More on US Allies (2): A Response to My Critics


I found the above image here.

Here is part one of my response to two recent, heavily-trafficked posts (one, two) on hypothetical retrenchment under Ron Paul. (So yes, that makes 4 total posts, including this one.) I got some flak on how I ranked US allies in order of importance, with the implication that those further down were more likely candidates for a diminished American commitment. So rather than responding point-by-point, here are some broad responses on specific countries.

My original ranking, in order, was: Canada, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, India, Indonesia, Israel, South Korea, Japan, EU/NATO, and Egypt. (That’s actually 11, not a ‘top 10,’ because I originally put Canada and Mexico in together at # 1.)

1. I was surprised how much controversy my choice for Canada at # 1 provoked. I thought that was pretty self-evident actually. (Stephen Walt, in a riff on my post, says pretty much the same thing.) Just because Canada is quiet and boring (in a good way) doesn’t mean it is not existentially important for the US. (This same logic, boring ≠ unimportant, applies to my choice for Indonesia. The very fact the Indonesia is a moderate Muslim state is why no one cares about it, but that is a good thing! I guarantee you that if Indonesia had nasty salafists running around like in the ME, we’d all be talking about it.) The US trades the most in the world with Canada. We expect Canada to come with us on just about all our foreign ventures. Its cooperation provides crucial symbolic value: if the country most like us in the world can’t agree with us, then we must be doing something wrong. And most obviously, its security is a direct concern, because of the border. In fact, given that the border is something like 3x the length of the US-Mexico border, Canada easily beats every other state in the world for the most basic US national security concerns.

2. Japan (#9): A good commenter noted that after WWII, the US wanted to make Japan into the ‘Switzerland of Asia,’ and that we are reaping what we sow. Absolutely. I do think Americans send mixed signals to allies. We don’t want them taking an independent line, we want them to do what we say, but then we complain that they free-ride. As I argued in the OP, all this US commitment ‘infantilizes’ US allies by not forcing them to deal with their own regional issues. But Americans, or rather the neocon-liberal internationalist elite synthesis that dominates US foreign policy discourse, ultimately accept weak, dependent allies, because we are in love with our own hegemony. It fires our imagination to compare ourselves to Athens, Rome, or Britain. Neocons read Pericles’ Funeral Oration or Gibbon, and they tear up that America too is the noble, tragic ‘weary titan,’ carrying the great orb of its world-historical task of spreading democracy. Americans thrill to that kind of ‘national greatness’ pseudo-metaphysics while Europeans roll their eyes in disillusionment and Asians wonder wth we are even talking about. So yes, free-riding is pretty obvious to see, because we abet it.


3. Israel (#7): I was surprised I didn’t get more pushback that Israel should be even higher. I guess no tea-partiers read my site. Oh well. Because if you listened to the GOP debates in the last 6 months, the Israel love-fest was just over-the-top, as if Israel is/should be America’s #1 ally. I support the alliance too, but it seems today in US politics that the central alliance litmus-test is Israel, not Mexico, NATO, SK, Taiwan, or India. This is why I expressed a lot of skepticism over the Asian pivot. I think the US should pay more attention to Asia, but I don’t think the US electorate really cares.

4. Mexico (#2) doesn’t strike me quite as high as Canada, in part because the US got along fine for a long time with hostility from Mexico. Mexico doesn’t have the potential to threaten the US as Canada ever might (the border is smaller; it’s further away from America’s east coast center; its economy has been only semi-functional for almost 2 centuries; it’s culturally more distant so there’s no symbolic quality). Mexican stability and growth are obviously strategically more important than every one else but Canada – way beyond Israel, the EU or the Koreans. And I will concede that Mexico is a greater concern at the moment and in the near future, and will absorb more US effort and money than Canada.

5. Indonesia (#6) and Turkey (not on the list). I took some heat for not including Turkey and putting Egypt at the bottom (#11). Ok. But again, I tried to use a ‘top 10’ as a heuristic to force limits. Maybe Israel or Taiwan or SK could be dropped for Turkey. But more generally, I do think we have really overhyped the ME in the last decade. Elsewhere I argued that we broadly misread 9/11 as the first step in a ‘long war’ of waves of salafist extremists coming after us. That just didn’t happen. Binladenists are scary, but there aren’t that many of them, and 9/11 was a one-time sucker punch when we weren’t paying attention, not the start of massive umma-wide uprising. So Turkey is not as valuable to America as we think perhaps. It is important for the EU and Israel, but not so much for US. Insofar as Egypt sits astride the canal and is the heartland of Arab thought, which is where the pathologies of 9/11 are worst, it too ranks above Turkey – only just though. I would probably put Turkey in at 12. But the real story of American commitment in the Muslim world should be Indonesia. Not only is it valuable as a bulwark against Islamic extremism where the majority of the world’s Muslims live (SE Asia), it’s also a valuable hedge against China, and it’s the fourth largest country on earth.

6. Europe (#10). I think Sean Kay’s essay on retrenching from the EU nails it. “If the United States cannot disengage from Europe now, then from where in the world can it?” You said it, brother. If we can’t reduce here, that means American alliance sprawl is basically locked-in forever and that we simply incapable of strategic choice. I take the obviousness of retrenching from the EU as all but self-evident 25 years after the Cold War. Similarly for Australia. Between Australia and Asia is gargantuan Indonesia, so aren’t we encouraging Aussie free-riding by putting troops in Darwin? More sprawl…

13 thoughts on “More on US Allies (2): A Response to My Critics

  1. To me much of the tempest over Canada perhaps comes from semantics, Robert. When you say Canada is extremely important for US IR policy, you can mean “important” in the sense of 1) We urgently need to get in there and deal with them, or 2) It’s crucial that we maintain and preserve what we have. I think with Canada the meaning is obvious, but with some of these nations I am unsure whether you mean the US needs to confront potential disasters or simply value highly the relationship with them.

