Higher Education Webinar: The Triumph and Peril of America’s Alliances

Thursday, June 18, 2020
Mira Rapp-Hooper

Stephen A. Schwarzman Senior Fellow for Asia Studies, Council on Foreign Relations; Senior Fellow, Paul Tsai China Center, Yale University


Vice President for National Program and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

Mira Rapp-Hooper, CFR's Stephen A. Schwarzman senior fellow for Asia Studies and senior fellow at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center, discusses the U.S. system of alliances and its importance for national security, topics covered in her new book, Shields of the Republic.

FASKIANOS: Good afternoon to all of you. Welcome to today’s Educators Webinar. I am Irina Faskianos, vice president of the National Program and Outreach at CFR. Today’s meeting is on the record, and the video and transcript will be available on our website, CFR.org/Academic. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.

We are delighted to have Mira Rapp-Hooper with us today to talk about her new book, Shields of the Republic: The Triumph and Peril of America’s Alliances. Dr. Rapp-Hooper is CFR’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Senior Fellow for Asia Studies and a senior fellow at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center. At CFR, her work explores national security and strategy issues in Asia, including great power competition, alliances, nuclear issues, and territorial disputes, the implications of China’s rise for the international order and the future of American strategy toward Asia and China. All very much under topics of discussion today. Previously, Dr. Rapp-Hooper was a senior fellow with the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New America Security. She was a fellow with the Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and director of their Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative. She was also a Stanton Nuclear Security fellow at CFR. In addition to her first book that we will be discussing today that I just mentioned, she will be releasing a second book, co-authored with Rebecca Lissner, later this year entitled The Day After Trump: The Future of American Strategy and the International Order.

So, Mira, thanks very much for being with us today. A great place to start is to talk about—give us an overview of the U.S. alliance system and discuss its significance for national security.

RAPP-HOOPER: Irina, thank you so much for that very generous introduction. Of course, I’ll start by thanking you and your team for convening this wonderful event today as well as you all for joining us. These are really extraordinary times and we’re grateful you’re here with us for this conversation.

The book that I’ve just put out is really a story of how the United States crafted and used a novel tool of statecraft—that is, a peacetime alliance system—and why, despite the extraordinary record of this system, it’s now at risk of collapse. And the tale goes something like this.

In the early days of the Cold War, the United States crafted an alliance system that was remarkably effective, so effective that it buried its own record, because when alliances are working we do not see them at all. The system kept the peace during the Cold War when it easily might have been otherwise and did so at reasonable cost.

But ever since then, American rivals have fixed it in their sights. Washington is running out of time to save these pacts but it needs them more than ever, and I’ll take the next few minutes just to unpack that argument.

First, I’ll start with a little history, which may be familiar to some on the line, and that is, of course, the fact that for a hundred and fifty years the United States had a longstanding aversion to the formation of alliances. Between the end of the Revolutionary War and the Second World War, it took pains to avoid forming alliances with any country.

But after the Second World War in as many decades it embarked on a novel project. World War II had shown it that in particular developments in military technology long-range bombers, the prospective missile age, and, of course, nuclear weapons meant that for the first time in its life the United States was geographically exposed.

So it embraced a new strategy. For centuries, countries had used alliances to fight and win specific wars. But the United States crafted a system that sought to keep them from starting at all. It would seek to hold the balance of power in Europe and Asia using alliances for three interrelated purposes.

First, for forward defense. That is, the establishment of troops and bases overseas. Second, for deterrence—efforts to dissuade rivals from ever attacking at all. And third, for the assurance and control of its allies. These elements featured in different amounts in each one of America’s different pacts, and this was an incredibly ambitious plan crafted primarily for the self-defense of the United States.

Now, alliance success is very hard to measure. It comes in the form of wars and crises that never break out at all. But to the extent that we can divine it, this Cold War system succeeded on the terms set out for it. The Cold War, of course, stayed cold. No U.S. ally was ever the victim of an attack causing the United States to come to its aid, and hotspots that seemed all too likely to escalate, such as the Korean Peninsula, the Taiwan Straits, or a divided Germany, did not erupt. Crises that did occur stayed manageable.

The spread of nuclear weapons was slowed. Former rivals, such as Japan and Germany, were transformed into democratic partners and regional leaders, and the United States bought widespread international support and good will for its preferred foreign policies, finding a global role that was cheaper and more effective than it possibly could have been otherwise. And contrary to recent debates that suggest that alliances have been expensive and politically taxing for the United States, the system was not nearly as costly as its critics allege. Financially, the United States has always spent a bit more on defense than its allies. But for a long time, it was because Washington wanted it this way. Alliances themselves, of course, are not all that costly. Rather, it’s the troops and bases that support them that really can impose costs.

But where these have been used it’s because the United States has decided this was in its national security interest to have them. For most of the Cold War, in fact, the United States actually preferred to spend more than its allies on defense because it preferred to have more influence over their national security policies.

Nevertheless, it’s reasonable to debate now whether burden sharing between allies should be equalized. But it’s important to note that direct comparisons between the United States and its allies’ spending often don’t tell us that much. The critical point here is that U.S. foreign policy with alliances is far cheaper than any U.S. foreign policy would be without them, and, therefore, the United States has actually gotten quite a good deal over recent decades.

But this alliance system was also less costly than many IR scholars would have us believe in political terms. Scholars warn of the risk of entrapment. That is, the idea that allies will pull us into wars and crises that we wouldn’t otherwise join. But the trouble is there’s almost no evidence of this in the U.S. alliance system.

