Rajan Menon’s The End of Alliances (OUP, 2007) attempts to reimagine American foreign policy by suggesting that the postwar alliances between the US and Japan, Korea, and the countries of NATO will break down sooner or later — and that the end of alliances is a good thing.
He is quick to preempt two arguments that critics would fling in his direction immediately. First, the end of alliances does not mean the beginning of antagonistic relationships with former allies. He is talking about breaking down alliances in a strictly formal sense: the military ties, grounded in treaties and entailing forward-deployed US troops and joint commands. Moving beyond formal alliance cooperation does not preclude close and cordial relations, and in the case of Japan, it is not hard to see that the end of a formal military relationship could in fact make for healthier US-Japan relations.
Second, Menon takes care to note that parting ways with allies does not mean the US would necessarily become isolationist. Instead, he characterizes the change as being consistent with the record of paradigm shifts in the grand strategies of the great powers. Great powers respond to changing international conditions, or they cease to be great powers (or states altogether). The US, throughout its history, has had the luxury of a certain degree of insulation from international change and thus its grand-strategic paradigm has changed more infrequently than others, but when the international distribution of power shifts nothing is sacred, and the US has reconfigured its domestic institutions as well as its foreign policies (as it did from 1945 to 1950).
Japan, of course, is no stranger to paradigm shifts of its own: this is the essence of Kenneth Pyle’s Japan Rising, which despite the title actually looks at how Japan has changed strategies in response to systemic change. Accordingly, I actually think the Japanese are better prepared to countenance life after the alliance. Even Japanese politicians and thinkers supportive of the alliance recognize that it is useful only as long as it serves Japanese national interests. That seems to be a common thread in each of the sections in Menon’s book. Elites and publics in American allies are increasingly capable of seeing that an alliance with the US might in fact not serve their interests. The Bush administration in particular has sparked fears that being close to a US intent on transforming the Middle East could have serious consequences at home (the Spanish argument).
Meanwhile, there are limits to how far the allies are willing to transform their alliances with the US, despite the best efforts of governments since the end of the cold war. NATO’s commitment in Afghanistan has been disappointing at best; Japan, for all the hyperbole lavished on its recent policy changes, still is a ways away from cooperating with the US at the same level as NATO; and the US-ROK alliance seems to be ahead of the others in approaching its demise, with US troops being withdrawn, command reverting to South Korea, and Seoul pursuing an independent course with Pyongyang. In some way, each US ally is going to hedge against US entrapment, whether by underspending on defense, pursuing close ties with third countries independent of the US, or publicly disagreeing with Washington. The question is how the US will respond, because in the past the US has given considerable latitude to its allies — the US-Japan alliance would not have lasted if that hadn’t been the case. Menon argues that conditions are such that the US will no longer be so tolerant of dissension from its allies, regardless of which party is in power in Washington. With growing commitments around the world, the US will increasingly expect its allies to share the burden in some form.
The problem is that inertia remains a powerful force, and that even if alliances appear increasingly obsolete, policymakers will be unwilling or unable to take the steps necessary to dissolve them. For all the facts and logic Menon musters to support his argument, he still must contend with the desire to leave things unchanged and muddle through, or to take the Lampedusan road and change so that things stay the same. Depending on the results of Korea’s forthcoming election, Korea too may end up on the same path, allied to the US, but increasingly in name only. In other words, rather than the end of alliances, we may see the hollowing out of alliances — but as Menon shows, that need not be a cause for alarm.