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《华盛顿季刊》,2004年春季号 2004-03-17

Can Alliances Combat Contemporary Threats?

© 2004 by The Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology
The Washington Quarterly • 27:2 pp. 165–179.


As long as states continue to perceive that external threats to
their national security exist, alliances—the traditional means for states to
ensure national security—will continue to matter. Although a security or military
arrangement is not necessarily a prerequisite (alliances can also exist as a
more informally codified political alignment among willing states), alliances are
only legitimate if they establish security partnerships for defensive purposes that
together provide a system of collective security for all parties involved. In the
military context, all members of an alliance expect to maximize the deterrent
effect of the arrangement to protect them from potential hostile acts against any
individual member. The collective strength of the whole is perceived to be
greater than that of its parts; an alliance thus increases the effectiveness of deterrence
as well as the credibility of the will to use collective hard power in response
to external aggression should deterrence fail. In contrast, alliances
formed for aggressive purposes, such as World War II’s fascist Axis powers, inherently
lack lasting legitimacy and subsequently lose relevance.
Modern alliances were created primarily to deter and defend against Cold
War threats. In this context, NATO was established to ally Western European
nations with the United States (and Canada) against the threat posed
by Soviet expansionism and communism. The Warsaw Pact formed NATO’s
eastern counterpart, allying Eastern European nations with the Soviet
Union against potential Western (U.S.-led) aggression. In the Pacific arena,
the United States forged several crucial bilateral alliances, including those
with Japan, South Korea, Australia, and others to protect against the shadow
of the Soviet Union as well as to prevent the rise of Red China.

The end of the Cold War and the emergence of a global era of counterterrorism
following the September 11 attacks have fundamentally changed the primary
threats to international security and redefined the concept of security
for all states, although in different ways. Because an alliance’s legitimacy
rests on its ability to provide collective defense for all its members, on an international
level, contemporary conclusions about the current relevance of
alliances can only be drawn from a fair analysis of how they serve to deter
common threats today. Examining the role of alliances in protecting against
current threats—in particular, those posed by international terrorism, weapons
of mass destruction (WMD) proliferation, and rising states perceived to
have the potential to upset today’s balance of power, such as the People’s
Republic of China (PRC)—provides an effective framework for such analysis.
In the end, it is difficult to come to any sort of international consensus
about the relevance and legitimacy of alliances today because national interests,
threat perceptions, and concepts of collective security remain disparate
even after the September 11 attacks.
Combating International Terrorism
As stated in the most recent U.S. national security strategy,1 Washington
considers terrorism and WMD proliferation, especially the lethal combination
of the two, as the foremost threats facing not just the United States but
the greater international community today. As disagreements over whether
to go to war with Iraq show, however, different nations view the collective
threat posed by the nexus of terrorism and WMD differently. Yet, many
would agree that each poses a formidable current threat to international security
and thus merits discussion here.
As they made the power of international terrorism apparent to the world,
the tragic terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, gave the United States a
unique sense of insecurity. Never before had the U.S. homeland felt so vulnerable
to terrorist penetration. As a result, the United States has increased
its focus on obtaining the cooperation of alliance partners in the war against
terrorism. Especially concerned about the possibility that terrorists could acquire
WMD, Washington has organized “coalitions of the willing” in its efforts
against terrorism to augment existing military alliances and other
permanent institutions.
