Alliances Are Means, Not Ends
A new book makes the case for returning to the foreign policy status quo—perpetual, unconditional alliances treated as sacrosanct without regard to value—after Trump.
On February 6, 1778, the United States signed its first international treaty, making France a partner in the War of Independence. Though the celebrated alliance accomplished its primary purpose—“to maintain effectually the liberty, Sovereignty, and independence absolute and unlimited of the said United States”—it barely outlived the end of the war. Alarmed by the radicalism and aggression which France’s own revolution had unleashed, the White House issued a Proclamation of Neutrality in 1793 which made the alliance effectively a dead letter. And for the next 124 years, the U.S. went it alone, heeding the injunction of its first President to “have with foreign nations as little political connection as possible.”
Today the situation is vastly different. The U.S. has, by one count, 51 allies covered under various defense treaties, along with several other countries to which it is committed in practice even without formal pacts. Most of these relationships date from the Cold War, and successive generations of policymakers have enshrined them as sacrosanct. Despite the establishment’s embrace of this global network of partnerships, there have been occasional instances of high-profile dissent, from both the right (Pat Buchanan’s call to shred our Cold War alliances, for instance) and the left (recall George McGovern’s plea for America to “come home”). But it wasn’t until 2016 that a thoroughgoing critic of America’s global defense commitments entered the White House.
Of course, the election of Donald Trump didn’t dissipate the forces of foreign policy orthodoxy–many members of the ‘Blob’ retained influential positions in the defense and diplomatic bureaucracies, while others found homes in the hothouse ecosystem of DC think tanks. And with the presidential election now in full swing, adherents of this view have flocked to Democratic nominee Joe Biden, who has seized the opportunity to put alliances at the center of his foreign policy platform. “As president, I will do more than just restore our historic partnerships,” he wrote in an article for Foreign Affairs, “I will lead the effort to reimagine them for the world we face today”. His vice-presidential pick, Kamala Harris, is described favorably as a “Truman democrat”, in reference to the president who oversaw the establishment of NATO. And at the Democratic National Convention, Biden’s campaign brought out a diverse array of national security alumni to speak to his ability to “restore the alliances we need.”
In Shields of the Republic: The Promise and Peril of America’s Alliances, Dr. Mira Rapp-Hooper offers a book-length account of this multilateralist vision. Rapp-Hooper, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and informal consultant to the Biden campaign, argues that U.S. primacy depends on the indefinite perpetuation of the country’s international alliances. Despite what she characterizes as a near-perfect record of success, these partnerships, it is argued, are threatened by the dual specters of great power competition abroad and political opposition at home. Her perspective is that of a restorationist for whom the pre-Trump foreign policy consensus remains fundamentally sound, needing only a few touch-ups and a change of management to preserve American power in the 2020s and beyond.
Much of the book’s case rests on a conventional—and oversimplified—reading of 20th century history. This narrative begins in 1917, with the US popping onto the world stage to help contain the “direct threat” posed by Wilhelmine Germany (never mind that no such threat existed, or that the victory for which 116,000 Americans died would lead to even more destructive conflict two decades later). Peacetime isolationism then led to withdrawal, until the country was dragged once more into war. Having prevailed in this second global conflict, the US resolved to preclude the possibility of a third by establishing a system of alliances animated by a “single cogent logic…to maintain the peacetime balance of power in Europe and Asia.” Anchored by NATO in Europe and separate agreements with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Australia and New Zealand in the Pacific, this strategy largely achieved its aims, helping to deter Soviet attacks on core areas, facilitate the defense of contested peripheries, and reduce America’s defense costs through burden-sharing.
The central point, that alliances were crucial to America’s postwar primacy and Cold War victory, is undoubtedly correct. But in her determination to present an unrelentingly positive case for alliances, Rapp-Hooper elides their very real drawbacks. The question of entrapment, for instance—the tendency for countries to draw allies into their own parochial conflicts—is sidestepped by the exclusion of unfavorable evidence. While conceding that the Vietnam War was a “flagrant blunder,” she dismisses its relevance as an example of entrapment because the U.S. had no formal treaty obligations to the Republic of Vietnam. But this is wrong, both according to her narrowly literal definition (the charter of the US-led South East Asia Treaty Organization specifically included Vietnam as a protected territory) and in a broader sense, since the Saigon government was treated in practice as a critical ally (providing leverage to draw America deeper into the quagmire). Such a restrictive definition also leaves out Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other de facto allies in the Middle East, whose close relationships with the United States have done so much to shape our extensive involvement in the region.
Surveying the present state of U.S. partnerships, Rapp-Hooper assesses that even before Trump’s election these were withering from “thirty years of drift.” But the reader struggles to find any foreign policy decision between the presidencies of George H.W. Bush and Barack Obama of which she disapproves. NATO enlargement receives a defense so vigorous as to be contradictory (extending membership to former Soviet satellites, we are told, “was decidedly not premised on a perceived need to counter a Russian threat“, only to learn two paragraphs later that it was precisely the fear of Kremlin revanchism that led those countries to join in the first place). The maintenance of our Pacific alliances is also applauded, along with the so-called Nye Initiative which pledged to keep 100,000 troops in East Asia. Strikingly, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—which exacted such an exorbitant cost in blood, treasure, and international standing—merit only a single paragraph.
It isn’t until the election of Donald Trump that real criticisms emerge. For Rapp-Hooper, the 45th President is unique in his antipathy to international partnerships. But while it is true that Trump has subjected our alliances to an unprecedented degree of criticism, for all his rhetorical fury little has changed policy-wise. In fact, during his term NATO actually added twonew members, and security assistance to allies has dramatically increased. The most radical alteration to US alliances has been a cut in the number of troops stationed in Germany, which provoked much consternation but still leaves a substantial 24,000 soldiers in place. Of course, rhetoric matters (especially in diplomacy), but if Trump’s aim is truly “to dismantle America’s alliances altogether,” he’s been an abysmal failure.
This raises a difficult question for the book. If our alliance system since the end of the Cold War has not only been maintained, but expanded, what accounts for our current geostrategic predicament? One answer is that the country has in fact mismanaged its relationships—not in the way Rapp-Hooper suggests, by failing to expand them further or electing an avowed skeptic, but by losing sight of their true purposes. Rather than tools to ensure national security and prosperity, they largely became goals pursued for their own sake. Thus, NATO was omnivorously enlarged without heed to its destabilizing effects, and Pacific partnerships were put on autopilot, as we continued to commit substantial resources without thinking critically about their applications. And to the limited extent our alliances were used instrumentally, it was to gin up support for open-ended interventions in the Middle East.
Shields of the Republic does have some strategic insights to offer. Rapp-Hooper is clear-eyed about China, for instance, and her proposals to more effectively incorporate private industry into geopolitical competition and shift the brunt of security assistance to the Pacific are good ones. But in continuing to treat alliances as ends rather than means, she confirms skeptics’ suspicions that the US is getting a raw deal. It’s both impossible and inadvisable to guarantee the defense of the entire world; we must therefore think carefully and instrumentally about our security commitments. And as the impending election relentlessly directs our attention to the short-term, foreign policy thinkers should strive to keep their focus on the longue durée, bearing in mind that a nation, as the British statesman Lord Palmerston famously stated, has neither eternal allies nor perpetual enemies. Only its interests are permanent.
Luke Nicastro is a defense analyst based in Washington, D.C.