“Adults in a Room” is a series in collaboration with The Stimson Center’s Reimagining US Grand Strategy program. The series stems from the group’s monthly networking events that call on analysts to gather virtually and hash out a salient topic. It aims to give you a peek into their Zoom room and a deep understanding of the issue at hand in less than the time it takes to sip your morning coffee without the jargon, acronyms, and stuffiness that often come with expertise.
US foreign policy uses the term “allies and partners” constantly. The United States works with allies and partners on sanctions. Allies and partners enable US military readiness. And they are at the center of the US approach to the Indo-Pacific and efforts to address supply chain issues.
Even though they are often lumped together, alliances and partnerships are different types of relationships. Alliances are codified and require actions of each member under defined circumstances. Partnerships are more vague and can mean cooperation on a narrow set of issues or a broader alignment between countries at a given time. But given that “ally” and “partner” mean different things, why are the two consistently being used together by officials?
The Reimagining US Grand Strategy program’s January 2023 roundtable brought experts together to discuss the concepts of allies and partners, what the difference between the two are, and what the implications of the US approach to alliances and partnerships mean for US foreign policy. Some in the group felt that the two had become largely synonymous and that the relationships would be indistinguishable if US politics treated them as the same. Others made the case that the difference between allies and partners still matters deeply, particularly regarding the question of who the United States would use nuclear weapons to defend. Three experts share their thoughts on the issues of US treatment of allies and partners.
Rachel Tecott Metz,* Assistant Professor, Naval War College
“Allies and partners” are at the molten core of US defense strategy. The 2022 United States National Defense Strategy (NDS) uses the phrase “Allies and partners” 117 times and devotes an entire chapter to the imperative of “Anchoring our Strategy in Allies and Partners and Advancing Regional Goals.” It proclaims allies and partners a “center of gravity for this strategy.”
But what are allies and partners for exactly? And what is the United States trying to achieve through its alliances and partnerships?
Alliances and partnerships should not be treated as ends unto themselves. Washington should think carefully about the security goals it seeks to advance through its alliances and partnerships.
This is a gauche question in Washington, where allies especially have taken on religious valence (Close readers will note a quirk in the NDS text. “Allies” get a capital “A” to signal their pride of place in the hierarchy of US foreign policy relationships. Mere partners, in contrast, don’t get to be proper nouns). The value of US allies and partners is treated as self-evident, something too obvious to question. This is problematic because it creates an intellectual fuzziness conducive to goal displacement. Instead of focusing on how to maximize the value of US alliances and partnerships to the United States and the American people, maintaining and strengthening US alliances and partnerships has become the goal itself.
Time to get back to the basics. Alliances and partnerships are instruments of US national security. The central purpose of alliances has historically been external balancing. The United States pledges mutual defense as a capability aggregator to strengthen deterrence of a shared threat, and to strengthen coalitions against adversaries in the event of war. The key distinction between alliances and partnerships is the absence of formal pledges of mutual defense. The United States has formed partnerships to serve a variety of objectives, including to deter shared threats, shore up fragile states, shape the partner’s foreign policy, gather intelligence, and secure access for the US military via cooperation.
Whether the distinctions drawn between alliances and partnerships are meaningful depends on the outcomes of interest. For the deterrence goal, the significance of the formal mutual defense pledge can only be measured in the minds of potential aggressors. President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine and to avoid NATO targets suggests the piece of paper is meaningful in his mind. However, the scale and nature of US assistance to its Ukrainian partner suggests a blurring of the boundaries in Washington.
Alliances and partnerships should not be treated as ends unto themselves. Washington should think carefully about the security goals it seeks to advance through its alliances and partnerships and adjust its approach as needed to maximize their value and minimize associated costs and risks.
*These comments reflect the author’s views and do not necessarily reflect those of the US Naval War College, navy, or government.
Jason W. Davidson, Professor of Political Science and International Affairs, University of Mary Washington
US allies are countries that the United States has made a peacetime commitment to defend against attack. These commitments are usually, but not always, spelled out in treaties. For example, US presidents have repeatedly pledged to defend Israel, but no treaty requires it. Current US allies include NATO members, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and the Philippines. US security partners are countries that Washington has agreed to cooperate and coordinate with on defense and security matters to further the security of the parties. The United States engages in a variety of activities with partners including military aid, military sales, defense research and development cooperation, joint exercises, military training, intelligence sharing, basing, and overflight rights. Of course, the US might also engage in some or all of these activities with allies.
