American strategic policy is to maintain a broad network of allies in order to keep potential rivals locked down in land conflicts so they cannot dream of floating a navy that might be able to one day cross the world’s oceans and attack America’s shores. This transfers most of the danger to allies close to the front line. In essence, the Americans use money, weapons, and intelligence to bolster countries that under other circumstances would be more likely to appease than resist a potential aggressor. It’s a strategy that minimizes American risk and the threat to American lives.
The strategy also means the United States occasionally must step in directly, either to bolster a flagging ally or to confront a regional power that might achieve breakout. At that point, American forces – up to and including ground forces – must be directly committed to the conflict. Korea, Vietnam and Desert Storm are probably the three best-recognized examples of this strategy in action.
It is a strategy that soon will be retired. As the United States disengages from the wider world, the threshold for American involvement will rise sharply. In May 2014, the Economist put it succinctly with its feature, “What Will America Fight For?” As the years roll by, the list of places for which the Americans will bleed will get shorter and shorter.
For the implications of the American withdrawal – and to see who remains on the American short list – see The Accidental Superpower, Chapters 8 and 9.