Highlights: Experts debate the future of America’s alliances

Lithuanian Military Academy students hold NATO membership states flags during the celebration of the the 15th anniversary of Lithuania's membership in NATO in Vilnius, Lithuania March 30, 2019. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins - RC1B87408B50

More than any other time in recent memory, the value of America’s alliances are up for debate. What’s the ongoing value of NATO in Europe, and what does China’s military growth mean for alliance strategies in Asia?

On September 10, Foreign Policy at Brookings and the Charles Koch Institute hosted a debate among foreign policy experts at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. The debate was the seventh in a series of debates hosted around the U.S. that focus on America’s role in the world. In Denver, debaters addressed how the United States has approached alliances in the past, and how it should — or should not — engage in alliances in the future.

Moderated by Ambassador Christopher Hill of the Josef Korbel School, the debate kicked off with comments from Ben Friedman of Defense Priorities, who emphasized the original purpose of alliances: Military alliances are a means of security — backed by force — that are intended to keep the peace and prevent the emergence of a hegemon, such as Russia during the Cold War. He argued that alliances should be closely examined, rather than worshiped. Moreover, he posited that while U.S. alliances were intended to balance power, they now create an imbalance of power, since the threat that made them necessary in the first place is gone. Free-riding by alliance partners — as well as infantilization of them — costs the U.S. taxpayer, Friedman argued. Moral hazards, entrapment, and spiraling arms races can “poison diplomacy,” he said.

To follow, Michael Beckley of Tufts University began by noting that we are living in the most peaceful, prosperous, and democratic era in human history — a byproduct, he said, of U.S. alliances. Alliances have promoted peace and deterred aggression, have turned enemies into peaceful partners and war-torn regions into relative zones of peace. Commerce has flourished, and it is no coincidence that liberal democracies in the world are largely U.S. allies. He urged that the positive aspects of our alliances should not be forgotten in the face of their faults.

David Hendrickson of Colorado College focused on four themes by which to assess America’s alliances: security, prosperity, liberty, and justice. On security, he argued that U.S. alliances can be problematic if they push us toward conflict, which threatens liberty and prosperity in America. He asks the audience to consider if, in its alliances, the U.S. is applying the rules in an impartial way, particularly in the Middle East.

Finally, Brookings’s Torrey Taussig echoed Beckley, saying that the United States, in conjunction with its alliances, has helped produce unprecedented peace and prosperity around the world. She argued that the system of alliances is now moving down a “dangerous path” of inaction in the face of the return of great power competition, which will continue unless deterred by the U.S. and its allies. These relationships are critical in addressing the rise of authoritarianism, protectionism, and nationalism emerging in the world. She cautioned that if countries with shared values isolate themselves from each other, it will decrease trust, reduce economic independence and prosperity, and increase conflict.