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Alliances and International Organizations

The Issue

The U.S. needs to protect its interests and advance freedom, security, and prosperity. This need compels it to interact in the world through bilateral relationships, strategic alliances, and international organizations. However, the international community is composed of nearly 200 nations, many of which are neither economically nor politically free and feel threatened by American efforts to promote those principles. The U.S. can also meet resistance from its friends and allies when economic and strategic issues address points of contention.

The United Nations and Other International Organizations

The U.S. belongs to dozens of international technical, regional, diplomatic, military, and financial organizations, but member states often fail to assess whether these organizations remain focused on their original goals and are fulfilling them. As a result, their effectiveness and relevance to U.S. taxpayers is often in doubt.

The United Nations, created in 1945 to maintain international security and promote basic human rights, performs some useful tasks but has often failed to fulfill its primary responsibilities. For example, the world has witnessed hundreds of wars since 1945, yet the U.N. has authorized the use of force in response to aggression only twice: to respond to North Korea’s invasion of South Korea and to repel Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Its response to humanitarian crises has been erratic—authorizing a NATO intervention in Libya while standing idle in the cases of Rwanda and, most recently, Syria. The 69 peacekeeping missions have a mixed record of success and at times have been beset by mismanagement, fraud, procurement corruption, and incidents of sexual exploitation and abuse. U.N. procurement and management have also proven vulnerable to corruption and mismanagement, as evidenced by the Iraq Oil-for-Food scandal.

The U.N.’s aid-focused development plans have a poor record of success. An independent academic study by William Easterly and Claudia R. Williamson assessing best and worst practices among aid agencies ranked U.N. agencies among the worst.

The U.N. Human Rights Council, created in 2006 to replace the discredited Commission on Human Rights, has exhibited persistent bias against Israel, partiality and politicization in its examination of human rights, and an inability to exclude from membership states with appalling human rights records. The council’s record in these areas has not improved significantly since the U.S. joined it in 2009.

The failure to implement reform of the U.N. system is particularly disturbing for the U.S., which is the U.N.’s largest financial contributor. Countries opposed to U.S. policies and leadership use the U.N. and other international organizations, in which they are on a more equal footing with the U.S. in terms of decision making, to assert their influence. U.S. allies are often unreliable partners in these organizations. Voting as a single bloc enables the EU and other regional and ideological groups like the G-77 to counterbalance U.S. leadership and constrain U.S. actions. The U.S. should use the tools available to it, including financial withholding, to bolster its efforts at the U.N.

America’s Alliances in Europe

Although it stands as the most successful military alliance in modern history, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) remains beset by post–Cold War challenges, including the struggle to formulate a cohesive defense strategy, inequitable sharing of financial and operational burdens, enlargement fatigue, and limited European defense capabilities. NATO was barely able to act in Libya, and the U.S. was once again forced to provide most of the critical capabilities for the mission, especially advanced weaponry.

NATO’s mission in 1949 and throughout the Cold War was to deter and (if required) defeat the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, to protect the territorial integrity of its members, and to stop the spread of Communism in Europe. Although the nature of the threat might have changed, the threat itself has not gone away.

NATO does not have to be everywhere doing everything all the time, but it does have to be capable of defending its members’ territorial integrity. The 1949 North Atlantic Treaty is clear that NATO’s area of responsibility is “in the North Atlantic area north of the Tropic of Cancer.”

Although it is completely inconceivable to those in Western Europe, there are those in NATO’s east that face legitimate security concerns from Russia. For those NATO members that lived under the iron fist of the Warsaw Pact or in fact were outright absorbed into the Soviet Union after World War II, Russia’s bellicose behavior today is seen as an existential threat. Even though the Cold War is over, there is still plenty for NATO to do to defend against 21st-century threats in the North Atlantic region.

NATO also faces a serious challenge from the EU’s efforts to create a separate defense identity, especially in an era of declining defense budgets. The EU’s Common Security and Defense Policy has resulted in duplication of NATO’s role and structures, delinking of the NATO and EU alliances, and discrimination against non-EU NATO members such as Turkey. The EU’s recurring interest in lifting the arms embargo on China is but one example of how far removed its strategic outlook is from that of the U.S.

