The End of Alliances?
A new book is making the rounds in Washington, one which argues the US has outgrown its Cold War era military alliances. Rajan Menon’s 'The End of Alliances' has sparked a lively debate among policy-makers, some of whom who feel that the present alliance system takes more than it gives.
Menon’s argument is as follows: the end of the Cold War demanded a reexamination of US foreign policy goals, and a questioning of some of its underlying assumptions. One of those assumptions is the utility of certain military alliances. After all, Menon continues, the US has traditionally been wary of military alliances, with notables such as Thomas Paine and George Washington counseling against them. This is an emotionally compelling argument, but rather overlooks the post-1945 context in which the alliances were built. Furthermore, it overlooks the new roles which the alliances fulfill in the post-9/11 security environment.
Lord Ismay pithily summed up NATO’s mission as the following: “To keep the Russians out, the Germans down, and the Americans in.” Menon argues that the first two threats no longer have real meaning. Putin’s Russia may be growing in strength, but it no longer presents the same kind of threat to the West that the USSR did. Similarly, German militarism, a recurring tension in European history, is highly unlikely to resurface now that Franco-Germanic competition has been harnessed within the constitutional confines of the EU. As for fears of a US return to isolationism, Menon argues that this is unlikely given the massive US economic and political interests in Europe. What the US really needs, Menon seems to be saying, is new alliances, ones that can be built and maintained on an ad hoc basis. He points to Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq as examples of poor integration between the US and NATO.
Menon goes on to examine the US relationship with the Republic of Korea (ROK). During the Cold War, it made sense to maintain large forces in the ROK to discourage further agression by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). The DPRK was an ally of China and the USSR, and the US-ROK alliance was really about containing communism. These arguments, Menon asserts, are out of date, and he contends that not only can the ROK defend itself from the DPRK, but in many ways it wants to. The GNP ratio is 40 to 1 in favour of the ROK, while the per capital income is 15 to 1. Military expenditure is 3 to 1 in favour of the ROK, with the DPRK spending somewhere in the region of 20-25% of its budget. The ROK is quite satisfied with only spending 6% of its budget on defense. Numerically, the DPRK may come out on top, but this belies the quality of its equipment, which dates from the 60’s and 70’s. Finally, there is public opinion: in recent polls, a large percentage of South Koreans were found to have negative opinions of the US, with some even saying that the US was a greater threat to security than the DPRK.
Menon’s arguments regarding the US-Japanese security alliance are more tenuous, a fact that he readily acknowledges. Nevertheless, he uses a similar argument as was used against the US-ROK alliance: Japan can defend itself. He lists a few pertinent facts, meant to support this assertion: first, Japan’s GNP is 1.4 trillion dollars, and yet only spends nine tenths of one percent on defence. Surely, it could do a little more. Second, Japan’s force structure as it is a strong one in comparison to its neighbours. It has the capacity to deter aggression on its home ground, due to its modern navy and air force. Third, while Koizumi and Abe both support the Yoshida Doctrine (that of keeping a minimal military and a strong link with the US), they have both been seen to be pushing the envelope. Fourth, while most policy-makers within Tokyo recognize that the US will remain a strong ally, there are growing voices such as those “new Asians” like Shintaro Ishihara and Nakanishi who favour stronger links with Asia.
Menon concludes his arguments by saying that the modern world is a complex and changing one, with new problems requiring new solutions and new allies. Whether there is convergence between the US and its allies on issues like terrorism, proliferation, energy dependence, climate change and the rise of China remains a matter of uncertainty. Certainly, some new players have joined the US in dealing with some of these issues. Vietnam, Poland, and India are examples of US allies that would have been unimaginable during the Cold War. Furthermore, Menon predicts the growth of trading relationships at the expense of military alliances, and saying that the EU, Japan, China, and NAFTA (Canada and Mexico) will remain the focus of US policy-making.
So what are the main weaknesses of Menon’s thesis? Well, the first two concern his lack of clarity; the title is a little misleading. What Menon is discussing in his book is the end of US alliances, and in particular those military alliances developed over the course of the Cold War. This is not a major error, but it is important to be clear on exactly what it being debated. Certainly, he is not predicting an end to other alliances such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Another point on which Menon is unclear is whether this end of alliances will happen or should happen. In other words, is he recommending or predicting it?
