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The US needs more foreign entanglements

ByAndreas Kluth

Here’s a big idea in psychology that also applies to diplomacy and geopolitics. It’s the insight that the most toxic relationships aren’t the unambiguously negative ones we have with our enemies. They’re instead our ambivalent relationships with frenemies, which can unpredictably toggle from sunny to dark and back again, causing more stress than simple loathing would. In international relations, such frenemies are called allies.

The US has many kinds of “allies.” They include the 52 formal ones, those whom the US is obligated by treaty to defend if they’re attacked, and vice versa. Confusingly, though, the label can also refer to the large and growing club of nations that are better termed “quasi-allies” — Israel and Taiwan are prominent examples. These are friends who cooperate with the US for geopolitical purposes but lack mutual-defense assurances. Yet other countries are simply partners or, as one US diplomat optimistically calls them, “emerging partners.” In commitment terms, America’s relationships are therefore increasingly promiscuous, and range in status from polygamous marriage to passing dalliance.

Some strategists in Washington consider this an urgent problem, for it threatens to entangle the US, arguably overstretched already, in ever more global conflicts. Others, who include strategists in the administration of President Joe Biden, believe that such a “variable geometry” of alliances and partnerships is the only thing that can preserve American leadership and therefore a modicum of world order.

Next year, this debate will boil over, if Biden indeed faces Donald Trump in the presidential election. The latter, if given half a chance in his second term, would cut off almost all commitments to America’s allies, and opt for the diplomatic equivalent of one-night stands.

The clash of these two candidates is the latest round in a long-running American debate between internationalism and isolationism or, as the concepts are often called nowadays, engagement and restraint. Both sides in this controversy have good arguments, but both also have to contend with a vexing reality. It’s that the US won’t make these strategic decisions alone. Not only are America’s alliances often ambiguous. Each individual relationship, however close it sounds in the preamble of its treaty, is also fraught in its own way. For the US to keep leading, Americans must therefore learn to tolerate ambivalence, and all the stresses that come with it.

Consider Turkey. It’s one of the 31 members of NATO, the US-led transatlantic alliance that has since 1949 deterred the Kremlin. For decades, Ankara was one of Washington’s most important partners, not only because it was the West’s bridge to Asia and the Muslim world but also because it seemed reliable. That’s why the US stationed some of its nuclear warheads at an airbase in Turkey, an honor that Washington bestows on only four other NATO allies.

In the past decade or so, however, Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has taken a problematic turn. Erdogan channels not the pro-Western Kemal Ataturk but the neo-Ottoman sultans of yore. He loathes US hegemony and wants Turkey to be a Great Power. He partially blames Washington for an attempted coup against him in 2016.

In 2019, Erdogan even bought a Russian air-defense system, an absolute no-no for NATO allies. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he’s positioned himself as a middleman between the West and the Kremlin. While giving some aid to Ukraine, Turkey also increased its trade with Russia, ignoring Western sanctions, and plans to become a hub for Russian natural gas.

Erdogan has also collaborated with Russia and Iran in the Syrian conflict, which has put Turkey on the side opposing the US. Washington and Ankara both view the Kurdistan Workers’ Party as a terrorist organization. But Erdogan regards all ethnically Kurdish militias that way, including the Syrian Democratic Forces that fought alongside the US to defeat the Islamic State in Syria. In October, an American fighter jet had to shoot down a Turkish drone in Syria that came dangerously close to US forces. Friend? Foe? Frenemy?

Erdogan’s frustration with his allies’ definition of terrorism is also his stated reason for blocking Sweden from becoming the 32nd member of NATO, even though Stockholm would make the whole alliance stronger. In reality, Erdogan wants to blackmail the US into selling F-16 fighter jets to Turkey. Congress, understandably, isn’t enthusiastic. But Biden understands that Erdogan is in effect holding Swedish accession ransom for a US weapons deal. A decision is due soon.

It gets worse. The US and most of its allies define Hamas, which so sadistically attacked Israel on Oct. 7, as terrorists. But Turkey, which maintains financial and other links with the group, does not. “Hamas is not a terrorist organization,” Erdogan said in late October. “It is a liberation and mujahedeen group, trying to protect its land.”

With treaty allies like these, who needs enemies?

The classic American response to ambivalence abroad was to avoid foreign entanglements altogether.

It was George Washington who set the tone. In 1793 he reneged on America’s very first mutual-defense treaty. The ally was France, a fellow republic that had recently stood with America against its enemies and now found itself at war with a monarchy, Britain. But instead of helping, the US remained neutral and discreetly dissolved its treaty a few years later. James Madison, another founding father, called the episode an act of “ignominious perfidy.”

Neither Washington nor most Americans showed much compunction, though. In his Farewell Address, the first president warned the nation “to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.” And the nation listened. The US didn’t enter another formal alliance until after World War II.

