Back in the day, a fair amount of the policy oriented literature on international security focused on the question of relationships between patron and client states. The reasons for this were obvious; the Soviet Union and the United States were in competition for the allegiancefriendship of a variety of states in the first, second, and third worlds, and both scholars and policymakers wanted a grasp on the dynamics of the competition. One school of thought, identified most closely with Hans Morgenthau and then later with the “offensive realists,” argued that client states wield inordinate influence over their would be patrons. Through threats to defect, clients can effectively extort economic, military, and political concessions from their superpower allies. If the one superpower doesn’t come through, then the other will, and the shift will have significance for the global balance of power. Consequently, superpower have to be very attentive to the needs and demands of their clients in order to prevent embarrassing and unpleasant power shifts which might then themselves encourage other clients to gravitate towards the other superpower.
An alternative way of looking at the problem came from “defensive realists” who argued that the balance of power was far more robust than the offensive realists allowed. States have a variety of reasons for selecting their patrons, and few are actually in a position to undertake strategic switches. For one, ideology and local interest aren’t incidental to selection of patron. As Stephen Walt argued in Origins of Alliances, most US allies preferred the US because they preferred the US, rather than because the US had offered a better deal than the Russians. Moreover, switching between alliance systems meant incurring substantial economic and military costs. A patron-client relationship created powerful interests in favor of the status quo within the client state; generals and admirals prefer not to have switch between Western and Soviet military equipment every five years, and the economic ties created an mercantile elite associated with a particular constellation of trade. Consequently, superpowers should be more willing to “call the bluff” of a client state when it threatens to defect.
Whatever the logical merits of the second position, policymakers on both sides of the Cold War seem to have operated on the assumptions of the first. The US and the Soviet Union poured money and weapons into a variety of clients in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and South America. The Soviet Union undertook politically and economically costly invasions of several clients in danger of defection (Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Afghanistan) in order to dissuade other potential defectors. The United States helped dozens of “friendly” regimes protect themselves from their own people. In spite of the fact that the actual defections (Vietnam, Iran, China, Egypt, Albania) didn’t seem to lead to catastrophic alterations in the global balance of power, Moscow and Washington acted as if future defections would.
This kind of behavior should have subsided with the Cold War. As the threat of defection waned, the only remaining superpower should have been much less willing to make concessions to its clients. To some extent, this appears to have been the case. The US undoubtedly became less willing to protect friendly military regimes in Latin America as the threat of communism declined. The US also became more assertive in its economic relations with Japan, China, and Europe. In Africa, several states found themselves almost completely cut off from both US and Soviet support, because no one really cared anymore about the balance of power in region wherever.
Still, in a few key cases client states still seem to wield inordinate influence over their patrons, or at least to resist their patron’s political will. US issues with Israel are familiar to all; in spite of the economic and military dependence of Israel on the US (a dependence which can be overstated, but that nonetheless exists), it’s remarkably difficult for the US to make Israel do what it wants Israel to do. Chinese relations with North Korea should be understood in the same terms. Rather than thinking of North Korea as an asset to China, or as a key cog in China’s grand plan to dominate the Pacific, I think it’s better to understand the China-North Korea axis as a troubled patron-client relationship in which the patron has only limited influence over the behavior of the client. China’s economic relationships with the United States, South Korea, and Japan are all more important than the relationship with North Korea, and North Korea is of limited military utility to the Chinese in any context other than a war on the peninsula. Moreover, North Korea is almost 100% dependent on China for energy and other key sectors. While it’s possible that the North Koreans ran the plan to sink Cheonan by Beijing, I find it extremely unlikely; rather, I suspect that Beijing was deeply displeased by the North Korean move, but has been left without good options for disciplining its client.
Why can’t patrons always discipline clients, even after the Cold War? Let me suggest two reasons. The first is that, just as the patron-client relationship creates interests in the client, it creates interests in the patron. Outside of the state these interests can take the form of ethnic diaspora communities or groups that benefit economically from the relationship. Inside the state these interests take form through the multitude of contacts between a client and its patron. Diplomatic, intelligence, and military linkages between a patron and a client create communities inside the state with vested interests in the perpetuation of the alliance. Decisions on alliance commitment affect funding and organizational focus, which affects careers, which creates stakeholders. These stakeholders, often in combination with the interest groups outside the state, push back when the alliance is at risk. During the Cold War this pushback was particularly effective in both the US and the USSR (although in the USSR the internal state groups were much more important than the external groups) because the breakup of an alliance could be rhetorically construed as defeat, decay, and decline. Thus, even after a relationship has ceased to be of strategic use to a patron, some domestic interests will favor the status quo.
The second reason that patrons can’t discipline clients is that, on many issues, clients simply care much more than patrons. The US kind of sometimes cares about settlements, but the important actors in Israel really care about settlements, and the latter are willing to risk more than the former in order to pursue their policy ends. The clients bet on the likelihood that the patron will risk the entire relationship in order to get its way on the smaller issue, and often the clients win. Clients can take advantage of the fact that they care mostly about issues of local importance, while patrons have much larger strategic interests. Clients leverage their strategic value (and their constituencies within the patron state) in order to win patron concessions on the issues they care about the most. As their strategic value to patrons diminishes (with the end of the Cold War, for example) the ability to do this decreases, but doesn’t necessarily disappear. In the North Korea-China case, Pyongyang isn’t even leveraging positive expected utility (its positive strategic value to China); rather, it’s leveraging the negative expected utility to China of its own collapse.
Thoughts along these lines formed the context of my recent diavlog with Dan Drezner (yes, EVERYONE must diavlog Dan Drezner eventually)…
…which concentrated on the client state issue as it applied to Israel and North Korea. Matt Duss also wrote a bit about the topic, especially on the context of Anthony Cordesman’s comments about the strategic value of the Israel to the United States.