America’s relationships with its traditional allies are in a dangerous state of disrepair. Given that America’s global network of alliances has been a critical component of the country’s international power, unrivaled by any other nation, undoing the damage that has been done to this vital national security asset should be an urgent priority for America’s next president.
There are many reasons that the situation has deteriorated as it has. One is perfectly natural. Many of the most important alliances were formed in the wake of World War II. Designed to address the challenges of the Cold War and other 20th-century threats, these partnerships have grown increasingly obsolete and aimless. The leading example here is America’s most important alliance, that with Europe via NATO. Efforts by NATO to define a post-Cold War mission for the past two decades have spluttered and produced indecision, incoherence, and poor results when action of some sort has been taken — from Afghanistan to Libya to Ukraine. If Russia were to invade Europe via the Fulda Gap — a Cold War scenario for which the alliance was prepared — NATO might be effective. In almost any other circumstance, it drifts into an existential fog producing halfway measures, squabbling, and silliness (like the micro-shows of resolve designed to send a message to Vladimir Putin post his invasion of Ukraine that are so limp the message they send is precisely the opposite of that which is intended).
In the NATO case, of course, it is not just that geopolitics and the technology and nature of conflict have outpaced the organization’s ability to adapt. It is also a matter of political dysfunction within the North Atlantic alliance. Europe has not figured out how to have a unified foreign policy. The continent’s most important states, Germany and France, have very different ideas about security issues; other European states are so embroiled in economic problems they don’t have the bandwidth to even consider such issues. Meanwhile, Washington offers up the double whammy of a broken legislative process and a president who is averse both to the effort necessary to lead the alliance as U.S. chief executives have in the past and to international conflict in almost any form.
Weakness, lack of resolve, disarray, and outdated thinking would be a lousy combination in the doldrums of peacetime. But the alliance is being tested and threatened on a daily basis by a Russian neighbor that has pioneered aspects of hybrid war in Ukraine based on the careful and accurate determination of where NATO’s real red lines are. Amazingly, Putin has accurately determined this amounts to doing anything he wants — including shooting down commercial aircraft — provided his troops don’t wear insignia and he denies everything.
NATO’s defenders will quickly note that Ukraine is not part of the Atlantic alliance, and, of course, that is true. But that does not mean that Russia’s invasion and annexation of parts of Ukraine (following similar action in Georgia in 2008) do not pose a genuine threat to the interests of NATO warranting some strong show of resolve. Yet even after real atrocities, we are still debating whether or not even to give Ukraine the most modest sort of weapons with which to fight off this threat to European stability. The economic sanctions imposed by the West, trumpeted as a sign of collective toughness, have had absolutely zero impact on Moscow’s decisions regarding the region. Indeed, recently, Putin has even seemed emboldened, going as far as saying Russia would not tolerate Sweden joining NATO. The provocative actions of the Russian military around the Baltic demonstrate that Putin is the antithesis of his NATO counterparts, bold and unconstrained by the niceties of international law or the seeming conventions laid out by recent history.
At some point, likely during the term of the next U.S. president, Putin may test NATO’s resolve further by orchestrating a movement among “ethnic Russians” in one of the Baltic states — Estonia, for example — akin to that which took place in Ukraine. They will seek to split away and they will have Russian help, but this time the scenario will be different. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are NATO members. They enjoy Article 5 protections: NATO is obligated to intervene in their defense. But will it? Will it if the “invasion” can be spun as an ethnic group simply seeking to express its right of self-determination? My guess is that under the current NATO leadership, the answer is no — rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding. The question is whether the next U.S. president might not be quite as accommodating to Putin as Barack Obama has been.
Perhaps even more worrisome are Putin’s growing ties to nationalist parties throughout Europe, from Syriza in Greece to the Northern League in Italy to the National Front in France. These are groups that are likely to gain in influence as decay in the Middle East and North Africa and weakness in Southern Europe open the door to even greater flows of immigrants into Europe. This will feed the power of these right-wing European political allies of Putin, creating a one-two punch of hateful nationalism across the EU (a play we have seen before in Europe) and of growing influence of European politicians willing to tolerate or even encourage the depredations of a Russian leader who would like to see his country return to greatness.
