Nearly thirty years after the end of the Cold War, amidst China’s rise and Russia’s revanchism, and in a historic moment of crisis, will American policymakers reconceive the role alliances should play in 21st century national security strategy and recapture one of the country’s great strategic successes, or let them wither?
In her new book, Shields of the Republic: The Triumph and Peril of America's Alliances, Mira Rapp-Hooper reveals the remarkable and unheralded success of the United States’ alliance system, charts its dangerous strategic drift, and proposes an agenda for its renewal.
The CFR Fellows’ Book Launch series highlights new books by CFR fellows.
HAASS: Well, thank you and welcome everybody. This is the Council on Foreign Relations. I’m Richard Haass, but more important I have with my Mira Rapp-Hooper, or MRH as we call her, and her new book, which hopefully you can see here, Shields of the Republic: The Triumph and Peril of America’s Alliances, published by Harvard University Press Mira, one, congratulations. Two, welcome.
RAPP-HOOPER: Richard, thank you so much for doing this, and thanks to you all for being here.
HAASS: OK, so what we’re going to do is Mira and I are going to talk for a few minutes about her book, and then we’re going to open it up to you.
So, Mira, here we are. We’re meeting at a time this country is fighting, facing a pandemic. You had, you know, just yesterday Mr. Floyd was buried. You had all the protests. Somewhat—thirty, forty million Americans are out of work. We’ve got constitutional issues brought to the fore. And here you’ve brought out a book that essentially looks at America’s allies. What’s the argument? Why do people right now who aren’t focused on all the serious challenges we’ve got internally, why should they take a little bit of time—this is a relatively short book, it’s two hundred pages. What’s the case for it?
RAPP-HOOPER: Well, Richard, I think it would be easy to look at the extraordinary domestic strife we have been facing these last months and conclude that this is not time for grandiose foreign policy thinking. But I actually think the two things are deeply interlinked. Exactly as you’ve suggested, we are, of course, going through a three-part crisis right now: The global health crisis, the economic fallout, and now the cries for racial justice that are emanating through our streets. And one could easily make the argument that this is not time to be thinking about how to renovate America’s alliances, which is the subject that I’m concerned with.
But as I know you believe, and many others do, Dr. Haass, foreign policy has always been here to protect the public and to allow it to do what it needs to do—in this case to make substantial progress and to recover. And the United States is going to need a sound and disciplined foreign policy going forward. We’re, in fact, experiencing right now the costs of acting unilaterally on the global stage, and understand more than ever why we need to have a disciplined foreign policy going forward.
So I know that I, like many other people in this moment, hope that we are present at a moment of recreation both for our democracy and for our role in the world. And if that turns out to be true, I hope that there will be a place for a system of remade alliances in that conversation.
HAASS: So make your case, though, about remade alliances. Alliances we think of normally as wartime instruments. We had them obviously during World War II. After World War II we had alliances, but that was a Cold War. Now we’re not in war particularly, we have some small things going on. Why do we need alliances now? What’s the case for alliances in 2020, when the United States is not involved in a major war?
RAPP-HOOPER: Well, Richard, you’re pointing out a central issue that I grapple with in the book. That is the fact that our alliance system was crafted in the early years of the Cold War to deter and defend against nuclear and conventional military threats. But so many of the threats and challenges we face in the twenty-first century aren’t military at all. While Russia and China certainly do pose military threats in their region, they have also developed coercive strategies. That is, approaches that seek to advance their aims without ever firing a shot. You can think here of Russia’s election interference, or China’s island-building campaign in the South China Sea. And of course, we’ve just been discussing, we’re now living through a global health crisis, which certainly is not a military crisis at all.
So as I see it, the central challenge to the United States is to renovate its alliance system to bring it into nonmilitary domains, to make it able to face down nonmilitary challenges. And if we can do this, then we can extend the success of these acts for decades more to come.
HAASS: So let me be difficult, which comes naturally. I fully understand the argument for multilateralism, for partnering with other countries to deal with pandemics, or climate change, or what have you. Why do we need allies, though? Allies, it seems to me, are not just partners; they’re something more. So why do we still need allies and alliances is what you’re talking about is partnerships with deal with global challenges?
RAPP-HOOPER: Well, Richard, I think we should start that answer by asking ourselves why we decided we needed allies in the first place. After all, for the first 150 years of American history we had a foreign policy that was explicitly premised on the rejection of alliances. We refused to form them between the Revolutionary War and World War II. But after the Second World War, in as many decades, the United States radically changed tactics. It had just seen in that conflict that it could no longer be safe behind its own geography, by virtue of its two ocean barriers. The advent of nuclear weapons and long-range air power meant that it had to have a new national security strategy.
And while countries had for centuries used alliances to fight and win specific wars, the United States gamble was that it would use alliances to keep wars from starting at all. The idea here was to try to hold the balance of power in Europe and in Asia, using alliances through a three-part strategy. It would attempt forward defense. That is, meeting threats overseas using forward-deployed troops and bases. It would attempt deterrence, dissuading rivals from attacking at all. And it would use allied assurance to keep allies on sides with U.S. foreign policy. This was never done out of altruism. It was done, first and foremost, out of self-defense. And it paid off better than its architects ever could have imagined.
