Axes and Alliances

Steven Den Beste has an excellent post about the nature and history of some American alliances, comparing and contrasting the US relationships with some nations during WWII, WWIII (the Cold War), and WWIV (the Global War on Terror). He points out that Japanese support for our efforts have largely been overlooked, that Australia has been the most steadfast supporter of our campaign in Iraq, and that the UK has committed the most of our allies even though support in Britain is contested strongly.

European involvement more broadly has always been complicated and conflicted and controversial, at least in “old” Europe. The struggle over how Europe should deal with the US and with the imminent invasion of Iraq became tied up with other issues, such as whether Europe should speak with one voice or many, and whether Europe should seek to become a counter-balance to American power. Many Europeans has “issues” that were triggered by it (such as nostalgia for past greatness, and resentment about declining power and influence in the world). So Europe ended up being something of a political battlefield in this war, with some leaders there being strong opponents and some being strong supporters.

On the other hand, “new” Europe has been much less confused about where their interests lie, and the Poles in particular have been among our strongest supporters.

I’ve mentioned before the not-so-curious fact that Eastern Europe has some recent history that probably makes them see things a bit more clearly than their neighbors to the west. I wrote in October:

And I don’t think it’s just a coincidence that so many of those nations on our side [in Iraq today] suffered under the USSR. They probably have an appreciation for things that France and Germany, along with others, take for granted. And they see who’s guns allowed France and Germany to get to the point where they could take things for granted.

I’m also a big fan of Poland’s participation in this campaign. They stand to gain a great deal, and they seem to know it. But that’s nothing new. SDB writes

The Japanese don’t have anything like the same kinds of “issues” about the US as “old” Europeans. There was never any question of Japan offering military support for the invasion, of course, but in all the ways that Japan could help, they have done so. On the level of diplomacy they’ve been strong and reliable supporters, and Japan has been extremely generous monetarily. And now the Japanese have taken the unprecedented step of sending troops to Iraq.

He points out that the deployment isn’t popular with everyone in Japan, and that the opposition is uneasy about sending troops to a combat zone for the first time since 1945, not uneasy about supporting the US-led mission in Iraq. Japan is situated on a square that is threatened by both China and North Korea. Who provides the bulk of the security against those threats? They know the answer.

This is yet another demonstration of the way that history seems to have a sense of humor and a strong sense of irony.

One of our two primary enemies in the Second World War is now strongly on our side. Despite the fact that we used weapons of mass destruction against their cities in 1945. Some of our allies in the same war are firmly opposed to our actions in the post-9/11 world. Despite the fact that our weapons of mass destruction, unused, protected them from enslavement for five decades.

In the last two years, France emerged as the European nation which has most strongly opposed us, and the French now view the Germans as their closest and most important ally in their struggle against the American hyperpuissance and against all anglophones everywhere. Germany, once the most martial of nations of Europe, and the most feared of the Axis nations we fought against in WWII, is now pacifist and has been following the French lead.

The USSR allied with us during WWII, but it was an enemy-of-my-enemy alliance of convenience and survival for both sides. The USSR opposed us during the Cold War. The USSR was a Russian empire (even though Stalin was actually Georgian), and it dissolved at the end of the Cold War. Russia now aligns with France and Germany against us.

Despite heated disagreement and moderately effective resistance by France, Germany, and Russia, we have gone about our business. It’s not any small point, either, that we are not at, or even considering, war with any of them over our differences. We have, more or less, agreed to disagree. There are consequences, to be sure, but nothing that is unacceptable to either party.

Now France is an enemy, for all intents and purposes.

I’m not sure that I believe this. I do believe that France and Germany are simply wrong, and that history will prove them so. But that’s their business, and their position may change in time. Especially if the Eiffel Tower is vaporized by someone who wants to wear a headband in school. But, while being far from allies (or even really ‘neutral’) in the current cause, I hesitate to call them our enemies. So far, anyway.

Alliance is always based either on deeply shared values or on mutual interest. Alliances last only as long as the factors which created the alliance last, and when they’re gone then the alliance is, too. In every true alliance there is a degree of competition and disagreement, but a greater degree of cooperation for mutual benefit.

Treaties and organizations do not create alliances; at best they recognize alliances that effectively already exist. And when conditions change so that one ally sees more value in the other ally being hurt than in cooperating with the other for mutual benefit, then treaties and organizations become useless and empty and may even become a liability.

This war, as has been pointed out many times by many people for many reasons, is far different than the previous world conflicts. There is no national organization or alliance of national organizations that threaten to overwhelm the free nations. Except for brief flares like the initial campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, the battles during the Fourth World War are going to be small, sporadic, and spread around the globe. As time passes, as fights are won and lost, and as strategies change, the alliances with our friends, as well as those of our enemies, will change.

During this war, one of the biggest criticisms leveled at the US was that it was relying on coalitions of the willing instead of on traditional allies. But all true alliances are coalitions of the willing; they always have been and always will be. Some members of the coalitions of the willing were traditional allies, and they were the ones with whom we continued to deeply share values or with whom we had mutual interests. When traditional allies were not included, it was because they had demonstrated that they were no longer really allies.

