Video On Demand

Twenty-First Century Partnerships: Examining U.S. Partnerships Worldwide

May 31, 2017 • 9:00 am – 2:00 pm EDT


The U.S. alliance structure seems almost invisible to most Americans, but it represents one of the wonders of the modern world. Through more than three-quarters of a century worth of effort, the United States has not only secured a leadership position for itself, but it also leads a team that commands between two-thirds and three-quarters of the world’s economic activity and a similar proportion of its military spending. 

On May 31, 2017, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) convened a group to analyze the state of U.S. partnerships and identify key considerations for policymakers in charting a path forward.

Participants offered a range of views, yet expressed consensus on a few points. 

  • A far-reaching partnership network will remain vital to fundamental U.S. interests. 
  • Maintaining productive relationships is hard, resource-intensive work. 
  • Traditional assumptions may not hold up under the new conditions that now prevail. 

As former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael Mullen cautioned in his keynote address, “We can’t just keep doing some integrated version of what we’ve been doing in the past.”

What follows is a synthesis of key ideas put forward throughout the day’s discussions. 

The U.S. Partnership Network

The U.S. partnership network provides the United States with a fundamental and singular strategic advantage, participants agreed. Alliances grant the United States a “huge asset” relative to Russia and China, which have no real allies, former Deputy National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams argued. James Jay Carafano, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the Heritage Foundation, pointed out that U.S. partnerships are instrumental to delivering some of the stated foreign policy priorities of the Trump administration, including stability in the Middle East, Europe, and Asia. In these areas, he argued, “There is no way the United States can protect its vital interests without an alliance structure.”  

Alliances will become even more critical as the United States navigates a broader array of issue sets with an eroding margin of military and economic primacy. The bipolar, Cold-War era framework in which most threats were manifestations of a struggle against a single, powerful enemy has given way to a more complex strategic context. As former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Eric Edelman said, “We’ve reached the end of ‘The End of History.’” Mullen reflected that U.S. policy thinking is “still coming unraveled, tied to the Wall coming down in 1989...I think we underestimated how significant that glue was that held us together.” Today, multiplying demands for U.S. attention include the reemergence of great power competition, and the persistence of ideological competition by state and non-state actors. Meanwhile, accelerating information flows mean that this complex mix churns at a frenetic pace. Former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman identified the velocity of decisionmaking cycles, more than the growing complexity of issues themselves, as a critical challenge for policymakers. Without clear priorities, officials risk being drowned by data. In Sherman’s words, “the ability to keep up on the issues simultaneously is virtually impossible.” 

“For the first time in history, two-thirds of world GDP and world military spending is organized, at least loosely, under one broad framework: The U.S.-led Western alliance system.”
- Dr. Michael O’Hanlon

Looking ahead, tectonic shifts at the global level—the effects of automation on labor, a changing climate, and the reordering of the world’s demographic map—will require innovative solutions and international cooperation. These changes present opportunities for U.S. leadership, but they will also demand an ability to mobilize partners with common interests. The need for strong partnerships will grow not least because, as Mullen noted, “the United States can’t do it alone anymore.” 

The network on which the United States will need to draw in this increasingly complex world extends well beyond formal treaty alliances, participants noted. It includes an increasingly diverse array of “special relationships,” many of which have few treaty obligations but deep patterns of cooperation. The Middle East is the locus of many such relationships. Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, identified the diverse and at times loosely-knit nature of the network as one of its great strengths—the United States is at times closer to nontreaty allies than to treaty allies, he noted. The room that the larger system affords for transparent disagreement and “à la carte consensus or coalition building” gives it both resilience and agility.  

“Alliances are about chess, and an ‘America first’ policy is checkers.”
- Amb. Wendy Sherman

Several participants argued for a subtler approach to alliance management. Sherman, for example, said that “Alliances are about chess, and an ‘America first’ policy is checkers…Chess is multidimensional. It’s seeing all the pieces on the board and understanding that every country has many dimensions, many interests.  Some of them are aligned with us and some of them are not.  And we work together because on that massive chessboard, there are pieces in which we want to play the same game, we want to achieve the same objective.” The United States ignores the power of its convening role to its own detriment, she suggested. While partners come to meetings and coalitions with a range of motivations, the role that the United States has traditionally played as organizer and guarantor allows it to help set agendas and shape conversations.