The strongest argument against Menon’s thesis is that these alliances will continue to exist because they are still needed and still provide something for both the US and its allies. The Cold War may be over, but that does not mean the world is a safer place. First, the US defence commitment to new NATO states like Poland and Ukraine has a large impact on the sense of security well-being of those countries. It plays a positive role in discouraging a defensive military build-up in the region as well as preventing nuclear proliferation. Without the protective shade of the US nuclear umbrella, it is likely that many mid-size states would seek their own nuclear deterrence, especially those who feel apprehensive about Russia and China. Furthermore, Menon discounts the benefits that alliances bring the US. In reference to Afghanistan, he states that only a few are actually taking part in combat in the troublesome southern provinces His mistake is an elementary one: he assumes that combat is the only way in which states can contribute, overlooking other benefits such as economic aid, local security, and greater legitimacy.
In Asia, security is an even greater concern for US allies. The threat to the ROK from the DPRK is anything but extinguished, as can be seen by the gradual move of DPRK forces nearer to the DMZ in the last 15 years: more than 70% of DPRK troops are within 145 miles of the border with its southern neighbor. Now, it may seem unlikely today that the DPRK would initiate another surprise invasion like it did in1950, but the point is no one knows. We simply do not know how to predict the behavior of the hermit kingdom. Christopher Hill, a long-time US negotiator with North Korea famously said that after years of dealing with them, he still had no idea what they were going to do next. That unpredictability is institutionalized in the DPRK and has roots in the guerilla background of Kim Jung-Il: keep the enemy guessing, off-balance, and wondering what you are going to do next. Furthermore, as someone once said, politics is 50% belief, and if the North believes that it can win a war against the South, it might initiate one, regardless of the military realities on the ground. Even then, Menon rather exaggerates DPRK inferiority without considering its unorthodox advantages, such as its surprise-attack doctrine, its large Special Forces capacity, and large stocks of chemical and biological weapons.
The rise of China and the continuing threatening behaviour of North Korea have meant that at this moment Japan’s ties to the US are actually growing closer. Certainly, some of Menon’s arguments are valid, but he draws the wrong conclusions from them in an attempt to build an overall case. If anything, his arguments about the US-Japan alliance merely point towards a need to re-configure defence responsibilities, but this is not news. Both Tokyo and Washington have been in agreement on this issue for some time, and this has been in development since the Armitage-Nye Report was released in 2000. Although, Sino-Japanese relations have been improving at high levels, growing nationalism and energy competition remain significant challenges for the two powers.
Menon’s thesis is interesting, but does not really stand up to closer scrutiny. He overlooks the continued need for these alliances. He also neglects to consider future prospects likely to make these alliances necessary. The growth of the SCO is one possible reason. It would be criminal to destroy the intra-institutional links of NATO without a real alternative for the parties concerned. The developments of close, working intelligence and military relationships have been instrumental in the War Against Terror. At one point, Menon says that alliances are a tool, and that they should be thought of in those terms. He’s right. Alliances are tools, but what carpenter throws away a trusted tool just because a job is over? Surely, he keeps the tool, knowing that it will again come in useful.
Who wants a fair weather friend?
A final argument concerns belief and perception. The US has built strong ties on the continent and in Asia and committed itself to the security of those regions. Unilaterally walking away from those alliances would undermine faith in US reliability and at a time when the US most needs to overcome negative perceptions of its exceptionalism. What kind of signal would the US be sending to potential friends and allies? Not a very good one. Furthermore, ad hoc alliance-making will undermine the quality of support that is given. One can see this in the Coalition of the Willing, in which small countries like Micronesia, were persuaded to become involved in the Iraq conflict providing little more than a cover for US unilateral policies. One can also see this in short-lived relationships like that of Uzbekistan which was a US ally in the War against Terror for less than five years. Menon argues against NATO, citing its lack of support over Iraq. Considering most US defence planners call that conflict a mistake, this is actually an argument in NATO’s favour. By contrast, NATO’s involvement in Afghanistan has bolstered the international legitimacy of that conflict. Legitimacy matters. Belief matters. Militarily, it matters because it binds the Clausewitzian trinity of people, state and army together. An military cannot function long without legitimacy.
Unquestionably, US alliances are in flux, but this does not entail an end to alliances; merely an evolution. Certainly, some relationships are being redefined, but this must not become a bargain sale on institutions which took years to develop.
John Hemmings is a Research Associate in the Transatlantic Security Programme, Department of International Security Studies, RUSI
The views expressed in this piece are the views of the author and not the corporate view of RUSI.