The Anglo–American Special Relationship is rooted in common values, shared interests, and a mutual desire to play a leading role in the world, but the Administration has undervalued and even undermined the Special Relationship—for example, by encouraging Argentina to advance its groundless claim to the Falkland Islands and failing to recognize the outcome of the Falkland Islands’ 2013 referendum on remaining a British Overseas Territory. The U.S. also benefits significantly from being able to use the British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar in the Mediterranean Sea and Diego Garcia in the British Indian Ocean Territory for maritime operations. On the other hand, Britain has done too little to ensure that it remains a sovereign and capable partner, instead cutting defense spending to critical lows and failing to resist the EU’s relentless drive to stop member states from playing an independent and assertive role in the world. Both sides lack a strategy for advancing united global leadership in defense of liberty.

American Allies in Asia

The United States has significant economic, strategic, and national security interests at stake in Asia. In the 21st century, Asia’s importance to the U.S. will only continue to grow. Not only is Asia home to the world’s second-largest and third-largest economies, but, given Europe’s economic turmoil, Asia is the only component of the global economy that is likely to grow—at least in the near future.

A strong American economic, diplomatic, and military presence in the region is necessary because Asia remains politically unstable. The U.S. is the hub of a “wagon wheel” of bilateral alliances that undergirds regional security. This regional balancing is of such importance that many local states are subsidizing the American presence.

The U.S. and its local allies each contribute based on their own strengths, thereby reducing redundancy and overlap. As a result, local and American forces will achieve far more together than either would alone.

The U.S. has treaty commitments to five allies in the Western Pacific: Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, and Thailand. The alliances in East Asia and Australia, combined with forward-deployed forces of more than 80,000 troops and the Seventh Fleet throughout the region, serve as anchors of America’s resident power status to balance the rise of China and ensure regional peace and security.

In particular, U.S. military bases in Japan and South Korea are indispensable in deterring an aggressive, heavily armed Communist North Korea. The U.S. and Japan are becoming even closer with changes in alliance guidelines and other restrictions on Japan’s defense policy over the past couple of years. U.S. forces in Japan are also being realigned and repositioned in order to make them sustainable in the long run. The U.S. has important new enhancements to its rotational deployments in Australia, and pending a Supreme Court decision in the Philippines, it will greatly enhance its rotations there.

The U.S. also has key security partners in Taiwan and Singapore and growing ties with other Southeast Asian nations and India.

The overall confidence of our allies in U.S. leadership has been undermined by perceptions of American economic decline, defense budget cuts and procurement decisions, the rapid rise of China, and deference to Chinese interests, particularly concerning Taiwan. The Administration has made important progress with individual allies, but strained to counter these doubts in the absence of solutions to underlying causes.


Evaluate Membership in Every International Organization. The U.S. should honestly assess whether each organization works as it was intended to work and whether its mission is focused and attainable, advances U.S. interests, and provides benefits commensurate with U.S. funding. The U.S. should end funding for those, like the U.N. Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) from which the Clinton Administration withdrew in the 1990s, that are ineffective or that work against U.S. interests.

Maintain Current U.S. Law Prohibiting Funding of U.N. Organizations that Admit Palestine as a Member State as UNESCO Did in 2011. The Palestinian push for statehood absent a negotiated agreement with Israel would deal a major setback to Israeli–Palestinian peace prospects. Past U.S. financial withholdings have proven effective in helping to advance U.S. policy priorities at the U.N.

Link Development Assistance to a Country’s Support for U.S. Policy Priorities in the U.N. and Other Important International Organizations. Over the 10 U.N. General Assembly sessions from 2004 to 2013, about 77 percent of the recipients of U.S. development aid have voted against the U.S. most of the time on overall non-consensus votes, and 67 percent have voted against the U.S. most of the time on non-consensus votes deemed important by the Department of State.

Use America’s Influence, Including Financial Leverage, to Press for Key U.N. Reforms. These reforms include giving major donors greater say in budgetary decisions and how to spread the burden of the scale of assessments more equitably; shifting voluntary funding of international organizations to support activities the U.S. deems worthwhile and defunding lesser priorities or ineffective programs; allowing unfettered member-state access to all audits, internal documents, and other relevant information on the U.N. and its agencies; increasing internal oversight and accountability; reconstituting the Mandate Review to eliminate outdated, irrelevant, or duplicative activities; and enforcing real, consistent consequences for corruption, sexual exploitation, and abuse by U.N. peacekeepers.

