Alliances Fall Apart

Review: Jakub Grygiel and A. Weiss Mitchell, ‘The Unquiet Frontier: Rising Rivals, Vulnerable Allies, and The Crisis of American Power’

NATO Summit in Warsaw
NATO Summit in Warsaw / AP

A central pillar of American foreign policy since the end of World War II has been a sometimes underappreciated and overlooked system of alliances. Our membership in NATO is the most prominent example of this, but Jakub Grygiel and A. Weiss Mitchell focus this insightful new study on those smaller and "geographically vulnerable" nations in three strategically important areas, the Baltics and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia.

Those regions are in proximity to Russia, Iran, and China respectively, all nations aligned against the United States. In the face of these "revisionist powers," U.S. allies such as the Baltic states, Poland, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Taiwan, and Japan "have been indispensable to maintaining the global order that has allowed for the peace and prosperity of the American century."

According to the authors, those relationships were mutually beneficial with the United States acting as "guarantor" of the independence and security of its allies. For decades that arrangement, especially with the end of the Cold War, was fully accepted by U.S. policymakers of almost all policy stripes.

For Grygiel and Mitchell, that consensus is being challenged—to the detriment of U.S. security—by critics within the United States who claim the financial burdens and "risk of entrapment" require a new security paradigm in the 21st century. For the authors, the result, and I share their conclusion, is "a permissive environment for rising or reassertive powers." This is no longer a hypothetical, as Russian, Chinese, and Iranian assertiveness over the past few years demonstrates.

Nonetheless, rising powers do not have an unfettered opportunity to pursue their hegemonistic plans, mostly out of their concern that America remains a singularly powerful nation, with the extent of its retrenchment impossible to measure, leading to uncertainty in the minds of its adversaries.

Even with that mitigating factor, "the American alliance is in a state of advanced crisis," Grygiel and Mitchell conclude. This gives rise to "probing" behavior that challenges the United States in peripheral parts of the three regions.

Beyond the opportunities presented for America’s adversaries, for its allies there are detrimental effects so significant that for the first time in decades "they are contemplating new strategic menu cards … and exploring a variety of options."

Armed with this diagnosis—and backed by a strong evidentiary base reflecting extensive knowledge of their subject—Grygiel and Mitchell proceed to lay out a case for reversing the erosion of America’s frontier alliances.

This may be the most satisfying of the book’s many strong aspects, as it presents a detailed and reasoned set of recommendations meriting the attention of policymakers and academics. Those include political and military assistance tailored to the individual needs and specific strategic concerns of the allies, all with the eye of rebuilding America’s political credibility.

The president is seldom mentioned, but it is apparent the book serves as a damning critique of Barack Obama’s abject refusal to confront adversaries. This book speaks to the core issues relating to America’s standing in the world, and deserves close scrutiny.