“Resnick’s Allies of Convenience is an incisive analysis of the role of alliances in U. S. foreign policy. This book will be of interest not only to international relations scholars but also to the current architects of American foreign policy. Coming at a time when alliances are currently being questioned and reevaluated, this book is a most welcome contribution.”
~David A. Baldwin, Princeton University
In today’s guest blog post, Even N. Resnick, author of Allies of Convenience: A Theory of Bargaining in the U.S. Foreign Policy, discusses the Unites States’ historic trend of allying with unsavory dictatorships. While President Trump may seem anomalous in his praise of nation leaders charged with war crimes, Resnick shows the clear through line from the World War II era.
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Picture the following scene: at a major international summit meeting, convened at a time of war, the U.S. president belittles and castigates the prime minister of a steadfast democratic ally even as he grovels before an untrustworthy tyrant whose interests have only tenuously aligned with those of Washington. For any contemporary observer of U.S. foreign policy, the first image that likely springs to mind would be President Donald J. Trump at any one of a string of international conferences since his 2017 inauguration.
For instance, just before departing for the G-20 summit in Osaka last June, Trump offended his host, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, by lambasting as unacceptably one-sided the longstanding U.S.-Japan security treaty. In an interview with Fox Business Network, the president fumed, “We have a treaty with Japan. If Japan is attacked, we will fight World War III. We will go in and we will fight with our lives and with our treasure. We will fight at all costs, right? But if we’re attacked, Japan doesn’t have to help us at all. They can watch it on a Sony television, the attack.” Trump proceeded to hector the United States’ NATO allies, particularly Germany, for skimping on their financial obligations to the alliance.
“Alliances of convenience with ideological and geopolitical adversaries have been a staple of U.S. foreign policy since 1778.”
At a discordantly pleasant one-on-one breakfast meeting during the summit, however, Trump commended Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman of Saudi Arabia—who is a partner in the administration’s maximum-pressure campaign against Iran—for doing a “spectacular job.” Trump refused to acknowledge that his breakfast guest was directly implicated in horrific war crimes in the kingdom’s ongoing military intervention in Yemen, as well as the October 2018 kidnapping and dismemberment of U.S. journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Although Trump’s behavior has departed wildly from that of his predecessors in scores of ways, this is not one. To wit, the scenario painted at the outset of this essay could just as accurately describe the events of the now-legendary Tehran (1943) and Yalta (1945) conferences held by the leaders of the Grand Alliance at the height of the Second World War. At both meetings, U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt repeatedly snubbed and ridiculed British prime minister Winston Churchill while lavishing praise and attention on the blood-drenched Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, whom FDR warmly dubbed “Uncle Joe.” Roosevelt also sided with Stalin and against Churchill on a range of urgent decisions relating to the Allies’ prosecution of the war.
Despite the persistent efforts of U.S. leaders to pursue an “exceptionalist” foreign policy guided by lofty moral imperatives, they have recurrently engaged in the most cynical realpolitik behavior of allying with one autocratic adversary to balance the graver immediate danger posed by another. Alliances of convenience with ideological and geopolitical adversaries have been a staple of U.S. foreign policy since 1778, when the fledgling United States of America signed a Treaty of Alliance with the French king Louis XVI, absent which the American Revolution would have almost certainly ended up being strangled in its cradle by the British Empire.
“Although the United States has been exponentially more powerful than all of its post–World War II security partners, its alliances of convenience have frequently been established and maintained on terms that have been deeply unfavorable to Washington.”
In Allies of Convenience, I survey U.S. alliances of convenience since the nation’s rise to superpower status in 1945 and demonstrate that these relationships have often proved costly and dangerous. Although the United States has been exponentially more powerful than all of its post–World War II security partners, its alliances of convenience have frequently been established and maintained on terms that have been deeply unfavorable to Washington. For U.S. leaders, alliances with otherwise hostile dictatorships are controversial and inevitably engender widespread opposition from Congress, the general public, and even parts of the executive bureaucracy. In order to keep those bilateral relationships afloat in the face of strong domestic headwinds, senior officials have consistently striven to cast their unsavory alliance partners in the most benign possible light. This effort entails a range of political tactics, such as downplaying or concealing evidence of an ally’s misbehavior, overselling its merely cosmetic concessions on disputed issues, and extending secret concessions to induce it to adopt a more outwardly supportive attitude toward the United States.
These moves may have kept domestic critics at bay, but in the process, they weakened U.S. bargaining leverage on important national-security-related disputes. As I detail in the book, presidents from Nixon to Reagan maintained a pivotal alliance with Mao Zedong’s and Deng Xiaoping’s China to contain the USSR during the last two decades of the Cold War by largely capitulating to Beijing on such key matters as: the fate of America’s treaty ally of Taiwan; China’s support of North Vietnam during the final years of the Vietnam War; and its destabilizing transfer of nuclear technology to Pakistan and missiles to Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Syria. Similarly, during the Soviet war in Afghanistan, the Reagan administration provided large-scale military and economic aid to neighboring Pakistan but repeatedly turned a blind eye toward Pakistani President Zia ul-Haq’s nuclear weapons program. In its zeal to contain revolutionary Iran during the Iran-Iraq War, the same administration also refrained from pressing Iraqi despot Saddam Hussein on his regime’s development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, as well as its active sponsorship of international terrorism. In each case, America’s concessions would come back to haunt it after the shared threat that had precipitated the alliance in the first place was thwarted.
“Donald Trump is not the first and almost certainly will not be the last U.S. president to abuse democratic allies and accommodate autocratic allies of convenience.”
By contrast, since alliances with friendly democracies usually generate little domestic opposition, U.S. policy makers have not felt the same pressure to present a benign image of those allies to domestic audiences. As the book’s discussion of the Truman and Eisenhower administrations’ relations with the United Kingdom during the Korean War shows, U.S. officials high-handedly and successfully bargained with their British counterparts on a host of important issues relating to their joint prosecution of the hot war in Korea as well as the burgeoning Cold War against the USSR and its communist bloc partners.
Donald Trump is not the first and almost certainly will not be the last U.S. president to abuse democratic allies and accommodate autocratic allies of convenience. The inexorable need to mobilize broad domestic support for contentious foreign policy initiatives means that all administrations’ inclination to appease rather than confront an allied state will grow to match the degree its values and interests deviate from those of the United States.
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