America’s Alliances: The Case for an Overhaul

Here in Switzerland, your correspondent likes to say that the sign of a Great Power is that its internal affairs take precedence over foreign policy considerations.

By this standard (and some others), America is certainly such a power. One might add that prioritizing local matters over world politics is paired with a neglect of world affairs about which general ignorance prevails.

Abroad, especially in Europe, America’s economic weight is generally recognized, but her foreign policy is not taken seriously. Where this applies, the U.S. is belittled as a hulk with much muscle and little brain.

On the whole, the prejudice of inborn superiority betrays a somewhat surprising condition. Facetiously put, it is that here in Europe, the public has not yet become fully aware of a development that commenced when the U.S.A. entered World War I.

That decisive intervention of a committed neutral determined who the victor would be. It also revolutionized global affairs. America’s growing might has shifted; a remote observer became an active participant.  Since then, the reluctant newcomer could not avoid involvement in the contests by which Europe’s and Asia’s states attempted to assert their real or fantasied interests.

All along, the U.S.A. has been a rather unusual Great Power. This is so even if the culturally related Continent is inclined to project its own ways and goals on its remote relation. That inclination reflects errors in the thinking within the Transatlantic Alliance. Indeed, America’s partners like to view their ally as a larger and uncouth offshoot of themselves that shares their craving for power. By this thinking, quantity is on the side of the Americans but quality, savoir vivre, and culture are a European domain. That way, it is possible to use the big guy as a bodyguard without impairing the proper relationship between the brain and the knuckles.

Scores of Europeans, especially the “liberal” Left, see America as striving for global domination and as inclined to use its hedonistic way of life as an imposed article of export. This depicts American “imperialism” as a beneficiary of the weakness of others. In the light of that, a counter-balancing response seems needed.

One would be an effort to make Europe the power factor that it should be on account of its population and economic advantages. After decades of dependence of the for-free American protection, that project gets blocked by the required effort. Also, with the EU-exit of Britain, only France or Germany could take the lead. Becoming subjected to the de facto rule of either is an unattractive prospect. Especially for the suspicious central Europeans who have only recently regained their independence from Moscow. Some of these already see the EU as another organization that legalizes tutelage over “lesser” peoples.

With the end of the Trump era, America’s internal turbulence will bring with it a new era of the alliance she heads.

The coming Biden-Harris era will remove much of what pains the partnership’s left-liberal-run entities. With Washington in the lead, tremor-free decline will be enjoyed and the dream will prevail that such a condition can be endlessly extended. Even a coalition that applies its skills to give gradual surrender a dignified wrapping will not avoid challenges. However, it will defang its consequences by excluding the option of resistance so as to avoid the risks and sacrifices that action implies.

This method of crisis management will silence some of the objections of decadent allies that wish to moderate what they see as the Wild West diplomacy of their activist protector. America’s shrinking role will even be greeted as “statesmanship.” 

Some of the approval will come from those who have not noticed that the era of the traditional great powers (France, Germany, Britain, Japan, Austria) has ended a century ago. This crowd ignores that, although American somnolence might increase their influence, there will be a price. Ultimately, in the era of superpowers, the security and survival of Europe and its parts depends on the resented natural protector’s might. That potency is more than size and armament.

Power is customarily measured by quantifiable factors, such as the size of the territory, population, resources. Additionally, recalling Stalin’s ill-conceived question regarding the Vatican’s might, the “number of divisions” might be added. Such material criteria are easy to add up.

However, power has a further component. It has to do with the mindset of those that dispose over it. This will be contingent on the system and the prevailing definition of the national interest. There are legal as well as psychological barriers that limit, enhance or exclude the pursuit of certain goals. A political culture that is inclined to attribute conflicts to its own mistakes, one that confuses compromise and capitulation, will score lower than a community that is persuaded of the rightness of its cause.

America is a hesitant country. It looks for faults within herself and enjoys self-flagellation. Her political culture explains why she has not made use of her nuclear monopoly after World War II. Never has a state had as much global power as possessed then by the U.S. And hardly has power been used with more inhibition than between 1945-1949. The explanation lies in the restrains that America’s system imposes on her modus operandi.

One American weakness is that she craves to be loved abroad. Machiavelli would have a revealing reaction to the advantages of being liked, respected, or feared. The wish to be liked by her haters leads to actions that appear to express the weakness of her convictions or naivete. Some more and measured “America First” - a natural goal of good governance - would bring more and better results. The more so since in the countries she has helped most is she liked least. This is not as illogical or unfair as it sounds. Help suggests dependency. A state cannot afford not to appear to be sovereign. In 1849 an Austrian premier had his state saved from a revolution of the Hungarians by a Russian intervention. Minister-President Prince Felix of Schwarzenberg commented: “The world will be surprised by our ingratitude.” De Gaulle applied the same logic after 1945.

Some myths that are especially attractive to Liberals need to be dispelled.

(1) In the countries the U.S. has helped most, she is not liked. It is so precisely in response to this aid. Being liked is a nice bonus but respect is more fundamental.                                              

(2) America has national interests and these should be clearly and predictably formulated and asserted.                                                                                            

(3) The aggression of hostile extremist regimes must be resolutely opposed. The argument that resistance undermines the “liberals” on the other side is toothless. Wanting to oppose aggression that is limited to the means the aggressor approves is nonsense. So is to believe that counter-measures are to be avoided as they might be “insulting.” To think that holding back will encourage moderation, is foolish. All this achieves is not restraint but only a damaging excuse to justify inaction.                                                                           

(4) Become cognizant that if a system vows to destroy you it should be believed. Admit that some foes cannot be converted into friends by cuddling them.                                                                                                                                

(5) What appears to be a demonstration of good will and restraint in a democracy is read as indecisive weakness by dictators. Therefore, appeasement does not appease but it incites contemptuous aggression.                                                                                  

(6) Do not let American support appear to be unconditional. An ally that wishes the kind of protective action he is unwilling to take in his own behalf is not an ally but a security risk. Applying this as well as the foregoing points does not result in international isolation, because:            

(7) There are numerous countries out there that are willing to pull their weight to help themselves. These can make a partnership into an instrument of protective mutual self-help.                                                                                                                      

(8) If this is true, then the system of alliances needs to be reviewed, renewed, and partially re-based. 

Such a revision of the system that is often a one-sided security risk to the U.S.A., is unlikely in the coming presidential term. Thereafter, something already suggested by the departing president’s praxis, will need to be undertaken. Even America cannot afford to cling to the current state of affairs.                   

Image credit: Franz Schrotzberg, via Wikipedia / public domain