The United States have never had to join a war on behalf of an ally, and while it’s occasionally joined crises to help keep them from escalating, it’s done so because of shared interests, which raises the question of why there has been so little entrapment in America’s alliances when we might have expected to see them.

The answer that I found is smart alliance design. The United States has declined to form security pacts with countries that seemed too risky, it’s crafted treaty language to minimize the risk where it might occur, and it has retained the ability to exit alliances that no longer serve it, thereby really minimizing what we know to be one of the greatest risks of alliances, at least in the scholarly literature.

But, in addition, the United States has also really never been abandoned by allies at a moment of need. This is the second warning that scholars often foretell with respect to alliances. There have been very few occasions, in fact, in which the United States ever could have been abandoned, of course, because its allies have not been attacked. In fact, the only time that one of these mutual security guarantees has ever been invoked is when the United States itself was attacked on September 11 and its allies clamored to its aid.

In addition, the United States has often chosen to fight wars on foreign battlefields and had support from allies, despite the fact that they had no obligation to be there—places like Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan. So where it has faced conflicts, the United States has actually had more allied support than it ever should have expected.

But after this Cold War success, something rather stunning happened. Of course, without war or revolution, the Soviet Union collapsed. This was exactly the type of victory the alliance system was designed to achieve, and American policymakers preserved alliances after the Soviet Union’s defeat, but it was no longer centrally focused on defense or deterrents and, inadvertently, this post-Cold War period would create some weaknesses that adversaries would later exploit, bringing NATO to Russia’s doorstep and creating a particularly soft underbelly for the U.S. presence in Southeast Asia.

But along the way, American rivals did not forget the power of this system. As China rose in Asia and Russia became resurgent, both fixed America’s alliances in their sights through two-pronged approaches: focusing military strategies on preventing America from aiding its allies and coercive strategies that aimed to route around America’s alliances without ever activating them at all.

And, of course, just three years ago, the United States joined China and Russia as a chief alliance antagonist now threatening to unravel the system from within—a set of threats that comes when the system itself was already fraying, which now puts America’s most successful strategic tool now in peril.

Now, this brings me to the fact that we’re going to have to salvage this system for the future or else pay significant costs as the United States. The United States has, of course, passed the peak of its Cold War power and China will continue to rise in the years ahead.

The reverberations of the pandemic that we’re currently living through and the economic crisis that follows will be with us for years to come. And, without allies, the geopolitical math simply does not favor the United States. As both countries recover from this crisis, China will continue to pass the United States in economic size and military heft inside of Asia, making it ever more difficult for the United States to keep up. While relative power is shifting against it, Washington will remain strong and its allies will remain highly-developed scientifically sophisticated countries. In fact, they are the one thing that China will never have.

So the balance of power favors the United States for a long time if it has allies on its side. But if we do not salvage this trusty tool of statecraft we will face the prospect of twenty-first-century threats alone.

Because of the success of this alliance system, the nature of conflict has fundamentally changed. So these pacts must now change to meet it. To stay safe and secure, the United States still needs a strategy that seeks to hold the global balance of power. But because so many threats of the future are nonmilitary, the United States will need to expand its alliance system to nonmilitary domains.

This means bringing deterrents to some new areas like cyberattacks on critical infrastructure or election interference—types of assaults that are so grave that the United States and its allies should consider applying their treaties to cover them.

But alliances can also be used to prepare for a far broader range of threats such as coordinating to respond to China’s use of 5G technology or for better global health preparedness, and the benefit of this approach is that it will give allies the opportunity to do much more.

Allies in Europe and Asia can increasingly work together, and broader alliances give allies the ability to contribute more financially. They may not spend more militarily, but these contributions can come from foreign ministries and intelligence communities, allowing them to play to their strengths, so what has been a set of burden sharing standoffs for the last several years with a common opportunity to improve the breadth of these alliances and also give them more balance and the chance to excel for decades more.

Now, this is an incredibly ambitious plan which may take new leadership in the United States as well as the consent and enthusiasm of our rather beleaguered allies. But the alternative is, one way or another, the collapse of a remarkably effective system.

If this strikes anyone as hyperbole, we need only look at our headlines about the prospective drawdown of ten thousand troops from Germany or the burden-sharing standoff in South Korea to know that the future of this tool of statecraft is truly on the ropes.

I’m sure we’ll talk about these issues and many more over the course of our discussion today so I’ll stop there and look forward to it.

FASKIANOS: Mira, thank you very much for that terrific analysis.

Let’s go now to our group for questions, comments. As you all know, you can click on the participants icon, raise your hand, and when I call on you please accept the unmute prompt so that we can hear what you have to say.

And we already have people lining up. Terrific. And please identify your affiliation so that it gives Mira context.

So we’ll go first to Mark Katz.

Q: Thank you so much. This is Mark Katz from George Mason University.

Very interesting presentation. I’m looking forward to reading the book. One thing—difference that strikes me between a cold war now is that during the Cold War that all of our—we, and all of our allies, were fearful of the Soviet Union and their allies, whereas now it seems to me that we have many, many allies in different parts of the world and that they prioritize different adversaries. You know, some in Europe prioritize Russia but not, obviously, Iran; where some in the Middle East prioritize Iran, but not Russia; and I can go on in that way. And it strikes me that is a complication in dealing with our alliance relations, and I’m just wondering how you think this might be addressed.

Thank you.

RAPP-HOOPER: Yeah. Thanks, Mark, for a great question.

