Manning the Frontier: Allies and the Unraveling of the World Order

March 7, 2016

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The Unquiet Frontier: Rising Rivals, Vulnerable Allies, and the Crisis of American Power, by Jakub J. Grygiel and A. Wess Mitchell (Princeton University Press, 2016)


Speaking at the Munich Security Conference last month, Sen. John McCain noted that our “vision of world order is under assault today … in the Asia-Pacific region, right here in Europe, and nowhere more graphically than the Middle East.” The assault is happening because predatory powers and extremist terrorist movements like the self-proclaimed Islamic State are seeking to drive the West back. According to McCain, “The world order that we built, our dearest inheritance, which we tended to and shored up every year here at Munich, is coming apart.”

This assault on and unraveling of world order, so evident in the South China Sea and Ukraine, is the basis for The Unquiet Frontier. The authors present a future grand strategy for the United States based upon U.S. leadership of a revitalized network of allies to counter the predatory pressures of revisionist powers at the frontiers of freedom. To Grygiel and Mitchell, the frontline allies of the United States are the central mechanism for containing rivals seeking to undermine the current balance of power. They claim that the value of strategically placed allies near Eurasia’s major powers will only grow as our relative technological and military superiority erodes. Thus, they conclude (a bit inartfully) “the time has come for the United States to develop a grand strategy for containing peer competitors centered on the creative use of frontline allies.”

Grygiel and Mitchell contend that the United States has embraced a policy that emboldens revisionist states and weakens the confidence of our partners. They observe:

By virtually any measure American alliances are in a deeper and more prolonged state of disarray than at any point since the Second World War. The decay is greatest precisely in those regions where we have argued the United States needs its alliances to be strongest — the front line rimland states, where the need for effective U.S. security patronage is greatest, the doubts about its fidelity are deepest, and the exposure to its rivals’ probes are the most severe.

All told, theirs is a simple argument based upon classical geopolitics. It is well executed, but not complete. While I recommend the book, the authors have two critical blind spots: They do not consider domestic political support for sustained defense budgets that buttress today’s allies, nor do they offer a brutally honest assessment of our allies’ shortcomings. The first involves the domestic political costs involved in sustaining U.S. presence and engagement overseas. I agree with their prescription for robust alliances, but there are indications in our ongoing electoral debates that suggest that propping up allies and extending U.S. security assurances will be a difficult sell to large blocks of the electorate who want to build walls or establish a Scandinavian welfare state. Moreover, while the U.S. economic system is sound, looming federal budget deficits and debt levels will ultimately undercut sound strategic investments in security. The authors completely overlook this challenge to their strategy.

The second and biggest blind spot deals with the long-term prospects of our traditional allies. For many years, our allies were vital contributors to the long-term security challenge posed by the Cold War. Additionally, they were material to operations in Iraq and Afghanistan respectively over the last 15 years. Yet, today, our traditional allies face social, demographic, and economic challenges.

Europe, in particular, faces a compendium of trends that could produce a “perfect storm” that fragments the united European dream. The result is very likely to be a set of partners who are older and smaller demographically, and much poorer in both economic growth levels and military capability. Despite a re-assertive Russia, much of Europe is turning inward and focusing on security needs closer to home. According to polls, their own publics do not support the fundamental collective security contract embedded in Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty. In the face of austerity spending programs, diminished economic productivity, and reduced demographics, many NATO members remain reluctant to boost defense spending despite the wakeup call in Ukraine. A detailed look at Europe’s hard power does not offer hope for a more positive outcome. While the European security spending decline has been stopped, much of the increase is devoted more to domestic security needs than conventional arms. Beyond NATO, overall European security investments have declined in recent history. While their economies have stabilized, wimpy defense budgets are the norm. Recent terrorist attacks in France make elected officials acutely aware of border security, domestic intelligence, and counter-terrorism requirements. Grygiel and Mitchell feel that Europe has been spurred to rearm, but are honest enough to admit that investment is in its early stages, tentative, and in some cases, “futuristic.” Perhaps, like much futurist thinking, it will turn out to be fictional. The prospects for a renewal of European conventional deterrence is quite limited without a direct threat, and even then, Europe may not have the stomach for power politics anymore. Putin may just be stupid enough to proffer a direct threat, but he appears quite content (and possibly successful) with the ambiguity of indirect methods in the gray zone.

