U.S. Needs Alliances, Not Short-Term Allies

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James E. Goodby is a retired diplomat with more than four decades of service to the U.S. government; Kenneth Weisbrode is a member of the Atlantic Council of the United States in Washington.

Concerns over American unilateralism have receded over the last few weeks as the Bush administration and the president himself have gradually begun to say positive things about the need for allies to accomplish U.S. aims in the Middle East. Few proponents of war against Iraq or any other evil regime now assert in principle that the United States should act by itself or with just one or two coalition partners.

Polls show that a wide majority of Americans also reject “going it alone.” The shift toward a greater concern for allies is a positive one; it has warmed the heart of the multilateralist backers of Secretary of State Colin L. Powell in the administration and in the media.

However, the shift has overlooked a critical distinction. Allies are not the same things as alliances. The latter subject has barely been mentioned in the administration’s public pronouncements.


Aside from a bow to the importance of institutions such as NATO, there is no hint in the recently released National Security Strategy of the United States that alliances must play a central role in establishing a democratic peace or that the U.S. is part of those alliance systems. It speaks of allies and alliances in a single, identical breath.

Today’s situational, short-term thinking presumes an automatic link between friendly allies and stable regional environments. It is much more akin to the mind of Cardinal Richelieu or Otto von Bismarck than to the ways of the American and European democratic statesmen who created NATO and the European Community.

International diplomacy has evolved considerably during the last half-century, mainly through the redefinition of an alliance as something more than a temporary meeting of the minds and a pledge to work together. The United States’ and the world’s most successful 20th century military alliances--NATO and the U.S.-Japan and U.S.-Korea alliances--were institutional as well as political. They were built on a sustained and deepening system of cooperation, across many levels and at high frequency, over many years. The result has been a far more stable international environment made possible by the inherent trust that has emerged from working together so often for so long.

For some reason both the second Clinton and now the Bush administrations have come to discard this very American reconception of alliance organizations in favor of the traditional, Old World approach: temporary allies of convenience rather than institutionalized cooperation, or what many have come to call the promotion of nascent “security communities.”

At the local level we might consider the distinction as one between well-armed and adaptable police states and inherently safe neighborhoods.

The key task for the Bush administration is to convince current and potential allies that such organizations are made up of more than thin spokes emanating from an American hub with the sole aim of nipping hostile threats in the bud.


The absence of strong alliance structures means that allies will require ever greater short-term incentives to support such aims and will be ever more likely to defect or to seek alternatives to complying with U.S. demands.

To their vast credit, the statesmen of the 20th century realized that the condition of “free security” for the United States had gone the way of the clipper ship. Like it or not, the world had grown interdependent; rather than fight that condition, these statesmen sought to make it work in favor of U.S. (and, it may be argued, world) interests. President Bush’s oft-mentioned “balance of power that favors freedom” seems to support that mission in principle. Yet if the United States discards the form of interdependent, institutional alliances for something more ad hoc and temporary, the glue of international stability may soon dissolve. Increasingly, Bush’s vision will be viewed as a balance of power that favors U.S. interests against all others. And in this condition no American will be free of foreign dangers, or fear.

Let us not forget all that we have learned since 1945 about the value of alliances as well as allies. It is not too late to put things back on the right track.