Ties that Bind: Why Asian Alliances Will Survive Trump


On the campaign trail, President-elect Trump regularly denigrated America’s alliances, calling NATO obsolete and demanding that South Korea and Japan “pay up” or the United States would begin to draw down its troop commitment. Since the election, he has reportedly reaffirmed U.S. commitments to Tokyo and Seoul, but Trump’s Asia advisors have confirmed that he intends to press allies to increase their spending. Burden-sharing debates are as old as the security treaties themselves, but Trump’s alliance positions have created unprecedented angst in Asia. Partners worry that his transactional approach to international politics will transcend mere penny-pinching and lead him to abandon them altogether.

These worries have good theoretical grounding:  Realist scholars of international relations have often characterized alliances as marriages of convenience, which form against shared threats and disperse when the foe is vanquished. U.S. alliances were, of course, designed in the early Cold War to contain the Soviet Union and to help rebuild postwar Europe and Asia. Both tasks were long ago accomplished, and yet, America’s treaty commitments have lived on and have been repurposed to contemporary challenges. Could the 2016 election be the beginning of the end for these longstanding pacts? As the incoming Trump administration considers a significant realignment in U.S. foreign policy, including an embrace of Russia and “deal-making” with China, perhaps the 70-year American experiment with security guarantee statecraft will also meet its demise — or so this narrative goes.

Realism has much to teach us about alliances, particularly the trove of scholarship that has deconstructed entrapment and abandonment dynamics, and informs the work of many practicing alliance managers today. But as America’s Asian allies wait with bated breath to learn what Trump will mean for them, they should also recall that security guarantees cannot actually be dismantled on a whim. Alliances are tools for threat management, but they are also institutions. Once you build them, they are hard to topple. There are at least three reasons why Trump will not find it easy to raze these longstanding pacts.

Institutions create rules and expectations. Alliances and their related organizations are their own regimes. Major powers may find it relatively easy to shirk some of the rules that govern them, but the mere fact that rules exist creates expectations among other powers and allows them to identify when they have been broken. A Trump administration will find it difficult to push a radically new alliance “deal” in Tokyo and Seoul because South Korea and Japan have years of Special Measures Agreements and other burden-sharing arrangements to which they can refer and use to negotiate. And by signing the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation to join Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and participating energetically in its institutions for the last eight years, the Obama administration has engaged its diplomatic credibility in Southeast Asia. A failure by Trump to show up to the East Asia Summit, for example, would harm U.S. influence in the region. ASEAN is not a defense alliance, and Trump might decide to skip the annual meeting anyway, but the mere fact of U.S. membership has created a diplomatic playbook that would be reputationally costly to discard. If the administration decides to haggle on defense cooperation or comes up short diplomatically, alliance institutions also create the diplomatic channels through which allies can demand more attention, resources, or transparency.

Relatedly, institutions raise the costs of rule breaking. Security guarantee commitments bring with them real expectations that the United States will support its allies in crises or conflict. The text of U.S. mutual defense treaties is actually quite ambiguous about the casus foederis that will bring them into force or the type of aid that will be forthcoming if they are activated. For example, Article V of the U.S.-Japan treaty states that an attack on either party around Japan would endanger the peace and security of both and that each would “act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional provisions and processes.”  This gives Washington a fair amount of room to maneuver. But while the treaty text itself is not overly specific, the United States has engaged in dialogues and defense cooperation with allies for decades to assure them that it will, in fact, make good on its vaguely worded promises if called upon. As a result, if the Trump administration plainly failed to back a treaty ally in a serious crisis with China, it would suffer region-wide reputational damage from which it would not easily recover.

Institutions create barriers to change.  Because U.S. alliances operate by the consent of two sovereign states and because the states involved are all democracies, they are relatively slow to change. This can be deeply frustrating when partners hope to increase their cooperation quickly to meet a mounting challenge. Consider the fact that Washington and Manila’s Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement sat in the Philippines Supreme Court for years awaiting a ruling on its constitutionality (which was necessary only because the Philippines had revised its constitution after ejecting U.S. troops at the end of the Cold War).

When allies fear abandonment, however, these “veto points” can be good things. Renegotiation of a commitment or a burden-sharing arrangement could take years for allies to complete. And, it would be difficult, and perhaps impossible, to keep this secret. During the process, other branches of government and opposition parties would have time to intervene and to oppose changes. Recall that President Jimmy Carter’s furtive attempts to slash U.S. troop levels in South Korea were made public, prompted a fiery backlash, and were derailed. President Richard Nixon promised Beijing that he would end the U.S. alliance with Taiwan and moved his plans forward in secret to evade the “China Lobby.” But when Carter moved to recognize China and abrogate the U.S. defense pact with Taipei several years later, Democrats and Republicans in Congress were so enraged that they passed the Taiwan Relations Act — not quite a mutual defense commitment but not far off.  Treaties, by definition, engage Congressional interests, and U.S alliances are so longstanding that many partners have robust ties to legislators, the military, the civil service, and interest groups. If the new administration decides to modestly revise some agreements, these forces may not stand in the way, but allies who fear radical, precipitous change will have no greater friends than thorny bureaucracy and domestic infighting.

Rather than fear alliance demise, then, U.S. partners should begin to devise strategies for how they will use these sturdy structures to manage potential volatility in the Trump era. Indeed, alliances work both ways and may provide some opportunity for partners restrain their security patron in the years ahead. This will be relatively harder to accomplish in Asia, where the hub-and-spokes system gives individual partners less leverage over the United States than NATO’s multilateral structure grants to Europe. Asian allies are already working to forge closer security ties among themselves, and more capable partners like Japan and Australia should pick up the pace on these “networking” efforts. Whatever form it takes, however, 70 years of alliance building in Asia will be hard to undo. The president-elect, after all, knows a good structure when he sees one.


Dr. Mira Rapp-Hooper is a Senior Fellow in the Asia-Pacific Security Program and the Center for a New American Security.

Image: U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Jason Swink

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