Since World War II, America’s network of European and Asian alliances has underwritten security and prosperity around the globe. While these alliances have been a source of strategic and political advantage for the better part of the past sixty years, they have not always been militarily essential. That is rapidly changing. The United States is confronted by revisionist powers across Eurasia (Russia, Iran and China), as well as the continuing threats posed by Islamic extremism, the almost certainly protracted aftershocks of the Jasmine Revolutions, and the potential for unrest in nuclear-armed states like North Korea and Pakistan. Furthermore, all of this comes at a time of enormous fiscal constraint at home. What used to be a U.S. preference for working in concert with others is fast becoming an imperative.Yet at the very moment when the United States needs allies more than ever, many of America’s present alliances are at their weakest points in decades. The question for policymakers is simple enough: How can America’s alliances and security relationships be a continuing source of advantage in changed circumstances? Alliances as a Source
of Strategic Advantage
America’s mid-20th-century shift toward alliances represented a dramatic departure from the U.S. historic avoidance of “foreign entanglements.” Rather than abandoning U.S. overseas positions at the end of World War II, American statesmen chose engagement over isolationism and offshore balancing. Recognizing the threat posed by communism, U.S. leaders sought to fill the security vacuums left in Europe and Northeast Asia after World War II by harnessing America’s preponderance of wealth and military power to contain them. Through a combination of forward-stationed forces, forward-deployed naval forces and nuclear security guarantees, the United States deterred regional great power conflict for the next sixty years.Throughout these years, America’s allies played important roles. As Colin Gray notes, America’s “security wards” may have been dependent on the United States, but they still distracted Soviet power and attention, served as physical barriers against Soviet access to the high seas, provided U.S. bridgeheads in Europe and Asia, and fielded useful, if not critical, ‘continental swords’ complementary to U.S. maritime, air, and central-strategic striking power.1
America’s alliance advantage continued past the Cold War era as well. NATO played a critical role in managing the aftermath of the Cold War by drawing in new members to the east to avoid the return of the interwar-era security vacuum in Europe. In Asia, alliances with Korea and Japan have been critical for addressing the last remnant of the Cold War: the standoff on the Korean peninsula. Australia has been a stalwart ally, participating in almost every U.S.-led coalition operation, as well as taking on greater responsibilities closer to home and organizing international peacekeeping forces, as it did in the 1999 East Timor intervention. Thus, well beyond their Cold War birth, U.S. alliances remain a source of geographic advantage, conferring global air, ground and naval reach to the U.S. military. They are a source of literal military advantage, too, insofar as allied forces share a common doctrine, engage in routine combined exercises, and devise and pursue high interoperability standards and habits of cooperation. And well beyond any military-strategic function, they are a source of political and economic advantage, binding together more than thirty countries, including the majority of the world’s economic wealth and industrial might. Clearly, no other country enjoys such a network of relationships or is likely to construct one anytime soon. China has no real allies; its closest security relationships are with basket-case states like North Korea, Burma and Pakistan. Russia has seen its former Warsaw Pact satellites flee into the arms of NATO. Islamic Iran continues to suffer under its isolation from the international community. Even its relatively good relations with India, Syria and some European states have suffered in recent years, thanks to its provocative behavior. While America’s alliance relationships are extremely robust by comparison to all these cases, they may not be up to future challenges. Specifically, the military contributions U.S. allies can make to help maintain international peace and security may be far more limited in the years ahead than we prefer, or even need them to be. Unless they strike new alliance bargains, U.S. leaders may lose one of the nation’s most enduring strategic advantages. Dependency Culture
and “Keep-Out Zones”
