America’s Entangling Alliances: 1778 to the Present

  • Published

America’s Entangling Alliances: 1778 to the Present by Jason W. Davidson. Georgetown University Press, 2020, 281 pp.

This history of America’s alliances makes the case that America has consistently sought alliances to enhance its strategic interests in each stage of its development as a nation. The author, Jason W. Davidson, is a professor of political science and international affairs at the University of Mary Washington and the author and co-author of two other books about diplomacy.

Davidson lays the book out logically, dividing the United States’ history according to stages of power he considers the United States to have achieved and dedicating a chapter to each stage. The US starts as a lesser power; becomes a regional power; and then a great power in multipolarity, bipolarity, and, finally, unipolarity. The US makes a convenient place to study because of this constant increase in power. At each stage, the US would enter into a type of alliance based on the type of threat and interests it perceived. When the US was a lesser power, it would ally with another country only when its survival was at stake. In a bipolar world, the US would protect states “with valuable capability/location.” In the unipolar world, it would try to create security partnerships with lesser states to share burdens, facilitate military action, and project stability. Davidson begins each chapter with his calculations of the share of world power the top countries had for a given year.

Davidson compiled a great deal of research for every part of the book. The early chapters about the United States’ pre–Civil War agreements are particularly enjoyable, as Davidson has rediscovered some treaties that would be unfamiliar to a popular audience. The research is exhaustively footnoted and focuses on what the people who were making the diplomatic decisions at the time thought about the treaties they were making. Davidson helps his case considerably by directly quoting from their memoirs or public statements at the time instead of relying on secondary sources. From 1778 to 1991, his thesis is well supported. America’s leaders during this period confronted each crisis in response to the threats and interests he identifies. The only real exception, which he notes, is the defense commitment the Kennedy administration made to Israel in 1962. The theory would have predicted that America’s policy makers would mainly be concerned with keeping a country out of the Soviet sphere, but Israel was never really in this danger. Furthermore, Kennedy administration officials noted that the primary reason they thought that allying with Israel was in the interests of the United States was to increase regional stability. Because Israel would feel less insecure, it would be unlikely to start a preemptive war with any of its neighbors. The US even joined the military coalitions of World Wars I and II based on Wilson and Roosevelt’s ability to persuade Congress and the American public that Germany was a threat to the United States. Both presidents sought to tie the rationale for joining the alliances to the nation’s founding ideals, but Davidson shows that it was the threat to the nation’s security that provided the real tipping point. Particularly helpful is Davidson’s dismissal of the coincidence that the US entered World War I only after the czar had abdicated. While this is true, there is no evidence that it played any role in the Wilson administration’s decisions about the war.

The thesis only becomes problematic after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. A unipole is relatively unique in history, so it may make sense to “predict” what a unipole would do based on the example of the only unipole. The United States expanded its alliances after it became a unipole, in Davidson’s opinion, because the security partnerships would increase US leverage over the countries and increase stability. He acknowledges that these countries are not direct threats to the United States but might threaten US commercial power or cause the United States to join a war in a destabilized region. Davidson states that this explains the pattern of US alliances right up to the present day and includes the two most recent security partnerships with Montenegro and North Macedonia. There are two problems with this thesis, however. The first is that the United States seems to be moving into a more bipolar world as the influence of China slowly increases and the influence of the United States decreases, by Davidson’s own account. By 2016, according to Davidson’s numbers, the United States and China were closer to a bipolar than a unipolar relationship. According to the theory, then, the United States should begin focusing more on strategically valuable countries that China could influence. Instead, since 2016 we have only seen increases in NATO, where the primary threat is not China but destabilization. Furthermore, from the end of the Napoleonic Wars until the unification of Germany in 1871 the United Kingdom was much closer to a unipole than any other nation in modern times. However, Great Britain entered into almost no defense pacts or security partnerships during this time, the main exception being the guarantee of Belgium’s independence in 1830. The example of the UK raises the concern that Davidson’s model is too closely fit to the United States’ experience and not to an abstract unipole.

Overall, Davidson’s book is a valuable exploration of the United States’ diplomatic history from a realist perspective. It is particularly challenging to those who see the United States’ diplomatic history as reflective of the US using its alliances to promote its values around the globe. Davidson provides useful context, theory, and practice for leaders who look to prepare the United States for a possible bipolar world.

Capt Steven Trochlil, USAF
PhD, Public Policy Analysis

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."