Modern circumstances continue to bear out the prescience of America’s founders. Especially George Washington’s warning against “entangling alliances.”
In contrast, U.S. policymakers today treat military allies like Facebook friends, the more the merrier, something to brag about. However, most of Washington’s existing alliances are harmful, expensive commitments with little relevance to American security. Indeed, a couple are strikingly dangerous, even risking conflict with nuclear armed powers. A good place to start with an “America First” foreign policy would be to turn allies into friends, cooperating when in both nations’ interests but no longer treating foreign governments as defense dependents.
Early America used its relative geographic isolation to avoid “entangling alliances.” The colonies relied on France’s aid to defeat Great Britain, but that reflected the exigencies of war. Paris was not particularly interested in empowering the new democratic republic once peace negotiations began. And the value of the French connection to America as a permanent alliance plummeted when Paris was taken over by brutal revolutionaries; the relationship cratered when Napoleon Bonaparte gained control and engaged in a “quasi-war” against American shipping.
It was a century before Washington joined another alliance. And in World War I, America technically fought as an “associated” rather than allied power. Woodrow Wilson, who with a touch of megalomania desired to reorder the globe, imagined that quasi-independence would enable him to pose as the representative of mankind.
The United States had nothing significant at stake in the conflict between the competing imperial powers. Washington should have left the participants to settle their imperial slugfest on their own.
Under those circumstances, a divided, exhausted Europe might have ended the war early, preserving the monarchies and avoiding Nazism, fascism, and communism. Instead, America’s intervention turned a possible compromise peace into a one-sided allied victory, loosing multiple totalitarian furies. Wilson’s fabled “14 Points” largely disappeared as participants at the Versailles conference fought over territorial plunder. The result unfortunately planted the seeds for the next conflict. France’s Marshal Ferdinand Foch observed: This is not a peace. It is an armistice for twenty years.
Arguments that the United States should have remained involved in Europe—presumably with multiple military garrisons, like after World War II—made no sense. With Germany disarmed, the victorious Europeans possessed the means to enforce Versailles. But they lacked the will, which America could not instill. While the French and Belgians wanted their respective pounds of flesh, Great Britain came to believe that conciliation offered a better response than repression. Either a ruthless Carthaginian peace or genuine accommodation might have worked, but not the inconsistent compromise course chosen.
In fighting World War II, Washington sensibly worked with two sizeable military powers, the British Empire (which helped bring in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and more) and Soviet Union. There also was political play-acting—treating the Free French as a serious partner and Italy as an assist after Mussolini’s ouster.
With the break-up of the wartime partnership and rise of the Cold War, Washington turned alliance-building into a full-time job for the State Department. Protecting Western Europe, thereby preventing domination of Eurasia by a hostile power, was served by creating the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Less impressive were the other alphabet-soup military pacts such as CENTO, METO, SEATO. The bilateral guarantees to South Korea and Japan—they were “mutual defense treaties” only in name—were extended to prevent absorption or domination of what were seen as important countries.
However, even the theoretical justification for these many pacts largely ended with the Cold War. In the 1990s Japan enjoyed the world’s second-largest economy and more deeply rooted its democratic system. Yet Tokyo held down military outlays while artificially restricting use of its military. Washington’s request for greater assistance had little impact alongside the alliance’s strong incentives against Japan doing more.
Europe was far worse. The collapse of the Soviet Union and dissolution of the Warsaw Pact eliminated the alliance’s raison d’etre. Rather than responding accordingly, alliance advocates proposed such nonsensical duties as fighting the drug war and promoting student exchanges. “Out-of-area” activities eventually emerged as NATO’s new job but became a snare. In 1989 Washington did Europe’s job for it by intervening in the Balkans.
