Security Studies Program Wednesday Seminar

The End of Alliances: the Future of American Foreign Policy

Rajan Menon
Professor, Lehigh University

October 24, 2007

I wrote a short piece questioning the viability of post-Cold War U.S. alliances. Then it became a journal article. Then Oxford UP became interested.

The book tried to look at what had happened to an adversary—the Soviet Union —not us. If I had told you in '82 that their alliances would collapse, and that the USSR itself would collapse without a shot being fired, you'd have thought I was crazy. We knew their political system was in decline, but we didn't foresee the bloodless collapse. Much of what we studied was oriented around the USSR.

Some caveats. I'm not talking about the end of alliances as a mechanism in international relations. These have been around since about the 5th century BC. Am I saying the US will never form alliances again? No. I'm talking about particular alliances of a particular sorts, that require tying up a lot of troops in 3 major locations around the world. The utility of that isn't there any more. Am I an isolationist? No, the Economist is wrong. This is not a book on isolationism. The United States, I would argue, has never been isolationist. The question has always been how to engage the world, not whether. The question really is whether there will be an overall transformation of American grand strategy.

It may be that the shift I'm about to describe will sound impossible, or at least improbable. We see familiar landscapes, alliances, and doctrines, and we think we can live with them on an open-ended basis. But in fact, paradigm shifts have been not the exception but the rule. George Washington's farewell address, the federalist papers, and other famous writings and speeches on this issue make clear that while they believed the US should engage the world, they had a critique of alliances: over-extension, tying up resources. Also, alliances had the capacity to subvert domestic processes. So the post-1945 containment strategy that committed large US forces overseas was a major change. George Washington would have rolled over in his grave if he saw it.

The British strategy until 1902 had been to make only short-term alliances, to command mastery of the sea. Entered into alliance with Japan and then with France, previously its enemy. People cannot imagine that Japan could change the course it's been on since 1945. Japan has demonstrably had major shifts in its grand strategy. This notion that “Japan cannot think strategically” is just weird and wrong.

So the notion that the US is in for a paradigm shift is not that unbelievable. It is certainly possible. I try to pin this down in terms of 3 alliances: NATO, South Korea, and Japan. If what I suggest doesn't happen in the next 15 years, then I am wrong—this is a falsifiable argument.

In the case of NATO, in the cold war it was easy to write a 3-line definition of NATO. We knew what its purpose was. Today, NATO is an alliance in search of a mission. The fact that it's expanding is neither here nor there. That is a bureaucratic impulse. NATO is a way for the US to have political influence in Europe. Of course, this is a strange way to sell the alliance to Europe. There are also other ways to have political influence. The Balkan wars showed the manifest military weakness of non-US NATO. Cannot act without US. Even Chris Patten, a strong Atlanticist, talks about the vulnerability of this alliance.

Think about Iraq. Far from redefining the alliance, I would argue this is the greatest crisis of the alliance. There was an organized mutiny led by France and Germany to oppose NATO's involvement in the war and develop a systematic alternative and discourse. Kissinger and Heisbourg thought this was the end of NATO.

In NATO's role in Afghanistan, only Canadians and Brits are doing the hard work with the US. And that is directly related to the rising unpopularity of these missions. Most other allies are in PRTs. Very hard to get others to commit to doing more. This really calls into question what NATO is all about.

Is there any reason to expect this to change? Nothing much has happened with European Rapid Reaction Force, now called Euro Corps. In defense spending, in real terms in Europe it has declined, except for Turkey and Greece. They're doing it against each other so that doesn't really help us. Graying of Europe is also a factor here, along with commitment to welfare state. Defense spending isn't going anywhere. Public preference is for butter over guns. I also think a substantial segment of the population in Europe is radicalized—interventions in Muslim hot spots will have substantial domestic political repercussions.

South Korea
I will slay a sacred cow: the notion that South Korea is incapable of defeating the North. There is no evidence that this regime has ever seriously put regime existence at risk. Population and economic factors and military spending all favor the south.

Then there is the nuclear factor. It's more likely that we would spark the nuclear crisis on the peninsula. Apart from that, I don't see a reason we can't withdraw our troops. Public in the south is ambivalent toward basing and strategy.

This is the hardest case for my argument. Why would the alliance collapse? It's been great for the Japanese. They spend less than a percent of GDP on defense and remain very safe. Yoshida doctrine subcontracts their security to us. I believe in Hintze—external influences shape foreign policy here. Japan has a near peerless technological foundation for a defense industry. This is no small advantage. Its capacity to raise defense spending is high. There is no legal constraint on defense spending—this has been self-imposed so far. Everyone says if Japan militarizes it will be a replay of the 1930s. This really gives the Japanese not enough credit, and the Chinese too much. Japan has a lot of intermediate steps it could take. The Japanese Self Defense Forces seen as anemic, but it hasn't been standing still. Japan can stretch Chinese resources thin by having a lot of other states in the region pose challenges for it as well. Not all of China 's energy can be focused on Japan .

If I'd told you in 1970 that India would get nukes, and we'd assist their programs, you'd have thought I was nuts. Look at our relationship with Vietnam now compared to the 1960s.

Final Thoughts
Today we have a lot of “alignments” and these will grow—alignments in terms of cooperation, but not in terms of deploying troops and tying up a lot of resources.

The notion of grand strategy as changing internal order of other states is not a good one.

And why do we need all these nuclear weapons? 3-5,000 for minimum deterrence?

Energy policy. Everyone wear a lapel pin, but no one will make a personal sacrifice in this area.

The draft. The burden of military service falls on very few.

It should not be a war on terror. We are not facing an existential threat. This pumps up Bin Ladin more than he deserves. We need to define it much more broadly.


Rapporteur: Caitlin Talmadge

back to Wednesday Seminar Series, Fall 2007