America and Its Allies

By Andy B. Anderson


The United States needs alliances because they serve the power objective of national interest, respond to shared global security threats, and defend universal human values while confronting humanitarian crises. Jentleson (2014) defines alliances between sovereign states as “associations of states for collective security or other mutual interest” (2014, p. A-4). Allies devise contractual agreements in which they concur not only about the distribution of commitments and responsibilities but also about the collaboration scenarios in case of emergencies. Moreover, the inter-state alliances serve as indicators of global prominence. In the process of an alliance’s formation, leaders determine the reliability of the new partners based on their adherence to the past treaty obligations. Due to the public nature of the inter-state alliances, the allies and outside actors can ascertain the purpose and the dependability of an alliance, diminishing the likelihood of a military conflict and miscalculation (Borghard and Rapp-Hooper, 2013, pp. 87-89).  

In contrast with the traditional historical accounts, the United States has never totally isolated itself from the involvement in global affairs and necessary alliances. The Founders acknowledged the importance of a foreign policy to solicit foreign support for military and commercial purposes. However, at the onset of the American republic, President George Washington stressed his preference for temporary alliances versus permanent alliances with the foreign sovereign states. He also believed that the country’s remote geographic position enabled it to avoid the negative influence of European affairs on American democracy. The U.S.’s bold involvement in the military conflict with one of the European powers, the Spanish-American War of 1898, revealed that the country decided to take an active international role in world affairs. President Theodore Roosevelt asserted that major world powers had to monitor the world due to the complexity and interdependence of its politics and economy. Although isolationism briefly reaffirmed itself after World War I (Jentleson, 2014, pp. 100-101), the need for internationalism and engagement in alliances largely prevailed during the Second World War and continued through the Cold War into present times (Jentleson, 2014, p. 503). This analysis illustrates the relevance and necessity of the system of transpacific and transatlantic alliances for the United States. Therefore, strategies underlying the power objective of national interest describe the first reason why the United States needs allies.

Power Objective of National Interest as Justification for Alliances

According to the realist theory of international relations, an alliance against a shared adversary is an essential ingredient of the defense and deterrence strategies that serve the power objective of the U.S. national interest. This objective focuses not only on self-defense and protection of sovereignty with territorial integrity but also on the influence on foreign states and deterrence of military conflicts (Jentleson, 2014, p. 9). Traditional security guarantees between the nuclear states and other sovereign powers represent a type of extended deterrence in which the nuclear state promises to protect an ally’s territory and sovereignty. The partners in alliances also participate in “costly signaling”, or visible arrangements of defense cooperation. Military exercises, joint force structures, and mutual defense planning sessions between allies indicate strong mutual interest to protect their alliance in potential military conflicts (Borghard and Rapp-Hooper, 2013, p. 91). For example, in the Asia-Pacific region, the United States set up a network of bilateral alliances with Japan, South Korea, and others (Jentleson, 2014, p. 11). The US-Japan alliance, in particular, has endured into the post-Cold War period as the primary foundation of U.S. security interests in the Asia-Pacific region. The focus of the alliance and cooperation between the forces shifted from the Soviet containment towards missile defense, North Korea, and balancing China. Nearly 25,000 American troops are located in Japan (Jentleson, 2014, pp. 434-436). Although China presents different challenges from the ones associated with the Soviet Union, credible forward defenses are as necessary now as they were in the past (Ochmanek, 2015, p. 12). Thus, this bilateral alliance satisfies the power component of the national interest by offering options for defense and deterrence strategies against potential adversary states in the region. The permanent deployment of U.S. forces along with the integration of all military-related systems also provide a strategic advantage to the United States in the prospective battlespace. Strategies serving the power goal of the national interest are thus closely related to the second reason of the benefit of alliances, notably mitigating shared global security threats.

Shared Global Security Threats as Justification for Alliances

Based on international institutionalism, alliances are useful for responding to shared global security threats through effective multilateral efforts. Cooperation between allies not only helps reduce risks but also increases gains even for the most powerful states, such as the United States. International cooperation is particularly vital for solving security issues, such as global terrorism (Cronin, 2015, p. 98). Jentleson (2014) agrees that even the most efficient homeland security cannot defend the nation from global terrorism since global problems require shared solutions in the absence of world governance. Sharing burdens through multilateral alliances can also enhance the legitimacy of the needed actions (pp. 293-295). For example, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), founded in 1949, demonstrated the utility of the transatlantic partnership after the United States got attacked on September 11, 2001. The European allies invoked Article 5 of the NATO treaty, the pledge of collective defense, to support the U.S.’s fight against terrorism in Afghanistan. Although the allies initially assisted the United States out of their NATO membership capacities, NATO eventually took over the International Security Assistance Force in that country. The new task marked the first time that NATO addressed a global security problem outside of the European-Atlantic area (Jentleson, 2014, p. 515). Thus, this multilateral alliance serves as an essential instrument in addressing shared global security threats, including global terrorism. Although this transatlantic alliance has undergone significant transformations after its formation, NATO is still the robust and agile alliance that can adapt to the ever-changing security threats that affect both the United States and Europe. The concept of multilateralism is not only applicable to address shared global security threats but also to defend universal human values, a last reason why alliances are useful.  

