Why America Should Keep Its Friends Closer Through the Good and Bad
History tells us that America’s relationships with allies have always been a mixed bag, but also that Washington and its allies have weathered differences before.
An unconventional new American president threatens to remove American troops from South Korea just as strategic mistrust undermines the nation’s alliance with Japan. In Europe, German leaders speak more about looking east for economic opportunities, not west, and members of the French government openly discuss abandoning tenets of the western liberal order. Are we discussing 2021? Try again—this is 1981, the year the Cold War entered its final and most climactic phase, and from which the United States eventually emerged victorious.
Today, Washington confronts declining influence while weathering criticism that its allies are unwilling to fall in line with a concerted approach to confronting China. However, those who predict an unraveling of the U.S. alliance system might benefit from revisiting the history of the Cold War. An examination of the struggle to maintain a united front in the face of the Soviet Union reveals many parallels relevant to discussions of renewed great power competition.
The Challenges to Atlanticism
Much attention has focused on the fissures that have developed between the United States and Europe during the Trump presidency. Opinion polling shows that a majority of Europeans believe China will be more powerful than America within a decade, and that Europe should remain neutral in any U.S.-China confrontations. The European Union’s recent investment deal with China, inked weeks before President Biden took office, was followed by a comment by German Chancellor Angela Merkel that she intends to avoid building a transatlantic alliance against China. French President Emmanuel Macron echoed this view just days later when he argued that a united front against China would be “unproductive.” Accordingly, columnists in both the United States and Europe have been quick to point out the EU’s position on China as signaling a desire for greater strategic autonomy.
“European strategic autonomy” belies the fact that key North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) partners’ pursuit of autonomy has often been the rule, not the exception, within the transatlantic relationship. President Macron’s prevarication on China today hardly compares, for instance, to the 1966 decision by Charles De Gaulle to unilaterally pull France out of NATO’s command structure and force its headquarters out of France. The decision, borne of a nationalist desire for non-alignment, was coupled with the electoral successes of the Soviet-aligned French Communist Party in three consecutive elections, sparking legitimate fears in Washington that France could slip into neutrality—or even into the Soviet sphere.
The U.S. relationship with Germany has survived similar hurdles. A 1963 speech by Social Democratic Party member Egon Bahr proposed “change through rapprochement” with the Eastern Bloc, signaling the beginning of a decades-long effort that prioritized pan-European development over the Atlanticist vision of the United States. This coincided with the growth of anti-American politics in the Federal Republic during the following two decades, as well as German historian Peter Bender’s declaration of “the end of the ideological era” of foreign relations, published in a best seller that urged Europeans to “culturally” defend the continent against the United States.
Balancing Priorities in Asia
The United States’ network of alliances and partnerships in Asia was no less turbulent during the Cold War than in Europe. President Trump’s open desire to remove American military forces from South Korea was damaging to U.S.-Korean relations, but this bilateral flare-up was far from unprecedented. Concerns over costs and human rights led President Carter to call for the pulling out of all troops from South Korea, declaring Seoul’s repression of protests “repugnant” and suggesting that the United States reconsider its commitment there.
Three years later, South Korean protesters would burn down the American Cultural Centers in Busan and Gwangju as a response to American support for the Park government. Commentators in this era declared the U.S.-Republic of Korea (ROK) relationship deeply damaged, with mistrust towards America dominating the streets and power centers of South Korea. South Korea even committed to its own form of Ostpolitik, named “Nordpolitik,” during its foreign relations in the post-Cold War period. This strategy committed South Korea to deepening its economic, political, and even defense ties with North Korea’s traditional patrons, China and Russia, even if it degraded U.S.-ROK ties in the process.
Relations were hardly better on the other side of the Tsushima Strait. The 1980s were a period of intense economic competition between the United States and Japan. Whether from the socialist left or ultra-nationalist right, the Japanese public exhibited a deep apathy towards the U.S. alliance, viewing it respectively as an oppressive vehicle of militarist-capitalism, or a humiliating symbol of Japan’s defeat and loss of sovereignty. Both sides favored the growing economic ties with the People’s Republic of China, alternatively seeing opportunities for socialist solidarity, profitable overseas investments, or the use of China’s vast labor pools for high-tech manufacturing. Kenbei (i.e. America-bashing) sentiments were de rigueur for Japanese politicians in the 1980s and 1990s, and a succession of Prime Ministers won their seats by promising to varyingly hedge relations—particularly economic—to diversify Japan’s foreign relations away from “American hegemony.”
Far from ending at the conclusion of the Cold War, an emerging foreign relations consensus seems to assert that history began in 1991, placing the United States at the tail end of an era of unquestioned hegemony in Europe and Asia. Yet this view ignores the fact that repeated attempts by key partners to upend national security strategies or “play both sides” was a norm, not an exception to American Cold War alliances.
The perception that allies are hedging their bets can lead to a desire to act unilaterally, as logic dictates a need to lock in existing gains with an adversary while placing one’s partners firmly on the other side of the ledger. Yet examples of unilateral U.S. foreign policy rarely hold up when compared to policies enacted in coordination with allies—just compare the 1993 Gulf War to the 2003 Invasion of Iraq. Policymakers should think of allies as partners in helping to shape U.S. global strategy, rather than as obstacles to it.
Pundits who predict an end to U.S. influence ignore the pillars upholding the American presence in Europe and Asia. With an average military expenditure under two percent of GDP, European states remain dependent on Washington to meet their security needs, just as in the 1960s. Alternatively, the explosive growth of the Chinese military, coupled with Beijing’s territorial claims, underline the importance of the U.S. presence to Asian leaders who are often facing funding challenges of their own.
Alliances are longstanding when states realize their fundamental interests are more aligned than separate. Rather than panicking over disagreements with allies, Americans should take heart in the nation’s many close relationships while considering opportunities for continued improvement.
Ryan Ashley is an intelligence officer in the United States Air Force with operational experience across the Asia-Pacific and Middle East. He is currently an Adjunct Lecturer with the Air Force Special Operations School teaching courses on Southeast Asian and Japanese politics, culture, and security. He is also a PhD Student at the University of Texas’ LBJ School of Public Affairs, focusing on Southeast Asia’s security relations with Japan. His opinions are his own and do not reflect the official views of the United States government or the Department of Defense.
Alex Barker is an MA Candidate in Asian Studies at Georgetown University, where his work focuses on security and technology issues related to U.S.-China relations. He previously worked in the tech sector in Taiwan. His opinions are his own and not reflective of his employer’s.