For the purpose of analyzing the relevance of alliances in combating the
threat posed by terrorism, the significance of the events of September 11 is
the unprecedented attack against a member state of NATO. Because NATO
is a collective defensive mechanism, an attack against any single member
automatically constitutes an attack against all member states and requires a
response from all members in the form of collective action. In fact, Article 5
of the North Atlantic Treaty emphasizes that the “enduring” core mission of
NATO is the collective defense of its members.2 Some NATO members, including
the United Kingdom and Germany, assisted the United States in the
military action to remove the Taliban regime from Afghanistan and continue
to assist in removing latent Taliban and Al Qaeda forces from the
country. NATO has since taken over command and coordination of the International
Security Assistance Force (ISAF) there. NATO, originally formed
to meet Cold War threats, has thus, in this
case at least, proven effective in the face of
the new threat posed by terrorism.3
In the military operation to defeat the terrorist
threat in Afghanistan, the United States
also had access to international institutions
such as the United Nations and was able to
secure greater participation from states that
are not part of various, traditional U.S. alliances
by building a coalition of willing, supportive
nations. The UN has passed various
resolutions concerning Afghanistan, and many UN member states (some of
which are not parties to U.S. alliances) have provided financial support to the
reconstruction of that country. Despite these alternatives, however, NATO
remains the most appropriate multilateral institution—one that Washington
has built up for a half century and whose counteraggression capabilities can be
utilized immediately. Even though the U.S. government will seek international
cooperation from all available avenues to meet this particular new threat,
Washington must consider NATO the most reliable strategic asset to respond
effectively, not only based on its record in responding to terrorist threats so far
(as they have been limited in number if not in gravity) but on its record in responding
to other post–Cold War security threats.
NATO’s involvement in Kosovo in 1999 provides another example of the
relevance of this alliance. In the Kosovo crisis, for example, NATO participated
in military operations against Yugoslavia when it became apparent
that the United States and NATO would not be able to secure UN Security
Council authorization for the use of force prior to going to war. Although
the United States certainly would have had the ability to organize a coalition
of the willing for this purpose had NATO not existed, it was far easier
to achieve the military intervention with NATO already in place. This military
alliance gave the United States institutional convenience.
Moreover, on the occasion of NATO’s 50th anniversary in April 1999, its
19 members approved the “Strategic Concept of the Alliance.”4 This agree-

ment effectively redefined the mission of this Cold War alliance as one that
dedicates the alliance to responding to a broad spectrum of possible threats
including regional conflicts, WMD proliferation as well as their means of
delivery, and transnational threats such as terrorism. This policy essentially
transformed NATO from a Cold War collective security organization into a
new one that attaches more importance to political dimensions and expanded
its geographical focus beyond NATO
territory. With NATO members thus collectively
defining terrorism as a primary threat,
the utility of this alliance in providing common
defense seems as applicable as it was
Some have argued that NATO is irrelevant
in meeting the threat posed by terrorism
because of its refusal to participate
in the 2003 U.S.-led war against Saddam
Hussein’s regime in Iraq. This argument confuses the purpose of an alliance
as a legitimate agreement among nations on collective defense for an illegitimate
one on collective offensive action. Because NATO as a whole refused
to participate, the United States had to organize an international
coalition of willing allies to launch its preemptive strike, a U.S. strategic action
that some of its major traditional allies openly opposed. Yet, in waging a
preemptive war to achieve regime change in Iraq, the United States went
beyond actions in which a defensive alliance could be of assistance.
In this particular case, Saddam’s government never was found to be linked
to Al Qaeda nor to the September 11 terrorist attacks. Saddam’s regime indeed
committed crimes against the Iraqi people as well as against several of
Iraq’s neighboring states, and Saddam repeatedly violated international laws
that prohibited Iraq from acquiring WMD. For these reasons, it was certainly
legitimate for the international community to take action to bring
about a behavior change. International law, however, also prohibits foreign
forces from taking such preemptive action against the national sovereignty
of a state without UN authorization. Therefore, declaring a war on Iraq on
the grounds that it was a state sponsor of terrorism was not only a significant
departure from the facts but was also illegitimate under international law
and in no way obligated NATO members to fighting the war in Iraq because
of their professed commitment to combating terrorism.
The United States’ diplomatic frustration in gathering wider international
support for its war in Iraq is apparent. Some key NATO members
could not support Washington because they did not believe that Saddam
posed an imminent threat. NATO’s failure to act simply does not prove that
the role of alliances will diminish as long as military action is taken for legitimate
Curbing WMD Proliferation
As mentioned earlier, the U.S. government also views WMD proliferation as
a dominant contemporary threat, believing that “rogue” state and nonstate
actors will show no mercy when and if they have WMD at their disposal.
