Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Entangling and Enabling Alliances

Allies and clients sometimes drag the U.S. into conflicts that our government wouldn't otherwise join.
Entangling and Enabling Alliances

Dan Drezner comments on the findings of Michael Beckley’s study of the effect of entangling alliances on U.S. involvement in foreign conflicts:

Now saying that there’s a robust finding “except for Vietnam” leads one to think that this is a pretty big exception. That said, Beckley’s findings suggest that if the United States is over-committing resources abroad, it’s not because of alliance dynamics.

I agree that the U.S. isn’t always drawn into foreign conflicts because of its allies and clients, but it’s fair to say that there have been multiple occasions since 1945 where the U.S. has become entangled in foreign conflicts in large part because of the perceived “need” to support an ally or client. The level of that involvement may vary from case to case, but in each one it is fair to say that the U.S. would not have been involved in these conflicts were it not for their relationships with these other states. Besides Vietnam, that would have to include the wars in Kosovo and Libya, and currently it would have to apply to the war on ISIS, U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war, and U.S. support for the Saudi intervention in Yemen. The Gulf War is arguably another example of this because of the U.S. relationship with the Saudis, but that is more debatable.

Beckley states in his conclusion that U.S. leaders tend “to define national interests expansively, to overestimate the magnitude of foreign threats, and to underestimate the costs of military intervention,” and that’s obviously true. But part of defining national interests expansively includes treating allied and client interests–as defined by their governments–as if they were our own. One of the perils of so many overseas commitments is that it encourages our leaders to conflate the interests of the U.S. with those of allies and clients. In addition to defining our interests expansively, our leaders have an overly broad view of what solidarity with allies and clients requires. Our leaders often see solidarity as something much greater than coming to their aid when they are attacked or threatened. The most hawkish among them take for granted that the U.S. ought to be lending support to their military operations even when these have nothing to do with self-defense. Many of these critics faulted U.S. support for the French campaign in Mali for being too limited and inadequate, as if the U.S. were obliged to facilitate another French campaign in Africa. Hawks have made the same criticism of U.S. support for the Saudi war on Yemen.

The Libyan war was sold in part as a requirement of solidarity with NATO allies, and it was also bizarrely sold as repayment for allied support for previous U.S. wars. Supporters of the intervention in Kosovo presented the war as a defense of the “credibility” of NATO. Even though these wars of choice had nothing to do with defending NATO allies, they were presented to the public as something that the U.S. needed to do to lend support to its allies. The U.S. didn’t attack these governments because of formal alliance commitments, since neither Yugoslavia nor Libya posed a threat to the alliance, but it did so partly because some of its NATO allies wanted it to. It is true that in all these cases “there were other important drivers of U.S. involvement,” but I’d also say that in all of them U.S. allies and clients were essential in getting the U.S. involved in these conflicts.

Allies and clients sometimes drag the U.S. into conflicts that our government wouldn’t otherwise join, and they do this often enough because they need U.S. involvement in order to be able to wage the war. Allies and clients also sometimes enable U.S. wars by providing enough international backing to make U.S.-led interventions appear more legitimate. It is possible that the U.S. would continue to intervene frequently overseas even if the U.S. had far fewer allies and clients than it has today, but it seems reasonable to assume that there would be fewer occasions and fewer excuses for military intervention if there were fewer allies and clients. U.S. commitments to allies and clients may not always drive U.S. involvement in foreign conflicts, and they usually won’t be the sole driver of that involvement, but they provide opportunities and pretexts for that involvement that would otherwise not be present.



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