So the question for us now is do we still need those things for our self-defense? Do we still need a forward presence in the world to keep ourselves safe at home? And I argue, and I think you probably agree, that we certainly do. That whether it is the military challenges that countries like Russia and China still pose, or the fact that by having a strong interest overseas we have early warning into all kinds of different nonmilitary challenges, I think that bringing our forces and our presence home and thinking of defense only in a homeland context would be just as dangerous as it’s ever been.
HAASS: Well, if Donald Trump were listening to this—I doubt he is—but if he was viewing or listening to this he would have a slightly different view of allies. And he would emphasize the fact that he thinks they’re free riders, that they don’t paid their fair share. So just say he was wise enough to invite you into the Oval Office to basically persuade him why he had it wrong, what would you tell him about that—about this whole question that allies are or are not paying their fair share, and what we should do, and so forth? What’s the argument you would make to the 45th president?
RAPP-HOOPER: Well, Richard, as you indicate, this is an age-old question. And historically it has been true that the United States has spent a bit more on defense than its allies. But this was actually built into the system from the outset. And I’ll break that down for a minute. First, I’ll start by noting that alliances are not in and of themselves all that costly. They are treaty agreements, political agreements on paper. What’s really expensive is when the United States decided to deploy troops or build bases overseas to support an alliance. But where it has done that, it’s done it because it’s in its national security interest, not out of altruism to an ally.
Moreover, for most of the Cold War the United States actually preferred to spend more than its allies in defense. All the better to have more leverage over their national security policy. And to some degree, this makes sense. The United States and its allies are not actually spending on the same thing. The United States has generally had a global defense policy, whereas its allies are generally spending on self-defense and defense in their regions. Nevertheless, I think it’s actually reasonable to question, as the president has, whether burden sharing within alliances should be more equal now. And I argue that it can be, and it should be, and that we can accomplish this without coercing our allies or breaking the alliance system altogether.
But the central point I would make here is that it’s often really not that useful to compare allied spending to U.S. defense spending. Rather, what we should be comparing is our preferred American foreign policy with allies and the cost of that same policy without allies. And there I think the ledger is pretty clear.
HAASS: The U.S. is spending, I don’t know, what, 3 ½, 4 percent of its GDP on defense. We can’t get many of the Europeans to spend 2 percent. So even if they were to do it they would still be, what, at half the level we are. What do we do when a Germany is unwilling to do it? The president, as you know, just announced that he wants to pull a third of America’s troops out of Germany. So it’s really a two-part question. What do we do when allies don’t spend enough or spend it in the right ways? And what do you think about the announcement this week?
RAPP-HOOPER: Sure. I’ll take the first part of the question first, Richard, and that is the question of what do we do when allies don’t spend enough on defense? First, the United States had already asked its allies back in 2014, its NATO allies, to commit to spending 2 percent of GDP on defense. And they have committed that. Germany, however, is behind. IT’s falling behind its pledge to commit to doing so by 2024. So asking for those types of commitments is perfectly appropriate. And when it looks like a country like Germany is not going to be able to meet the commitments, one useful thing the United States can do is to work with allies to figure out how they spend better. That is, how they make the defense dollars that they’re actually spending go farther for the alliance.
So in Germany’s case, a lot of the defense budget is taken up by bloated personnel costs, for example. But it could be more usefully spending on weapons platforms or on research and development that actually benefits the alliance more usefully. That said, another part of what I’m arguing here in this book is that we should actually be thinking of our alliances in much broader terms. If we modernize alliances for nonmilitary areas, like I’m suggesting here, then we can ask countries like Germany to commit not just through their defense budgets, but through their foreign ministries, their intelligence communities, and their homeland security departments. That is, when alliances consist of things that are much broader than the military domain, allies actually have more ways to contribute.
HAASS: And let’s come to then the question of the wisdom, or the lack thereof, of pulling whatever it is, nine (thousand) to ten thousand American troops out of Germany at this point. What’s your take on that?
RAPP-HOOPER: So it’s certainly early days on this announcement, Richard. The news broke late last week that the president had approved a plan to withdraw nearly ten thousand troops from Germany. And supposedly at the time it blindsided both our German allies and the U.S. Pentagon, so it’s hard to say exactly where this will lead. But if it does follow through, I think this is likely to be very self-defeating for the United States. The reason, first of all, is, as we’ve been discussing, U.S. troops are in Germany not to protect Germany or as philanthropy to Berlin, but to protect all of Europe and, by extension, the United States. And we can determine that’s true simply by looking at what U.S. troops in Germany do.
Germany hosts more than half of all the U.S. presence in Europe. It’s also host to the United States Africa Command, some of our biggest military hospitals, and some of our most significant training facilities. Which is all to say, it’s really a hub for a broader American military strategy globally. Moreover, I think it’s actually likely that if the United States pulls troops out of Germany the U.S. will end up paying greater costs for it, because it will keep those troops in the force and now have to come up with new places to house them and pay the cost of relocating them. Germany is highly unlikely to increase its defense spending as a result of this move, and it may even portend bad news for alliances elsewhere.
The United States has been locked in a burden-sharing standoff with its ally in South Korea for many months and has also threatened to withdraw troops there. And the Germany announcement may suggest that the same may be in the offing. So all in all, it looks to me like this could be a gift to Vladimir Putin, who’s always looking for ways to rend NATO unity, and come at the expense of the U.S. taxpayer.