It was precisely according to this rationale that the United States justified
the preemptive war against Iraq, potentially providing a case study for the
value of alliances to curb WMD proliferation. Because Saddam had violated
UN Security Council Resolution 1441, passed in November 2002, some sort
of further action was surely justified to coerce Saddam into compliance or
allow more time for inspection by the UN Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection
Commission (UNMOVIC) and the International Atomic Energy
Agency. There was no concrete evidence, however, that Iraq was in possession
of WMD prior to the war. Contrary to the U.S. government’s belief that
Iraqi acquisition of WMD had posed an imminent threat and justified a preemptive
strike, no such weaponry has yet been found. In fact, a recent study
conducted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace concluded
that “Iraq’s WMD programs represented a long-term threat that could not
be ignored. They did not, however, pose an imminent threat to the United
States, to the region, or to global security.”5
The point here, however, is not the legitimacy or illegitimacy of the war
per se, but that the use of this alliance justifiably did not prove successful in
Iraq because the very purpose of the alliance is to provide for defense, not
because the alliance was irrelevant. Given the abuse of a legitimate use of
the policy of preemption, some NATO allies, such as France and Germany,
strongly disagreed with the Bush administration on the war and on employing
NATO for this purpose. The war against Iraq was never a matter of legitimate
defense but clearly one of offense—legitimate or illegitimate,
depending on one’s point of view. Operation Iraqi Freedom was thus one
that contradicted the very mission, or basic founding principles, of NATO
and alliances more fundamentally.
In spite of worldwide disagreement, the U.S.-led coalition ousted Saddam
from power in Iraq with initial overwhelming success. Yet, the difficulties it
has faced in the aftermath of military combat underlines the costs of acting
without one’s traditional alliances. International accord was significantly
weakened with the serious split that developed within the international
community as well as in the UN Security Council. The United States experienced
an unprecedented diplomatic setback when it received support from
only about 30 countries during the course of the war. The split that occurred
within NATO itself necessitated forming a separate coalition, at a higher
political and financial cost for the United States. Finally, it appears as if the
United States will be mired in Iraq for some time to come, largely because of
the lack of support from the UN and the international community. Ad hoc
coalitions can prove useful alternatives for accomplishing short-term or perhaps
purely military goals, but in the long term, when utilized at the expense
of undermining alliances, the costs appear to outweigh the benefits.
In late May 2003, the United States launched another example of an operation
by a coalition of the willing to curb the threat of WMD proliferation:
the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI).
Currently comprised of a small group of 11
countries—Australia, France, Germany, Italy,
Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal,
Spain, the UK, and the United States—PSI
aims to interdict WMD and related materials
that are transported in international space and
waters.6 Whether PSI is compatible with existing
international law is the subject of current
debate, as it is arguable whether searching a
cargo ship in international waters is legal. More relevant for this discussion,
however, is whether such a coalition augments alliance efforts to meet this
threat or, more fundamentally, whether such a coalition is capable of thwarting
this particular threat in ways that an alliance cannot, precisely because of
alliances’ defensive, rather than offensive, nature.
Thus far, NATO has not expanded its alliance-wide mission to PSI due to
its controversial legal nature, nor has the United States tried to pursue this
initiative through smaller alliances, such as the U.S.-Japanese or U.S.-Australian
alliances, despite the fact that those two countries are both members
of PSI. Part of the reason is because WMD interdiction must be a global
mission and neither the U.S.-Japanese nor U.S.-Australian alliances are capable
of global military reach. Other alliance members that may not support
the initiative include the Republic of Korea (ROK), which is not enthusiastic
about participating in the PSI initiative because PSI’s prime targets include
North Korea, with which the ROK seeks to avoid conflict (as long
as Pyongyang does not pose a direct threat to Seoul). Therefore, a coalition
seems to be a good alternative: it can cover a geographically wider area than
a bilateral alliance can but does not require involving all NATO member
states that would not necessarily agree with the PSI principles.
