RIGHT ANGLE : Loyalty – Test of America
A generalization of the “American Loyalty” to its allies, friends and partners is not helpful. It has a mixed record.
The just concluded visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the United States has been viewed by many to be a great success story in taking India to a greater height in geopolitics. This seems to be the dominant view in the strategic circles of both India and the United States. This view is in consonance with that of US President Joe Biden when he says that “ The friendship between the United States and India is among the most consequential in the world. And it is stronger, closer and more dynamic than ever”.
But, there are also critics who view otherwise. They, at least in India, and particularly those who dominated the decision-making process until Modi assumed office in 2014, argue that India under Modi has committed a big strategic blunder by believing in and relying on the US. For them, the US has never been a dependable ally or partner of any country.
They cite the instances of American betrayal in the forms of withdrawal from Vietnam and Afghanistan. At first glance, they seem to have a point.
On closer scrutiny, however, a generalization of the “American Loyalty” to its allies, friends and partners is not helpful. It has a mixed record.
Between 1948 and 2014, the US had as many as 66 defense commitments, including commitments to NATO members and Rio Treaty partners (most countries in Latin America).
The US is also linked to formal alliances with South Korea, Japan, Thailand, the Philippines, Australia, New Zealand, Liberia, and some small Pacific island states that previously were US territories. One may say that the US and New Zealand are no longer allies, but the facts remain that the Australia, New Zealand and United States Security Treaty, or ANZUS Treaty, signed in 1951 to protect the security of the Pacific, is still intact and that the country is a part of the Five Eyes espionage and intelligence alliance ( Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States).
In the 1980s, Washington created a new category of partners called “major non-NATO allies” (MNNA), primarily to ease arms transfers and facilitate military cooperation. Until recently, 17 countries were designated as MNNAs: Afghanistan, Argentina, Australia, Bahrain, Brazil, Egypt, Israel, Japan, Jordan, Korea, Kuwait, Morocco, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand, and Tunisia. Taiwan is also treated as an MNNA, without formal designation as such.
However, it is true that the US has not exactly been a loyal ally to all in that list. America’s loyalty has depended on its changing geopolitical needs as well as the reciprocity of loyalty from its allied or military partners. Forget about Afghanistan, even Pakistan will say that, despite America’s alliance with Pakistan costing it nearly $40 billion since the September 11 attacks.
Recent trends suggest that the US now realizes that nondemocratic regimes are inherently unreliable partners, though entering into alliances with them is much easier. Not only the longevity of these regimes are suspect because of their very nature (always vulnerable to democratic pressures from below), thus raising questions over their successors’ commitment to the alliance; their rulers, when strong and stable, also renege on their liability to the alliance in the absence of the restrictions of a constitution, an independent judiciary, and an elected legislature in a true sense.
In fact, it is much easier for authoritarian regimes to violate treaties. We have the glowing example of how Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov literally cheated the Americans after entering an agreement with the then Bush administration in March 2002 to set up the Karshi-Khanabad air base (also known as K2) in southern Uzbekistan for launching operations into Afghanistan, but not before grabbing US assistance, both direct and indirect, worth of nearly $400 million.
Policy-makers and analysts in the US now prefer closer military relations with “democratic countries” to those that are authoritarian. From the American point of view, security alliances or interactions among democracies have proved to be much more enduring. There may be occasional hiccups because of domestic developments of the democratic partners, but despite all that, the governments do continue to honor their security commitments because those deals are guaranteed by an established legal order.
That explains why notwithstanding the differences among the leaders from time to time, America’s security relations with Israel, Germany, the UK, France, Australia, Japan, and South Korea are fundamentally sound.
The US stands out to many around the world as the country their own nation can rely on most, according to a Pew Research Center survey not long ago. Pluralities or majorities in around half of the 17 countries where an open-ended question was asked named the US as their most dependable ally going forward.
Israelis named the US as a reliable partner (82%) among the countries surveyed. People in Australia and Canada – countries that, like South Korea, are American allies by treaty – also named the US as their top ally than any other country.
A similar survey conducted in 2018 in 14 countries that have hosted large US military deployments, including Japan and South Korea, with approximately 1,000 respondents in each, found that people in the host country generally felt positive or had neutral attitudes toward the US personnel stationed in their country.
In Australia, only 11 percent of the people were against the alliance. The respective figures were 15 percent in South Korea, 19 percent in the UK, 16 percent in the Netherlands, 20 percent in Portugal, 26 percent in Germany, and 27 percent in Japan.
In other words, an overwhelming majority in democracies is in favor of a stable security alliance with a fellow democratic America.
Security alliance with America has also been economically beneficial to the host countries, helping their investment, trade, political development, and economic growth, directly and indirectly.
According to the recent report, the US currently has approximately 174,000 active-duty personnel deployed to overseas locations in approximately 140 countries. The Department of Defense Comptroller’s Office estimated the total cost of overseas bases and deployments at $24.4 billion in the fiscal year 2020. This must have gone up over the last three years. The figures generally exclude the costs of ongoing combat operations.
The moral of the story is thus clear – the US has got a much better record in keeping its military commitments to fellow democracies and that the latter do appreciate the American commitments. This is assuring , therefore, that the growing bonhomie between India and the US is also built on a solid democratic base, with India being the largest democracy and the USA strongest in the world. No wonder why both Modi and Biden have emphasized so much the two countries’ democratic DNA.