HAASS: You mentioned NATO, so let me just zero-in on NATO for a second. One of the major foreign policy initiatives the United States took after the Cold War was the enlargement of NATO. Thirty years later, how does that look? Is that—from your vantage point, here you are, you’ve written this book about alliances. It’s our principal alliance in the world. Did we make a mistake in enlarging it to the extent we did? Should we have enlarged it more, less, not at all? There were alternatives out there. How do you think history will look at NATO enlargement?
RAPP-HOOPER: Richard, it’s a great question that many scholars have grappled with. And I think it’s important to acknowledge that the premise comes from a place of strategic triumph. That is to say that the reason we debate now whether NATO still has a purpose because it actually outlasted the adversary it was designed to defend and deter against. It helped to bring about the peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union, which was about as much as its architects ever could have asked for it. I do think it was wise to preserve NATO for the post-Cold War world.
But it wasn’t preserved centrally for the purposes of defense and deterrence against Russia. And that unwittingly build into the alliances—into the alliance some vulnerabilities that Moscow would later exploit. What I mean by that was that enlargement proceeded to consolidate democracy and guard against resurgent nationalism in Europe, but it wasn’t so focused on Moscow. So when the alliance landed on Russia’s doorstop in the round of NATO enlargement that included the Baltic states, Russia devised strategies to try to undermine it. A military strategy that seeks to demonstrate that the United States can’t defend its eastern flank of NATO, and coercive strategies like we’ve already talked about that aim to disrupt the alliance without ever triggering it at all.
So I think that history will agree that NATO enlargement was centrally a good idea, that there was a lot of wisdom to it. But there were vulnerabilities and costs. And a huge part of the charge to NATO now is not only figuring out how to make the alliance defensible militarily, but how to guard against these very same type of Russian coercive activities that we’ve been discussing here, because these are very likely to be some of the central challenges to NATO for years to come.
HAASS: Well, for those of us who take the opposite side of that argument, the question then is: If it was such a good idea then, why not enlarge NATO to include Ukraine or Georgia now? Where do you come out on that?
RAPP-HOOPER: Well, I think my answer is similar, Richard. And I think I share some of your skepticism about the way that enlargement took place. I don’t support enlarging NATO further now, primarily because the alliance is in a situation where the eastern flank of the alliance is not yet defensible. That is to say that until NATO can credibly claim to be able to defend the Baltic states, to be able to counter fait accompli attacks on Russia, that it should not be adding members, particularly members who would not necessarily add to its capabilities.
So while of course it has been deeply distressing and chilling to see Russian invasions of Georgia and Ukraine in the last several years, I think it’s also a strong warning to NATO that it has to centrally focus on the defensibility of the alliance that it has before it can consider the possibility of expanding any further.
HAASS: Let me just ask a couple more questions, then we’ll open it up.
Did you ever think of naming this book “Alliances in Crisis”? And we’ve had what happened with the Kurds, where—we just talked about Germany. We may have the United States leave Afghanistan under the guise of a peace agreement that few of us have any confidence will endure. Are we at a point now where our allies in a sense—the other half of the alliance—we talked about it mainly from the U.S. point of view. Do you think our allies are losing confidence in America’s alliances?
RAPP-HOOPER: I think our allies are absolutely losing confidence in America’s alliances. And they would be crazy not to. I mean, we’ve been discussing a set of geopolitical forces that have been acting on our alliances for the last several decades. That is, a resurgent Russia. You know, we’ll get to the fact of a rising China. And the fact that this certainly puts a huge amount of pressure on our alliances in Asia. But add to that a U.S. foreign policy that in just the last few years has turned us into an alliance antagonist from within. We’ve seen a U.S. foreign policy that occasionally tries to shakedown allies in public to spend more on defense, that embraced shared adversaries and denies shared threats, and that often construes American security only in terms of the homeland, which of course is not compatible with an alliance system.
But the reason that all that behavior is so problematic is not just because it’s insulting to allies, it’s because it throws open an age-old credibility that is inherent in our alliance system. That is, the United States has always been hard-pressed to convince its allies that it will treat an attack on them as an attack on itself. But we’ve devoted much of our foreign policy messaging and resourcing to convincing them that we really will be there. When instead U.S. foreign policy acts to suggest to them that actually we may not be there, the system could very well crumble from its core. So this age-old credibility problem has now sort of become an open wound. And I don’t think it’s at all clear that it’s going to heal.
HAASS: Just say worst came to worst, and the alliance system broke, for whatever set of reasons, what do you think would be the consequence? What’s your answer to the so-what question?
RAPP-HOOPER: My sort of worst-case scenario fear here, Russia—here, Richard, is that we face a second Korean War, now fought with twenty-first century speed and destruction. And I’ll be clear what I mean by that. In the early Cold War period the United States withdrew troops from the Korean Peninsula and purposefully decided that it was not going to seek to protect South Korea. It sent signals to foreign adversaries that it didn’t intend to. And North Korea took that as a green light to invade the South. The United States then decided after the fact that it actually did have a national interest in the state of South Korea after all and joined the war at a huge cost of blood and treasure to itself and to its later ally in South Korea.
Now, if the same thing happened today, the United States might pull back from its alliances and Europe and Asia to get a homeland-based security posture and adopt a wait-and-see approach to all of the threats that it could see in either region. But if it did and then something horrible happened—North Korea fired a nuclear weapon, Russia invaded the Baltics—and we decided later that we had an interest in the outcome of that crisis or conflict, we would have to fight our way back in at extraordinary cost in blood and treasure. We have already learned this lesson a number of times in the World Wars and in Korea. And my hope is that we can reflect on history rather than having to learn it again.
