After Bush: How to repair US alliances
Bush's exit won't suddenly fix things. Both sides need to step up.
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This is particularly so in Asia, where the rise of China is transforming the diplomatic geometry of the region. Old US allies and friends such as South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, and Indonesia are shifting to accommodate Beijing, leading to the formation of new strategic triangles.Skip to next paragraph
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There is a way out of the next president's ally problem, however – for both sides.
The new president will need to listen to allies, not only on security threats but on global challenges such as climate change, which animate allied populations. He must be deaf to the siren song of isolationism and alert to any attempts by Congress to erect barriers against trade and immigration. America is strongest when it is open to the world.
Most important, he needs to run a prudent grand strategy. US foreign policy has undergone a welcome shift during Bush's second term away from unilateralism and ideology and toward multilateralism and pragmatism. There can be no going back for his successor. Hopefully, McCain understands this fact as well as Obama plainly does.
The election of a new president offers a fresh start for US allies, too, some of whom have taken advantage of Bush's unpopularity to shirk their alliance responsibilities. Leaders will need to speak up for the alliance in front of their voters.
The US provides a security umbrella under which its allies shelter. Few serious threats can be defeated without the Americans: It is only the threat of US force, for instance, that gives the international community a chance of talking Tehran out of its nuclear weapons ambitions. These alliance benefits do not come without cost. Everything that is valuable has its price.
To be sure, allies ought not follow Washington reflexively. Good friends are not enablers. Where they disagree, they should speak up – but where they agree, they should step up.
If US allies want Washington to regard its alliances as valuable, they need to be valuable allies. The alternative would be to leave all the hard tasks to Washington; but that would only encourage the American unilateralists who created this mess to begin with.
It is the lot of the sole superpower to be on the receiving end of sycophancy and resentment, often simultaneously. Sometimes Americans make it easy for their critics, too. But for all its flaws, the US still does much more good than ill.
No one needs a reprise of the scene at the White House bathtub, but a bit more intimacy would be good for all parties.