New Order: the End of Alliances

Rajan Menon is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and Monroe J. Rathbone professor of international relations, Lehigh University.

As we await “The End of History,” Francis Fukuyama’s vision of a world governed by capitalism and democracy, we can anticipate an earlier, if more mundane, transformation: the End of Alliances. It’s hard to imagine a world without NATOs and SEATOs, but it’s coming, and the change will bring both opportunities and vulnerabilities.

Lest we mourn too much, let’s remember that we did just fine without alliances for most of our history. The young American republic arose determined to blaze a new trail. It viewed alliances with distaste, seeing them as pathways to debilitating entanglements and entrapment in the sordid politics of -- to quote Donald Rumsfeld out of context -- “old Europe.” This sentiment colored George Washington’s farewell address, in which he cautioned against “permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world” and more specifically that “Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none, or a very remote relation.... Therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves by artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics.”

Americans reconsidered this outlook as the Industrial Revolution created weapons and modes of transportation that extended the reach of threats. We entered into alliances to fight the two world wars, although, after World War I, the agreements were discarded eagerly, like strange and ill-fitting clothes. But this was not possible after World War II: Once Germany and Japan were defeated, our former partner, the Soviet Union, became our new problem, and we needed long-term allies. Containment, America’s strategy during the Cold War, produced perhaps our greatest foreign policy triumph -- the collapse of the Soviet-led communist system -- and rested on a worldwide system of anti-communist alliances.


In the decades following World War II, the United States not only overcame its animus toward alliances; it formed them with the fervor of a new convert. We surrounded the Soviet Union with coalitions that included the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO); the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO); ANZUS, our partnership with Australia and New Zealand; and bilateral treaties with Japan and South Korea. The ubiquity of alliances led some to label American policy during the Cold War as “pactomania.”

Most Americans cannot remember a time when alliances were not an essential item in our strategic toolkit. The demise of a familiar institution will therefore require big changes in the ways we think about, and act in, the world. Yet alliances have always been contextual and contingent, forged in response to common threats. Think of the numerous military pacts signed with pomp and splendor that now reside on history’s ash heap. Consider, more recently, SEATO and the Central Treaty Organization, which few young Americans have even heard about.

The transience of alliances should be kept in mind today, when the durability of our key Cold War partnerships is being questioned. The questioners are still a minority and usually encounter a fusillade of reassurances about how NATO and our other defense pacts will adapt, evolve and acquire new reasons for being. Those who dispute the staying power and relevance of our 20th century alliances are dismissed as alarmists who fail to appreciate the lofty ideals cementing these partnerships.

This view is mistaken for one basic reason. Alliances reflect specific circumstances, and when these circumstances change, the shared practical interests that are vital to the health and life span of alliances begin to erode. As the 19th century British Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston put it, “There are no permanent allies ... only permanent interests.”

Yet American commentaries reduce NATO’s divisions over Iraq to French contrarianism, personified by President Jacques Chirac, and the electoral opportunism of German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld contrasts the spinelessness of France and Germany with the staunch loyalty of NATO’s new East European members. President Bush hails the leaders of England, Italy and Spain for their support of his Iraq policy. But in almost all of these countries, in the “new” and “old” Europe, public opinion solidly opposes using war to topple the Iraqi regime.

The bickering in NATO is not just a tiff over Saddam Hussein. Nor, as Robert Kagan claims in his celebrated article-turned-book, does it stem from the dissonance between European pacifism and American realism. NATO is endangered because the disintegration of the Soviet Union has robbed it of a clear and common enemy and an unambiguous purpose.

The war against terrorism, peacekeeping missions and the promotion of democracy: These will not become new unifying objectives; they are too diffuse and amorphous to concentrate minds and ensure consensus. They extend the alliance beyond Europe, and such ventures -- so-called out-of-area operations -- have typically generated friction, not fellowship, in NATO. That will remain true, and with time, Americans will tire of what they already see as ungrateful European moralizing. And Europeans will resent even more what to them is the American proclivity to define solidarity as reflexive agreement with Washington’s aims. NATO may survive in name for a number of years, but in the not-too-distant future it will have ceased to matter in substance.

The problem of alliance solidarity has also been erroneously diagnosed as a problem between Europe and America. Yet the new circumstances are also dissolving our other alliances, as our relations with South Korea demonstrate. There have always been disagreements between Washington and Seoul on how best to handle Pyongyang, and anti-Americanism is hardly a new feature of South Korean politics. But both now have an edge and volubility unimaginable during the Cold War, when proximate and palpable Soviet power kept discord within manageable bounds.

Today, neither the leadership nor the public in South Korea sees its interests converging with those of the U.S. Many South Koreans regard U.S. policy toward Pyongyang as the bigger threat, and support for our bases is growing thin. This divergence is not a blip. Nor is it because of the election of a new, left-leaning South Korean president. The opposition to America’s policies and military presence emanates from South Korean society and the circumstances of a post-Cold War world, and it promises to grow stronger.

Whether through diplomacy or the implosion of the Pyongyang regime, the Korean peninsula will be reunified within a decade. Most Koreans will then want American troops out, and most Americans will have tired of hostility from a country that obviously has the wealth and wherewithal to defend itself. As budgetary pressures are aggravated by deficits and a graying population, the calls to bring our soldiers back home will become louder and more numerous.

Once we leave Korea, the only country in the Asia-Pacific region playing host to a network of American bases will be Japan. Opposition to American bases is not as strong there as in South Korea, but it has become an important element in Japanese politics, and the antagonism is not confined to the far left. Far from convincing the Japanese that they need American protection more than ever, our exit from Korea will persuade them to prepare for the day when they may have to fend for themselves. It will also deepen the ranks of those who oppose U.S. bases.

The notion that Japan will remain tethered to us because the lessons of World War II have been seared into the national psyche, creating an immutable culture of pacifism, is commonplace. It’s also false. Even a cursory look at Japan’s history since the 17th century shows that new global and regional conditions have prompted sharp twists and turns in national security strategy.

Moreover, Japan’s defense budget is already among the world’s five largest, and in recent years the Japanese have begun discussing once-taboo topics: easing constitutional restraints on the use of military power, acquiring weapons that extend the reach of the armed forces, even the wisdom of renouncing nuclear arms. True, Japan’s forces have major weaknesses, but Japan spends only 1% of its GNP on defense and has the wealth and know-how to build up its military power. That is precisely what it will do once new conditions -- a powerful and nationalistic China and an America that appears less reliable -- challenge established axioms.

Other alliances that supported containment, such as ANZUS, will also be undone by the disappearance of the common threat, and in fact have already frayed. It’s clear, then, that the problem is larger than Kaganesque critics of Europe claim. We have entered a world in which alliances will give way to agile, shifting coalitions forged for specific purposes and with states that were not our traditional allies. The cooperation of the last several years on security issues between India and the U.S. exemplifies the coming pattern.

Bereft of permanent allies and long-term access to military bases abroad, the United States will need a nimbler strategy, one attuned to a new fluidity in the nature of threats, the balance of forces and the cast of friends and foes. The menu defining the means and ends of statecraft will be more complex -- and more confusing. And it’s not just our diplomacy that will have to be recast; our weapons and military strategies will have to be reconfigured for a world that no longer offers a hospitable constellation of permanent bases. We are, then, not just at the end of an era; we are well into a new one. Pretending otherwise by clinging to comfortable yet obsolete theories and habitual practices will only reduce our capacity to adjust creatively and successfully. In the lives of nations as in the lives of people, change remains the constant. And it now requires that we prepare for the end of alliances.