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Gorbachev and Reagan At some points in history, the USA has been in sync with other nations, like Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan during the Washington Summit in 1987 (pictured). Photo US Government

Shields of the Republic: America's International Alliances

We speak with Mira Rapp-Hooper, author of Shields of the Republic, about the changing nature of the US’ international relations

Published on April 23, 2020
Pre-Order: Shields of the Republic is being published in June 2020 by Harvard University Press.

Mira Rapp-Hooper Mira Rapp-Hooper is Steven Schwarzman Senior Fellow for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and Senior Fellow at Yale Law School’s China Center.

Many thanks for your time Mira. Our traditional opening question - where in the States are you from?

Delighted to chat. I am a life-long New Yorker, born and raised in lower Manhattan with short stints in California and Washington, DC. I am part English by background, however, so I’ll take this as an opportunity to send my love to the UK Hoopers!

What prompted you to start work on your latest book, Shields of the Republic, about America's overseas alliances?

I realized that this book needed to be written when Donald Trump became the Republican nominee for President in 2016. Throughout his life, Trump had maligned US allies, and on the campaign trail he attacked the alliance system as expensive and useless. But the most worrisome part of these assaults was that they were not altogether unreasonable — the accomplishments of this system were not well-known. In response to Trump’s broadsides, national security analysts and former officials alike defended this system as historically significant, but they ignored the most important thing about them: they have worked remarkably well, keeping the United States safe and prosperous when it easily might have been otherwise. As of 2016, however, this impressive alliance record did not exist in the public domain. This absence, moreover, is a feature of alliances themselves — when they are working, nothing happens – no wars break out, crises are manageable. Counterintuitively, America’s alliance system was hiding its own record of success. Having studied alliances as a PhD student, I knew this record existed – and that if it could not be made accessible to policymakers and the public, this remarkable system might collapse entirely in the years ahead. I set to work shortly after the presidential election.

Going back to the start of the 20th century, how did America's approach to allying with other nations change during the pre and post war eras of the early 1900s?

The US approach to alliances has been one of extremes — after allying with France in the throes of the Revolutionary War (without which the United States would not have been victorious), George Washington and his successors warned of the perils of alliances, and the country didn’t pursue another until the Second World War. The chief concern was that if the young United States formed alliances with European countries, it would be the junior partner and could become entangled in foreign wars. It preferred instead to take advantage of its fortuitous geography and consolidate its ability to self-govern. This made good sense through the 19th century, but by the early 20th it was clear that the country’s interests spilled well beyond its coastline.

Yet President Washington’s alliance admonition had become national gospel to such an extent that the prospect of forming them was still anathema. Woodrow Wilson created a new “Associated Power” status for the United States so it could enter the First World War without igniting the political firestorm that would come with a formal alliance. During the peace settlement, Wilson failed to win support for the League of Nations in part because his critics saw it as an open-ended alliance, and Wilson himself sank a request from the French for a joint, postwar US-UK security guarantee. It took until the Second World War for the country to overcome its alliance aversion. With the development of long-range navies and bombers, and the British Navy on the verge of defeat, the United States could no longer guarantee its security through geography. Its long-delayed, second-ever alliance managed to save United States, Great Britain, and much of the world.

You mention an interesting point in the book that by allying with Britain during WW2, America was positioning itself 'as Britain's successor' - how did Britain's role in the world at the time influence what America wanted to become?

The Anglo-American power-transition is often rhapsodized as a comfortable one between friends (and on this subject I must recommend a wonderful book by my colleague, Kori Schake), but these dynamics were complex for the wartime allies to navigate. It had been clear since the early 20th century that the United States was Britain’s likely successor, and the two powers were suitably wary of each other as a result. The balance of power within the alliance changed over the course of the war, with Great Britain acting as the alliance leader in the war’s early years and the United States in the decisive position by the end.

But as it looked to the postwar peace, the United States did not seek to assume Great Britain’s position wholesale — Roosevelt sought an end to colonialism, and although both he and Truman understood that the United States would have to act as an economic hegemon, they both hoped to demobilize the US military and take a an offshore military approach, reliant in large part on international political governance by the United Nations. Great Britain was a close partner in crafting this postwar peace, of course, so this was really an attempt by both the US and UK to change the way that a system-leading power would govern. Only with the dawn of the Cold War was it clear that a far more ambitious international strategy would be necessary.

How did the Cold War influence America's approach to its alliances?

