Worse Than a Monolith: Alliance Politics and Problems of Coercive Diplomacy

In This Review

Worse Than a Monolith: Alliance Politics and Problems of Coercive Diplomacy in Asia
By Thomas J. Christensen
Princeton University Press, 2011
318 pp. $24.95
Purchase

Christensen takes a fine-grained look at several key episodes during the Cold War in Asia, including the Korean War, the Taiwan Strait crises of 1954–55 and 1958, and the Vietnam War. He uses them to refine existing theories of alliance politics and coercive diplomacy. One lesson is that weakly coordinated alliances send out mixed signals that court miscalculation by the rival camp, as was the case with the murky U.S. commitment to the defense of South Korea and Taiwan in 1950 and the uncoordinated Soviet and Chinese responses to General Douglas MacArthur’s Inchon landing the same year. Another lesson is that internally divided alliances generate competitive escalation among their members, as was the case in the 1960s with China and Russia, each of which sought to outdo the other in Cuba, Laos, and Vietnam. Even though rivals feel more threatened when an alliance is monolithic, a unified enemy can be easier to deal with than a divided one. Sometimes, a strong alliance system can trigger conflict, as was the case in 1954 when the United States spearheaded the creation of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization. That act motivated Mao to launch artillery attacks in the Taiwan Strait in an attempt to deter the United States from signing a mutual defense treaty with Taiwan. Christensen suggests that in the past decade, during part of which he served in the U.S. government, the United States has made its signaling to Beijing credible by making its commitments to Taipei and Tokyo clear.