Former CNO Roughead: Stepping Back From Alliances Like NATO ‘Perilous’ to U.S.

November 29, 2016 11:55 AM


When thinking of America’s military alliances, it’s important to not boil down relationships to security spending but understand value beyond military support, a former chief of naval operations said Monday.

Speaking Monday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C., think tank, retired Adm. Gary Roughead, said, “We are simplistic in our math” when focus is put on allies’ security spending. He added the United States avoids costs by having allies with capacity and capability that it does not have to spend more on. Allies also providing savings in not having to spend on using a rotational force versus on stationing a naval force in Japan where Tokyo is picking up much of the expense.

During the campaign, President-elect Donald Trump called on NATO allies to meet an agreed-upon two percent of their gross domestic product on their own security and defense or the United States would re-think its commitment to the alliance. Only five of 28 alliance countries reach that threshold.

Alliances, such as NATO, offer benefits in shared values and economic growth, he said at a forum to introduce a CSIS initiative examining alliances and United States leadership in the future.

Roughead said stepping back from international alliances would be an “uncomfortable, regrettable and perilous” move.

In announcing the initiative, Andrew Shearer said political leaders and policy elites cannot take public support for granted, although polling in the United States, Europe, Japan, Korea and Australia still find strong support for continued alliances.

The other question beyond public support and burden sharing CSIS is addressing in the initiative, he added, is the continuing value of the alliance structure as a valuable concept in the West and the role of the United States as their leader.

Michael Green, an Asia-Pacific expert at CSIS, said, there is a clarity of thought in the region on the value of alliances. As an example of this, Korea and Japan have both stepped up defense spending in their coming year’s budgets in response to Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs and Beijing’s moves in the South and East China Seas.

At the same time, “none of our allies [including Australia] want to choose between the United States and China,” they have taken steps to expand their involvement in Asia-Pacific security at some risk to themselves.

He called for more jointness and more interoperability of the alliances in the region.

Green warned that American calls for increased spending on their part as part of security burden-sharing are viewed in the Asia-Pacific as the United States seeking economic grain. “We do not have a collective security system” there as the United States has in Europe.

Looking at Europe, Heather Conley, a CSIS expert on the continent, said today’s talk about NATO and individual nation’s spending on security “is confusing price with value.” She noted that the United States so far has been the only nation to call upon its NATO allies under Article 5 of the treaty to come to its aid following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

More recently, she said NATO took strong military steps, coupled with economic sanctions put in place by the United States and the European Union, against Russia for its seizure of Crimea and backing of separatists in eastern Ukraine in 2014.

“This is not your grandfather’s NATO,” focused on deterring the Soviet Union but an alliance with political and military arms looking at ways to deter and defend against cyber attacks and cope with the flow of migrants and refugees across the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas.

The question facing the United States with its allies and partners in the Middle East: “How do you give security to an area that doesn’t do a good job of providing its own security?” Jonathan Alterman, CSIS specialist in the region, asked. As an example of that, he said the gulf states can’t agree on sharing information with each other on air defense so each approaches the United States to provide that protection rather than address the problem collectively.

Alterman said in a quick snapshot of the region:

The United States provides 20 percent of Israel’s defense budget and militarily it falls under European not Central Command. Treaty partners — like Jordan and Tunisia — are militarily weak and its partners like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — both Sunni states — are heavy buyers of American weaponry that could be posing “moral hazard” to Washington over the long term in support their military actions outside their borders.

“Is Yemen the new model” for how the United States will work with its partners in dealing with security challenges not covered by alliances in the Middle East Alterman asked rhetorically. News reports have said the United States has for months been supplying targeting intelligence to Saudi aircraft to attack Houthi insurgents in Yemen. The insurgents with ties to Iran, have control of Yemen’s capital and large parts of its territory.

He noted that the United States has good relations with every government but Syria and Iran in the region but remains extremely unpopular with the general public because of its continued support of Israel and wars in two Islamic countries.

“We have never fought truly alone” since World War II, Kathleen Hicks, a CSIS international security, expert, said. She said the incoming Trump administration has “the potential of a little bit Back to the Future” aspect in its approach to alliances. Its apparent willingness to pull back from overseas bases in favor of power projection from the United States as a way of cutting Pentagon spending is an example of this. She said the idea was an early position taken by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld at the start of the Bush administration.

Hicks predicted, “Building partner capacity [missions, training and exercises] will be heavily scrutinized” when the administration takes office in January.

John Grady

John Grady

John Grady, a former managing editor of Navy Times, retired as director of communications for the Association of the United States Army. His reporting on national defense and national security has appeared on Breaking Defense,,,, Government Executive and USNI News.

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