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Toward a Phenomenology of the U.S. Alliance System: Boon or a Scourge on America’s National Interest?

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Key Takeaways

  • An impartial review of America’s globe-wide alliances is the starting point for a realist grand strategy that foregoes primacy and its idealist, globalist, and imperial pre-conceptions. 

  • Building on Marco Cesa’s useful typological model of alliances, we identify a new category of the “Trojan” alliance, which increasingly typifies contemporary U.S. alliance relationships.  

  • Trojan Alliances are the prevailing form in U.S.’s global alliance complex. Like the Trojan Horse of fame in Greek history, the true purpose of alliances of this kind is initially disguised and misleading—-for the interests and the power of the stronger ally (i.e., the U.S.) end up serving the weaker partner. 

  • Free-riding and buck-passing are inherent and unavoidable features of these asymmetric alliances, given the preponderance of power enjoyed by the United States and the stark, and even existential, stakes for the peripheral regional state which regularly pushes for a more active U.S. presence. 

  • The consequence of these alliances is routinization of moral hazard, threat inflation and zero-sum framings of local conflicts, U.S. global interventionism, and constraints on U.S. strategic autonomy. 

  • The durability of America’s global alliances and their luring effect have more to do with the internalization of the idea of primacy by the transatlantic elites and the conviction that such alliances advance U.S. global primacy by default rather than with any proven material contribution of these alliances to America’s core geopolitical interests.

  • Seeking interest-based alternatives to alliance formation is not a call for “isolationism” but for developing a more common-sensical, prudent, and realist approach to America’s alliances that judges them based on how they align with and serve a narrower and more concrete definition of American security. 
The study is published as part of the International System 2050 program at the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy.

Executive Summary

Maintaining the extensive and global network of U.S. alliances is a sacred cow of American national security strategy. For many decades now, the foreign policy establishment has viewed America’s overseas commitments as inseparable from the national interest, such that a true cost-benefit analysis is rarely undertaken.

While the existing multi-regional alliance complex could be traced back to the bipolar structure of the Cold War and its certain militarization with the Korean War, the utopian quest for liberal hegemony under unipolarity provided a rationale for maintaining these arrangements, even absent a global hegemonic foe (as was the Soviet Union). The upshot is Washington continues to reflexively celebrate America’s alliances (most of which it has inherited) as vectors for U.S. power, international prestige, and global primacy—regularly overlooking or downplaying their risks, such as entrapment in foreign conflicts or a nuclear confrontation. 

Washington continues to reflexively celebrate America’s alliances (most of which it has inherited) as vectors for U.S. power, international prestige, and global primacy—regularly overlooking or downplaying their risks, such as entrapment in foreign conflicts or a nuclear confrontation. 

The end of America’s unipolar moment, characterized by superpower decay and the rise of multiple regional powers, poses challenges to the status quo and creates opportunities to re-examine the logic of maintaining the existing alliance structure. Despite many realist critiques of U.S. global alliance system, what has been needed is a holistic and phenomenological account of its development.

To this end, this study conducts a genealogy of our existing alliances in order to disclose the particular history that produced them and to probe the conditions that led to the dominant perception of ‘alliances’ as entities of intrinsic value to be maintained in perpetuity. We thus show how the U.S. policymaking establishment—wedded to its professional and institutional interests—transformed America’s conception of alliances from regional, temporary, flexible, and pragmatic arrangements (as employed by classic statecraft) into global, permanent, performative, and ideological fixtures. 

This situation has left the United States increasingly unable to manage its alliances in a manner that serves its national interests. For, in a multipolar world, in which civilizational middle powers are becoming central actors, America’s alliances are more likely to serve the interest of a group of smaller, peripheral states called ‘regional balancers’ (e.g., Ukraine, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Taiwan, among others) rather than outside great powers. Even so, U.S. policymakers cling to outdated concepts to uphold these security partnerships out of a combination of sociological, psychological, and material factors—such as path dependency, sentimentality, class solidarity, the pursuit of phantom prestige, and ideology. Such attitudes are especially unwise as Washington has a much lower threshold for strategic error under multipolarity.

This project was made possible by a grant from the Stand Together Trust. The authors are grateful to IPD Senior Fellow Professor Marco Cesa for his continued guidance, helpful feedback, and characteristic generosity over the course of this project.

Written By:
Arta Moeini
Dr. Arta Moeini is Director of Research at the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy.
David Polansky
Dr. David Polansky is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy and a political theorist who writes on U.S. foreign policy, geopolitics, and the history of political thought.
Coleman Hopkins
Coleman Hopkins is a Research Assistant at the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy.
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