Because WMD proliferation poses a very different kind of threat than
that posed by one state’s physical invasion of another, it is not the kind of
threat that necessarily requires being deterred or defeated in the traditional
sense. A traditional alliance created and maintained to unite a group for
collective defense thus might not be the most appropriate or effective means
of combating this contemporary threat. In this case, therefore, a coalitionof-
the-willing type of grouping, including some states that are members of
various alliances and some that are not, designed specifically to deter WMD
proliferation might provide a more effective alternative.
Even though the PSI mission is controversial, it is still important to halt
WMD proliferation, potentially in new and creative ways to combat this developing
threat effectively. What is important for this discussion is not the
effectiveness of PSI but rather that the emergence of PSI highlights the ineffectiveness
of traditional alliances, which provide collective defense, to curb
WMD proliferation. Coalitions thus offer an alternative to traditional alliances
in combating WMD proliferation.
Responding to Challenges from Rising States
The third contemporary security challenge, against which the relevance of
alliances should be tested, is the rising power of some states. Of today’s
emerging states, Russia, China, and India are the ones that appear to be undergoing
the most visible internal transitions that could potentially affect
the international status quo. A brief tour of Europe and Asia, however, show
that the rise of states with the potential to upset the international status
quo or balance of power are not necessarily threats against which alliances
can serve to deter.
In Europe, the United States is interested in expanding NATO and further
integrating Russia into the global system to prevent it from emerging as
a credible challenger on the European continent. Russia is in the midst of an
internal transition that the United States hopes will not cause Moscow to
revert to international power-seeking ways. By bolstering the independence
and stability of the former Soviet republics through security partnerships
with them (including extending NATO membership), Washington is partly
helping reduce the chances that Russia could act assertively again.
The NATO-Russia Council is another U.S.-led effort to prevent this challenge
through strengthening security relations between Russia and NATO
members. Although this partnership is not an alliance in the traditional
sense, it has a certain stabilizing effect as well as the potential to be upgraded
to an alliance relationship. From Russia’s perspective, NATO fundamentally
serves both as a check to Moscow’s power on the continent and a
center of gravity for balance of power in the Euro-Atlantic community more
generally. This concerns Russia as it deprives Moscow of the sphere of influence
that it may aspire to regain after economic recovery. In the meantime,
Russia is seeking partnership through dialogue as it realizes that currently it
has not much ability to challenge the alliance.
China’s case is quite different. Depending on national perspective and interests,
this case illustrates that, in both historical and contemporary times,
alliances that some intend to preserve a balance of power or the status quo
is perceived by others to disrupt that very balance. The established alliance
system in Asia, although also created largely by the United States out of
Cold War concerns, differs from NATO in Europe in that it is primarily
comprised of bilateral alliances. To protect against Soviet and Soviet allies’
inroads in the Pacific theater, the United States forged several critical bilateral
alliances in the region, including those with Australia (1951), Japan
(1951), and South Korea (1953).
Following the outbreak of the Korean War and the U.S. bombing of Chinese
territory, the PRC emerged as a perceived threat, and Washington and
Tokyo signed the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty in September 1951. (In 1960
the United States and Japan signed the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and
Security (or the Mutual Security Treaty).) In 1954 the United States and
Taiwan signed the Mutual Defense Treaty, designed to prevent mainland
China from attacking Taiwan. (That agreement was severed in early 1979
when Washington normalized its relations with Beijing.) The Chinese reciprocated
in mid-July 1961 by forming an alliance relationship with the government
of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), through the
China-DPRK Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance,
which is speculated to contain a clause that provides for mutual defense.
After the Cold War, Washington sought to continue to strengthen its ties
among “freedom-loving” nations7 by not only strengthening relations with
NATO countries but also with its Asian allies in the Pacific region, especially
with Japan. These efforts have at least in part been motivated by a desire
to check China’s rise in the region and as such have incurred a negative
reaction from the Chinese government, which has been particularly critical
of the strengthening of recent U.S. military alliances in East Asia.8
The U.S.-Japanese alliance, for example, was strengthened with the release
of the Japan-U.S. Defense Cooperation Guidelines in September 1997.
