international analysis and commentary

The New American Consensus on Alliances


A striking new American consensus on alliances emerged during the ’08 presidential campaign: America now values allies and is willing to make real sacrifices for them. President Obama should be willing to compromise to keep allies on board in facing important security challenges.

Who needs allies?
During George W. Bush’s administration an inflated view of American power and an extreme sense of insecurity led to a general disdain for allies. First, Bush administration elites believed that the United States was capable of winning wars without allies. Second, they believed that allies might voice initial opposition about war but, as Donald Rumsfeld said, “…leadership in the right direction finds followers and supporters.” Third, policymakers were convinced that allies made the US slow and inefficient. Finally, they thought that allies received much more from America than they contributed to it.

Policy failures in Iraq and Afghanistan and improved American security perceptions since 9/11 have led to important lessons. First, allies are a critical element of policy success. While allies might not be necessary to win a war, they can be crucial in translating a battlefield victory into a policy triumph. Second, a firm declaration of a policy decision is not likely to bring allies on board. Ignoring allies’ concerns is not firm leadership—it is the road to solitude. To get allies to agree with a difficult policy one must compromise. Because the perceived threat to American security has declined, compromise has become more acceptable.

Campaign Consensus
The 2008 presidential campaign provides excellent evidence that American policymakers have learned the lessons of the shortcomings of the Bush view of alliances. Senator Barack Obama made his view of America’s alliances clear, most notably in Foreign Affairs and with his July 2008 speech in Berlin. Obama pointedly contrasted his view on allies with Bush’s: “When we do use force in situations other than self-defense, we should make every effort to garner the clear support and participation of others…. The consequences of forgetting that lesson in the context of the current conflict in Iraq have been grave.” Obama also suggested that contemporary challenges such as terrorism, global warming, and WMD proliferation require collective solutions. As he put it: “America cannot meet the threats of this century alone, and the world cannot meet them without America.” For Obama the U.S. is incapable of dealing with the threats it faces on its own and America’s allies are a necessary condition for success.

John McCain, the Republican candidate, was just as clear in distancing himself from the Bush view of alliances. As he wrote in Foreign Affairs: “When we believe international action — whether military, economic, or diplomatic — is necessary, we must work to persuade our friends and allies that we are right. And we must also be willing to be persuaded by them.” McCain made the same point in a March 2008 speech; The New York Times headline read “McCain, in Foreign Policy Talk, Turns His Back on Unilateralism,” whereas The Washington Post reported that McCain “…would seek the input of allies abroad and would contrast sharply with the go-it-alone approach of the Bush administration.”

The bipartisan consensus during the 2008 campaign provides a striking contrast with the recent past. The 2004 presidential election witnessed a partisan divide on alliances with George Bush scoring points by criticizing John Kerry’s willingness to ask for a “permission slip” to defend American security. The ’08 campaign consensus is also noteworthy because it suggests that President Obama can expect bipartisan support for compromise with allies.

Obama’s Alliances
Implementing the new consensus view will be much tougher than talking about it. Afghanistan will provide an early test. Obama has made clear he will press allies to contribute more troops and to lift their caveats on what their troops can do. Many allies will be reluctant to change. For example, Italy’s foreign minister Franco Frattini recently attempted to preempt a request by saying “we cannot do more” in Afghanistan. Obama should entice allies to make these costly changes by giving them a significant role in revamping allied strategy for Afghanistan—accentuating political instruments relative to military ones—and give allies a major role in oversight of the implementation of the strategy. Obama may also have to accept negotiations with Taliban elements and—at least in private—scale back objectives (i.e., accept relative stability v. functioning democracy).

Iran’s nuclear program poses another significant challenge. Obama has stated that he would favor talks with Iran without preconditions. In contrast, Britain, France, and Germany halted high-level, formal negotiations with Iran until it suspends uranium enrichment. Obama should keep allies on board by restricting any talks without preconditions to mid-level representatives. Obama’s administration might also be willing to accept Bernard Kouchner’s suggestion that the US negotiate on normalization of relations with Iran and allowing Iran to develop a civilian nuclear program. Finally, Obama should be willing to compromise with allies over the timing and severity of any new sanctions against Iran if it does not respond to allied diplomatic overtures. 

One should not, of course, assume that Obama will always compromise with allies. Obama has said he would be willing to act unilaterally to repel an attack or threat of imminent attack against the US. His administration might also be reluctant to compromise in other cases if it does not think alliance relations are at stake. Obama may face a final challenge in implementing the new consensus view: Republicans may return to the view that allies lack value. As Bush’s former speechwriter Michael Gerson wrote during the ’08 campaign “…many Europeans seem fully prepared to accept the free ride of American security protection while contributing little to the security of others.” It will be harder for Obama to sustain difficult compromises with allies if Republicans return to criticizing Democrats for sacrificing national interest to worthless allies. Thus, problems will certainly arise and Obama will not meet all expectations. When compromise is not possible, however, we can expect Obama to work hard to minimize the fallout.