Managing the Chessboard

Some of the most fundamental questions surrounding the U.S. partnership system turn on how willing actors will be to resource the relationships—with funds, political capital, and attention—and under what conditions. 

Galvanizing allied action 

Since the end of the Cold War, many U.S. partners have become less willing or able to maintain their previous levels of contribution. Burden-sharing within institutions of global governance and other common goods has suffered as a result, participants assessed, as have the defense capacities of key partners. As CSIS Senior Vice President Jon Alterman noted, “If countries perceive that U.S. support is a constant, they begin to believe that their own support for those international institutions need not be a constant.” 

Some allies are growing more active—but not always within the framework of U.S.-led efforts. As allies in Europe and elsewhere respond to uncertainty regarding U.S. commitments by taking ownership of certain issues, some participants saw advantages. Kori Schake, a former member of the National Security Council staff, cited allies’ efforts to forge ahead with the Trans-Pacific Partnership after the U.S. withdrawal as an example of shrewd adaptation that contributes to common goods, arguing “that kind of hedging behavior doesn’t need to be negative and it doesn’t need to be damaging to the United States.” Yet, participants warned of the liabilities that come with greater autonomous action by partners. Partners’ actions may create situations that require U.S. intervention, Sherman cautioned. More broadly, Edelman noted that allied actions are much more likely to produce outcomes that comport with U.S. interests when the United States plays a role in shaping plans and processes rather than when it is merely reacting to consequences. 

“If countries perceive that U.S. support is a constant, they begin to believe that their own support for those international institutions need not be a constant.”
- Dr. Jon Alterman

The most effective ways to galvanize greater burden-sharing involve U.S. leadership, according to participants. Many argued that the United States’ own contributions and sense of strategic direction are historically the strongest catalysts for greater input by partners. Sherman urged, “We shouldn’t say, step up without us. Step up with us to solve some of these tough problems.” 

Participants also advised policymakers to consider ways to maximize the operational effectiveness and efficiency of joint action. One way is by playing to different allies’ strengths through specialization: Edelman suggested the United States tap into the European Union’s capabilities and experiences with stabilization and nation-building when approaching post-conflict plans in Syria and Libya. Streamlining decisionmaking processes will also be key to increasing agility—a key consideration when seeking to prevent adversaries from imposing facts on the ground through rapid actions. 

After the Cold War, Edelman reflected, the large power disparity between the United States and its partners led to a slide away from genuine dialogue.

Increasing the vitality of partnerships will also require investing more actively in managing the relationships themselves, participants urged. While several voiced concern over the impacts of the Trump administration’s pugilistic tone and penchant for unpredictability with regards to alliance relationships, they also saw a need to address a longer trend of declining quality in communication with allies over the past two decades. After the Cold War, Edelman reflected, the large power disparity between the United States and its partners led to a slide away from genuine dialogue: “The pattern of consultations became more a pattern of informing, reading talking points to host governments, hectoring host governments.” 

Allies do expect U.S. counterparts to bring proposals to the table, Schake attested, but consultations are a crucial first step to building consensus around a course of action. “Mostly what disciplines the process is to listen patiently to what allies are worried about and then ask them what to do differently and ask them what role they’re going to play in doing it differently,” Schake said. “Because very often allies underestimate the extent to which the United States has actually explored the options available.” By “tending the garden” with continuous dialogue, participants suggested that the United States would not only gain more complete insight into partners’ perspectives, facilitating smoother cooperation—it would also open the doors to valuable knowledge-sharing. The same technologies that have quickened the pace of policymakers’ work can also boost their ability to manage relationships, Sherman noted.  

