On November 11, Barry Posen joined Rajan Menon, Kori Schake, and Tom Wright to debate the future of American security commitments in the 21st Century. Alex Ward moderated the Charles Koch Institute event.
Posen argues US alliances must be reexamined because they no longer serve US strategic interests. His remarks (lightly edited) are provided below and can be referenced in his recent publications: “A new transatlantic division of labor could save billions every year!” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (November 2021) and “Europe can defend itself,” Survival: Global Politics and Strategy (December 2020 - January 2021).
“We don’t have interests because we have allies; we have allies because we have interests.” (Richard Nixon, I believe, made that statement.)
US alliances, I argue, are meant to serve US strategic interests—safety, sovereignty, territorial integrity, and power position.
Alliances should help us alleviate threats to those interests. They are agreements among sovereign states to pool their power—mainly their military power—to address shared threats.
These are arrangements that involve high risk for the US, and high costs to prepare for war, and even higher costs to fight them. They are very serious matters. They are not constitutions, nor steps to world government, nor affinity groups.
When threats change, alliances should be reexamined. Should they exist at all? How many resources should be committed to them? Should the division of responsibilities among the partners change?
US alliances are not fit for purpose because they have not adapted to both the change in threats, and the change in resources.
Russia is much weaker than it was; Europe is stronger than it was; China is stronger than it was.
On balance, the US today may be more challenged by Chinese power than it was by Soviet power during the Cold War.
Our alliances should change to reflect these facts.
Though the US has numerous arrangements—often referred to as “alliances”—with other states, the number of true alliances is very small. And even some of these at the moment—such as the Rio Treaty—do not put many demands on US resources or implicate the US in many risky situations.
North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)
During the Cold War, NATO’s main purpose was to keep the Soviets out of Western Europe. We thought that they might be able to leverage such control into much bigger direct threats to the US.
Though Europeans contributed quite a lot of military power to this endeavor, the US took on some very heavy lifting in terms of both direct conventional defense and nuclear escalation threats.
This seemed reasonable because the European states, battered by World War II, were incapable of their own defense in the 1950s and even the 1960s.
Today the European members of NATO, or the European Union, are vastly richer than Russia. They outspend Russia on defense. And they outnumber the Russians: The pre-Brexit population of the EU was 513 million, while Russia’s is about 145 million.
The pre-Brexit GDP of the EU (which excludes NATO members Canada, Norway and Turkey, and includes neutrals such as Finland and Sweden) was about $16 trillion, compared with Russia’s $1.7 trillion at market exchange rates. And Russia is the main military threat to Europe.
The Europeans on average are still only spending about 1.6% (2019) of GDP on defense. This level of effort is less than what the US is spending and less than the Europeans’ “commitment” to the alliance.
Even if you use purchasing power parity, which credits Russia with higher defense spending because market exchange rates are thought to misprice Russia’s inputs to the low side, the defense spending balance remains in Europe’s favor, roughly 300 billion to 160 billion in 2019.
Yet the US still carries a heavy nuclear and conventional burden. Even a more judicious division of labor, within the alliance as it is constituted, would save the US $80-90 billion a year.
The US could use these resources for domestic issues and/or in Asia, depending on your point of view.
The US-Japan Security Treaty
Given the new focus on Asia, the division of labor between the US and our Asian allies also needs adjustment. Although the intensity of the problem varies.
The US Japan Security Treaty is the most serious candidate for reform. For all intents and purposes, the subtext of the treaty is that the US defends Japan, and Japan agrees to help.
This is how one can understand the lack of urgency in Japan about improving the resilience of its military, and the lingering commitment to keep defense spending around 1% of GDP. Bear in mind that this country still has the third highest GDP in the world.
In terms of its rhetoric, Japan is very concerned about Chinese power. In terms of its resource allocation, it does not seem so concerned.
On Capitol Hill, a mere mention of the growth of Chinese military power elicited an additional 2.5 billion in spending over and above President Biden’s original ask.
If China is the great threat portrayed in our defense budget debates, then we should be demanding an immediate and more intense effort from our ally. And given the urgency here in the US, the diplomacy toward Japan and its subpar defense effort should show equal urgency.
Australia and the ROK
Until recently Australia took a relaxed attitude toward China but that is changing fast.
I’m not a fan of AUKUS but at least the vector is right. Australia is getting much more serious about its defense and is prepared to allocate more resources.
Australia is a very important strategic ally of the US.
Its distance from China makes it a tough nut to crack. Its size and position mean that a US-Australia alliance makes it very hard for any actor to assert true hegemony in maritime Asia—as Japan discovered in the Second World War.
The Republic of Korea (ROK) is doing pretty much everything one could ask to prepare itself to stop a North Korea (DPRK) invasion. However, the US alliance with ROK is mostly a cold war relic.
The ROK contributes indirectly to US security because geography makes its independence a contribution to Japanese security. But it is not clear what actual contribution to the conventional defense of Korea the US needs to make given the relative obsolescence of DPRK’s conventional forces.
The problem is nuclear deterrence. The question then is: Should this remain a US mission?
We can predict that if the US were to give up this mission, that the ROK would take it up.
Do we really want the experiment of a nuclearizing ROK? Instead, we could be working on strategies that preserve the nuclear deterrence connection without having to put large US conventional forces on the peninsula in the event of a DPRK challenge.
China both hates and loves our alliances, explains Posen during the panel discussion. The US is in an odd position of defending our allies against China and defending China against our allies. I believe China wants us to defend these countries until we are too weak to defend them anymore. If we stopped defending them, I’m convinced that we would see a nuclear Japan, a nuclear Australia, and a nuclear ROK. China doesn’t want that.
In conclusion, we need to ask ourselves whether the last 20 or 30 years—going back before the War on Terror—has been good for democracy. Has this militarized discussion of our mission in the world been good for liberalism? Has the massive growth of the surveillance state been good for the democracy in the US? To me, it has not.
Many years ago, Walter Lippmann wrote a book entitled US Foreign Policy, Shield of the Republic.
US foreign policy has instead become the purpose of the Republic. And to me, that is the death of the Republic.
Barry R Posen is Ford International Professor of Political Science at MIT and serves on the executive committee of Seminar XXI. He is director emeritus of the MIT Security Studies Program. He has written three books: Restraint—A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy; Inadvertent Escalation: Conventional War and Nuclear Risks; and The Sources of Military Doctrine. The latter won two awards: The American Political Science Association’s Woodrow Wilson Foundation Book Award, and Ohio State University’s Edward J. Furniss Jr. Book Award.