The Game of Alliances

Review: Victor Cha, 'Powerplay: The Origins of the American Alliance System in Asia'

Secretary of State Dean Acheson signs the Atlantic defense treaty for the United States, in Washington D.C, April 4, 1949 / AP

Much like physics, international relations can be divided into two worlds: a stripped-down, normative world of theory, and a full-fat, often unclear and contradicting "real life." Like the vacuumed, frictionless world of ideal physics, IR theory streamlines nations into hyper-rational, calculating "State As" and "State Bs" that make decisions predicated upon game theory modeling. These choices always result in the ideal outcome for one or both sides. Meanwhile, IR scholarship of the historical record, analyzing the messiness of the real world, is often content merely to explain how things are, rather than how they should be. Where an IR theory elegantly traces ideal models that vaguely echo real life, pure historical analysis steals bits and pieces of disparate theories to graft a sometimes-contradicting "model" onto the real world.

What makes Victor Cha's Powerplay so masterful, then, is its deft and seamless mixture of theory, historical analysis, and policy prescription. Sprinkled with anecdotes of government service, Powerplay reads well not just because of Cha's ability to unite theory with history, but as a result of how incisive Cha's argument is. In tracing the "why" of the history of America's East Asian alliance structure, Cha argues that a bilateral "hub and spoke" of alliances, rather than the multilateral "web" of a system like NATO, gave America the best opportunity for controlling renegade allies–the eponymous "powerplay." Rather than stick with the tired and dogmatic paradigms of traditional IR theory (realism, liberalism, and constructivism), Cha designs a new model (again called powerplay) that avoids issues with causation and inconsistency plaguing the other paradigms.

The powerplay model is thus: a large state, fearing entrapment by a smaller and more aggressive ally's unilateral actions, will seek to create a tighter bilateral relationship for the purpose of controlling the smaller ally. This tightening may take the shape of increased economic or military aid, diplomatic cover, or a security treaty with terms favoring the larger state. As Cha writes, this argument cuts against the grain of both popular and academic thinking on institutional and alliance design.

In proving this counterintuitive proposition for powerplay, Cha takes the reader through a deep dive of the diplomatic and military history of early Cold War East Asia, with the Korea, Taiwan, and Japan security pacts serving as case studies. A further chapter serves as the explanation of "back-end" American rationale behind the powerplay, surveying the thinking of the Departments of State and Defense, as well as the National Security Council. The powerplay argument–as it applies to Korea and Taiwan, both run by irredentist, autocratic leaders who clamored for a wider war–is cutting and convincing. With generous references, Cha cites policy directives, private conversations, letters, and public statements in support of his thesis. The powerplay case for Japan is slightly different, as Cha admits. Fully democratic from the end of the war, there was little need to restrain a land-hungry Japanese authoritarian leader. But, with the American goal to "win" Japan's long-term support, the powerplay strategy was more about controlling Asia's only great power than avoiding entrapment. While the reasoning may have been slightly different, the result is the same. Cha effectively points to the unequal security treaty between the United States and Japan, and Japan’s massive reliance on U.S. economic aid, as evidence of an American powerplay strategy in designing the postwar U.S.-Japan relationship.

After the historical case studies comes a chapter on counterarguments, in which Cha plays devil's advocate and parries away the theoretical and empirical criticisms of the powerplay hypothesis. For the most part, these counterarguments are compelling. While some may quibble with Cha's dismissal of the Pacific Ocean Pact, pointing to the fact that it was proposed by the Americans, Cha deftly turns this on its head by underscoring that Japan, the great power America hoped to shape through membership in the pact, trusted Washington's ability for bilateral rather than multilateral control of the region. The Pacific Ocean Pact, which originally looked much like NATO, was then altered to exclude South Korea and Taiwan, and Japan's former colonial possessions refused its entry. Without Japan, it was dead in the water, and Cha repeatedly emphasizes that the Americans spent merely eight weeks considering this very hypothetical institutional design.

In the conclusion, Cha both generalizes the powerplay argument to other U.S. alliance relationships and argues that the institutional "geometry" created by the powerplay is compatible with the rising Chinese-led institutional network. The application of powerplay to the U.S. relationships with Israel, Spain, and Germany is succinct and straightforward. These tangents are especially effective because they cover a gamut of reasons for powerplay, from base access (Spain) to quashing the sale of high-tech military equipment to an adversary (Israel).

And while perhaps another, separate book could be written on the compatibility of U.S.-designed institutions with their Chinese-led counterparts, Cha delivers a clear explanation of how they indeed fit together. While the United States and China may be at odds, Cha writes, the beauty of East Asian institutions is their "swapability;" the proliferation of many institutions means that states can simply move to another grouping if they feel that their particular agenda is being diluted by an increase in membership. Overlapping memberships and similar agendas mean, for instance, that China, which is excluded from the U.S.-Japan-Australia trilateral security dialogue, may simply raise objections directly to these states in another grouping in which it is included.

Powerplay, by virtue of its comprehensive historical, theoretical, and policy arguments, is a must-read for East Asia watchers or diplomatic historians. But while Cha's book is deeply enjoyable and accessible, it is also quite sobering. In reading this history of the American alliance system in Asia, one is struck by the bipartisanship of the arrangement. Republican and Democratic administrations, those of Truman and Eisenhower, designed and made manifest institutions that have largely kept 70 years of peace and brought untold prosperity to the Asia-Pacific. Cha's book is an implicit warning sign, a firm and convincing explanation that the bipartisan consensus in American foreign policy is indeed real and worth preserving at all costs.