U.S. alliances in the late 20th and early 21st centuries might best be described as a network of protectorates. Under the protective mantle of the United States, its allies were able to reduce their own defense expenditures and “free ride” on U.S. security guarantees backed by America’s vast wealth and preponderance of military power. America’s protection allowed allies in Europe and Asia to focus on rebuilding and developing their economies largely free of security concerns in the aftermath of the Second World War.However, the allies’ preoccupation with economic growth continued long after their “economic miracles” reached fruition. They became so accustomed to relatively low levels of military spending that the original bargain, whereby the United States would extend protection while the allies regained their footing, became a permanent condition and created a dependency culture in allied capitals. This dependency culture grew so deep that the evaporation of the principal Cold War threat binding the allies together strengthened rather than weakened their dependencies on the United States, as most countries further reduced, and in some cases dramatically reduced, their defense spending. Indeed, America’s European allies, above all, have drastically cut their defense spending since the end of the Cold War, with most NATO countries now devoting well below 2 percent of GDP on defense. In Asia, the story is mixed: Japanese defense spending remains flat, hovering around 1 percent of GDP, while South Korea and Australia anticipate continued real, if modest, increases in coming years. It is therefore not surprising that unequal burden-sharing, which is now actually worse than it was during the Cold War, has caused some to question the relevance, or the practical utility, of American alliances. American politicians such as Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) used to argue, after the Cold War ended, that to maintain its viability, NATO would have to go “out of area, or out of business.” Today, it is increasingly obvious that NATO’s business is flagging. Operations in Kosovo and Afghanistan have only further demonstrated the gaps in military capacity between the United States and its allies, as well as the difficulty of projecting and sustaining NATO forces out of area. During the Kosovo air campaign, the United States accounted for approximately 60 percent of the 1,000 aircraft and 38,000 sorties flown. In Afghanistan, although 48 countries are contributing forces to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, the United States alone is shouldering roughly 70 percent of the responsibility.2 Unfortunately, just as allied military might is waning, not only are challenges to America’s security growing but, even more dangerous perhaps, the U.S. military has come to take for granted its ability to maintain access to its allies and bases abroad. We assume, for example, that we can flow large, heavy ground units and vast quantities of logistical supplies through major allied ports; conduct strikes from allied airbases close to an adversary’s own territory and from aircraft carriers steaming a short distance offshore; maintain uncontested control of the skies; maneuver amphibious ships right off an adversary’s coastline to land assault forces; and communicate and conduct command and control with little fear of our networks being disrupted. Revisionist powers dissatisfied with the U.S.-dominated status quo—namely, China, Russia and Iran, as well as some non-state actors like Hizballah and al-Qaeda—are acquiring the means to exploit a host of dependencies and vulnerabilities that undercut these assumptions. The implications for America’s alliances, and the U.S. ability to project military power at great distances undergirding them, are profound. China’s military build-up showcases the kinds of capabilities that adversaries may acquire to challenge American power-projection forces. China’s pursuit of advanced military systems is rapidly shifting the balance of military power in the western Pacific. China’s military is acquiring extended-range precision-guided ballistic and supersonic cruise missiles to target U.S. and allied ports, airbases and aircraft carriers, making it much more difficult to deploy forces and conduct airstrikes. It is building up its integrated air defense network to locate and attack all but the stealthiest approaching aircraft. Its burgeoning fleet of submarines is intended to hunt down U.S. and allied surface ships. China’s anti-ship cruise missile batteries can fend off an approaching amphibious force. China has also demonstrated the ability to hold U.S. low-earth orbit satellites at risk using ballistic missiles, directed energy and radio frequency interference. It has also established a Fourth Department of the People’s Liberation Army dedicated to conducting offensive cyber network attacks. Together, these capabilities enable China to backstop its growing diplomatic assertiveness with an increasingly expansive and credible “keep-out zone”, within which it will be far more difficult for U.S. forces to operate. Some might be tempted to discount the growth of anti-access capabilities and their effects on U.S. power projection if China were the only party pursuing them. The reality, however, is that the maturation of China’s anti-access capabilities is only the first manifestation of keep-out zones likely to emerge around the world. North Korea has already acquired nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles in addition to taking a more bellicose and provocative stance toward South Korea and Japan. Iran, too, is aggressively pursuing capabilities intended to prevent U.S. intervention in future regional conflicts. Its well-known pursuit of nuclear weapons is coupled with a less well-known build-up of long-range ballistic missile forces, fast attack boats to “swarm” large tankers or naval ships and overwhelm their self-defense capabilities, supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles, advanced