The fears of US allies, the benefits of US alliances
26 Jul 2016|

Image courtesy of Flickr user Gage Skidmore

Donald Trump’s recent comments on America’s alliances, coinciding with the Republican convention last week, have further raised the anxiety levels of US allies about Washington’s global role after the US presidential election.

Trump told The New York Times that the US needs to be ‘properly reimbursed’ by allies, and he would be ‘prepared to walk’ away from alliance obligations if he can’t make that deal. If Russia invaded the Baltic states he said he would first assess whether they had paid their dues before honouring NATO obligations and defending them.

Trump’s alliance skepticism is long standing and deep seated, so perhaps it’s no surprise it hasn’t moderated with the rigours of the presidential campaign—especially given how little else has moderated during his candidacy. He’s also tapping into a popular strain in the US—reflected in Bernie Sanders’ candidacy as well—questioning the value of US global engagement.

Irritation with the level of allied contributions isn’t new. Since the post-WW2 creation of the US alliance system, US strategic protection has lessened allies’ need to build their own capability.

Increasing burden sharing has been a hallmark of the Obama administration’s alliance policy, as evident in then-Defence Secretary Bob Gates’ 2011 chastisement of NATO member states and President Obama’s expression of irritation with free riders in this year’s Atlantic interview. The Obama administration’s frustration has been fuelled by several years of US defence budget constraints and concerns about allied reliability, including patchy defence spending within NATO: only five NATO states (including the US) have met the defence budget target of 2% of GDP.

The Obama administration has made efforts to reduce alliance asymmetry and has expected allies to contribute more to their own security. However, the administration has reconciled its heightened expectations of allies with the imperative of tackling pressing security challenges. That’s apparent in the US reinvigoration of NATO at the recent Warsaw summit, including bolstering NATO’s deterrent and counter-terrorism capability. And some NATO countries are now raising their defence spending in the face of Russian assertiveness.

Mr. Trump’s strategy to address burden sharing by using alliance obligations as a negotiating chip is unprecedented. It represents an enormous potential discontinuity in US alliance policy.

So US allies are unsettled. It’s difficult to plan for such wildly different outcomes as the considerable policy continuity of a Clinton presidency and the known and unknown unknowns of a Trump presidency. The Obama administration recognises this: hence Vice President Joe Biden’s reassurance about the enduring US commitment to the Asia–Pacific during his Australia visit.

The Washington foreign and defence policy community, with its traditional bipartisan agreement on the sanctity of alliance treaty obligations, is also rattled. Republican establishment figures such as Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell have stressed the importance of honouring alliance commitments.

It’s legitimate to question allied contributions, but alliances cannot be viewed solely through an economic prism. Making alliance obligations conditional would undermine alliance credibility and robust deterrence. As with other comments Mr. Trump has made, it’s hard to determine whether they’re purely for negotiating purposes—and how much ‘properly reimbursed’ actually means. But allies couldn’t do anything other than take him at his word, and potential aggressors might be emboldened by those comments. That makes them highly destabilising.

The US global alliance network is manifestly in the US national interest: it amplifies the US capacity to project power and secure global energy and trade routes. Its force multiplier effect is particularly significant at this time of international tumult. Alliances serve as frameworks to address an array of security challenges which require collective response and from which the US can’t insulate itself— including ISIS, Russian assertiveness and the North Korean nuclear threat.

When managed carefully, alliances contribute to regional and global stability (and therefore allow prosperity to be maximised). They deter aggression, provide some predictability and restrain allies from destabilising postures. Dismantling US alliances or diluting them by retreating from a forward presence could make it difficult for the US to reinsert itself into theaters and rebuild allied trust in a crisis.

In addition, US alliance policy has evolved to suit the current security environment. There has been creative thinking on ‘networked security’, with the promotion of bilateral, trilateral and multilateral linkages between allies, partners and others, according to each region’s requirements and existing strategic architecture.

There has also been some thinking on offsetting potentially destabilising effects of alliances, including tensions fuelled by exclusivity. For instance, US Defence Secretary Ash Carter has stated that the Asia–Pacific security web is inclusive, so there’s space for China to rise. The spiraling costs of defence technology can make alliances even more useful: the US can increasingly pool high-tech resources with high-capability allies.

A Clinton presidency would probably be even more supportive of allies than the Obama administration, though it would likely retain a burden sharing dimension. But if Donald Trump is victorious in November, it could upend decades of US alliance policy, as allies reassess their security postures—with all the instability that would engender. It would be up to other Republicans, bureaucrats, military leaders, and US allies to present a compelling case for alliances, including a description of their enduring benefits in a complex security environment.

For now, allies must watch events unfold. The stakes are high.