The new guidelines transformed the 1960 Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and
Security between the two countries and mandated that Japan would assist
the United States outside of Japan’s territory, that is, in “surrounding waters,”
when a certain situation requires. China has asked Japan to clarify the
definition of “surrounding waters” and to exclude the Taiwan area from its
application, but Japan has refused. This is a significant departure from
Japan’s defense-only policy, as Japan and the United States now share balanced
responsibility and Japan shall be obliged to assist the United States if
the U.S. military is involved in warfare in the region. Given China’s concern
about this agreement’s security implications for the Taiwan issue, the U.S.
commitment to Taiwan’s defense, and Japan’s refusal to exclude Taiwan from
the area in which the new guidelines apply, China naturally disapproves of
the U.S.-Japanese alliance.9 Specifically, it sees the U.S.-Japanese relationship
as one designed to deter China’s freedom of action to implement its
claim of sovereignty over Taiwan.
From the Chinese perspective, not only is the U.S.-Japanese alliance a
threat, but Beijing also considers the link between Washington and Taipei a
quasi-alliance, given the U.S. security commitment
to Taiwan and the substance of the
military relationship between the two. The missile
defense as well as military command and
communication systems that the United States
has sold to Taiwan are just a few examples of
the quasi-alliance. Considering Australia’s close
relationship with the United States (Canberra
has joined all major U.S.-waged wars since the
end of World War II), the U.S.-Australian alliance
could be viewed by Beijing as having some bearing on the Taiwan question
as well. Taken together, the whole range of bilateral military alliances
involving the United States in the Asia-Pacific region can be seen as essentially
hostile toward Beijing.
The issue of emerging states and the threats they pose, particularly the
different views of the United States and China on the role of alliances and
collective security in Asia, highlight the central problem in a more dynamic
security environment without the dominant U.S.-Soviet rivalry: differing
national threat perceptions and conceptions of national security can determine
divergent national sentiments toward particular alliances, a particular
nation’s role in them, and even the theoretical value of alliances more generally.
The U.S. government, for example, believes that, “in pursuing advanced
military capabilities that can threaten its neighbors in the Asia-Pacific
region, China is following an outdated path”10 and has also declared that
the U.S. military must “deter threats against U.S. interests, allies and friends;
and decisively defeat any adversaries if deterrence fails.”11 Obviously, Washington
does not consider the course China is taking as oriented toward maintaining
the status quo. Therefore, the United States, in Washington’s mind,
needs to preserve alliances against the rising challenges from China, to defend
U.S. interests as well as its allies.
China’s government, in contrast, recognizes that maintaining the status
quo throughout the region, including Taiwan, is in the interests of the United
States and U.S. allies in the region. Yet, it is also in China’s interests to
maintain the status quo, primarily to foster economic development that can
lead to national integration. President George W. Bush’s December 2003
statement to Premier Wen Jiabao that the United States opposes Taiwan’s
efforts to alter the status quo provides evidence of this common interest, at
least for now.12 Peace and stability across the strait allows the government
on the mainland to focus on the country’s economic growth. Reclaiming
Taiwan, nevertheless, remains China’s principal national objective in the
long term, and thus making the status quo
too permanent remains unacceptable to the
PRC. To the extent that China perceives
that U.S. military alliances in the Asia-Pacific
region seek to lock in the status quo indefinitely,
China’s cross-strait interests will
thus cause its tolerance of U.S. regional alliances
to wane at some point in the future.