air defenses and mine-laying submarines. Iran poses a number of dangers to the United States and its allies: its support of terrorist groups, its efforts to destabilize its Arab neighbors and stated intent to destroy Israel, and its ability to attack critical oil facilities around the Gulf and close the Strait of Hormuz to shipping traffic. As Iran acquires precision-guided strike capabilities, moreover, it may have an even greater propensity to proliferate them to Hizballah and others.3 Russia is also developing a keep-out zone that emphasizes its massive arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons, guided rockets and artillery. It is attempting to re-establish its historic sphere of influence in the Baltic and the Caucasus, challenging Western interests where the U.S. protective shield is weakest and its allies are most exposed. For example, Russian elements are suspected of having perpetrated a series of denial-of-service computer attacks against Estonia, a NATO member, in 2007. The 2008 invasion of Georgia, while technically beyond the protective coverage of NATO, nevertheless troubled the United States and its allies as a signal of Russia’s intent to expand back into the southern Caucasus. In sum, these developments portend future warfighting environments for U.S. and allied military forces that will be far less permissive than those experienced in recent coalition operations. As potential adversaries hone their “home field advantages” and expand the reach of their keep-out zones, the U.S. military may simply be unable to project power, conduct expeditionary operations and deter conflicts at acceptable costs and in the manner to which it has grown accustomed over the past several decades. Preparing its forces and capabilities to operate in far less permissive environments will place premiums on the ability to operate from range, to penetrate and persist in the presence of dense air defenses and to employ lower-signature ground, air and naval forces in a highly distributed manner. It will also require a fundamental reappraisal of how the United States will continue to meet its overseas security commitments. Thus, over the next few decades the United States is likely to find itself and its allies under greater pressure worldwide than it has at any time since the end of the Cold War—a time, it bears repeating, when fiscal constraints will likely complicate its ability to make sound strategic investments. Collective Defense
in an Age of Austerity
As threats to U.S. security grow and allied capabilities shrink, the U.S. military has justifiably characterized the budgetary pressures arrayed before it as a national security threat. The United States is unlikely to be able to simply “grow” its way out of its fiscal predicament as it has in the past. The rate of increase in the national debt is projected to exceed, by a wide margin, even the most optimistic estimates of U.S. economic growth rates. Given this reality, U.S. defense spending is almost certain to decline, perhaps dramatically, over a fairly protracted period. As a result, the U.S. national security community is likely entering an indefinite period of austerity in which America’s overseas commitments will come under increased scrutiny. Consequently, the United States will probably show greater restraint strategically, reduce the scope of its overseas commitments and, perhaps above all, ask far more of its allies and security partners around the world.4The dominant “optic” in all this is one of American decline—even, some say, dramatic and irreversible decline. If America’s allies lose confidence in the ability or willingness of the United States to meet its security commitments, they will hedge their bets and seek other options for their security. Such crises of faith could cascade into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Both the United States and its current and prospective allies therefore have a first-order interest in maintaining and strengthening the global network of alliances that ties them together and safeguards international peace and security. That means, to put it bluntly, that we must work together to transform protectorates into genuine partnerships. Adapting America’s alliances to the “new normal” of the post-protectorate era will be essential to sustain them as a source of strategic advantage. Clearly, the United States and its longstanding allies in Europe and Asia will have to strike new bargains that address new military and fiscal realities while serving all of their interests. The central idea in these new bargains requires that the United States and its allies reverse the roles they have traditionally played. Whereas frontline allies in the past could reasonably expect the United States to defend them if threatened or invaded, growing access challenges render this assumption increasingly shaky. Therefore, the United States should encourage its allies, especially those frontline states that face the most direct and acute threats, to assume greater responsibility for the initial defense of their sovereign land frontiers, adjacent waters and airspace. They can do so by building their own keep-out zones. Just as China’s anti-access/area-denial capabilities are conferring the ability to complicate U.S. transoceanic power projection, frontline allies can deny