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Alliances and Their Discontents

Alliances and Their Discontents

Alliances—the only thing worse is not having them.

Michael Mandelbaum

When a presidency of one political party replaces an administration of the other, the new President often reverses or abandons the policies of his predecessor. The Biden foreign policy thus far appears to be following this pattern—up to a point. In relations with two of the countries that pose the greatest threats to American interests and values, the Biden team has embraced the goals of the Trump foreign policy but is adopting a different strategy for achieving them.

The Biden Administration has continued the kind of confrontational approach toward China and Russia that Trump adopted but that the Obama Administration, in which Joe Biden and his senior foreign policy officials served, had eschewed. At the same time, the new administration intends to rely on international coalitions to carry out this policy in Europe and East Asia, as the previous President, notoriously critical of and even hostile to many of America’s allies, did not. The President’s recent trip to Europe had as its overarching theme the need for close cooperation between and among the United States and its allies there. In the Middle East, however, in contrast with Europe and Asia, the new administration seems bent on repudiating both the ends and the means of the Trump policy, which could undercut its own foreign policies in the other two regions.

A foreign policy making use of alliances has important advantages over a unilateral approach, although it comes with built-in problems as well. By operating through coalitions, the United States can draw on a large pool of potential and actual allies. Almost no non-Chinese country in Asia wants Beijing to dominate the region, for example. Similarly, no non-Russian country in Europe wants Vladimir Putin to fulfill his ambition to reclaim the kind of power on the continent that the Soviet Union wielded. Most Middle Eastern countries want Iran’s drive for regional hegemony to fail. Acting in concert with allies, the United States can multiply the political, economic, and military power available to oppose Chinese, Russian, and Iranian designs.

Collective efforts have the additional advantage of making it clear that American regional policies aim not simply at enhancing the power of the United States but also, and more importantly, at defending broader international norms and interests, above all the sovereign independence of the allied countries. Finally, historical precedent argues for such an approach. The United States prevailed in the three great conflicts of the 20th century—the two world wars and the Cold War—because it was part of broad coalitions.


Yet coalitions are always difficult to sustain, manage, and use effectively. Differences among allies are unavoidable. They come in two varieties, and the coalitions the Biden Administration hopes to assemble and fortify to cope with China and Russia have both types.

One inevitable difference involves the distribution of costs among the members of the alliance. Many will be tempted to act as “free riders,” bearing less than their fair share—or at least less than what their allies consider their fair share—of the overall burden of their common enterprise. Biden’s predecessor routinely criticized the European members of NATO for spending less on defense than they should—indeed less than they had promised—and he had a point.

Members of the coalitions on which the Biden Administration is counting will surely continue to underperform in this respect. In some cases, this will occur because they are not able to contribute more than they already do to the common military effort in their home regions. In East Asia, for instance, the military dimension of the contest with China will take place primarily at sea, and the other Asian countries lack the naval forces to play a major role there; only the United States possesses sufficient naval power.

American allies in Asia and Europe will also exert themselves less than they might to counterbalance China and Russia because of the second kind of division that invariably affects alliances: differences of goals. In both world wars, the alliances to which the United States belonged managed largely to suppress such differences while the war was under way for the sake of winning it, but those differences came to the fore in the postwar period. At the Paris Peace Conference after World War I, America’s European allies sought and obtained harsher and more punitive peace terms for their defeated adversary, Germany, than the American President, Woodrow Wilson, had initially wanted. In the wake of World War II, two wartime allies, the United States and the Soviet Union, had radically different, indeed incompatible, visions for the politics of postwar Europe, which led to the Cold War.

The most salient 21st-century differences in goals do not divide some countries from others, as in the past. Rather, the differences exist within individual countries, which seek to pursue, simultaneously, conflicting aims. In the three great 20th-century conflicts, the coalitions to which the United States belonged had virtually no wartime economic commerce with their adversaries. In the globalized world of today, by contrast, China plays a major role in the international economy and Russia a significant one. America’s allies will want to cooperate with them economically even as these same allies wish to see Chinese and Russian geopolitical designs thwarted.

