As the 2020 presidential election draws closer, the candidates for the Democratic nomination are scrambling to flesh out their policy positions and differentiate themselves from each other. But, on one major foreign-policy question, they speak with a single voice: the credibility of the United States, they all maintain, is increasingly in doubt, and faith in America’s word, particularly among US allies, must be restored. Virtually across the board, those who aspire to become commander-in-chief—from former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg (“We’ve got be a country known to keep its word.”) to Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar (“Trust from our allies that we will stand with them is key.”) to former Vice President Joe Biden (“Diplomacy requires credibility.”)—aver that restoring credibility, especially with allies, is vital to the US national interest.
But repairing damaged alliance relationships is easier said than done. After all, even in more normal times, assuring allies that a great-power patron will, when push comes to shove, come to their aid, is challenging. With good reason, allies often do not trust their powerful patron’s promises of mutual defense. They live in constant fear of abandonment. During the Cold War, it was common to ask: Would the United States really sacrifice New York or Washington for Paris or Berlin? The French and Germans often had their doubts. Alliance credibility is the coin of the realm, but it is also always suspect.
However, our research shows that there is one policy that, though popular, definitely does not work to reassure nervous allies: consistently embracing hardline policies around the globe, displaying strength and dispatching US forces to uphold distant commitments, real and imagined. This was the conventional wisdom during the Cold War—that limited US military interventions, especially in far-off locales in defense of secondary priorities, would bolster US credibility with allies (and adversaries too). If a major power was willing to expend significant resources in places of trivial intrinsic and strategic value, it would surely be willing to honor its commitments to allies in locations of great strategic interest. This logic led to the US intervention in Vietnam, among others, and also resonated strongly enough in Moscow to encourage the Soviet War in Afghanistan—tragedies for all involved.
But such arguments did not die with the end of the Cold War. In 2013, Barack Obama was pilloried by critics across the political spectrum when he shied away from launching a bombing raid in response to the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons and seized on the Russian-offered lifeline. They believed that his alleged display of weakness had undermined US credibility with both adversaries and allies. These bipartisan critics subsequently accused Obama of thereby emboldening the Russians—contributing to their annexation of Crimea, their covert intervention in Ukraine, and their overt intervention in Syria. And, they continued, his about-face had supposedly also frightened both the Israelis and the Saudis, who began to consider other patrons and arms suppliers.
Our research shows that this logic is deeply flawed. It is a recipe for never-ending interventions and ever-expanding commitments. Rather than calm anxious allies, military interventions elsewhere actually call into doubt the intervener’s will and capacity to fulfill its core alliance commitments. Bogged down elsewhere, and with its military forces stretched thin, the intervener has fewer resources at its disposal to back its alliance commitments. And a costly, protracted war—the very kind of intervention that seems to confirm the intervener’s resolve—makes it more likely that the intervener’s populace will not be able to stomach another costly, protracted war, even in defense of longstanding allies.
Consequently, from the perspective of alliance relationships, such interventions are counterproductive: they undermine the credibility of the alliance, and they threaten allies’ security in both the short and long run. With their faith in the alliance weakened, allies will not offer substantial political or material support for such interventions, and they will be less likely to coordinate their security policies with the intervener. Instead, we find that allies hedge against their great-power patron’s abandonment by exploring other avenues to security. The allies might increase their own military spending, no longer content to free-ride on the security guarantees of the intervener—which would, to be sure, be in the great-power patron’s financial interest, but would also diminish its influence over its allies. Or, more problematically for the alliance, the allies might seek a separate peace with their chief rivals, against whom the alliance had been formed.
Our research shows that, consistent with these claims, US intervention in Vietnam frayed its relationships with European allies. Three major allies, in particular—Britain, France, and West Germany—all feared from the beginning that US involvement in Vietnam would tie up resources that would be necessary to defend core alliance interests in Europe. As the war dragged on, these allies increasingly began to fear “unconscious abandonment”—that the United States would, even after it withdrew from Vietnam, lack the will to uphold its commitments in Europe. Even British leaders, almost always steadfast and loyal in public, worried privately about the war’s impact on America’s will and capacity to maintain its European defenses and began to contemplate the prospect of a Western Europe outside the US aegis.
West Germany, more directly vulnerable to Communist Bloc threats than Britain, had more to fear. It therefore pursued a stronger defense relationship with France, whose president, Charles de Gaulle, constantly questioned American leadership. Despite warning signs, the United States insisted that West Germany provide political and material support for its intervention in Vietnam, which led to the collapse of Chancellor Ludwig Erhard’s pro-American government in 1966. In its place, Chancellor Georg Kiesinger’s Grand Coalition of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats set a new foreign-policy direction for West Germany. Through Ostpolitik, Kiesinger and his foreign minister, Willy Brandt, pursued warmer economic and diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc. Rather than bolstering West Germany’s confidence in the Atlantic Alliance, the US war in Vietnam led West Germany to loosen its bonds to the (American) West and forge relations to its (Soviet) East.