Europe is not our only alliance of course. But the same argument about demographics and productivity can be made about Japan, another critical but aging and economically stagnant partner. It too faces a direct threat, spends even less of its GDP than most NATO partners, and is seeking a stronger alliance with the United States.

A strengthened alliance structure would certainly be invaluable to the United States at present, but a strategist must strive to keep policy continuously informed about “art of the possible” so that policy leaders do not expect or demand more than can be delivered.

Let’s be clear. The security and freedom of Europe writ large is strategically essential and a vital interest to the United States. So too is stability in the Asia-Pacific Rim. American leadership and a strong alliance network are the key elements of any long-term strategy for the United States in this troubled era, something well recognized in the current National Security Strategy. No wonder that Russia and China work so assiduously to undermine our partnerships. In The Unquiet Frontier, we find a compelling argument against the false wisdom of retrenchment and disengagement. Grygiel and Mitchell offer a decisive deposition on the theoretical value of allies, and stinging rebuke to advocates of disengagement or an Independent America. But the authors could be more realistic about the allies they want to base their proposed strategy on, and more incisive in their analysis about how difficult the challenge of sustaining that strategy will be. This involves more than arguments over burden sharing. In addition to the authors’ keen appreciation for geography and history, some grasp of alliance demographics and economic productivity is needed. This is doubly true for any proposed grand strategy that depends on the political will, capacity and prospects of our traditional partners.


Dr. F. G. Hoffman is a Contributing Editor at War on the Rocks, and serves as senior research fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at National Defense University. These comments are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University or the U.S. government.


Photo credit: Air Force Maj. Jason Rossi, EUCOM

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2 thoughts on “Manning the Frontier: Allies and the Unraveling of the World Order

  1. So John McCain noted that “our”(meaning far away America’s) “vision” of how the lands and seas of the world should be ruled, and by whom, is under attack — as in our (not) neighboring Ukraine and the South China Sea. How dare the predatory and attacking nations and native peoples located in those parts of the world actually assert their force and political will on neighboring territories and seas. How dare they not get American approval for their 8,000 mile away acts. Don’t they knew America, guided by John McCain’s strategic brilliance, decides who rules what.

    John needs to have our U.N. Rep submit a resolution to the U.N. to rename the South “China” Sea to the “Far to the West American Sea.” We can then restore our Colonial Rule over the Phillipines and remove the words “Far to” from the name of the sea and 19th Century Western Imperialism will be restored in all its glory.

    It’s time to stop listening to John McCain and his sidekick Lindsay (Lawyer) Graham, they are out of touch with reality. It’s time to recognize there are today, as in every past year, other regional powers who WILL assert domination over their neighboring lands and seas — powers such as Russia and China. Does anyone in this country except the not so dynamic duo and their loyal follower want to go to war with China (and experience another defeat) in that distant part of the world? We could call it the East of Vietnam Debacle II. Haven’t we wasted enough trillions of dollars and sent enough Americans to an early grave because of our failled attempts to politically dominate distant lands an peoples?

  2. While I do not hesitate to look overseas to solutions that have worked socially (Sweden, Finland, and Denmark currently share places on top ten most innovative countries with us despite tax rates we would call criminal and broadly enjoy standards of living for all citizens we cannot fathom in the US) my willingness to look for other solutions is in an effort to strengthen the tax base that supports our defense spending, not repeals it. They are not exclusive goals.

    Our punishment approach to social support to citizens has always been willing to spend more than it delivers in enforcement against cheats. See Arizona’s recent efforts to drug test all recipients of social programs.

    Our tax loopholes for corporations, our willingness to let corporations use social benefits to supplement payroll all degrade our taxbase creating a contrived scenario designed to further degrade social programs by driving them into conflict with our defense spending because of philosophical differences, not because social programs cannot work to create more productive tax payers.

    All that said, my goal is more citizens paying taxes to support worthwhile goals like defense spending.

    Arguments of retrenchment are counter to our interests as freedom loving Americans, capitalists seeking to do more business not less, and even the most rudimentary student of history. The world has repeatedly been demonstrated to be better off when America’s vision extends past our borders and our reach includes opposition to tyrants.