Resourcing alliances at home

There is little that is automatic or simple about maintaining the alliance network of the world’s largest power, participants argued. Not only is the magnitude of the task formidable, but the daily work of developing and sustaining functional partnerships is also extremely demanding for even the most experienced diplomats. As a country that largely eschewed systematic alliances until the 1940s, “Alliance management doesn’t come easily to Americans,” Edelman stated. Participants cautioned that the United States’ ability to manage its alliances effectively depends on the degree to which its diplomatic institutions are equipped and empowered. 

Budgetary strains—including an aggressive growth in national debt that Mullen named the top security threat during his tenure as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—were an obvious concern raised by participants. Participants agreed on the necessity of fiscal reform to address an untenable state of overextension, but foresaw little chance of progress in the short term in the face of political polarization around the issue. While some saw the defense buildup promised by the Trump administration as a positive demonstration of commitment to the U.S. leadership role, Mullen saw more utility in focusing on greater efficiency within the existing Pentagon budget. 

Where participants stressed that investment was most urgently needed was in the United States’ diplomatic toolbox. Elliott Abrams stated bluntly, “A superpower needs a superpower foreign ministry.” Participants also emphasized that building institutional capacity is a long-term project, and that the weaknesses and gaps that are likely to result from a lack of investment today will not have quick fixes. This has particular consequences in the State Department, where capacity is primarily a question of human capital, or the cultivation of a critical mass of talent and experience. In Abrams’s words, “What you cannot do is say, ‘Gee, I wish we had recruited more first-rate Foreign Service officers ten years ago, or 15.’  It’s too late at that point.”

Part of the challenge for the State Department lies in articulating its value to decisionmakers, participants argued. Mullen affirmed that military leaders have a close-up appreciation of the role their diplomatic counterparts play in giving strategic shape and direction to the United States’ engagement abroad. “There are very few of us who have fought in the last 15 years who think they can do it alone. They can’t do it without the State Department.” Yet, Mullen and others acknowledged that the State Department faces a challenge in advocating for its role among civilian policymakers in Washington more broadly.

“There are very few of us who have fought in the last 15 years who think they can do it alone. They can’t do it without the State Department.”
- Adm. Michael Mullen

Adapting to Shifts

Participants broadly agreed that the United States’ partnership structure stands at an inflection point. The architectures that govern U.S. partnerships are likely to continue to diversify, and the complexity of the U.S. alliance structure looks set to deepen as a result. Global shifts in geopolitics, energy, and demographics beg the question of what kind of footprint will best allow the United States to secure its interests. It remains to be seen how domestic political dynamics, brought vividly to the fore by the presidential election, will influence how those interests are defined.

Relationship architectures 

As the complexity of U.S. global interests grows, successful alliance management will require finding effective mechanisms for collaboration with an increasingly diverse array of partners for a wider range of purposes and timeframes. 

Some participants foresaw that flexible, situationally-responsive partnerships and “special relationships” would prevail over the kind of binding arrangements that defined U.S. engagements in the twentieth century. Sherman argued, “An alliance in the sort of post-World War II sense that we speak of is not the coin of the realm today.  And I don’t think it should matter as much to us what that label is.  It’s really about joining with others to achieve a common objective.” Others argued that ad hoc coalitions of the willing have yet to replace the utility of formal alliances. Carafano posited that U.S. experiences with coalitions of the willing only reinforced that “The most valuable allies turned out to be kind of the people who were always our most valuable allies.” Yet, there was broad consensus that a comprehensive security treaty such as the one that created NATO in 1949 is unlikely to be repeated in the near future.

Some participants saw opportunity in breaking partnership strategies out of rigid regional lanes. Edelman suggested managing them as a “global portfolio” of assets, saying “We need to think about alliances as a competitive strategic advantage that we have vis-à-vis other great power competitors like Russia and China.” 

Setting priorities for the U.S. footprint 

At a time when officials are contending with increasing global complexity, ever-expanding portfolios, and agendas that evolve at the speed of a Twitter feed, the first challenge in crafting an effective partnership strategy is setting priorities for global engagement. How U.S. leaders interpret changing incentives and risks around the world will affect how these priorities adjust. 

