Does the U.S. still need to reassure its allies?

A perennial preoccupation of U.S. diplomacy has been the perceived need to reassure allies of our reliability. Throughout the Cold War, U.S. leaders worried that any loss of credibility might cause dominoes to fall, lead key allies to "bandwagon" with the Soviet Union, or result in some form of "Finlandization." Such concerns justified fighting so-called ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
J. Scott Applewhite/AFP/Getty Images
J. Scott Applewhite/AFP/Getty Images
J. Scott Applewhite/AFP/Getty Images

A perennial preoccupation of U.S. diplomacy has been the perceived need to reassure allies of our reliability. Throughout the Cold War, U.S. leaders worried that any loss of credibility might cause dominoes to fall, lead key allies to "bandwagon" with the Soviet Union, or result in some form of "Finlandization." Such concerns justified fighting so-called "credibility wars" (including Vietnam), where the main concern was not the direct stakes of the contest but rather the need to retain a reputation for resolve and capability. Similar fears also led the United States to deploy thousands of nuclear weapons in Europe, as a supposed counter to Soviet missiles targeted against our NATO allies.

The possibility that key allies would abandon us was almost always exaggerated, but U.S. leaders remain overly sensitive to the possibility. So Vice President Joe Biden has been out on the road this past week, telling various U.S. allies that "the United States isn't going anywhere."  (He wasn't suggesting we're stuck in a rut, of course, but saying that the imminent withdrawal from Iraq doesn't mean a retreat to isolationism or anything like that.)

A perennial preoccupation of U.S. diplomacy has been the perceived need to reassure allies of our reliability. Throughout the Cold War, U.S. leaders worried that any loss of credibility might cause dominoes to fall, lead key allies to "bandwagon" with the Soviet Union, or result in some form of "Finlandization." Such concerns justified fighting so-called "credibility wars" (including Vietnam), where the main concern was not the direct stakes of the contest but rather the need to retain a reputation for resolve and capability. Similar fears also led the United States to deploy thousands of nuclear weapons in Europe, as a supposed counter to Soviet missiles targeted against our NATO allies.

The possibility that key allies would abandon us was almost always exaggerated, but U.S. leaders remain overly sensitive to the possibility. So Vice President Joe Biden has been out on the road this past week, telling various U.S. allies that "the United States isn’t going anywhere."  (He wasn’t suggesting we’re stuck in a rut, of course, but saying that the imminent withdrawal from Iraq doesn’t mean a retreat to isolationism or anything like that.)

There’s nothing really wrong with offering up this sort of comforting rhetoric, but I’ve never really understood why U.S. leaders were so worried about the credibility of our commitments to others. For starters, given our remarkably secure geopolitical position, whether U.S. pledges are credible is first and foremost a problem for those who are dependent on U.S. help. We should therefore take our allies’ occasional hints about realignment or neutrality with some skepticism; they have every incentive to try to make us worry about it, but in most cases little incentive to actually do it.

Don’t get me wrong: having allies around the world is useful and some attention needs to be paid to preserving intra-alliance solidarity, especially when the ally in question does have important things that we want or need. But an excessive concern for credibility encourages and enables allies to free-ride (something most of them have done for decades), and it can lead Washington to keep pouring resources into shaky endeavors lest allies elsewhere doubt our resolve.

This logic is wrong-headed, because squandering billions on fruitless endeavors (see under: Afghanistan) ultimately leaves one weaker overall and eventually diminishes public support for active engagement abroad. By contrast, liquidating a costly burden enables you to rebuild and regroup and puts you in a better position to respond in places that matter. The real message that Biden and other U.S. representatives should be telling their listeners is that getting out of Iraq (and eventually Afghanistan) is going to improve America’s ability to protect its real interests, and that important U.S. allies need not be that concerned.

More importantly, worrying a bit less about our credibility and "playing hard to get" on occasion would have real benefits. If other states were a bit less confident that the United States would come to their aid if asked, they would be willing to do more to ensure that we would. If key U.S. allies are not entirely convinced of U.S. support no matter what they did, they would be less likely to engage in dangerous or provocative acts of their own. Moreover, playing "hard to get" reduces the likelihood that the United States will be perceived as a trigger-happy global policeman. As the cases of the Balkans in the 1990s and the recent Libyan intervention illustrate, when Washington is more reluctant to take on collective burdens, it ends up being appreciated (and less feared) when it finally does get involved. Thus, worrying a bit less about U.S. credibility is a way to get others to do more, and to resent what we do less.

To be clear: I’m not saying the United States should cultivate a reputation for unreliability or capriciousness. It should make commitments that are consistent with its interests and, so long as those interests do not change, it should do its best to fulfill the pledges it has made. But it ought to be hardheaded about this process, and proceed from the clear understanding that most of our allies need us more than we need them (at least most of the time). There will still be hard bargaining on occasion, a need for constructive and empathetic diplomacy, and there is little to be gained from treating our allies with visible disdain. But the United States still holds a lot of high cards, and we should expect allies to spend as much time reassuring us that they are worth the effort as we do reassuring them.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

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