Alliance Lessons for the Future
The recent announcement of Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States (AUKUS) on the formation of a new military partnership is a timely reminder that alliances continue to be an important mechanism of security cooperation today. However, the AUKUS pact is but one in a long line of alliances since the creation of the post-Second World War “operating system” that is anchored in a rules-based international order and hinged on a network of legal, security, and economic arrangements. Nevertheless, the fact that various alliances endure in this complex system highlights several lessons for a world racked by great powers, a pandemic, climate change, and everything else in between.
AUKUS presents a good lesson in alliance formation. The literature suggests that alliances are forged in the face of a specific threat, and this is true in today’s geopolitical context: AUKUS is a clear move against China. Interestingly, the three members of the alliance have all faced considerable challenges on the domestic front. For Australia, banning Huawei and reigniting the question of COVID-19’s origins are reflective of debates on whether confronting China is worth the fallout of souring relations. Meanwhile, the aftermath of Brexit is the context for the UK’s “tilt” to the Indo-Pacific, whereas for the US, the Biden presidency seems set on undoing many of Trump’s policies insofar as friends, partners, and allies are concerned. In the face of mounting challenges at home compounded by trends regarding the weakening of democracies, AUKUS is a way to clear strategic ambiguities among the three countries by converging on the need to counter a rising and assertive China.
Setting a clear strategy is thus a lesson that can be drawn from the formation of AUKUS. The official stand is to share advanced defense and submarine technologies, but the specifics remain blurry. For instance, what alliance mechanisms are in place for addressing gray zone situations? An examination of the coverage of the alliance and the parties’ concomitant obligations will need to be undertaken. Without the specifics, the broad promises risk running on empty.
Alliances, by their very nature, are exclusionary, and the fluid moments during their birth are the best time to address the thin fine line of inclusion and exclusion. France is not the only collateral damage here because questions arise about the role of the much touted Quad in this new configuration. While AUKUS is generally welcome in the Indo-Pacific, Southeast Asian nations express concern and this brings to the fore the issue of ASEAN centrality. Unfortunately, the only “centrality” here is that the region is once again at the center of the fray.
If AUKUS offers some lessons on alliance formation, the US-Philippine arrangement is a stark reminder of the significance of alliance management. Alliances are often characterized as oscillating from being strong and vigorous to being on the brink of collapse. True to form, the US-Philippine alliance has swung from one end to the other in the last couple of years. Calls to review the Mutual Defense Treaty came in 2018 and became louder still in 2019. By early February 2020, shortly before the pandemic hit, the revocation of a Philippine senator’s US visa prompted President Duterte to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States. However, as the COVID-19 pandemic put a virtual stop to our daily lives, the abrogation of the alliance was suspended, that is, until US Secretary of Defense Austin’s recent visit to Manila, which led to the full restoration of the alliance today.
This oscillation seems to be the narrative of the US-Philippine alliance. While this seems to be the predictable characteristic of the US-Philippine alliance, there is merit to the observation that the oscillation is more a reflection of the disconnect between the official levels of government on one hand, and the strategic community within the Philippines on the other. This explains why the political salience of the alliance remains despite oftentimes strong anti-US stance of some administrations. Hence, the lesson here is to be mindful of nuances in domestic politics.
Longstanding alliances often fall into the trap of complacency. To overcome this, both sides need to address trust and misperception issues or “strategic trust deficit.” This rests on honest but continuing conversations and there is no better way of doing that than continuing with track 1, 1.5, and 2 engagements and never letting up on public diplomacy initiatives. Doing so also allows professional and personal networks to flourish, which are so important to alliance institutionalization and in ensuring that the spirit of the relationship is carried through despite shifting policies at the top levels.
Finally, for all that can be gleaned from AUKUS and the US-Philippine alliances, the now defunct Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) provides a lesson on how to prevent – or at least prolong – their demise. SEATO was formed in 1954 at the height of the Cold War. Its objective was to contain the spread of communism in the region and as such, the Manila Pact provided that members were obliged to respond in cases of overt aggression. What the organization did not factor in, however, was subversion, i.e., how to respond when Vietnamese communists organized and coordinated attacks by Pathet Lao against the Laotian government. Without clear evidence of Vietnam’s overt aggression, disagreements ensued among SEATO’s members, pitting the US in one side and France and the UK in another. The result was inaction and the eventual passing of this collective security arrangement.
SEATO highlights the invaluable lesson of strategic alignment. Without this crucial element, alliance formation will not even be possible, let alone setting a clear strategy and addressing inclusion/exclusion issues. Of course, ensuring that allies remain strategically aligned is a continuing commitment and helps narrow the trust deficit, which are both a function of alliance management. If AUKUS were to become a success, these lessons ought to be heeded carefully.
Charmaine Misalucha-Willoughby is Associate Professor in the International Studies Department of De La Salle University. Her areas of specialization are ASEAN's external relations, security cooperation, and critical international relations theory.