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Foreign Policy

U.S. Alliance System: A Curse in Disguise

Feb 07, 2023
  • Zhou Xiaoming

    Former Deputy Permanent Representative of China’s Mission to the UN Office in Geneva

These days, the U.S. administration under President Joe Biden is at loggerheads with the European Union, Japan and South Korea over the Inflation Reduction Act, which the U.S. allies view as a protectionist measure that will hurt their electric vehicle sector.

This is not the first time, however, that Washington has alienated its allies. In September 2021, the White House infuriated France with a nuclear submarine deal that resulted in the French loss of over $60 billion to the United States and United Kingdom. Just one month earlier, America’s rash decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan left the EU scrambling for cover. All this seems to run contrary to Biden administration’s effort to strengthen alliances.  

“Shore up and strengthen alliances” was described by the Atlantic as one of the elements of the so-called Biden Doctrine back in 2016, when Biden was vice president. In the final months of Barack Obama’s term, Biden himself penned an article, calling for “uniting the Western Hemisphere [and] deepening … alliances and partnerships in Asia.” Since he took office two years ago, his administration has been working its tail off to strengthen alliances. It moved to revitalize its traditional Western alliances, and set up new pacts such as AUKUS and Chip4, extending from security to economy and technology. The alliance system has become the central tenet of Biden’s foreign policy.

The U.S. administration’s apparently contradictory behavior reflects Biden’s “America first” approach to U.S. foreign policy, which is programmed in such a way that its default objective is to serve U.S. geopolitical interests. Admittedly, the administration tries to accommodate the interests of its allies if they are aligned with those of U.S., as with the war in Ukraine. In reality, however, the interests of allies are not often consistent with those of the U.S., which gives rise to conflicts.

When interests conflict, no one should expect the U.S. to sacrifice its interest for the sake of its allies. In its obsession with self-interest, the White House would not hesitate to ditch the aspirations and concerns of others. “To hell with that,” was Biden’s comment on the criticism of the Inflation Reduction Act by the EU and other allies on Jan, 26 — which is probably typical of his attitude toward allies’ concerns in general. Unsurprisingly, Biden terminated the Keystone XL Pipeline with Canada on the first day he took office, just because he wanted to be seen as working to protect American jobs.

For the Biden White House, alliance building is nothing more than a means to reach its geostrategic goals. As part of its foreign policy, alliances are employed to prolong America’s global hegemony, much to the detriment of its allies.  

The Biden administration capitalizes on the system and turns allies into pawns in its geopolitical contests. In the name of shared interests, it demands that allies toe its line, and it treats its perceived adversaries as its allies’ adversaries, often against their own interest and will.

To beat what it considers to be a major threat to its hegemonic power, it pushes the EU into taking a more antagonistic approach toward China, which puts the EU market at risk of depriving itself of a potentially large external source of growth. For example, the U.S. coerced the UK, France and Canada to ban Huawei equipment, causing a substantial delay in the deployment of 5G infrastructure in those countries.  

The Biden administration also exploits the system to keep a grip on its allies. Security ties with America often lead to allies’ dependence on Washington. The unequal relationships give Washington real leverage, and enable it to tether them to its agenda and tighten the ropes it holds on their necks. Enhanced transatlantic relations since the onset of the Ukraine war are at best a mixed blessing for the EU — that is, they provide some Europeans with a sense of security against a perceived Russian invasion. However, this in turn effectively renders the EU more reliant on the U.S., both economically and militarily, pushing back the bloc’s much-touted goal of strategic autonomy.

The Biden administration is, as former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd put it, “happy to throw some of its allies under a bus” when it comes to improved market access to the U.S. And yet it is keen to exploit its alliance system to fleece its allies. It pressures allies to increase defense budgets and contribute to its operations in Iraq and Afghanistan in a bid to shift the financial burden to others. It pursues an industrial policy that drives the relocation of European manufacturing to the U.S., as Washington-led sanctions against Russia are doing. And it banks on allies’ misfortunes to enrich itself, like a vulture. In an outburst of frustration and anguish, French President Emmanuel Macron decried as the antithesis of the “essence of friendship” U.S. energy companies’ charging the French four times as much as they would pay in the U.S. for a supply of liquefied natural gas.  

While availing itself of the resources of its allies to grow its power and influence, the White House has yet to prove the U.S. is a trusted guarantor of the protection they seek. Its willingness and ability to follow through its commitments has repeatedly been called into question. Allies are far from certain that Washington would come to their aid in time of need. South Korean president Yoon Suk-yeol, presumably reassured by his host during a visit to the White House, told reporters in late January that his country may need to have its own nuclear weapons. The comment, analysts say, highlights Seoul’s lack of trust in the Biden administration’s commitment.

This prompted U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin — apart from a visit to Seoul — to reconfirm America’s “ironclad” extended deterrence commitment to South Korea. In life, though, a trusting couple does not see the need to assure each other every day. The frequent White House pledges only serve to expose their emptiness.

U.S. alliance formation and expansion is not just a trap for allies but also a bane for the harmony and stability of the world. By playing some countries off against others, it creates divisions and tensions between nations. The White House’s alliance policy in the Middle East and the Korean Peninsula only perpetuate conflict in those regions. Its massive continued provision of weapons to Ukraine is expected to prolong the Russian-Ukraine war, rather than bringing an early end to it. Its nuclear submarine deal under AUKUS, if it is allowed to proceed, would undercut the efforts of the international community to prevent nuclear proliferation and could spark a nuclear arms race in the region.

Moreover, the Biden administration’s efforts to have allies join in its strategic containment of China throws the entire world into a perilous new era, as many fear. It not only threatens to undermine the cooperation and coordination essential to cope with global crises such as climate change and food security but also destabilizes global stability and fractures the world.

By spurring the formation of two opposing blocs, America’s alliance system has been instrumental in splitting the world and keeping it in a state of perennial conflict in the decades since World War II. Worse still, it brought mankind to the brink of nuclear catastrophe during the Cuban missile crisis.

Now, with its spirit very much alive, Biden’s White House is invoking the nightmarish return of the Cold War. 

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