HAASS: Two last questions. As I understand the argument in your book, you’re basically making a case for kind of modernized alliances and taking on these larger global issues. Couldn’t you make just the opposite case now, that with the reemergence of a Russian threat to Europe, suddenly NATO’s back to its old raison d'être? You now have a Chinese threat possibly to the South China Sea, for sure, or Taiwan, or what have you. That rather than asking alliances to take on new missions, what we really want to do is rededicate our alliances to their old missions. What about that?
RAPP-HOOPER: I think that’s a great counterargument, Richard. And I’m certainly not arguing that we can ignore the classic military threats that these rivals pose. Quite to the contrary, in very different ways both Russia and China have developed military strategies that aim to rend our alliances by showing that we can’t defend the Baltics or can’t defend our allies in the Western Pacific. But if we only focus on high-end defense and don’t think about lower-level coercion, the system will look less effective over time. We just have to reflect on what it looked like when China was building these mysterious islands in the South China Sea, or what Putin managed to get away with in Ukraine while denying that he had a presence there. The fact that action happens below the military threshold doesn’t mean that it’s not deeply damaging to the region and to our allies.
So if we are to provide the type of defense and security that will keep both of these regions safe and stable going out into the future, that threshold does have to drop a little. And we have to consider nonmilitary threats, and how we use our alliances to counter that. Of course, that doesn’t mean military action in exchange for something that China does on an offshore island. But it does mean that allies need to be working together to think seriously how to expand their range of activities so that some of the most important competitive behavior we see in the twenty-first century doesn’t slip below the system, which has served us so well.
HAASS: So imagine Joe Biden were to be elected this November and he brought you in as his—to advise him on this. What would you tell him to do and not to do early on to essentially signal there’s a new sheriff here and to repair the situation that you’ve described here? What’s realistic that he could do that would make a positive difference?
RAPP-HOOPER: I think probably the first and most important thing that a new president could do to start the rehabilitation of this alliance system would simply be to go on a tour of our allied countries, and to speak seriously with our allies about the challenges they see in their immediate neighborhoods, as well as what they’ve just been through with the United States. And of course, it is the case that for decades the United States has been the major security patron of so many of these countries. But part of what we’ve been discussing here is the need for allies to contribute more and to step up in a more symmetric way to make future alliances enduring. So I think step one is to visit allies in Asia, allies in Europe, ask them now they see the most important threats that are facing their country, and ask them what they want to do to work with the United States and other partners to try to face these down.
It’s my hope that these conversations could lead to the ability of allies in Asia and Europe to increasingly work with one another, and also lead allies to increasingly specialize according to their comparative advantage. Estonia, for example, excels in cyberspace. And Japan is a leader in offering infrastructure alternatives to China. But only by having this conversation with allies first and understanding how they see their threat environment can we start to rebuild this system.
HAASS: Actually, I’m going to ask one more question. I apologize. I could see where we might have some success with that vis-à-vis Russia. What about China, though? China’s a more complicated case. A lot of the countries we’d be talking to are either worried about China or they have intimate economic relations with China, say South Korea. China is its largest trade partner. So what prospects do you see for building something of an alliance against China? One, should we try? Because I think of you as much of an Asia and China expert as an alliance expert—to what extent should we try? And if we did, would we fail?
RAPP-HOOPER: So it’s a really important question, Richard. And I think that there’s no question that our alliances in Asia are going to be central to U.S.-China relations and to keeping Asia stable as China continues to rise. But as you’ve laid out, not only do our allies continue to see the United States as a security partner as China rises, but many of them have deeply entangled economic relationships. And actually, these two things aren’t mutually exclusive. The quandary to them, however, is they have to figure out how to live in Asia alongside a stronger China, whereas the United States has increasingly taken a very competitive, sometimes confrontational approach to China, they need to feel like they’re able to be allies who can stay safe and secure while still living with China.
So the charge to the United States is to renovate the alliance system along the lines that I’ve described, while still giving its allies the room to live alongside China. That means there will be no tailormade strategy that applies to all allies in Asia. It would be great to increasingly see them working together, and they are already starting to do that organically. But if we want to make sure that our alliance system in Asia stays firm, and resilient, and able to confront the types of challenges that China poses that are in the maritime domain or in the conventional military space, we’re going to have to tailor those approaches to the different allies and their very different views of this new great power in the region.
HAASS: OK. Let’s get some good questions no. Let’s open it up to our members. And we’ll see what they want to throw at you.
(Gives queuing instructions.)
Our first question will come from Bates Gill.
Q: Hi, Mira. And hi, Richard. Thanks very much for the presentation. It’s good to see you both.
Hey, Mira, I wanted to follow up on that last question that Richard raised, because I think this is really a major, major problem, I think, for U.S. allied strategy, is precisely the conundrum China places. You spoke a little bit to the core problem, which is, you know, among the many nonmilitary challenges that our allies face there is not really a challenge at all. The problem is how greatly beneficial it is to our allies to have those economic relations with China. But another problem that didn’t get touched on, I’d like to hear about from you, is the fact that it’s not—it’s not a multilateral alliance system.
