The United States today has numerous allies in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East whom Americans are committed to defend. Despite the end of the Cold War, Americans are regaled at home and abroad with rationales for reinvigorating alliances that skeptics question in the new era. In essence, we are admonished by advocates of the alliances to shun “isolationism” and strengthen international ties that will preserve peace. This message seems reassuring, but on closer analysis there is a major flaw—why do Americans need allies if we have no credible enemy?

If the post-Cold War era has any defining characteristic for the United States, it is the clear lack of an adversary capable of a major, sustained assault on the country. We are not in danger of being overrun by a foreign enemy. Nor is one of that magnitude likely to emerge any time soon. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union might have been able to inflict such an attack. Hence, it made sense for Americans to form alliances with an array of countries. They were unlikely to help defend the United States from a direct attack, but their shared vulnerability to assault by the Soviet Union, or by a proxy state, provided a sense of unity in a common mission that helped to preserve American security by diffusing the threat.

Today, however, that linkage has completely dissipated. America’s current alliances with other countries arc intended totally to deter attacks on them or to fight their wars should deterrence fail. The countries that might attack our allies, or militarily endanger their well-being, are not capable of inflicting such damage on the United States. This circumstance raises two possibilities for Americans. We can either choose to retain our current alliances or we can consider a form of security independent of a network of unnecessary allies. If we retain our existing alliances in Europe and Asia, we can do so using the same stale rhetoric that is anachronistic in post-Cold War circumstances or we can devise new candid rationales for helping selected countries that want the United States to subsidize their national security. This would require a profound redefinition of the notion of “ally.” Of course, either choice is likely to be subjected to popular skepticism sooner or later due to the financial costs of the alliances or to Americans’ unwillingness to wage war to defend an ally’s interests.

For example, within NATO, the United States could create new justifications for keeping a lid on inter-European tensions, but Washington would be compelled to do so from a European vantage point that would effectively stress the quasi-European identity of the United States. In short, Americans would be defending Europeans as de facto Europeans. Americans also would require new justifications for expending tax dollars for the security of a continent that is not presently endangered by a potent force and—if it were again endangered—could afford to pay fully for its own defenses but which prefers to keep Americans engaged to dilute the costs and spread the risk. Clearly such a rationale could be created, but would it be plausible to already hard-pressed American taxpayers who would be asked to send their sons and daughters to help defend Europe in perpetuity?

A case for Asia would be equally tenuous. Without the legacy of a regional security network like NATO, it is doubly difficult to make a case for the United States possessing an Asia-Pacific identity that it can defend on behalf of bilateral allies such as Japan and South Korea. This argument is made, but not very persuasively. These two countries do face a genuine threat from North Korea and its nuclear capabilities. In these terms, the region still echoes the Cold War. However, the handwriting is on the wall for that finite threat, and once it is resolved in the foreseeable future, this regional version of the Cold War will also pass fully into history. Barring the perception of a Chinese threat or the acceptance of perennial Japanese-Korean enmity as sufficient reason for perpetuating alliances in the Ear East, the United States would have to stretch considerably the definition of “ally” to justify an indefinite commitment to Asian security without an Asian adversary that could directly threaten the United States. The most cogent argument is that the United States could be a stabilizing presence in an unstable area, because Americans are less objectionable in that role than any other Asia-Pacific power. While this may be as logical from an Asian perspective as the counterpart “lid” argument is in Europe, it will be a hard sell in this country.

Were the United States to shed its unnecessary allies, what is likely to happen? Clearly we would be in no greater danger of an attack than we are today. In fact, the United States would face a greatly reduced risk of war. Virtually all the contemporary warfare contingencies contemplated by the American military establishment are predicated on the United States meeting a commitment to any ally or a regional security pact. Furthermore, without allies the United States would be rid of peacetime pressures to maintain our strategic credibility in their eyes, which permits allies to manipulate American public opinion and policy. In post-Cold War circumstances, there is no reason to endanger American credibility in defense of other countries’ interests. This has been graphically illustrated during the Bosnian crisis, where clear American interests are virtually impossible to discern. Nonetheless, great pressures have been exerted on Americans to stand by our NATO allies or our U.N. allies for an ill-defined cause. When Americans express their doubts and reservations about engaging military forces in a highly questionable venture, they are routinely reproached at home and abroad for jeopardizing their country’s credibility as a world leader and shirking global responsibilities. However, if we do not need the allies as much as they manifestly need us, why should Americans hobble their economic national interests for the sake of allies’ strategic interests?

Without allies, Americans also would enjoy far more flexibility when using diplomatic tools. For example, Washington’s periodic attempts to use tough-minded trade leverage on European or Asian competitors in defense of America’s national interests are routinely constrained by advice not to do anything that could exacerbate tensions in our alliances, much less jeopardize their existence. This has been repeatedly demonstrated in America’s relationship with Japan, where virtually all attempts by American officials and policy advocates to push for a tougher trade posture characterized by economic nationalism are denounced for jeopardizing security relations between the two countries. Even though the primacy of America’s economic relations with Asia is widely recognized today, and extolled by many, American policy options vis-à-vis Japan remain constrained by Cold War-vintage attitudes about not offending an ally’s sensibilities. Why not enjoy the competitive economic advantages likely to accrue for the United States as present day allies are compelled to cope with the added costs of national defense created by American withdrawal of the strategic subsidy to which they have grown accustomed?

Dispensing with formal allies would not mean the United States would be embracing isolationism, as is routinely alleged. The United States could be as unilaterally engaged in world affairs as it chooses to be. This includes a full range of international economic engagement (trade, aid, and investment), participation in global and regional international organizations, unilateral military actions abroad that serve America’s interests, humanitarian activities, and the freedom to participate in any temporary strategic coalitions that, again, serve American interests. The United States would not, however, be wedded to any other countries’ national interests.

None of this would constitute “isolationism.” Clearly there are direct dangers to the United States posed by terrorism, nuclear proliferation, international crime, the drug trade, and other issues. It is also possible that some day a new external threat comparable to the former Soviet Union might materialize in Asia, Europe, or the Middle East. Americans require a strong unilateral defense capability, must possess solid intelligence capabilities, and need to prepare for such contingencies. The point is that the United States today does not need our existing allies to meet these challenges. Americans can cooperate with a diverse spectrum of countries on such issues without incurring the obligations of formal alliances. If at any point in the future it becomes desirable to ally formally with one or more countries against a major new threat, that option would remain open. In the meantime, however, it is far wiser to declare autonomy and seek strength through sovereignty without the encumbrance of entangling alliances.

It is clear that existing allies in Europe and Asia cannot be unceremoniously dumped. It would be prudent to phase in the new policy on an incremental basis so that existing allies are not left in the lurch. Both sides in existing alliances would require a period of transitional adjustment. Moreover, it is entirely possible, perhaps likely in a few instances, that the United States would want to replace existing alliances with coalitions—aimed at specific situations—in which the coalition partners would pursue explicit interests that overlap for a finite period. Such coalitions would not be alliances as we now know them and would represent a far more equitable approach to the post-Cold War world.