Defense of Universal Human Values as Justification for Alliances

Similarly associated with international institutionalism, alliances can help defend universal human values while confronting humanitarian crises, such as genocides and other mass atrocities. Such crimes against humanity not only can damage the pillars of global community, but also can spread to other states through demonstration effects, direct contagion, and other types of conflict diffusion. In its past, the United States did not intervene to stop genocides because the prevention of genocides did not serve its national interests (Jentleson, 2014, p. 377). In certain cases, such as Armenian massacre in 1915, the state was a neutral power (de Waal, 2015, p. 147). However, in the 21st century, the United States and its allies intervened to prevent probable mass atrocities by utilizing the doctrine of “the responsibility to protect” (R2P). R2P represents an international norm that legitimizes humanitarian intervention to prevent crimes against humanity (Jentleson, 2014, p. 379). For instance, during the multilateral military intervention in 2011 against the Qaddafi regime, NATO undertook the largest military burden, with some assistance from the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. Although R2P was invoked by both the United States and United Nations, the United States supported coalition efforts without involving its ground troops (Jentleson, 2014, p. 306). Before this intervention, with a mixed performance record, NATO used military force to intervene against the mass atrocities carried out during the Balkan wars in the 1990s. Thus, this multilateral alliance proves its utility in the protection of universal human values while confronting humanitarian crises. In the Libyan case, strong action reinforced the credibility of both the transatlantic alliance and the United States. Moreover, the United States showed leadership in preventing mass atrocities and conflict diffusion into other Arab states.  


The utility of the U.S.’s network of alliances has always played a central and controversial role in American foreign policy discussions. Initially cautious of the “entangling alliances” (Jentleson, 2014, p. 141), the United States has amassed an impressive network of transpacific and transatlantic alliances. Despite the vast diversity of perspectives about the matter, this analysis reaffirms that the United States needs alliances because they serve the power objective of national interest, respond to shared global security threats, and defend universal human values while confronting humanitarian crises.

The presented study about the necessity of alliances does not, however, discuss the possibility of offshore balancing strategy, free-riding, intra-alliance differences, nor the controversy surrounding the R2P doctrine. Briefly, offshore balancing strategy is considered to be a valid alternative to the direct defense approach. The proponents of this strategy believe that it in the U.S. national interest to disengage from its primary alliances in favor of other states balancing against the rising power in their regions. They also assert that a military force that focuses on nuclear deterrence, naval power, and air power can suffice this approach. Moreover, the advocates of the offshore balancing strategy prescribe the necessity of the U.S military involvement only to interfere with the inevitability of the rise of a Eurasian hegemon (Ochmanek, 2015, p. 8). For instance, the American military experience in the First World War represents the evidence of such strategy since the regional powers had to place more demands on their armed forces to secure their region. Initially, the United States maintained neutrality between the Central Powers and the Entente Powers. The state only intervened when it realized that the French and British forces, after the Russia’s withdrawal from the war, could not stop the rise of Germany, a potential Eurasian hegemon. Furthermore, other factors revealed Germany’s pursuit of global hegemony, such as the intensification of its submarine warfare attacks and contemplation of an alliance with Mexico against the United States (Gompert, Binnendijk, & Lin, 2014, p. 75).

Second, free riding represents one of the primary burdens associated with alliances. The proposal of the offshore balancing strategy is closely related to such dilemma since the foreign policy experts do not believe in the U.S. permanent abundance of national resources to maintain its primary position at the apex of the international system (Ochmanek, 2015, p. 8). For instance, Defense Secretary Robert Gates criticized in 2011 the free-riding problem inside NATO by pointing the differences in the relative shares of the budget contributions. In 2013 the United States financed almost three-quarters of the NATO’s budget. In addition, there are no European countries that meet the NATO’s spending guidelines of two percent of their national GDPs (Jentleson, 2014, p. 516). Therefore, President Trump voiced his concern by persuading the NATO members to increase their shares of defense spending (Kroenig, 2017, p. 33).

Third, intra-alliance differences can pose difficulties for the viability and operations of the alliances. Such challenges reflect the intrinsic problems of the multilateral efforts associated with impact and process (Jentleson, 2014, p. 290). For example, during the Afghanistan war, the United States wanted larger commitments from allies. However, disagreements arose about the balance of military operations with economic aid and nation-building strategies. Domestic political pressures also affected the willingness of allies to share the burden in the war. Only a few allies, such as France, Canada, Britain, and the Netherlands, have offered major commitments in their military personnel. Germany, in contrast, refused to send its troops to dangerous areas. Moreover, the similar split in the intra-alliances assurances occurred during the 2011 humanitarian intervention in Libya. Whereas some NATO members agreed to help the United States with military operations, Germany declined to participate in this humanitarian effort (Jentleson, 2014, pp. 515-516).  

Lastly, the controversy surrounding the R2P doctrine remains a contentious topic for global society. Based on cosmopolitan ethical theory, humanitarian intervention represents a positive duty to humanity. Positive duties represent duties of assistance or responsibilities to create a fair social order (Shapcott, 2017, pp. 517-518). However, cosmopolitan moral sensitivities clash with the international principles of sovereignty and non-intervention. The critics of the R2P doctrine point to the absence of the basis for humanitarian intervention in international law, problems of abuse when such missions can cover self-interest, and selectivity of responses that can create inconsistent policies (Bellamy and Wheeler, 2017, p. 517).

Ultimately, alliances are crucial in addressing the majority of the U.S. foreign policy problems. No pressing global issue can be solved exclusively by a superpower. The global system of alliances thus provides the United States with the only credible political option for the defense of its values, interests, and homeland. 


Andy B. Anderson attends Norwich University where he pursues a Master of Art in International Relations and a concentration in International Security. 


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