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The Case for Strong Alliances

In a dangerous world, allies help keep the peace.

As November draws near, the foreign policies of the two presidential candidates, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and businessman Donald Trump, have been given too little attention and lack specificity. In a volatile and acrimonious primary focused in no small part on inconsequential and often non-substantive issues, perhaps that is no surprise. The Unquiet Frontier posits that Clinton, given her past offices, has provided tangible indication of her approach to foreign affairs and alliances. Trump, absent any experience whatsoever in statecraft, has engaged in a campaign marked by rhetorical flourishes and hyperbole. Though running as a Republican candidate, he seems to have eschewed a key element of modern conservatism: considered and confident engagement in international affairs provides a good for the world. The principle cannot help but involve the development, support, maintenance, and further engendering of alliances, which provide the front-line defense of the United States.

Jakub J. Grygiel, an associate professor at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, and A. Wess Mitchell, president and co-founder of the Center for European Policy, have written an important, optimally informed, non-partisan, and cogent book. Much to their credit, the authors draw expertly but judiciously and persuasively on historical precedent. Indeed, it is refreshing to encounter citations of the erudite Michael E. Howard (from his masterly 1972 Continental Commitment: The Dilemma of British Defence Policy in the Era of the Two World Wars). Thucydides is also nicely employed.

The Unquiet Frontier begins with an update describing how the authors see U.S. foreign policy today:

…the pace of the geopolitical dynamics that we set out to describe has accelerated. Rising powers have become more aggressive, U. S. allies have become more nervous, and the United States has found itself confronted in multiple regional theaters…[T]he risk of war between revisionist powers and the United States and its allies has become more real. The ingredients for military confrontation between great powers – an event that has not occurred since the 1940s and that has been virtually unthinkable for the past twenty-five years – now exist in the western Pacific and in Central and Eastern Europe, and the conditions for major regional war are present in the Persian Gulf.

As any serious study should, the book raises profound questions that have no current answers but that warrant serious thought and contemplation. The thinking and writings of two esteemed geostrategists, Britain’s H. J. Mackinder (1861-1947), and American Nicholas J. Spykman (1893-1943), frame the authors’ identification of “three regional clusters of U. S. allies”—in East Asia, the Middle East, and East-Central Europe. Sovereign countries within these regions, according to Grygiel and Mitchell, are currently subject, and subjected to, a type of contemporary strategic conduct—“probing.”

Though certainly not new historically, the understudied concept of probing is evident in the Russo-Georgia War (2008), the Hormuz Straits Crisis (2012), the Senkaku Islands dispute (2013), the Ukrainian War (2014-present), the Baltic Sea air and naval tensions (2015), the Spratly Islands confrontations, and Russia’s recent reintroduction of armed force into the Syrian imbroglio. The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, representing the extreme example of probing, is not mentioned. A curious omission, given that had not the United States responded as it did, or if the USSR had not backed down, the results would have been either U.S. strategic acquiescence or the high potential for nuclear war. It is worth recalling that at the time of the Cuban incident the NATO alliance under U.S. guidance responded appropriately.

Gyrgiel and Mitchell provide historical examples where probing inadvertently led to all-out war: the First Punic War resulted from a miscalculation. Rome’s offer in the 3rd century BC to protect Messina in order to exert influence over Sicily and challenge Carthaginian power provoked the war. The authors also plausibly argue that Great Britain’s over reliance on sea power in the late 18th and early 19th centuries was inimical to its national interest, as witnessed by World Wars I and II.

The question the authors ask is whether through a combination of a national malaise—no doubt influenced by over 14 years of armed conflict in the Middle East—retrenchment and discounting the utility of allies, the United States is willing to forego “the main imperative of U.S. grand strategy to prevent the emergence of a power or combination of powers within the Eurasian landmass that could invade or economically dominate the United States.” This is not a new phenomenon, certainly, but one given to considered pause and greater urgency in today’s world. “The three temptations” giving rise, past and present, to a policy of eschewing alliances is found in the false sense and ambiguous image of geographic distance; a recurring theme, supported by certain academicians, of a world that is “self balancing,” thus alleviating the need for alliances on the part of the United States; and, the “technological conceit” in naval superiority: “Geopolitical insularity can be thus perfected through the protection supplied by a powerful navy.” Sadly, the United States has been seduced—though “hoodwinked” may be the more apt term—strategically, operationally, and tactically by the miasma of technology since at least the Vietnam War. The infamous, terribly expensive, and all but ineffective McNamara Line of 1966-68 readily comes to mind.

Several current issues are not adequately explored in The Unquiet Frontier. One involves the Middle East and Iran, where conflicts are fueled by the inherent regional religious dichotomy between Sunnis and Shiites. Contrary to President Obama’s claim that the Islamic State is a “J.V. [junior varsity] team,” it is not. Nor is it going away soon. Again, such dichotomies are not historical anomalies. How they have affected history, and as important, how they have played out, are less well studied. Religious wars in the West provide but an incomplete template. The antagonism between Iran and Saudi Arabia is causing ever-deepening divides—and Muslim regional alliances.

Second, what does the advent of regional nuclear proliferation augur for future alliances? To date, the nuclear powers have been characterized as “rational actors.” Excepting Israel, such a characterization of Middle Eastern actors is presently problematic. How does the combination of these two strands affect the acquiring, maintaining, and building-on of alliances against a revisionist power?

Lastly, the potential for armed conflict in the western Pacific is real. How is acquiring and solidifying regional alliances affected by the legacies of Western colonialism and imperial sway? Will not the legacies of Japan’s Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, more vivid in many ways than Western colonialism, affect putting together viable alliances such as NATO? In other words, the United States must contend not just with “America’s deprioritization of allies” and with “responses of U.S. allies” in the three parts of the world highlighted in The Unquiet Frontier, but with the actual building of meaningful alliances in those areas where, more often than not, deep-seated animosities and historical grievances linger.

Grygiel and Mitchell fittingly and intelligently conclude their book with specific recommendations, among which are a prioritization of allies in a dynamic world; a return to a robust forward military presence; more transparency and partner sharing on matters of intelligence; and, a focused, considered program to substantively help those allies on the fringes of America’s first line of defense to develop and improve their own defensive posture. Who knows whether the next occupant of the White House—and his or her advisors—will read The Unquiet Frontier. But they most certainly should.

Colonel John C. McKay (USMC, Ret.) is a twice-wounded combat infantryman. He has actively participated in three armed conflicts. A graduate of the U. S. Naval Academy, and an Olmsted Scholar, he holds master degrees from Georgetown University and the National War College. He is preparing his memoirs.