China is the largest trading partner of virtually every other country in East and Southeast Asia. While opposing the Chinese drive for regional hegemony, the other countries of the region want to sustain their economic ties with the second-largest economy in the world. Hence, they are and will continue to be reluctant to confront the Communist regime in Beijing openly and forcefully. “Don’t force us to choose between the United States and China” has become a phrase regularly emanating from America’s friends in Asia and to some extent in Europe as well.

While entirely rational from their point of view, this attitude portends more modest contributions to resisting Chinese ambitions in East Asia than the United States would wish. Already unhappy with the free-riding of the European members of NATO, the American public will not welcome the proposition implied in the Asians’ message: namely, that the United States should exert itself to block Chinese geopolitical initiatives while the very countries that those initiatives most directly threaten continue their profitable economic engagement with China and minimize support for the potentially risky and costly American efforts undertaken on their behalf.

Russia is less important economically in Europe than China is in Asia, but West European countries, particularly Germany, depend on Russian energy. The Biden Administration, along with a number of European countries, has declared its opposition to the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will expand the flow of natural gas from Russia to Western Europe while bypassing Ukraine, a country that Russia has invaded and occupied. The German government has refused to abandon the almost completed project. This is not a recipe for harmony within NATO.


Despite the unavoidable difficulties that they pose, the coalition policies the Biden Administration has adopted in Europe and East Asia are well worth pursuing. In the Middle East, by contrast, it has embarked on an entirely different course, one that threatens the gains its European and Asian policies can make. The administration seems unwilling to confront Iran and embrace the pro-American countries that oppose the Islamic Republic. This is the legacy of the Obama Administration, which had bad relations with Israel and Saudi Arabia while conciliating Iran. Obama signed an agreement with Tehran—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—that fell far short of placing adequately robust restraints on that country’s efforts to acquire nuclear weapons.

The Trump Administration withdrew from the JCPOA, imposed stiff economic sanctions on Iran, and repaired relations with the countries in the region threatened by, and thus opposed to, the Islamic Republic. The Biden Administration seems bent on returning to the Obama policy. While its discontent with Saudi Arabia because of the part its de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, played in the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi is justified, American interests require cooperating with the kingdom in resisting Iranian aggression.

The apparent hostility on the part of some Biden officials to Israel for its failure to reach a political settlement with the Palestinians, by contrast, has no justification, since responsibility for that failure rests with the Palestinians themselves. Moreover, among all of America’s prospective and actual allies, Israel stands out as the only one actually employing military force in its region to resist the regional aggressor, as well as the only one that has never asked for American troops to defend it, relying instead exclusively on its own citizens.

While the statements by the President and the secretary of state supporting Israel’s right to defend itself against the onslaught this past May against Israeli civilians by the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas is a step toward strengthening the relationship between Washington and Jerusalem, the general approach that the Biden Administration seems to be adopting toward the Middle East has the potential to undercut its coalition-building efforts in East Asia and Europe. This is so because in order for the coalitions there to operate effectively in checking Chinese and Russian aspirations for regional hegemony, the United States, as by far the strongest coalition member, must take the lead, and the other members must believe that America is willing and able to confront the would-be hegemons.

If the Biden Administration abandons the leverage on Iran that the Trump withdrawal from the JCPOA and the reimposition of economic sanctions have gained, and re-enters the 2015 agreement without obtaining more stringent restraints on the Iranian nuclear weapons program, it would not only put its Middle Eastern friends in danger. Such an initiative would set an ominous precedent for America’s European and Asian allies. If the administration pursues such a course in the Middle East, pro-American governments in other regions would be bound to suspect that the United States will ultimately treat them in the same way, that they cannot rely on America as an ally, and that they will therefore have to make different arrangements for their security. Specifically, they would have to consider seriously either conciliating the aggressive country in the region or expanding their own military forces, possibly to include nuclear weapons.

A return to the Obama approach in the Middle East will also impress the Chinese and Russian leaders in ways unfavorable to the United States. These leaders constantly calculate the resistance that America is likely to mount to their ambitions. They are all too likely to conclude from what looms as the Obama-Biden approach to Iran that, with the new administration, they now have increased scope for aggressive policies. If they do, it is not only the Middle East that would become a more dangerous place.

Michael Mandelbaum is the Christian A. Herter Professor Emeritus of American Foreign Policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, a member of the editorial board of American Purpose, and author of The Rise and Fall of Peace on Earth (2019).

Image: Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=523546

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