I should note, just as a proviso, that my book really deals with the United States system of formal treaty alliances; that is, countries with whom it has a mutual defense treaty. So that is our NATO allies in Europe and our treaty allies in Asia. But it doesn’t include security partnerships in the Middle East.

I’d be glad to dig into the question of why I decided to choose that as my focus if folks are interested and also hear feedback on that. But just for the proviso that my remarks are covering these formal treaty guarantees.

Mark brings up a really important point, but I would actually note that the problem or the complication in dealing with multiple adversaries has actually been a part of the U.S. alliance system from the beginning.

The United States alliance system in Asia is—rather than, you know, a NATO multilateral set of unified alliances, is a set of bilateral treaties in Asia precisely because of this problem. That is, in the early Cold War days, America’s allies in Asia all faced different adversaries and sort of placed different rankings on what they saw as the primary regional threat.

The alliance with South Korea was, of course, founded to counter North Korea and pull South Korea out of the Korean War. The alliance with Taiwan was primarily directed against mainland China, and Japan was primarily focused on the Soviet Union.

So the problem of multiple adversaries actually has a lot to explain about the nature of our alliance design that has persisted toward—to present. Now, I would still absolutely share your concern that different views of different adversaries can make alliance coordination difficult, and in Asia we see some of these differences persisting. That is, South Korea remains focused on North Korea. Japan is primarily concerned with China.

But it’s less of a disjuncture from the Cold War than we might think and I think actually something that American policymakers have managed to handle fairly deftly over the course of their history.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

Let’s go to John Schuessler. And you might want to pronounce your name because I don’t think I got it perfectly.

Q: Can you hear me?

FASKIANOS: Yes, we can.

Q: You were close. Schuessler.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

Q: I’m from the Bush School at Texas A&M.

Congratulations on the book. I wanted to ask about concept. So is alliances the right term for the relationship the U.S. has had with these other countries? These countries are not equals of the United States and there’s a fair amount of hierarchy in these relationships. I might call it maybe a sphere of influence. So does alliances obscure that or do you think it’s the best term for these relationships?

RAPP-HOOPER: That’s an interesting question. Very thought provoking.

You know, I do tend to think that alliances is still the right term. They are, you know, mutual defense treaties, security guarantees, defense pacts that holds a lot of the same power as alliances of similar types have held.

But you’re absolutely right that one of the things that sets the American system apart is that for a very long time it was heavily asymmetric both in terms of the capabilities of their respective power disposal and the overall type of power that each wielded in the international system. That is, it wasn’t at all clear, based on the way that alliances have worked in the past, why the United States should want to form a vast set of alliance treaties with countries that were far less powerful than it that could not at the time contribute substantial defense capabilities, and that were not in any way its geopolitical power equal.

But in some ways that was actually the logic of the system. That is to say that part of the way the United States was thinking about holding the balance of power was through these asymmetries.

Nevertheless, part of what has changed so radically in our geopolitics in the last several decades is the fact that the relative power gap between the United States and its competitors have closed. But so, too, has the relative power gap between the United States and its allies. None of its allies are in any way a rival to the United States for geopolitical power. None of them is going to be a great power in the coming decade. But they’re, certainly, not nearly the weak and war-torn states that they were when the United States founded this system.

So to the extent that it was very hierarchical at the beginning, I think there’s a lot of good reason to believe that it is already much less so that way, and part of what I’m calling for in the book is actually for those asymmetries to be corrected further, for both responsibilities and financial contributions to be equalized somewhat more because of these geopolitical shifts that we’re talking about here.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Let’s go to Mojubaolu Okome.

Q: Hello.


FASKIANOS: I think you need to unmute.

Q: Hello. I—(inaudible, technical difficulties).

My question is, stipulating that we have a designated role in our system , what is your assessment of the—(inaudible, technical difficulties)—of this current administration? And what, also, is your best guess of what lies in the future with the alliance system that the U.S. has (held ?) constant since the end of the Second World War? Because China is on the rise, as you have said, and the U.S. under the current—(inaudible, technical difficulties). And I do think that the Europeans are also not very pleased with the (dearth of ?)—(inaudible, technical difficulties)—from the U.S. at this point in time. So what do you see in the future—(inaudible, technical difficulties)?

FASKIANOS: Mira, did you get enough of that? Your audio was really hard to hear.

RAPP-HOOPER: Sorry. Yeah. Yeah, I’m sorry. I had a little trouble understanding that question. I know it’s a question that I want to answer because you asked about the alliance system and the rise of China. So if there’s any chance of you repeating it. 

FASKIANOS: And maybe coming off speakerphone. It sounds like you might be on speaker.

Q: Hello?

RAPP-HOOPER: OK. Our colleague—our colleague is in transit.

Q: I’m having trouble because I’m in transit.


Q: My question is about the nature of the alliance system right now. What’s your assessment?

And also, what lies in the future, given the fact that the Trump administration seems to be—(inaudible, technical difficulties)—the level of commitment to the European allies.

And then China’s rise. It is here and, you know, what is the—happening in the future with this U.S. alliance system?

FASKIANOS: OK. I think tackle whatever part of that you heard. Again, it was—


FASKIANOS: —it’s really hard to hear you, and I know you’re in public transit so you can’t chat us the question.

So, Mira, just take a crack at it, and we apologize if it’s not completely on point. But your audio is really just not too audible.

RAPP-HOOPER: Yeah, I’ll do my best, and thank you for what I think is a very good question. I’m eager to have an exchange with you on it.