The Vietnam case demonstrates that high-cost and protracted interventions, which are supposed to most powerfully signal resolve, most harm alliance credibility. Far from reassuring allies, US military interventions elsewhere call into question US capability and will to defend its allies. Reassuring allies of one’s intentions is always a challenge. But military intervention is not the answer.
Credibility is a fragile thing. Managing the expectations and perceptions of one’s allies is an almost Sisyphean task—difficult even when carefully managed and coordinated, impossible when major foreign-policy changes are announced suddenly and haphazardly. Today, America’s alliance system is frayed. Anxious allies are hedging their bets. Japan is pursuing new missile capabilities for its fighter jets. South Korea is pursuing stronger diplomatic ties with China. The European states have boosted their defense spending and are discussing new forms of shared nuclear deterrence.
As the next US presidential election looms, it is important to remember the stark dangers of seeking to restore America’s alliance credibility at all costs. Credibility is a greedy master that no state can unthinkingly serve. Those who chase credibility as a means to national security—by embracing uncompromising policies, steadfastly upholding all commitments, and refusing to retrench—find themselves without either credibility or security.
Ronald R. Krebs is Beverly and Richard Fink Professor in the Liberal Arts and Professor of Political Science at the University of Minnesota, and was an Adjunct Scholar of the Modern War Institute at West Point in 2018-2019. Jennifer Spindel is Assistant Professor in the Department of International and Area Studies at the University of Oklahoma. This article is adapted from their recently published article, “Divided Priorities: Why and When Allies Differ Over Military Intervention,” in Security Studies.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Lisa Ferdinando, Department of Defense
Then-President Obama defined his job as this:
#1: Protect National Security
#2: Protect American Citizens
NATO, especially Europe, perhaps views killing in poorer taste than protecting the lives of its citizens, cities, lifestyles, and infrastructure. After all, having fought WW I and II, Europe knows a lot about the killing of people.
And that was what Korea, Vietnam, and the GWOT sometimes boiled down too–body counts and the war against governments. If Europe and NATO are concerned about territory, citizens, lifestyles, and existence, then the past American-fought wars didn't quite share the same interests. Especially in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, U.S. ground forces fought to win territory only to retreat or relinquish it back to the enemy. That cannot happen in places such as Europe, UK, Taiwan, and South Korea where such tactics and strategy would be frowned upon. The American military will was often present, but the strategy, will of the Nation, and that of Washington D.C. were questionable.
The U.S. DoD exports a lot of Top Tier arms to allies who want and could afford them. However, as the war in Yemen proved, even the best weapons can't substitute for poor maintenance and trained crews. That is where the U.S. Armed Forces intervenes with better Readiness and trained soldiers and officers.
The problem lies with the killing of battlefield combatants and no real strategy as to stem the flow of insurgents. COIN has a war with no fronts, sides, or fixed governments; a war where Body Count once again often rules as attacking the governments of COIN might incite a broader war. To some NATO allies, COIN isn't a direct threat to them. The insurgents of these parts of the world usually won't drive technicals en masse through the streets of Paris, London, Berlin, Rome, or Madrid, claiming victory. To our allies, the age-old threat still remains Russia (and now China and Iran). Ground, missile, and air forces, conventionally, still stoke fear in our Allies as the American Defense shifts back to a new Cold War in addition to COIN. America could export its best arms to these Allies, but often their armies and air forces are smaller and weaker than the USA's as the USA spends a huge budget on Defense.
Many said that the USA isn't the World's Policeman, and that usually makes sense as many interventions aren't paid for by allies. Some contribute, but it's often the American Taxpayer that foots the hefty bill, and now with COIN, a bill that seems without any fixed deadline or ending.
To reassure America's Allies, the USA needs to "Show the Flag" more, and that is costly due to Readiness, maintenance, and modernization expenses as America recovers from COIN and budget impasse shutdowns. Our weapon systems are getting more complex and thus more expensive to purchase and/or maintain. Our commitments to Allies after 18+ years of COIN seems to falter as America pulls back, forcing the Allies to spend more GDP to defend themselves.
In wars fought on both sides of the continent (WW II), America has secured a world peace lasting 75 years. No other Superpower nation dare challenge us. Our commitment to our Allies needs to be paramount and steadfast, not just in the military and trade sense, but in the leadership, Democracy, and lifestyle sense. America has much to lose if it cannot maintain the peace and involvement in all directions of the compass as peer nations strive to fight for global resources and territory again. World involvement is costly, yes, but America has the Peace Corps and the Sword Corps to carry forth involvement dating back to the founding of this nation.
