Stephen Walt criticizes the Biden administration’s version of “Pactomania”:
Even when states are united by a shared perception of threats, however, the ultimate value of the partnership depends in part on whether the members agree on a common strategy and are willing to share the burdens appropriately. Adding weak and vulnerable members to an alliance may not strengthen it, and long-standing partnerships become less effective if some members let their own military capabilities languish. When this happens, Uncle Sucker ends up bearing an excessive burden, and the partnership’s ability to achieve its stated goals will be jeopardized.
Indeed, in today’s world, what U.S. officials like to call “alliances” or “security partnerships” are more like protectorates. In many cases, the United States has agreed to defend weak and vulnerable countries that can’t do much to help the United States no matter how much they might want to. Such arrangements may still be useful if the country in question is in a critical location or controls other valuable assets, but that determination needs to be made on a case-by-case basis and in an unsentimental and hard-headed way.
Walt is right about all that. There are a couple more reasons to worry about the further proliferation of partnerships and would-be alliances under Biden. The first is that the U.S. is already overstretched with the commitments that it currently has, so taking on more is an invitation for trouble and failure. As Walt says, “The more commitments you have, the harder it is to honor them all,” and sooner or later the U.S. will not have the bandwidth and resources to make good on all its promises. Now is the time to start pruning and reducing outdated and unnecessary commitments instead of inventing new excuses to expand on existing ones. Biden is going in the opposite direction.
The other danger is that some of Biden’s most high-profile agreements among allies have been built on shaky foundations. The trilateral summit with South Korea and Japan that the U.S. touted as a significant upgrading of the relationships with both allies was made possible by the unilateral and unpopular actions of the South Korean president. The political opposition in South Korea is strongly against what Yoon did (the opposition leader has even gone on a hunger strike to protest Yoon’s leadership on this and other issues), and Yoon’s attempt to force rapprochement with Japan will likely be undone by his successor. The closer trilateral cooperation that the U.S. hoped to institutionalize could evaporate in just a few years because the underlying disputes between South Korea and Japan have only been papered over and not seriously addressed. Dylan Stent offered a blunt assessment last month: “Any trilateral agreement will be torn to shreds and discarded when the Korean left makes it into office, whether in 2027 or later in the future.”
Daniel Larison is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.