Back in 1996, Stephen Sestanovich called attention to the "diplomatic hyperbole embodied in the term 'strategic partnership.'" (1) This vague term was meant to convey the sense or feeling of alliance without, however, formally committing the parties to undertake any specific courses of action. After all, a "strategic partnership" does not need to be ratified by the Senate, and it contains no provisions that can be enforced by either party.
The term "special relationship" is also being bandied about with greater frequency these days. In addition to Britain, countries from Panama and Israel to Saudi Arabia and South Korea are all described as having a "special relationship" with Washington.
Not surprisingly, these formulations and other vague diplomatic terms have proliferated in the post-Cold War era. If one peruses diplomatic communiques, one discovers that the United States and Russia have a strategic partnership; Russia and China have a strategic partnership; and China and the United States have a strategic partnership. To suggest that a "Triple Alliance" exists between China, Russia and the United States, however, would be ludicrous.
These formulations may make for good speechwriting copy, but they increasingly muddle policy, especially when they create assumptions or expectations that are then unfulfilled. They are problematic when they are used as substitutes for actual treaty commitments.
Diplomatic rhetoric can also cloud the assessment of existing treaty relationships, creating the impression that countries are under greater obligation to Washington than is actually true.
Take the current status of NATO. NATO is said to perform a variety of different functions: from consolidating a community of democracies in the Euro-Atlantic area to integrating American and European military power for joint operations around the world in defense of peace and freedom.
But the actual commitments of NATO members--as opposed to the assumed ones--are much more circumspect. NATO members are encouraged to strengthen their free institutions and increase economic cooperation and to build up their capabilities to resist armed attack. Yet the only binding obligation is the article 5 commitment to treat an attack on one as an attack on all--and even that is circumscribed by geographic parameters.
One cannot argue, for example, that Germany or France have been "negligent" NATO allies because they have abided by the terms of the treaty. It is only because politicians have grown accustomed to inflating the provisions of the North Atlantic Treaty that we have the perception of betrayal.
As the dust settles from the Iraq war, it is time for the United States and its vast array of "strategic partners" around the world to begin to define what those arrangements mean--in terms of actual, binding commitments.
One of these areas is base access rights. In a new era when strikes may be launched against a multitude of targets with little warning, to what extent should American access and utilization of facilities be dependent on long, drawn-out negotiations? To what extent, also, does such approval depend on whether U.S. military action is sanctioned by some international body such as the UN or NATO? If Bulgaria or Romania, for example, are interested in giving the United States basing rights, will they be along the lines of the British sovereign bases in Cyprus--which are considered British territory and where Britain has unimpeded access and use--or will Bulgaria or Romania offer such bases along the same conditions as the U.S. currently operates under at Incirlik--where the deployment and operation of "foreign military forces" requires a parliamentary vote?
Another item that should be addressed in the future are troop deployments and financial support. One of the problems with ad hoc coalitions of the willing has been that there is no guarantee that other states will supply adequate amounts of troops, equipment or money to ensure equitable burden-sharing. Specific guarantees, not unlike some of the 18th-century treaties among European powers specifying the size of forces that were to be fielded by allies, or even the direct transfer of a set number of troops from one power to be used by another in military operations, might provide useful guidelines. At any rate, getting members of the various "coalitions of the willing" to spell out in detail what contributions they are willing to make in support of future U.S. actions would go a long way in helping to plan for such eventualities.
Finally, we need to revisit the notion of limited, specific treaties of alliance. The NATO model--a broad-based alliance open to multiple member-states (albeit an alliance with limited official aims, no matter the rhetoric)--may not be the best way to proceed in the 21st century. Thus, the attempt to forge a vague "global anti-terrorist coalition" is likely to continue to produce rhetoric about "strategic partnerships" rather than provide firm guarantees and offers of assistance. Instead, carefully-crafted bi-lateral treaties that spell out areas of operation and the conditions under which the specific treaty functions would better serve our interests.
This could also help us to better compartmentalize our relationships with other key powers and avoid the "Christmas tree" approach of hanging all sorts of conditions onto our general bi-lateral relationships. Russia and the United States may disagree on policy toward Iran, for example, but this should not preclude continued intelligence-sharing on Al-Qaeda--and perhaps even institutionalizing it further.
Assumptions about "common values" and "shared interests" were tested and tried in the last few months--and found wanting. "Understandings" and "relationships" did not produce results. It is time to return to concrete agreements as the basis for U.S. "strategic partnerships" and "special relationships" with other powers.
(1) In his article, "Geotherapy: Russia's Neuroses, and Ours," to be included in the forthcoming edited volume Russia in the National Interest, to be published by Transaction Publishers (www.transactionpub.com).
Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of In the National Interest.