U.S. President Joe Biden has promised that re-engaging with the world and prioritizing alliances will top his administration’s diplomatic agenda. During his campaign, Biden fiercely criticized the Trump administration’s disregard for alliances, claiming that it had seriously undermined the status and influence of the United States on the world stage.
To be sure, Trump weakened American alliances by referring to European countries as trade “enemies,” hinting at a withdrawal from NATO and advancing the withdrawal of American troops from Germany. In the Asia Pacific region, Trump demonstrated his disdain for alliances by suddenly postponing U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises, saying they could hinder a “deal” at the U.S. summit with North Korea.
Yet U.S. allies worry that, despite the fanfare, Biden’s emphasis on alliances may lead to nothing. The situation in the United States, which accounts for a quarter of the world’s COVID-19 infections, is dire. First and foremost, the Biden administration must do everything possible to get through the virus crisis. The Biden administration cannot ignore the pressure of public opinion to prioritize domestic affairs over foreign policy.
An even more serious problem is the governance crisis in the United States. The COVID-19 crisis underscores how economic disparity and racism structurally produce populations that are more vulnerable in terms of health and education. It has also shown how political divisions between the left and right can paralyze governance. It is the structural weakness of American governance that presents the greatest obstacle to Biden’s goal of rebuilding alliances. The 2020 presidential election witnessed a complete split between red and blue. This gaping partisan divide will not be closed anytime soon.
How should the leaders of American allies deal with the United States in its current state? Can the United States even follow through on the decisions it reaches with its allies? Even if allies strike a deal with the current administration, there is always the fear that it may be overturned in four years. Allies will be tempted to hedge against the United States. This presents a perfect opportunity for strategic rivals of the United States and its allies to drive a wedge into the various U.S. alliances.
Alliances pose the twin risks of abandonment and entanglement. Both these risks will remain. From now on, however, U.S. allies will have to be more aware of the risks associated with managing their alliance — what could be called “allied country risk.”
This allied country risk may well increase over the long term. Some opinion polls show that half of Generation Z and millennials in the United States favor socialism. Born in the 2000s, Generation Z is the “Instagram generation.” Millennials were born after 1980 and came of age in the early 2000s. Many members of both generations are repelled by the very concept of a military alliance. Demographic changes could also be a factor: By 2040, whites will be a minority (albeit the largest minority group), and Hispanics the next most influential political force. When no single race comprises a majority of the national population, the United States could tilt further toward identity politics.
The postwar system of U.S. alliances was devised to prevent the emergence of a hegemon capable of challenging the United States in Europe, the Middle East and North Asia, and centers on maritime alliances with island nations on the periphery of Eurasia, such as the U.K. and Japan. This system of alliances laid the foundation for the “long peace” and the “American century.” Great political leadership is required to maintain the domestic political foundation for this type of worldview and strategic perspective in the face of the magnetic force of identity politics.
In the long run, U.S. involvement with the world will likely become more selective. There may also be finer gradations to the 37 alliances the United States currently maintains. Alliances could well be divided into: a top tier, comprising the United Kingdom, Japan, Canada and Australia; a second tier of front-line countries or territories directly threatened by Russia or China, including India, Vietnam, Taiwan, Poland and the Baltic states; and a third tier of other alliances. Among these others, South Korea and Turkey could become more political allies than military ones.
In addition to its treaty-based alliance with the United States, Japan’s relationships with Britain, Australia, Canada, France and India are approaching quasi-alliance status. All of these countries have signed the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA), the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) and agreements concerning the transfer of defense equipment and technology; they also engage in “2+2” ministerial dialogue on foreign policy and defense. Developing and maintaining a wide-ranging balance of power and stability among allies, quasi-allies and like-minded countries will be of vital importance.
As geopolitical struggles surrounding the rules, norms and standards governing trade, investment, technology and data intensify, allies must strengthen their cooperation in these areas. Of particular importance will be cooperation on cyber power. The ultimate force driving international politics has moved from maritime power in the nineteenth century to nuclear power in the twentieth century, and now to cyber power in the twenty-first century. Countries are competing to maximize their national cyber power.
It is time for Japan and the United States to demonstrate their ability to manage the alliance in order to mitigate the allied country risk and promote necessary alliance innovation.
Yoichi Funabashi is chairman of the Asia Pacific Initiative and a former editor-in-chief of the Asahi Shimbun. This is a translation of his column in the monthly Bungei Shunju.
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