Ranking US Allies: A Response to Stephen Walt, Andrew Sullivan & all those Canadians…

Who knew Canada could be so controversial…


Ok, this has gotta be my last response to the many comments from this sprawling series  (one, two, three, four, five) of posts on ranking US allies. Thanks for all the interest. Who knew Canada was so interesting or Canadians so passionate?

I’d like to thank Stephen Walt (whose blog I think is the best in IR) for linking this debate, and Andrew Sullivan for linking me twice. If you aren’t reading Sullivan yet, you’re at the wrong website. Thanks too to all those Canadians who came out of the woodwork to defend its boring relevance. Finally, who could fail to thank a website disturbingly entitled  f—-dgaijin.com?! (Yes, that’s the actual name; check it out for yourself; at least these guys know where we resident-foreigners stand in the East Asian racial food-chain – at the bottom.)

So here are some final thoughts on the many comments, but especially Walt and Sullivan:

1. I accept the arguments from several commenters that Turkey should be on the list. So here is a final list, a ‘top 12’ of US allies in order: Canada, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, India, Indonesia, Israel, South Korea, Japan, EU/NATO, Egypt, and Turkey.

2. I was please to see that Sullivan flagged – not necessarily approved, but just noted – my argument for Indonesia as America’s most important bridge to the Muslim world. I realize this is kinda off-beat, given that the ME is what dominates our perceptions of Islam and where Islamist pathologies are worst. (Here is a critic, a neocon perhaps, calling me ‘delusional’ for ranking Indonesia this way.) So here is a quick defense, more or less along the lines of what Secretary Clinton said a few years.

Indonesia is a syncretic model of pluralist Islam and politics; I think this is pretty widely accepted. No, it’s not as modern and liberal as we might like, but by the standards of the region, other developing countries, and the OIC, it is a paragon. Let’s be honest about that. It could easily be far, far worse (think Pakistan), which is why I find it unfortunate that we don’t pay attention much. We should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and a friendship with Indonesia doesn’t mean avoiding tough issues, just like engaging China doesn’t mean we should ignore human rights and other similar issues.

So in its own imperfect, struggling way, Indonesia represents the future of political Islam (speaking very broadly to be sure), not the past, which is a lot of what the ME represents and what Arab Spring is trying to break. If the flat-earth religious elites of places like Iran, Pakistan, or Saudi Arabia are allowed to dominate the global conversation on Islam, more conflict is likely. By contrast, Indonesia offers a possible model for Islam to live with both democratic politics and religious pluralism. That we should vigorously support such an effort, through some kind of alignment, strikes me as so self-evident, that I am amazed that we never talk about this.

Indonesia is a multiparty democracy. Its military is “conditionally subordinate” to civilian control. Its human rights record has improved since the dictatorship. Its troubles with salafism and religious tolerance are there, yes, but again, by the standards of reasonable comparable states like Egypt or Pakistan, its record is good. There has no been no major jihadist terrorism since the 2003 Marriot bombing. Jemaah Islamiah is out there and nasty, but this stuff is far less threatening, with far less hold over popular imagination, than similar movements in so many other OIC states, especially given Indonesia’s huge size. Indeed, it’s Saudi oil money funding wahhabist preaching in Indonesia that is the big salafist threat, not homegrown Indonesian clerics.

So instead of lining up with badly governed Arab autocracies as we did in the ME – alignments that create islamist blowback – doesn’t it seem far more beneficial for US to align with a (reasonably) moderate, very large country (4th biggest in the world) that also worries about China, with improving democratic credentials? Like Turkey (also on the list now), Indonesia suggests that Islam can coexist reasonably well with modernity and liberalism. Similarly, Muslims have demonstrated that they can leave in reasonable peace with non-adherents in religiously diverse states like the US, India, and Indonesia. This is great news – somebody should tell the Tea Party and remind the Christian Right that it too should be a little more tolerant. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Islam in more monocultural places like the ME would be harsher and less tolerant. So we should be grooming South and SE Asian states where tolerance is more entrenched, if only out of the sheer necessity of preventing endless internal conflict. And Indonesia is easily the leader here. Hence I ranked it at number 7.

Even ‘long war’ neocons should see the value at this point in defusing the tiresome, now fairly stalemated debate of whether Islam can find a modus vivendi in the modern world or not. Regarding this debate, places like Indonesia and Turkey are models for Islamic democratization and the cutting edge of Islamic politics. This is why we should be attached. We want US alliances to actually get us some real value-added, not just encourage free-riding from countries that already like us. This is why Indonesia is more important than Germany or Japan. We should have learned from the Arab Spring uprisings and Muslim Brotherhood victory in Egypt that supporting nasty dictators in the ME breeds a politicized Islamic backlash. Huntington notoriously argued that Islam had ‘bloody borders,’ but places Indonesia blunt that disturbing logic. That is very, very good – and far more valuable to the US than aging, tired alliances like NATO.

3. Walt’s expansion of my argument toward a “zero-based alliance formation” for US alliance picks formalizes my initial intuitions. He asks if the US had no allies right now, which ones would it choose, because many US allies are left-over from previous commitments that may no longer be valuable. This is a logical and clearer way to think about US allies than my use of retrenchment to force a ranking on US allies. If you are a grad student and need a paper topic, this is a good one.

Instead of my proposed 3 benefits to be sought from allies (direct security benefits to the US, how desperately a potential ally needs the US, and the values symbolism of an alignment), Walt proposes 6 benchmarks: power, position, political stability, popularity, pliability, and potential impact. These are richer than mine, but also make it much harder to build a ranked order. I wonder what Walt’s top 10 would be then? I think he would be harder than I am on small states. That follows insofar as realism would suggest the larger states are usually more consequential. By including values/symbolism as a criterion, I allow places like Taiwan and SK to hang on.

