Doing More: Landpower and Alliances

May 6, 2014

Russia’s not-so-covert war against the interim authorities in Kyiv is beginning to take on the characteristics of a serious civil conflict, as tactics directed from Moscow appear designed to amplify or otherwise leverage discontent among a minority of ethnic Russians living across eastern and southern Ukraine. In response, the United States has deployed troops to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland, sent air assets to Romania and Poland, and deployed a U.S. Navy ship to the Black Sea, all on a bilateral basis.  Meanwhile, a multilateral response by NATO continues to unfold.  Although some have referred to NATO’s efforts so far as “toothless,” the reality is that the alliance has contributed substantive assets to date while looking to do more.

For example, NATO has deployed naval vessels in the Baltic Sea, increased air assets performing the Baltic Air Policing mission, and sent reconnaissance assets over Poland and Romania.  Deputy Supreme Allied Commander in Europe General (UK) Adrian Bradshaw visited Latvia last week to discuss further efforts.

While necessary, the steps NATO has taken to date aren’t sufficient, and the alliance clearly can and should do more.  Even as the alliance’s response develops, however, what is already clear from Washington’s perspective is the value and importance of a firm multilateral, allied response when shared security interests are threatened.  American alliances, including and especially NATO, continue to prove their worth as force multipliers when it comes to defending and safeguarding common interests.

However, there’s a sense that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have together served to almost exhaust the United States as well as its allies, preventing them from responding as robustly as they otherwise might to perceived threats against shared interests.  Additionally, some have questioned not simply whether U.S. allies both in Europe and the Pacific will a play a significant role in any America-led coalition in the near future – which is largely a political question – but, if so, how they will do so given structural reductions.

Washington is hence confronted with the questions of whether, when, and how to leverage critical allies and other partners in safeguarding shared interests in the post-ISAF security environment.  For example, how can the United States get European allies to shoulder their share of the defense burden in Europe and beyond?  How will the United States work with Pacific allies and key partners to maintain their security and stability throughout Asia?  And what policy tools, including Landpower, are most effective and most efficient at helping Washington to achieve these goals?  These were among the central questions addressed in a recent study published by the Strategic Studies Institute (SSI) and the U.S. Army War College Press.  In Augmenting Our Influence: Alliance Revitalization and Partner Development, Dr. William Tow of Australian National University, Dr. Carol Atkinson of the University of Southern California and Dr. Sean Kay of Ohio Wesleyan University were each asked to consider the aforementioned issues, as well as to address how the United States should balance the need to maintain traditional alliances and partnerships in Europe as it places more emphasis on the Indo-Asia-Pacific and what Landpower’s role might be in identifying, developing, or maintaining those relationships.

Dr. Tow’s chapter, “Pursuing U.S. Strategic Interests in the Asia-Pacific: Pivoting Away From Disorder?” assesses the utility of the rebalancing strategy, the role of allies in that strategy, and the degree to which Landpower might form a critical implementing element.  Tow argues that most of America’s allies and key partners in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region have welcomed Washington’s rebalancing, but at the same time most are reluctant to embrace it too openly and aggressively.  Doing so, argues Tow, could place those countries in an awkward position vis-à-vis China, which has displaced the United States as the most important trading partner for many countries in the region.  In sum, while reaching for Washington’s outstretched hand, few countries in the region want to be placed in the position of having to choose between the United States and China.  Meanwhile, China views the rebalance skeptically at best and as a potentially hostile policy of containment at worst.  Trying to manage Chinese perceptions while engaging traditional allies and new partners will be among Washington’s chief challenges in the coming years.  The role of Landpower in all of this, Tow adds, may be severely limited thanks to sequestration and defense austerity, which are relegating most of the military components of the rebalance to the Air Force and the Navy.

One area where Landpower may play a critically important role, though, even under conditions of austerity, is in terms of security cooperation, and especially combined education.  Dr. Atkinson, in her chapter entitled “Military Soft Power in the 21st Century: Military Exchanges and Partner Development,” posits that the ability to co-opt, persuade, and influence the thinking of others ultimately supports international peace and stability.  U.S.-hosted military educational exchange programs provide a vitally important means of building individual relationships, which, in turn, form the basis for bilateral and multilateral partnerships among the militaries of different countries.  Atkinson cites data indicating that the officers who come to study at U.S. military educational institutions are likely to reach positions of power in their home countries, and that most of the officers return home with positive impressions of the United States.  Hence American Landpower – and especially Landpower schoolhouses – plays an important role in facilitating not simply the transfer of doctrinal or factual information, but also the development of positive, beneficial relationships that help to shape the security environment.

Whether or not the United States is employing Landpower in a strategically coherent fashion in Europe specifically was the subject of Dr. Kay’s chapter, entitled “Rebalancing and the Role of Allies and Partners: Europe, NATO, and the Future of American Landpower.”  Kay argues that cuts to U.S. Army forces in Europe make sense, but only in the context of a carefully thought out strategy.  In his view, failure to align military cuts with strategic goals risks further erosion of the transatlantic security architecture and misses an opportunity to gain more operational capacity from America’s allies and partners.  If Washington can properly incentivize its European allies – for example, by allowing a European to hold the top military position in NATO – it may yet succeed in spurring its allies to invest in increased crisis management and expeditionary capabilities.  American Landpower, facing a challenging era of defense austerity in the coming years, can play a supporting role in this regard.

Together, these three compelling chapters provide important insights into whether and how the United States will wield Landpower in coordination with and in support of its allies and partners around the world to advance common security interests.  The answers to such questions are vital to the U.S. Army specifically, and the United States more broadly, as the U.S. contemplates the role of Landpower in a post-Afghanistan era characterized by decreasing defense budgets, contracting end strength, and challenges to the international order posed by the likes of Putin’s Russia.


Dr. John R. Deni is a Research Professor of Joint, Interagency, Intergovernmental, and Multinational (JIIM) Security Studies at the Strategic Studies Institute. He previously worked for eight years as a political advisor for senior U.S. military commanders in Europe and as an adjunct lecturer at Heidelberg University’s Institute for Political Science. Follow him at @JohnRDeni. The views expressed here are his own.