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What Are Allies For?

Stephen Walt has an interesting post up at foreign policy asking the question: if we were starting from scratch, what would America’s alliance system look like? To answer the question, he asks why we would seek allies in the first place? He comes up with six factors or criteria that make for a good ally: […]

Stephen Walt has an interesting post up at foreign policy asking the question: if we were starting from scratch, what would America’s alliance system look like? To answer the question, he asks why we would seek allies in the first place? He comes up with six factors or criteria that make for a good ally: power, position (meaning: are they located somewhere inherently important, like on top of oil wells or astride sea lanes), political stability, popularity, pliability, and potential impact (meaning, the potential downside to the U.S. should they turn hostile).

It’s a reasonable starting point. But what’s strange about the list is that, apart from position and potential impact, none of these factors have anything to do with American interests. China and Japan, for example, are both powerful, both fairly stable, both have a substantial potential impact, and have an important position. Neither is wildly unpopular. Why should we be allied with Japan rather than with China? The answer must have something to do with the congruence of our interests, which, in turn, can’t be answered without some understanding of how those countries view their interests. Which, in turn, is hard to separate from their historical relations with the United States.

Walt suggests that, in the abstract, Iran makes a strong case for being a natural American ally. It’s funny to hear him say that, since this is an argument frequently made by regime-change advocates – that Iran has no real interests in conflict with America, is a more natural ally against radical Sunni Islam, and has a pro-American population. Get rid of the government, and they’d be a logical ally, just as they were back in the days of the Shah. But there are two problems with this. First, Iran has a history with America. Even if you imagine that the current government, which depends for its legitimacy on ideological conflict with the United States (which does not by any means require armed conflict on any meaningful scale), were to collapse, whatever government replaced it would be wary of the United States precisely because of that history. Second, Iran, as a Sunni Shiite [whoops!] power, is mistrusted in much of the Sunni world, particularly the Sunni Arab world. If you presume that the Sunni world is an enemy, then such an alignment makes sense. But if you don’t, why would you ally with Iran when that would make a friendly relationship with Saudi Arabia (with its vital position atop the world’s cheapest-to-extract oil reserves) so much more difficult?

Ultimately, you don’t need allies unless you have adversaries, or at least geostrategic problems. Once you throw those into the mix, the list starts to scramble quickly.

The country that jumps out at me from Walt’s list is Turkey, not Iran. Even if you imagine that a true reset with Iran was possible, Turkey is more powerful. It’s arguably more stable. It’s certainly more popular. It occupies just as vital a position. And while it’s not the most pliable ally, if we’re comparing it to Iran for goodness sakes . . .

And yet – it seems to me that America is better served by a good working relationship with a somewhat more independent Turkey than we are with a Turkey that toes the line. And that’s because a moderate degree of independence is precisely what enables Turkey to exercise influence beyond its borders. A Turkey that was perceived as an American instrument would be distrusted in a way that a Turkey perceived as more independent would not be.

Turkey, interestingly enough, has not been pursuing a policy of forming a web of alliances, but a policy of good relations with all its neighbors, to the extent these can be achieved. Obviously, the situation in Syria has affected relations not just along that border but with Iran and Russia – but “to the extent these can be achieved” implies that sometimes they can’t be. The point is: that isn’t the direction Turkey had to go. They could be pursuing a pan-Turkic policy of alliance. They could be pursuing a leadership position in the Sunni world (something Samuel Huntington predicted the Turks will eventually do). They could be pursuing an outright Western orientation as they did during the Cold War years. The real question isn’t “which alliances should we have” but “what kinds of alliances should we have”?

In the post-Cold-War period, the United States has behaved as the global hegemon. As such, it has not sought allies in the traditional sense, but rather has sought to make itself the indispensable ally pretty much everywhere. We have actively sought to make our European allies dependent on us rather than encouraging them to develop a military capacity that could act independently. (New NATO allies were encouraged to develop specialized military capacities that could be plugged into NATO but that couldn’t actually fight a war on their own, and core countries like France were discouraged from pursuing a European force in combination with other European powers outside of the NATO structure.) We have accumulated dependencies and clients and have reacted coldly when allies seek to renegotiate the terms of alliance (e.g., Japan) or refuse to fall in line with American aims (e.g., Turkey). Israel is a special case for a variety of reasons, but it’s worth considering the degree to which the primary purpose of our close relationship is to maximize our influence over Israel, rather than for anything we gain from Israel in terms of facilitating American power projection in the region, and maximizing that influence makes perfect sense in the context of a strategy of global hegemony.

To talk about re-setting America’s alliance system, you’d have to start by asking whether we want to pursue a strategy of global hegemony – and, if not, what we would want to replace it has a strategy, and how we would transition from the one to the other. This, it seems to me, is the question realists need to be asking. I don’t know the answer, but I believe that two parts of the answer are: encouraging Europe to become more independent, because Europe cannot be a functional ally if it is a collection of dysfunctional dependencies; and forging a cooperative relationship (not an alliance) with China, because the alternative is a set of alliances that will inevitably take on an anti-Chinese cast. Neither of these are goals the United States can achieve on its own – Europe may not want to organize itself into a functioning military power; China may not want a cooperative relationship. But right now we are not really pursuing either goal because maintaining American global hegemony has been our overarching priority, and it is that priority which has dictated the character of our alliances.



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