Entangling Alliances

Alliances, we had always felt, were not our sort of thing. They would involve us in obscure quarrels and sordid rivalries which were none of our concern. They seemed to be both undesirable and unnecessary in view of our special geographic and political circumstances.

"It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliance with any portion of the foreign world": it was George Washington's Farewell Address to us. The inaugural pledge of Thomas Jefferson was no less clear: "Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations-entangling alliances with none."

It became more than a policy; it became an expression of a national point of view about ourselves and our place in the world, a view which contrasted the simple virtues of our Republic with the subtle and complex qualities (some said corruptions) of Europe. From 1789 until the Second World War, excepting only our relationship with Panama, the United States refused to enter into treaties of alliance with anyone. In the 25 years since the end of the war, however, in a dramatic reversal of national policy, we have allied ourselves with half the world.

Was this wise? There has been a growing national sense of unease about the extent of our commitments, and more than a suspicion that we were imprudent to disregard the counsel of those who founded the Republic. There has been a feeling that we may have taken on too much in the way of military obligations abroad, especially in Asia. There has also been a sense of bafflement and frustration in trying to ascertain exactly what these commitments are which have sent our young men into the jungles and bogs of Annam and Tonkin, Laos and Cochin China.

After entering into the multilateral treaty which created the United Nations (the United Nations Charter), the United States negotiated three groups of alliances. The first-the Rio Pact-was contracted with the states of Latin America in 1947. The second-the North Atlantic Treaty-was contracted with the states of Western Europe in 1949. The third was the series of treaties with respect to Asia and the Pacific (including the SEATO treaty) which were contracted in the decade 1950-1960.

Register Now
Non-Subscriber
Register now to get three articles each month. Join us as a paid subscriber and get unrestricted access to all of Foreign Affairs, including on our iPad app.
Please note that we will never share your email address with a third party. Read our privacy policy.
Register for free to continue reading.
Registered users get access to three free articles every month.

Or subscribe now and save 55 percent.

Subscription benefits include:
  • Full access to ForeignAffairs.com
  • Six issues of the magazine
  • Foreign Affairs iPad app privileges
  • Special editorial collections

Latest Commentary & News analysis