Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Friday, October 14, 2011

Alliances, Bandwagoning, and Asia

I recently came across a rather curious blog post by Stephen Walt, esteemed professor at Harvard's JFK school of government. Apparently, Walt traveled to South Korea for a conference on security affairs in Asia. In his blog post, he copied a portion of a paper he presented at the conference. The content of this paper should be very familiar to international relations students and scholars. For those who aren't aware of Stephen Walt or his work, I'll give some brief background information on both.    

Walt has made his name by challenging balance of power (BOP) theory, arguably the dominant theory in security studies scholarship, with his own balance of threat (BOT) theory (see his most famous work Origins of Alliances, which covers these theoretical debates). Both theories address alliance formation and patterns--that is, when countries form military alliances with others for their own self-defense--but the force that triggers such alliances differs in the two theories. Walt contends that countries don't simply balance (or align) against other powerful countries (which is what BOP theorists claim), but against threatening or menacing countries. In Walt's formulation, "threat" is a broader category than power, as it incorporates power, yes, but also geographic proximity, political intentions, and offensive power projection capabilities. So using Walt's BOT theory as a guide, it's no surprise that powerful countries like China are seen as threatening to others in the international system. But additionally, it should also be no surprise that countries like Iran and North Korea are labeled threats, since they are perceived by many (including the West, Sunni countries in the ME, etc.) as harboring aggressive, malign intentions to harm global and regional peace and stability. In general, Walt believes balancing rules the day in international relations, as states are presumed to be defensive security seekers most concerned about protecting their interests and values from potential threats. 

Now, back to Walt's blog post. I'd like to direct your attention to two quotes that focus on the concept of bandwagoning, which is another type of alliance. In bandwagoning, just as the term connotes in everyday parlance, countries align themselves with (not against) the dominant power or the source of the threat. They don't aim to oppose, or block, or thwart the dominant power or threat.

(For clarification, please keep in mind that Walt's blog post focuses on regional alliances in Asia. And currently, because of its growing military and economic power, it's increased foreign policy assertiveness, and its geographic location, China is seen as the looming danger or threat in Asia. It's the country that others in the region are going to have to decide whether they want to side with (bandwagon) or against (balance).)

Quote 1. "In rare cases, weak or isolated states may be forced to 'bandwagon' with a powerful state. Weak states can do little to affect the outcome of a great power contest and may suffer grievously in the process, so they must choose the side they believe is most likely to win. They may be willing to stand up to a stronger power if they are assured of ample allied support, but a weak state left to its own devices may have little choice but to kowtow to a larger and stronger neighbor. That is how 'spheres of influence' are born."

Quote 2. "As I've noted before, a third challenge is the question of how much support the United States has to provide its Asian partners in order to keep them on board. If Washington does too little, some of them might be tempted to cut a deal with Beijing."

Notice anything strange about these two quotes?

In the first quote, in which he outlines his theoretical definition of bandwagoning, Walt argues that countries side or align with the threat because they face heavy coercive pressure from a more powerful rival or opponent. In other words, countries are bullied into bandwagoning behavior. They have little choice but to capitulate to the whims of their stronger, more feared opponent, which seeks to expand its influence over them, because confronting it head-on carries grave risks.

But in the second quote, in which he filters his theoretical discussion through various hypotheticals about Asian politics, Walt defines bandwagoning much differently. Here, countries bandwagon with the threat so as to gain something tangible from the relationship. After all, look at the context of the second quote. There's no mention of bullying. Instead, it's all about whether the U.S. keeps Asian countries "on board" or declines or fails to do so, letting them flee to China for a better deal. Essentially, this is a bidding war. It comes down to whether the U.S. can pony up enough to keep Asian countries satisfied and in its camp. But wait a minute, that's something that doesn't activate bandwagoning, right? I thought bandwagoning occurs when one side, presumably the weaker one, is coerced into joining the powerful/threatening side.

The logic is stunningly inconsistent, especially for such a prominent academic.

Here is the issue: Walt continues to ignore a major theoretical criticism launched against him by Randall Schweller, in his 1994 journal article "Bandwagoning for Profit." Schweller (my mentor, just to be clear) argues that Walt unnecessarily restricts the definition of bandwagoning by equating this form of alliance with coercion and bullying. He believes that Walt overlooks that bandwagoning can occur for reasons related to greed and power maximization. As evidence, Schweller cites a slew of examples, including the behavior of Italy and Japan in World War II, both of which aligned with the Axis powers to share in the spoils of victory. Relatedly, he writes, "Stalin's eagerness to fight Japan in 1945 was driven more by the prospect of gaining unearned spoils than a desire for greater security from the United States or Japan" (p. 82). And the logic of bandwagoning pervaded cold war politics for both the Americans and Soviets, with both sides fearing that should the other one gain power preponderance, it would serve as a magnet to attract other countries into their camp. Schweller argues that bandwagoning has continued into the post-cold war period, animating such conflicts as the first Persian Gulf War.

By ignoring these critiques, Walt conceptually defines bandwagoning just as he has for the past 25 years. Yet when he dives into his discussion of Asian politics (which is where the second quote was pulled), when he starts to project what might happen in the region, he then has to face the hard realities that some countries might side with China, though not because China threatened or bullied them, but because they believe they can gain from the relationship. Hence, we see the logical disconnection between quotes one and two.

Of course, it's also possible that Walt just doesn't see "cutting a deal" with China as representative of bandwagoning. Perhaps he envisages it as something less than flipping sides, perhaps, say, a deal to remain neutral. It's possible, which then does preserve some sense of logical consistency. But here again, there are problems. As mentioned above, at least without any further clarification, "cutting a deal" reads as if Asian countries are indeed switching sides, moving from the American to the Chinese bloc. Moreover, I'm not convinced that Beijing would be willing to make a deal with a nearby country, especially one in which China offers an array of concessions and perks, and let it remain outside of China's orbit. China will want more bang for it's buck.

What do our readers think? Any reactions?

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