But then with gusto. The rubble of the war made Americans realize that isolationism was no longer an option for the world’s most powerful nation. Washington embraced a new and bipartisan consensus in favor of liberal internationalism, which “married interests and ideals, power and partnership,” as the author Charles Kupchan describes it. The notion took hold that the US, as the strongest country on the planet, had to become the free world’s hegemon, to restore and maintain order.

To satisfy its ideals of partnership, the US therefore built the multilateral institutions we still associate with the postwar world. Those range from the United Nations and its many agencies to the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and what is today the World Trade Organization.

To meet the requirements of hard power, meanwhile, the US entered several mutual-defense pacts designed to deter adversaries such as the Soviet Union then or Communist China today. The gold standard among these coalitions remains NATO, hopefully including Sweden soon. (To minimize the damage from Erdogan’s delays, Stockholm and Washington just signed a bilateral defense agreement.) Another pact, the Rio Treaty of 1947, was supposed to be the NATO equivalent in the Western Hemisphere, but has lost credibility over the years. The US also has bilateral defense alliances with Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, South Korea, Thailand and Japan.

And then it gets confusing. Eighteen countries have what’s called “major non-NATO ally status.” They range from Argentina and Colombia to Bahrain, Qatar, Pakistan and Tunisia. Israel, the largest recipient of US aid over the years, is also in this group. While most of these partners get preferred access to US money, training and guns — including such delicate ammo as depleted uranium — they don’t have any security guarantees. So the US isn’t actually obligated to fight for them.

Even more confusingly, the US also has partnerships that are implicit, but strategically no less important. The most notable is America’s relationship with Taiwan, a democracy the US technically doesn’t even recognize as a country but looks out for as mainland China becomes more menacing. In this case, the “strategic ambiguity” was even explicit and intentional.

Clearly, America’s foreign entanglements have become numerous and knotty enough to make George Washington turn in his grave. John Quincy Adams, another former president, once proclaimed that the US “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” These days, it seems that there’s nary a monster anywhere that doesn’t show up sooner or later on a to-do list in the Oval Office.

Starting with America’s ill-fated wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the consensus in Washington on the need for US hegemony has therefore become brittle. As president, Barack Obama talked about “nation-building at home” rather than abroad, and envisioned a “pivot” in America’s military and diplomatic efforts, away from Europe and the Middle East and toward Asia, where the only secular threat to American power loomed in the form of China. Meanwhile, scholars such as Stephen Wertheim, now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, began arguing that the US risks overstretch and must selectively retrench from its foreign entanglements.

The problem with retrenchment, however, is again those pesky allies. Take Germany. In theory, no relationship could be stronger. It was the Americans who, after World War II, nursed West Germany back into the democratic and capitalist fold of the West, who protected the country during the Cold War and then pushed for its reunification. Once the Cold War was over, the wealthy and grateful Germans were obviously expected to share the burden of defending the West.

But they didn’t. For decades, the Germans in effect demilitarized, with a naive narrative that hard power belonged to the past and that Russia was now a commercial partner rather than a strategic threat. Year after year, Germany, the largest economy in Europe, spent far less than the 2% of GDP that all NATO members have pledged since 2006 to allocate to their armies. In effect, Germany was free-riding. And as allies like Germany didn’t step up, the US couldn’t step back.

Successive American presidents before 2017 raised their frustration with Berlin, but did so politely and diplomatically, as it behooves allies and friends. Even as they schmoozed, however, the Obama administration eavesdropped on the phone calls of Chancellor Angela Merkel. Ambivalent indeed.

And then Trump entered the White House. He crashed into the cerebral US debate between engagement and restraint like a drunken frat boy bursting into a symposium between Cicero and Cato and mistaking it for a toga party. Suddenly, full-bore American isolationism was back, and in the crudest form ever, paired with a supercilious nationalism and a cynical transactionalism.

Trump showed open disdain for specific allies such as Merkel and Germany as well as entire alliances, such as NATO, from which he threatened to withdraw. It is widely assumed in Washington that in a second term he might do just that. Simultaneously, Trump courted America’s adversaries, and in particular autocratic strongmen such as Russian President Vladimir Putin.

US hegemony, it appeared, would end not gradually but suddenly, to be replaced by anarchy and spheres of influence carved up between the great powers at the expense of small countries. And that may yet happen, if Trump returns to power in 2025. That prospect is the main reason why Putin has for now decided not to escalate his assault on Ukraine, but to hold his lines and wait out the American election.

Biden entered the Oval Office with all this baggage. His career and biography made him an internationalist — for decades he’s been attending the Munich Security Conference, a Mecca for strategy wonks. “America is back,” he told the forum in 2021.

But he was also vice president in the Obama administration, aware of America’s overstretch and in particular the need to pull out of Afghanistan. That he did, but in disastrous chaos. The plan after that debacle was to revert to Obama’s policy of gradually pivoting away from Europe, Africa and the Middle East and toward Asia.

