President Barack Obama is fighting the Islamic State with a coalition without members. What are allies for?
Washington collects allies like most people collect Facebook friends. It doesn’t matter if the new “friends” enhance America’s security. Washington wants more allies.
Yet America’s allies do little for the U.S. Their view is that Washington’s job is to defend them. Their job is to be defended by Washington.
For decades Washington faced down a nuclear-armed power—the Soviet Union and then Russia—to protect the Europeans. The Europeans did essentially nothing for the U.S.
After 9/11 several European states contributed to America’s efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Neither invading the latter nor attempting to build a democratic central government in the former made policy sense, but some Europeans sacrificed on behalf of a professed U.S. interest.
However, Washington quickly repaid the favor, underwriting Britain’s and France’s foolish war in Libya. Now the Europeans want Washington to save Ukraine and “reassure” countries to the east. Yet the EU has a larger GDP and population than America.
With the U.S. now calling for assistance against ISIL, the continent has turned more frigid. No one seems interested in joining Washington’s air war, even Great Britain.
Washington’s Asian friends are even less helpful. For decades Japan wouldn’t help U.S. forces, even if they were defending Japan. That is finally changing, but there still is no good reason Washington to stare down the People’s Republic of China to secure Tokyo’s disputed claim to the Senkaku Islands.
Similar is the case of South Korea. The U.S. defended the Republic of Korea during the Korean War and since then has maintained a military garrison, even as the South swept past North Korea economically. Seoul contributed detachments to America’s Afghanistan and Iraq operations, a nice gesture, but little return for decades of protection from unpredictable Pyongyang.
What about allies in the Middle East? Turkey is a member of NATO, but apparently said no to participation in the new grand coalition and even to American use of Incirlik Air Base. This country allowed Islamic State fighters free access to Syria and has far more at stake in ISIL’s defeat than does America.
The Saudis have underwritten radical insurgents in Syria. Yet there are few nations more at risk from the Islamic State. So far the Arab monarchies have committed little to the battle against ISIL.
The U.S. gets little from its many alliances. Washington is expected to confront Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, the Islamic State, Syria, and everyone else to defend a host of Asian, European, and Middle Eastern nations.
Few, if any, are vital to U.S. security. Equally important, most of these nations are capable of defending themselves.
Instead of adding allies, Washington should drop them. Instead of taking on permanent defense obligations to other states, the U.S. should cooperate with other nations on issues of mutual interest.
Instead of promiscuously intervening overseas, American officials should treat war as a last resort. Equally important, the U.S. should stop doing for other states what they can do for themselves.
ISIL is evil, but until now, at least, has not been interested in the U.S. The Islamic State wants to become a traditional government, ruling over a specific territory and population. But so far the countries targeted by the group have fallen short as American allies. As I argue in Forbes online, “They are more likely to act for themselves, but only if they must, that is, they cannot rely on Washington to take on their problems as its own.”
The administration’s non-war war against the Islamic State would be bad in any circumstance. But relying on empty alliances for international assistance exacerbates the potential for failure. A coalition of the threatened should degrade and destroy ISIL.