The New Alliances of the 21st Century

FEATURES | November 7, 2014     

Promiscuity and contingency will replace black and white in the making and breaking of strategic pacts, partnerships and pair bonds

If the Cold War painted a relatively simple picture for power in the second half of the 20th century, then contemporary conflicts in the Middle East, Europe and Asia push toward something far more abstract. The unsettling complexity of Picasso is replacing the stable order of Monet and Renoir. The lines between friends and adversaries are jumbled and frequently shifting. Light and dark colours are intermixed. Leaders in the US, Canada and Europe recognize these dynamics, but they remain too committed to the old style. For success in the 21st century, the most powerful states will have to embrace the messiness of the times and adopt a more flexible approach to making and breaking alliances. Power will follow strategic acts of promiscuity in forming momentary partnerships – partnerships that will before long replace the fixed bonds of loyalty and tradition that dominated decades past.

The dirty secret of international politics is that allies are often more difficult to manage than adversaries. Otto von Bismarck, the great German practitioner of Realpolitik, was far more successful in defeating his Danish, Austrian and French enemies than in getting his British and Russian friends to follow his lead. The unresolved tensions between Berlin, London and St. Petersburg contributed to WW1, which destroyed much of what Bismarck had built. The US learned the same lesson in the Cold War. After the Cuban Missile Crisis American leaders developed stable procedures for managing the nuclear arms race, foreign interventions, and other forms of competition with the USSR – which is why there was no repeat of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The greater difficulty for American diplomats was in dealing with frequent French, German and even British resistance to US-Soviet agreements on nuclear non-proliferation and stability in Europe. America’s allies became progressively more resistant to Washington’s leadership as the Cold War continued. By 1972, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger had developed a closer working relationship with Moscow than with Paris, Bonn or even London.

The US will face more alliance challenges this century. As the proliferation of international crises increases the pressure on Washington to nurture regional partnerships, America’s friends will feel emboldened to act with ever-greater independence. They will recognize, as many already do, Washington’s growing dependence on them. (Oscar Wilde once called this the tyranny of the weak.) They will also defend interests and beliefs that strongly contradict American preferences. It will become increasingly difficult for Washington to get its allies to sacrifice for American-led goals.

This is presently the case for long-time allies in Israel, Japan, and Germany, which continue to cooperate closely with the US, but also assert their independence and regional autonomy. They now frequently act with conspicuous disregard for American preferences. These allies do not follow Washington’s lead on settlement policies, military deployments, trade practices, and distribution of foreign aid. They have been quite critical of American military interventions and economic sanctions since the end of the Cold War. We should expect increased dissent and skepticism from such traditional allies in coming decades.

Many American foreign policy observers see this complex alliance landscape as a challenge, even if it offers a promising opportunity. In a world with diverse and shifting conflicts, more flexible, contingent and functional alliances will work better than the large and permanent structures built in the past to address near-universal Cold War threats. The smaller, context-specific crises of the 21st century (in Iraq, Afghanistan, Ukraine and other places) demand an array of actors aligned around solving a particular set of problems, rather than upholding a treaty or protecting a set of institutions designed in another time for different issues.

Therein lies the central problem with relying so heavily on NATO, as the US, Canada and Europe do in this early new century, even as they confront threats that depart significantly from the purposes and structure of the alliance formed more than six decades ago. Russian-supported separatism in Ukraine and terrorist violence sponsored by ISIS, to take two prominent examples, are not the state-to-state conflicts that NATO and other traditional alliances anticipated. Relying on these inherited organizations today is like using municipal police patrols to combat cyber-crime. The new configurations of actors and technologies require adjustments in the tools and the thinking about security.

In regions where powerful local actors have interests that simultaneously overlap with, and contradict, American goals, more limited alliances will allow for better assurance that foreign military and development aid is used for intended purposes. Consider, for instance, the US’s dysfunctional relationships with Pakistan, Egypt and other generously supported allies. Each of these countries receives billions of dollars from Washington annually, but each unabashedly disregards American demands for democratic reform. Despite the obvious comfort that comes from identifying longstanding friends and enemies, research on the history of alliances shows that smaller, more focussed relationships between international actors are more effective, especially when key participants can shift allegiance on short notice.

The American alliance with the USSR during WW2 was an example of this dynamic – a partnership between rivals focussed on a shared threat and some common goals. The US-China opening of the 1970s served a similar purpose, bringing ideological rivals together to contain the USSR and assure order in East Asia. Alliances with a clear purpose are more disciplined and less susceptible to corruption and mission creep than institutionalized dependencies.

