The U.S.-led alliance system has been under a lot of criticism from Trump recently. He argues that we are subsidizing our allies and are thus being “ripped off.” This is simply wrong. The American alliance system is immensely important to U.S. interests and security, and the fact that it has been maintained for over 70 years under both Democratic and Republican stewardship demonstrates that it is a bipartisan system with immense utility. In this post, I hope to explain that contrary to what Trump, a populist isolationist, wants you to believe, our allies and the alliance system in which they reside serve the U.S. well.
The primary reason states form alliances is security. From WWII to the Gulf War, American allies have proved their value in helping to secure American interests and safety. The U.S. military is the preeminent military force on the planet, but it isn’t omnipotent. During the Gulf War, for example, it was discovered that the Navy lacked sufficient minesweepers to clear the Persian Gulf. Thus, American allies like Italy and Belgium stepped up to assist. American allies contributed more than just troops and equipment to the Gulf War, though; Germany and Japan effectively paid for the entire war, with some estimates arguing that the U.S. might have actually garnered a profit because German and Japanese subsidies exceeded U.S. military expenses. The Gulf War, however, is but one example of how U.S. allies have contributed to American security and warfighting capability. During the Cold War, American allies contributed vast numbers of troops, equipment, and money to deter and contain the Soviet Union. This served their interests, but it also helped the U.S. secure its foreign policy goals, eventually leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union. I could write for days about the many examples of allied assistance, but suffice it to say, the U.S. receives a lot in return from its allied partners.
American allies are also helpful beyond just their contributions to American military power. For, even when they don’t contribute directly, they grant U.S. troops immense striking range by allowing them to forward deploy. While most militaries are constrained to their geographic region, the U.S. is able to surge forces anywhere in the globe because of its access to allied bases and ports. Thus, whenever a threat emerges, American policymakers can rapidly respond. From Kadena to Ramstein, American forces have a significant presence around the globe. So, when Kim Jong-Un tests a nuke or Putin expands his presence in Ukraine, there are always American forces nearby and ready to respond. This is an advantage that might seem meaningless, but it is an advantage which is hard to overstate. Being able to forward deploy and maintain a global presence allows the U.S. to fight in its enemies’ backyard, thus ensuring that conflict never reaches the American homeland.
Finally, alliances also contribute to regional peace. They tamp down on security competitions, and they also grant the U.S. immense leverage over allies. By guaranteeing the security of other countries, the U.S. minimizes the risk of those countries militarizing. After all, why spends vasts sums of money on service already being provided by the U.S.? This ensures that the U.S. maintains its military preeminence while also ameliorating regional fears of insecurity that might draw in the U.S. Look at WWII, for example. The U.S. fought Japan not because it had a direct dispute with them but because Japan’s insecurity-induced aggressive expansion threatened American interests indirectly. Since the U.S. established its alliance system in Asia – guaranteeing Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan militarily – Asia has seen only peace. Moreover, because the U.S. is responsible for many countries’ defenses, the U.S. also possesses immense leverage. The United States is able to utilize this leverage to restrain its regional allies, influence their foreign policy decisions, and provide them with a sense of security, thus minimizing and containing the risk of dangerous arms races. It’s a bit rich for Trump to say that the alliance system is a “rip-off” when it operates under the same logic as his exploitation of loopholes. The U.S. uses its alliance network for leverage and power in much the same way Trump uses campaign donations and wedding invitations to increase his sway over politicians and rivals.
The alliance system is expensive, but the costs pale in comparison to the returns America received. In other words, America’s alliance network is like an insurance policy. Paying for it is annoying, but when you need it, you’re glad you have it. From increased security to immense leverage, the alliance systems pays for itself many times over. Money is not all that matters, and money spent on subsidizing and defending America’s allies is money well spent.