Nodal defence: the changing structure of U.S. alliance systems in Europe and East Asia

Luis Simón
Alexander Lanoszka
Hugo Meijer

Scholars and pundits alike continue to portray the U.S.-led regional alliance systems in Europe and East Asia in stark, dichotomous terms. Whereas the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is the standard model of multilateralism, the U.S.-led system of bilateral alliances in East Asia is the archetypal ‘hub-and-spokes’ structure in which different allies (the spokes) enjoy deep bilateral strategic ties with Washington (the hub) but not with each other. We argue that these common depictions of U.S.-led alliance systems are obsolete. Instead, we show that what we label ‘nodal defence’ – a hybrid category that combines overlapping bilateral, minilateral and multilateral initiatives – better captures how the U.S.-led alliance systems in Europe and East Asia operate today. Specifically, nodal defence is a hybrid alliance system in which allies are connected through variable geometries of defence cooperation that are organized around specific functional roles so as to tackle different threats. To show how nodal defence is an emerging central feature of the U.S.-led regional alliance systems, we conduct an original cross-regional comparison of how these alliance systems work, drawing on elite interviews, official documents, and secondary literature.