Review U.N. Peacekeeping Operations and be More Judicious in Approving New Operations. If a mission has not achieved its objective or made evident progress after a lengthy period, the Security Council should reassess whether that mission is serving a constructive role in resolving the situation. If not, the mission should be ended or its expenses shifted to the nations seeking to continue it for political reasons, as is partially the case with the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP). The pressure to “do something” should not trump sensible consideration of whether a U.N. operation will improve or destabilize a situation or whether it has established clear and achievable objectives, matched resources to requirements, and secured pledges for the necessary resources before the operation is authorized.

Resist Expansion of the U.N. Security Council. Expanding the council would contribute to gridlock, dilute U.S. influence, and likely result in less support for U.S. interests.

Insist on More Equitable Burden-Sharing in NATO. Demand that all members recommit to spending at least 2 percent of their gross domestic product (GDP) on defense; request the removal of most national caveats on deployed troops and equipment in NATO operations; advance NATO’s transformational initiatives, including strengthening of the NATO Response Force; and push NATO efforts for comprehensive missile defense.

Lead NATO Enlargement Efforts. NATO enlargement is consistent with the broader vision of a Europe that is whole, free, and at peace. The U.S. should position itself as a champion of those countries that meet the criteria for accession to NATO.

Reject EU Attempts to Constrain U.S. Global Leadership. The U.S. should maintain strong relations with individual European nation-states; reject the EU’s “multilateralisation of multipolarity” approach to refashion the international system; defend U.S. sovereignty against problematic EU-backed international treaties such as the Law of the Sea Treaty, the Ottawa Convention, and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court; oppose the EU’s attempts to lift its arms embargo on China; and investigate EU funding streams in the U.S. to ensure compliance with U.S. law.

Repair and Enhance the Anglo–American Special Relationship. Both nations should commit to a policy of international leadership and a timely renewal of the U.S.–U.K. Mutual Defense Agreement, express an exclusive commitment to NATO as the security alliance for Europe, and declare their resolve both to continue operations in Afghanistan and to isolate and pressure Iran.

Demonstrate Firm Commitment to Pacific Allies and Fully Enable Partnerships. The U.S. should make investments in America’s military that are appropriate to a long-term presence in the Pacific, including fully funding U.S. Navy shipbuilding requirements; hold firm to plans to realign U.S. forces in Japan; maintain the 28,500-man troop level in South Korea, both as a sign of commitment to the alliance and to deter North Korean aggression; expand U.S.–Australian cooperation to include greater joint use of military facilities; give the Philippines first priority for excess defense articles, explore lend-lease options for military hardware, and robustly implement the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (DCA); assist Taiwan in acquiring submarines and make available for sale the F-16C/Ds it has requested; expand operational cooperation and raise the level of strategic dialogue with Thailand; and pursue robust strategic and military engagement with India.

Fully Fund U.S. Defense Requirements. It is unrealistic to think that the U.S. can cut defense spending by an additional $1 trillion over the next decade and still maintain its current level of commitment. Shortchanging U.S. defense spending may appear to provide short-term budgetary gains, but such gains will come at an unacceptable risk to America’s armed forces, allies, and national interests in the Asia–Pacific.

Retain Robust Forward-Deployed U.S. Military Forces in the Western Pacific. American resolve should be backed by sufficient forces to deter or respond to regional military threats. These forces should be closely integrated with their South Korean and Japanese counterparts.

Enunciate U.S. Strategy for Asia. In light of pending defense budget cuts, the Administration and Congress should outline their strategy for Asia. Reducing U.S. military capabilities undercuts America’s ability to defend its allies, deter threats, and respond quickly to aggressive actions or natural disasters in Asia. Consequently, it is imperative—if the Administration and Congress are intent upon cutting defense spending—to explain how the U.S. will preserve its interests with its remaining forces.

Strengthen U.S. Alliances. Washington cannot meet all of the challenges presented by Asia on its own. America should rely on a comprehensive network of alliances and relationships with other Asian nations—countries that share common values of freedom, democracy, and free-market principles. The U.S. should urge the most capable of its alliance partners to augment their contributions to their defense and to aid in addressing international security challenges. At the same time, it should provide local states with better self-defense capacity so that America’s friends and allies can better defend themselves, contribute to common regional security, and alleviate demands on American forces.