In other words, an attack on one is definitely not an attack on all. And you said a little bit about how there’s some steps towards working organically with one another, but I think you’d admit that that hasn’t gone very far very fast, and it remains a major problem. And it’s precisely because of that that China’s able to partake in the kind of wedge strategies that it does. So I wonder if in your book—I mean, how do you really grapple with this problem of getting our several allies in the region to actually step up to the China challenge in a way that you think we need to?
RAPP-HOOPER: Thanks for a terrific question, Bates. That really is an essential one.
First, I’ll note that, as you suggest in the first part of your question, while it absolutely is the case that there’s a huge economic allure of working with China, that sometimes doesn’t pay off as well as our allies are hoping. You, of course, will be very familiar with the president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte’s years-long gambit to essentially hold the alliance with the United States at risk hoping to solicit Chinese investment in the Philippines. But Duterte just actually walked back an attempt to eject U.S. forces from the Philippines because, try as he might, Chinese investment has not been nearly as forthcoming as he hoped. So for some of our allies, of course the economic relationship with China remains essential, but thus far it hasn’t proved worth completely mortgaging the security relationship with the United States for.
When it comes to the second part of the question, that is how do we get allies increasingly to work together, it’s definitely a really hard problem. You know, a central reason, I think, why we haven’t seen more and deeper organic cooperation in the last few years has, of course, been the extreme level of U.S. unpredictability. Allies are not particularly excited about sticking their necks out in—you know, related to a South China Sea dispute or over the Belt and Road Initiative, particularly if they don’t think the United States is going to be there to back them up. And it’s not at all been clear that we will be for the last several years.
But I do think that we see the beginnings of quiet cooperation with—you know, if we had a, you know, much more forward-leaning and thoughtful American strategy, could be grown to something more fruitful. I’m thinking, of course, there of the cooperation that’s evolved between Australia and Japan, certainly on the defense level, but also when it comes to providing infrastructure alternatives to the Belt and Road Initiative. And this is a place where they’ve both worked really well with the United States. They sort of lead the way—they lead us in the thinking about how to provide careful alternatives to BRI.
And I could see a world where not only do they invite other Asian partners to become parts of that effort, but where they increasingly invite European partners to do the same. So I have no illusions that we’re going to be able to transform that hub-and-spoke system of bilateral pacts into an integrated alliance along the lines of NATO. But I do think that by following our allies’ lead and seeing where they’re willing to step out a bit, the United States, with a more stable strategy, can make progress to this effect.
STAFF: Our next question will be from Jack Lew.
Q: Good to see you, Mira and Richard. Thanks for a presentation. I look forward to reading the book.
You know, Richard asked you about how you would advise either Trump or Biden. I think the question that troubles me is what do you say to the general public, where broad support for the alliances is not what it once was. And in the context of a rejection of globalization and excessive reliance even on friends, it’s not clear to me that it is going to be easy to make the domestic case. How would you deal with this, looking out to the American public?
RAPP-HOOPER: Jack, thanks for a great question, and thanks for being here today. It’s great to hear your voice.
I would actually note that public opinion may be a little bit surprising when it comes to alliances, including in this incredibly polarized moment that we’re living through today. By and large, there’s actually a fair amount of bipartisan public support for alliances. The small exception to that is folks who tend to self-identify as core supporters of the president and more likely to oppose America’s use of alliances and, in particular, are more likely to oppose NATO. But I think we should take that as a reflection of partisanship, as opposed to necessarily hardly held views on alliances.
But besides that segment of the population, there actually is a lot of support from the Democrats, Republicans, and independents for the United States retaining a strategy that depends on alliances, because there is a sort of broad-based understanding that when the United States works with allies it takes on fewer costs to itself. So if I had to make the case to the public, I would actually make it along those lines. I would note the fact that we struck out on this project in the first place to keep ourselves safe, and that the project has been remarkably successful. No U.S. ally has ever been the victim of an attacking causing the United States to come to its aid. The Cold War stayed cold, as we’ve discussed. And the United States bought itself tremendous political goodwill that actually allowed it to implement a very ambitious foreign policy at lower cost than it possibly would have otherwise.
So in an era where the American public I think is rightly skeptical of the overuse of military interventions, cares a great deal, as it should, about investing at home, alliances are a sound way to keep wars from starting at all, and ensure that the costs of our foreign policy are not borne in much more grave ways, both in terms of blood and treasure.
STAFF: Our next question will be from Ellen Laipson.
Q: Hi there. Thanks. It’s Ellen Laipson from George Mason University.
So in the 1950s, the United States tried to create an alliance in the Middle East. It was called the Baghdad Pact, the Northern Tier—it had a few different names—and it failed miserably, in part because of the rise of Arab nationalism. Today, the Trump administration I understand, is still playing with this idea of a Middle East security alliance, in spite of the fact that our security relationships with the GCC countries are—have been disrupted, or at least have not moved forward in a logical, linear pattern of greater and greater security integration of effort. So I guess I’d like to know whether you think this idea of creating new alliances makes sense. And how do you feel about using the word “ally” when we talk about our relationships with Israel and Saudi Arabia? Thanks.
RAPP-HOOPER: That’s a wonderful question, Ellen. Thank you so much. And there is great history built into it too.
