America’s many alliances, both formal and informal, are supposed to serve a purpose: enhance U.S. security. They are a means, not an end. Their effect might be to protect other nations, but their ultimate objective should be to make America safer.
Yet Washington officials have come to treat military partners like Facebook friends, to be accumulated endlessly to win popular bragging rights. In which case Americans can easily claim victory. In recent years the U.S. added Montenegro and North Macedonia to NATO. Next up, the Duchy of Grand Fenwick? That would give the U.S. an insurmountable lead in the global friendship sweepstakes.
In fact, now would be a good time to start the painful process of unfriending some useless or even counterproductive allies. That doesn’t mean treating them like enemies. Just wish them well and let them begin taking responsibility for their own problems — such as defending themselves, rather than expecting Uncle Sam to forever be a soft touch, with treasury doors wide open and troops ready to transport.
The U.S. benefits when it cooperates with other countries to confront security threats and promote other shared ends. But formal alliances must be seen as means to achieve that end, not ends themselves.
Washington should start with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). Communism is evil but at least has theoretical appeal. Is there a more idiotic form of governance today than absolute monarchy? Yet a few thousand Saudi princes pillage their nation’s resources for personal pleasure while pretending to be virtuous ascetics devoted to maintaining Islam’s holiest sites. To maintain themselves in power they underwrite the teaching of fundamentalist Wahhabism around the globe, including in America, demonizing Christians, Jews, and other religious minorities. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who effectively rules what amounts to a collection of city states in the desert, is notable for having forced the elite wealthy to pay ransoms for their freedom while splurging on a yacht, French chateau, and Rembrandt painting.
The KSA is brutally repressive, allowing not a hint of political dissent or religious diversity. The Kingdom is far worse than Iran, which holds elections, unfair but not without result, and allows Christians and other religious minorities to worship, though ever at risk of persecution. MbS, as the Saudi dictator is known, allows neither. Indeed, he has tightened political repression, arresting bloggers and others for the offense of simply remaining silent, failing to sing everlasting praise of his rule.
Worse for America’s security, he is arrogant, foolish, and reckless. He invaded Yemen, which has been at war with itself for decades, turning the latest round of internal conflict into a sectarian war involving Iran. He kidnapped the prime minister of Lebanon, underwrote jihadist insurgents in Syria, funded civil war in Libya, attempted to turn Qatar into a puppet state, and subsidized brutal repression in Egypt.
Riyadh no longer matters like it once did. Its energy influence has faded, and it desperately needs to create the sort of society that its own citizens will defend, instead of forever expecting to hire American soldiers as de facto mercenaries. The spectacle of U.S. presidents uncritically embracing such a vile regime undermines Washington’s reputation and credibility worldwide.
Montenegro is a wonderful tourist destination and movie set. However, U.S. officials demonstrated a desperate desire to be liked when they welcomed this postage-stamp country into NATO. Especially given its “partly free” rating by Freedom House, which explained, “While numerous political parties compete for power in Montenegro, the opposition is fragmented and its leaders are frequently harassed, and the governing Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) has been in power since 1991. Corruption is a serious issue. Investigative journalists and journalists critical of the government face pressure, as do many nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).”
More important, Podgorica is a geopolitical irrelevancy. Adding it to NATO expanded American defense commitments with no accompanying benefit. Montenegro will spend all of $65 million (woo hoo!) on its armed services this year, a rounding error for the Pentagon, which admits that it can’t account for all its expenditures. With a population smaller than a single U.S. congressional constituency, Montenegro has (count ’em!) 2350 men under arms. Its vast armored formations consist of eight armored personnel carriers. The navy deploys 350 sailors and five patrol boats, keeping the Adriatic well in hand. The air force has several aircraft that don’t fly and a baker’s dozen helicopters that supposedly do. At least admitting Montenegro into NATO created the plot for another literary satire.
In contrast, Germany is a real country. Indeed, it has Europe’s largest economy and (save Russia) largest population. Obviously, history still weighs heavily on Berlin, but that has become a tired excuse to avoid contributing more to its own and Europe’s defense. Six years ago Germany joined other NATO members in promising to spend 2 percent of GDP on the military by 2024. That’s an arbitrary standard, but at least it demonstrates some commitment to defense. Last year Berlin was at 1.38 percent. While its position, 17th of 30 members, is middling, its absolute shortfall is greater than that of any other NATO member. At the same time, the actual readiness of Germany’s military may match that of Montenegro. The Bundestag Military Commissioner, Hans-Peter Bartels, once complained that “There is neither enough personnel nor materiel, and often one confronts shortage upon shortage.”
