With U.S. Allies, 1 Plus 2 Equals Four

As Mark Twain reportedly said, “History doesn’t repeat, but it often rhymes.” If true, the world is currently experiencing bad poetry from the 1930s as authoritarian regimes in Russia and China seek to extend their rule over their expatriate co-linguists, Russia in the Donbas, and China in Taiwan. Furthermore, Russia’s demand for a weak or nonaligned Ukraine and China’s quest for control over regional resources and sea lanes have distinct echoes of last century calls for Germany’s lebensraum and Japan’s “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.”

International law, institutions, and norms established in the aftermath of World War II are failing to alter the trajectories of the Putin and Xi regimes. Too many countries have decided not to defend the current order in favor of immediate economic benefits, but instead to pursue domestic political gains being seen as “standing up to the West,” in confidence that there is no downside to letting others conduct the fight. It therefore mostly falls to the world’s larger democracies—especially the United States—to protect the global order that has largely kept the peace and lifted global prosperity over the last 78 years.

The United States faced similar challenges prior to its entry into World War II. The question of how to remain neutral amid European hostilities but still help the United Kingdom withstand the Nazi war machine, which had already conquered most of Europe, resulted in the passage of the Lend-Lease Act. President Roosevelt signed this bill into law on March 11, 1941, permitting him to "sell, transfer title to, exchange, lease, lend, or otherwise dispose of, to any such government [whose defense the president deems vital to the defense of the United States].” By becoming “the arsenal of democracy” the United States enabled Britain (and, later, other allies) to withstand the Axis powers long enough to eventually allow U.S. power to assert itself directly.

The similarities to the current situation in Ukraine are clear. Less well understood are the parallels to the AUKUS agreement, a defense partnership first announced in 2021 between the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia. Lend-Lease was preceded by the 1940 Destroyers for Bases Agreement, whereby 50 U.S. Navy destroyers were transferred to the Royal Navy and the Royal Canadian Navy in exchange for basing rights in the Caribbean. Churchill also granted the U.S. base rights in Bermuda and Newfoundland for free, permitting their British garrisons to be redeployed to the fighting.

Pillar One of AUKUS will sell (not lend nor lease) Virginia-class nuclear-powered submarines to Australia. Prior to these transactions, expected to take place in the 2030s, U.S. subs will have access to Australian ports. Expectations are that these ports could also offer much-needed maintenance and repair facilities. By having less transit time and more subs in the fleet serviced and available, Australian ports would add to overall U.S. force capability. 

The criticism that the United States needs more of these subs itself and therefore cannot afford to sell any to a foreign nation—even one as closely allied as Australia—is similar to one of the arguments made by the opponents to Destroyers for Bases Agreement and Lend Lease in the year before the United States entered World War II. Then, as now, there was concern about the cost to the U.S. Treasury and the need to build up the U.S. arsenal. But Roosevelt recognized that adding to the capability of U.S. allies served to complicate the plans of its adversaries. Similarly, an Australia with advanced submarine capability complicates China’s plans since it must account for a persistent presence in the region of one of the world’s most advanced weapons platforms. This is a considerable net benefit to U.S. flexibility and security. 

The second pillar of AUKUS focuses on jointly developing advanced capabilities between the three signatory countries to better compete in such fields as hypersonics, quantum technologies, and artificial intelligence for defense applications. This too has a mid-twentieth-century corollary. In September 1940, the British government sent a Technical and Scientific Mission to Washington to find ways to jointly exploit the military potential of British research and development. The British shared technology including key radar know-how, the design for gyroscopic gunsights, details of a jet engine, and a report describing the feasibility of an atomic bomb, among many others. Currently British and Australian technologies and research remain capable and desired by the U.S. military as demonstrated by the U.S. purchase of Australian-developed over-the horizon radar and the E-7A Wedgetail aircraft. Some of the most advanced research and developments in quantum computing, underwater autonomous vehicles and hypersonics currently is taking place in Australia. Not combining U.S. efforts would be a waste of resources and give its adversaries more time to develop their own tech in these spaces. Indeed, the second Lockheed Martin Skunk Works was established in Melbourne after considering all other global locations.

The West is in a global competition over what the international rules will be for the future. Its rivals are highly capable and have proven their readiness to challenge the existing system. They have also made it clear that they view the United States and its alliances as the primary impediment to their goals.

The fact historically and today is that the United States is much stronger with robust allies than without them. If U.S. allies have the capability to be an effective fighting and deterrent force, it makes it less expensive for the United States in terms of blood and treasure over time. American political and military leadership must learn from history and take an expansive view of U.S. defense.

James Carouso is a senior adviser and chairman of the Advisory Council to the Australia Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and was chargé d’affaires to Australia from 2016–2019.

James Carouso
Senior Adviser and Chairman of the Advisory Council to the Australia Chair, Australia Chair