regional hegemonic aspirants the ability to project power and encroach on their sovereignty. Insular allies like Japan will need to build up their inventories of wide-area maritime surveillance systems, extended-range anti-ship missiles, mobile air and missile defenses, and submarines and anti-submarine detection systems. Continental allies in the Baltics and Central Europe might field precision-guided rockets, artillery, mortars and missiles, as well as air and missile defenses, to halt ground and air assaults. They will also need computer network defenses to reduce the risks to their command and control, communications and critical infrastructure networks. Paradoxically, by improving their own territorial defenses and relying less on the United States as a first responder, the allies will make it easier for the United States to remain forward militarily, thereby making U.S. security commitments more sustainable and credible. Of course, it is also true that if frontline allies develop their own anti-access/area-denial capabilities, they will be less dependent on the United States for their security. That could mean that their traditional security bargains with the United States will hold less value for them. It could mean, as well, that our allies will be freer to use their new assets in ways that might complicate or even undermine U.S. security interests. We must face the obvious fact: Greater allied military autonomy will often, if not always, translate into more independent foreign policies. Stronger allies would clearly change the value of U.S. protection, but they would not necessarily weaken it to dangerous, fissiparous levels. While the United States would expect its overseas allies to supply the bulk of the manpower needed for collective defense, it would offer maneuverable air and naval forces that could be shifted rapidly among theaters to reinforce the allies and conduct strikes at great distances. It would also be prudent for the United States to complement its conventional capabilities with an appropriate mix of nuclear capabilities to reaffirm its commitment to extended deterrence and to hedge against the emergence of new nuclear dangers in the future. It will continue to be important in a post-protectorate era for the United States to station forces on the territories of its frontline allies. Today, the U.S. military is arguably over-optimized for repelling invasions and under-optimized for dealing with creeping expansion, defending against coercive missile campaigns, or conducting expeditionary operations in the face of anti-access threats. The U.S. military should therefore shift the focus of its forward-presence activities from deterring invasions to preparing for a wider range of new missions such as counter-terrorism, ballistic missile defense, counter-proliferation and network warfare. It should also adopt a much lighter “footprint”, moving away from the large, permanent, garrison-style bases of the Cold War, which often generate political opposition within host nations and can easily be targeted by U.S. adversaries. At the same time, a smaller U.S. forward presence footprint needs to be made far more survivable and capable of sustaining intense combat under missile attacks than are forward-deployed forces today. The most important shift the United States needs to make is to become a systemic enabler of a more distributed network of allied defenses. Rather than designing military systems principally to arm U.S. forces, America must help allies build their own anti-access capabilities. Instead of always reaching for the next level of technological innovation, America’s defense industry might have to focus more on making systems more affordable for U.S. allies. The United States will also have to overhaul its export controls and technology transfer policies to facilitate the provision of critical anti-access systems to the allies. It might also serve as a lender of last resort for precision munitions, maintaining a global magazine and production line that could be extended to allies during a crisis. Finally, the United States should extend operational intelligence to its allies, help integrate surveillance systems and missile defenses among the allies, and provide a reliable and jam-resistant source of global positioning, navigation and timing data for allied precision-guided weaponry. This approach has several historical antecedents, including President Franklin Roosevelt’s “Arsenal of Democracy” concept and President Richard Nixon’s 1969 Guam Doctrine. The former sought to provide weapons to Britain and later Russia in the hope that the United States would not have to deploy ground forces to Europe, while the latter encouraged U.S. allies to provide more for their own security, thereby conserving American power at a time when the Vietnam War was imposing heavy costs in men and materiel. Unlike the Guam Doctrine, however, these new efforts should be aimed at maintaining U.S. primacy and the viability of America’s global network of alliances rather than managing its decline. If U.S. allies become more self-reliant, limit the intra-regional power projection options of potential adversaries and thereby reduce the threats of invasion and conquest, the United States would be able to focus more of its limited resources on reinvigorating those military