By Rajesh Rajagopalan
The shock resignation of US Defence Secretary James Mattis and President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw all US forces from Syria and some from Afghanistan has led to additional questions about the US’s global commitments. These were concerns that were already in the air over the last decade but had become even more visible under Trump. But while they may be concerned, Washington’s allies in Asia (and even Europe) are unlikely to fundamentally alter their strategic choices. Facing threats that they cannot manage on their own, they have little choice but to continue to look to Washington.
This is not the first time that the US is withdrawing from its international commitments when those commitments no longer served its interests. The best example is Taiwan, which Washington basically abandoned in 1979 when it established diplomatic relations with Beijing.
Today it’s unclear whether the US would come to Taiwan’s aid if the mainland attempts to forcibly integrate it. And of course, the US is not alone in abandoning partners and allies: after bleeding for almost a decade, Moscow decided to leave its clients in Afghanistan to their fate and pulled its forces out in 1989, with predictable results. Great powers are more likely to play such games simply because they have more partners and allies and are involved in more countries and regions of the world. But weaker powers are equally likely to engage in such behavior. Egypt, to give only one example, threw out the Russians in the early 1970s and shifted to the US side when it became clear that Moscow was not going to be much help in making peace with Israel.
Alliances and partnerships in international politics are always matters of convenience and mutual necessity, something that is often overlooked in much of the foreign policy debate in New Delhi. They are always temporary and fragile, with tensions about mutual obligations always present even in the tightest of alliances. While the value of particular commitments – and withdrawal from such commitments – can always be debated, the fragility of such commitments also needs to be kept in mind.
Ideally, most states would rather not align with others because allies understandably are never fully dependable, a potentially dangerous condition in an international order in which every country has to look after its own security. Another danger is that allies can drag you into their conflicts even if these are not in your interests. Despite such dangers, states nevertheless align because power is distributed unequally in the international system, especially within regions. Thus, relatively weaker states have to balance the risks of alignment against the even greater security risks inherent in facing stronger powers all by their lonesome.
Alliance pressures are also different in different types of international orders. Thus, as the international relations theorist Glenn Snyder pointed out decades back, though there are more choices of alliance partners in a multipolar system of many great powers, greater insecurity and the fear of being abandoned by allies tend to lead to tighter alliances. On the other hand, in a bipolar world, fear of being abandoned by allies is lower because alliance choices are just the two great powers, making alignments remarkably stable. But this confidence that alliance partners will be loyal also leads to more autonomous policies, with states adopting “independent, indeed contradictory, policies toward the opponent with little fear that the partner will defect in consequence”. But such a binary view might be somewhat problematic:
While the pre-first world war multipolar order did lead to tight alliances, the pre-second world order, though also a multipolar one, led to loose “buck-passing” alliance in which allies tried to free-ride rather than help each other.
A common problem with such a structural view of alliance logic is that it focuses on the choices of the great powers rather than on that of weaker powers. For the latter, the choices are somewhat simpler: if they are pressured by a great power, especially one that happens to be a neighbor, they can either choose to submit or, alternatively, seek a capable ally who is willing to help. Submission may take different forms but in its essence it is better known as ‘Finlandization’, a posture of neutrality bred by massive inequality, fear and proximity. It is a pragmatic and sensible recognition of the strategic reality that the relatively weak face in international politics. But where allies are available, weak states will choose to resist the threats they face because an alliance, even with all of its problems, is a far better option than submission. Most importantly, because weaker powers are bereft of choice, they will be much more forgiving of the follies and foibles of their great power partner, especially in a bipolar system. This is why much of the criticism of the Trump administration finds little policy echo in Asia: not that Washington’s partners in Asia are not concerned about Trump’s apparent unsteadiness, but they recognize that the alternative is far worse.
Efforts by Asian powers to stabilize their ties with China thus does not reflect a real alternative to Washington. India after Wuhan is one example, with New Delhi warily trying to sharpen its sword even as it seeks to stabilize its China ties.
Prime Minister Abe in Japan is trying much the same tactic, and to some extent, so is Vietnam. But this will be short-lived because there is little real middle-ground between the demands represented by the threat from China and the security and political concessions these powers can make to mollify it. None of them will submit to China’s hegemony, at least not as long as the American counterbalance exists. Thus, whatever concerns Asian powers may have of Trump’s unsteadiness, these will remain private as they seek a greater US role, not a lesser one.