You know, you asked about the nature of the U.S. alliance system, going forward, particularly as China continues to rise, and how Europe is likely to respond to some of these dynamics, as best I heard you.

I think there is no question that China’s rise will continue to place a lot of strain on the United States’ alliance system in Asia and, as I signified in my remarks, there’s really a twofold challenge here. The first is the fact that China has crafted a military strategy that actually aims to make it impossible for the United States to defend its allies in Asia. That is, China’s use of anti-access area denial approaches, which seek to raise the cost to the United States of intervening in a conflict in the Western Pacific, and, of course, if Washington can’t do this, can’t come to, for example, Japan’s defense, it can’t claim to be able to uphold its security commitments.

But the other set of challenges is far slipperier than this. It is China’s use of lower level nonmilitary coercion to advance its aims in Asia in places like the South China Sea and East China Sea.

And in some ways this is even more difficult for the U.S. alliance system to engage because many of these types of incursions never trigger America’s alliances at all. You can think of things like China’s island-building campaign in the South China Sea. And, of course, all U.S. allies don’t necessarily see China in the same way. Many of them are deeply concerned about these activities but place different priorities on different components of China’s strategy while also needing to be able to maintain their economic relations with China.

So, to my mind, the charge to American policymakers is the need to be able to get American allies on board with a much more unified strategy towards China, which I think we’re still lacking, but to do so in a way that gives allies room to live alongside a stronger China in Asia, which they’re going to have to do for years to come.

I’ll add a final note on the European dimension of this problem, which I believe you asked about, and that is the fact that our European allies have traditionally been much more hesitant to want to sort of stick necks out or tussle with China in any way. But note that the coronavirus pandemic has actually radically shifted public opinion in Europe when it comes to China, in large part because of China’s hard-edged pandemic diplomacy that is, in particular, its diplomatic messages that have criticized democracies or sought to vaunt the Chinese system as an exemplar of pandemic response.

Europeans are actually much more concerned about China’s global role than I think they were a few months ago. I think we need to be modest in our assumptions about what that means Europeans are likely to do with respect to China. They’re not going to sort of clamber aboard all of our efforts in Asia. But I do think we will see much more circumspection in European policy towards China going forward.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Let’s go next to Brian Dille.

Q: Hello. Thank you. Can you hear me?


Q: Excellent. My question is that the alliance structure you talk about—the domestic support for those alliances—relied on a consensus about grand strategy, and after the Cold War that consensus broke down, and as a country we have not really had a conversation about our grand strategy or America’s role in the world and I worry that such a conversation is not possible currently.

So I’d like you to address the need to develop a grand strategy that would inform an alliance system that’s necessary to support that strategy and build the domestic consensus for that system.

FASKIANOS: And, Brian, you’re with Mesa Community College, correct?

Q: Correct.

FASKIANOS: Great. Thank you.

RAPP-HOOPER: Brian, that’s a wonderful question. Thank you. I really appreciate it.

I think you’re absolutely right. You know, I describe the post-Cold War period that you allude to, which is the fact that the U.S. alliance system was preserved absent the evident need for it after the Soviet Union collapsed, which sort of meant that it was prioritized as a set of tools as opposed to for the end those tools could be put to.

But I’m in absolute agreement that we are still lacking a national conversation about what our grand strategy should be for this world ahead. I tend to think that the conversation may be a bit more possible than I think you do. That is to say, that I think it is possible for the United States to develop a more coherent grand strategy than—that the public would, perhaps, support.

In a world in which the United States is past its post-Cold War power peak, my personal view and the sort of set of priorities I’ve articulated with my co-author, Rebecca Lissner, is that the United States should relinquish its emphasis on primacy, particularly in Asia where both geopolitical primacy and military primacy are no longer possible, and should transition to a strategy that seeks to keep the world open. That is, that even without dominance, the United States can still work to ensure that China and any other power do not dominate any specific region or any functional area that might be especially important and valuable to the United States.

We see the requirements of such a strategy as being lower, certainly, than the requirements of sustaining primacy in the post-Cold War era. We see this as being a strategy that is focused on Asia as the primary theater and Europe secondarily, and we also see it as a strategy that puts a lot of emphasis on things like the governance of the internet and information domains that will be so critical to national security and prosperity, going forward.

But the reason that I think a conversation like this and the development of a grand strategy still remains possible is that there actually is a fair amount of coherence in American public opinion when it comes to the types of foreign policies that the public is willing to support. There is no question that Americans are done with the unilateral use of the military instrument, at least for a good amount of time.

But they continue to favor the use of alliances, understanding that alliances actually reduce costs to the United States and reduce the chances that we will go to war on our own. They continue to favor the use of multilateral institutions and other forms of cooperation to advance American interests, and they continue to believe that the United States should have a leading role on the global stage, even if they’re less concerned with it necessarily having a role of primacy or being the world’s singular leader.

So this is all to say that I actually do think the trappings of a new consensus could be in place, although I certainly agree with you and take the point that our domestic politics have been so volatile that they can make this conversation feel very difficult to have.

FASKIANOS: Let’s go to Caroline Holley, and if you could please identify yourself that would be terrific.

Q: Hi. Thank you. I’m from State University of New York at Buffalo.

