Opinion / Strategy

Bad Idea: Retrenchment from U.S. Alliances

Two years ago, I wrote in these pages that war on the Korean Peninsula was a bad idea. At the time, rhetoric was heating up in Washington and Pyongyang, and there was a palpable sense that war was possible—even if it was not probable. That moment, thankfully, has passed. Presenting that bad idea was both timely and popular. This year’s bad idea, however, will likely prove to be less popular although it is an equally bad, if thankfully less dramatic, idea. It is the notion that the United States will solve all of its international problems if only the troops come home. While this notion operates under different guises, in policy-terms, its known as retrenchment. Retrenchment from forward deployed forces supporting alliances is a bad idea.

With the 2020 presidential race in full swing, advocates from both ends of the political spectrum have ramped up calls to end U.S. military engagements in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. After 18 years of fighting in Afghanistan and 16 in Iraq, the American public is right to be “tired” of these conflicts. The simple solution of “ending” the wars, however, belies a more complicated problem: will the United States be more or less secure if U.S. forces leave those places? This is a difficult question and one deserving of open discussion and debate. The informed consent of the governed (all of us) requires it.

Discussing whether we should, and if so, how, end U.S. commitments to conflict in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria are good ideas—much like going for a swim on a hot summer day is a good idea. Similarly, debating whether—and if so, what—restraints are appropriate in the development or use of U.S. force abroad is a good idea. Advocates for restraint fall across the political and ideological spectrum, and there is not universal agreement on what restraint looks like from policy standpoint. Retrenchment—one strain of the ideology of restraint—is not about ending U.S. military actions in countries where we have never clearly articulated an achievable political objective. Instead, it starts with drawing down from existing long-standing military commitments, and then takes it to an unsupportable conclusion that the United States will be better off if forward deployed forces are pulled back from alliances in Asia and in Europe, much like deciding that if a swim on a hot day is good, swimming over Niagara Falls must be better.

The growing body of commentaries moving toward retrenchment have, thus-far, avoided using the term. Instead, the focus seems to be attempting to discredit the idea that U.S. alliances are more durable when U.S. forces are stationed on allies’ soil. Three points bear making here on the value of alliances to U.S. security and prosperity: first, alliances are grounded in realism for how the world is, with an eye toward what the United States seeks for itself; second, alliances with the United States can reduce intra-regional rivalries, promoting greater stability and cooperation; third, U.S. alliances directly enhance U.S. prosperity through closer trade with the United States and faster-growing economies in our allies.

Today’s U.S. alliances (as defined by countries with whom the United States has a mutual defense treaty) were established following World War II (in Europe) and following the Korean War (in Asia). They were established to advance U.S. interests in Americans’ own security and prosperity. U.S. allies—then and now—entered into alliances for many of the same reasons. These were not abstract ideals of U.S. primacy nor an assumption of the inevitable rise of democracies (which several allies then were not) nor capitalism. U.S. alliances were established based on realist assessments that each member state would be more secure and more stable as part of mutual defense treaty than they would be alone. U.S. policymakers at the time shared this view—even then United States was better off with allies than alone.

U.S. alliances born of the immediate post-World War II era were a recognition that the United States—at the time the world’s largest economy by an enormous margin—had neither the wealth nor people to defend the hard-won peace globally by itself. The alliances, then, were forged to create bonds to enable U.S. allies to develop economically and not just militarily. The United States gained benefits by having troops stationed where they would most likely be needed. Doing so enabled an ultimately smaller force: by being present, the United States adds credence to its deterrence policies while simultaneously requiring fewer troops overall than if it had to surge forces across an ocean after a conflict had already started. We may desire a more peaceful and secure world, but until that world is realized, it will be necessary to back up diplomatic and economic tools with sufficient forward-deployed U.S. military forces postured with allies. This is a significant component within the broader U.S. foreign policy toolbox and one that will achieve U.S. interests at the cost of fewer lives and dollars.

Second, U.S. forward-presence reduces intra-regional rivalry, increases stability, and makes U.S. allies less likely to engage in a destructive arms race with each other. Even as a U.S.-based alliance architecture provides NATO members and the United States’ allies in the Asia-Pacific great opportunities to grow economically, forward deployed U.S. presence in support of a mutual defense treaty had the added benefit of reducing the intra-regional rivalry that had enabled many previous conflicts. In Europe, the combination of two World Wars, followed by a common recognition across much of the Western portion of the continent that its citizens would not likely be prosperous and free if they fought amongst each other, enabled NATO countries to flourish.

In East Asia, strong U.S. commitments to the security of Japan and Korea—and clear signals that U.S. troop presence in each country was inviolable—has helped confine regional rivalry between these two states largely to the political sphere. Though the tension between Korea and Japan is real, both countries will be more susceptible to outside pressure from Russia or China, should Korea and Japan embrace more seriously the competition latent in their rivalrous political rhetoric.

These examples are important to the United States because of the impact of tamping down intra-regional rivalry: greater domestic political stability among and within U.S. allies, making them more difficult targets for foreign influence; and, greater economic growth, allowing them to become both more prosperous for themselves and able customers of U.S. goods and services, thereby supporting U.S. economic growth.

U.S. prosperity, then, is the final point. The United States and its allies, according to World Bank Data, accounted for 58 percent of global GDP in 2018. The United States and its allies made a wager in the 1940s and 1950s that free markets would move more people out of poverty than alternative systems. The stark differences between East and West Germany in the late 1980s and the even starker differences between South and North Korea today are evidence that the bet was right. Even China’s growth over the past 40 years has been the result of economic reform rather than its present incarnation of state-directed economics.

These benefits are not solely historical. Since 2002, U.S. exports to its allies have accounted for more than 8 percent of annual U.S. GDP, on average. Between 4.6 million and 5.8 million U.S. jobs per-year have been supported by these exports.

Being an ally is not a requirement to be a trading partner with the United States. However, being a treaty ally—hopefully—provides a certain bilateral confidence that (in most instances) enables lower tariffs, increased business and research collaboration, and greater tourism.

Alliances, including forward-stationing of U.S. forces abroad makes the United States safer, its allies more secure, and all participating more prosperous. Any weakening of the U.S. alliance architecture should demonstrate how it provides greater benefits than the existing system—otherwise we’re just giving leash to a bad idea.

(Photo credit: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Menelik Collins)

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John Schaus, "Bad Idea: Retrenchment from U.S. Alliances," Center for Strategic and International Studies, December 13, 2019, last modified December 13, 2019, https://defense360.csis.org/bad-idea-retrenchment-from-u-s-alliances/.