Defense In Depth
Why U.S. Security Depends on Alliances—Now More Than Ever
U.S. President Donald Trump’s distaste for international cooperation is well known. For decades, he has denounced U.S. allies for “taking advantage” of the United States. According to a recent article in The New York Times, he has repeatedly expressed a desire to withdraw the United States from NATO. But international cooperation covers a lot more than treaty alliances and multilateral organizations. Every year, countries sign dozens of security agreements covering everything from biological weapons to defense research. The United States used to be a leading player. No longer. Under Trump, the flood of new security partnerships has slowed to a trickle. That is bad news for U.S. security.
Military alliances, such as NATO, are the best-known instrument of security cooperation, but they cannot address every concern. Governments also sign specific agreements on a wide range of issues, military exercises and training, peacekeeping, counterterrorism, personnel exchanges, defense policy, and the development and sale of weapons. The result is a sprawling web of protocols, memoranda, and treaties, often referred to as “bilateral security agreements.” My research on this topic shows that governments use these agreements to provide the legal frameworks that allow soldiers, diplomats, bureaucrats, and spies from different countries to work together every day. Such agreements are meant to tackle modern threats: terrorism, cyberattacks, transnational rebel movements, biological and chemical weapons, piracy, and trafficking in dangerous materials.
Security agreements matter because most countries have few traditional alliances; narrower partnerships help fill in the gaps. Governments sign between 150 and 200 of them each year. Many such partnerships are ambitious, encompassing the full scope of military relations between the two countries that sign them. The United States and South Korea, for example, have signed an agreement regulating their joint military exercises, another creating several joint research projects between their defense industries, and another on cybersecurity. Other agreements focus on specific threats. The United States’ hundreds of security agreements include a deal with Indonesia strengthening security protocols for biological pathogens, one with Lithuania on preventing the illicit trafficking of nuclear material, and one with Australia on improving the technology in torpedoes.
Before Trump, the United States led the field in security agreements. During its first two years, the Obama administration reached 36 such deals. Some deepened ties with longtime allies; others brought new partners into the fold. In 2010, for example, the Obama administration inked the United States’ first major defense agreement with Brazil in over 30 years. The agreement promoted joint military exercises and training, research and development partnerships, and arms sales. It also created a forum for collaboration between American and Brazilian defense firms. The Obama administration implemented over a dozen new agreements just in its final year, including research partnerships with Estonia and Japan and sprawling multi-sector agreements with Latvia and Lithuania.
Such cooperation enhances U.S. national security. As former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter wrote in this magazine in 2016, security agreements allow countries “to take coordinated action in response to humanitarian crises and natural disasters, address common challenges such as terrorism, and ensure the security of and equal access to the commons.” A 2007 agreement with Singapore on research related to homeland security, for example, paved the way for inspectors to scan U.S.-bound freight for nuclear or radioactive materials. A little-known 2013 agreement with Libya helped eliminate that country’s remaining stocks of chemical weapons, preventing them from falling into the hands of terrorists or other transnational groups.
The Trump administration, by contrast, has shrunk away from bilateral partnerships. It signed just five new agreements in 2017 and three in 2018, the lowest figure since the 9/11 attacks began a wave of security cooperation nearly two decades ago. Even those meager numbers exaggerate the Trump administration’s commitment to treaty making. Three of the 2017 agreements—a deal on sharing research and development data in the defense-industrial sector with Brazil, a reciprocal procurement agreement with Latvia, and an agreement with Sweden on testing military equipment—were begun by the Obama administration. The agreement with Brazil, signed less than two weeks after Trump took office, had been under negotiation since 2010.
Not only has the Trump administration signed fewer agreements than its predecessors, those it has signed have been less significant. Previous U.S. agreements have involved extensive cooperation, often with major regional powers, such as Brazil, India, South Africa, and Turkey. The Trump’s administration’s 2018 deals consist of an information-sharing agreement with Brunei, a similar agreement with Montenegro, and a pedestrian military basing deal with Ghana.
Although Trump’s isolationist tendencies are well known, it’s not clear exactly why his administration has shunned military partnerships. In the 2018 National Defense Strategy, former Secretary of Defense James Mattis argued for “new partnerships around shared interests to reinforce regional coalitions and security cooperation”—words that suggest the Defense Department, at least, continues to emphasize international security collaboration. The most likely explanation is not a deliberate change of policy, but rather the Trump administration’s broader lack of interest in diplomacy.
Foreign governments may also be less interested in cooperating with the United States. Political scientists have long known that capricious leaders, even in democracies, make for unreliable allies. And the reinvigorated foreign policies of China and Russia, combined with neglectful U.S. diplomacy, have given governments new options. In 2018, China and Russia each signed defense agreements with India and the Philippines—countries that are crucial to U.S. interests in Asia. China and Russia have also strengthened their security ties with U.S. partners in the Middle East, including Kuwait, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia.
The Trump administration is getting left behind. Many of today’s most dangerous threats—terrorism, cyberattacks, biological and chemical weapons, piracy, drug trafficking—cannot be fought by one country alone. Governments need to share intelligence, coordinate policies, conduct joint exercises, allow one another access to military bases, and collaborate to develop new defense technologies. Failing to strike new security deals will leave Americans out in the cold.