The threat to end an alliance must be credible when trying to convince another country that it really must act in a particular way. When alliances seem permanent, as is the case with the US and Israel today, it becomes nearly impossible for Washington to threaten Tel Aviv with real penalties, even as Tel Aviv violates the terms of America’s massive aid. Israel and other long-term allies simply have too many supporters within the US. This fact limits American leverage and Israeli responsiveness. The same logic explains why Pakistan and Egypt continue to receive American aid, even as they stubbornly resist White House pressures to democratize.

In the pluralistic international landscape of the 21st century, filled with diverse actors and ever-shifting power dynamics, flexibility is more important than permanence. As the most powerful international actor with the widest range of military and economic tools, the US will profit from a more complex and pluralistic set of alliance relationships, provided it uses its resources wisely. The same applies, to a lesser degree, for other powerful international actors, including Canada, Germany, France, the UK, China, India and Brazil. Although alliances like NATO still provide security value in specific contexts, policy-makers must look beyond this cumbersome model and think in more issue-specific ways.

Today’s friend on one issue is, on this logic, also the enemy on another. China and the US share a strong desire to limit the regional instability created by North Korea’s nuclear capability, but they have antagonistic interests in respect of the future of Taiwan and the many disputed islands surrounding the mainland. Similarly, as stated earlier, Iran and the US are working informally together to halt the devastating violence unleashed by Sunni extremists in Iraq and Syria, even if they remain rivals for greater influence in the Middle East. The international landscape is filled with these contradictory relationships, and they are more important than ever because they involve the most powerful actors.

At times, even the US and Canada will have serious differences over the new shipping lanes in the Arctic, counter-terrorism in North America, and environmental and health regulations. The two long-time continental allies will remain close collaborators on many issues, but they must also prepare themselves for conflict in some areas. That conflict will not end the cross-border alliance, but it will change its nature – making the bilateral relationship more contingent, and various species of ‘linkage’ between the two countries more complex. Washington and Ottawa will differentiate points of partnership from sources of disagreement. Acknowledging both categories will allow for clearer focus on matters for which collaboration is most valuable.

The same applies to long-time rivals. In the recent past, policy-makers would have concentrated largely on the areas of conflict between countries like the US, China and Iran, characterizing them by their adversarial relationship. Today, that misses far too much of the overlap in their regional and global interests. The adversarial focus also becomes self-fulfilling, encouraging an emphasis on points of conflict rather than cooperation.

Since 2000, the most dangerous moments in US-Chinese and US-Iranian relations have reflected this negative self-fulfillment. When the leaders of these countries emphasized their historical disagreements around the Taiwan Strait and the Strait of Hormuz, they made it harder to escape the pattern of belligerence evident throughout most of the Cold War. When, however, forward-looking figures managed to focus more attention on common interests, these regimes found it possible to cooperate. This shift to emphasize overlapping interests, rather than longstanding differences, is what drove the US opening to China in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as the recent improvement in American relations with Iran.

Bref, the challenge for the 21st century is to build on the important areas of agreement between powerful regional actors, while also pursuing continued rivalries with these same states. That means that the US must learn to cooperate more closely with Beijing in North Korea, just as it continues to contain Chinese aggression in the Pacific Ocean. (Beijing’s dominant strategy vis-à-vis Washington is probably not dissimilar.) Washington must also coordinate more effectively with Iranian forces fighting Sunni extremists, while continuing to limit Iranian nuclear proliferation and support for groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. In this context, foreign policy is not about distinguishing ‘good’ states from ‘bad’ states, or friends from enemies. China and Iran are both at the same time. Similar things can be said for Russia, India, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, South Africa, Brazil and so many other major international actors today.

In place of the categories that frequently characterize foreign policy thinking, leaders must learn to see alliances as floating relationships, defined by the specific issue. China and the US are indeed allies in containing North Korea. Iran and the US are indeed allies in fighting ISIS. Policy-makers must learn to work as closely with these partners on these issues as they do with more established allies in other areas. Most significantly, deep military, intelligence and economic coordination must be nurtured with contingent allies, while still protecting secrecy in areas of conflict. Mistrust in one domain, in other words, should not prevent necessary trust-building with the same actors elsewhere, even if we also cannot allow cooperation around one issue to create a false presumption of agreement on all matters. Judgements must remain issue-focussed, rather than generalized.

