Alliances have aided US security from the start
The extraordinary shock and emotional pain of the attacks of 9/11 remain with us, as they do with all those Americans who were alive those 18 years ago, with the exception of the very youngest children (and even they have borne the effects, most profoundly in the case of the thousands of volunteers who have continued to fight to defeat those who attacked us). The seeming invulnerability of our “island nation” — invulnerable in our minds to every enemy’s lethal threat, with the exception, perhaps, of nuclear weapons — was shattered that day.
But while our security and confidence therein were shaken, there also were confidence-building consequences: the resolve of our leaders and the American people in the face of attack and adversity, and the support of our friends and allies around the world — NATO, in particular. For on that infamous day, the NATO Council, without hesitation and unanimously, invoked Article V of the NATO Charter for the first time in the history of the alliance. Article V being that an attack on one is an attack on all.
For seven months thereafter, NATO AWACS (airborne early warning and control) aircraft, patrolled U.S. airspace, with the service of 830 crewmembers from 13 NATO member countries. NATO participation in battling the origin of the 9/11 attacks subsequently extended to Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and continues to this day.
Indeed, the importance of America’s allies to our freedom long precedes the year 2001. Without the entry of France into the war against Britain that was the fight for American independence, our history likely would read much differently. In our combined experience of hundreds of years as military, defense and diplomatic senior leaders, the existence of reliable, willing allies has been absolutely essential to ensuring the security of our nation, whether it was containing the Soviet Union during the Cold War, or fighting terrorism in the post-9/11 era. But we fear that we will lose our ability to gain and keep willing allies and partners if America transitions from being the indispensable nation to the unreliable one.
The reality is that we need partners as much or more than they may believe they need us. The modern world is a global one — goods, services, people, tweets and emails, and threats to our security, indeed, our very existence, can readily reach any location — and no wall can reliably stop them. It is only through cooperative efforts with other nations that we can ensure our security and theirs.
We rightly tout our extraordinary military power and incredible armed forces. However, our military capabilities are also dependent on willing, reliable partners — to, for example, provide base and port access, permission for safe overflight, intelligence sharing, logistic support, as well as additional forces (well-trained and ideally interoperable with our forces) for appropriate coalition or allied efforts against common enemies.
And we should not forget the threats posed by the spread of infectious diseases, natural disasters and other humanitarian crises — threats that are not deterred by borders, and often require international cooperation to be dealt with successfully and expeditiously, best executed when working relationships are already in place.
Alliances and partnerships rarely can be forged overnight, nor can they be transactional. They must be built on years of mutual trust and cannot be taken for granted, nor can they be abandoned on a whim or spur of the moment. America First never worked before and it will not ensure our security today, or in the future.
The American public must understand that our alliances and partnerships are not a one-way street and while we rightly should press allies to devote a fair share of resources to mutual security efforts, the benefits that we gain — even when we pay a seemingly disproportionate share — far outweigh the downsides. One of the authors of this piece cites a recent experience when about a year ago, a prominent, successful and well-educated business executive asked him over dinner, “Why are we paying to defend Germany?” The author’s response, “Because we are not.” The executive’s eyebrows raised quizzically, as our colleague continued, “We’re paying to defend ourselves — and to ensure that if conflict erupts, it is there and not here, and that we can keep it from coming here.”
The same is true wherever we have forces deployed or based around the world.
Alliances and partnerships were essential in gaining our freedom, just as we reciprocated in years hence, joining with them to defeat the barbarism of numerous powerful enemies. The relationships between allies and partners, old and relatively new, forged in mutual trust and, all too often, blood, remain as invaluable as ever.
Perhaps we ought to remember Winston Churchill’s warning that, “A nation that forgets its past has no future.”
Bruce S. Lemkin is a retired member of the Senior Executive Service who served as deputy undersecretary of the U.S. Air Force (international affairs) from 2003-2010. He is also a retired U.S. Navy captain. The signatories listed below are all Fellows of the American College of National Security Leaders: Retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Ricardo Aponte, Retired Air Force Brig. Gen. John Douglass, Retired Army Brig. Gen. Robert J. Felderman, Retired Navy Rear Adm. Charles D. Harr, Retired Navy Rear Adm. David R. Oliver, Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. F. Andrew Turley, Retired Army Maj. Gen. David T. Zabecki.