I will take the sort of definitional question up front and say that I am in favor of a fairly rigorous definition of ally. And that’s certainly what I adopt in the book. When I talk about our allies, I’m talking about countries who hold mutual security commitments from the United States. That is, a treaty promise that promises if that ally is the victim of an unprovoked attack, the United States will in some way treat that attack as an attack on itself. So who does that include? That includes our allies in NATO and four allies in Asia—Japan, South Korea, Australia, and the Philippines.
You’re absolutely right that the United States when through a period in the early Cold War where it was a little bit more active in the alliance business than perhaps it should have been. It was only ever an observer to CENTO, as you describe, but that alliance really never got off the ground, for a lot of good reasons. Part of the reason why I actually think the U.S. alliance system has performed so well is that the United States has actually been very choosy about where it chose to extend security guarantees. So personally, I’m not in favor of adding new formal allies, because I think that the system has worked in part because we have been so discriminating.
The United States has, you know, seen risks in the past of countries that might have entangled it crises or conflicts and declined to extend security guarantees—for example to Israel, or to its formal involvement with CENTO, as you just described. It has designed the terms of its alliances to guard against entrapment in crisis or conflict, constructing the provisions to minimize that risk. And it has on occasion exited alliances that were not serving its interests. So to my mind, being extremely careful about who we adopt as formal treaty partners, given the gravity of the promises contained within, is an essential part of the success of the system. And again, I would say no need for new treaty allies at this particular time.
HAASS: What about—I’m going to jump in here—what about India? Given, again, your views about Asia, about China. India may not want it, but the question is should we try to enlist India as a twenty-first century ally?
RAPP-HOOPER: I think we should continue trying to enlist India as a twenty-first century partner, which is something that it has potential to be. But I think that India has been quite clear that it’s not interested in a formal alliance with the United States, and that’s perfectly appropriate. India, of course, for decades has pursued a foreign policy based on nonalignment and likes to be free to choose its own foreign policy proclivities. And I would move that while India is, of course, concerned about the rise of China, it is centrally concerned about the implications of it in its immediate neighborhood. That is, with respect to the Indian Ocean region.
So the United States should absolutely continue to work with India to help improve its defensive capabilities, to get India more active in regional security groupings with Japan and Australia, to provide support to smaller countries in Southeast Asia who face off against China in some of these maritime disputes. But U.S. policymakers often put a whole lot of hope in the idea that India is going to emerge as a full-blown ally. And I think better for our policy to acknowledge a more modest set of goals. That India increasingly steps up in this Indian Ocean region and is a strong partner to the United States as a result.
HAASS: I’d also push one more time—pardon me—just so everybody understands. Where does being a partner and being any ally—is it simply the come to one another’s aid if attacked? Is that the only difference between a really good partner as opposed to an ally? It almost sounds like people who are living together but not married. I mean, what’s the distinction here in what you’re saying, just so I understand and everybody else understands?
RAPP-HOOPER: Yeah. It’s something along the lines of what you just said, Richard. There are this set of currently thirty-four allies who hold treaty commitments from the United States that say that if those countries are the victims of an attack we will come to their aid. Now, of course, the United States has any number of defensive security commitments beyond this. It can cooperate with other countries to improve their capabilities. It can cooperate on discrete security tasks. But by virtue of the fact that the United States has extended this particularly important set of promises to a discrete class of allies, I think we should take that as a distinct category. That is to say that policymakers in the early Cold War saw these allies as different in kind than the other types of partners that we were cooperating with.
So the force of these promises continues to send different signals to Russia and China today than any other type of agreement the United States can make. That’s not to say that partners can’t be important in any number of ways, and as we continue to watch China rise I know that U.S. policymakers will keep eyes on countries like Vietnam in addition to India. But that is to say that we’ve already created this different class of allies. And it’s worth examining them and the power of that system in its own right.
HAASS: But what about then the opposite problem? Some, such as myself, would describe Turkey as an ally who’s not a partner. What do we do about those countries?
RAPP-HOOPER: That’s a huge problem. And I don’t have a great answer to it yet. But Turkey’s not the only one. Of course, you’re talking about Turkey, which is a NATO ally but increasingly illiberal. And as, you know, you referenced earlier in the conversation, implied by the U.S. withdrawal from Syria and the state of the Kurds, increasingly has security goals that are at odds with those of the United States. So you could also point to Hungary as an increasingly illiberal regime about whom we have to be worried inside of NATO.
It’s a really difficult problem to solve, particularly in the European context, because NATO requires complete consensus to amend anything about the membership. But the alliance may have to grapple with the possibly of creating some kind of probation or at least auditing process through which it investigates countries that are backsliding in terms of the criteria that brought them into NATO in the first place, and where the sharing of sensitive information or the pooling of defense capabilities and interests no longer serves them. And you’re absolutely right, this is something that we’re going to be grappling with for years to come.
HAASS: I look forward to an article about the alliance penalty box. (Laughter.) Time for some more questions.
STAFF: Great. Our next question will come from Seth Johnston.
Q: Hi. Good afternoon, Mira. Seth Johnston from Harvard Kennedy School. Congratulations on your book and thanks very much for the discussion here.
I’d like to follow up on some of the discussion we’ve already been having about NATO and CENTO, and ask just a more general question about, you know, what do you see as some sort of generalizable insights, looking at the whole history of U.S. alliances, about the way that they are implemented or institutionalized? You know, we’ve got some examples of multilateral alliances, like NATO, that by most accounts have been pretty successful. But as we discussed in the example of the Baghdad Pact earlier, and we can think of some other ones with the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, SEATO, for example, where those multilateral alliances didn’t work out.
