Foreign Policy Essay

What the UAE Weapons Deal Says About the United States and Its Alliances

By Raphael S. Cohen
Sunday, February 28, 2021, 10:01 AM

Editor’s Note: Various U.S. administrations have long wanted U.S. allies to do more, but in many parts of the world the most logical partners are authoritarian states with different interests than those of the United States. Using the proposed F-35 aircraft deal to illustrate his points, Rand Corp.’s Raphael Cohen explores the inevitable dilemmas that occur when the United States relies on allies to do the heavy lifting.

Daniel Byman

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Our allies should do their fair share,” then-candidate Joe Biden wrote in a Foreign Affairs piece outlining his foreign policy in 2020. It is one of those strategic aphorisms that everyone loves in theory but that makes people queasy in practice. Recent administrations have each had their own version: The Bush administration talked about working “by, with and through” partners in the global war on terrorism. The Obama administration popularized the concept of “leading from behind” and letting the United States’s European allies guide the NATO intervention in the Libyan civil war. The Trump administration argued that allies and partners must “shoulder a fair share of the burden of responsibility to protect against common threats.” It’s compelling in principle—after all, who can object to easing the burden on the U.S. military and lessening the cost to American taxpayers? Fill in the details of who these allies and partners are and what “doing their fair share” actually means, however, and the platitude loses some of its sheen.

The United States’s sale of F-35 fighter jets and other high-end weapons to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) provides just the latest example of this phenomenon. The more than $23 billion deal was rushed through in the waning days of the Trump administration and included 50 of the advanced fighter aircraft, 18 MQ-9B drones, and $10 billion worth of air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions. In his first full day in office, Secretary of State Antony Blinken put a hold on the sale, pending further review.

There are many good reasons why the United States might back such an arms sale. The deal helped cement the historic Abraham Accords that resulted in peace treaties between the United States’s closest regional ally, Israel, and a series of states that includes the UAE. Selling U.S. weaponry promotes interoperability and strengthens U.S. defense ties with a partner that was one of the few Arab countries that provided forces to the war in Afghanistan. The deal provides a significant boost to the U.S. defense industry, keeping production lines warm and American workers employed. And if the United States did not sell weapons to the UAE, perhaps Abu Dhabi would turn to U.S. adversaries such as Russia or China as potential suppliers—both of whom already have their eyes on making inroads into the region. Above all, the deal makes the UAE a more formidable military counterweight to another mutual adversary, Iran, by enhancing deterrence and freeing up U.S. military forces for other priorities.

At the same time, there are plenty of reasons—though less compelling—to oppose the deal. Some members of Congress worried that such a deal would undermine Israel’s qualitative military edge, although Israel notably did not object to the deal. Others worried that the sale would set off another regional arms race. That said, it is hard to see why this one sale would destabilize a region that is already a longtime consumer of advanced U.S. weaponry and one of the most heavily armed in the world. Others have objected to the seemingly rushed process in which the sale was approved, although presumably the Biden administration’s further review would mitigate these concerns.

Instead, the better reason for U.S. policymakers to object to the arms sales to the UAE might be what Kenneth Pollack and Joseph Rank call the “good problem of capable allies.” Since 2015, the UAE has participated in a Saudi Arabia-led air campaign in Yemen against the Houthis, an Iranian-backed rebel movement. While the UAE scaled down its participation over the past couple of years, the conflict still produced what Human Rights Watch calls “the largest humanitarian crisis in the world,” with 17,500 civilians killed and a staggering 10 million people at risk of famine. The UAE has been engaged in a similarly bloody, long-running proxy conflict backing Libyan National Army strongman Khalifa Haftar against pro-Islamist factions in the Libyan civil war. The concern for the United States has to be that, as the UAE acquires ever more advanced weaponry, it will have freer rein to pursue its own objectives in Yemen and Libya or potentially against Iran itself—and these efforts may not be in lockstep with U.S. interests or values.

The UAE arms deal is symptomatic of a deeper problem. The United States has many allies and even more partners, but only a handful of “ideal” ones. Strategic alignment is rare enough in this increasingly multipolar world. Few states also have the will and capability to wield military power, and fewer still share American ideals, particularly when it comes to using force. While long-standing allies like the United Kingdom and Australia are ramping up defense spending, there is only so much these countries can do. Consequently, calls for allies and partners to “do their fair share” functionally means looking beyond the usual suspects to other, often less-than-optimal states to fill the gap. The more capable these allies and partners become, however, the more they can act independently, for better or worse. As Pollack and Rank note, “Although it would be nice if U.S. allies never took any action without asking permission first, that’s hardly realistic.”

This challenge is not new, but it is one the United States has not had to fully grapple with for the better part of three decades. After all, the United States regularly found itself in unseemly marriages of convenience with autocratic regimes in pursuit of the grander aim of combating communism. The United States cut similarly indecorous deals with authoritarian regimes of the Arab world as part of the global war on terrorism. Even so, as the sole superpower in the post-Cold War world, the United States still could afford the pretense of looking for virtue in its alliances. Today, this may no longer be the case. With the rise of China, the return of Russia, a host of other regional challenges still boiling, and a global pandemic set to increase pressure on U.S. defense spending, the United States may need to accept the allies and partners it has rather than ones it may want.

Consequently, the UAE weapons deal is not a one-off conundrum. In the Indo-Pacific, the United States finds that curbing an increasingly belligerent China requires courting Rodrigo Duterte’s increasingly repressive government in the Philippines and an oppressive communist regime in Vietnam. In the Middle East, aside from the UAE, the United States finds itself in uneasy relationships with Egypt and Saudi Arabia to combat terrorism and counter Iranian influence. Even in ally-rich, democracy-abundant Europe, only a handful of states have both the resources and the will to check a revanchist Russia. As a result, the United States finds itself turning to Poland to form the lynchpin for its deterrence strategy in Eastern Europe, despite that nation’s  democratic backsliding. The United States increasingly finds that pushing allies and partners to “do their fair share” is a mixed blessing.

Ultimately, there are no bargains in geopolitics. If the United States wants to accomplish its overarching objectives without paying full freight, it may need to swallow these misgivings, learn to live with capable partners and allies, even the unsavory kind, and relinquish some of its ability to dictate strategic outcomes. If not, it may face the prospect of paying for U.S. military might outright with all the costs in blood and treasure that entails.