However, much-celebrated Chancellor Angela Merkel put off Germany’s compliance until 2030. And spending on the armed forces will never reach that level. Merkel will be out of office in a couple years, so her pledges are irrelevant. Worse, she has turned the Christian Democrats into the Social Democrats Lite. The next government could be led by the Green Party. Finally, few Germans believe they need defend against foreign threats. Their chief complaint about President Donald Trump’s plan to downsize the U.S. troop presence in Germany is economic. Whined Stuttgart’s mayor, “The city will miss the consumer power of the Americans.” Vilseck’s mayor listed the jobs that will be lost. Washington policymakers should focus on U.S. interests.
Historically, Germany often chose allies in name only, moribund states barely able to field militaries, let alone effective ones. What Austro-Hungary and Italy were to Germany in World Wars I and II, respectively, the Philippines is to America today. Manila is a semi-failed state, made more dangerous by the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte.
He is the most ostentatiously anti-American president ever elected in the Philippines, often harkening back to Washington’s admittedly brutal takeover of the archipelago, resulting in the death of some 200,000 civilians while suppressing the indigenous independence movement. Maybe that explains his bad human rights record, encouraging lawless violence against and even extrajudicial murder of drug users and sellers. Freedom House judged the country to be only partly free, pointing out that “the rule of law and application of justice are haphazard and heavily favor political and economic elites” and “impunity remains the norm for violent crimes against activists and journalists.”
Worse for U.S. security is his inconsistency. He rushed into China’s arms early in his presidency, announcing his nation’s “separation” from America, before deciding that Beijing’s price was too high. Earlier this year, angry over the denial of a visa to a political ally, he said he would end the Visiting Forces Agreement, which governs military cooperation between the two nations. But a few weeks ago he changed his mind — for now.
Last year a Chinese vessel hit and sank a Filipino fishing boat. Unfortunately, Duterte and his predecessors created a navy appropriate to battle Montenegro, not Beijing: the flagship of the Philippines’ navy is a half-century-old American Coast Guard castoff. No armada was going to retaliate by blockading Shanghai. So he demanded that the Trump administration go to war: “I’m calling now, America. I am invoking the RP-US pact, and I would like America to gather their Seventh Fleet in front of China. I’m asking them now.” But there was more: “When they enter the South China Sea, I will enter. I will ride with the American who goes there first. Then I will tell the Americans, ‘Okay, let’s bomb everything.’ ”
President Trump rejected Duterte’s invitation to war. This is one fewer friend that America needs.
Washington also should tell Egypt: begone! That Middle Eastern country once mattered to the United States. However, it has lost its leading role in the Arab world. What Cairo’s leaders say no longer matters much to anyone else. Moreover, the regime has abandoned both the ideological focus and seriousness of purpose that once made it a threat to Israel. Today the military’s officer class, which controls the economy while ruling politically, is interested in little more than self-enrichment.
General-turned-President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has created an authoritarian state that would make the late Hosni Mubarak proud. Tens of thousands of people — from liberals to members of the Muslim Brotherhood — have been arrested for everything from protesting to simply criticizing al-Sisi’s authoritarian rule. Justice is but a mockery, with death penalties handed down en masse. Censorship has gotten steadily tighter, as al-Sisi even shut down independent NGOs that sought to shine a little light on the government’s many crimes. Without any social safety valve, pressure for a popular explosion can only build. And Egypt’s jails, even more than Mubarak’s, have become incubators of Islamic radicalism.
NATO’s housekeeping should continue with Turkey. It possesses a potent military but is more likely to use that against fellow alliance member Greece or EU member Cyprus than Russia, the only plausible serious threat to Europe. Indeed, Ankara’s ships recently confronted French and Greek vessels seeking to enforce an arms embargo on Libya, which the Turkish government was flagrantly breaking. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan refuses to accept any criticism, but, noted the New York Times, “some NATO ambassadors believe that Turkey now represents an open challenge to the group’s democratic values and its collective defense.”
The once-secular Republic of Turkey was long thought to fulfill two important roles. The first was to contain Moscow on Europe’s southeastern front, and especially bottle up the Soviet/Russian Black Sea fleet. The second was to act as a bridge to the Middle East, exhibiting a moderate Muslim democracy in action. Both functions are now kaput.
After briefly scuffling with President Vladimir Putin in 2015 when the Turkish military shot down a Russian plane operating in Syria, Erdoğan retreated from confrontation and formed a close entente with Moscow. Despite disagreements over the future of Syria’s Assad government, the two governments have cooperated to avoid military confrontations and settle incidents that occur. Ankara also decided to purchase the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft system, causing the U.S. to cancel planned F-35 sales to Turkey and co-production work by Turkey. No one in NATO trusts Ankara to join in a war against Russia.
Moreover, Erdoğan’s early liberal approach appears to have been political bait and switch. Before becoming prime minister and later president, he said that democracy was like a train: you get off when you reach your destination. He got off years ago. The only unknown is what authoritarian tactics he will use to ensure his reelection in 2023.
