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


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