The announcement of the withdraw of up to 1/3 of the almost 35,000 U.S. troops in Germany (on the anniversary of D-Day, nonetheless) has raised some questions on the value, or even the point, of America’s alliances.
Thomas Jefferson famously warned against alliances on the grounds that they would entangle America in foreign conflicts that were not in our interest. But he was speaking in a different time, one in which the U.S. was a fairly weak country. None of the Founding Fathers probably imagined that they were founding a nation that would one day be the primary guarantor for a global rules-based order.
The truth is that alliances haven’t actually pulled the U.S. into wars. After 1945, we did not decide to oppose communism in various parts of the world mainly out of concern for our allies but rather, our own.
Some of our most consequential military involvements during the Cold War and after it, like Vietnam and Iraq, were strongly opposed by many of our allied countries. Afghanistan was a response to an attack on us, not an ally. We expelled Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1991 because we believed his invasion violated the global rules-based order that benefitted us, not because we were bound by some treaty to defend Kuwait (we weren’t).
North Korea attacked South Korea in 1950 assuming that the U.S. would not intervene. This actually illuminates another benefit of alliances – if they are credible, they prevent wars, not start them. Russia, for instance, has never attacked a NATO country. As for the talk that NATO expansion triggered Vladimir Putin to invade Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, this fails to take into account that Russian imperialism against its smaller neighbors goes back for centuries. It did not start in 1949 with the signing of the Atlantic Charter, let alone in 1999 when NATO accepted the first group of former communist countries as member-states.
The U.S. left Europe to its own devices after World War I. We all know how that turned out. Germany was, of course, the old frontline of the Cold War, and so naturally, a large U.S. military presence there was warranted to deter the Soviet Union. The enclave of freedom known as West Berlin was defended by American soldiers. Indeed, Europe and Germany has benefitted so much from U.S. military presence that the announced troop withdraw sparked criticism mostly in Germany itself. It should speak volumes that unlike the Russian military, ours is one whose presence is welcomed by a country that we defeated in a bloody war.
We have reduced troop numbers in Europe before, but since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, that trend was thankfully reversed. The frontline today does not go through Germany but in Baltic Sea region where a modest NATO military presence can deter Russian aggression under the condition that they can be quickly reinforced if needed. West Berlin would have been hard to defend but we never had to fight the Russians for it because our deterrence was credible. Sending mixed signals to Putin about our commitment to European security is probably the last thing we want to do.
Alliances cannot rest on old laurels though. It is understandable that Americans want to know why Europe’s largest economy is not paying more for its own defense. A recent poll by Pew Research Center shows that Europeans generally support using military force against Russian aggression towards a NATO country, but tend to believe this means “American military force,” not their own. This has to change. U.S. patience with such free riding is not limitless, nor is defending Germany against Russia while they move forward with a project like Nord Stream II that will only fill Putin’s pockets.
We should remember, though, that the original purpose of NATO was, according to its first secretary general, “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” Again, spoken in a different time, this quote by Britain’s Hastings Ismay echoed the worry many Europeans had of German re-armament after two world wars. Indeed, many Germans felt the same. Military buildup is problematic in Germany. Current German military uniforms resemble those of bus drivers to show a departure from its martial past. Such profound changes in a country’s strategic culture cannot just be flipped.
Senator John McCain liked to remind how President Theodore Roosevelt argued that it went counter to America’s character and destiny if we chose to “sit huddled within our own borders.” We should not aspire to be “merely an assemblage of well-to-do hucksters who care nothing for what happens beyond.”
We stand a better chance of defending our values and interests around the world if we have allies. Yes, these alliances need to be updated to face the realities and challenges of today. As with so many other things, this will require more engagement and leadership. Not less.
DISCLAIMER: McCain Institute for International Leadership is a non-partisan "do-tank" that is part of Arizona State University. The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent an opinion of the McCain Institute.