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Just how entangling are America’s alliances?

Many international relations scholars warn that alliances entangle the U.S. in foreign conflicts. New data suggests maybe not so much.

US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter is briefed on the northern Israeli border near Lebanon by Israel Brigadier General Muni Katz as Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon looks on, 20 July 2015. EPA/MATTY STERN /HANDOUT

A common lament of foreign policy realists is that the United States has made way too damn many overseas commitments. According to this narrative, the complex network of American alliances and security commitments entangles and ensnares the United States in militarized conflicts that are not vital to the national interest. This forces the United States to expend blood and treasure in faraway conflicts, contributing to “imperial overstretch.”

In the Spring 2015 issue of International Security, however, Michael Beckley pushes back on that argument in “The Myth of Entangling Alliances: Reassessing the Security Risks of U.S. Defense Pacts.” Beckley looks at all cases of U.S. participation in militarized interstate disputes from 1948 to 2010 to see if formal alliance dynamics triggered American participation in the conflict. Beckley’s conclusions:

Over a sixty-two-year period in which the United States maintained more than sixty alliances, I find only five ostensible episodes of U.S. entanglement—the 1954 and 1995–96 Taiwan Strait crises, the Vietnam War, and the interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s. Even these cases are far from clear-cut, because in each there were other important drivers of U.S. involvement; U.S. policymakers carefully limited support for allies; allies restrained the United States from escalating its involvement; the United States deterred adversaries and allies from escalating the conflict; or all of the above.
To be sure, the United States has intervened on the side of allies on numerous occasions. In most cases, however, U.S. actions were driven by an alignment of interests between the United States and its allies, not by alliance obligations. In fact, in many cases, U.S. policymakers were the main advocates of military action and cajoled reluctant allies to join the fight. …
Since 1945 the United States has been, by some measures, the most militarily active state in the world. The most egregious cases of U.S. overreach, however, have stemmed not from entangling alliances, but from the penchant of American leaders to define national interests expansively, to overestimate the magnitude of foreign threats, and to underestimate the costs of military intervention. Scrapping alliances will not correct these bad habits. In fact, disengaging from alliances may unleash the United States to intervene recklessly abroad while leaving it without partners to share the burden when those interventions go awry.

Now saying that there’s a robust finding “except for Vietnam” leads one to think that this is a pretty big exception. That said, Beckley’s findings suggest that if the United States is over-committing resources abroad, it’s not because of alliance dynamics.

This is interesting to bear in mind as one reads about the recent travels of U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter. As the New York Times’ Helene Cooper notes, Carter is being deployed overseas in a very specific manner:

President Obama’s defense secretary, Ashton B. Carter, has become the secretary of reassurance. …
Mr. Carter has adopted this diplomatic role since taking the reins of the Pentagon from Chuck Hagel in February. The confluence of turmoil around the world has American allies looking to the United States for promises of military support if security conditions worsen. …
By sending the defense secretary to calm fretful allies, the administration can give the appearance of robust military support without actually committing American troops.

So does Carter’s reassurance tour buttress or contradict Beckley’s findings? Cooper’s reporting seems to support Beckley’s thesis:

So far, meeting that challenge has consisted of sending Mr. Carter around the world to tell allies that he has their back, even if his boss will not be sending any troops. Instead, the Carter message — a direct echo of Mr. Obama’s own views — has been to encourage allies to build up their own defenses, with help from American trainers, military equipment and weaponry. …
Similarly, the Defense Department has been pushing Japan to adopt a more aggressive military posture, after decades of relying on the United States for security.

Allies that can rely on their own resources should be less insecure, and therefore less in need of reassurance, thereby reducing the risk of U.S. military entanglements.

There is a “but,” however. One of the other hypothesized effects of alliances is that they constrain the smaller state. Countries in need of U.S. security reassurances will be less likely to engage in risky foreign policy behavior if it puts those reassurances at risk. The big question going forward is whether countries like Japan or Saudi Arabia, after being encouraged to build up their own capabilities, also feel less constrained to use those capabilities against adversaries. The Saudi campaign in Yemen is an example of this kind of more aggressive behavior.

Reassurance is a necessary but tricky part of diplomacy. Too little reassurance, and allies freak out that they are being abandoned. Too much reassurance, and allies believe they have a blank check to do what they want. It seems that Carter is walking the fine line between these two extremes. One wonders if his successors will be as adept.