Don't Worry About Worried Allies

The next time an ally whines about how Washington is not providing it a sufficient level of comfort, we should, following Prestowitz's advice, turn the conversation around by asking what the ally is doing for the benefit of Washington.

It especially does not help the United States to ease an ally's worries when those worries involve matters on which the United States and the ally do not share an interest and on which their interests may even conflict. This is the case with most of Saudi Arabia's current dyspepsia. Much of the unease of the theocratic Saudi regime, focused on Syria in particular, has to do with the Saudis having a sectarian stake in conflicts in which Sunnis are battling Alawites or Shia; the United States has no such stake whatsoever and can only be ill-served by appearing to take sides in sectarian conflicts. Saudi unease about negotiations with Iran has to do with a post-agreement Iran becoming a stronger competitor to other oil exporters and giving the United States greater diplomatic and security options in the Persian Gulf region than it does now; again, U.S. interests on these subjects are quite different from those of the Saudis.

A dyspeptic ally can respond in ways that hurt the United States only if the ally: (1) withholds some quid pro quo in which the ally has no direct interest but that has benefited the United States; (2) becomes so disturbed that the ally does something really disruptive and destructive; or (3) junks the alliance and turns for support to an adversary of the United States. Looking around at the U.S. allies that have been the most conspicuous worry warts, it is hard to imagine any of these things happening. The end of the Cold War ended #3 as an option for most countries that otherwise might have contemplated it. Possible actions under #2 would be contrary to the ally's own interests, whether or not it has an alliance with the United States. And it is hard to see what the United States is getting from most of these relationships that would come under #1. With some Middle Eastern “allies” of the United States, a conspicuously close relationship is more likely a net detriment to U.S. interests than a net positive.

The next time an ally whines about how the United States is not providing it a sufficient level of comfort, we should, following Prestowitz's advice, turn the conversation around by asking what the ally is doing for the benefit of the United States.

Image: NATO Flickr.

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