From my top 12, I think Walt would probably kick out Israel, Taiwan, maybe Saudi Arabia and SK. Japan and NATO would probably be higher, and I think Brazil would be in there, and perhaps Australia. (I didn’t include those last because I think the US has few interests in Latin America and Australia benefits from the massive Indonesian glacis.)

What’s interesting though is that neither my nor Walt’s criteria would dramatically change the US alliance structure as I can tell. Walt would probably wind the US down in the ME more rapidly, while retaining the NATO more, and I would do the opposite. We both probably agree that Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan should not make the cut. Finally, I think my benchmarks would ‘pivot’ the US toward Asia faster than Walt’s, although I am not sure. Anyone want to comment on what top 10 Walt’s benchmarks would create?

4. Canadians got pretty passionate over this. I didn’t know that was possible. Like most Americans, I tend to assume that Canadians are Americans who simply refuse to admit that fact (sorry – couldn’t resist that one), but commenters came out swinging against the idea that Mexico might be more important to the US or that Canada might be a ‘threat’ to the US (which I never meant to imply btw). One even argued that Canada is more politically stable than the US. (Hah! … oh, wait, that’s probably true… Sad smile). Generally, I think Canada kinda gets screwed by being our neighbor – they get stuck with every bad idea we come up with and chain-ganged into it whether they like it or not. So, thanks, Canada, sticking with us even after we elected W. Yes, we’re kind of embarrassed too. Enjoy that vid above.

4 thoughts on “Ranking US Allies: A Response to Stephen Walt, Andrew Sullivan & all those Canadians…

  1. I enjoyed the article and found the points about Indonesia to be interesting. One point I’d like to raise is whether Indonesia wishes to cultivate close relations with the US. I’m not sure that it does, for a few reasons:

    1. While, as you mentioned, Indonesia is relatively enlightened in terms of religion, Islamist sentiments cannot be ignored. Indonesia remains an unconsolidated democracy and to be seen cosying up to Washington could exact a sizeable political cost for the government

    2. Indonesians are also beginning to see their country as a future major power. Like India, I think they will seek to maintain their strategic independence (however ridiculous such a concept is). I think this will make it difficult, though not impossible, to build strong ties between Jakarta and Washington

    3. Memories die hard. There are plenty of influential figures in Indonesia who see the US as a less than reliable partner due to the on again/off again US support of the TNI and Kopassus.


    • This is a very good point and quite correct, I think. I didn’t really cover this in the post, but it is not at all clear that Indonesia really wants to run with us. We should try, but we may be repulsed. That is too bad and is probably because we are killing Muslims far too indiscriminately in the GWoT for Indonesia’s taste. That is entirely understandable and yet one more reason to slow the drone war. As Glenn Greenwald has decried for nearly a decade, we have killed so many brown Muslims since 9/11 under such suspicious circumstances that it is not at all surprising that democratic/semi-democratic states in the Muslim world (Indonesia, Egypt, Pakistan, even Turkey) find it hard to work with us.


  2. Great post Robert. You’ve changed my mind on Australia, despite what I said in Korea. With defense spending to GDP of about 1.5-2% we are free-riding. Thanks mate!

    But I just wanted to suggest a couple of deletions and inclusions for you to think about.

    Delete: Taiwan
    – The US guarantee to defend Taiwan is kind of like Chamberlain’s guarantee to Poland. It’s a nice gesture, and carries much weight, but actually enforcing it would be militarily very difficult. If the Chinese decide they really want Taiwan back, they’re going to get it. Deploying a force large enough to take on the PLA in Taiwan would be bigger than D-Day.
    – A better outcome would be to arm Taiwan such that it has capabilities to raise the cost of Chinese meddling beyond what Beijing is willing to bear. Which I understand is the current strategy anyway.

    Delete: Israel
    – I’ve never understood why the United States goes ga-ga over Israel. I can’t think of a recent Israeli contribution to US security. Rather, they contribute an ongoing diplomatic headache.
    – The new axis of power in the Middle East runs Cairo to Istanbul – it doesn’t take a stopover in Jerusalem.
    – Note: I’m not at all anti-Israel. But if I had to choose only ten allies for my favourite superpower, I would only include countries critical to maintaining hegemony.

    Delete: EU/NATO
    – If a union of countries with a $16tn GDP cannot defend themselves, then who can??
    – EU/NATO should be aspiring for a hegemonic partnership with the United States, not an easy reliance upon it.
    – Replace with Brazil maybe? I understand that’s already been discussed.

    Include: Bahrain
    – The US Fifth Fleet is based in the UAE. Not only is the Fifth Fleet critical for projecting power across the Middle East and East Africa, but it also gives the US Navy the capability to control the Straight of Hormuz, through which 35% of the world’s seaborne petroleum passes.
    – Saudi Arabia makes a good ally because they are relatively big and have the black stuff. But you can’t put troops or ships in Saudi Arabia – unlike Bahrain.

    Include: Singapore
    – Like Bahrain, Singapore offers a naval advantage. I think around 2/3 of China’s oil imports pass through the Strait of Malacca, and much of the rest passes through the Lombok Strait in Indonesia.
    – I imagine that controlling the Strait of Malacca would offer considerable leverage in the event of an international crisis in East Asia.
    – Plus, Singapore is already a rock-solid ally with a new naval base built with US aircraft carriers in mind.


    • Show me the money!

      Do you really think these microstates should outweigh traditional US allies though? Bahrain? A nasty Sunni monarchy? Yuck


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