The onset of the Cold War prompted the United States to become genuinely innovative in its approach to alliances. Until that point, the United States had used alliances much like any of the European great powers — to fight and win specific wars (the Revolutionary War, World War II). But as postwar strategists feared the expansion of Soviet influence in Europe and in Asia, they sought an approach that would allow them to hold the balance of power in both regions. The primary power of this new kind of alliance lay in deterrence, which the United States used to keep wars from starting at all. Unlike the alliances of the past, these pacts were intended to last for long periods of time or indefinitely; they were formed with countries who had otherwise been war-ravaged and could not contribute nearly as much to the collective defense as Washington; but they were considered immensely valuable because they would allow the United States to adopt a strategy based on “forward defense,” meeting threats overseas instead of allowing them to land on its shores.

In the period between 1949 and 1955, the United States went from having no allies to extending security guarantees to nearly two dozen, with the aim of keeping the peace indefinitely. It was a remarkably ambitious endeavor that had no historical analogue. What’s more, postwar strategists would scarcely have believed how successful it would turn out to be. No US ally was ever the victim of an attack that caused it to invoke the defense treaty, despite incredibly tenuous frozen conflicts around Cold War hotspots like the Korean Peninsula, the Taiwan Straits, and divided Germany. In fact, the only time a US defense treaty has been invoked was when the United States itself was attacked on September 11, 2001, and its allies rushed to its aid. The Cold War system worked at reasonable political and material cost to the United States, who spent a bit more than its allies on defense because it wanted it that way, but was seldom entrapped in unwanted political commitments. And not only did the system help to stabilize Europe and Asia, but US allies joined Washington in all manner of endeavors, supporting its global political agenda and even occasionally joining it in (sometimes inadvisable) wars of choice in Vietnam or Iraq. US foreign policy would have been far costlier without this system, and the world almost certainly would have been less peaceful.

How did the fall of the Soviet Union change the dynamic of America's relationship with its allies?

The fall of the Soviet Union was a stunning alliance development. Without war or revolution, the adversary against whom the entire system had been arrayed dismantled itself and its own economic and military power base. This was unquestionably a triumph, and exactly what the alliance system had been designed to accomplish. But with the Soviet Union, the central organizing principle for America’s alliances in Europe and Asia also faded. The allies no longer had a major power adversary against whom they could defend and deter, and America’s alliances in Europe and Asia took very different paths. In Europe, Washington and its allies decided to use NATO to consolidate their post-Cold War gains, enlarging the alliance to help spread democracy and stabilize countries that had formerly been part of the Soviet bloc. In Asia, the alliance system bifurcated, with South Korea and Japan focused on an emerging threat from North Korea, while the pacts with the Philippines and Australia languished.

With the United States and its allies less focused on defense and deterrence, however, re-emerging rivals fixed them in their cross-hairs. Rising China and increasingly-revanchist Russia both crafted sophisticated military strategies and non-military coercive approaches that were intended to unravel the alliance system altogether. For the United States and its allies, then, the post-Cold War triumph gave way to some drift, which its rivals quickly began to exploit. By 2008-2012, both China and Russia had made it a central strategic objective to unravel the US alliance system, which places them in peril today.

Are America's alliances more or less important now than they were once were?

I argue, and believe quite sincerely, that alliances are as important now as they were in the early Cold War years — which is a strong statement, given that they were created to defend and deter against major conventional and nuclear wars that seemed all too likely at the time. The reason for their newfound importance, however, is that the 21st century presents unique challenges and the United States simply cannot meet them alone. China will continue its ascent, is already the world’s second largest military, and will soon be the number one economy. It is a far more formidable competitor in economic terms than the Soviet Union ever was. Along with Russia, which is really a revanchist power in decline, Beijing has mostly sought to get its way on the global stage by using coercion far short of military force — from its island-building campaign in the South China Sea, to its strategic use of investments in the Belt and Road Initiative, to its activities in cyberspace. Russia has made good use of non-military coercion itself, through its disinformation campaign and election meddling. These are purposeful strategies by both countries to try to unravel America’s alliances from below, reducing their power without ever activating them.

