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The World Order Has Transformed, Leaving US Alliances Behind

Apr 03, 2019
  • Wu Zurong

    Research Fellow, China Foundation for Int'l Studies

As the world is undergoing profound changes that have never appeared in the last 100 years, the United States’ strategy of military alliances has begun to face a many new historical challenges.

The most revolutionary change in the world order since the start of the modern era comes from the rise of numerous newly emerging economies and developing countries. The 1998 Asian financial crisis and the 2008 world financial crisis may be viewed as the merciless revelation that the political-economic order and global financial system had become badly imbalance, while global governance was inadequate. The birth of the G20 mechanism, from the annual meeting of financial ministers and central bank governors starting from 1999 to the annual summit meeting of world leaders starting from 2008, is a recognition of the political, economic, and financial strength of emerging economies. The G20 mechanism now plays a more substantial role than the G7 in dealing with various global affairs on the world stage. This development be taken as a milestone, a long-lasting historical shift in the balance of world power.

The rise of emerging economies and developing countries has brought about many profound changes in international relations. The first of these transformations is the diversification of the national interest of each and every country in the world. As a result of increased international trade and investment, almost all countries and regions in the world have joined in global economic mingling, with a rational division of labor in industry, supply of commodities and services — thus, naturally many national interests have been gradually bound together by this global economic merging. This is a clear departure from the bipolar world in which almost all countries were divided into the two antagonistic camps headed by the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Countries in both camps regarded their collective military development and deployment as their most important national interest, and countries in one camp had little exchange and cooperation with those in the other camp in terms of economics, trade, or investment. As the vast majority of US military alliances were born during the Cold War under the terms stipulated in bilateral or multilateral defense treaties, they now confront a radically changed situation: they all must face the serious problem of how to intelligently balance between conducting economic and trade relations with their former “enemies,” and fulfilling their military obligations as US military allies. This trade trouble is especially acute when it comes to sectors like energy, hi-tech, and defense — the US, the head of the alliance system, is still trying hard to control its allies in conducting their trade with its recently designated strategic competitors, such as Russia and China. But the main trend is that the US has found it more and more difficult to control its military allies’ economic, trade, and financial activities. Examples of this issue have cropped up in recent years. Germany, a US ally, insists on importing natural gas from Russia while Turkey is eager to import Russian weapons. US allies have joined China’s economic proposals, with Britain embracing the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and Italy joining the Belt and Road Initiative. 

Second, long-lasting peaceful coexistence among major powers, especially between the US and Russia and China, limits the role of US military alliances in “protecting” US allies. In the past 28 years since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, US allies all over the world had no direct military threat or armed attacks from Russia and China. For the foreseeable future it is expected that they would continue their cooperation in world peace and security with Russia and China. US military “protection” now seems like the mere mirage of a castle rather than a real fortress. It plays no actual defensive role in its allies’ security. In order to prevent its military alliances such as NATO from falling apart, the US has been trying hard to conduct military operations, such as anti-terrorist actions in the Middle East, with some of its NATO allies. NATO allies vary in their attitudes towards those military operations. Under such circumstances, how to share the alliances’ cost between the US and its allies has become a difficult and urgent issue to resolve. The vast majority of US allies are smart enough to save money by not going along with the US in engaging in arms races with Russia and China. It is clear that NATO’s European members have taken a lukewarm attitude towards the American call to increase each ally’s defense budget to 2% of the country’s GDP. Neither Japan nor the Republic of Korea (ROK) are generous and free-handed as the US might hope for in sharing the costs of the US troops stationed in their countries. Therefore the US is not getting satisfactory military and financial support from its allies in its strategic military competition with Russia and China. America feels unable to accomplish as much as it would like to, in order to preserve its status as sole military superpower in the long run.

Third, old treaties tend to become outdated, and no longer serve US current strategic goals. More problems are expected to come up in interpreting and fulfilling allies’ treaty obligations under new circumstances. For instance, the US is still trying to enlist the Philippines to stir up trouble in the South China Sea (SCS) for the sake of holding China down, and it has failed. At the joint press conference with the Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin on March 1, US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo tried to link China’s military activities in the SCS with the US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) signed in 1951, claiming that the SCS is part of the Pacific and any armed attack on the Philippine forces, aircraft or public vessels in the SCS would trigger mutual defense obligations under Article 4 of the US-Philippines MDT. His intentional obfuscation attempts to make current controversies applicable to the Treaty stipulation which reads “each Party recognizes that an armed attack in the Pacific area on either of the Parties would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common dangers in accordance with its constitutional processes.” Naturally the Filipino Foreign Secretary didn’t follow the subject, and only told Pompeo that Philippines needs American help to build up his country’s self-defense capacity.

Another instance occurred during the Munich Security Conference in February of this year. When Vice President Mike Pence exerted pressure on German Chancellor Angela Merkel to send naval ships to the Kerch Strait to challenge Russia over the Russian-Ukrainian naval conflict there in November 2018, his demand was turned down. It shows that in light of new developments, US allies have become more independent in their military activities, and their treaty obligations need to be carefully reviewed in accordance with the old treaties. Such matters can no longer be decided by the US alone.

As the trend towards global peace and development is moving vigorously forward, and no large-scale military conflicts among major world powers are expected, the declining role of US military alliances is inevitable. The evolving relationship between the US and its allies will be more and more characterized by a gradual loss of cohesion. The US will have to confront yet more challenges if it insists on continuing its old military alliance strategy.

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