Divided We Fall: The United States Needs International Partners Now More Than Ever

June 12, 2020

The 20th century demonstrated that nations with shared values can work together to build a more peaceful and prosperous world. It also demonstrated the dangers of failing to hold a unified line against authoritarian adversaries. Reports that the Trump administration is considering a significant reduction of U.S. troops based in Europe and the announcement in late May that the administration intends to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty are the most recent examples of America’s concerning retreat from its international partnerships. American adversaries recognize the power of a unified free world and seek to undermine those international partnerships. China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and Islamic extremists use a playbook that sows discord among the United States and its allies; China and Russia prey on vulnerable partners once they are isolated. Therefore, it is critical to U.S. national security in this century that the United States doesn’t play into the hands of its adversaries by weakening and abandoning its international partnerships.



The United States has long understood the value of a unified front in defense of liberty. NATO was critical in deterring the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Following the Cold War, Americans continued to see the value of international partnerships even as the United States became the sole global superpower. With no real peer competitors, the primary threat to Americans and their global interests has been Islamic terrorism. Despite unmatched military and economic strength, the United States wisely chose to partner with countries that broadly share a commitment to individual freedom, the rule of law, and free markets. This partnership of shared values has been the foundation of the U.S. strategy to counter violent extremists in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and beyond. It has also allowed the international community to draw a sharp contrast between the shared values of free nations  and the values of authoritarian adversaries.

Today, America’s status as the world’s only global superpower is being challenged while the national security environment is growing more precarious by the week. Powered by 1.4 billion people, the size of China’s economy is fast approaching America’s annual gross domestic product. Communist China is willing to coerce other countries with its economic power, as recently seen with its behavior toward Australia. While President Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream” is to achieve great-power status, China is well on its way to becoming the dominant military force in the Western Pacific. As its power grows, China increasingly flexes its military muscle to intimidate its smaller neighbors. Though Russia has only a tenth of the U.S. gross domestic product, its nuclear inventory exceeds that of the United States in quantity and is growing ever more modern and lethal. Vladimir Putin threatens the Baltics and Poland, has shown his willingness to attack neighbors like Ukraine and Georgia, and even used nerve agents to eliminate enemies in the United Kingdom. Iran remains the world’s most active state sponsor of terrorism and continues its quest to dominate the Middle East. North Korea, with the fourth-largest military in the world, has amassed an estimated stockpile of 30 nuclear weapons. International terrorism remains deeply rooted and dangerous, as indicated by a shooting in December at Naval Air Station Pensacola, which tragically took the lives of three U.S. sailors, and one in May that injured another.

The combined weight of the challenges posed today by the authoritarian tendencies of China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, and by international terrorism is too much for any nation to confront alone — even one as powerful as the United States. Without a united international front, the values of communist China and authoritarian Russia will gain the upper hand, erode individual freedoms and the rule of law, and give rise to a more savage world. China’s developing modus operandi is to use its economic might to coerce smaller nations into acceding to its political demands. The tools of its trade are restricted access to markets, predatory lending, forced technology transfers, and intellectual property theft. Russia’s aggression against Georgia and Ukraine replaces predatory economics with outright military force, but Chinese and Russian actions are only different pages of the same playbook. Both China and Russia seek to capitalize on weaknesses in international partnerships and then prey on isolated nations one by one.

It is no wonder that states like China and Russia have grown increasingly frustrated with an American-led international order. The United States and its partners have shed light on the actions of authoritarian states and held them to account. The United States has also held China accountable for human rights abuses, including the detention and abuse of Uighurs, Kazakhs, and other members of minority groups in Xinjiang province. It has even supported Taiwan and other Indo-Pacific nations in their efforts to resist Chinese bullying. Most importantly, I am working with Rep. Mac Thornberry, ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, to charter an Indo-Pacific Deterrence Initiative modeled on the European Deterrence Initiative that has long provided an essential bulwark against Russia in Eastern Europe. A similar effort led by Sen. Jim Inhofe and Sen. Jack Reed is underway in the Senate.

