When and How States Restructure Alliances

by Aki Nakai

From the classical works of Thucydides, Kautilya, and Machiavelli, to the more contemporary writings of Hans Morgenthau and Kenneth Waltz, to name a few, all have discussed the subject of alliances among political units or sovereign states. Alliances are a universal phenomenon, regardless of the times and their locations. Are there particular tendencies in how allies behave? What external and internal factors determine or change the current and future policy choices of allies? Given the recent establishment and revitalization of groupings among states (e.g., the Quad partnership, the AUKUS, extension of the Sino-Russian Friendship Treaty, and the Sino-Iran 25-year Strategic Cooperation Agreement), advancements in the understanding of a state’s behavior through the study of alliances is becoming ever more critical.
The CGP project, “Policy Innovations in Crises: New Pathways for Japan-U.S. Cooperation,” is essential and timely. It is widely recognized that the U.S.-Japan alliance has played a significant public goods role in enhancing regional stability and order. The U.S.-Japan alliance throughout the last two decades has confronted a variety of crises (e.g., the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the global financial crisis of 2007-08, the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami) and has been able to remain an anchor in the East Asian regional stability and order by deepening a bilateral cooperation through significant policy innovations. The U.S. and Japan are currently facing emerging crises which include a more assertive China, global pandemic, climate change, cybersecurity, and economic security. The U.S.-Japan policy responses to these crises will define the decade of the 2020s and beyond in the region, and it is pivotal in understanding the conditions of a stable alliance relationship.  
My book project, When and How States Restructure Alliances, investigates why some allies restructure (i.e., revise a formal treaty) their existing alliance relationships in the face of international and domestic change, but some do not. The mixed methods research first conducted a quantitative analysis by testing 142 defensive alliances between 1946 and 2000, and then qualitatively tested those findings by tracing the causal process through case studies for three U.S. alliances with the Philippines, South Korea and Japan. This research argues that there are two factors shifting after the alliance formation: (1) capabilities; and (2) ruling political parties. For the first factor, when an ally becomes more powerful in comparison to its neighbors and external great powers which would have power projection capabilities, this ally is more likely to restructure the existing alliance relationship because it is now able to rely on its own arms with greater capability. For the second factor, when an ally experiences changes of ruling political parties, this ally is also likely to restructure the existing alliance relationship because the leadership changes could bring on a new leader with different views toward the current alliances. These two changes, in capabilities and ruling political parties, lead to shifts in state preferences and interest calculations, providing the ally with greater incentive to restructure the existing alliance.
My research contributes to debates in the subject of alliances in two major ways. First, contrary to the conventional narrative that a decline in a state’s power leads to the reduction of alliance commitments, my study argues that an increase in power is the primary driver of alliance restructuring, ultimately showing that a weakening ally is likely to maintain the current alliance ties. Secondly, in contrast to contemporary state leaders who often emphasize that common democratic values are a foundation of alliance raison d’état, my research supports that the changes of leadership along with ruling political parties, in both democratic or authoritarian regimes, actually makes alliances less stable. With regards to the U.S.-Japan alliance, given the decline of Japan’s relative power and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)’s resilience, it would be less likely that Japan would seek to restructure the alliance in the near future. But an alliance restructuring can significantly affect an individual state’s security policy positively or negatively, and therefore it is still critical for both researchers and policy practitioners to pay continuous and close attention to the management of alliances which have faced various policy challenges.
One of the crucial areas for scholarly and policy analysis in the field of alliance studies today is within the realm of relationships between international politics and emerging technologies. For example, at the U.S.-Japan summit in April 2021, the two countries stated that they recognized “digital economy and emerging technologies have the potential to transform societies and bring about tremendous economic opportunities” and committed that the U.S. and Japan will collaborate to enhance their “competitiveness, individually and together, by deepening cooperation in research and technology development in life sciences and biotechnology, artificial intelligence, quantum information sciences, and civil space.” Five months later, the U.S., Japan, Australia, and India held the very first in-person summit in Washington, D.C., and the Quad leaders jointly stated that “We have established cooperation on critical and emerging technologies, to ensure the way in which technology is designed, developed, governed, and used is shaped by our shared values and respect for universal human rights.”
The domain of technology is considered a leading source of national wealth and autonomy, and since the establishment of the Science and Technology Agency in 1956, technology policy has been a major part of the public policy areas in Japan. Today, we live in a digital world. This fact signifies that emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, big data analytics, and robotics have important consequences for nations’ wealth and security. Particularly, experts on both sides of the Pacific have pointed out that artificial intelligence should be a major field for U.S.-Japan collaboration.
My research during the Policy Innovations fellowship term will explore the question of why and how Japan is responding to emerging technologies, especially artificial intelligence? Does Japan understand emerging technologies as an instrument to achieve national security interests or a tool to promote international cooperation? Are emerging technologies a means to maintain national wealth and autonomy or a tool to strengthen the U.S.-Japan alliance? Has Japan changed and/or created domestic institutions in order to reflect their views on artificial intelligence? This study expects to gain scholarly and policy insights through the research of public documents and collaboration with practitioners and scholars working on the CGP project theme. In conclusion, my study will answer the question of whether Japan should change its current public policy on emerging technologies and further innovate new policy approaches.