In January 1942, shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and US entry into World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt wheeled himself into the White House bedroom of his guest, Winston Churchill.
He was startled to find the British prime minister in the bath. Roosevelt began to back out, but Churchill rose from the bathtub and stood before him – naked, pink, plump, and dripping. “Come back,” he is said to have cried. “The prime minister of Great Britain has nothing to hide from the president of the United States!”
The winner of the presidential election is unlikely to have such intimate relations with America’s traditional allies.
Barack Obama and John McCain both hold their attractions for the allies. Obama’s emergence has caused one long swoon throughout Europe and beyond: even the unromantic Australians favor his election by a margin of nearly 5 to 1. McCain is not feeling that kind of love, but he does have a history of taking alliances seriously, which is appreciated by old hands.
As president, however, either man would need to work hard to reinvigorate America’s alliances.
The departure of the deeply unpopular President Bush will prompt a global sigh of relief. But it will also throw light on a fundamental disconnect between the United States and many of its allies.
Many Americans believe that once Mr. Bush is gone, allies will step forward and share the burdens of leadership. Many allies believe that once Bush is gone, Washington will start listening to them more.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, allies’ fears of an existential threat have declined, along with their willingness to share risks and costs with their American partner.
Afghanistan is a good example. Nearly everyone agrees that the war against the Taliban is a good fight, but fewer are prepared to fight it in a manner that puts their soldiers directly in harm’s way.
Washington remains the only capital able to run a global foreign policy and to project military power anywhere on earth. But America’s recent sorrows, including the wrong-headed misadventure in Iraq and the financial crisis, only make it harder for it to demand loyalty and sacrifice from others.
This is particularly so in Asia, where the rise of China is transforming the diplomatic geometry of the region. Old US allies and friends such as South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, and Indonesia are shifting to accommodate Beijing, leading to the formation of new strategic triangles.
There is a way out of the next president’s ally problem, however – for both sides.
The new president will need to listen to allies, not only on security threats but on global challenges such as climate change, which animate allied populations. He must be deaf to the siren song of isolationism and alert to any attempts by Congress to erect barriers against trade and immigration. America is strongest when it is open to the world.
Most important, he needs to run a prudent grand strategy. US foreign policy has undergone a welcome shift during Bush’s second term away from unilateralism and ideology and toward multilateralism and pragmatism. There can be no going back for his successor. Hopefully, McCain understands this fact as well as Obama plainly does.
The election of a new president offers a fresh start for US allies, too, some of whom have taken advantage of Bush’s unpopularity to shirk their alliance responsibilities. Leaders will need to speak up for the alliance in front of their voters.
The US provides a security umbrella under which its allies shelter. Few serious threats can be defeated without the Americans: It is only the threat of US force, for instance, that gives the international community a chance of talking Tehran out of its nuclear weapons ambitions. These alliance benefits do not come without cost. Everything that is valuable has its price.
To be sure, allies ought not follow Washington reflexively. Good friends are not enablers. Where they disagree, they should speak up – but where they agree, they should step up.
If US allies want Washington to regard its alliances as valuable, they need to be valuable allies. The alternative would be to leave all the hard tasks to Washington; but that would only encourage the American unilateralists who created this mess to begin with.
It is the lot of the sole superpower to be on the receiving end of sycophancy and resentment, often simultaneously. Sometimes Americans make it easy for their critics, too. But for all its flaws, the US still does much more good than ill.
No one needs a reprise of the scene at the White House bathtub, but a bit more intimacy would be good for all parties.