elements that confer its status as a global superpower: principally its mastery of the skies and command of the high seas. In recent decades, the United States has had the luxury of taking its command of the commons for granted. However, these domains, along with outer space and cyberspace, will be increasingly contested in the decades ahead. America’s command of the commons safeguards the interests of its trading-nation allies more than does any other U.S. contribution. None of its allies can afford to protect their own commercial interests around the world, which are well beyond the reach of their militaries. Thus, America’s allies have a great interest in the United States maintaining its command of the commons, even if it means that they must do more for their own defense at home. Recommendations
Implementing the approach described above will require tailored and differentiated action plans across America’s portfolio of alliances.Europe. Within NATO, there is a need to divide recommendations between the frontline states stretching from the Baltics to the Balkans, including Turkey, and the allies of Western Europe. The frontline states should be encouraged to improve their area-denial capabilities to block incursions by potential adversaries. At the same time, given the absence of direct threats to their security for the foreseeable future, European states farther to the west should be encouraged to improve their power-projection capabilities so they can reinforce the frontline states in crisis alongside U.S. forces and continue to make useful contributions in out-of-area operations. The United States should maintain its current level of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe as a hedge against future uncertainty and to reassure the frontline states of its continued commitment to their security. There are several good reasons to maintain the nuclear status quo in Europe. First, withdrawing them would virtually foreclose the possibility of ever returning them to Europe, since doing so would likely be seen as destabilizing in the face of a nuclear-armed adversary. Second, withdrawal could be perceived by both America’s frontline allies in Europe and their potential adversaries as a form of abandonment, thus paradoxically making nuclear coercion more likely. Third, America’s allies beyond Europe may see withdrawal as undermining America’s nuclear security guarantees to them, thus compelling them to pursue hedges in the form of acquiring independent nuclear deterrents (thereby precipitating regional nuclear arms races) or distancing themselves from the United States and accommodating regional hegemonic aspirants. The United States has an enduring interest in maintaining NATO and its Integrated Military Structure. It would be far wiser to do so than to have to reconstitute it from scratch decades from now. The alliance provides some degree of safety in numbers and underpins the strategic solidarity of the Transatlantic community. At the same time, however, the greatest dangers facing the United States lie in the Far East. Because the threats facing NATO will remain limited for the foreseeable future, the United States should seek to minimize the costs of maintaining NATO in order to shift greater resources toward its security commitments in the Indo-Pacific region. Indo-Pacific. U.S. alliances and security relationships in the Indo-Pacific region will require the greatest retooling. Here, more than anywhere else, America and its allies must adjust themselves to the post-protectorate era. As discussed above, the archipelagic and peninsular states of the region would do well to emulate elements of China’s anti-access and area-denial military build-up. For Japan, this will mean reorienting its forces toward the defense of its southern islands and improving its ability to deny passage through its maritime chokepoints to an opponent’s navy. The United States should begin consultations now with South Korea to consider regional threats beyond North Korea and determine what kind of defense posture will work to defend its sovereignty in the face of a more assertive China. Similarly, the countries of Southeast Asia should place greater emphasis on capabilities that would deny China the ability to seize and hold contested islands in the South China Sea. India should continue modernizing its naval forces to police vital sea-lanes stretching from the Straits of Hormuz and Bab al-Mandeb to Malacca. All of these states will need help in improving their maritime situational awareness of contested areas. Finally, Australia may play a greater role in the region, extending its air and naval reach beyond the Indonesian archipelago to patrol routinely in the South China Sea, and working more closely with the countries of the region to help stitch their maritime surveillance networks together. At the same time, the U.S. military should seek shared access to bases in Asia rather than permanent, exclusively U.S. bases and the permanent stationing of U.S. military forces in them. Doing so would signal America’s continued commitment to the security of allies and partners while reducing U.S. forces’ vulnerabilities to political vicissitudes and anti-access threats. Thus, U.S. leaders might seek access to additional airbases in the “second island chain” such as Tinian, Saipan