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Alliances and American Leadership Project

For more than half a century, the United States’ global network of alliances has been a central pillar of the liberal international system, contributing significantly to stability and prosperity. Public support for U.S. alliances and engagement abroad has waxed and waned, as have security threats. New administrations have come to office with different priorities, and individual alliances have gone through highs and lows. But despite the end of the Cold War, the overall trend has been for these alliances to strengthen and expand, not contract. Until recently, the pivotal role of alliances in U.S. grand strategy has not been seriously challenged.

Today, however, the U.S.-led alliance system stands at a crossroads. The United States and its allies face a wider range of international threats than at any time during the post-war period, whether from resurgent geopolitical competition in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, global Islamist terrorism, proliferation of nuclear weapons, or cyber-attacks by state and non-state actors. None of these challenges can be met without strong international partnerships. Yet in the United States, President-elect Donald Trump has broken with decades of bipartisan tradition by openly questioning the value of U.S. alliances. President Barack Obama has also criticized some U.S. allies for not pulling their weight. In many countries, alliances with the United States are increasingly under strain from the growing influence of U.S. competitors such as China, Russia, and Iran – and in some cases from domestic populism.

At a time of great uncertainty for the United States and its allies around the world, this new CSIS project on Alliances and American Leadership will seek to answer vitally important questions about the future of the U.S.-led alliance system, including:

  • What is the role of alliances in maintaining international order? Is there still a concept of “the West” and, if so, what part do alliances play in upholding it? How do they advance U.S. interests? Do alliance institutions need to be overhauled?
  • How should we think about “burdensharing” in the 21st century? What is the right lens for assessing alliance costs and benefits? Which allies are contributing their “fair share”? In which areas do allies need to pick up their game?
  • How can alliances adapt more effectively to contemporary threats in an era of fiscal constraint? How can allied military forces become more interoperable? How can extended nuclear and conventional deterrence be strengthened? What approach should alliances take to combating cyber threats, exchanging intelligence, and increasing defense-industrial collaboration?
  • What do Americans really think about U.S. alliances? What is the role of U.S. leadership, at home and abroad, in building support for alliances? How can policymakers engage diverse constituencies more effectively on these issues? What challenges do domestic political dynamics in the United States and in allied countries pose for alliance management?