This compartmentalization is very difficult for foreign policy bureaucracies that crave consistency, and public observers who demand moral clarity. Strategic alliances in the 21st century will shift frequently and rapidly. Leaders must begin educating their publics accordingly. Inconsistency will outperform consistency. The challenge will be to articulate overall strategic coherence behind the shifts, the contradictions, and the partial measures. The public must hear why inconsistency is purposeful and productive for the national interest.

Despite our common rhetoric, alliances should not be about consistency or morality, nor should they turn on assumptions about trust and loyalty. The world of the 21st century has much less of all these qualities than we might desire. The key elements of alliance management will turn fundamentally on the definition of interests and issues. What are the driving concerns of the key actors? What are the dimensions of the topic under examination? Identifying actors with compatible interests and defining issues that hold those interests together – these are foundational dynamics for the pluralistic alliances that will shape contemporary international affairs in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, the former Soviet space, and other regions.

Diplomacy will play a key role. The US and other powerful international actors will have to learn how to cooperate with governments and groups that they deeply distrust, and perhaps even abhor. National representatives will have to maintain a wide range of contacts, and shift quickly from one ally to another as circumstances change. This flexibility calls for an ability to work closely with one group, while still cultivating and seducing others. Today’s ally cannot be allowed to veto or otherwise eliminate potential future allies, as often happens when local dictators kill all opponents. Skilled 21st century diplomats will work to maintain a wide and diverse field of potential partners – government and non-government alike – even when the potential partners consider one another blood enemies. Yesterday’s adversary will quickly become tomorrow’s ally, and then the next day’s adversary again. The groups that looked destined for annihilation might re-emerge as the new local king-makers. Skilled diplomats must be ready for these scenarios.

Preparation for this kind of nimble diplomacy will involve good intelligence, but also much more. Language skills, despite their neglect in many Western countries today, will be crucial to communicate effectively with a range of actors who speak only in a native tongue. Local knowledge – the ability to understand customs, beliefs and symbols – will be crucial for anticipating power shifts and connecting with shifting figureheads. Support from above – confidence that one will not be penalized for risk-taking – will be supremely important, and is often most lacking today. Consider that for a diplomat or military representative to shift support to a new figure requires a tolerance of possible failure.

Alliance-makers will have to follow their own close readings about change on the ground, coupled with a sophisticated understanding of broader national and regional interests. Too much of contemporary diplomacy involves ‘reporting’ and ‘following orders’ from the president, prime minister, foreign minister, or their designated bureaucrats. The main task for the 21st century is to free diplomats from bureaucracies and make them intelligent field operators. They must act as catalysts for alliance formation in complex locales through negotiations, personal relations, and various ad hoc arrangements. They need more strategic training, more regional expertise, and more decision autonomy.

The best functioning alliances will be the ones with the most skilled and adaptable diplomats. This brings us back to Monet, Renoir and Picasso. Diplomats are artists who paint on a canvas of politics, economics and military affairs. They assess the interests of various actors and they create new understandings by redrawing familiar maps. Rudyard Kipling, the late 19th century British novelist and poet, captured this point so well when he described the ever-shifting imperial grey spaces of mixed conflict and cooperation in India and other international theatres. His jumbled and uncertain image of empire was a marked contrast with the black and white picture of the Cold War and the post-9/11 war on terrorism.

Power in the 21st century will closely follow the techniques employed by the main character in Kipling’s master novel, Kim. Actors on the ground will create situations that define the choices for policy-makers in far-away capitals. Partners will be necessary for all serious endeavours, but they will shift quickly as circumstances change. No one will be friend or foe forever. No one will be above suspicion. Everyone will be a potential ally, as well as a likely adversary.

In this complex and ever-changing landscape, mobilizing overwhelming military capabilities is less important than mastering keen observation, policy innovation, and the selective deployment of force. The effective powers will be the ones that seize opportunities for creative partnerships and then abandon them when they have outlived their purposes. Identities and interests will indeed shift fast. The most effective alliances will harness that dynamic, not try to resist it. Wise leaders will make and break alliances far more frequently than any state has in the preceding period of much simpler diplomacy. Ideology will still matter, but the management of potential allies will prove far more important to the Bismarcks and Kissingers of our time.


Jeremi Suri is the Mack Brown Distinguished Professor for Global Leadership, History, and Public Policy at the University of Texas at Austin. His forthcoming book is The Reactive Presidency: The Rise and Decline of Presidential Power.

(Illustration: Aitch)

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