Academic journal article Asian Perspective

Alliance Commitment and the Maintenance of the Status Quo

Academic journal article Asian Perspective

Alliance Commitment and the Maintenance of the Status Quo

Article excerpt

DO ALLIANCES INCREASE OR DECREASE THE LIKELIHOOD OF CHANGING the status quo between a weak challenger and a major power with malicious intent? Few studies explore the potential correlations between the two sets of variables. Even for the studies that deal with such a topic, the arguments may move in opposite directions. For some scholars, alliances may bring about heightened tensions (Gibler and Vasquez 1998; Singer and Small 1966), but for others, alliances may diminish conflicts (Walt 1987; Waltz 1979). Which argument makes more sense logically and empirically? The answer may lie in some contextual factors.

The purpose of our article is to investigate both theoretically and empirically whether the alliance-like arrangement involving a small challenger with external security assurances offered by a great power will affect its attempt at changing the status quo, a move that would offend another regional or global dominant power. In other words, we examine whether outside security guarantees may boost the confidence and capabilities of a small state enough that it would confront a major power. We will test our hypothesis first with a large cross-national data set and then with two cases, the Korean War and the US-China-Taiwan triangular relationship. In the next section, we will lay out our hypothesis. The following three sections will then provide the empirical evidence with regard to the cross-national data set and the two individual cases.

Alliance Commitment and the Maintenance of the Status Quo

The Importance of Strong Commitments

Alliance commitment is one of the critical factors for systemic stability. On the one hand, an alliance imposes restraints on adversaries, but on the other, it may also embolden partners. Most scholars agree that defensive alliances may provide an extended deterrence function (Huth and Russett 1984, 1988; Russett 1963). That is, the parties to a defensive agreement vow to support each other in the event that one or more of them are attacked. Compared with other types of alliance commitments, such as neutral, nonaggression, and consultation, defensive alliances may have the strongest deterrent effects as a consequence of the fact that the major power (called attacker hereafter) will know that if a small challenger (called challenger) has a reliable alliance agreement with a strong defender (called defender), the attacker will find itself in conflict not only with the challenger but also with the defender if the attacker decides to attack the challenger. This is how extended deterrence works (Russett 1963).

The Cold War is a case in point. It lasted from 1945 to the late 1980s and never led to a full-scale war between the superpowers, though war seemed imminent during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Why did the two superpowers refrain from letting numerous crises between them escalate to large-scale military confrontations? Scholars of conflicts argue that nuclear weapons imposed constraints on both sides. However, the answer may well be related to the superpowers' alliances, each with strong commitments.

In a way, a strong security commitment will strengthen the hand of a small challenger aiming at changing the status quo. The small challenger is usually a new participant to the ranks of power and does not gain the benefits that befit its capability. Its dissatisfaction with the status quo will strengthen its intention to change its position in the international system, which is resisted by the major power, the potential attacker. The lack of security guarantees will discourage the small challenger from moving forward. So what it needs is alliance support from another great power.

The allied defender will, of course, consider the total cost for defending the weaker ally should the disruption of the status quo result in a war. If the attacker persists in its demands or threatens military engagement, the defender must make a choice whether to concede defeat or go to war in defense of its ally. …

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