07/07/2013 10:29 pm ET Updated Sep 06, 2013

Allies or Protectorates


After World War II, the U.S. deliberately built a system of protectorates. For curious reasons, voices from Congress, the administration, and the news media continue to refer to our allies rather than to our protectorates. Which best characterizes our system today -- a system of allies or a system of protectorates? Which would better serve U.S. interests and the interests of our friends?

U.S. presidents have gone back and forth emphasizing the role of ally or protector. The same mutual defense pacts can serve either purpose. The choice between a system of alliances and a system of protectorates has consequences, including the size of the Defense budget and the tempo of operations. A system of protectorates requires maintenance of a large military force and frequent military intervention -- a system of allies less so.

  • Prior to the U.S. entering WWII, FDR positioned the U.S. as the "Arsenal of Democracy," a provider of military supplies but not of warfighting forces. As it did in WWI, the U.S. entered the war late to tip the balance -- the balancer of last resort.
  • After the war, the U.S. quickly established a system of protectorates to allow them to emphasize economic recovery rather than rearm. In perhaps the first postwar action as global cop, Truman took the U.S. into the Korean "police action" adding the costs of war and tripling the base Defense budget.
  • Eisenhower ended the war, drew down the force, and expanded a system of regional alliances. Rather than military force, he used economic diplomacy against England, France, and Israel to resolve the Suez Crisis.
  • Kennedy promised an anywhere, anytime, at any cost global defense, and expanded the military to make the promise credible.
  • Nixon announced a return to Eisenhower's alliance approach, ended the Vietnam War, and drew down the force.
Today's presidents, regardless of party, are under pressure to resolve regional conflicts around the globe. Anything short of immediate and decisive military response will be cited by hardliners as weakness, appeasement, and a failure to lead. A war-weary public introduces some caution, but the key factor is a president's strategic disposition.

One of the many ironies in recent politics is that the Obama administration appears to exercise restraint more like the old Republican Party from the Eisenhower-era while present-day Republicans John McCain and Lindsay Graham appear to argue from the direct military interventionism of the old Democratic Party from the Kennedy-Johnson era.

The idea behind a system of regional alliances is that regional actors have the most at stake, are best able to understand the problem, and best positioned to deal with it. The U.S. might provide advisors, trainers, and equipment, but regional actors would shoulder the primary burden and fight their own wars. Only when the outcome appeared counter to important U.S. interests would the U.S. intervene and then only with sufficient force to tip the scales. A regional political loss was preferable to direct intervention in never-ending conflicts where U.S. vital interests are not threatened. The U.S. would be the balancer of last resort. The "lead from behind" role played by the U.S. in Libya, among other responses, suggests that Obama has shifted toward Eisenhower's approach.

The idea behind extending a U.S. security guarantee to a system of protectorates is that secure protectorates won't enter into arms races to defend themselves that could raise tensions and inadvertently increase the likelihood of regional war. A system of protectorates not invested in their self-defense preserves the U.S. position as the last remaining superpower, and only that position makes the U.S. secure according to this line of reasoning. To defend its protectorates, the U.S. must maintain a preponderance of military power and must be willing to use it frequently even when vital interests are not at risk. Advocates of playing the role of global protector claim that the U.S. economy can support this approach.

In the realm of domestic policy, advocates of limited government often argue their positions on the basis of "moral hazard." That is, by creating social welfare programs for the poor, the state creates a dependency that undermines self-reliance and creates a permanent underclass of free riders. Extending the concept of moral hazard into the realm of international security, extending a U.S. security guarantee to a system of protectorates allows them a relatively free ride and little reason to invest in their own defense thus shifting the burden to the United States, its military, and its taxpayers.

Furthermore, granting unequivocal support may embolden the protectorate to pursue more aggressive policies than justified by its own power -- even in opposition to U.S. policy preferences -- thus increasing tensions and the need for a U.S. response. The tail wags the dog. Tension over West Bank settlement policies is one obvious example.

At the end of WWII, U.S. economic power was at its peak relative to the Eurasian states lying in rubble. It was deliberate U.S. policy for European and Far East economies to recover and grow. The U.S. economy has continued to grow in an absolute sense, second only to the European Union and with the prospect of being equaled by China in the coming decades. U.S. economic power may be at its peak in an absolute sense, but relative to the rest of the world, its economy peaked at the end of WWII and has been in relative decline since. Should the U.S. assume the same security posture given today's world economies as it did at the end of WWII?

Which security system should we rely on in the future -- a system of alliances or a system of protectorates? For reasons beyond my grasp, questions like this aren't asked of candidates for high office. If pressed, I'd wager that the wishy-washy response would be that the candidate preferred working through international bodies but would reserve the right to unilateral action. A reasonable position, of course, but it sidesteps the question. Where do you stand on the issue? Your friends? Your elected officials?