Origins of America's Asian Alliances

Origins of America's Asian Alliances
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In “Powerplay” (Princeton University Press, 2016), Victor D. Cha, a political scientist who teaches at Georgetown University and who worked on the National Security Council staff during the George W. Bush years, has given his readers an interesting book.  Specifically, Cha has written a serious examination of the establishment of the U.S. alliance system in Northeast Asia in the early 1950s. 

He got the idea for this project when an undergraduate in one of his classes asked why the United States chose to implement a different alliance framework in Asia than the one it created in Europe.  Why did it pursue a series of bilateral agreements in Asia after it helped create the multilateral North Atlantic Treaty Organization?  The question is an exceptionally good one, and Cha has been working on providing an answer to it off and on—interrupted by his service at the White House—for over a decade.  The Americans, Cha argues, designed this system “to bolster staunchly anti-communists regimes as a bulwark against Soviet influence,” but also as a way to keep these countries “from going ‘rogue’ and recklessly putting the United States into unwanted conflicts.”  In the case of Japan, it was “to create a tight, exclusive hold over the defeated imperial power…in a direction that suited U.S. interests.”

I learned a lot from this book, and that comment comes from someone who specialized on this time period and topic in graduate school.  Cha begins by providing readers with a chapter on alliances in international relations theory.  This section offers complex arguments, but ones that are clear, well written and accessible.  He then follows with chapters that flow like the backwards Seinfeld episode, focusing on the talks that lead to mutual security treaties with Taiwan, Korea and Japan, which is the exact opposite order in which they were negotiated.  In a final chapter, Cha looks at counterarguments to his “Powerplay” thesis.  Cha bolsters his argument with this section, but he is not entirely convincing

The argument that the alliance system was about controlling Cold War allies is not actually new.  General Lord Ismay, the first secretary general of NATO, joked that the alliance had three missions: “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down.” While I have no problem with the argument that the security treaties were about control as much as they were about protection, I am not sure these considerations required a series of one-on-one agreements.  After all, Ismay’s joke had an element of truth to it.   In this sense, Cha answers more than half of his student’s question, but not all of it. 

The book hints at other factors for explaining why there was a different system in the Pacific than the one in Europe.  The first is geography.  Europe is a compact continent and the Pacific is a big ocean.  Navies, particularly in the cases of Taiwan and Japan, were more important than in Europe and required less coordination than ground forces.  This becomes an even bigger factor if one widens the aperture to include the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand; all countries that signed security treaties with the United States during the period Cha studies. 

Closely related to this issue is the consideration of space.  Tokyo and Taipei are about the same distance apart as Kansas City and Los Angeles.  Coordination on that scale is not easy and might not even be necessary.  That issue becomes even bigger when one factors in U.S. commitments to the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand. 

The proximity of the enemy is another factor.  In Europe, all that separated the “free world” from the Communists was the Elbe, a medium-sized river.  Only Korea faced an enemy in close proximity.  As a result, the United States and its Asian allies required less in collaboration than the Europeans.  It also is clear that U.S. domestic political issues were in play during this time.  The legislative branch was more interested in Asia than the executive branch.  The role of Congress in making foreign policy is an understudied phenomenon.  However, there are hints in this study that the Truman and Eisenhower administrations were pushed into policy initiatives that they did not entirely support, andd bilateralism required less effort than multilateralism.  

The most compelling argument, though, is that the different alliance structures are exactly what the allies in Europe and the Pacific wanted.  After two world wars, Europe wanted the United States to make a full commitment to the continent.  On the other hand, the allies in the Pacific made it clear that they wanted security treaties with the United States, but under no conditions were they willing to make any commitment to Japan less than a decade after the conclusion of the war.  Even with those points of difference in mind, it is clear that Cha offers his readers a thought provoking read.  It is a title that is well worth the time of people interested in both Asia and the U.S. role in the region.

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