Almost four weeks ago, President Obama hosted a meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan at the White House to discuss the ongoing humanitarian and political crisis in Syria. While the two reiterated their agreement that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should step down from power, it is no secret that the two differ on the means with which to bring this course about. At present, Prime Minister Erdogan supports providing Syria’s opposition rebels with direct military aid, while President Obama supports providing the rebels with non-lethal and humanitarian aid only.
While some have interpreted this American reluctance to acquiesce to every demand of its allies, which in this case includes not only Turkey but also the Gulf States, as weakness, it should be seen for what it truly is: the realization by this administration that U.S. national interests do not always coincide with those of its allies. To be sure, the interests of the U.S. and its allies often do overlap. However, no two nations possess identical interests. Oftentimes the structure of the U.S.-led alliance system hides this reality. American willingness to assume the primary burden of this alliance system, particularly during the post-Cold War period, has only further obscured this reality.
Interestingly enough, this is not the first time President Obama has said "no" or "not yet" to an American ally. Ever since aiding the overthrow of Col. Muammar Gaddafi in Libya in 2011, a move in which the U.S. reluctantly supported the wishes of its European allies, the Arab League, and the UN Security Council, the U.S. has on several occasions either quietly rebuffed or distanced itself from several of its official allies; preferring instead to adopt a "pass the buck" or "lead from behind" approach. While both terms appear negative in their connotation, they represent a highly rational and cost-effective approach towards dealing with international challenges. Simply stated, it is an approach that emphasizes the responsibility of other states to maintain order in their own respective "backyard."
Below is a list of six such instances in which the U.S. either “rebuffed” or simply distanced itself from a particular ally. To be sure, some cases were certainly more serious than others. Regardless of whether or not one agrees with the course taken in each instance, one can at least appreciate the administration's attempts to differentiate American interests from those of its allies.
Saudi Arabia/Turkey: Ever since the beginning of the Syrian uprising, the U.S. has repeatedly declined requests made by both Saudi Arabia and Turkey to provide lethal/military aid to Syrian rebels in their attempt to overthrow the government led by Bashar al-Assad.
Saudi Arabia/Israel: The U.S. has thus far declined requests by both Saudi Arabia and Israel to attack Iran's nuclear program and has instead sought to alter Iranian behavior via multilateral diplomacy.
Israel: While U.S. efforts at a comprehensive peace deal between Israel and the Palestinian Authority have been marginal at best, the president's willingness to verbalize the long-standing American policy towards Israeli settlement expansion beyond its 1967 borders should have been commended.
United Kingdom: The U.S. (wrongly) refused to formally acknowledge the sovereignty of a fellow NATO ally's territorial claim (United Kingdom over the Falklands) with a non-NATO U.S. ally (Argentina).
Japan: While the U.S. has affirmed its treaty obligation to defend Japan's "administrative" claims over the Senkaku/Diaoyutai islands, it has reiterated an official policy of neutrality towards the sovereignty of those islands. This means that while the U.S. would defend these islands on behalf of Japan, it would also support (at least in theory) a peaceful resolution of the conflict between the two powers of Japan and China .
Taiwan/Philippines: Although the Pivot to Asia would suggest otherwise, the U.S. has officially declared its neutrality in the various territorial claims in the South China Sea. These claims also include non-allies such as China, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.