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But Biden Can Push Important Reforms in the U.S. Alliance System

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Gage Skidmore CC BY-SA 2.0

Jeffery Stacey and I have a new piece in Foreign Affairs called “Fear of Trump’s Populism Might Save American Alliances.”

Our basic argument is that:

Biden cannot easily undo this damage to U.S. credibility. But he can make U.S. alliances and security relationships more resilient. Paradoxically, Trump has made this task easier for the incoming president. His rise to power revealed that issues such as collective defense spending and burden sharing—long sticking points in transatlantic relations—can inflame populist sentiments and thereby threaten long-standing alliances. The Biden administration should use that threat, and the prospect of another Trump-like populist, to build more equitable security relationships. After all, countries such as France, Germany, Australia, and South Korea face a dangerous and uncertain future if U.S. security arrangements continue to deteriorate.

Jeff’s a full-blown “Cold War 2.0” type. I think that even the so-called “Great Power Competition” framework is, at best, not a thing and, at worst, dangerous. So it was interesting to discover that we share similar views about the need to better “Trump proof” U.S. alliances with major democratic allies.

Obviously, there’s only so much that anyone can do to reduce the dangers of another “America First” shock to the U.S. alliance system, but the incoming Biden Administration can do more than might be immediately obvious.

One lesson of the last four years is that disputes over burden-sharing are a much bigger threat to U.S. alliances than policymakers previously understood. This means that a number of U.S. allies need to reduce the issue’s salience by making good on their commitments, and they need to show that Biden’s approach to alliances – one that stresses consultation and reaffirmation of U.S. commitments – is the best way to get them to do that. There are some strong signals that key allies, including France and Germany, understand this, even if they’ve started “squabbling” again over strategic autonomy.

Another concerns what kept the alliances going despite Trump. Continued support from Congress played an important role, but so did institutionalized ties at the level of ministries and departments – including among individual diplomatic and military personnel, as well as related security interdependencies.

Even as Trump demanded greater tribute and threatened to abandon U.S. allies, the infrastructure of these alliances mostly continued to operate. Military and civilian officials still routinely cooperated and interacted with their counterparts. This not only provided a mechanism for reassurance; dense networks of security interdependence made it difficult for Trump, both at the policy and implementation level, to end U.S. security commitments as quickly as he desired, and saved a good deal more.

So the other big goal should be to increase security interdependence. We discuss some ways to do so, and I should note that if the Biden Administration commits to a combination of greater European capability and closer US-European ties, it might help paper over aspects of the dispute between Paris and Berlin.

For the next thirty days, the piece is ungated. Check it out.

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