But earlier in the conversation we’ve also talked about some of the pros and cons of the bilateral system, and that a bilateral series of arrangements may invite a competitive behavior from adversaries like China, who may seek to wedge allies apart. Do you have any sort of overall sort of generalizable ideas about the conditions that make certain kinds of alliance institutions or arrangements better than others?
RAPP-HOOPER: Great question, Seth. And good to see you.
The answer I’d give to this really thought-provoking question is that the alliance architecture itself I don’t think is likely to be deterministic of success independently. Rather, it’s the extent to which the alliance, including its architecture, is properly fit to the mission at hand. I’ll explain what I mean by that. You referenced in your very good question the example of SEATO, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, which is what I would point to as the clearest failure in America’s alliance strategy. It was an eclectic grouping of allies that was intended to focus on defense and deterrence in Southeast Asia, starting in 1954. But its membership was really quite hodgepodge.
Centrally, however, the problem was that the mission was ill-fit to the means at its disposal. The alliance wanted to deter and defense against communist subversion in Southeast Asia. But the tool was the same type of U.S. security guarantee that Washington had already extended elsewhere—that is, a treaty promise on paper that it was backing up with long-range airpower and the promise of nuclear weapons if an ally was attacked. And those means simply didn’t match the ends of the alliance. So it didn’t take long for Washington and its allies to realize that this alliance was not cut out for the job that it crafted for itself.
So what I would say, to wrap up, is that it’s not so much about whether the alliance is multilateral or bilateral. It’s a question of whether the allies and the means they have at their disposal are really fit to the mission. And this is part of why I think we have to broaden our aperture as the mission gets broader.
HAASS: Next question.
STAFF: Our next question will come from Jennifer Lind.
Q: Hello. Mira, can you hear me?
HAASS: We can hear you.
RAPP-HOOPER: Hi, Jenny.
Q: Congratulations on the book and thanks for this really interesting conversation today.
I wanted to follow up on some of your comments on Asia specifically, as you’re probably not surprised. When I look at the landscape there it seems like we face a big challenge in an anti-China balancing or sort of alliance system. First of all, just starting at home, there’s, of course, a huge focus on domestic policy that we don’t know how long that’s going to continue. With respect to foreign policy, we’re in a transitional period in which we’re really moving from a time of engagement and more partnership with China to more competition.
And I don’t think we’ve really had in the U.S. a conversation, a debate, about the extent to which we face a China threat, and to what extent it’s a military one that should be addressed with military instruments, such as alliances, or a political/technological one, what role the allies can or should play, who would be the right allies, and so forth. And so there’s a whole U.S. side of things to think about that seem—that seems like, I’m saying, kind of premature. Like are we putting the cart before the horse?
And then as for the allies, you know, Japan’s most worried about China and the longer-term trends that Japan sees in the region. But Tokyo continues to refuse to increase its defense spending. With respect to the Korean Peninsula, we’re facing a series game change on the peninsula with respect to intercontinental missiles with North Korea, and should be having a conversation about, you know, is an alliance with South Korea still in our interests, let alone the fact that the South Koreans are signaling to us that they really have no interest in confronting China.
So you know, then of course we’ve talked about India and the Philippines. These are countries with not a whole lot of capability to bring to the table. So I take your—I take a lot of your points about how alliances are very useful in so many ways, but given these circumstances that we see in Asia, what—tell me why you’re optimistic—(laughs)—about how we could create a sort of balancing effort.
RAPP-HOOPER: Well, thank you, Jenny, for a typically thought-provoking and challenging question.
I wouldn’t say I’m terribly optimistic in this particular moment, but I think it’s important to run the counterfactual of what Asia might have looked like if the United States had taken a somewhat dissimilar course in the last few years. If instead of becoming a wholly unpredictable ally, shaking down our allies for defense spending dollars, threatening to withdraw troops, we had, let’s say, signed TPP and been a much more dependable partner for the last several years, would we see South Korea throwing its lot in increasingly with China? Would we see South Korea even hedging sometimes toward North Korea? Clearly, these are not independent defense and national security decisions that are being made but are part and parcel with the role that the United States is playing in the region.
There’s no question that we’re going to continue to face any number of challenges, from the particular rivals to the ability of allies to spend more in defense. But the reason that I am optimistic about the possibility of the alliance system in the future is that I fundamentally think that on many of these issues that we’re talking about here—whether it’s the military potential for China to play in the region, or issues that don’t fall in the military domain, like China’s use of 5G and technology and its national security implications. I think allies actually still tend to see a lot of these issues in similar ways.
To my mind, part of the reason to run this counterfactual exercise about what the region would have looked like if not for us these last few years, is that the United States has itself been very confrontational in its posture, as opposed to working with allies at every step to try to get them on sides as we head towards this more competitive era with China. So I do believe that when it comes to the broad strokes of the landscape, allies continue to share a lot of common interests. And of course, you’ll know just as well as I, that is the heart of any decent alliance.
Now, as I mentioned in Richard’s question earlier, of course we have to leave significant room for allies to approach these problems differently, and to have whatever relationship with China they need to have to be able to survive in Asia. But whether it’s North—you know, North Korea’s development of ICBMs and other long-range missiles, or China’s national security implications of new technology, or things like the Belt and Road Initiate, these all fundamentally challenge the security and stability of Asia in really significant ways. And our allies still have us as a central security partner. So to my mind, it’s not too late to make more of a common effort here that has been possible in these past few years.
