Friends, Foes, and Future Partnerships in a Turbulent World


To achieve its strategic goals, the United States relies heavily on its allies and coalition partners—the “outer defenses” of America’s security system, notes RAND analyst Hans Binnendijk. It needs partners around the world to help anchor the array of international diplomatic, security, and economic institutions created over the past 70 years to provide a degree of global order, and to help protect shared liberal democratic values, he writes in Friends, Foes, and Future Directions: U.S. Partnerships in a Turbulent World, the third in RAND’s ongoing Strategic Rethink series, in which RAND experts explore the elements of a national strategy for the conduct of U.S. foreign and security policy in this administration and the next.

Eight global trends will have an important impact on the future U.S. approach to engagement with its partners, he contends:

  • Global power is shifting from Western nations to the east, for economic reasons, and from nation-states to nonstate actors, for technological reasons.
  • The liberal international order and its norms are being challenged across the globe, making U.S. partners more vulnerable.
  • Ultra-nationalism, religious fanaticism, and political extremism are on the rise and will complicate compromise solutions, particularly in the Middle East.
  • The spread of advanced military technology will increasingly enable adversaries to deny the U.S. military access to their neighborhood, making it more difficult for the United States to come to the aid of its partners.
  • The spread of technology is also creating enhanced vulnerabilities, with nuclear proliferation and cyber warfare at the top of the list.
  • Climate change, greater urbanization, and the spread of infectious diseases like Ebola will create more humanitarian crises.
  • Continued economic inequality and resource scarcity could trigger greater strategic competition; future economic shocks are possible.
  • International complexity and information velocity could create more strategic surprises and less time for decision-making.

These eight general trends could create an even more complex and potentially dangerous international environment in which the United States and its partners must operate. This, in turn, suggests four different challenges that might serve as a focal point for U.S. strategy for the next decade:

  • A normative challenge to the liberal democratic order from several states and quasi-states, including Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, and ISIS, some of which may be partnering more closely together on a bilateral basis.
  • A transnational challenge from nonstate actors, including weapons of mass destruction in the hands of rogue actors, terrorism, cybercrime, human trafficking, and criminal cartels that undermine the writ of some states.
  • A broad “responsibility to protect” humanitarian challenge driven by new Malthusian trends (increased urbanization, scarce resources), incipient genocide, post-conflict reconstruction, climate change, natural disasters, or pandemics such as Ebola.
  • An international economic challenge driven by the need to boost domestic economies, avoid possible renewed global recession, and address unequal income distribution.

Elements of a strategy could be designed around each of these four challenges. For example, dealing with those adversaries seeking to overturn the current liberal democratic order might call for a strategy to divide, deter, and (when necessary) defeat them.

The greatest danger to U.S. interests is the emergence of a close alliance between China and Russia, which could drive the international system back into a dangerous bipolarity, Binnendijk contends:

Both are autocratic governments taking steps to quash democracy movements at home and to cordon off separate national Internet systems, sometimes called “Splinternets.” Both feel disadvantaged by history and, as a result, have territorial claims that conflict with their neighbors. Both are using hybrid tactics that mix force, intimidation, and salami-slicing techniques to uphold those claims. Both see the United States as trying to contain them and seeking some degree of regime change. Both are pursuing A2/AD capabilities. Both are members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

Three broad strategic approaches to changing global partnerships merit consideration, Binnendijk suggests:

  • The first is assertiveness, which implies a degree of unilateralism. The United States would seek to vigorously advance the liberal democratic market-oriented brand that is under fire in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East and challenge alternative models. It would take an uncompromising line with Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, and Salafi jihadists in these three regions of the world. This would risk pushing some of these potential adversaries closer together … [and] would strongly support partner positions in controversies with potential adversaries. It would seek to enlist partners in each regional effort, but the United States would be prepared to take a leading role in each area if needed. Small coalitions of willing partners would be the likely result. Such an assertive approach is generally consistent with American exceptionalism and increased defense budgets.
  • The second option is collaborative engagement. This strategy would seek to shift more of the burden and the responsibility to U.S. partners around the globe. This would include insisting on larger defense contributions from NATO allies, constructing a more-robust security architecture in Asia, and strengthening ties with major powers in the Middle East. Military assistance to vulnerable states would increase significantly. Some of the load would be lifted from the United States, but partners would have an increased voice in regional policies that might conflict with U.S. interests.
  • The third general approach is retrenchment to allow greater focus on rebuilding U.S. domestic strength. This approach would allow for greater focus on rebuilding domestic strength. It would focus national security attention on a narrow number of vital interests where security threats are existential and retrench from regions where interests are less than vital. For example, the United States might concentrate on major power military threats to treaty allies in Europe and Asia while reducing commitments in the Middle East. This strategy would also seek greater accommodation with potential adversaries where possible.


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