Since then the United States dragged the Europeans into a meaningless seventeen-year-plus war in Afghanistan. In turn, Europeans pulled America into a foolish, counterproductive conflict in Libya. And while the European Union enjoys an overwhelming advantage over Russia—ten times the GDP, three times the population—Washington is expected to do the heavy lifting in protecting the alliance’s eastern flank. Some policymakers in both America and Europe would expand NATO to Georgia and Ukraine, putting Americans on the line against nuclear-armed Russia over countries of little security relevance to the United States. At the same time, European nations, particularly Germany, have minimal incentive to seriously increase defense outlays.
Most dangerous of all, though, may be the U.S. alliance with South Korea. The pact was necessary in 1953 but makes no sense today because the South has fifty-four times the GDP and twice the population of the North. Seoul long has had the ability to defend itself, at least from conventional attack.
President Donald Trump created the possibility of a diplomatic resolution, but he needs to recognize that his demand of Kim Jong-un for instant denuclearization is a nonstarter. He should propose serious, intermediate deals which will make the peninsula more secure while moving forward on denuclearization. Yet the real problem is not the North’s nukes but America’s defense commitments.
Pyongyang has no interest in America beyond Washington’s threat to make war on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The North never threatened to incinerate China, Russia, Europe, Africa, South America. The United States was a target because it promised to defend South Korea, maintained troops there and elsewhere in Northeast Asia, threatened to attack the North, and routinely initiated regime change. The DPRK wants deterrence.
If North Korea eventually develops the ability to accurately target America with nuclear weapons, then Washington will have to decide if it is willing to risk American cities to defend the Republic of Korea. The answer from any sane president committed to America’s defense should be no. America’s relationships with the South are many, but none are worth mass destruction of the U.S. homeland. Indeed, Washington would possess no more dangerous commitment.
A Mideast NATO, proposed by the Trump administration, would quickly become another moribund CENTO/METO. The Middle Eastern Strategic Alliance, in theory, would intensify America’s military commitments to a region that is no longer strategically important. Egypt, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia, all loaded with U.S. weapons, are able to defend themselves from their only potential adversary, Iran. Yet Washington would do all the work while the “allies” squabbled and Saudi Arabia attempted to impose its will on the others. Additionally, none of the potential allies share America’s basic values. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is totalitarian, while Egypt and Bahrain are brutally repressive. Only Kuwait makes much claim to liberal thinking.
Some of America’s allies are problematic for other reasons as well. The ethnic ties which spurred U.S. support for NATO expansion in Eastern Europe and energized countervailing backing for Greece and Turkey, respectively, as well as religious sentiments, mostly from evangelical Christians, fueling support for Israel, ultimately undermine the U.S. government’s ability to act in America’s interest. George Washington warned of the temptation to sacrifice America’s interests, arguing that “as avenues to foreign influence in innumerable ways, such attachments are particularly alarming to the truly enlightened and independent patriot.”
He explained that “a passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter, without adequate inducement or justification. It leads also to concessions to the favorite nation of privileges denied to others.”
(Moreover, Washington warned Americans to avoid the opposite problem, “permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations” which risk “constant collisions” and “sometimes impels to war the government, contrary to the best calculations of policy.” That sounds a lot like present policy toward Iran.)
Foreign policy should change along with circumstances. Alliances that made sense in 1949 and 1953 aren’t likely to have much relevance in 2019. Treaties ratified when Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao Zedong’s People’s Republic of China appeared ready to rampage probably won’t match today’s circumstances. Friendships formed for social or political reasons rarely offer much security benefit.
So Washington should conduct a serious review of its current alliances. In most cases, it is better for America to prioritize its friendly relationships, especially if they are rooted in strong economic and social links. Plans should be made to cooperate with friendly states to advance shared interests and repel shared threats. No longer should the tail be wagging the dog, with smaller partners seemingly dictating U.S. policy, such as Saudi Arabia with Yemen and Iran.
Alliances should be a means to an end. Several of them made sense during the Cold War. As constituted, most of them do not do so today. If Trump wants to stop America’s endless wars in the years ahead, then he should start tearing up military alliances like he tore up trade pacts after taking office.