October 24, 2002

October 24, 2002 | Executive Summary on Department of Homeland Security

Executive Summary: The Vital Role of Alliances in the Global War on Terrorism

If Washington manages both impending military action against Iraq and the ongoing war on terrorism in the same manner, the international accusations of "unilateralism" should fade. In the war on terror, the United States has not had to go it alone. Washington leads a "coalition of the willing" that includes not only its allies, but many other countries as well.

Indeed, as detailed in the appendix, 136 countries have offered the U.S.-led war varying forms of military assistance, and some 20 nations have deployed a combined 16,000 troops for operations in Central Asia. The sky above Afghanistan is patrolled by some 40 fighter aircraft from five countries, while the Arabian Gulf has some 80 ships from 15 countries. Afghanistan is rid of al-Qaeda, and beyond Afghanistan almost every country in the world has enacted legal and administrative measures to combat terrorism, improve border and airline security, and empower law enforcement agencies to investigate and arrest suspected terrorists. Many countries have also taken steps to thwart terrorist financing.

America's close cooperation with its formal treaty allies paid especially great dividends. The United Kingdom sent 3,600 military personnel and provided the largest naval task force, including one destroyer, two frigates, and one missile-armed submarine among other vessels. Australia deployed some 1,550 soldiers and sent the 16th Air Defense Regiment that includes four F-18 Hornet fighter jets and two Boeing 707 aerial refueling tankers. Japan has expanded beyond the traditional confines of its constitution, enacting new legislation to enable its Maritime Self Defense Forces to contribute directly to the operations in the Arabian Gulf. Tokyo ultimately authorized the deployment of 1,200 military personnel, three destroyers, two supply ships and six C-130 transport aircraft, among other contributions.

The success of this international war effort thus far provides valuable lessons and a blueprint for future military operations to achieve global aims, such as in Iraq.

The Value of Alliances. America's existing alliances were formally established after World War II, primarily to deter invasion by third-party nation states. An allied bloc of countries mutually obligated to defend one another significantly raises the cost for an aggressor to invade. In Asia, a region rife with historical animosities, the U.S. forward presence entrenched in the series of formal bilateral alliances it maintains with several key players provides the cornerstone of future stability and prosperity. Faced with the unanticipated insecurities of the new security environment, the alliances provide critical flexibility that complements U.S. leadership.

But alliances extend beyond strategic deterrence. A formal treaty embodies shared values and congruent national interests. For America and its allies, it symbolizes a commitment to democracy, the rule of law, and free market capitalism. No matter how situations and paradigms change, shared values make it likely that allies will pursue a similar course of action for the same reasons. America's best weapon against the unexpected is its alliances.

The emergence of non-state actors like al-Qaeda, whose tentacles extend into 60 countries, has underscored the importance of expanding cooperation between America and its treaty allies. As the sole superpower with the most powerful military force in history, the United States is particularly susceptible to unconventional modes of military attack or asymmetric warfare. The dispersed al-Qaeda operatives aim to injure American citizens and their values in order to extort Washington into inaction and ultimately to withdraw from international affairs. Such an asymmetric threat requires the United States to look beyond its borders.

An Alliance-Based Approach. A system of bilateral alliances is well-suited to address the global security environment. The United States should reinforce all of its bilateral alliances with the goal of consolidating resources, stepping up cooperative efforts, and coordinating plans for future threats. Specifically, the United States should:

  • Strengthen relations among U.S. alliance partners. The United States should work to broaden its network by pursuing a hub-and-spokes system of alliance. It should encourage the strengthening of relations between and among its varied allied partners.
  • Increase military interoperability with alliance partners. To do this, the U.S. Department of Defense should first prioritize the meaningful contributions of allied partners by continuing to work at harmonizing interests and goals at the strategic, operational, tactical, and technological levels.
  • Strengthen domestic support for the alliances in the United States and abroad. Leaders in the United States and allied governments must focus on building and maintaining popular support for the alliances, paying close attention to domestic audiences and justifying the sacrifices that alliance maintenance requires.

Conclusion. After the 2001 attacks on America, President George W. Bush effectively declared two wars: a general war to eradicate global terrorism and a specific one to dismantle the core leadership of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Both wars elicited substantial international participation.

Some have criticized U.S. military action as unilateral, but it is rather an exhibition of forceful leadership from a country that is not only the primary target of the terrorism, but also the most powerful and best equipped to lead the charge. America's formal treaty allies have contributed significantly to the international "coalition of the willing" and are the most likely to participate in a coalition led by the United States to achieve global aims. The United States should strengthen those vital alliances.

Paolo Pasicolan is a Policy Analyst, and Balbina Y. Hwang is Policy Analyst for Northeast Asia, in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.