May 14, 2021, 6:02 p.m.
The Biden government has touted its promise to “better dismantle” domestically, but the government’s Interim National Security Strategy (NSS) suggests that better dismantling abroad will be just as important. The latest NSS announces that the United States will recapture its role as the leader of institutions and allies. However, the NSS remains silent on the greatest challenge the Biden government will face abroad: alliance management.
In the NSS, a more holistic understanding of relationships with great powers has supplanted competition for great powers – the flawed and overly Manichean organizing principle of strategic thinking of the Trump administration. China and Russia still pose a threat to US interests, but the NSS acknowledges that US interests can overlap with those of their opponents, and cooperation can sometimes be beneficial. But while it’s more realistic with opponents, it takes a keener eye for allies.
The NSS repeatedly invokes a number of “allies and partners” to increase US power in the pursuit of US interests. Democratic allies and partners stand “by our side against common threats and adversaries”. Deeper ties with NATO and Asian allies will allow us to “present a common front … and pool our strengths to promote high standards, establish effective international rules and hold countries like China accountable”. With its European allies, the government plans to forge a “strong, common agenda” for the “determining issues of our time”. In each of these claims, the NSS is glossing over the interests that separate the United States from its allies and from those among the allies themselves.
The NSS takes cooperation of allies and partners for granted and rejects the real rifts between the United States and its allies and partners. The Biden administration’s laudable endeavor to rebuild the American alliance network depends on acknowledging that alliance is not always harmony. Allies and partners, of course, disagree on a number of issues. Patrick Porter and Joshua Shifrinson recently argued that the United States shouldn’t see allies as friends. Even when allies are friends, friends can disagree and fail. Alliance management is the art of recognizing these differences of opinion between the United States and its allies, as well as between the allies themselves, and of compromising or, if necessary, accepting sacrifices.
Two examples from NATO membership illustrate how disagreements between allies can lead to either reconciliation or rupture. During the cod wars between Iceland and the UK, Iceland repeatedly threatened to leave NATO – which contributed to a successful settlement in Iceland’s favor and maintained relations between the US, Iceland and the UK and Iceland. In contrast, France broke with NATO’s unified military command structure in 1966 because of differences of opinion with both US policy in Europe and with German ambitions to make the alliance political but not autonomous, and it worsened relations between all parties until the 1990s Years.
Dodging the reality of alliance management causes several problems. The NSS’s waiver of allies united by common interests does not recognize that the United States recognizes legitimate differences in interests that arise from domestic and international pressures faced by allies and partners. In the worst case, the Biden administration’s silence could be understood as an expectation that US allies and partners will lag behind Washington. At best, it is said, the United States does not find its diverse interests worthy of recognition.
As Kori Schake has argued, Germany offers a clear example of this dynamic. Germany is pushing Nord Stream 2 and struggling to break away from lignite in the face of domestic politics, but these positions conflict with the ambitions of the Biden government. When it comes to defending democracy, the NSS also ignores how domestic constituencies might disagree on the importance of democracy – or even vote for authoritarianists. Remember that even the most impotent allies during the Cold War successfully transferred their own agendas to the patrons of the superpowers.
For some states, the rhetoric that “America is back” and alliance rebuilding is potentially worrying because America has never been absent. Allies are not monolithic. For some allies, the Trump administration monitored improving or deepening relationships – in fact, “Allies and Partners” were a key pillar of the 2018 National Defense Strategy Summary. The Quad in particular, returned during President Donald Trump’s tenure. Likewise, Eastern European NATO members have received commitments from the United States under Trump. For allies like Poland, the Biden NSS’s promise to revive alliances could be interpreted as an intent to restore those states to tier two ally status and sacrifice their interests in order to revive relationships with traditional U.S. allies.
Finally, the NSS’s failure to discuss alliance management could hamper efforts to restore confidence in reliable US leadership. In Trump’s entourage, reassuring allies will be more expensive than ever as foreign governments worry about election results in 2024 or beyond. The United States will likely need to make deeper enclosures, send more costly signals, and put in tighter institutional restrictions to reassure partners that they are unlikely to keep their promises under any future administration. All of this requires managing the complex web of interests of the US and its allies.
The Biden administration is staffed with foreign policy professionals who have the experience necessary to form coalitions that advance US interests. Their actions so far show this expertise, but Biden’s foreign policy team must inform the domestic and foreign audiences at every turn that the administration sees alliance management as the core of its strategy. That loophole should also spark wider reckoning in Washington to devote more time and money to understanding the allies on their own terms.
From the public’s point of view, the administration should realistically prioritize partners and issues. Teams on the National Security Council of the White House, the seventh floor of the State Department, and the inner ring of the Pentagon should openly assess which constituencies, parties, or priorities can be sacrificed in order to achieve US key goals. Ideally, administration should have a rational way to approach prioritization, and closing the loophole in alliance administration in the NSS will fuel that conversation.
The forthcoming full NSS should focus on building a coalition rather than conjuring up a coalition. After all, alliance management is the greatest challenge this administration faces when it comes to dealing with the multiple threats to the United States. The interim NSS recognizes that Washington may at times disagree with adversaries – the entire NSS must apply the same logic to allies, admitting that the United States often disagrees with them, too.