A manner in which the U.S. would seem to have lost credibility with its allies, this would seem to be by the U.S. showing that it has not (and indeed will not?) adequately confront Russia and China as to these enemies' use of such things as "new generation warfare." In this regard consider:
First, the following definition of "new generation warfare:"
“The main battle space is in the mind. As a result, new-generation wars are to be dominated by information and psychological warfare. The objective is to reduce the necessity for deploying hard military power to the minimum necessary, making the opponent’s military and civil population support the attacker to the detriment of their government and country.”
Next, from this exact such "threat" perspective, Russian strategic gains made of late:
a. As per our own civilian population:
“Compounding it all, Russia’s dictator has achieved all of this while creating sympathy in elements of the Right that mirrors the sympathy the Soviet Union achieved in elements of the Left. In other words, Putin is expanding Russian power and influence while mounting a cultural critique that resonates with some American audiences, casting himself as a defender of Christian civilization against Islam and the godless, decadent West.” ((See the "National Review” item entitled: “How Russia Wins” by David French.) And:
b. As per our own military forces:
“Russian efforts to weaken the West through a relentless campaign of information warfare may be starting to pay off, cracking a key bastion of the U.S. line of defense: the military. While most Americans still see Moscow as a key U.S. adversary, new polling suggests that view is changing, most notably among the households of military members.” (See the “Voice of America” item entitled: “Pentagon Concerned Russia Cultivating Sympathy Among U.S. Troops” by Jeff Seldin.)
More tanks, troops, missiles, etc., sent to the areas of conflict between (a) Russia and/or China and (b) and our allies?
a. Of no real use or consequence; this, if neither the American people — and/or the American military — will use these against our enemies. And:
b. Of significant (and significantly grave and adverse) consequence; this, if these such personnel and weaponry come to be used against ourselves and/or our allies; this, in perfect conformity and harmony with Russian "new generation warfare" above.
Q: How then to "regain credibility with our allies" — as per this such amazing (see my first "a" and "b" above) failing and deficiency?
A: Persuade our Commander-in-Chief to — publicly — acknowledge and address this such failing and deficiency and to attack same head-on. For example, and from a military perspective, by the CinC directing the U.S. military (and for sure the service academies) to begin classes which:
a. Point to the "grooming" threat that I outlined above and which
b. Inform our troops of their responsibility to (1) OPENLY confront and denounce same and to, thereby, (2) SOUNDLY defeat and eliminate this threat.
(This/these such LEADERSHIP initiatives being undertaken, this going a long way to our "regaining credibility with our allies?")
I agree with your sentiments and observations about "New generation warfare." It goes way back though.
Before COIN, the Pentagon studied Military Operations in Urban Terrain (MOUT), Seapower (Marines), civil operations (policing), and was getting into cyber, Missile Defense, and PsyOps in the 1990s. The U.S. soldier and officer had to be well-rounded and capable of responding to practically any and all threats presented from Nuclear Biological Chemical (NBC) to UFOs to zombies to whatever (I kid you not). Then came COIN and such training pursuits were somewhat lost as the pursuit for Land Warrior and Future Soldier progressed to some avail. The innovative and creative qualities of TRADOC training may have fallen to the wayside.
That is what differentiates the U.S. soldier from NATO soldiers—training for the unexpected. The G.I. is supposed to "know" all of this, and if not, or shared, credibility with Allies diminishes. America is supposed to be ready for anything, and credibility and trust with NATO falters if the American soldier isn't there to watch the back of NATO. America is/was supposed to respond with knowledge that the Allies lacked, and not just in tactics and strategy and force training assistance (Green Berets).
Because of COIN, the American soldier and officer spent years fighting an insurgency similar to Vietnam but with many differences—the desert and not the jungle, against Cells and not a centralized government, against pockets of people and not mass waves of infantry. Now, "Hard, soft, and medium" military power has to be instilled in the American soldier who just serves a few years before being released from volunteer duty. The battles against Ideology, lifestyles, Hearts and Minds, PsyOps, environmental concerns, civilian security, Ethics and morals, NBC, medical outbreaks, etc. again needs to be trained and addressed and NATO looks to the U.S.A. for such leadership and response. Could and can we provide these again when peer nations have studied and trained for some of them during peacetime?
