Sikorski and the U.S. Propensity To Indulge Allied Whining
Kori Schake’s response to the Sikorski leak is exactly what you’d expect:
But he’s not wrong about America. The United States has become an exasperating ally, and even countries that are inclined to support us are hedging against because of the Obama administration’s conduct. Neither our threats nor our assurances are believed. Clawing back that credibility will be an expensive undertaking.
This is exactly the response that whining allies and clients count on. As long as allied and client complaints about U.S. reliability are accepted without scrutiny, that makes it easier for allies and clients to get the U.S. to do more of what they want at our expense. I’m sure Sikorski would have preferred that his conversation wasn’t leaked, but if it prompts the U.S. to indulge Poland in what it wants he will probably draw the conclusion that the best way to extract gains from Washington is to complain about how useless the alliance is. Americans shouldn’t fall for it.
As Barry Posen noted in his speech at our conference earlier this month, the problem we have with our allies is not that we don’t do enough to reassure them, but that we already do far too much. Allies and clients know that there is no danger that the U.S. won’t support them, which encourages them to demand even more than what they already get on the assumption that the U.S. has to provide it to them or face another round of whining. Since hawks in the U.S. will always endorse this whining as proof of weakening U.S. “credibility,” they know that there is a ready-made audience and a group of advocates in the political debate in Washington that will take their side against whichever administration happens to be in office.
Washington is usually very quick to respond whenever allies and clients start fretting. As Posen points out in Restraint, the tendency to overreact and overcompensate for allied dissatisfaction is one of the reasons that allies are able to “cheap ride” so easily:
Aside from the massive capabilities it can bring to any problem, U.S. leaders have been obsessed with the credibility of their commitments and have accepted the idea that failure to stand up anywhere will lead to challenges everywhere. Indeed, the obsession with credibility goes even farther; there is great concern that allies will lose faith in U.S. promises. The peculiarities of domestic politics also tend to make commitments sticky once they are in place….Many U.S. allies take advantage of this U.S. propensity. And many aspire to be U.S. allies, because they understand this propensity. (p. 33)
We trick ourselves into believing that we have to reassure allies and client whenever they complain that we’re not doing enough for them, and absurdly that leaves them even more dependent on the U.S. It sometimes forces the U.S. to add new commitments on top of older ones in order to keep allies and clients relatively quiet. Of course, by indulging them when they complain, the U.S. is just encouraging more of the same behavior in the future, and that in turn means that the allies and clients will keep taking advantage of the bad habit to cater to their whims.
The interesting thing about the recent reaction to the Sikorski remarks is that the Polish government has been the one rushing to reassure Washington rather than vice versa. U.S. allies know very well that their alliance with us is anything but worthless. For various reasons, we allow ourselves to forget that most of our allies and clients are of little or no value to America. We should learn that it should be up to their governments to demonstrate why it is worth enough to the U.S. to maintain these relationships.