Previous administrations have used human rights as a sort of—a way to—a part of the negotiations in relationships between U.S. and China, and I was just curious, do you think that the current administration’s sort of lack of use of that tool is just a reflection of the current administration’s approach or is what we’re—or is the sort of—the minimization of the importance of human rights—particularly, I’m thinking about the situation of the Uighurs and the situation in Hong Kong—is that something that’s sort of a bigger trend than just this current administration?

RAPP-HOOPER: Thanks for another very thoughtful question.

I think there’s no question that the current administration’s views on human rights are quite anomalous in the tradition of American foreign policy. I won’t rehash anything that came out in John Bolton’s book yesterday nor will I opine on its veracity. But if some of what is contained there is true, that would paint a picture of a real anomaly in human rights policies and beliefs, indeed.

But I think what you’re getting at is something a bit more complicated than that, which is the fact that the United States is likely to have persistent concerns about China’s human rights, whether we’re talking about the detention of a million Uighurs in Xinjiang or we’re talking about the autonomous status of Hong Kong, which is now in jeopardy, and the fact that these issues are not likely to go away. And, of course, the reason for this is that China will continue to rise and clearly sees its territorial integrity and the resolution of outstanding sovereignty disputes as a set of its near-term objectives, which it needs to resolve in its favor.

That’s part of the reason why we’ve seen such, you know, really alarming action to try to detain the leaders in Xinjiang, as well as this really very stunning bill to try to change Hong Kong’s status, all at a moment when the United States seems to be especially distracted and divided and is ill-equipped to respond.

So I believe that, unfortunately, under any future administration the United States and its allies are going to be grappling with the question of how to react to human-rights concerns with respect to China that is a country that is more and more powerful and yet seems to believe it has more and more incentive to crack down on dissent that it sees as occurring within its borders, is a more and more difficult partner with whom to raise human rights.

I expect that the United States and its allies will continue to do so, particularly where existing international law and human-rights conventions support its position. But the question of what tools we bring to our disposal becomes ever more vexing as China gets stronger.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

Let’s go to the next question—John Mathiason.

Q: Thank you. John Mathiason. I’m with Cornell Institute for Public Affairs.

You’re dealing with alliances, but there’s a larger context. And I’d like to see how you see that. The larger context, also postwar, is the system of international organizations and international agreements to be able to use these institutions as a vehicle for solving problems.

Now, I argue nowadays that there are four what I call problems of the apocalypse, four types of problems that can’t be solved by sovereign nations by themselves, or even in narrow alliances, that are pandemics, they are climate change, they’re nuclear weapons, and they’re cybersecurity, which you’re mentioning. None of these can be solved by alliances.

Now, the question is, how should the U.S. be building into that kind of a system, given that, in fact, for all of the four problems of the apocalypse, we’re basically withdrawing in every case?

RAPP-HOOPER: That’s a great question. And you clearly crafted a very artful term for it. So I would be curious for your views as well. I’ll go ahead and give you my quick answer, but I’d like to hear, you know, genuinely what you think the best way forward on these four problems of the apocalypse is.

You know, you are describing, by and large, problems that are borderless, that are some form of global threat, and that therefore it makes it incredibly vexing to apply either alliances or existing international agreements to them. And on that, I definitely share your concern.

Alliances, of course, have been used to counter specific elements of some of the threats you name; on nuclear weapons, to establish nuclear deterrence and to reduce nuclear proliferation. Alliances have been successful in both of those regards, although they do not necessarily constrain the activity of the nuclear actor who lies outside of their membership.

I actually also tend to believe that alliances do have some role to play in cybersecurity; that is, in potentially deterring certain types of cyber attacks. And NATO and the U.S.-Australia alliance have taken some small steps in this direction, although I think they could do a lot more. And I’d also point to the role of alliance cybersecurity efforts in protecting democratic processes and countering disinformation and election campaigns.

But I think the problem you pose more broadly relates to the fact that global threats are not really amenable to closed systems of defense and deterrence and, in fact, need to be managed as problems of the commons or something that looks like the global commons.

So on that score, I would be genuinely curious to hear how you see these fitting in a framework like this.

FASKIANOS: John, if you want to unmute again.

Q: (Inaudible.)

FASKIANOS: There you go.

Q: Ah, OK.

But the answer is the alliance system is based on a concept of basically zero-sum game. Somebody wins; somebody loses. That’s how you use coercive force. The international system has to be based on a non-zero-sum game. And, in fact, all of the things that are agreed internationally are usually agreed by consensus. Everybody buys into it.

Now, the problem is that a lot of these require the main players to buy in to it. For example, in—I like cybersecurity. There is no international agreement, period, on internet governance. I wrote a book on it. But there could be one if you could get an agreement on what it is that the states are responsible for, not to do bad things but to make sure that the system operates.

Climate change more complicated, because we have—the best we have right now is a convention called the U.N. Convention on Climate Change, which has only—is only a partial convention. It agrees that there’s a problem, something ought to be done about it, but there’s no formal agreement on what to solve it. And the U.S. has just withdrawn from the voluntary agreement, the Paris agreement.

As far as nuclear weapons are concerned, the fact that the U.S. pulled out of the Iran deal, which was set up using the international mechanism, tells us that, hey, that one, maybe we can’t even count on that anymore. And that’s run through the IAEA.

And pandemics—what can I tell you? We’ve just decided to pull out of the World Health Organization.

Now, what is the solution? The U.S. has got to begin to, if you will, reemphasize the role of these consensual agreements and that the U.S. will push them. The U.S. will argue for—the U.S. will do what has to be done on its part. And then we try to use the mechanisms, which include things like naming and shaming, to put other countries into compliance.