Freedom House rates Turkey as not free: “After initially passing some liberalizing reforms, the [Erdoğan] government showed growing contempt for political rights and civil liberties, and its authoritarian nature was fully consolidated following a 2016 coup attempt that triggered a dramatic crackdown on perceived opponents of the leadership. Constitutional changes adopted in 2017 concentrated power in the hands of the president.” Since then tens of thousands of people have been jailed and fired from their jobs, many accused of being part of a vast, fantastic conspiracy evident only in the minds of Erdoğan and his fervent supporters.
Spain is a much more pleasant, democratic, and developed nation. However, it well illustrates the problem of European freeriding, or at least very cheapriding, on America for defense. Madrid’s military outlays have oscillated in recent years, actually dropping in 2019, when they accounted for just 0.92 percent of GDP, no different than five years before. Not even one penny on the dollar for defense! The Spanish armed forces are well trained and supplied, but too small compared to the country’s ability to contribute.
Spain has the fifth largest economy of the European Union’s 27 members. Out of Europe’s five most important economic powers, three — Germany, Italy, and Spain — show little interest in playing a meaningful defense role. That is their choice, of course, but if the continent’s most important economic powers won’t be responsible, how will Europe ever defend itself? Washington should not cover for them and pretend that they are allies in any serious sense of the word.
The George W. Bush administration seemed besotted with the country of Georgia when its president was Mikhail Saakashvili. Despite having fervent fans in Washington, his human rights record left something to be desired. So did his desire to make war on Russia and drag America into the conflict.
Georgia is precisely the kind of country that should not be in NATO: Unimportant to U.S. security. Historic ties to Moscow as a part of the Soviet Union and Imperial Russia. Unpredictable, irresponsible leaders. Unresolved conflict with Moscow. Although Putin did his part to help dismember Georgia by aiding Abkhazia and South Ossetia — small territories that long had resisted Tbilisi’s rule — European observers affirmed that Georgia started the shooting in August 2008, targeting territory with Russian troops. Ryan Grist, a British soldier serving as an international monitor, said, “It was clear to me that the attack was completely indiscriminate and disproportionate to any, if indeed there had been any, provocation.”
The attack was well planned. At the time the German publication Der Spiegel reported, “NATO officers believed that the Georgian attack was a calculated offensive against South Ossetian positions to create the facts on the ground.” Saakashvili’s own officials affirmed that he expected U.S. support. He went on CNN to plead his case: “It’s not about Georgia anymore. It’s about America, its values. We are a freedom-loving nation that is right now under attack.” So start a nuclear war to bail me out!
There is good reason to sympathize with the Georgian people. But Americans should not risk their futures by turning Tbilisi’s quarrels into America’s quarrels.
Finally, it is time to defriend Japan. It is a fine country, of course. Rich, clean, polite, complex, different, interesting. However, even as China and North Korea have become more active militarily, Tokyo has continued to hide behind the “Peace Constitution,” which it has flouted whenever convenient, while always relying on America to do the heavy military lifting.
Truth be told, neither Pyongyang nor Beijing threaten American security directly. They aren’t interested in attacking America. Or seizing U.S. Pacific possessions. Their eyes are fixed on East Asia. North Korea worries about the South and the possibility of Washington coming in. The Chinese would like to implement their version of the Monroe Doctrine, keeping the U.S. out of various territorial and other disputes. Rather than expecting the U.S. to go to war with nuclear-armed powers, Washington’s allies should do everything they can to defend themselves.
Japan, with the world’s third-largest economy, obviously can afford to do a lot more militarily. For years its defense outlays have topped out at 1 percent of GDP. It hasn’t even hit that level recently. This small amount has allowed creation of serious armed forces over the years. However, if Tokyo genuinely fears Beijing — which claims the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and has abandoned little of the hatred generated by Japanese depredations during World War II — the Japanese should be willing to contribute more than a miserly penny on the dollar.
The fact that they don’t is another example of shameless allied cheapriding. It doesn’t matter as much if geopolitical nullities like North Macedonia welch on promised outlays. However, Tokyo should be the foundation of allied defense in the Pacific. World War II is over. Japan has recovered. Democracy is deeply rooted. Onetime enemies, such as the Philippines, have urged Tokyo to do more. Washington doesn’t need another freeloader as a friend.
The U.S. benefits when it cooperates with other countries to confront security threats and promote other shared ends. However, formal alliances must be seen as means to achieve that end, not ends themselves, for which Americans then sacrifice their security. When such nations, whether called allies, partners, or friends, stop advancing U.S. interests, it is time for a change. Like defriending allies who no longer fulfill their role.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.