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New Order: the End of Alliances

March 02, 2003|Rajan Menon | Rajan Menon is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and Monroe J. Rathbone professor of international relations, Lehigh University.

NEW YORK — As we await "The End of History," Francis Fukuyama's vision of a world governed by capitalism and democracy, we can anticipate an earlier, if more mundane, transformation: the End of Alliances. It's hard to imagine a world without NATOs and SEATOs, but it's coming, and the change will bring both opportunities and vulnerabilities.

Lest we mourn too much, let's remember that we did just fine without alliances for most of our history. The young American republic arose determined to blaze a new trail. It viewed alliances with distaste, seeing them as pathways to debilitating entanglements and entrapment in the sordid politics of -- to quote Donald Rumsfeld out of context -- "old Europe." This sentiment colored George Washington's farewell address, in which he cautioned against "permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world" and more specifically that "Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none, or a very remote relation.... Therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves by artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics."

Americans reconsidered this outlook as the Industrial Revolution created weapons and modes of transportation that extended the reach of threats. We entered into alliances to fight the two world wars, although, after World War I, the agreements were discarded eagerly, like strange and ill-fitting clothes. But this was not possible after World War II: Once Germany and Japan were defeated, our former partner, the Soviet Union, became our new problem, and we needed long-term allies. Containment, America's strategy during the Cold War, produced perhaps our greatest foreign policy triumph -- the collapse of the Soviet-led communist system -- and rested on a worldwide system of anti-communist alliances.

In the decades following World War II, the United States not only overcame its animus toward alliances; it formed them with the fervor of a new convert. We surrounded the Soviet Union with coalitions that included the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO); the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO); ANZUS, our partnership with Australia and New Zealand; and bilateral treaties with Japan and South Korea. The ubiquity of alliances led some to label American policy during the Cold War as "pactomania."

Most Americans cannot remember a time when alliances were not an essential item in our strategic toolkit. The demise of a familiar institution will therefore require big changes in the ways we think about, and act in, the world. Yet alliances have always been contextual and contingent, forged in response to common threats. Think of the numerous military pacts signed with pomp and splendor that now reside on history's ash heap. Consider, more recently, SEATO and the Central Treaty Organization, which few young Americans have even heard about.

The transience of alliances should be kept in mind today, when the durability of our key Cold War partnerships is being questioned. The questioners are still a minority and usually encounter a fusillade of reassurances about how NATO and our other defense pacts will adapt, evolve and acquire new reasons for being. Those who dispute the staying power and relevance of our 20th century alliances are dismissed as alarmists who fail to appreciate the lofty ideals cementing these partnerships.

This view is mistaken for one basic reason. Alliances reflect specific circumstances, and when these circumstances change, the shared practical interests that are vital to the health and life span of alliances begin to erode. As the 19th century British Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston put it, "There are no permanent allies ... only permanent interests."

Yet American commentaries reduce NATO's divisions over Iraq to French contrarianism, personified by President Jacques Chirac, and the electoral opportunism of German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld contrasts the spinelessness of France and Germany with the staunch loyalty of NATO's new East European members. President Bush hails the leaders of England, Italy and Spain for their support of his Iraq policy. But in almost all of these countries, in the "new" and "old" Europe, public opinion solidly opposes using war to topple the Iraqi regime.

The bickering in NATO is not just a tiff over Saddam Hussein. Nor, as Robert Kagan claims in his celebrated article-turned-book, does it stem from the dissonance between European pacifism and American realism. NATO is endangered because the disintegration of the Soviet Union has robbed it of a clear and common enemy and an unambiguous purpose.

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