The Middle East is one area where U.S. interests are likely to undergo a significant shift, according to participants. Abrams stated, “We need to recognize that our alliances and our global footprint have been very significantly based on the need to import energy for over a century…And that period may be coming to an end.” As energy markets shift and the economic weight of the Middle East abates accordingly, Abrams suggested that the question of the U.S. basing structure is likely to evolve over the next 25 to 50 years. In the near to medium term, however, participants agreed that security exigencies of the Middle East are likely to continue to require significant U.S. investments in the region. Mullen warned of the dangers of wars being “politically over” in Washington long before the reality of U.S. engagement in the wars comes to an end. 

“We need to think about alliances as a competitive strategic advantage that we have vis-à-vis other great power competitors like Russia and China.”
- Amb. Eric Edelman

In Asia, participants saw opportunities to invest in rising regional powers with shared interests. Participants urged the United States to cultivate ties with India as a “great power of the future,” and also called for greater attention to well-aligned, newly empowered states such as Vietnam and Indonesia. Participants advised U.S. decisionmakers to create more opportunities for countries seeking to balance relations with China and the United States to engage informally with the United States. Expanding on the “quad” structure linking key U.S. allies Japan, Australia, and India to include an open “quad-plus” forum could provide one such mechanism, Carafano suggested. 

European security will remain vital to U.S. interests, participants agreed. Yet, the other traditional pillar of the transatlantic relationship—a common set of values—is at the center of a debate in the United States about the role of values in alliance strategy. Participants argued broadly that customary U.S. values of respect for open societies, democracy, and human rights represent an important asset in its partnership strategy. While they acknowledged that compromises must at times be made, participants warned that systematically marginalizing values in pursuing immediate interests would forfeit a central tenet of U.S. global leadership. Abrams asserted, “It is extremely valuable to the United States to be seen standing for liberty and justice and the rule of law and open societies and economic and political opportunity.” Mullen went further to argue that a retreat from the U.S. position on values would be disfiguring to the United States’ global image, saying “If we in the United States of America don’t stand up for human rights, then we are not what we used to be, period.”

“We need to recognize that our alliances and our global footprint have been very significantly based on the need to import energy for over a century...And that period may be coming to an end.”
- The Hon. Elliott Abrams

Participants agreed that the traditional U.S. emphasis on values has also had a fortifying effect on relationships with well-aligned partners such as those in Europe, and many voiced concerns that the current administration’s efforts to distance the United States from a number of key cooperative efforts may shake the foundation. At the same time, some called for a clearer definition of terms.  Carafano asked whether a tendency to conflate fundamental values with political agendas has been subjected to sufficient scrutiny. While agreeing that alignment in values strengthens partnerships’ resilience, he questioned whether the boundaries of the concept extend to matters like the European Union project and the Paris Climate treaty. “Are those actual values or are those political agendas that you believe in very strongly?” Carafano asked. “I think there’s a debate within Europe on that and there’s a debate within the United States on that.”

“If we in the United States of America don’t stand up for human rights, then we are not what we used to be, period.”
- Adm. Michael Mullen

Dealing with Russia and China 

In addition to its partnerships, the United States’ ability to manage its relationships with the world’s other great powers will depend on its capacity to adapt as those countries’ trajectories evolve. While public commentary focuses on the consequences of a resurgent Russia and unchecked Chinese rise, participants argued that the greatest risks may arise from the fallout of these countries’ economic and demographic challenges.
Participants stressed the importance of cultivating a “managed relationship” with China. Mullen in particular saw a window for the development of a productive bilateral relationship while China remains dependent on U.S. markets. Mullen said, “We’d better leverage what we can now to get the relationship right because our economic leverage could go down considerably down the road.” Yet, participants noted that China’s rise is unlikely to follow the same vertiginous trajectory that it witnessed in recent decades. While China will remain a global power and competitor to the United States, Schake said, “We need to be thinking a lot more carefully about the problems China could cause through weakness and failure.”

