Allies Aren’t Friends and Clients Aren’t Allies
Our founders warned of the dangers of entangling alliances, but the U.S. has misunderstood the nature of international relationships for far too long.
The U.S. has had so many formal alliances and informal partnerships for so long that many of our political leaders have forgotten the reason why we have allies and partners in the first place. Our government forms alliances with other states because there is supposed to be some mutual benefit to our security and theirs, but over time these alliances have hardened into unquestionable idols that have to be supported whether they serve any useful purpose or not. It is commonplace for presidents and presidential candidates to declare that this or that relationship is “unbreakable,”“eternal,” or “sacred,” but by its nature every alliance has to be breakable, temporary, and open to challenge and criticism.
Many partnerships are of even more questionable value, but they are frequently described as alliances when they are not and there is tremendous political pressure to treat them as if they deserved U.S. protection. The U.S. needs to reassess which relationships are worth preserving, and it needs to remember the reason why we have these relationships. That will mean reducing some commitments and ending others when they have outlived their usefulness.
In modern Washington, D.C., limited security relationships are transmuted into alliances, and alliances are made into sacred cows that must not be threatened no matter what. When Washington and Jefferson warned us against permanent and entangling alliances, these were some of the pitfalls that they hoped the U.S. would avoid, but instead we have spent the last eighty years adding more commitments than we can possibly uphold and conflating our interests with the interests of dozens of other countries all over the world. It has reached a point where many Americans no longer recognize where American interests end and those of other states start, and our leaders tend to treat local and regional threats to minor clients as if they were endangering America’s vital interests.
This leads our government into a series of corrupting arrangements with authoritarian governments in the name of a never-ending “war on terror,” and it commits the U.S. to risk major wars over small rocks in the ocean and indefensible countries on the European frontier. Alliances are supposed to make both the U.S. and our allies safer, but in practice they have sometimes become the excuse for unnecessary interventions that have nothing to do with collective defense. Partnerships that were once considered temporary expedients are absurdly elevated into “crucial” relationships that have to be indulged despite the harm they are doing to U.S. interests.
There is a tendency to sentimentalize our relationships with allies, clients, and partners by claiming them as our “friends.” There are no friendships between states. There may be better or worse relationships, and there may be friendly working relationships between individual leaders, but it isn’t possible for governments to have friends and it is a mistake to think of our ties to other countries in these terms.
Americans have had the luxury of misunderstanding our relationships this way because our country is extraordinarily secure in a way that few others are, but it is a dangerous error to perceive even our closest allies as friends. It blinds us to divergences of interests and prevents us from changing our policies as circumstances require. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are among the many politicians that fall into this bad habit of seeing foreign policy in simple terms of supporting friends and punishing enemies. Sen. Harris summed this up in one of her statements at the vice presidential debate when she said:
Foreign policy: it might sound complicated, but really it’s relationships there – just think about it as relationships. And so we know this, in our personal, professional relationships – you guys keep your word to your friends. Got to be loyal to your friends. People who have stood with you, got to stand with them. You got to know who your adversaries are, and keep them in check.
The U.S. should seek to keep its word when it gives it, but that also means that it must be much more discerning when it makes binding commitments. Other states are not our friends, and we are not theirs, and we should not allow past cooperation to make us feel obliged to do things that make no sense for our security. For example, many supporters of intervention in Libya in 2011 insisted that the U.S. somehow “owed” European allies for their support in Afghanistan, and that was used to make it seem as if refusing to wage a war of choice in North Africa amounted to a betrayal of our “friends” that had fought alongside us elsewhere. In the end, this bad argument prevailed and the U.S. enabled the misguided Anglo-French scheme, and the intervening governments have had reason to regret their involvement ever since. Earlier, the U.S. tried to guilt and browbeat its European allies into backing the illegal and unjust invasion of Iraq by appealing to the role that the U.S. had played in defending western Europe during the Cold War. In both cases, the hawks that sought to manipulate allies with appeals to the past were masking the lousy case for intervention. The skeptics that rejected this emotional blackmail were right not to join these wars, and the leaders that went along with these campaigns later realized the error of their ways.
Today the U.S. is confronted with somewhat different problems. Many of our political leaders and analysts intentionally misrepresent the nature of some of our client relationships to make them seem more important and unquestionable than they are. Catering to the whims of Saudi Arabia is the chief example of this error, but the same goes for U.S. relations with Egypt, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates. There are no formal treaties that oblige the U.S. to defend these countries, and they are likewise under no obligation to aid the U.S. These relationships are nothing like our treaty alliances, but they are routinely described and defended in this way. The U.S. has also tended to give these clients blank checks to behave as outrageously and destructively as they want without having to worry about losing Washington’s backing.
The most recent instance of this misrepresentation was Kenneth Pollack’s defense of what he called the Saudi “alliance.” No such alliance exists, and the U.S. owes the Saudis nothing, but you would never know that from reading Pollack’s account. The Saudi relationship is a significant test of our ability to reassess the value of a partnership when it has long since become a liability. So far, with some honorable exceptions in Congress and among the public, the U.S. is failing that test. U.S. and Saudi interests have been diverging for the last decade, and they began quickly moving in opposite directions beginning in 2015 with the accession of Salman as the new king with his reckless son Mohammed in tow.
The peril in talking about allies as friends comes from encouraging more of what Barry Posen has called reckless driving. If clients are wrongly labeled as allies and allies are mistaken for friends, these governments will believe that they can expect U.S. support no matter what. Patrick Porter and Josh Shifrinson call attention to this danger in a recent article:
Equally important, the approach risks undermining international stability by giving U.S. partners ill-placed faith in U.S. commitments. After four years of the Trump administration’s bullying, allies from Canada to Germany to South Korea worry about American reliability and seek a course correction. In pledging fidelity to its “friends,” however, the Biden approach risks going too far in the opposite direction. It could create a false expectation among allies of a restored friendship with Washington without conditions. It could even tempt allies to take U.S. support for granted and behave recklessly.
Permanent alliance structures create perverse incentives for the most reckless members, and the other members of the alliance are then stuck with them because there is no mechanism for expelling the troublemakers. Today Turkey goes out of its way to poke fingers in the eyes of many of its putative allies by stoking conflict in Syria and Karabakh, threatening Greece, and meddling in Libya, but NATO finds itself powerless to discourage this behavior or penalize Turkey for what it has done. There are even some hawks that are urging the the U.S. take the side of Azerbaijan in its offensive in Karabakh because the attack has Turkey’s support, and Turkey is technically an ally. Turkey’s government today is clear proof that allies aren’t friends, and it is showing that even a formal treaty ally can effectively cease to be a real ally with its aggressive and irresponsible policies.
The U.S. needs to cut back the support it provides to reckless clients, and it needs to reevaluate seriously which of its formal allies deserve the protection that our government has promised them. It is long past time that we stopped venerating alliances and client relationships and started looking at them critically. This will become even more important in the coming years, when there will be a concerted effort from Washington to “restore” all of these relationships.