Does America Need Allies?

John J. Mearsheimer and Richard Burt discuss U.S. options.

“Free riders aggravate me,” President Obama recently told the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, setting off a diplomatic brouhaha as U.S. allies and partners took umbrage—some publicly—at the notion they were dumping the cost of their own security onto Americans. The comments have been read as a rare moment of candor by the president in his final year, voicing long-held but little-discussed frustration over other nations’ lagging or limited commitments to security. The president, however, has not been alone in talking about this issue. One man who might follow Obama in the White House, Republican front-runner Donald Trump, has consistently drawn attention to America’s outsized role within NATO and in other alliances.

“Aside from Barack Obama, Donald Trump and a handful of other people, nobody really seems to care very much,” John J. Mearsheimer, distinguished professor at the University of Chicago, explained at a discussion convened at the Center for the National Interest in Washington, DC, on Thursday. “It’s just taken for granted that free riding happens,” he said. Mearsheimer was joined by Richard Burt, former U.S. ambassador to Germany and assistant secretary of state for European and Canadian affairs, as well as by moderator and National Interest editor Jacob Heilbrunn, in a lively discussion about the future of America and its allies.

Both Mearsheimer and Burt agreed that free riding is much too prevalent and much too little discussed. For Mearsheimer, free riders are a natural consequence of the larger strategy of liberal hegemony that the United States has pursued since the end of the Cold War. America’s belief that it should be the world’s policeman, that it is uniquely deputized to promote democracy and human rights worldwide, inevitably led other nations to lean on U.S. largesse while cutting their own security spending.

For Burt, however, free riders are simply the most visible of several dilemmas the United States has with its allies. For example, America has made commitments of extended nuclear deterrence to some countries that are less credible when geography or conventional capabilities render allies militarily indefensible, he said. Washington has also faced the dilemma of whether to go ahead with military projects supported by allied governments, projects that are seen as boosting security, but are nonetheless opposed by the local populations, such as the U.S. stationing of cruise missiles in Europe in the 1980s. In yet another dilemma, U.S. allies and partners have at times unilaterally pursued their own interventions—“reckless driving,” Burt called it—dragging America into crises of varying degrees (see Saudi Arabia’s current campaign in Yemen, for example). Finally, some allies have drifted, culturally and politically, from where they were when the alliances were first struck—Erdoğan’s Turkey in recent years being a prime example. Each of these legitimate issues should be addressed one by one, Burt argued, without scrapping the whole of American alliance-building efforts.

Both agreed that the free-riding contagion has spread since the end of the Cold War, but diagnosing the problem is only the first step. The panelists quickly turned to what the United States should do in response to its drifting and dissatisfactory alliances and partnerships.


What’s the Alternative?

“I believe the United States should adopt a strategy of offshore balancing,” Mearsheimer explained. The United States, he said, has three—and only three—areas of the world that really matter strategically: Europe, East Asia and the Persian Gulf. The singular U.S. ambition should be to prevent any one country from becoming a hegemon in any one of these regions, he said. That’s all. If a country is poised to become a hegemon, it’s in America’s national interest to first have other nations balance against the rising power. If, and only if, this fails, the United States should get involved. “It’s always better to come in later, rather than earlier,” Mearsheimer explained, citing the American experience in the First and Second World Wars as evidence. “You don’t want to go to war unless you absolutely have to.” It’s better, he said, to have countries in each region bear the heaviest costs in lives and treasure of securing their own region.

Here, of course, NATO becomes the sticky issue. Dimitri K. Simes, president of the Center for the National Interest, noted how NATO has inadvertently become something of an interest in itself, and that it was precisely the unrealistic expectations of alliances before the First World War that emboldened countries to ratchet up tensions ahead of 1914. The key question, Simes said, has become how the United States can change its relationship with NATO, a cornerstone of European stability that directly contributes to U.S. security, without creating an artificial crisis on the continent—without “breaking the china.”

The United States, Burt said, must contend with the fact that NATO, the stalwart military alliance of the Cold War, has become something altogether different since the implosion of the Soviet Union. The ambassador explained:

“Rather than dismantle what people will argue is the most successful alliance in history, people had to find new roles and missions for NATO. One of those has become a kind of political mission of democracy promotion. NATO expansion was justified not because of a looming Russian threat. It was seen as part and parcel of this expanding liberal order.”