Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Why Arming Allies Is America’s Smartest, Safest Strategy

Russia’s war has exposed Washington’s reluctance to provide advanced arms as a dangerous misconception.

By , a professor of politics at the Catholic University of America.
A U.S. High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) fires during a military exercise.
A U.S. High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) fires during a military exercise.
A U.S. High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) fires during a military exercise in Morocco on June 30. FADEL SENNA/AFP via Getty Images

Ukraine’s defensive war—and its current counteroffensives to free its lands from Russian forces—demonstrate that directly affected countries are the best keepers of the balance of power. Because of the immediate and existential effects that war and occupation have on their daily life, such states have an acute interest in maintaining and, when needed, restoring the status quo. But motivation is not the same as capability: To keep the regional balance of power, these states need abundant and high-quality weapons. The United States should be the principal supplier of these capabilities, not least to control the proliferation of high-tech weapons, which Washington fears may be destabilizing. The outbreak of the most significant war of conquest since World War II makes plain that war is not a relic of a bygone age but a feature of the frontier. The United States should embrace geopolitical subsidiarity and arm allies with abundant and advanced capabilities.

Subsidiarity—the idea that nothing should be done by a larger entity that can be done by competent authorities closer to the problem—is rarely associated with international relations. Usually it describes a domestic structure of authority: Educating children is done most effectively at the level of the family and a local school rather than a centralized, national bureaucracy, just as safe streets are best provided by local police rather than a distant entity with expansive powers but limited knowledge and interest. The job of higher authorities, such as the state, is to support the locus of responsibility below. This is, of course, the basic idea behind federalism and other decentralized forms of governance.

But the logic of subsidiarity applies just as much to international stability and should guide U.S. grand strategy going forward. The United States cannot hold by itself the entire perimeter around the revisionist authoritarian powers, especially as that frontier ignites in both Europe and Asia. Washington should not attempt to do what can be done more effectively and successfully by local actors, as the principle of subsidiarity suggests. Ukraine’s successful defense against Russia is a potent reminder that the most effective guardians of the balance of power are those countries most directly affected by it: the frontier nations near Russia, China, and other aggressive states. As the central state should aid local communities, the United States should help nations on the frontier maintain stability and, if necessary, defend themselves. It should arm them speedily and lethally.

Ukraine’s defensive war—and its current counteroffensives to free its lands from Russian forces—demonstrate that directly affected countries are the best keepers of the balance of power. Because of the immediate and existential effects that war and occupation have on their daily life, such states have an acute interest in maintaining and, when needed, restoring the status quo. But motivation is not the same as capability: To keep the regional balance of power, these states need abundant and high-quality weapons. The United States should be the principal supplier of these capabilities, not least to control the proliferation of high-tech weapons, which Washington fears may be destabilizing. The outbreak of the most significant war of conquest since World War II makes plain that war is not a relic of a bygone age but a feature of the frontier. The United States should embrace geopolitical subsidiarity and arm allies with abundant and advanced capabilities.

Subsidiarity—the idea that nothing should be done by a larger entity that can be done by competent authorities closer to the problem—is rarely associated with international relations. Usually it describes a domestic structure of authority: Educating children is done most effectively at the level of the family and a local school rather than a centralized, national bureaucracy, just as safe streets are best provided by local police rather than a distant entity with expansive powers but limited knowledge and interest. The job of higher authorities, such as the state, is to support the locus of responsibility below. This is, of course, the basic idea behind federalism and other decentralized forms of governance.

But the logic of subsidiarity applies just as much to international stability and should guide U.S. grand strategy going forward. The United States cannot hold by itself the entire perimeter around the revisionist authoritarian powers, especially as that frontier ignites in both Europe and Asia. Washington should not attempt to do what can be done more effectively and successfully by local actors, as the principle of subsidiarity suggests. Ukraine’s successful defense against Russia is a potent reminder that the most effective guardians of the balance of power are those countries most directly affected by it: the frontier nations near Russia, China, and other aggressive states. As the central state should aid local communities, the United States should help nations on the frontier maintain stability and, if necessary, defend themselves. It should arm them speedily and lethally.

Ukraine is the most immediate example, and it still needs large quantities of artillery shells, rockets, armored vehicles, and a list of other weapons. In its vicinity, NATO’s eastern frontier from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea constitutes the next layer of countries that will hold the line of Europe’s equilibrium. Similarly, in Asia, Taiwan and Japan are the most effective balancers against China. They are the most vulnerable and therefore the most interested in preserving the status quo.

Washington remains overly fearful of the risks associated with well-armed allies, in the mistaken belief that a proliferation of weapons would destabilize the geopolitical frontier.

But although these states have the motivation to act, they often lack the capability to do so. Some of Washington’s allies, especially in Europe, have been irresponsible, lured into a decadeslong stupor by liberal internationalist wishful thinking, expecting the progressive march of history to embrace their adversaries close by. It is unlikely that Washington can change the minds of some of these countries. Recurrent U.S. badgering of those NATO allies that have not allocated the promised 2 percent of GDP to defense spending is not a sufficient stick to alter their internal calculus. Neither is the United States’ abandonment of these allies (more fashionably called retrenchment or restraint), despite the assumption of its advocates that a small or absent U.S. presence will incentivize allies to take responsibility for their own defense and end their free riding. No matter what the United States does or does not promise, these allies make their calculations on the basis of domestic dynamics and leadership, even in moments of grave external danger. In brief, Washington has limited control over whether allies and partners on or near the Eurasian front line will arm or not.