    Two bugs in your ear I would be interested in you addressing. 1) I’m not a Russophile, but do you not see Russia as either a significant ally or problem? 2) In certain circumstances, if the client state provides trade or other economic or political benefits to the empire, couldn’t the US benefit from infantilizing these ‘free riders,’ particularly if it keeps troops employed? This is perhaps one of the dark sides of US militarization– it does tend to create lots of jobs.


    • Wow. Who knew Canada could provoke such interest? I thought it was just a bunch of pot-smoking, grunge music-loving, Vancouver-based hagwon teachers :). (Everything I know about Canada I learned from the Korean media!) It turns out that Canada is the most divisive issue on this blog in months.

      I’ll have to think about this more. Obviously, I don’t think we need to run Canada’s affairs. I liked your earlier point that Canada is arguably more stable than the US. Hah! Well said. It’s just that Canada’s course impacts the US a lot more than all other US allies/friends/frenemies, whatever. We don’t talk about that much, because Canada is, well, sorta forgettable geopolitically. (Sorry.)

      Russia = bleh. It’s not a problem, definitely not an ally. Just a dysfunctional mess. I wrote about Russia’s Putin-driven decline and got lambasted for it ( But I just don’t see Russia as much of anything for the US – a spoiler maybe. But Romney is just silly and channeling standard GOP throw-away hawkishness about, well, everything when he goes after Russia. In fact, Putin probably secretly likes that sorta talk because it makes Russia sound like it still matters when it really doesn’t:

      Interesting thought on US benefits from allies military dependence. I suppose it is a gain, but rather unhealthy one – very similar to ‘military Keynesianism.’ (Chalmers Johnson used to say that a lot.) I suppose, but one reason I like retrenchment is because I think the military plays too large a role in US culture and politics, now after 9/11. (We have talked about this before: I would like to see America’s allies do more so the US could be less of a war-state which is what we have sorta become since the Cold War, and more obviously since 9/11.


  2. In addition to everything else, Canada provides one enormous symbolic benefit. Every time someone says that we are out to take over the world, we can just point at Canada. Are we capable to taking over Canada? Of course. But have we done so? We haven’t even had anyone suggest it in over a century. (And we teach little enough history that “54-40 or fight!” is not even a memory for most Americans.)

    What has Canada got that we might want? You mean besides lots and lots of natural resources, and close enough to minimize shipping costs. Not to mention dibs on a huge chunk of the potential resources that become available as the Arctic ice cap melts. And a well educated population, with good infrastructure that already links to ours. And minimal cultural differences (save, perhaps, Quebec — but the Canadians have already worked out how to cope).

    So if we haven’t taken over Canada (and the Canadians are actually more likely to complain that we ignore them than anything else), why would be be trying to take over anybody else? Yes, there are counter-arguments that could be made. But it definitely disrupts the reflexive “American hegemony” rants.


    • Hear, Hear. My thoughts exactly. Canadians may be unhappy, cold, pot-smoking, hockey-playing American wannabes (joking, joking), but they are a great ally. And they absolutely help tame American excess. Right on.


      • The only reason against putting Canada way up there is that they dont have a lot of alternative options, and that the US can thus afford to be much less accomodating of Canada than of lets say “Rappallo f–k yeah” Germany, or towards nation in East Asia that may be quite tempted to strike a deal with Beijing instead.


  3. I think the two largest unknowns within this entire meme are Brazil and Nigeria. Given demographic and economic trends, Brazil will be the 2nd most powerful player in the Western Hemisphere. Furthermore, Brazil possesses the rare capacity to command respect across the ideological spectrum in LA. Nigeria’s future importance stems not from its comparative advantages, but its current deficiencies, which will only be exacerbated by its continuing ethnic-religious violence and demographic explosion. What are your thoughts, Professor?


    • I don’t disagree with these trendlines for either state, but I wonder if they are American allies. That doesn’t mean we should have poor relations with either. But I was trying to use a ‘top 10’ list as a way to cut down America’s spiraling alliance bloat to what is absolutely necessary. And I don’t think the US has major strategic interests in either Latin America (bar Mexico) or Africa. Thanks for reading.


  4. As a transplanted Dakotan, I rejoice every day that North Dakota and Canada are producing so much patroleum and natural gas that we’ll never have to deal with Arabs or the Middle East again. And do we need that many allies=-=-it seems that every soldier who perished post V=-J day died in vain.


  5. Pingback: More on Abusing America’s ‘Exorbitant Privilege’: How Long can the US Borrow to Sustain Hegemony – up to a 100% Debt-to-GDP ratio? | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

  6. Pingback: How Long can the US Borrow to Sustain Hegemony – up to a 100% Debt-to-GDP ratio? | The Daily Journalist

  7. Pingback: Ranking US Allies: A Response to Stephen Walt, Andrew Sullivan & all those Canadians… | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

  8. theres been a few changes. since 2012, sri lanka, myanmar, south sudan, ukraine have jumped on the pro amerikan band wagon. the philipines, and turkey has jumped off. something you got very wrong on this list is that china has ALWAYS been a super enemy ever since 49, the us and its allies have been trying to subvert china. remember all the us bases in south korea, and japan are primarily set there for china.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s