Beyond Taiwan, historical evidence exists
that may suggest China’s rise could challenge
U.S. global hegemony more broadly. Past experiences,
such as the rise of Germany and Japan in the early twentieth century,
illustrate that a rising power tends not to be content with the status
quo and will eventually seek to alter the balance of power. On the other
hand, at least one analyst who has studied recent trends in China’s foreign
policy has offered evidence of Chinese behavior specifically that, in some
cases, suggests an orientation that is more focused on preserving the status
quo regionally.13 Supporting evidence for this more benign view of the PRC
is that it has become an indispensable partner of the United States in its
global war on terrorism. Thus, although a rising China may theoretically
pose a threat to U.S. interests in the region, what appears to be lasting and
genuine cooperation between the two governments might offer an opportunity
to transform the two country’s mutual suspicion into mutual trust. If
this new pattern of bilateral cooperation can be sustained, it will potentially
mitigate the need for the United States to continue its Cold War alliance
Yet, it appears as if the two countries’ disparate threat assessments will
preclude this optimistic scenario from emerging. From Beijing’s perspective,
economic development and national reunification are its supreme interests,
and anything that harms them poses a major threat. Although Beijing sees
transnational terrorism, especially attacks that occur in China’s northwest
frontier, as a significant threat, it does not consider it a primary threat to the
extent that the United States does. Instead, a variety of factors—foreign in-
China will need to
accept that alliances
are not likely to
disappear in the
coming decades.
terference on the Taiwan question, peace and stability on China’s periphery,
steady acquisition of overseas petroleum, fluctuation of foreign investment,
and access to overseas markets—all rank higher on Beijing’s list of external
threats to Chinese national interests. Thus, although some overlapping security
interests have fostered a certain degree of cooperation between China
and the United States, the two countries’ disparate threat assessments and
foreign policy priorities as well as their ongoing mutual suspicion all preclude
cooperation on a more fundamental level. Therefore, China is even suspicious
of Washington’s strategic intentions as the U.S. military gains access to
China’s neighboring states under the banner of antiterrorist operations.
As long as Washington continues to perceive that a threat from rising
powers such as China exists, it will not seek to reduce the role of its military
alliances. Significant time and energy has obviously gone into creating and
maintaining those bilateral alliances in the Asia-Pacific area, and these ties
reassure U.S. allies. These alliances will not be abolished lightly for, if they
were, the strategic landscape in the region may be altered and such ties may
be difficult to restore. Even ad hoc coalitions cannot provide sufficient capacity
to deliver credible deterrence vis-à-vis major new powers.
Despite China’s concerns with alliances theoretically and with the U.S.
role in regional alliances particularly, which Beijing sees as impediments to
the PRC’s ability to achieve reunification with Taiwan, as well as Beijing’s
assertion that it has a legitimate right to reintegrate the country, China
genuinely believes that it is a responsible global player and as such will need
to accept that neither the utility nor the vitality of alliances in general are
likely to disappear in the coming decades.14 To be explicit, the Chinese government
will have to demonstrate that its country can rise to power peacefully
and be responsible as a rising power, as well as demonstrate that there
is no threat against which America’s Asian alliances need to defend.
The Responsibility of Alliance Membership
If Beijing can accept such alliances despite its opposition, however, members
in those alliances must also accept the responsibility of membership to preserve
the status quo and stability. Alliance partners cannot get a free ride on
board an alliance and thereby jeopardize its foundation. In Northeast Asia,
two particular cases are relevant to this issue: Taiwan’s path toward independence
and Japan’s move toward nuclearization.
Because Taiwan is thought to have U.S. protection through the Taiwan
Relations Act15 if it does nothing to provoke hostilities, Taipei enjoys a
quasi-alliance relationship with Washington, even without a treaty currently.
Because Beijing believes that Taiwan should not enjoy statehood, it
does not feel that the island qualifies for intergovernmental relations, such
as a bilateral military alliance—even a semiofficial one—in the first place.
Nevertheless, the reality is that the relationship exists. The relationship is
only “meaningful,” however, if the partnership is for defensive purposes. Although
an alliance assures that should one member be attacked, the other is
required to respond, this does not entitle a partner to provoke an attack just
because it can be confident in the response of
its partner. Beijing continues to maintain that
the military relationship between Washington
and Taipei could embolden Taiwan in its quest
for independence.
