The Diplomat’s Zachary Keck spoke with Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government Professor Stephen M. Walt.
You have written a lot about alliances in your academic work. I am wondering how important you believe alliances will be in U.S. Asia Policy as Washington seeks to deepen its commitment to the region in the years and decades ahead?
Alliances will be central to America’s Asia policy. The United States is a hegemon in the Western Hemisphere, but our ability to operate in other theatres — including Asia — depends on support from allies. Furthermore, given that our main strategic goal in Asia is to maintain a regional balance of power, supporting key allies is an inescapable element of our entire approach.
Some people have expressed concern that certain U.S. allies in the region—such as the Philippines and Japan—have acted in overly provocative ways towards China, potentially “entrapping” the U.S. in disputes with China in which America has little at stake. The Diplomat’s James Holmes, for instance, recently drew a potential parallel between Athens’ alliance policy in the Peloponnesian War and the U.S. in Asia today. Do you share these concerns? What can U.S. policymakers do to ensure that U.S. allies don’t drag it into conflict with China?
I do worry that U.S. allies may act provocatively in order to force our hand, and to get Washington to take on commitments it might prefer to avoid. The best way to avoid this danger is to be very clear about what U.S. interests are, and to form strictly defensive arrangements with key allies. We should be committed to defend them if they are attacked, but we should also make it clear that we are not obligated to help if they invite an attack through behavior we do not support. This principle should apply to all our allies, of course, not just those in Asia.
On the other hand, you and many others have been critical of the tendency of Washington to allow its allies in places like Europe to “free ride” on American power, particularly military power. Do you foresee this as being a danger at all in the Asia-Pacific? How can the U.S. best balance its interests in preventing free-riding while also not being seen as abandoning its allies?
There’s been lots of free-riding in Asia too, and we can expect U.S. allies to attempt more of the same in the future. I don’t blame them: it makes good sense to let Uncle Sucker do most of the work if you can get away with it. To that end, we can expect our allies in Asia to complain constantly about waning U.S. “credibility,” and they will occasionally threaten to bandwagon with China if they don’t get more help from us. What Americans should remember is that our allies in Asia need us more than we need them, and they should be willing to do a lot for us in order to retain our help. In this case, “playing hard to get” is a good way to avoid being exploited by allies who expect us to do more to defend them than they are willing to do themselves.