The lackluster U.S. response to Iranian strikes against Saudi Aramco facilities highlight what is becoming an increasingly important trend in U.S. foreign policy: Washington’s declining willingness to invest military and economic resources in defense of its allies’ security. While President Donald Trump provided this shift with an ideology and a slogan, it did not originate with him but with President Barack Obama’s attitude toward “freeriders.” As many from both sides of the aisle in Washington today subscribe to different variations of this approach aimed at reducing U.S. responsibility toward allies, there could be significant implications for the global alliance system.
First, one cannot discuss U.S. desire to avoid foreign entanglements without referring to its long, costly, and thankless engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq. It has become difficult for Americans to discuss any potential military action, except maybe drone strikes against isolated terror groups, without referencing the possibility that mission creep or escalation will drag it into another quagmire. Options between full-scale war and taking no action at all appear to have largely evaporated from U.S. discourse, as the public and decisionmakers have little faith in the ability to contain operations. This binds the hands of U.S. decisionmakers and prevents the judicious use of military power, as anything that warrants an action somewhere between total war and no response cannot be treated appropriately. In turn, despite threatening rhetoric, the low credibility of those threats and the high U.S. threshold for what warrants a response have given bad actors far more room to operate.