Participants called for a firm but measured response to Russian efforts at provocation and disruption. They warned against over-determining Russia’s strength, arguing that the risks it poses are related to its broader trajectory of economic and demographic decline. As Carafano cautioned, “Just because the Russians aren’t ten feet tall doesn’t mean that they’re not a destructive force that you need to worry about...declining powers can actually be more dangerous because sometimes they take unnecessary risks.” Similarly, while Mullen called for the United States to deal with Vladimir Putin from a position of strength, he warned that an overreaction to Russia’s malign behavior may trigger adverse effects. “I do worry that we box [Putin] in to a point where he starts to reach for those weapons of mass destruction again, because he doesn’t have a lot of options.”

Reevaluating the post-war order 

Participants did not take for granted that today’s dominant institutions will remain relevant in their current form. While Mullen argued that the guardians of the post-World War II order—such as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and NATO—have not been shown to be irrelevant, he judged complacency to be the greatest danger to their continued effectiveness. Participants agreed that institutions would need to reassert their relevance—but diverged at times in defining that relevance. O’Hanlon argued that NATO was at particular risk of going adrift, as its membership expands far beyond the North Atlantic and drives the organization to become increasingly detached from its founding logic. Others disagreed, seeing in NATO’s expansion an assertion of the alliance’s relevance as a political-military grouping rather than merely an instrument of defense. 

“Just because the Russians aren’t ten feet tall doesn’t mean that they’re not a destructive force that you need to worry about.”
- Dr. James Carafano

Participants also asked whether the United States might soon find itself displaced as the world’s leading innovator. Mullen noted strides being made in China, and others pointed to U.S. adversaries devising low-cost ways to impose high-cost responses from the United States. A strategy to maintain the U.S. innovative edge—which participants identified as a major asset—ought to include empowering and partnering with actors outside of government, participants said. Mullen urged government leaders to focus on resourcing and empowering partners in the profit and non-profit sectors, particularly in areas where the government is weaker in execution. Public-private will be “very much a part of the future” he posited, but “the aperture has got to be opened by leadership.”

Domestic political factors 

Participants reflected on closing the gap between the public and the policy community and pointed out the risks in assuming that the U.S. public will back a globalist policy orientation. Participants ascribed rising populism to a growing distrust of the existing political class and institutions to serve the public’s interests amid rapid social, geopolitical, and economic change.

“President Trump openly campaigned on calling America’s alliance relationships into question, and openly campaigned on questioning...the tools with which we have managed our alliance relationships.”
- Dr. Kori Schake

Schake noted that this distrust extends to the reigning Washington consensus on partnerships. “President Trump openly campaigned on calling America’s alliance relationships into question, and openly campaigned on questioning…the tools with which we have managed our alliance relationships—security commitments, trade agreements, close interweaving of societies through migration and cultivation of each other’s domestic values.”

Some asked if the mandate for change brings an opportunity, or responsibility, of broader reevaluation. They also called for historical perspective, noting that skepticism of global entanglements has been the norm throughout American history rather than the exception until the 1940s. In Edelman’s words, “Alliances are really a profoundly unnatural act for Americans.”

“Alliances are really a profoundly unnatural act for Americans.”
- Amb. Eric Edelman

Participants agreed that the burden lies with policymakers to engage more seriously and consistently with the public’s concerns regarding the U.S. presence in the world, and to persuasively communicate the benefits of policies that voters may not perceive to be in their interest. 

“The inability to deliver for the American people was highlighted in this election,” Mullen said. “We’ve got to start doing that. But we can’t ignore what’s going on internationally.” 


Jon Alterman
Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program

Elliott Abrams

Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations

James Carafano

Vice President, Foreign and Defense Policy Studies, Heritage Foundation

Eric Edelman

Counselor, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments

Admiral Michael Mullen, USN (ret.)

17th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

Michael O’Hanlon

Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution

Kori Schake

Research Fellow, Stanford University

Wendy Sherman

Senior Counselor, Albright Stonebridge Group