Foreign Policy

5 reasons ‘America First’ won’t work without our allies

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The Trump administration’s policy theme is “America First,” which should include a broad-gauged, long-term view of our country’s domestic and international interests. America’s allies and alliances are critical to our security and give us unmatched freedom of action. America First should not mean shunning these alliances; it should require their support and development.

{mosads}In addition to our 27 allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, we have key bilateral treaties with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia, New Zealand, Israel and numerous others. Nine other nations, including Afghanistan and Jordan, are counted as “major non-NATO allies.” These alliances have been the central channel of our foreign and security policy for decades — not because we are charitable, but because they serve our interests.


Many critics have focused on the downsides of alliances and have lost sight of what allies and coalition partners contribute to American interests. There are five key allied contributions, which outweigh their considerable downsides.

First, allies add to U.S. power. While often pictured as free riders, allies make critical contributions. Of the 15 top defense spenders in the world, all but China and Russia are allied or partnered with the United States. Dozens of allied nations fought with us in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the start of the Obama administration, our NATO allies and partners provided 44 percent of the coalition troops in Afghanistan. Today, they provide 48 percent of coalition forces aiding the Afghans. Over 67 allies and coalition partners are assisting us in the fight against ISIS.

Second, allies add to the legitimacy of U.S. policy. When the United States is backed by over 50 nations, it creates a critical mass for security decisions and coalitions in international organizations. Indeed, NATO’s status as a competent regional security organization all but guaranteed international support for our efforts in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and Afghanistan. Friendly nations come and go, but allies have a vested interest in helping one another in peace and war.

Third, allies and coalition partners contribute a rarely noted asset to U.S. operations: geography. In any conflict in the world, the United States normally has open access to the territory, harbors, airfields, bases and material assistance of more than 50 countries. As the late William T.R. Fox, a professor at Columbia University, noted during World War II: “Super power is great power, plus great mobility of power.” There is no power or mobility multiplier like access to allied facilities. Indeed, the great success in the first Gulf War and the restoration of Kuwait was due in large measure to the proximity of a large allied force in Europe and the apparatus of the well-oiled NATO logistical and transportation machinery.

Fourth, the global nature of U.S. alliances and partnerships presents our major adversaries with a problem. The leaders of China, Russia, Iran and North Korea wake up every morning, surrounded by U.S. allies and partners. Our committed allies number in the many dozens and theirs are as rare as hen’s teeth. U.S. enemies do not have the luxury of contemplating a fight with an isolated America. Our allies complicate their calculations. This basic fact enhances deterrence, especially when day-to-day defense and diplomatic relations enhance the credibility of the implicit threat from existing forces.

Finally, alliances accelerate information and intelligence sharing. This is critical for counterterrorism and other aspects of foreign intelligence. This information and intelligence sharing is not only a military tool, it permeates diplomatic and internal security activities as well. Alliances help to tear down firewalls between nations as well as between the bureaucracies inside of them.

To get U.S. policy right, we also have to look at the downsides of alliances. Nations pursue their own interests. America First will contend everyday with France First, Germany First, Israel First, etc. Allies complicate decision-making and often push us to water down tough policies, or conversely, to go beyond what’s in our interests. Many allies waffle because they have parliamentary governments with delicate coalitions that can easily come apart. Economic growth in Europe has also been slow, restricting their freedom to act.

At the same time, allied capitals often give clear and important advice to the U.S. government. For example, our European allies never bought into our policies in Vietnam, and many important European nations refused to participate in the invasion of Iraq. Good advice from long-term partners may well be an additional reason to maintain alliances. 

Free riding, or more accurately underperforming, on defense investment is a perennial problem. NATO’s defense spending goal is 2 percent of each nation’s domestic product, about half of what we spend. Of its 28 nations, only five nations in Europe have hit the 2 percent target. The Europeans, however, have reacted to the growing Russian threat and complaints from the United States. According to London’s International Institute of Strategic Studies, 2016 brought a “3-4% increase in defense spending among the Alliance’s European members.”

Allies in peace and war have always presented a challenge and an opportunity. During World War II, a frustrated Winston Churchill said “there is only one thing worse than fighting with allies, and that is fighting without them.” He could not have been more right.

We have to ensure that allies remain a key tool in our foreign and national security policies. America can’t be first without them.


Joseph J. Collins is director of the Center for Complex Operations at the National Defense University. A retired Army colonel, he was the deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Stability Operations, 2001-2004. The opinions here are his own and not necessarily those of NDU, the Department of Defense, or any other government entity.

The views of contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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