‘With Friends Like These…’

After World War II, the United States – newly equipped with the ultimate deterrent against attack, nuclear weapons – discarded the model of the nations’ founders, who cautioned against permanent or entangling alliances. The United States created many questionable multilateral and bilateral alliances in which it agreed to defend many countries against worldwide communism, led by its archrival the Soviet Union. The Cold War ended in 1991, with collapse of that adversary, and most of the allies became wealthy enough to defend themselves against the vastly reduced threat. Nevertheless, the alliances remained and became an end in themselves, thus justifying U.S. policymakers’ desire to police the world.

Now, with the "rise" of China and a "resurgent" Russia, which both have limited military capabilities compared to the still dominant United States, some of these allies are trying to flirt with these great powers to get even more goodies from the United States. This shake down mirrors the behavior of small countries during the Cold War, which tried to play off the United States and the Soviet Union against each other for their own gain. Yet the threats to the United States are hardly at the level they were during the Cold War and the United States – militarily overextended with an economy that accounts for only 16 percent of the world’s GDP and a national debt of more than $19 trillion – can no longer afford to pay for the defense of so many nations around the world. Unfortunately, Donald Trump’s valid attempt to point out some of these realities has been deemed as crazy as the rest of his bizarre presidential candidacy. It’s not. Let’s analyze some examples of U.S. attempts to pacify ungrateful and unnecessary allies.

The most egregious example is socialist Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who presides over a poor country with a horribly trained and shoddily equipped military but has called the American President the "son of whore," compared himself to Adolf Hitler, cozied up to China, and declared a "separation from the United States." Yet, despite his bombast, he has avoided terminating the 70-year-old treaty that binds the United States to defend the Philippines against threats from nearby great powers, such as…well…China. Duterte has also threatened to "go to Russia to talk to Putin."

Despite China’s recent efforts to woo Duterte, into its orbit and away from the United States, with investments in Philippine infrastructure and other enticements, the top Filipino should remember that the great powers China and Russia are much closer than is the faraway United States and are thus much more likely to cause security problems for Filipinos. In fact, China’s recent assertive behavior in the South China Sea led to its fairly recent grabbing the Scarborough Shoal just off the Philippine coast.

The United States has provided $90 million dollars to help the flagging Philippine military this year and more than $1 billion in nonmilitary support over the last five years, most of it for disaster relief. Yet U.S. acceptance of Duterte’s insulting behavior and flirtation with China arises from the US "pivot to Asia" to contain China. The United States also fears that if the Philippines, traditionally America’s closest ally in the Southeast Asian region, moves toward China, so could all other US allies in the area.

If this chain reaction occurs, so be it. In fact, US security will improve if smaller countries learn to accommodate the great power in their region, thus reducing the chance that they will drag the United States into a war with a nuclear-armed state. US allies in East Asia and elsewhere need to depend less, not more, on the United States for their security. The United States – with vast stretches of water between China and strategic military outposts of Hawaii and Guam in the Pacific, let alone the west coast of the United States – can afford to let China rise peacefully. In the late 1800s, with similarly wide maritime separation, Britain successfully did the same with the rising United States.

And China is the country with the greatest potential to compete with the United States in the future. Russia, despite its apparent resurgence, has only a shadow of the Soviet Union’s military strength and must depend on revenues from oil to prop up its economy – problematical if oil prices stay low for the future, which seems likely. Yet the Turks, a NATO ally, are flirting with Russia to try to get concessions from the United States in neighboring Iraq and Syria. The Turks are mad that the US is using their archival Kurds to fight ISIS in Syria, even though few other ground forces exist to use and even though the Turks originally helped ISIS to flourish in Iraq and Syria by looking the other way while the group’s militant fighters, weapons, and funds flowed across their borders with those nations. The Turks also want a greater role in taking back Mosul, Iraq so that they can better dominate events there.

Turkey should be cautious in its flirtation with Russia, which includes the resumption of a suspended natural gas pipeline and allowing the Russians to bid on providing an air and antimissile defense system, because neither will erase its centuries-long rivalry with this massive nearby country. Turkey already tried to buy a Chinese system and was told that it could not be integrated with air defense and intelligence systems of the U.S.-led NATO, an alliance pledged to defend Turkey against…well…Russia.

Finally, the US has backed Saudi Arabia in its war against Houthi rebels in Yemen – with intelligence, air refueling, military planning, and arms sales – to assuage Saudi anger about an international agreement in which its archival Iran agreed to severely limit its nuclear program. However, US officials have been nervous that selling arms to assist the indiscriminate Saudi war in Yemen could implicate the United States in war crimes against civilians. Besides, limiting Iran’s nuclear program helps nearby Saudi Arabia even more than it does the faraway United States. All such US policies have benefited an informally allied government that soon may be sued by 9/11 families for its alleged role in the worst attacks on the continental United States since the War of 1812.

In conclusion, the United States should not allow its allies to fuss or flirt with other great powers to enhance the already sweet deals they are getting from "Uncle Sugar." With vast ocean moats, weak and friendly neighbors, and the most potent nuclear arsenal in the world, true US security has never depended on the United States pledging to defend ungrateful faraway countries – only maintaining an outdated, expensive, and overextended informal global American Empire requires such foolish pledges of blood and treasure.

Author: Ivan Eland

Ivan Eland is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute and author of Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty.