6+1 Questions

13 August 2021, 1100 EDT

Name of the book… and its coordinates?

Raymond Kuo.  2021Following the Leader: International Order, Alliance Strategies, and Emulation.  (Palo Alto:  Stanford University Press).

What’s the argument?

Most alliances today look like NATO:  integrative, institutionalized, and multilateral.  But before World War II, military pacts looked very different: often informal, generally sharply delimited, and frequently bilateral.

I argue that changes in the purpose and design of alliances aren’t driven by shifting geopolitical circumstances. Alliances are like fashions. Influential countries develop new alliance styles. Other states imitate their more prestigious peers.

How do countries become trend-setters? They win major wars.

Other countries want to follow “best practices” in a lot of domains, including international security. Victory in a major military conflict seems like pretty good evidence that a government knows what it’s doing – even if the practice isn’t actually that effective or isn’t suited for other states.

Of course, the major reason why people wear fashionable clothing isn’t because they assume it’s the most comfortable or practical. They want the status that comes from following trend-setters.

Governments may care more about efficacy than fashonistas do, but status is still one of their crucial motivations. When a state wins a major war – especially a great-power one – that creates a ‘halo of prestige’ around its practices. Other states imitate those practices, including alliance “styles,” in the hope of elevating their own standing in international status hierarchies.

Why should we care?

Historical variation in the ways that states conduct alliances presents a genuine puzzle. It’s also an important one. Alliances aren’t “one size fits all.” Improperly tailored security partnerships waste resources. They can create unnecessary restrictions on autonomy, or fail to achieve their goals because of too much slack. They can even increase the risk of dragging participants into an avoidable military conflict.

Understanding why so many alliances follow inappropriate templates may help the foreign-policy community to break from the habits that produce such mismatches. I also think that my book matters to current academic and policy debates about international order. One developing controversy concerns whether or not great-power wars in general, or power-transition wars, are crucial to changes in international order. If the past is prologue, then the answer is “yes” when it comes to the forms that alliances take.

We should believe your argument because?

The book draws from a combination of statistical analysis, archival research, and elite interviews. This doesn’t just mean that I bring a lot of evidence to bear. It allows me to trace the interaction between developments in the international system and how governments are actually making decisions about the design of their alliances.

You decide to write the book in the first place because?

The liberal international order is under threat. I’m a Taiwanese American, and I’m acutely aware that Taiwan’s security depends in no small measure on the fate of that order. The form that alliances take are an important part of that structure, especially in the security sphere.

 So I knew that I was interested in studying alliances across different international orders.

The more work that I did, the more I realized that we don’t have many explanations for why alliances don’t look the same across different periods; the ones that we do have didn’t seem quite right.

What would you most like to change about the book… and why?

The book focuses on the creation of alliance “templates” in the “early years” of international orders. I wish I could have also examined how they end. The penultimate chapter does a bit of this through statistical analysis, but I would’ve liked to have done deeper qualitative research. But this does open up avenues for further projects.

The +1: How hard was it to get the book published?

It was a slog. I submitted the prospectus to six presses, the manuscript to five.  I thought that the manuscript was ready for a book workshop, for shopping around to presses, for only minor tweaks that would satisfy the next press. But I think I was so deep into the project that I didn’t see some of the bigger issues that needed attention. I should have asked for help more, more often, and specifically from professors who had been through the process of writing big, comparative-historical books. In retrospect, this seems obvious.  But our work as academics can be incredibly lonely, and that loneliness can breed isolation.

Ironically, getting one foot out the door of academia made a huge difference. I’ve written about being the trailing spouse to an amazing, high-powered businesswoman. This meant giving up tenure-track positions, but it also gave me space to intellectually reconnect with my project. I had come to see the book in instrumental terms – as a hurdle I needed to jump to advance my career. Of course, that made it harder, not easier, to write.

By taking that step back – and getting some critical guidance on new literature to check out – I developed a much clearer idea of what I wanted to say, how to say it, and the contribution the project would make.

So I’m enormously proud of the book.  Stanford Univeristy Press was utterly fantastic to work with.  And my family – my wife especially – has been more supportive than I deserve.