The Risks of U.S. Allies Going Rogue

What happens when America's allies are tempted to "go it alone"?

Recent events in the Persian Gulf suggest that U.S. partners are increasingly willing to act on their own. Saudi Arabia has initiated steps toward an anti–Islamic State coalition, launched military operations against Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen and sharply escalated tensions with Iran after the Saudi execution of Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr and Iranian protestors’ subsequent ransacking of the Saudi embassy in Tehran.

Domestic pressures undoubtedly play a role in encouraging risky foreign policies and brinkmanship. But this is only a partial explanation; deciding to escalate or go it alone also depends on a state’s allies and their expected behavior. Much hay has been made out of how Gulf state actions result from U.S. strategy (or the lack thereof) in the region. This assertiveness could be a response to U.S. pressure for burden sharing, or to perceived U.S. disengagement. The problem is that both go hand-in-hand and cannot be assessed separately.   

For example, these moves could be interpreted as the result of U.S. pressure on its partners to take on a more active role and to carry more of the costs. The United States has long been dissatisfied with the effort put forward by its regional partners, particularly in the fight against the Islamic State. On the other hand, these moves could be a response to perceived U.S. unreliability. The American withdrawal from Iraq and concurrent “pivot to Asia,” as well as the nuclear deal and feared rapprochement with Iran, has led observers to conclude that Washington’s commitment to the region has diminished.

Most analysis explains current events as the result of one or the other—U.S. pressure or (fears of) U.S. disengagement. In reality, these incentives are hard to separate. Moreover, allied self-help may relieve the American burden, but it can also undermine U.S. interests. This is because self-reliance both encourages and enables allies to pursue a more independent course. It encourages allies to do so by decreasing the benefits of falling in line, as protection is America’s quid pro quo; it enables them to do so by empowering them and reducing their dependence.

Disengagement and burden sharing, then, should not be seen as policy alternatives, but instead as inextricably linked. On the one hand, these developments may signal partners’ willingness and ability to deal with regional security issues, allowing Washington to turn its attention elsewhere. This offers a reprieve at a time marked by resource constraints, ongoing commitments in Afghanistan and the pivot to Asia. It may also serve to reduce tensions in an area where a large force presence is likely to do more harm than good, fueling conflict or terrorism directed at U.S. interests.

On the other hand, the more equitable the burden sharing, the less Washington gets to dictate the terms of the partnership. Indeed, Saudi Arabia’s increasingly assertive posture has already resulted in behavior that arguably runs counter to U.S. preferences. Saudi Arabia has prioritized quashing Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen over fighting the Islamic State and is openly ambivalent about the nuclear deal with Iran. Behavior that inflames tensions promises to deepen regional conflicts, not resolve them.

Thus, Washington faces trade-offs when it comes to choosing where to step back and let others step forward. Less dependence on Washington is in many ways exactly the point, but it comes at a cost. This partly explains—then and now—U.S. ambivalence on allied burden sharing.


Have We Seen this Before?

Some Middle East analysts have already observed that these events in the region are not without precedent. During the Cold War, the United States wanted to minimize Soviet influence in the Middle East, and leaned heavily on local partners to do so rather than relying on an onshore presence. Yet it repeatedly failed to intervene to save friendly regimes. However, an even better comparison to modern Middle Eastern dynamics may be found in East Asia during the 1970s.

The costs of the Vietnam War and domestic pressure for retrenchment led to the U.S. “Guam Doctrine,” which called for allies to shoulder more of the regional defense burden. In response, U.S. partners began to seriously doubt whether the United States would continue to protect the region. Hanoi’s impending takeover of South Vietnam, the withdrawal of tens of thousands of American troops from allied soil and the U.S. opening with China only exacerbated these fears.

The result was increased allied self-help. The non-Communist countries of Southeast Asia joined together to create the Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN) in large part to fill the perceived void created by U.S. disengagement. South Korea and Japan boosted their defense efforts and managed to (partially) set aside their historical antagonism to cooperate in the face of perceived American unreliability and fears about China, North Korea and the Soviet Union.