Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

How to Tell if You're in a Good Alliance

| Oct. 28, 2019

Not all allies are made equal. But who's worth the commitment, and who's not?

Both liberal and conservative critics of Donald Trump's foreign policy believe that the U.S. president has done enormous damage to America's array of global alliances. It's easy to understand why: Trump has repeatedly questioned the value of NATO; picked senseless fights with democratic leaders in Europe, Asia, and North America; and, more recently and controversially, betrayed the Kurds. The Economist believes the damage "will take years to mend" and warns darkly that "these concerns represent the unravelling of the order that America worked hard to build and sustain in the decades since the second world war."

Crucial to this indictment is a rarely examined assumption: the belief that every one of the United States' current commitments is a vital national asset and that all its present allies and partners are equally deserving of steadfast U.S. support. But surely this is not the case, for not all allies are created equal, and the value of any commitment is likely to wax or wane over time.

To be sure, having the right allies can be extremely valuable in some circumstances. During the Cold War, for example, the U.S. alliance network exceeded (and in economic terms, dwarfed) the Soviet bloc in population, gross national product, total military manpower, and annual defense spending. The combined strength of the U.S. alliance network is not the only reason the United States triumphed over its Soviet adversary, but it certainly helped. Looking ahead, it is hard to see how the United States could balance a rising China and limit Beijing's capacity to project power around the world without close and effective partnerships with a number of countries, especially in Asia....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“How to Tell if You're in a Good Alliance.” Foreign Policy, October 28, 2019.

The Author

Stephen Walt