The world didn’t allow it. Last year, Putin invaded Ukraine, hoping to subjugate an independent nation and member of the UN whose security both Russia and the US, along with the UK, had underwritten in 1994. Russian mercenaries also infiltrated the Sahel region of Africa, destabilized by a series of coups. And then Hamas, sponsored by the mullahs in Tehran, lit up the Middle East.

Suddenly, the US is again forced to put out more fires than it has hoses, just as Congress, where one part of the Republican party has turned MAGA-isolationist, threatens to turn off the water. As 2023 draws to a close, the need for US engagement is clearer than ever. But so is the evidence of its overstretch. Wertheim at the Carnegie Endowment believes that retrenchment remains a question of when and how, not whether.

And that brings us back to alliances. The only country that can maintain even a semblance of world order is the US. And for that America has to be everywhere. But it can’t, because it doesn’t have the resources. The strategic answer, says a top diplomat, is therefore to “be everywhere by proxy.” Hence the reliance on variable geometry, which simply means that the US identifies a problem — containing China, say — and then assembles partners into new and evolving alliances as needed.

Sometimes these are existing multilateral institutions. Last year, for example, the US scored an obscure but important foreign-policy victory when an American was elected as head of the International Telecommunication Union, an agency of the UN, succeeding a Chinese secretary general and edging out a Russian candidate. Russia and China have long wanted to impose their own ideas on internet governance, which the ITU can now prevent.

Most of the time, though, the US will affirm old alliances, such as NATO, or construct new quasi-alliances or partnerships. Their acronyms and abbreviations make for a veritable alphabet soup. An informal foursome of the US, Australia, India and Japan is called the Quad. Another trio, consisting of the US, Britain and Australia goes by AUKUS. A different quartet brings together the US, the United Arab Emirates, Israel and India and is called I2U2.

None of these new coalitions is likely to become another NATO, with the Musketeer logic of its famous Article 5, which in effect says all for one and one for all. That introduces the risk of “moral hazard,” as America’s partners may shirk military spending or incur geopolitical risk, in the false certitude that the US will back them. And yet these partnerships, by projecting American power far and wide, may also keep the world relatively free and peaceful — and out of the authoritarian clutch of China, Russia, Iran or North Korea.

This US grand strategy obviously raises the importance of all those “emerging partners” in Asia, Africa and South America, often called the Global South. But they’re now being wooed by the US, China and Russia, with infrastructure projects and more. At the UN and elsewhere, unsurprisingly, they prefer for now to stay non-aligned between West and East. So if you think the US-Turkish or US-German relationship was ambivalent, just wait for what’s to come.

One example is Saudi Arabia. Fresh into office, Biden intended to turn its crown prince and de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, into an international pariah for his role, according to US intelligence, in ordering the brutal murder and dismemberment of a Saudi journalist, Jamal Kashoggi. But it wasn’t long before geopolitics made Biden first fist-bump and then shake hands with MBS, as the prince is known.

Washington, as it happens, now views Riyadh as the keystone in a plan to normalize Israel in the Middle East and keep Iran at bay, so that the US can finally retrench and pivot to Asia. Before October’s attacks by Hamas, a deal was in the works under which the US would guarantee Saudi Arabia’s security, in return for the Saudis making official peace with Israel. Even after Oct. 7, that agreement isn’t dead yet. But Biden will need a thick skin for these talks to succeed.

Then there’s India. It’s the world’s most populous country, largest democracy, potential leader of the Global South, eponym of an entire ocean and rival of China in Asia. That marks it as one of Washington’s most desirable allies, and explains its membership in the Quad and I2U2.

And yet India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi increasingly looks less like a democracy and more like another hyper-nationalistic and quasi-theocratic strongman regime. Modi, for his part, shows no signs of feeling “aligned” with the US, posing for group photos just as merrily at summits of the (Western) Group of 7, which includes the US, as of the (anti-Western) BRICS, which includes Russia and China.

And now this: Federal prosecutors in New York have accused an Indian citizen of having been hired by an Indian government official to kill a US citizen who supports Sikh independence in Punjab. That hit job was foiled. But it followed the successful assassination of another Sikh separatist in Canada.

Biden brought it up with Modi when they met at a summit the other day. But little seems to have come of the conversation other than awkwardness — and possibly elevated blood pressure resulting from the fight-or-flight response of the parasympathetic nervous system.

That, as it happens, is one of the medical symptoms of ambivalent relationships in our personal lives, whenever we’re not sure whether we’ll end up hugging or stabbing. The US needs to get used to that feeling, because it’ll be the default state of its diplomacy in the world to come, no matter who’s in the Oval Office. Call it the side effects of hegemony.

(Published 20 December 2023, 07:29 IST)

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