George Washington's farewell address is often (inaccurately) cited for its famous admonishment: "beware of foreign entanglements." That Mr. Washington did truly not utter those words is not important; a long history of American isolationism has grown out of Washington's (at the time) practical advice that his fledgling democracy avoid aggravating Great Powers.
The forty-fourth president will certainly not demonstrate such austere restraint abroad, and not only because of the irresistibility of the military option. Rather, the United States is increasingly constrained by a superfluity of alliances and security guarantees that range from the confusingly vague to the unnecessarily redundant. Taken in sum, America's security commitments represent a danger to national security and a threat to our international stature.
Far from evolving, America's alliances have snowballed in the last seventy-five years. The United States has not altered the fundamental security commitments it formed at the end of World War II. Its troops occupy the border between the two Koreas; America is Taiwan's protector; and large military contingencies remain in Germany and Japan. The most prominent alliance is NATO-an institution built for the necessities of the cold war. If the NATO countries, plus Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, constitute the core allies of the United States, we are committed to the defense of twenty-nine nations.
Further complicating matters, and in spite of its formal obligations, the United States has opted for building a "coalition of the willing" in Iraq and Afghanistan (though the latter theater also has a NATO force in the country). By doing so, the Americans create extra-alliance obligations to countries like Georgia and Ukraine. President George W. Bush's second inaugural address also suggests an informal, universal responsibility for defending nascent democracies.
The troubling ambiguity of America's security commitments was exposed during Russia's invasion of Georgia. While rhetoric did not exactly match action, the United States was quick to send aid to the Georgians. The destroyers-cum-aid ships were a clear signal to Russia that the United States remained committed to Georgia, as does a more recent economic-recovery package, but the extent of the American commitment remains uncertain.
The response to Georgia is symptomatic of the current security-credibility challenge: not unlike Wall Street, the United States is facing a security "credit crunch." The United States, the largest guarantor of security in the world, is akin to the largest bank in a small town. The "First Bank of American Security" has overtaken competitors and accumulated a significant amount of customers. Each customer of the American "bank" was offered "security credit" (bilateral agreements, NATO's Article V, etc.), which was backed by the unrivaled diplomatic and security power of the United States. However, as the amount of customers increased and spread across the globe, the real value of U.S. security credit has become less and less clear. More importantly, if multiple security-customers attempt to redeem their guarantees at the same time, the equivalent to a "bank run" would be triggered, with America unable to meet all of its commitments and its credibility seriously damaged.
With the United States fully engaged in Iraq and increasing deployments in Afghanistan, it has precious few resources to support its varied alliances. Nor is America in a position-as it was for roughly the last twenty-five years-to deter potential challenges to its security perimeter. From the Caspian to the Taiwan Strait, crises will erupt in the coming years that will give rise to the same question that followed Russia's invasion of Georgia: will the United States intervene?
The answer should be clear for most scenarios before an international crisis begins. That it is not demands immediate attention. While a wholesale restructuring of American security commitments is unnecessary and impractical, there are three specific policy steps the next administration can take to improve on the current situation:
- Clarify what is guaranteed to whom, and what is not.
A modicum of strategic ambiguity has value when negotiating with adversaries, but, as we have seen, vagueness to the point of obliqueness is dangerous. The next administration must be clearer in its public statements regarding allies and alliances. Blustery language of protecting friends near and far may be gratifying, but it is also dangerous.
- Differentiate between allies-in-action and allies-in-spirit.
Closely related to the first point, the next president must clearly define the role of formal alliance structures, especially NATO, and draw a sharp distinction between allies-in-action that will be defended militarily by the United States and allies-in-spirit whom America supports but cannot promise military intervention on their behalf. Allies-in-spirit, whether from a "coalition of the willing," League of Democracies and other such loose structural alliances, should be distinguished from formal, treaty-based arrangements that trigger military action.
- Commit to expanding the defensive capabilities of allies.
For allies-in-spirit facing a serious threat, the United States must shift from security guarantees to proactively enabling military and security forces. We have unrivaled military expertise and technological capabilities-the United States may not be able to protect all of its allies, but it can do a better job of helping them help themselves.
In late January of 1950, as the situation on the Korean peninsula was beginning to percolate, then-Secretary of State Dean Acheson suggested that South Korea did not fall under the U.S. security umbrella. By June 1950, America reversed course and Harry Truman sent troops to defend the south. Scholars debate whether or not his comments influenced the strategic thinking of North Korea and the Soviets, but the danger is obvious: vague or confused security obligations not only weaken the resolve of allies and damage U.S. credibility, but embolden adversaries. As the next administration takes shape, an immediate priority should be America's confused and inevitably entangling foreign policy.
Denis P. Cosgrove is a senior consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton and an associate scholar at the Center for European Policy Analysis. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official position or policies of Booz Allen Hamilton.