The key question then becomes not what the United States can do to change the calculations or motivations of allies and partners, but what it can do to help those that want to arm. This is where Washington’s long-standing reluctance to expedite the sale of the most advanced weapons becomes an obstacle: It inhibits the necessary hardening of the frontier in Europe and Asia.

There are signs that the U.S. Defense Department is seeking to ease the process of arms sales to allies. This is a welcome development, because the war in Ukraine has demonstrated the need for large quantities of weapons—and even larger quantities of both conventional and state-of-the-art ammunition—right on the front line with the United States’ rivals. But the goal should go beyond merely tweaking the bureaucratic paper-pushing that has slowed down arms sales. The problem is more fundamental: Washington remains overly fearful of the risks associated with well-armed allies, in the mistaken belief that a proliferation of weapons would ultimately destabilize the geopolitical frontier. Ukraine has exposed this as a fallacy of the first order. Had the country been well armed, it might well have deterred a Russian attack and maintained the peace in Europe. It’s as if the United States has forgotten the most important lessons of the Cold War.

Three factors, in particular, drive Washington’s reluctance to supply plentiful and advanced armaments to front-line states.

First, the United States, and its military echelons in particular, fear that spreading arms across the frontier will lead to a loss of U.S. technological superiority. The risk is certainly there. Sending highly capable Javelin anti-tank missiles containing modern optics to Ukraine, for instance, is likely to result in a few units ending up in the hands of Russia—and passed on to China and Iran. But if the latest technology can only be entrusted to U.S. soldiers, they would need to be placed into every hot spot where such technology can arrest enemy attacks. For the United States, it is better to spread its weapons than its soldiers.

The second factor preventing Washington’s embrace of geopolitical subsidiarity and its consequent acceptance of arms proliferation is the aspiration to control escalation. Well-armed allies, with the capacity to strike the enemy’s rear and inflict heavy losses, may escalate the local conflict without direct U.S. approval. As a result, a rival, such as Russia in Ukraine, may choose to ratchet up its own military effort to tilt conditions on the battlefield in its favor. The ultimate fear is that escalation will spin out of control and cross the nuclear threshold. Russia, for instance, could use its vast arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons to reverse a conventional setback.

But Washington’s desire to stay in apparent control of regional escalation is misplaced. In fact, deterrence of rivals will be more easily achieved by embracing higher risks on the frontiers, letting local allies and partners make the difficult decisions where and how hard to strike an invader. Moreover, it is presumptuously wrong to assume that front-line states are incapable of assessing the probabilities of escalation—and that only Washington has the prescience necessary to manage it. Small powers near Russia or China are not suicidal. Bearing the greatest costs of a potential escalation, they are capable of evaluating the risks and benefits of their own actions.

Finally, on both the left and the right of the U.S. political spectrum, there is an unjustified anxiety that arming allies means provoking enemies. This fear arises out of the assumption that powers such as Russia or China only react to what the United States and its allies do. Left alone with disarmed, placid states on their borders, so this theory goes, neither Russia nor China would seek to expand their control or build large arsenals. In Europe, this logic was so pronounced that over the last two decades, NATO accepted new members in Central Europe but did not adjust its bases or placement of weapons. History has proved them wrong: The Western alliance went out of its way not to materially poke Russia, and yet Russia has been persistently aggressive. In fact, Moscow has pushed westward exactly because the West has not strengthened the frontier. The war in Ukraine is proof, if any was needed, that the logic of deterrence trumps the anxiety of provocation. Arming willing allies on the front line is overdue. Weapons deter, rather than provoke, shared rivals.

It is entirely plausible that some states will choose not to oppose aggressive neighbors because of lacking national unity or out of calculation that the costs of resistance outweigh the risks of submission. Seeking to arm such states will have little impact on the geopolitical status quo of the region in question. But it appears clear that the military growth of China in Asia and the brutality of Russia’s dominion in Ukraine are increasing the desire of states nearby to preserve their independence and prevent aggression. These countries are the most effective agents of regional security. Following the principle of subsidiarity, the United States should let them be the great stabilizers in the balance of power.

Geopolitical subsidiarity through arming friends and allies is not a form of retrenchment. Not having a large forward presence is not, per se, isolationist withdrawal. It only means that nothing should be done by a faraway political entity that can be done more efficiently and successfully by a local one. The role of the United States is to use its technological and industrial advantages to supply front-line partners with the arms they want and need to maintain the local order.

Jakub Grygiel is a professor of politics at the Catholic University of America, a senior advisor at the Marathon Initiative, a visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, and a former senior advisor in the U.S. State Department’s policy planning staff during the Trump administration. Twitter: @j_grygiel

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a commission on military-technical cooperation with foreign states in 2017.
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a commission on military-technical cooperation with foreign states in 2017.

What’s the Harm in Talking to Russia? A Lot, Actually.

Diplomacy is neither intrinsically moral nor always strategically wise.

Officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) wait outside an apartment in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.
Officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) wait outside an apartment in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.

Ukraine Has a Secret Resistance Operating Behind Russian Lines

Modern-day Ukrainian partisans are quietly working to undermine the occupation.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron wave as they visit the landmark Brandenburg Gate illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in Berlin on May 9, 2022.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron wave as they visit the landmark Brandenburg Gate illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in Berlin on May 9, 2022.

The Franco-German Motor Is on Fire

The war in Ukraine has turned Europe’s most powerful countries against each other like hardly ever before.

U.S. President Joe Biden holds a semiconductor during his remarks before signing an executive order on the economy in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.
U.S. President Joe Biden holds a semiconductor during his remarks before signing an executive order on the economy in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.

How the U.S.-Chinese Technology War Is Changing the World

Washington’s crackdown on technology access is creating a new kind of global conflict.