Integrate Air–Sea Battle Strategy with Allies’ Missions and Capabilities. Regional uncertainties exist about the parameters of the new U.S. doctrine and whether it creates greater gaps between U.S. and ally capabilities. With allies being called upon to assume greater security responsibilities, Washington should ensure that they are suitably integrated.

Express Support for an Expanded Japanese Security Role Both in Asia and in Global Humanitarian and Peacekeeping Missions. The U.S. should reassure Japan’s neighbors that such changes pose no threat and augment rather than undermine stability in the region because such an expansion is integrated with U.S. force plans.

Facts and Figures

  • A majority of the U.N.’s 193 member states are neither politically nor economically free.
  • Total U.S. contributions to the U.N. system exceeded $7.691 billion in 2010, the most recent year for which data were provided by the Office of Management and Budget.
  • Two-thirds of the General Assembly’s members, which in the aggregate in 2015 are assessed only about 1.6 percent of the U.N.’s regular budget and 0.5 percent of the peacekeeping budget, can approve increases over the objections of the U.S.
  • The U.S. is the U.N.’s largest financial supporter, responsible for 22 percent of the regular U.N. budget (over $600 million in 2015). Each of the least-assessed countries is charged about $28,000 per year.
  • The U.S. is assessed nearly 28.4 percent of the U.N. peacekeeping budget ($2.3 billion in 2015–2016). Each of the least-assessed countries was charged approximately $8,276.
  • Only four NATO member states (Estonia, Greece, Poland, the U.K., and the U.S.) currently spend the benchmark of at least 2 percent of GDP on defense.
  • New York City alone spends more on policing than 14 NATO members each spend on their national defense.
  • The Pacific is home to the world’s three largest economies and more than half of global trade. The U.S. has treaty commitments to five allies in the Western Pacific: Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, and Thailand.
  • China’s military budget is the world’s second largest and also its fastest growing. Its military modernization is aimed directly at countering American predominance.
  • Several of the world’s most volatile conflict zones are in East Asia, including the Taiwan Strait, the Korean Peninsula, and the South and East China Seas.
  • The U.S. Pacific Command includes five aircraft carrier strike groups, including one based in Japan, and two-thirds of total U.S. Marine Corps strength, 400 aircraft, and 60,000 soldiers.

Selected Additional Resources

Dean Cheng, “F-16C/D Fills Taiwan’s Fighter Need,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 3960, June 5, 2013.

Luke Coffey, “The 2012 NATO Summit in Chicago: NATO in Need of American Leadership,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2690, May 16, 2013.

Luke Coffey, “Future of Europe: Political and Economic Realities Facing the European Union,” Heritage Foundation Lecture No. 1224, March 5, 2013.

Luke Coffey, Nile Gardiner, and Ted R. Bromund, The United States Should Recognize British Sovereignty Over the Falkland Islands, Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2771, March 4, 2013.

Luke Coffey, Nile Gardiner, and Ted R. Bromund, “U.S. Should Condemn Spain’s Bullying Tactics over Gibraltar,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4007, August 6, 2013.

Bruce Klingner and Dean Cheng, “America’s Security Commitment to Asia Needs More Forces,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2715, August 7, 2012.

Walter Lohman, “Defrost the U.S.–Taiwan Relationship,” Heritage Foundation WebMemo No. 3173, February 28, 2011.

Brett D. Schaefer, “Key Issues of U.S. Concern at the United Nations,” testimony before Subcommittee on Multilateral International Development, Multilateral Institutions, and International Economic, Energy, and Environmental Policy, Committee on Foreign Relations U.S. Senate, May 6, 2015.

Brett D. Schaefer, “U.S. Must Enforce Peacekeeping Cap to Lower America’s U.N. Assessment,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2762, January 25, 2013.

Brett D. Schaefer and Anthony B. Kim, “Congress Should Link U.N. General Assembly Voting and Foreign Aid,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4270, September 2, 2014.

Brett D. Schaefer and James Phillips, “Time to Reconsider U.S. Support of UNRWA,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2997, March 5, 2015.