Is there such a concern that the G.I. would have to learn and absorb too much to handle the world's problems? That was indeed a worry back in the 1990s, yes, as articles and analysts surmised that the G.I. may have to be trained too much (hence "World's Policeman." Now in 2020 as the shift returns to counter peer nations, American soldiers and Marines might find themselves underprepared and trained for the same scenarios that confronted themselves in the 1990s. The soldier, the Marine, once again needs to stand toe-to-toe for training funds with the high-tech expensive weaponry budgets, for it is the ground forces that change, shape, and mold the battlefield compared to the pilot overhead. Think outside-the-box vs. conventional. Think lasers and tasers instead of rifles and bullets. Think Internet instead of radio. Think flowers instead of rations. Once again, these are what defines a Superpower military.
Would America commit to the defense of its Allies? "Defender-Europe 2020" and other Joint Exercises suggest so, giving support to Allies, but as history has shown, not everything could be won with a sword and shield. Knights of old may know that the "Pen is mightier than the sword." That "Loyalty to the crown makes for blood oath."
As Space Force dawns, the U.S. needs to foresee a new generation of "Diplomats and SpaceMarines" (similar to Star Trek's Federation) that not only fight in space, but trained for a future of space exploration. The needs for "New generation warfare" Specialists becomes paramount in the 2100s and 2200s—Star Trek is born and will America have backs of NATO spacecraft?
Bottom line: Can American help its Allies in all broad regards and scenarios besides just in Arms and armor? That remains the main question because NATO doesn't just need a Knight with a sword and shield; NATO needs a head on those shoulders to deal with uncertain future issues and one has to wonder how tired or fresh that head is after years of COIN. Will the Knight ride forth for mutual aid, or retreat back to the castle tired and worn from constant battle? Or will the scribe, wizard, Champion, messenger, diplomat, or Royalty be sent instead? Or will the drawbridge raise and the gates slam shut? Politics plays a factor from the Throne Room…
So many reasons have been offered over the years since the Fall of Saigon why the US should not lift a finger let alone a rifle to assist a 'far off' and allegedly unimportant ally who stands in desperate need. And now a sophist's delight: by refusing to intervene in the defence of weaker allies, you will mysteriously persuade your stronger allies you are determined to defend them should the need arise.
Even allowing for some fleeting references to Japan and South Korea, for a liberal academic think piece this article appears remarkably 'Eurocentric' in its evaluation of which nations should receive a United States commitment of protection and those which can be casually and reassuringly abandoned to their fate as if they did not matter. While Krebs and Spindel use the word 'abandonment', it is mentioned only in relation to the concerns of Paris and Berlin and not to those of Saigon and Phenom Penh. Why not instead apply the word directly to the consequences of a credibility-destroying abandonment of South Viet Nam, Cambodia and Laos with a combined population, today, of some 73 million people who have never known the taste of freedom?
Even the most Machiavellian of diplomats must be aware that having assured an ally they will be protected and defended, it is bad form internationally to renege on one's commitments and bugger off when allies need you most! In this regard, the authors' reference to US ally South Korea's loss of confidence in US credibility is risibly ironic: without a 'hardline' US intervention back in 1950, there would be no South Korean loss of confidence and neither would there be a South Korea, just as today there is no South Viet Nam and no truly free and independent Cambodia and Laos. And so I guess what twists my guts is that Krebs and Spindel position readers to conclude it is intervention of itself that weakens US credibility and not the subsequent betrayal and abandonment of allies who deserved a little better from the world’s most powerful champion of democracy.
As to our topic here "How Not to Ensure Credibility With Allies" — and consistent with my initial thought above — this is easily understood when one comes to realize that U.S. has not (and indeed will not?) attempt to counter such things as Russian New Generation Warfare.
In this regard, consider the following re: our ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell:
"In an interview published late Sunday, Grenell told far-right news site Breitbart he 'absolutely wants to empower other conservatives throughout Europe' and encourage people to rise up against 'elites.' "
(See the "Politico" article "German Politicians Call on US to Withdraw Ambassador Richard Grenell" — under fire for saying he’ll seek to ’empower’ anti-establishment parties across Europe — by Benas Gerdziunas dated June 5, 2018. As we all know, Grenell has recently been appointed as the United States Acting Director of National Intelligence.)
Thus, from the perspective offered here:
a. "How Not to Ensure Credibility With Allies," this is accomplished by:
b. The U.S. (falling into the trap set by Russian New Generation Warfare noted in my comment above) indicating (for example by way of Ambassador Grenell's statement above) that it:
a. Now sees Russia, ideologically at least, as its new friend. And:
b. Now sees countries such as Germany, ideologically at least, as its new enemy.
From this such perspective, thus, "How Not to Ensure Credibility With One's Allies," this is (a) easily understood and is also (b) a very clear signal and message; this, of (c) realignment and redefinition of "interests" — which has now been clearly sent to America's enemies and allies alike today?