And that can work in both directions. Russia is currently opposed to most of what we’re doing, but that could all change rather quickly if al Qaeda ties to the Chechnyan separatists strengthen significantly and a major terror campaign is launched against the Russian nation. Tony Blair’s support, always fragile, could very possibly evaporate if the US prepares to move against Syria. Terrorists could attack Canada, or attack the US through Canada, and our neighbors to the north would be forced to face things they’re currently more comfortable watching from the sidelines.

Honestly, I think we need Canada. Maybe not militarily, although Canadian forces in Afghanistan continue to contribute significantly. But I belive that we need stronger ties to both Canada and Mexico, if only becasue we share this continent and because of our long borders with each.

Yesterday’s biggest enemy may be one of today’s biggest friends; yesterday’s friend may try to shove a knife in your back today. Some alliances last for decades; some evaporate in months. Thus has it always been and thus will it continue to be.

Not mentioned by SDB in his post is our relationship with Saddam’s Iraq. Our assistance to Iraq’s military during their long war with Iran wasn’t an alliance, of course, but many today try to tell the story that way.

There will be more changes in the line-ups and batting orders over the coming years. I think that history will prove us right more often than not, regardless of how many toes we step on today. France may well turn out to have been an enemy all along. Or they may end up being a staunch supporter before it’s all over. I imagine that our relationship with Saudi Arabia is going to look far different through the prism of history, as will our solid friendship with Israel and our differences with Germany.

We have to get to the future to look back at today with hindsight. I think we’re doing an acceptable job of it.


  1. …our relationship with Saudi Arabia is going to look far different through the prism of history…’ I think our relationship with Saudi Arabia will look far different through the prism of the next year or two!

  2. Should I even point out that at least some of the crticism is about how the administration sold this Iraq thing? And that forces in Iraq are not available to ferret out those people in Afghanistan that have a known connection to Al Quaida and continue to go about there business (not entirely unmolested, of course)? France, Germany and Russia do not define the reasons for disagreement with the war in Iraq. Not everyone is disagreeing that it is potentially useful or the right thing. These other points, about how the administration got us to here are the problems for me, at least. These arguments sometimes sound awfully black or white, good or bad, with us or against us. If that is the way things are then fine. But then it appears that we are agaist us, because we used to negotiate with Saddam (and others). But then the 9/11 changed everything comes in. But why the clear with or against with Saddam and the nuanced negotiations with N Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia? Because with us or against us doesn’t really work except for campaigning and in certain situations. I appreciate that you wish for some acknowledgement of the difference between what was promised (hoped for) and the reality. That would give me some reason to believe that the administration can tell the truth about things. But not much affirms that for me so far. The right thing by wrong means always seems to haunt. but usually after an election or two.

  3. Okay, this is in the Washington Post, but it is quoting other people: Pardon the large quote, but this is the problem with how the administration has played this: ‘Within the United States, Bush does not appear to have suffered much political damage from the failure to find weapons, with polls showing high ratings for his handling of the war and little concern that he misrepresented the threat. But a range of foreign policy experts, including supporters of the war, said the long-term consequences of the administration’s rhetoric could be severe overseas — especially because the war was waged without the backing of the United Nations and was opposed by large majorities, even in countries run by leaders that supported the invasion. ‘The foreign policy blow-back is pretty serious,’ said Kenneth Adelman, a member of the Pentagon’s Defense Advisory Board and a supporter of the war. He said the gaps between the administration’s rhetoric and the postwar findings threaten Bush’s doctrine of ‘preemption,’ which envisions attacking a nation because it is an imminent threat. The doctrine ‘rests not just on solid intelligence,’ Adelman said, but ‘also on the credibility that the intelligence is solid.’ Already, in the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, China has rejected U.S. intelligence that North Korea has a secret program to enrich uranium for use in weapons. China is a key player in resolving the North Korean standoff, but its refusal to embrace the U.S. intelligence has disappointed U.S. officials and could complicate negotiations to eliminate North Korea’s weapons programs. Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said the same problem could occur if the United States presses for action against alleged weapons programs in Iran and Syria. The solution, he said, is to let international organizations such as the International Atomic Energy Agency take the lead in making the case, as has happened thus far in Iran, and also to be willing to share more of the intelligence with other countries. The inability to find suspected weapons ‘has to make it more difficult on some future occasion if the United States argues the intelligence warrants something controversial, like a preventive attack,’ said Haass, a Republican who was head of policy planning for Secretary of State Colin L. Powell when the war started. ‘The result is we’ve made the bar higher for ourselves and we have to expect greater skepticism in the future.’ James Steinberg, a deputy national security adviser in the Clinton administration who believed there were legitimate concerns about Iraq’s weapons programs, said the failure of the prewar claims to match the postwar reality ‘add to the general sense of criticism about the U.S., that we will do anything, say anything’ to prevail.’