The Problem With "42 Allies"

You might think most foreign policy wonks were looking forward to last night’s presidential debate but most I know were actually dreading it. It was well known that the difficult and pressing questions on foreign policy would not be asked, and to be honest, foreign policy requires far more nuance and complexity than can fit in a 90 minute debate. The best one can hope for is to gain an understanding of the candidates’ world view as that is what will determine and define the policy of any administration.

In that vein, there was one statement that stood out to me. On talking about the overthrown of Mubarak and the role of the U.S. in world, Governor Romney stated,

“We need to have as well a strong military. Our military is second to none in the world. We’re blessed with terrific soldiers, and extraordinary technology and intelligence. But the idea of a trillion dollar in cuts through sequestration and budget cuts to the military would change that. We need to have strong allies. Our association and connection with our allies is essential to America’s strength. We’re the great nation that has allies, 42 allies and friends around the world.”

42 allies. The number instantly raised eyebrows on my Twitter feed followed by the question of who makes up the 42? The Daily Caller asked the Romney campaign who explained it was based on “NATO allies, Major Non-NATO Allies, and NATO contact countries.” Here is their full list:


1. Albania

2. Belgium

3. Bulgaria

4. Canada

5. Croatia

6. Czech Republic

7. Denmark

8. Estonia

9. France

10. Germany

11. Greece

12. Hungary

13. Iceland

14. Italy

15. Latvia

16. Lithuania

17. Luxembourg

18. Netherlands

19. Norway

20. Poland

21. Portugal

22. Romania

23. Slovakia

24. Slovenia

25. Spain

26. Turkey

27. United Kingdom

Non-NATO Allies

28.    Australia

29.    Egypt

30.    Israel

31.    Japan

32.    South Korea

33.    Jordan

34.    New Zealand

35.    Argentina

36.    Bahrain

37.  Philippines

38.  Thailand

39.  Kuwait

40.  Morocco

41.  Pakistan

42.  Afghanistan

It’s an interesting list. While one could argue there is a difference between “allies,” “partners” and “friends,” there are still some glaring omissions.

For example, two African countries – Egypt and Morocco – are listed but nothing in sub-Saharan Africa. That may come to a surprise to Djibouti, who hosts the only U.S. military base in Africa. Likewise, countries such as Kenya and Uganda, whose troops are deployed to combat the Al Qaeda-linked Al Shabab in Somalia, may be surprised that their role on that front in the War on Terror doesn’t earn them “ally” status.

Latin America doesn’t fare much better. Only one country – Argentina – is listed here. El Salvador? Nicaragua? Honduras? Dominican Republic? Even though all these countries provided troops during the Iraq War, it does not earn them allied status. Even Mexico, our neighbor to the south whose relationship is paramount, doesn’t get the honor of being one of the 42. Latin America may be our fastest growing trading partner, but that doesn’t matter as apparently all our hopes for the region rest on Argentina’s shoulders alone.

South and East Asia get more credit with six countries – Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, Pakistan and Afghanistan – but the omissions here are even more glaring. There is no mention of Malaysia or more importantly Indonesia, which is the world’s largest Muslim country, fourth largest population in the world, a growing economic powerhouse, developing democracy and key member of the ASEAN trade bloc. Relations between the U.S. and Indonesia have not always been smooth, but in recent years there has been a concerted effort to enhance military, political and economic relations while encouraging Indonesia’s fledgling democracy and growing influence in the region. Likewise, Pakistan is listed but not India, the world’s largest democracy. This despite the fact that India has probably been a far better friend to us than Pakistan in recent years.

Meanwhile, the countries of the Caucasus region go completely unrecognized even as Georgia seeks NATO membership and Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan have provided NATO compatible troops to both the Iraq War and the war in Afghanistan. The expected nations of the Middle East are mentioned – Turkey, Jordan, Israel, Kuwait and Bahrain – but not Yemen who allows us to drone away in their territory or Iraq, that country we supposedly saved. Similarly, the United Arab Emirates who provided troops and support to the war in Afghanistan and Operation Unified Protector in Libya don’t get to be part of the club. Finally, much of Europe is already a part of NATO and therefore included, but non-NATO countries like Sweden who still provided military and communications support to the NATO operation in Libya do not make the cut.

I suspect the statistic of “42 allies” was expected to be a throwaway quote, but it was probably the most revealing statement of the evening. If pressed to provide a similar list, I have no idea what the Obama administration would release. Maybe it would be broader, maybe it would be narrower, maybe it would be exactly the same. But this list should give everyone pause. It illustrates the world according to Mitt Romney and gives insight into how his administration would approach international relations. The problem is this list is narrow, recessive, does not reflect where our foreign policy currently is and where it optimally is headed. As we move from a unipolar world to a multipolar one, relationships among nations become even more crucial and indispensable. And if a Romney administration is planning on putting all our foreign policy eggs in a NATO-centric basket, reducing our national view of Latin America to Argentina and eliminating Africa altogether, we will be moving back in time instead of forward.

Originally published on October 23, 2012 at www.foreignpolicyblogs.com