March 20, 2024


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We Should Follow Lord Palmerston’s Example

Lord Palmerston addressing The House of Commons during the debates on the Treaty of France, Oil painting by John Phillips. 1863.

As Lord Palmerston said before Parliament in 1848 of the United Kingdom, “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.” There is nothing uniquely British about this view. America’s founders expressed fears about permanent foreign alliances, which they feared would entangle the country in affairs outside US interests. Washington recommended that the nation “steer clear of permanent alliances” instead, establishing “a respectable defensive posture” and “safely trust[ing] to temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies.” Jefferson agreed with Washington and in his first inaugural address committed to a foreign policy of “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.” Much has changed since then. The United States is now treaty-bound to defend the sovereignty of fifty-one other nations. Ironically, two of the nations most likely to drag the United States into war — Ukraine and Taiwan — are not even treaty allies. This global network of allies and quasi-allies risks dragging the United States into war, distracting us from our core interests, depleting our military capabilities through critical weapons transfers, and imposing significant costs when we most need fiscal austerity.

It is worth delving into the many categories of risks, costs, and consequences of American military alliances.

1.      Dependency: Allies may become overly reliant on US military protection, leading to a situation where they underinvest in their own defense capabilities. Many allies have outsourced their security to the United States. Far from being strategically autonomous, they have become security dependents. This is the classic free-rider problem made manifest in international relations. This can be a perfectly rational position for a smaller, weaker ally to take; after all, why should they pay for something an ally freely provides? Such free riding can likewise become buck passing, which international relations scholars have defined as states refusing to confront a potential threat in the hope that another state (read: the United States) will. We have seen evidence of both free riding and buck passing in most of the current North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members, which have allowed their militaries to wither away (see recent reports on the dismal state of the British and German militaries as two clear examples). Rather than ensuring that they can defend themselves, most members of NATO have abrogated this responsibility to the United States. The war in Ukraine and the munitions and weapons transfers from some NATO members to Ukraine have only exacerbated this problem, as members have transferred some of their few remaining operational systems to Ukraine without replacement.

2.      Entanglement in Conflicts: An offshoot of the principal-agent problem, in which the priorities and interests of one party in a partnership begin to diverge from another, alliances could potentially draw the United States into conflicts that it might otherwise avoid, a phenomenon scholars have described as “chain ganging.” For example, NATO obligations potentially draw  America into conflicts in Europe or elsewhere, even if they do not directly impact US interests. It is entirely possible to conceive of a situation in which a problem threatens the security of America’s European allies, but that does not threaten US interests. The allies might understandably use collective security commitments to draw the United States into becoming involved in a conflict that does not much matter to it (e.g., the war over Kosovo in 1999 and the current war in Ukraine are examples of conflicts that matter much more to Europeans than Americans).

3.      Loss of Sovereignty: Joining alliances often requires that countries cede some degree of military and diplomatic decision-making, which can undermine a nation’s ability to act independently according to its interests. While the United States has always ensured that it is primus inter pares in its alliances, this remains a concern.

4.      Costs and Burdens: Maintaining alliances can be expensive, both financially and in terms of the human and material costs, as well as the readiness strains of military deployments. Because the United States bears an undue burden, the opportunity cost of diverting resources away from domestic priorities, or providing for its own security, remains high.

5.      Erosion of Diplomatic Flexibility: Being tied to alliances limits a nation’s ability to pursue flexible or nuanced diplomatic strategies. For example, commitments to allies (or even non-allied partners like Ukraine and Taiwan) may hinder the United States in its efforts to engage diplomatically with adversaries or emerging powers.

6.      Strategic Misalignment: Over time, the strategic priorities of allies may diverge from those of the United States. This can create tension and inefficiencies in alliance management, as well as conflicts of interest in areas such as trade and regional security. An alliance that originally made sense during the Cold War might not serve America’s interests in the twenty-first century.

7.      Perception of Hegemony and Resentment: Some argue that US alliances contribute to perceptions of American hegemony and domination, leading to growing resentment and emerging resistance from other countries. This can fuel anti-American sentiment and undermine efforts to build international cooperation.

What is to be done about these problems of alliances? First, it is practically a truism to state that the United States has too many military alliances and defense commitments. Many, like NATO, have become sacred cows, untouchable despite their moribund nature. Indeed, the NATO problem is especially pernicious because not only has it failed to go away after the cause for its creation — the Soviet Union — has long since faded away, but it has actually expanded. Since the Cold War ended, NATO added fifteen members, with a sixteenth (Sweden) likely to be added. The eastward creep of NATO has exacerbated Russian security concerns. The United States must stop regarding alliances as permanent and come to regard them as temporary. Alliances that no longer serve US interests should be done away with or modified.

Second, for those military alliances that continue to serve our interests, US allies must bear their fair share of the costs. Military alliances are a burden for the United States and must be regarded as such. These burdens must be shared with allies. It is past time to revisit the wisdom of Palmerston, Washington, and Jefferson: the United States should have no permanent allies and should reexamine its alliance commitments and jettison those that no longer serve its interests.