and Palau; shared-access agreements with Japan to use a larger number of its airfields, both civil and military; routine access to bases in Southeast Asia (Cam Ranh, Vietnam; Singapore; U-Tapao, Thailand; and Clark Air Base and Subic Naval Base in the Philippines); access to facilities at Curtin, Darwin, Tindal and Sherger on the northern coast of Australia for long-range drone operations, joint training, as well as stockpiling critical war-related materials and providing critical maintenance/repair facilities; and routine exercises using bases on Socotra, the Seychelles, Nicobar and Keeling and Christmas Islands in the Indian Ocean for maritime awareness, counter-piracy, and counter-proliferation operations, as well as long-range strikes against potential adversaries in Eurasia. Globally. U.S. administrations should partner with those countries throughout the world that share common interests and adversaries. In Europe, this may mean working with Georgia and Ukraine, even if they are not members of NATO. In the Middle East, emerging democracies (if, indeed, some do emerge) may present opportunities for deeper ties and long-term cooperation on issues ranging from defense and counter-terrorism to development and anti-pandemic medical capabilities. At the top of any list of prospective new U.S. security partners, however, should be India. While the Indo-American historic relationship was characterized by mutual distrust, common security concerns over Islamist extremism and the rise of China, as well as common interests such as the maintenance of a liberal trading order and the enlargement of the community of democracies, are drawing them closer together. Similarly, America’s former enemy, Vietnam, is also seeking a closer security relationship given its growing concerns about China’s encroachments in disputed areas of the South China Sea, the harassment of its fishermen, and China’s growing dominance over its western neighbors Laos and Cambodia. In building these ties, the United States should also consider moving toward multilateral collective defense arrangements. In Europe, this will mean underscoring the continued value of NATO. In the Middle East, this could take the form of a re-tooled Gulf Cooperation Council, depending on the political transitions that may occur in the next several years. In Asia, regional ties might build on the Five Power Defense Arrangements involving Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Malaysia and the United Kingdom; the ASEAN Regional Forum; and America’s bilateral relationships with Japan, Korea and Australia. These steps would both widen and deepen U.S. relationships in key regions. While the coming post-protectorate era portends great change in the patterns of alliance cooperation, it does not herald the end of America’s network of alliances. Far from it, we should see the challenges ahead as an opportunity to reformulate America’s global network as a source of enduring strategic advantage. As power projection becomes more difficult not only for the United States but also for regional hegemonic aspirants, adopting area denial strategies and building up allied capacities to implement them will be crucial. Rather than going “out of area” or “out of business” (essentially busy work in good times when there are few unifying threats close to home) a better approach in the coming decades may be “back to basics”: refocusing America’s alliances, especially with those frontline states closest to the sources of instability, on strengthening allied defensive capabilities. The day may come when America has no choice but to manage its own decline, but a failure in the decades ahead to attempt to preserve its primacy, and the global network of alliances underpinning it, will only hasten the arrival of that day.5 It remains in the interests of both the United States and its current and prospective allies to maintain the viability of America’s dominant position in the international system, which remains the greatest guarantor of world peace and security. Allies will have to do more for themselves, but the United States will also need to remain in forward positions even while doing more to enable its allies militarily. In doing so, the United States can best ensure the transformation of its alliances from protectorates into true partnerships.
1Gray, “Strategy in the Nuclear Age: The United States, 1945–1991”, in Williamson Murray, Alvin Bernstein, and MacGregor Knox, eds., The Making of Strategy: Rulers, State, and War (Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 599.
2See “ISAF: Key Facts and Figures”, North Atlantic Treaty Organization, February 3, 2011.
3Under President Ahmadinejad Iran has stepped up its engagement and arms transfers to a variety of groups ranging from insurgents in Senegal to the FARC in Colombia. See “Senegal severs ties with Iran”, Al Jazeera, February 23, 2011. See also Douglas Farah, “Iran in Latin America: An Overview”, in Cynthia Arnson, et al., eds., Iran in Latin America: Threat or ‘Axis of Annoyance’? Woodrow Wilson Center Reports on the Americas no. 23.
4See Andrew F. Krepinevich, Jr., “The Pentagon’s Wasting Assets”, Foreign Affairs (July/August 2009).
5For an in-depth analysis of the benefits of primacy, see Samuel P. Huntington, “Why International Primacy Matters”, International Security