The U.S. government collects military alliances like some people collect Facebook friends: the more the better. Yet as Washington’s allies increasingly find themselves embroiled in potentially violent territorial disputes around the world, America may find collecting allies to be more expensive than collecting art.
Alliances should be a means rather than an end. Countries should join together to attain important common objectives. The most obvious purpose of a military coupling is security.
More than 30 years ago, Argentina and Britain battled over control of the lightly populated Falkland Islands (called Malvinas by Buenos Aires). Washington tilted toward Britain—it was during the Cold War, President Ronald Reagan had bonded with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and Argentina was ruled by a brutal military junta.
Today those factors have passed into history, as Argentina vigorously presses its claim to the islands. In fact, the territory’s convoluted history gives Buenos Aires a good case for sovereignty, yet Falklands residents just voted 1513 to 3 to stick with Britain. London is pressing the Obama administration for diplomatic if not military backing. So far Washington has pled neutrality, causing British writer Robert Taylor to complain about President Barack Obama’s failure to show “loyalty to his ally” which had “fought side by side with the U.S. for the last decade in Iraq and Afghanistan.” British officials made much the same argument three years ago when the issue first reemerged.
However, there is no justification for Washington to offer unqualified support for Britain’s contested territorial claims. Washington and London no longer are united in a dangerous global battle. The status of the Falklands doesn’t even matter geopolitically to Britain. Only recently have the islands, located about 8,000 miles from the British Isles, turned into even a potential economic benefit, with possible undersea resources nearby. At the same time, the United States has much at stake in its relationship with Latin America. Washington’s principal interest is that the resolution of the controversy be peaceful, not that the resolution leave the islands in British hands.
At least the United States is not likely to find itself at war. Buenos Aires isn’t likely to reignite the conflict and even if it did London isn’t likely to expect Washington to dispatch a carrier group or two to reduce Argentina’s major cities to rubble.
Since America’s alliances stopped protecting U.S. security they have illustrated the truth of Public Choice economics, as politicians seek to find new purposes for old institutions. Ironically, the result has been to make America less secure. For instance, NATO expansion added politically fragile and militarily weak states to Washington’s already long list of defense dependents.
The problem is similar with America’s Asian alliances. South Korea may be a valued friend, but it is no longer a Cold War battleground. Nor does it need defending, since it vastly surpasses the North in economic, technological, and population resources. Ties to the Philippines run back to colonial rule, but Manila’s fate is of little strategic significance to the United States. Long possessing the world’s second-largest economy, Japan has been able for years to defend itself against any plausible military threat.
While the traditional threats which animated these alliances around the globe—potential invasions by the Soviet Union, Maoist China, and North Korea—have waned, new dangers have emerged. It turns out that America’s friends are involved in more than a few disputes over largely valueless territories. The defense of which the U.S. is naturally expected to support.
Consider the Philippines, a lightly armed, semifailed state which possesses grandiose national ambitions and a defense treaty with America. Last year Manila found itself playing a game of chicken with the People’s Republic of China over another worthless group of rocks, called Scarborough Reef by the Filipinos and Huangyan Island by the Chinese. Unfortunately, the Philippines relies on a navy which barely deserves to be called second-rate: the flagship is a decades-old American cast-off. So the Filipino government turned to the United States. It wants more weapons, additional visits by American military forces and a revived commitment to that nation’s defense.
Going to war to prevent a Chinese conquest of the Philippines would be dubious enough. Going to war to back Manila’s claim to the reef would be idiotic. Especially since America’s potential involvement reduces Manila’s incentive to arm itself while increasing the latter’s incentive to behave provocatively.
Similar is the problem of the Senkaku (Japan)/Diaoyu (China) Islands. While many of Beijing’s territorial claims (to the Paracel and Spratly Islands, for instance) seem excessive, it has a reasonable, and perhaps even more persuasive, claim to the Senkakus. Since last year Japan and the PRC have engaged in an escalating struggle over the territory, controlled by Tokyo. At the same time, Japan has pressed for an explicit U.S. guarantee for the islands and a revision of the bilateral defense guidelines to that effect.
Decades ago there was a case for protecting war-ravaged Japan, which had been forcibly disarmed and occupied, from the Soviet Union. (Of course, another objective was to preclude a threatening Japanese military revival.) But that justification for a U.S. security guarantee disappeared decades ago. Whatever the argument is for backstopping Japanese independence today, it does not apply to ensuring sovereignty over contested territory. If Washington found itself at war with nuclear-armed China over the Senkakus, the U.S.-Japan alliance would turn out to be very expensive indeed.
The increase in North Korean belligerence raises similar concerns. South Korea has its own set of contested territorial claims—with Japan! Both claim the Liancourt Rocks, also known as Dokdo (Seoul)/Takeshima (Tokyo) Islands. Although war is unlikely to erupt, both countries have engaged in more than their fair share of provocative behavior. Some unkind wags have wondered if in the case of conflict the U.S. Army, stationed in South Korea, would have to face off against the U.S. Marines Corps, based on Okinawa.
North Korea is the bigger problem, but it also is a source of territorial conflict. At the conclusion of the Korean War, the United Nations drew the line of control in the Yellow Sea to the North’s disadvantage. Pyongyang has never accepted the result, which has led to a number of violent incidents, including the sinking of a South Korean warship and bombardment of a South Korean island three years ago. Recently North Korea has been spewing threats at an increasing rate, raising fears of another incident to come.
Although U.S. interest in the peninsula waned with the end of the Cold War and Seoul is well able to defend itself many times over, Washington remains hostage to the decisions of yet another unnecessary ally. What could begin as a confrontation over an insignificant bit of territory in contested waters could escalate, leading to more general conflict in which America would be obligated to intervene. In return the United States receives no significant benefit, since Seoul does not defend America. (The South’s dispatch of troops to Vietnam was an attempt to preclude further U.S. drawdowns in the peninsula, while ROK involvement in Afghanistan was a tiny payback for 60 years of defense subsidies.)
Disentangling the Alliances
Alliances can serve a valid purpose, but as British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston famously observed, “nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests.” It makes no sense for a great power like the U.S. to forever tie itself to smaller states, promising to lend out its military for their use.