What would a world without U.S. alliances look like? It’s a worthwhile thought experiment. President TrumpDonald TrumpWendy Sherman takes leading role as Biden's 'hard-nosed' Russia negotiator Senate needs to confirm Deborah Lipstadt as antisemitism envoy — Now Former acting Defense secretary under Trump met with Jan. 6 committee: report MORE is famously leery toward foreign alliances and standing military commitments of all types. The latest word from the White House is that all U.S. troops “should” be out of Afghanistan by Christmastime. The president has rebuked European and Asian allies for spending too little on the common defense. He summarily ordered the U.S. military presence in Germany drawn down. Etc.
Shunning foreign political entanglements is a venerable strand in U.S. foreign policy. George Washington codified it in his Farewell Address of 1796, urging Americans to abstain from great-power politics until the republic had gathered enough national power to venture abroad from a position of strength. At that stage, declared Washington, national leaders could “choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.”
The republic heeded Washington’s advice for a century, refusing to involve itself in European quarrels. With the brief exception of the Civil War, it declined to invest in a large standing army or great navy. And it did so without forfeiting national security. U.S. leaders contented themselves with hemispheric defense under the Monroe Doctrine, which forbade new European colonization in Latin America. Non-entanglement seemed to serve the United States well.
But the security resulting from non-entanglement was illusory, at least in part. It depended on the erstwhile enemy, Great Britain. Britain saw an interest of its own in keeping rival empires from encroaching on the New World, and it boasted the world’s preeminent navy. The Royal Navy — the long arm of British foreign policy — became the United States’s bulwark against European aggression, not to mention a silent enforcer of the Monroe Doctrine.
For 19th-century Americans, then, security was something someone else provided. But British maritime supremacy in the Western Hemisphere started to fade toward the end of the century. Imperial Germany laid the keels for a great battleship fleet of its own, and defending the British Isles came first. London drew down its fleets in North America and East Asia in order to compete with Germany in the North Sea.
As the republic’s maritime protector went away, U.S. leaders confronted a strategic quandary. U.S. policymakers envisaged two imperatives: They needed to assure commercial access to important trading regions, and they needed to prevent any hostile power or alliance from seizing dominion over what Yale professor Nicholas Spykman later dubbed the “rimlands” of Western Europe and East Asia.
Both imperatives demanded that the United States wean itself from non-entanglement.
Spykman pronounced hemispheric defense no defense at all. A European or Asian hegemon ruling the rimlands would enjoy access to massive natural and human resources — resources sufficient to do Americans harm in their own hemisphere. Keeping the rimlands fragmented among multiple competing powers would help forestall such a bleak future.
There are two basic postures for balancing in the rimlands. One, the United States can trust Europeans and Asians to balance against domineering powers. The U.S. military would remain mostly close to home, intervening in the rimlands only if their inhabitants proved incapable of supplying their own security. This “offshore balancing” approach prevailed before the world wars. Or two, U.S. forces can remain onshore in the rimlands by virtue of standing alliances such as NATO or the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty.
The onshore approach prevailed during the Cold War and endures to this day. Forward-deployed U.S. forces take an active, daily hand in offsetting the pretensions of today’s would-be hegemons, notably China and Russia. Onshore balancing is proactive where offshore balancing is reactive.
A world without U.S. alliances would be a world where Washington carried offshore balancing to its nth degree. The weary titan would offload the burden of safeguarding others. It would conserve resources. Now, conserving finite resources is a good thing. U.S. leaders must exercise self-discipline when contemplating overseas entanglements. The chief trouble with offshore balancing is how to execute it. A strategy that can’t be executed is a wish.
Offshore-balancing proponents cite the world wars as an example of how to balance from afar. After all, the United States intervened in those conflicts late and won a dominant say in the postwar settlements, all at low cost — compared to other combatants — in lives and treasure. Sounds like a good deal. But imagine trying to do that today, especially in East Asia, the most likely combat theater. U.S. forces would have to battle their way into the region from the West Coast and Hawaii, traversing thousands of miles of sea and sky.
U.S. forces would have to fight to get to the fight. That they would succeed is far from fated. China has armed itself with an array of armaments meant to hold the U.S. military at bay. For example, the Pentagon estimates that China’s DF-26 anti-ship ballistic missile can strike at moving ships over 2,000 miles from Chinese shorelines.
And when they got there? Asians might accept U.S. help out of dire need, but they would remember how America abandoned solemn commitments to them. Political frictions would abound. Bases would have atrophied or been repurposed for civilian use. Meanwhile, allied forces would have to relearn habits and skills necessary to fight together in unison. And all of this would have to happen amid the clangor of war. That strains credulity.
Let’s think twice before dismantling our alliances.
James R. Holmes is J.C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College. The views voiced here are his alone.