Haass on allies and rivals

Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, had an op-ed in the Financial Times this week (excerpted from a forthcoming article in The National Interest) in which he reconsiders the nature of US relationships with traditional allies and perceived enemies.

Calling it the emergence of a “Palmerstonian moment,” Haass wrote, “We are entering an era of foreign policy and international relations where countries are neither automatically predictable adversaries nor allies. They may be active partners on one issue on one day and largely inactive observers on another issue the next. Or they may carry out alternative or opposing policies.”

There is considerable value in his argument, especially from the perspective of the US-Japan relationship, in light of the ongoing debate over Japan’s involvement in Afghanistan operations. (Ambassador Schieffer has reminded the Japanese once again — in case they forgot — that the US thinks that it would be a “real tragedy” if Japan were to opt out of the war on terror.) A coalition of the willing is a double-edged sword: if the US is going to wage war without seeking the formal approval of its allies, then those allies are free to opt out, without Washington’s throwing a tantrum (i.e., “freedom fries”).

As I’ve argued in earlier posts, strategic flexibility is becoming increasingly important in international relations, in Asia especially. The more potential partners, the greater the ability of a great power to achieve desired ends. Haass cited the example on the role played by China in the six-party talks: “Beijing, in this case – not Nato – was and is the most important partner for Washington in its efforts to denuclearise North Korea. This does not, however, mean China is on the verge of becoming a US ally on other issues.”

Haass’ op-ed also touches the idea that no matter how cordial relations between the US and its allies become thanks to leadership changes, the US and its allies will not see the world the same way anytime soon. I think that the perceptual gap between a global superpower and regional powers is simply too great, making it difficult for the US and its allies to agree not just on courses of actions, but even on the shared interests supposedly underlying alliances.

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