The Chen Shui-bian government’s ongoing
drive toward a Taiwanese “defensive referendum”
demonstrates the irresponsibility of
Taiwan’s current leadership. On the surface, a
referendum for peace might be an acceptable
solution to someone who knows nothing of the
history of the Taiwan issue. Nevertheless, history shows that the two sides
were both part of China, and the mainland’s missiles aimed at Taiwan are a
response to Taiwan’s drive to achieve independence, not a threat to all the
people of Taiwan. The mainland has not deployed the missiles for the purpose
of seeking a quick reunification but to deter any attempt by Taiwan to
proclaim de jure independence. It is Taipei that seeks to upset the status quo
unilaterally, not Beijing.
From the U.S. perspective, Taipei has entered into a partnership with the
United States for Taiwan’s security but must avoid any provocation that
would force Washington into unnecessarily dangerous waters, especially
when the U.S.-Chinese partnership is functioning fairly well in the war
against terrorism. The United States is opposed to the idea of either side of
the strait changing the status quo, and Chen’s government is clearly threatening
to do this for purposes of reelection. In light of their semi-alliance,
Taiwan has to remember its responsibility to the United States to defend
this status quo, and the United States has a responsibility to restrain Taiwan
in support of the status quo.
For Japan, the security umbrella extended by the United States frees Tokyo
of the need to possess an atomic bomb. Nevertheless, the Japanese government
has reviewed its nuclear weapons policy over the decades and
seems to have decided not to manufacture such a weapon but to develop the
technical capability for doing so. In recent years, Tokyo has disregarded the
taboo against developing nuclear weapons because of the perceived threat
posed by North Korea’s development of missile and nuclear weapons tech-
nology. Whether Japan will embark on an open course of nuclear weapons
development—currently a topic of much debate—still remains to be seen.
Yet, even the country’s consideration of doing so tests the U.S.-Japanese security
The U.S.-Japanese security alliance serves both countries’ common strategic
interests in ensuring mutual defense. Japan has no reason to believe
that it cannot count on nuclear protection from the United States, regardless
of North Korean progress down the nuclear path. Pursuing an independent
nuclear capability will unavoidably upset the status quo, complicating
the security equation in the Far East and only weakening military relations
between Washington and Tokyo further. Washington will not feel comfortable
with a nuclear-armed Japan. For Japan’s own strategic interests, the
country needs to adhere to its alliance with the United States and not upset
the status quo. Conversely, the United States has its own responsibility to
restrain Japan from upsetting the status quo.
Preserving the Status Quo Is the Test
The concept of common and/or cooperative security is no longer new,16 but
the road to such an ideal system remains long. Realistically, governments
have been competing and hedging against one another since the seventeenth
century. Until the international stage is truly transformed into a new
world order in which trust and cooperation prevail, there is no reason to believe
that states will abandon the technique of creating various groupings,
such as alliances, to help ensure their national security.
Given the differing threat assessments among states, each government’s
strategy of handling perceived threats will be different. For Washington,
alliances remain the core of its security strategy in its counterterrorism operations,
with coalitions of the willing as a helpful supplement to U.S. efforts.
Critics of the U.S. approach argue that alliances are increasingly
irrelevant because coalitions can accomplish the same goals. The emergence
of coalitions of the willing—looser, ad hoc groupings that tend not
be bound by treaties—is part of the quest for security, and these arrangements
have their own benefits and conveniences: they allow one state
quickly to form partnerships for a particular purpose. Although a noticeable
phenomenon that helps combat current threats, coalitions realistically
cannot replace alliances.
Military alliances have their own features and utilities. They are based
on strategic trust and common security interests over a period of time with
substantial political and military investment. These readily available
groupings enable members to deal with aggression against their territories
or other fundamental interests. In this sense, alliances and coalitions can
supplement each other, with coalitions serving more as one-time, issuespecific
In sum, U.S. security strategy, including military alliances, currently faces
a threefold task: combating transnational terrorism, ending WMD proliferation,
and dealing with regional conflicts, including challenges that arise
from the emergence of certain major states undergoing internal transitions.