But be very careful. On human rights—one of my favorite subjects—of all of the countries that are party to the human rights conventions, the U.S. is the second-worst. The worst is Tonga.

RAPP-HOOPER: Well, you’ve certainly given us a lot to chew on there. And you get no quibble from me about we need to energetically reengage in our multilateral efforts on a number of these global issues.

I’ll just add a final point, which is to say that I think one of the challenges going forward is going to be that on some of the big global issues, a number of the big actors don’t see the problem in the same way. When it comes to internet governance, as you know so well, Russia and China take a fundamentally different view of the model we should use for that governance than the United States and many of its allies and partners.

So I tend to think that in this sphere we’re likely to see layers of international order forming that are based on groupings of the willing; that is, like-minded partners banding together in order to set norms and rules in cyberspace for internet governance, as opposed to universal treaties. So I think that in this area in particular we may see something that looks a lot more patchwork than we’ve expected in the past.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

Let’s go to Timothy Crawford next.

Q: Hello.

RAPP-HOOPER: Hey, Tim. Great to hear you.

Q: Hi, Mira. Congrats on the book.

OK, so I recognize that your book is focused on formal treaty allies. But I wonder if you have or you and Rebecca Lissner have something to say about these sort of quasi-allies that we have, like Ukraine and Georgia and India. And there’s a certain tendency among policymakers, at least, and talking heads and so forth, to consider, for example, Ukraine as already an essential strategic ally, apparently.

So my question is, is countries that fall outside the formal alliance networks but are sort of right there on the edge, are they part of your story in terms of where we can go in the future with allies? Are they—can we—should we, can we, try to rope India and Ukraine into these other forms of deterrence and stuff like that, or should we continue to try to reinforce those relationships, maybe, and eventually to bring them into the formal network?

RAPP-HOOPER: That’s a great question, Tim, and a challenge that I would certainly expect coming from a mind like yours.

Tim has, of course, done extraordinary work on alliances that were very influential—that was very influential on me, particularly when I was in graduate school. So thank you so much for being here.

I tend to think, Tim, that these states that sort of fall right on the bounds of our alliances, states that are almost allies but non-allies, actually take on a very different role than formal treaty allies; that is, tend to be the places we see a lot of the messiest action, in part because the designation of their status is so much less clear.

Of course, part of the reason that or an essential reason that Russia invaded both Georgia and Ukraine was because both were at some point being auditioned for NATO membership but had not yet made it into the alliance. So it had the opportunity to show NATO that bringing either one of these states in would be dangerous, without risking the possibility of a war with NATO because they were not yet members.

Likewise, you know, the United States declined to form alliances with Israel and Pakistan, both of whom have been close defense partners at critical junctures of its national security precisely because it was worried about getting pulled into wars by one of these states or the other.

So a lot of the places where a lot of the risk actually lies is in these cases that are very close calls, that are almost U.S. treaty allies but not quite. And that’s part of the decision calculus about where the United States ultimately decides to form alliances or not. That says when it comes to countries that are on the edge, there certainly is opportunity to try to pull them into policies and grand strategies.

I tend to think that if we are living in a world where we’re promoting an openness strategy like I laid out, a strategy that accepts that the United States is past primacy but seeks to prevent China from dominating Asia, India is going to be a critical partner. But I think it should be one that the United States has modest goals for.

For the longest time, of course, Delhi has maintained a non-aligned security strategy. And while the recent border conflict with China could certainly tilt India more towards the United States and its allies for some time to come, I think we would be remiss to assume that it’s going to simply clamor on board with the alliance structures we have, for example, with Japan and Australia and become something like a treaty ally.

So this is all to say that where strategies align and we can work closely with non-allied partners, this is a great thing to do. But we should also recognize that a lot of messiness in terms of both alliance formation and potential conflict tends to happen right on these things.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

And Tim is with Boston College. So many know that, but just to say it.

We have so many hands up. I’m going to—let’s try to get through—to as many of you as possible. Let’s go to Mary Meyer McAleese next. And please state your affiliation too.

Q: Yes. Good afternoon. Thank you. My name is Mary Meyer McAleese. I’m at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida.

My question: Talking about margins and marginalized spaces, I’m curious about Latin America and the Rio Pact. I notice in your book, at least according to the index, there are only two pages devoted to Latin America and the Rio Pact. China’s been making strong advances diplomatically, economically, and financially in the region. And I just wonder what your reading is at the moment about U.S. policy, grand strategy in the hemisphere, the rivalry with China, et cetera, in Latin America and the Caribbean. Thank you.

RAPP-HOOPER: Another great question. Thank you.

So my book does not deal terribly in-depth with the Rio Pact, precisely because it doesn’t meet my definition, or rather Washington’s definition, of a formal alliance. The Rio Pact, of course, actually predated NATO but was, in many ways, a different structure in what it sought to guarantee from the beginning. It was, of course, the formalization of a wartime negative-security guarantee that President Roosevelt had given to Latin America to try to reduce the risk of excessive Nazi influence in Latin America during the war.

So, unlike NATO or treaty alliances in East Asia, which were effectively promising positive American support should any one of them being attacked, this was more of a formalization of the Monroe Doctrine; that is, a doctrine that—or rather a treaty that sought to prevent undue outside influence in Latin America during and after the Second World War.

A central difference also between the Rio Pact and the rest of the alliance system is that it does not use Article 51 of the U.N. Charter; that is, the collective self-defense article. Rather, it’s established as a regional organization, and therefore has a different purpose under international law.

