Home/Daniel Larison/Free-Riding Allies and the Myth of U.S. Indispensability

Free-Riding Allies and the Myth of U.S. Indispensability

Stephen Walt details what he’d like to hear from Obama today. Here he talks about his wish that the U.S. would get its allies and clients to do more for themselves:

But after 50 years of Cold War and 20 years of erstwhile hegemony, many U.S. allies have become disarmed dependencies and the U.S. foreign-policy establishment has become accustomed to running the show. Our allies know this, of course, so they continue to free-ride, occasionally whining about America’s eroding “credibility.” These complaints invariably find a receptive audience back in official Washington, and the usual U.S. response is to immediately reassure our allies we will continue to defend them no matter what. But if uncooperative allies can always count on American protection, why expect them to do what we want or to make a greater contribution to common objectives?

This is another reason why the claim of U.S. indispensability is misleading. Hegemonists take for granted that the U.S. must provide “world order maintenance” because other states can’t be relied on to provide for their regional security, but they then take every opportunity to discourage other states from assuming these responsibilities. They insist that no one else will pick up the slack if the U.S. doesn’t fill this role, and then do their best to make sure that no other state will even have to consider it. Instead of reducing the military budget, believers in indispensability typically want to see it increased, which gives almost all of our allies and clients an incentive to spend as little as possible on their own. They then point to the paltry levels of military spending among our allies as confirmation of their view. Rather than reduce the number of U.S. forces based abroad, they are reliably in favor of new deployments and predictably criticize any withdrawal no matter where it is. Hegemonists will indulge allies and clients in their slightest complaints as long as these governments are complaining that the U.S. is not being activist and aggressive enough on a given issue, and then cite these self-serving complaints as proof that U.S. “leadership” is essential. Dependents would prefer to have the U.S. bear the costs and risks of the policies they want pursued, and hegemonists are happy to oblige because it helps keep the myth of indispensability going.

While almost all of them depend on the U.S. for protection, the U.S. thus effectively lets allies and clients dictate where and when the U.S. will have to “lead.” It is understandable why allies and clients do this, but it makes no sense for the U.S. to play along. If someone points out that the U.S. has little or nothing at stake on a particular issue, hegemonists will then begin issuing grave warnings about the dangers of losing “credibility” with allies and clients and they insist that doing anything less than whatever an ally or client happens to want in a particular situation is tantamount to abandonment. Incredibly, this flimflam routine seems to work more often than not, and drags the U.S. into crises and conflicts that it could otherwise easily avoid.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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