The distinction between allies and partners is absolutely essential in terms of deciding what kinds of relationships Washington should have with other states.
What distinguishes partners from allies is that the United States cooperates and coordinates with partners but does not commit to defending partners against attack. The United States has security partnerships with the Gulf States, Iraq, Georgia, and India, to name just a few. The Biden administration has failed to clearly distinguish between allies and partners in the NDS, which states that the United States will “collaborate with our allies and partners” to reinforce deterrence and that we will “deter strategic attacks against the US, our Allies, and our partners.”
It is reasonable to expect the United States to collaborate in very different ways with our allies (e.g., Japan) than with our partners (e.g., India) to reinforce deterrence. Moreover, we can see by the Biden administration’s behavior that it does not plan to deter attacks on US partners in the same way that it attempts to deter attacks on allies. The US plans and has repeatedly pledged to come to the defense of attacked NATO allies (including with nuclear weapons), but when Russia threatened to invade Ukraine, a US partner, in early 2022, the Biden administration threatened only economic sanctions.
The main advantage of an alliance over a security partnership is that an alliance precludes the adversary from controlling the ally’s location and resources. There is evidence that alliances are stabilizing in that they deter attacks on the ally and assure that ally. Critics of alliances argue that they entail the risk of entrapment and that they can provoke a potential adversary to take destabilizing action. Some also argue that alliances encourage bad behavior by the ally, such as “cheap riding” and “reckless driving.”
When the United States extends a security partnership to another country, it makes that country more able to defend itself without the risk of US entrapment. The United States also uses security partnerships to encourage burden-sharing and to facilitate military operations. The downside of security partnerships is that they are less likely to deter and assure than alliances. Because partners get less from the United States, they are more likely to refuse US demands than allies, and they may use the military aid and skills they acquire in ways contrary to US interests.
The distinction between allies and partners is absolutely essential in terms of deciding what kinds of relationships Washington should have with other states. It is reasonable to expect the United States to collaborate in very different ways with our allies (e.g., Japan) than with our partners (e.g., India) to reinforce deterrence. But tensions over the Taiwan strait are raising questions about this very distinction. Is President Joe Biden making a good choice in publicly committing to defend Taiwan against attack (thus making it an ally), or is the partner relationship prior administrations chose better for US interests?
Zuri Linetsky, Research Fellow, Eurasia Group Foundation
Cooperation with allies and partners is vital for addressing the array of national security challenges the US faces. The United States cannot address existential threats from nuclear weapons, climate change, and global pandemics on its own. And the United States depends on allies on its northern and southern borders to mitigate the threat of an invasion. Allies and partners benefit from an array of US national security priorities, but they can also undermine US interests. The United States must be especially wary of informal partnerships impeding its broader national security objectives.
To avoid the pitfalls of informal partnerships, the United States should define its interests narrowly and avoid over-committing to non-treaty allies.
The United States has a vast array of alliances and partnerships. Alliances are formal agreements that commit the US military to support its ally if it is attacked and vice-versa. The United States has formal bilateral alliances and mutual defense treaties throughout the western hemisphere (e.g., the Rio Treaty), as well as with South Korea, the Philippines, and Japan. It maintains multilateral alliances like NATO, ANZUS, and AUKUS. And the United States has informal partnerships, which do not involve treaties or require reciprocal defensive commitments, like those with Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel. Unfortunately, US partnerships can undermine the US effort to protect the rules-based international order.
American money and arms support Israel’s 70-year occupation of Palestine. Similarly, US intelligence and armaments sustain the Saudi and Emirati war in Yemen, which has killed over 350,000 people. This support undermines core tenets of the rules-based order, such as universal human rights, equality before the law, human security, and the right to self-determination. Failing to protect these standards undermines the United States’ ability to combat human rights violations by China and Russia.
The US partnership with Taiwan has put it in conflict with China since the early 1970s because it contradicts Chinese claims of sovereignty over the island. The US partnership with Taiwan has contributed to four US-China crises in the Taiwan Strait. As Sino-US relations have deteriorated, calls from US legislators and political analysts to formalize the Taiwan-US relationship have become louder.
To avoid the pitfalls of informal partnerships, the United States should define its interests narrowly and avoid over-committing to non-treaty allies. Partners should not be empowered to endanger US interests.