Also impacting the changing situation in Europe is the striking decline in influence and ambition of the United Kingdom. Not only is the country drawing down its military capability, but it is at risk of fragmentation with the rise of the Scottish National Party. Moreover, its influence within Europe (and in Washington) has been greatly eclipsed by Germany and France. I have written before about the decline of our traditional special relationships, those linchpins within alliances. This is clearly a problem in and of itself — one that is also manifested in the Middle East with the precipitous and severe decline in the quality of the U.S. special relationship with Israel.
ut broader U.S. alliances in the Middle East are also in a shambles. Not only can the leaders of Israel and the United States barely stand one another, but literally every other significant traditional U.S. ally in the region has seen its strategic situation threatened and come to question the nature and quality of its relationship with Washington. Egypt is a mess, and America’s ambivalence over its political shifts has been met with growing distrust of Washington in Cairo. Our Gulf allies have seen a growing threat of violent extremism met with ineffective responses from the United States and our European allies. Meanwhile, to their great consternation, Washington grows closer to their principal rival in the region, Iran. While the reassessment of the relationship between Iran and the West (not to mention China and the East) may shape future collaborations, the current transitional period (which includes an America that is confusingly allied with Iran on the ground in Iraq, but denying it, and cutting a major deal restoring international standing to that country all happening at once) is dangerous.
To say that traditional relationships are not exactly in working order is an understatement. I haven’t even mentioned the weakness and challenges facing the governments of the two countries in which the United States has invested the most during the past decade: Iraq and Afghanistan.
In Asia, China has executed a careful plan of extending its influence: via active investments in neighboring countries, the ballyhooed expansion of military capabilities, an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank initiative that ran circles around hapless U.S. opposition, and the execution of a “One Belt, One Road” policy that has already borne fruit in Central Asia (where the U.S. presence — even awareness — is minimal), Pakistan, Afghanistan (where China has been welcomed as an observer in talks with the Taliban), and Iran (where China will become buyer No. 1 for Iranian oil). While the United States has sought to counterbalance this expansion with modest moves — redeploying a couple of thousand Marines in Darwin, Australia; reopening ties with Myanmar; investing more in the relationship with India; and accepting the remilitarization of Japan — it has lost more relative influence than it has gained in recent years. Further, the modalities of balancing Beijing’s ambitions while maintaining the good ties that our economy requires are still unclear. That is why China has tested the United States and our allies much as Putin has, determining where the red lines actually are in the South China Sea. How this might play out with a rearmed and combative Japan (that will lean into conflict almost to the same degree our primary European ally, Germany, will lean away from it) should be a source of grave concern. So too should be scenarios involving possible upheaval in North Korea.
The growing importance of China and the Asia-Pacific region suggests that the United States ought to devote as much or more attention to rethinking and rehabilitating alliances there as required in Europe. (Remember “the pivot” to Asia? It was a good idea whose hype may have come and gone, but whose merits remain clear.) One key to this might be in the cultivation and embrace of new “special relationships” to supplant or augment those of the past that are in decline.
There are two particularly important countries, with some cultural affinities and connections to the United States, that should be these anchors: Australia and India. One of these relationships — with India — will be much more challenging, but in terms of the potential benefits will be worth whatever effort it takes. India will soon be the world’s most populous nation, is the most important counterbalance to China in Asia and the Middle East, has the world’s fourth-largest navy, and shares many values and interests with the United States. The other, with Australia, should be easier to achieve. Indeed, we are close to being there. Australia is among America’s most trusted and closest international partners and has been for most of the past century. But throughout that period, Canberra has played a secondary role. Given Australia’s economic growth, resource strength, vital positioning in the Pacific, and growing identity as an Asian nation, it seems poised to supplant the United Kingdom in America’s hierarchy of friendships in the century to come.
The fact that the future stability of the world’s most important region may turn on the relationships between a set of former British colonies speaks both to the scope of what was once the world’s greatest empire and to the essential importance that the most effective alliances are built on shared values as well as common interests. (Let’s not forget little Singapore, which has a vital interlocutor’s role to play in all this, but is too canny in its relationship with China ever to be seen as having a “special” closeness to the United States.) For every short-lived marriage of convenience like that we have with Iran today or had with the Soviets in World War II, there are many more that endure because they seem natural to the goals shared by democracies or those who value the rule of law or those who seek open societies and promote tolerance and self-expression.
That said, affinities and shared cultural objectives are not enough. The world is changing rapidly. New threats are emerging as are new ways of identifying, managing, and containing those threats. From next-generation technologies empowering cyber and drones and, soon, the autonomous robot armies and air forces that were once the province of science fiction, to new areas where security challenges are likely to involve the interests we share with our allies, from the Arctic to Africa to the human, political, and economic consequences of climate change, alliances require something else. They require reinvention. They require creativity. They require care and feeding. They cannot be taken for granted or be abused or neglected as ours have been for too long. Otherwise, they will go from being vital to our defense to being mere vestiges of history, testimony to early eras in which leaders had greater foresight and wisdom.