That said, there is no question that China has been very active in Latin America of recent years. And I think we’re likely to continue to see a lot of Belt and Road activity. In particular, since the pandemic has been under way, China has sort of been starting to rebrand the Belt and Road, despite the fact that it’s facing all kinds of debt crises. And it’s pretty clear that it’s going to try to make even more of a push into Latin America as it seeks to use Belt and Road to try to get countries to sign new contracts as part of their recovery. And part of what this is actually going to do ultimately—or may do ultimately is raise a question about the fundamental basis of the Rio Pact; that is, this formalization of the Monroe Doctrine.

And the question that may be increasingly salient to the United States is how much China’s presence in Latin America represents some form of a threat to what the United States has thought of as its sphere of influence under the Monroe Doctrine. The Rio Pact certainly doesn’t tell us any particular action that the United States should take or what to do about it, but there is no question that the dynamics that you are citing here are going to be increasingly salient in the years to come.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Let’s go to Hiroki Takeuchi, and after that we will go to Bob McCoy.

Q: Hi. It was a great discussion, and I really am looking forward to reading your book.

I’m Hiroki Takeuchi, teaching at Southern Methodist University—SMU—in Dallas, Texas.

My question is regarding the nonmilitary domains, so the importance of alliance in the nonmilitary domains. So I have two brief questions. One, which issue area do you think is most important in the nonmilitary domains? And the second question is which issue area will be damaged most in terms of alliance in the nonmilitary domains if Trump is reelected and the Trump administration lasts for four more years?

RAPP-HOOPER: Thank you. On both parts of the question it’s hard to pick exactly, but I think there is no question that cybersecurity and the cyber domain is one of the most critical areas where I think our alliances are thus far relatively lacking. Of course Russia has demonstrated, with its election interference in both Europe and the United States, its ability to really exploit the cyber domain to incredible effect. Russia, unlike China which is a true great-power competitor to the United States, is really a power on the decline, and yet has managed to jeopardize the sovereignty and political independence of the United States as well as several Western European countries with it exploitation of cyberspace. So I see that as perhaps the most urgent nonmilitary domain around which American allies need to coordinate.

I would note that I think—I would note also that I think this is a particularly important area, not just for the United States and NATO to cooperate, and the United States and its Asian allies to cooperate, but for our allies to increasingly cooperate across regions. On a lot of these nonmilitary issues, allies in Europe and Asia increasingly share threat perceptions or at least concerns, and a lot of these issues aren’t confined to any specific region. So, to my mind, there should be a set of working groups or standing channels for European and Asian allies to increasingly share information with one another and develop common cybersecurity procedures.

The question about whether President Trump may be reelected and what the effect on America alliances would be, I think obviously it is a far reaching one. The central problem, I think, would be if this happened, it is not going to be any one particular nonmilitary domain and the way that it may be damaged, but rather the signal that this sends to American allies. The president’s approach to alliances has departed radically from his predecessors, and seems in several cases to be particularly focused on trying to dismantle American alliances, as in South Korea or in Germany. So I think the overall message that the United States has decided to ratify this alliance approach would be chilling indeed.

That said, I think some of the challenges that we’re talking about here today, whether the rise of China or the importance of alliance coordination in nonmilitary domains will be with us even if President Trump is not reelected. So it’s very important that his predecessor or any other U.S. leader realize that they can’t merely restore themselves to their former alliance leadership role, but rather have a significant charge on their hands to remake this system for the road ahead.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Let’s go to Bob McCoy, and then we’ll go to Chris Sands.

Q: Thank you so much, and I’m enjoying the presentation very much so far. My name is Bob McCoy. On paper I’m Robert McCoy. But I’m with the Mansfield Center of the University of Montana.

And in light of your remarks so far today, and given the striking differences between recent American administrations, how do you see us going forward in how we define or, if necessary, redefine our alliances to work effectively with our allies?

RAPP-HOOPER: Thanks, Bob.

You know, this is what I really wrestle with in the conclusion of my book. My argument is basically not that we need to redefine who is included in our alliances. I actually think we happen to be allied with most of the countries we should want to be allied with at exactly this moment. Rather, what I’m suggesting is that we need to broaden what our alliances include.

Twentieth century alliances were of course centrally created to deter and defend against nuclear and military conflict, and the landscape in front of us is far broader and more diverse than that. So what I’m arguing for is that we pull a whole bunch of additional coordination and defense activities into our alliance structures to be able to counter nonmilitary threats. That includes things like national security implications of new technologies, as I mentioned; that includes things like cyberspace, cybersecurity, and cyber defense; but it also includes things like coordinating alliance responses to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Now this probably sounds like a very ambitious effort, which it is, but what I would note here is that these are all areas in which the United States and its allies are already doing a lot of independent work, and in some ways, we’re all expending more resources and more effort than we should be because we should be undertaking these tasks together.

So what I’m really calling for here is not an overhaul in who constitutes our allies—I think we’ve got exactly the right set of team members on our side, but rather on how we define what constitutes an alliance. And by broadening that definition to include nonmilitary spaces, we also give our allies the ability to take on more burden in terms of what they can contribute in their activities and what they can contribute financially.

FASKIANOS: Christopher Sands.

Q: Thank you very much. I’m Chris Sands, and I work on Canada at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

And I wanted to ask a question about the Canadians. It seems to me from my slightly parochial perspective that we are currently struggling to think about how middle powers fit in our alliance system. We’re very focused on great power rivals. Could you reflect a little bit on how middle powers can be part of the alliance structure, contributing even when we don’t ask them to?

