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Research Questions

  1. How healthy and strong are U.S. networks and those of U.S. competitors?
  2. Can the United States continue to rely on the influence conferred on it by its extensive network of allies and partners when formulating and executing its grand strategy in an era of great-power competition?

The Office of the Secretary of Defense asked the RAND Corporation to measure the strength and health of the United States' network of allies and partners. It did so with a view to determining how much the United States can continue to rely on that network in formulating and executing its defense strategy. Using network analysis, interdependence analysis, combinatorial optimization, and simulation, the RAND team constructed global networks representing diplomatic, military, and economic elements of national power in 1989, 2000, and 2017. The team then conducted an exploratory analysis of these networks separately and in combination. The team members compared the connections, centrality, interdependence, vulnerability to disruption, risk of conflict contagion, network depth, and U.S. access to network depth per dollar of U.S. assistance provided to allies and partners of the United States. This analysis suggests that the U.S. network remains strong and robust enough that the United States can probably continue to rely on it for the formulation and execution of its grand strategy for the time being. However, the authors identified more than two-fifths of the U.S. network's member states that had experienced changes in their levels of interdependence between 1989 and 2017 that could give decisionmakers in those countries grounds to question the continuing value of their alliance ties. This suggests that policymakers should pay careful attention to the strength of the U.S. alliance network going forward and to their approach to individual countries where shifts in dependence have been significant.

Key Findings

The United States continues to maintain diplomatic and military strength but has seen decreases in its economic influence; meanwhile, China's power has grown and Russia's has declined

  • In the economic sphere, the U.S. network of allies and partners should — properly managed — be able to continue to play a leading role in shaping the overall environment. This is important because it is from this economic environment that China draws much of its power.
  • The universe of countries with military alliances remained more militarily dependent on the United States than on China in 2017. U.S. allies were, at that time, on average, significantly more dependent on the United States than China's allies were on China. Moreover, military dependence on the United States had been growing since the end of the Cold War. That growth allowed the U.S. network of partners and allies to continue to remain most central to military dependence in all six regions of the world. Furthermore, in 2017, China's and Russia's alliance networks were more vulnerable to deliberate disruption than that of the United States.
  • Military dependence on China rose significantly between 1989 and 2017. By 2017, China had supplanted Russia in second place as the country on which allies depended most, on average, militarily in all regions of the world. This surge in military dependence on China means that there are no grounds for complacency.

Recommendation

  • Changes in dependence identified in the report suggest that policymakers should pay careful attention to the strength of the network going forward and to their approach to individual countries in whose cases these shifts in dependence have been significant.

This research was sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Program of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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