Bolstering alliances in a changing world

U.S. foreign policy should focus on strengthening, not weakening, its worldwide alliances, said Kori Schake, a Hoover Institution research fellow. That is especially true if the United States seeks to avoid conflict with China, the top challenger to the current international order.

Faced with ascending world powers, especially China, and global systems in flux, the United States needs to be more of a team player than ever before in its history, a Stanford scholar says.

U.S. foreign policy should focus on strengthening, not weakening, its worldwide alliances as the world order changes in the years ahead, said Kori Schake of the Hoover Institution. (Image credit: Thomas Vogel / iStock)

History suggests that building worldwide institutions and establishing international practices that align with those of other countries in mutually satisfying ways is the best approach for U.S. foreign policy if avoiding conflict is an objective, according to Kori Schake , a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.

Schake studies international relations, military history and national security. She previously served in White House policy roles and on the National Security Council during the Bush administration.

Since the end of World War II, the United States has benefited from creating many of the rules and norms for international institutions and processes - the so-called global order - which Schake examines in Safe Passage: The Transition from British to American Hegemony . The work focuses on the evolving relationship between Britain and the United States, ranging from the Monroe Doctrine in 1823 to the nations’ "special relationship" in the 20th century, when America rose to global leadership as Britain faded from it.

Stanford News Service recently interviewed Schake about her research and about how the lessons learned from the relationship between Britain and the United States can be applied to today.


What is the most important theme of your research?

That hegemonic transitions are unlikely to be peaceful. The U.K. to U.S. is the only one in history to have been peaceful. I was interested in why it was pacific when every other transition occurred by war. We now think of the U.K. and U.S. as culturally similar, but that’s a product of the transition, not a cause of it. Moreover, the U.K. to U.S. transition was highly contingent and reliant on Britain democratizing and the U.S. thinking of itself as an empire for a fleeting window of time in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The sense of sameness created space for political compromise in crises, and I don’t see comparable similarities in the U.S.-Chinese case. So, if China should continue to rise without liberalizing, I’d anticipate a violent transition.


How does your research offer lessons to guide today’s U.S. policy as America faces challengers to the order it has steered since the 1940s?

Britain as a hegemon never felt as exalted as the U.S., partly because of the modesty of British culture, but also because Britain achieved its successes by shrewd alliances of temporary convenience. It’s what the British excelled at in the time of their hegemony. What made their transition as a declining power peaceful with respect to the U.S. was that Britain invested in establishing rules and institutions - like the Court of Arbitration, an intergovernmental organization located at The Hague in the Netherlands - that brought others into assist the legitimacy and enforcement of its order. It is what the U.S. has mostly done since 1945, and it is an invaluable magnifier of a single nation’s power. The U.S. is failing that test, especially in the Trump administration, but even before, for example, with our refusal to ratify the Law of the Sea convention, which was signed by 157 nations in 1982.


What can be done to best protect American interests in a changing world order?

Play team sports. America’s allies and the routine cooperation we have established with so many other states not only magnifies our contributions, but also legitimates them in the eyes of states that aren’t powerful enough to set the rules of international order. We should, as the British did, build institutions and establish international practices that bind others to our preferred practices. Unilateralism, while sometimes necessary, is an expensive way to run the international order; playing team sports is much more cost-effective and ultimately more successful.


Why are the factors that made the Anglo-American transition so peaceful unlikely to apply during our changing world order today?

Britain and the U.S. came to see themselves as similar to each other and different from every other state - because we democratized early. So, our power relative to each other mattered less than our cumulative power relative to all other states. That sense of sameness created the space for policy compromises, even on very important issues. But it’s important to note that Britain was mistaken in its belief about our similarity - within about 15 years of becoming a hegemon, the U.S. began to try and restructure the international order to be a macrocosm of our domestic political order, which I think every hegemon probably does. So, at the Versailles negotiations and then more successfully after World War II, the U.S. tried to recreate the order in its image. Britain became less important to the U.S. as other states democratized.


Will an unraveling of a U.S.-led world order result in more conflict and wars - and less freedom and democracy? And who are our greatest rivals now?

Yes, I think it will. We have adversaries, but many, like Russia, are threats to the U.S. from their weaknesses, not their strengths. Europe could be a rival, but we are so similar that it’s what Freud described as the narcissism of small differences. China is the real test, because it has been growing richer and more powerful without liberalizing - no other country has achieved that. And the Chinese have an alternative vision of how the international order should work. So, if they continue to be an authoritarian country, they will become a great challenger to the U.S.-led international order.