America’s Loose-Cannon Allies

One of the insidious dangers to a major power, even a superpower such as the United States, is the possibility that a security client could entangle its patron in an unwanted, unnecessary conflict.  That is what happened in 1914 when Serbia’s zealous pursuit of a parochial nationalist agenda eventually sparked a disastrous war that consumed its protector, Czarist Russia, as well as other traditional European powers.  A prudent great power must always be wary of such potential “loose-cannon” allies.

As I describe in an article over at the National Interest Online, the United States currently needs to worry about two such security clients in East Asia: Taiwan and the Philippines.  The recent conduct of both countries should raise serious questions about the wisdom of maintaining the U.S. security commitment to their defense.

Taipei has taken a number of actions that further complicate the already delicate situation in the South China Sea.  Even as Washington has repeatedly admonished Beijing not to enhance the islands and reefs that it occupies in that body of water, media reports indicate that Taiwan is pursuing an ambitious agenda of its own.  According to United Press International, relying on reports in China Times and other Taiwanese sources, Taiwan is now building anti-aircraft defenses on Taiping (also known as Itu Aba) Island, the largest island in the disputed Spratly chain claimed by China, Taiwan, Vietnam, and the Philippines.  That follows on the heels of the building of an upgraded military airstrip.  To make matters even more ominous, the Taiwanese government apparently asked Google to blur out images of the site to conceal the military construction.  At a minimum, Taipei’s conduct will make Washington’s next lecture to Beijing on maintaining the status quo in the South China Sea considerably more awkward.  At worst, the move substantially increases military tensions in the region and U.S. exposure to those tensions.

But the Taiwanese government looks like the model of diplomatic caution and decorum compared to the Philippines under the rule of President Rodrigo Duterte.  Among the lowlights of his presidency thus far was his labeling of President Obama a “son of a bitch,” which cost him a summit meeting with the leader of his country’s patron and protector.  People in the United States tended to focus on the crudity of the comment rather than the context, but the context was important.  Duterte was emphasizing that he was answerable only to the Philippine people and that Manila’s foreign policy would not necessarily follow Washington’s wishes.  Duterte has since expanded on that theme, asserting that he wishes to forge alliances with both Russia and China. 

At the same time, though, he expects the United States to fully honor its commitment in the bilateral defense treaty and to back Manila’s foreign policy position on contentious issues. One really must ask what America gains by incurring the risks necessary to defend such a self-serving, duplicitous “ally.”

And then there is Washington’s relationship with its increasingly authoritarian and volatile NATO ally Turkey.  Not only have U.S. policymakers watched as the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan jails thousands of journalists, teachers, and judges to the point that “democratic” Turkey is now a thinly disguised dictatorship, but Ankara’s external behavior has frequently run counter to Washington’s wishes and interests. Turkish forces have attacked Kurdish rebel units in Iraq and Syria that were backed by the United States, and Ankara has repeatedly flirted with supporting radical Sunni Islamist forces.

Even more disturbing was an incident in late November 2015 when Turkey shot down a Russian military aircraft that had strayed into Turkish airspace for all of 17 seconds.  Ankara’s reckless belligerence was exceeded only by its hypocrisy.  Turkish planes had violated the airspace of Greece more than 2,000 times the previous year alone, and that was a typical year for such incidents.  Greek officials have long complained that their country must devote a considerable portion of its defense budget to intercept aircraft engaging in such violations.  Fortunately, Athens never emulated Turkey’s standard and blasted offending aircraft out of the sky.

The incident with Russia was extremely worrisome.  Luckily, Vladimir Putin’s government responded with restraint and did not resort to retaliatory measures that could have escalated the confrontation.  Indeed, Moscow worked hard in the succeeding months to repair the overall relationship with Ankara.  But if Russia had retaliated for downing the plane, the United States would have been called upon under Article 5 of the NATO treaty, which considers an attack on one member to be an attack on all, to come to Ankara’s defense.  That is how an irresponsible ally can embroil a superpower in a thoroughly unwanted and unnecessary conflict. 

The United States needs to review, reconsider, and prune its overgrown global network of military alliances.  Our country has far too many security obligations to other governments that are profoundly unworthy of such commitments.