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.
President López Obrador's extension of the term of Supreme Court chief Arturo Zaldívar is part of his strong effort to recentralize power in the Mexican presidency and hollow out the independence and power of other Mexican institutions. His other moves to bend the justice system to his will include a reform that lowered the salary of judges but did not improve the quality of prosecutors and his unwillingness to allow an independent selection of the attorney general, with López Obrador himself retaining the power of appointment. His latest move with the two-year extension of Zaldívar’s term is especially worrisome. Zaldívar is also the president of the powerful Federal Judiciary Council. The council appoints and dismisses judges, sets career advancement rules and disciplines judges. Zaldívar will be setting the council’s and, thus, the whole judiciary’s, agenda and priorities for two years. This allows López Obrador to influence how courts will rule in cases regarding the executive branch, what cases they take up and the legality of new policies. These moves are taking place when the effectiveness of the judiciary in Mexico remains limited and deeply concerning. The attorney general’s office has proven weak, unwilling to take up key cases such as against the suspects in the brazen attack on Mexico City’s security minister, Omar García Harfuch—an event that symbolized the impunity with which Mexican criminal groups operate. Mexico’s justice system showed itself equally meek and disappointing in inadequately investigating the alleged complicity of former Mexican Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos and dismissing the case, potentially the most significant case of corruption and criminal collusion charges against a high-ranking Mexican official in two decades. A decade and a half after Mexico initiated its justice system reforms, 95 percent of federal cases still go unpunished. President López Obrador has scored some points, but the already precariously weak rule of law in Mexico, and thus the Mexican people, will suffer.