'Reassuring' Allies and Clients Breeds Dependency

Contrary to all the yowling we have heard over the last two weeks, the U.S. is perceived as being so reliable that these other governments feel no urgency to improve their own defenses.

There is a lot of chatter from the usual suspects about how Biden will need to “reassure” allies and clients following the withdrawal from Afghanistan, but that seems like a serious mistake. First, it’s not at all obvious that allies and clients genuinely need any reassuring, and when the U.S. has made the mistake of catering to the complaints of allies and clients it has led to some of the more serious foreign policy errors of the last twenty years. It was the misguided effort to “reassure” Saudi Arabia and the UAE six years ago that resulted in the disastrous policy of U.S. backing for the war on Yemen, and that policy has been maintained for all this time on the grounds that the U.S. could not “afford” to alienate these governments. The U.S. needs to offer fewer reassurances to its allies and clients, because their dependency is a liability for the U.S. and it does them no favors, either.

U.S. allies and clients are so accustomed to relying on the U.S. that they neglect their own defenses and capabilities, and then when the U.S. does something they disagree with they find that they are not able to act independently even if they want to try. Far from viewing the U.S. as unreliable, they are all too comfortable with the U.S. bearing most of the burden for their security and show no interest in assuming more responsibilities. Contrary to all the yowling we have heard over the last two weeks, the U.S. is perceived as being so reliable that these other governments feel no urgency to improve their own defenses. An interesting example of this appears in a recent Financial Times report from Taiwan, where most of the population doesn’t anticipate a Chinese attack and the government has not made much of a concerted effort to bolster the island’s military capabilities:

“The government should be raising people’s awareness of the military threat. But instead of doing real things, they just talk, telling people to hate China and love the US and Japan,” she said.

As Taiwan’s Covid-19 vaccination campaign gained traction this summer following donations from the US and Japan, many Taiwanese posted pictures of their inoculation records on Facebook with the words, “Thank you, Daddy America!”

Critics said Tsai’s administration had fed complacency by highlighting Taiwan’s ever-stronger relations with Washington. “The public will think that we are so safe, America loves us and will come to our rescue when push comes to shove — it takes away the urge to be self-reliant,” said Liu.

It seems that most people in Taiwan are so sure of U.S. support in the event of an attack that they have no interest in making more of their own preparations. Because most of the population doesn’t expect an attack, they really see no need to make significant changes or to increase military spending. Rushing to “reassure” Taiwan by taking even harder line against China would exacerbate this problem, and it risks provoking China at the same time.

The best thing the U.S. could do is to encourage Taiwan to become more self-sufficient in its military capabilities, and their government needs an incentive to do that. As long as most people in Taiwan take it for granted that the U.S. will bail them out, the government will have no strong incentive to invest in needed military reforms. Offering Taiwan an explicit security guarantee would send exactly the wrong message, but we know that hawks are certain to increase their demands for one over the coming months and years. Biden needs to ignore the hawks on this issue just as he did when he made the right decision to get U.S. forces out of Afghanistan.