Beijing and Moscow also both use traditional military strategies that are intended to split alliances so that they can reestablish themselves in their own regions. But the United States has only helped them along with a president who has eroded them from within. The United States can scarcely retreat to its own shores more easily now than it could in the early Cold War years, however. Conventional military and nuclear conflicts are unlikely, but possible; moreover, new technologies like cyber-attacks nullify any remaining geographic advantages the United States enjoyed. American and allied security and prosperity therefore require all to continue to rely on collective defense and deterrence, but to renovate this wildly-successful system to meet these new threats. With the United States past its post-Cold War power peak, but its allies still strong and capable, they can rise to these challenges together, but none can afford to go it alone.

The world is going through a lot of change right now, particularly with lockdowns across the globe due to the spread of Coronavirus. Is this a chance to America to reaffirm its alliances around the world?

This certainly should be a chance for the United States to reaffirm and strengthen its alliances. This historic global crisis speaks to one of the book’s central arguments: the Cold War US alliance system was built to deter and defend against military threats at the highest levels, but many of the threats we face in the 21st century are non-military. Although military threats still loom, the alliance system needs to be reformed to deter and defend against cyber threats, disinformation campaigns, and attacks on democracy, among other challenges. Alliances are not centrally designed for the global health domain, but the pandemic lays bare their enduring virtues: America’s allies are some of the most scientifically-sophisticated, technologically savvy countries on earth. Some of the most competent national pandemic responses have come from US allies, such as South Korea and Germany, and Washington should have been learning from them throughout these past months, as well as coordinating with them as part of a global response. If we take up the charge to renovate this system for 21st century threats, we will improve the intelligence sharing that might have allowed for swifter initial pandemic reactions, collaborate on the digital tools that enable responsible pandemic management, and create the standing channels for longer-term cooperative scientific research. If this longstanding tool of statecraft is appropriately renovated for the 21st century, it will be far more able to be put to good use in crises outside of its traditional remit. But we must reform it now or we will not have it in future crises.

What do you think the future of the US and UK is given all the changes, including the election of President Trump and the decision for the UK to leave the European Union?

These are, no doubt, uncertain times in many alliances, and certainly for the United States and United Kingdom, as both countries grapple with nationalism, populism, and their prospective long-term consequences for foreign policy. But the history of this alliance system reminds us that nationalism and internationalism are not strict alternatives, and we make them so at our peril. America’s Shields of the Republic were not altruistic endeavors, or some abstract form of globalism — this was a pragmatic strategy designed to guarantee American prosperity and security at a time when those were in grave doubt, and to offer the same to allies. Each member of the network successfully maintained its sovereignty and political independence through collective defense, deterrence, and assurance. For the reasons noted above, a similar pragmatic charge prevails today — and while the last few years have been discouraging, the United States, the United Kingdom, and many other close allies remain capable of rising to the occasion collectively. The Anglo-American alliance began in far darker days and has weathered massive global change. It is in both countries’ abiding national interest to see it thrive for years to come.

Shields of the Republic Shields of the Republic is available to pre-order now

A more personal question - what do you hope readers take away from your book?

I hope readers will be left with a sense of just how novel and ambitious this early-Cold War alliance project was, and how stunningly well it appears to have worked when it very well might have been otherwise. Throughout the book I rely on counterfactual case studies to help the reader imagine what the world would have been like without alliances – I hope these mental exercises will be illuminating, and that readers may even apply them elsewhere. Most importantly, however, I hope readers come away understanding how very urgently this system must be saved – because unless policymakers and the public alike appreciate its absolute necessity, this remarkable experiment will not survive another 70 years.

What projects do you have on the horizon?

In a few months I will welcome my second book, An Open World: How America Can Win the Contest for 21st Century Order. My coauthor Rebecca Lissner and I argue that the United States should make the defense of openness its overarching strategic goal. Faced with rising authoritarian competitors who prefer a more shuttered international system, the country should aim to prevent the emergence of closed spheres of influence, maintain access to the global commons, and abandon democracy promotion for a more tempered democracy support policy. America’s global leadership crisis is not a passing shock created by the Trump presidency, we argue, but the product of forces that will endure. The next US president must remake American foreign policy, or risk leaving the US unable to sustain the system that has supported its strength. I am also a student of US-China relations and of national security and strategy issues in Asia, so I am closely watching China’s approach to the international order, particularly at this moment of pandemic crisis.

Finally, what's the best thing about being Mira Rapp-Hooper?

I research, think, and write about international politics and foreign policy at a time of momentous change. On some days it is an intimidating charge but it is always an incredible privilege.

Shields of The Republic: The Triumph and Peril of America's Alliances is available to pre-order now for June 2020, published by Harvard University Press. Click Here to Pre-Order a copy


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