Managing Mutually Antagonistic Allies Is Like Herding Cats

One problem (among many) the United States has experienced in leading a vast array of allies and security dependents is that periodic quarrels break out among such clients. Even when the disputes are parochial and petty, the degree of animosity generated frequently is not. Not only does Washington then face the prospect of one or more of those allies breaking ranks and undermining U.S. policy objectives, but the danger exists that a confrontation might escalate to a cold war—or even a hot one.

Deteriorating relations between two of Washington’s prominent allies in East Asia–Japan and the Republic of Korea–are now creating a major headache for the Trump administration. As I discussed in an American Conservative article in late July, the ongoing bilateral disputes involve both economic and security issues—as well as matters of intense national pride. The quarrel already had reached an alarming level at that time, but it has grown noticeable worse since then. A full-blown cold war between Tokyo and Seoul is now a possibility.

The trade spat that had been simmering for months escalated sharply on August 2 when Japan removed South Korea from a favored trading nations list, disadvantaging ROK products and putting the overall bilateral economic relationship in jeopardy. That hostile move prompted Seoul to threaten retaliatory measures, including withdrawing from the military intelligence sharing agreement it maintains with Japan and the United States. Needless, to say, given the Trump administration’s ongoing delicate diplomatic dance with North Korea, U.S. officials are not pleased about the prospect of a disruption in intelligence gathering and cooperation between Washington’s two most important allies in Northeast Asia.

Japanese and South Korean quarrels have flared on numerous occasions before, and the United States has found itself pressed into the role of diplomatic peacemaker. Nor are those two countries the only troublemakers in the ranks of Washington’s allies. Since Turkey and Greece joined NATO in 1952, they not only have frequently pursued conflicting foreign policy goals, they also have nearly come to blows on several occasions, most notably during a confrontation over Cyprus in 1974. Washington was barely able to prevent an intra-NATO war on that occasion. Over the decades, Turkey also has made a habit of sending its warplanes into Greek airspace, stoking tensions. These provocations continue, with some 36 violations in a single day in December 2018. Although Washington views Ankara’s mounting security flirtation with Russia, marked by Turkey’s purchase of S-400 anti-aircraft missiles from Moscow, as a greater worry, concerns about Greek-Turkish animosity remain high on the list.

Rather than continue to be a referee between chronically quarrelsome allies who can barely abide one another, U.S. leaders need to ask themselves whether maintaining such hoary, cold war-era security ties really benefits the United States. That question certainly should be asked about the bilateral security pacts with Japan and South Korea. Those two governments certainly ought to recognize that they have important mutual interests at stake and need to foster close cooperation to deal with a rising China and a habitually disruptive North Korea. If they cannot or will not behave responsibly and instead choose to engage in dangerous posturing and grandstanding, then U.S. officials are merely serving as enablers. Trying to placate and pacify disruptive, mutually antagonistic allies is akin to trying to herd cats. Indeed, it may be even more frustrating and less rewarding.