. security of the expansion of democratic governance and fee market concepts. Although the United States has maintained decades-long relationships with tyrants and dictators of varying stripes, its closest security ties have been with nations of a similar political complexion.
America’s traditional allies will be increasingly incapable of deploying significant military capabilities in terms of ability to engage in high-end conflict. While Europe spends some 40% of what the United States does on defense, it spends less that 25% of the U.S. figure on R&D. This suggests that the present technology gap will widen. Even is Europe were able to rationalize its defense expenditures and defense industrial infrastructure, structural factors will inhibit the development of significant military capabilities. Adverse demographic trends and extremely expensive social welfare systems will limit the manpower and resources available for national security purposes. The expansion of NATO and the EU eastward will not change these trends substantially. Japan faces an even more difficult situation.
There are other nations that could provide significant regional military capabilities, certainly with assistance from the United States. These nations include Turkey, India and possibly even Vietnam. The United States needs to consider the extent to which it will want to create local “champions” in selected regions of concern.
Is it possible that there is no need for allies in the sense of nations to which the U.S. is tied by formal defense arrangements? The advantages such formal arrangements provided during the Cold War are now outweighed by their cumbersome decision making processes and peace time costs. Alternative means exist, from coalitions of the willing to agreements on specific items such as over flight or bases, that could well serve U.S. requirements for access.
Perhaps what the United States requires are three classes of allies/partners. The first are nations uniquely situated in regions of interest to the U.S. that are willing to host U.S. forces on an as-needed basis. The second class of allies or partners consists of those nations that can provide assistance for so-called stability and support operations, peacekeeping tasks and the like. These nations would not be required in the event of war, although they could serve as auxiliaries. The final class of allies and friends are those whose function is principally political in character. The value of this class would depend on the specific nature of the conflict/crisis.
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