RAPP-HOOPER: Yeah, that’s a great question, and it’s something I do reflect on a bit in the book although I certainly would love to hear your views with respect to Canada in particular.

You know, I think the crisis that we’ve actually been living through these last few months shows us case in point why the role of allies as middle powers is more important than ever; that is, while the United States has been on its knees in its own pandemic management, and China has acquitted itself quite assertively on the global stage, some of the best pandemic performers and crisis managers have really been middle-power allies, whether you are pointing to Germany in Europe or South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore—who is a partner, not an ally—in Asia.

So this is sort of exactly the case for why we should want exactly this group of countries on our side for the road ahead. To my mind, the best way to think about allies as middle powers and the role that they can play in a more symmetric alliance system is to identify which issue those allies are inclined to take on themselves, and make those areas where they can take initiative to stand up new alliance structures or initiatives.

I’ll give some specific examples here. What I’m thinking of is the fact that Japan and Australia have frankly been far more innovative and proactive than the United States up until this point in thinking about ways to respond carefully to China’s Belt and Road Initiative; that is, offering alternatives for infrastructure development, helping countries to identify problems in China’s approach, and doing so without necessarily ruffling too many feathers in Beijing. And they’ve already shown us that they know how to do this well, so the United States should not only take a page out of their book and join them in those efforts, but encourage European partners and Canada to come on board with some of these more constructive responses.

Likewise, in NATO, Estonia really excels at cybersecurity and cyber resilience efforts, so the United States and other NATO allies should increasingly be following Estonia’s lead, encouraging it to take on a leadership role in some of these efforts, but supporting it as it does so, particularly because, as I think you indicate, a lot of allies have different views of China and aren’t necessarily excited to conduct their freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea or confront China on trade issues.

Looking for those areas where allies have already started to take on their own initiative gives us a sense of where we can actually ask them to do more by way of expanding those activities and by allowing the United States to join them in those efforts.

FASKIANOS: All right, I’m going to try to squeeze in one last question from Jide James.

Q: Hello. Thanks for the presentation.

My question is in relation to what John Mathiason and probably Hiroki asked earlier. But using the events in the U.S. in the last three years, especially our approach to international agreements and common consensus, along with the emerging—(inaudible)—attitude of our global partners and interest group as a backdrop, can you please offer any reflection, and perhaps a prognostication, on what the future of U.S. global alliance will be in times of strength and efficacy, or if there is any significant shift impending on the horizon?

RAPP-HOOPER: Well, I think we could prospectively see a lot of variation in this outcome. You know we had one colleague just talk about the prospect of President Trump’s reelection, and obviously it is possible under those circumstances that the president would try to significantly withdraw the American troop presence from Europe, from Asia, or even try to exit one of the United States’ treaty guarantees. And this has been something that’s been openly discussed, and we certainly can’t count it out, although I would note that no president needs to withdraw from a treaty to significantly weaken it. The U.S. president retains such commanding authority over alliance management that it’s possible to significantly erode American alliances from within without ever ending a treaty commitment.

But I also think it’s possible that the United States is in a moment of true transformation, both at home with respect to what is taking place in our streets right now and with respect to our role abroad. I think it’s possible that under new leadership the United States would seek to recommit itself to its alliance system and really try to rebuild some of the structures that we’re talking about here. And in this more optimistic view of things, I would like to think that not only will the United States preserve the alliance structures that it has in Europe and Asia, but that it will increasingly find ways for allies in Europe and Asia to work with each other; increasingly find ways for allies in Asia to work with each other; and increasingly find ways for partners to work with treaty allies more broadly.

So I think we really are at a crossroads, at a moment in time where it is possible that this extremely successful tool of strategy may be significantly damaged or really on the brink of collapse, or that it may be at a moment of reinvention where it gets pulled into the twenty-first century in ways that it has needed for the last several decades.

And I hope, you know, this conversation has drawn out—I know it has for me—that there just an enormous number of issues to contend with here. This would be a remarkably ambitious effort at overhaul if any U.S. administration were to conduct it, but I think the value to the United States is clear.

But I hope we’ll learn from history and, rather than letting the system collapse, do what we need to do to bring it into the twenty-first century and bring it along on the road ahead.

FASKIANOS: Wonderful. Well, we are at the end of our time, Mira, so my apologies for not getting to all the questions. But this has been a really rich conversation for the past hour, so thank you very much for being with us and to all of you for your questions and comments.

If you are interested in using Mira Rapp-Hooper’s book in your class, she can be persuaded to do a Skype session, or a Google Hangout, or a Zoom session with your students. So you can email us at—if you are interested in that.

So thank you all very much for being with us. Again, the name of her book is Shields of the Republic: The Triumph and Peril of America’s Alliances, and her second book will be out in the fall, right around the time of the—shortly after the election, right, Mira?

RAPP-HOOPER: Actually, just before—it will be out in mid-September.

FASKIANOS: Oh, mid-September, OK, terrific.

You can follow her on Twitter @MiraRappHooper, and also follow us at @CFR_Academic. Visit CFR.org, ThinkGlobalHealth.org, and ForeignAffairs.com for information about COVID-19 as well as many more resources. And you can email comments and thoughts to [email protected].

So thank you all again. Stay well, stay safe, and we look forward to your participation in the next Educators Webinar.

RAPP-HOOPER: Thanks so much for joining us.


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