Given the new tasks that have been identified,
it is impossible to consider alliances
irrelevant today or in the near future, despite
the challenges alliances have faced
in recent history as discussed earlier, particularly
in adjusting to WMD proliferation
threats. Conversely, despite China’s
opposition to U.S.-led alliances, Beijing must
learn to live with them, accept the U.S.
decision to continue and reform them, and
hold their members accountable for their responsibility to preserve the status
quo. In the process, Beijing can demonstrate that it is a responsible global
actor that contributes to the common strategic goals of the United
States and the PRC.
One can only hope that, over time, the international system will be transformed
into one that is more trusting and cooperative—in other words, one
in which alliances are less necessary. Until then, alliances will continue to
exist but will be legitimate only if they serve solely to provide collective defense.
This places a substantial responsibility on alliance members to abide
by the classic definitions of defense as well as preemption, so as not to reinterpret
its meaning arbitrarily to include more aggressive actions, and ultimately
to preserve the status quo through the behavior of all members of
existing or future alliances.
1. Executive Office of the President, National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction
(2002); Executive Office of the President, National Strategy for Combating
Terrorism (2003).
2. Article 5 of The North Atlantic Treaty states:
The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe
or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and
consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of
them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence
recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist
the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in
Alliances will be
legitimate only if they
serve solely to provide
collective defense.
Can Alliances Combat Contemporary Threats l
concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including
the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the
North Atlantic area.
3. NATO member countries have contributed more than 90 percent of ISAF troops so
4. “The Alliance’s Strategic Concept,” NATO Press Release NAC-S(99)65, April 24,
1999, www.nato.int/docu/pr/1999/p99-065e.htm (accessed January 23, 2004).
5. See Joseph Cirincione, Jessica T. Mathews, and George Perkovich, WMD in Iraq:
Evidence and Implications (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International
Peace, 2004), http://wmd.ceip.matrixgroup.net/iraq3fulltext.pdf (accessed
January 23, 2004).
6. For details, see Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “Statement of Interdiction
Principles,” September 4, 2003, www.state.gov/t/np/rls/fs/23764.htm (accessed
January 23, 2004).
7. Executive Office of the President, National Security Strategy of the United States
(2002) (hereinafter 2002 NSS).
8. See China State Council, Information Office, “China’s National Defense in 2000,”
Beijing, October 16, 2000 (hereinafter 2000 Chinese National Defense White Paper).
9. See Ren Xiao and Liu Xinghan, “U.S.-Japan Alliance in 1990s,” American Studies
Quarterly, no. 4 (winter 2000): 67–96 (published in Chinese).
10. 2002 NSS.
11. Ibid.
12. Immediately after meeting with visiting Chinese premier Wen Jiabao, Bush said, “We
oppose any unilateral decision by either China or Taiwan to change the status quo.
And the comments and actions made by the leader of Taiwan indicate that he may be
willing to make decisions unilaterally to change the status quo, which we oppose.”
Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “President Bush and Premier Wen
Jiabao Remarks to the Press,” December 9, 2003, www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/
2003/12/20031209-2.html (accessed January 22, 2004).
13. See Alastair Iain Johnston, “Is China a Status Quo Power?” International Security
27, no. 4 (spring 2003): 5–56.
14. For recent, although pre–September 11, government criticism of U.S. efforts to
strengthen its regional alliances, see 2000 Chinese National Defense White Paper.
15. Taiwan Relations Act, Public Law 8, 96th Cong., 1st sess., April 10, 1979.
16. See David H. Capie, Paul M. Evans, and Akiko Fukushima, “Speaking Asia-Pacific
Security: A Lexicon of English Terms with Chinese and Japanese Translation and a
Note on the Japanese Translation,” Joint Center for Asia Pacific Studies, University
of Toronto-York University, Toronto, 1998 (working paper).