Russia has long been frustrated by America’s network of partners and allies. The Soviet Union rejected the Open Skies Treaty when it was first proposed in 1955, judging that the United States and its partners had more to gain than the Soviet Union itself did. Russia has come to see the Open Skies Treaty as it did during the Soviet era — and for good reasons: Of the 1,500 flights that have taken place since 1992, the United States has flown three times as many as Russia; and Open Skies has been used to monitor Russian activities along the Ukraine-Russian border as well as in tension spots such as the vicinity of Kaliningrad and the Russia-Georgia border. Russia’s increasing resistance to full compliance with its treaty obligations is disappointing but not unexpected. The United States has taken treaty-compliant measures to restrict Russian flights until Russia decides to return to full compliance. These measured steps allow the United States and its partners to insist on Russian compliance without withdrawing from the treaty. America’s withdrawal, however, will play right into its adversaries’ hands by eliminating one crucial avenue for collaboration with its allies and partners, and will undoubtedly hurt its friends more than it hurts Russia.

Of course, it is critical that Americans continue to support NATO and the European Deterrence Initiative, which have long frustrated Russian aggression toward Europe. Withdrawing troops from Germany sends the wrong message to Russia and NATO partners. While it is important that Germany and other partners shoulder their share of the burden, the United States has already reduced the number of its forces in Europe by two-thirds since the Cold War ended.  Now that Russia is attempting to reassert itself, any further reduction should be considered very carefully.

These measures put in place to ensure that authoritarian states and extremist organizations don’t extend their reach are critical. However, Americans cannot do it alone. The United States is the world’s largest economy but will not remain so if its people attempt to deter and defend in all these regions simultaneously. Facing an increasingly dangerous collection of challengers without the support of an international team is a sure recipe for defeat and bankruptcy. Moreover, the United States and its allies would grow more vulnerable to attack and intimidation. Though the United States is indispensable in defense of a free world, its efforts alone are not enough. Standing together, the United States and its allies and partners can continue to lead the world and advance freedom against these dangers.

As competition with Russia and China in the future will be stiff, Americans can ill afford sentimental attachment to arrangements of the past. I supported the 2019 withdrawal of the United States from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. For too long, Russia violated the terms of the treaty while the United States complied. The result was that Russia expanded its intermediate-range nuclear forces while the United States did not. As I viewed withdrawing from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty as the right thing to do, I will continue to oppose any treaty that likewise places the United States at a strategic disadvantage. But Americans should avoid jettisoning arms-control agreements that continue to provide value. New START, for example, has a strong record of Russian compliance in limiting nuclear weapon stockpiles and should be expanded through vigorous negotiation. Though I agree with the administration that China should be brought into an arms-control regime, the United States should carefully consider the risks of abandoning New START before having a suitable replacement. Arms-control agreements, when properly constructed and adhered to, allow the United States to dedicate scarce resources to pressing challenges that might otherwise be consumed in a costly and avoidable arms race.

Russia and China’s recent spate of malign activities demonstrates the need to hold a hard line against authoritarian attempts to sow chaos within the United States as well as within its alliances and partnerships. America’s network of international partners, and the values upon which these partnerships rest, remains one of its greatest strengths as a nation. Americans’ embrace of freedom, the rule of law, and free markets powers their strength and vitality, and draws other countries together to their side. Rather than pulling away, Americans should invest in these alliances, enlarge them, and build trade agreements that strengthen their hand against totalitarian states. Though the United States remains strong, it should recognize that its network of alliances and global partnerships creates an even greater strength. Americans want peace but should also defend and protect their freedoms, sovereignty, and prosperity. A strong team will prevail; the time to make it happen is now. More than ever before, the United States needs to recommit and invest in its alliances across the globe while forging new trade agreements based on shared values. Rather than withdrawing, the United States should continue to invest in partnerships like the Open Skies Treaty and the forthcoming Indo-Pacific Deterrence Initiative.



Rep. Don Bacon represents Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District, and is a member of the House Armed Services Committee and a widely respected voice on issues of national security. He served nearly 30 years in the United States Air Force, retiring as a brigadier general, and taught courses on leadership and American vision and values as an assistant professor at Bellevue University. He can be found on Twitter @RepDonBacon.

Image: NATO