HAASS: I’m going to push you on that. Isn’t though slightly odd that we’ve had this alliance structure in Asia for decades, basically, you know, six decades or whatever now. The Soviet Union’s gone. We now have a different set of challenges. Wouldn’t you think we’d need, all things being equal, a slightly different cast of characters?
RAPP-HOOPER: I actually happen to think, Richard, that this is sort of a happy accident of history. I don’t subscribe to the notion that Russia and China are the same level of threat to the United States. I think China is the only real great power competitor that we will face over the course of the next several decades. But Russia still has significant capabilities, and the ability to do real damage both in its region and potentially with nuclear weapons if it so wants to. And of course, its use of election interference knows no borders. So to my mind, our alliances actually did outlive their intended purpose, exactly as you’re indicating, but rivals have now reemerged in exactly the same regions where they were initially constructed.
Moreover, these allies remain now highly developed democracies for the most part, scientifically and technologically sophisticated, diplomatic leaders in their own right. And they are exactly who we should want to be allied with as we consider these new challenges. So although it may have been the case that in the 1990s the system was somewhat adrift and in search of a focus, I think our rivals have brought it back to us now. So the question is whether or not we’re going to rise to the challenge.
HAASS: Looks like we’ve got time for one more question, so let’s ask it.
STAFF: Sure. The next question is from Jessica Mathews.
Q: Thank you.
I sense a contradiction here. Explain why it isn’t one. One the one hand, you say let’s renovate alliances and bring them into nonmilitary realms—so broaden them, modernize them for today’s world. But on the other hand, you continue to reserve the word “ally” and “alliance” and define it in purely military terms. So I don’t—I can’t quite see why that is not a contradiction in terms, so to speak.
HAASS: There you go. A fundamental challenge to your premise.
RAPP-HOOPER: (Laughs.) Thanks, Jessica, for the challenge.
I actually don’t think I’m defining America’s alliances in fundamental military terms. The alliance system itself happens to be defined in largely military terms towards this day—to this day. But what I’m suggesting is that we focus on broadening the system of the treaty allies who we have. I’m focused on this class of treaty allies as a fundamentally different class of ally in the international system. But I’m suggesting, exactly as you just reiterated, that while we have traditionally focused on military missions, we need to broaden those out. Now, it’s quite possible that partners could also work on broader missions. But, again, the purpose of the focus here was to both interrogate the success of the alliance system and realize and walk through now it has to change if it is to be able to survive for the next few decades. So I don’t actually think this is a—is rather a contradiction, as you put it, but rather a feature of how this system was built and how it should be reprogrammed for the next era.
Q: Can I—Richard, can I just push a little bit?
HAASS: Yes, ma’am. Yeah, go back.
Q: Mira, I thought that when Richard pushed you on what is an ally you defined it very explicitly as a country with which we enjoy, in which we have mutual defense relationship. And I think we all think of ally as the highest level of foreign policy relationship, right? Below that is partner, as you said, and below that are other levels of dating and relationships. (Laughter.) So in fact, I don’t know, I’m still hearing we’re going to define this as countries where we have a treaty-based mutual security relationship, and that’s our highest level of relationship. And I don’t—I mean, one could think about changing allies to other basically—defining them on other criteria that are perhaps more twenty-first century, or by your own argument.
RAPP-HOOPER: Well, I would certainly welcome an invite other definitions. I think we’re actually rowing in the same direction here, Jessica, which is to say that I’m arguing, even though our treaty allies with whom we have mutual security guarantees have traditionally been those with whom we have military relationships, those same security guarantees could be broadened to other purposes. For example, things like attacks—cyberattacks on critical infrastructure, or state-backed election interference campaigns, are nonmilitary attacks on states’ political independence that are so grievous that the United States and its allies might actually like to fold those into their Article 5 commitments.
So I think we actually are more or less on the same page here, which is to say that its’ not enough to just call our allies military partners and restrict the relationship there. And if we are to think in twenty-first century terms, we have to change the structure of what was built in the early Cold War period.
HAASS: OK. A conversation to be continued, but not this afternoon. So let me—actually, I’m glad that question came up, because I think that gets to the heart of things. So thank you, Jessica.
And thank you Mira. Again, congratulations on an important new book. I’ll hold it up again. Every author wants to have his or her book held up. Shields of the Republic—I have to hold it farther to read it—The Triumph and Peril of America’s Alliances. And it’s an important topic for our time, in part because so many people are coming of age and they’ve, if you will, inherited the alliance structure. And it’s not self-evident why exactly its of value. And really, no one else in the world has one . So the question is, is it worth keeping? And if so, what do we want it to do? And as we enter the third decade of the twenty-first century. So I think it’s an important entry into an important debate.
So thank you for doing it. I wish you well with it. And let me thank everyone, all the members, who joined this call. Thank you for your time and for your—for making up for the poor questions of the presider. And with that, I hope everybody is well and stays safe. And I look forward to having you join other meetings in the near future. Indeed, we have quite a few this week alone. So thank you, again, Mira, and congratulations.
RAPP-HOOPER: Thanks so much, Richard. Stay well, everyone.