George Washington, in his Farewell Address, advised the nascent nation to avoid “permanent alliances.”*
It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world
In his First Inaugural Address, Thomas Jefferson similarly warned against “entangling alliances.”
Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations-entangling alliances with none.
While we should be careful about basing arguments too heavily on isolated quotes from the Framers, these two quotes have, in my experiences in the trenches of the intra-conservative foreign policy debate, proven quite useful for the non-interventionist side and quite embarrassing for the interventionist side.
Since the intra-conservative debate often comes back to an argument about the nature of America, (Are we a universal “experiment” or “project” or are we a particular nation like others?) two on point quotes from two people as undeniably significant in the genesis of our nation as Washington and Jefferson must be grappled with by those supporting just such permanent and entangling alliances. Both sides want to claim the mantle of the Framers on the foreign policy issue, and since conservatives are ostensibly supposed to be about conserving things, the claim to be carrying on the legacy of the Framers is a powerful one.
One significant point in favor of the non-interventionist claim to be the true policy of the Framers is the fact that prior to World War II, the U.S.’s only formal alliance was the one we signed with France during the Revolutionary War. Since World War II, the U.S. has entered into defense pacts with more than 60 countries. You can see this visualized here. The U.S. as the essential defender of the world has a much shorter pedigree, and is thus shaky from an “originalist” standpoint.
Under current treaties, the U.S. is “mutually” responsible for the defense of much of Central and South America (the Rio Pact), much of Europe including Turkey (NATO), Australia, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and perhaps most absurdly, Pakistan. This is the epitome of the kind of entangling and permanent alliances that Jefferson and Washington warned us about.
Clearly the aftermath of World War II and the subsequent concerns about communist expansion prompted this change in direction, not a commitment to the primordial authentic American foreign policy. The tragic irony is that World War II was a direct result of World War I which was the result of a series of insane and suicidal mutual tripwire agreements that turned the assassination of a Duke into a major world conflict. World War I is one of the most tragic episodes in human history where Christian Europeans fought other Christian Europeans for no good reason. An argument can be made that World War I was the start of the decline and malaise that currently grips Europe. Why many presumably smart and well informed people, since the policy was broadly supported by the “establishment,” thought that recreating a bunch of tripwire agreements that would automatically escalate local conflicts into mass global conflagrations would be a good idea is baffling.
In theory, mutual defense pacts raise the stakes for aggression against their individual members, who might by themselves be vulnerable, and make aggression by more powerful actors less likely. The series of pacts we unwisely rushed into following World War II and the start of the Cold War were clearly primarily a response to the perceived threat of the Soviet Union.
While I don’t deny that the Soviet Union meddled in the affairs of other countries around the globe and desired the coming world communist revolution which they theoretically believed was inevitable, an argument can certainly be made that the threat of the Soviet Union was always overblown. That is an argument for a separate essay, but even if we concede that the Soviet threat was all it was cracked up to be, the ostensible need for these entangling alliances, especially NATO, ceased once the Soviet Union collapsed.
Instead of taking advantage of the opportunity afforded by the fall of the Soviet Union to retrench and reap the so-called “peace dividend,” the U.S. and our allies sought to establish hegemony in the new unipolar world. Instead of disbanding NATO, we expanded it right up to the border of Russia by admitting ex-Soviet satellites.
This move had nothing to do with the actual safety and security of the United States proper. In fact, it was overtly provocative and imperils our safety and security by making it more likely that the U.S. will get drawn into and thus escalate a regional conflict. This was all supposedly to maintain and expand the post-World War II “liberal” international order. I say supposedly because it also has a whole lot to do with maintaining the flow of government largesse to the military-industrial-security complex for which maintaining the global order is a useful pretense.
Mutual defense pacts may make acts of aggression more costly for the aggressor as their defenders say, but they also make acts of aggression more costly for those shouldering the burden of the pact since all the players are never equal.
The U.S. is not responsible for the defense of the world; it is responsible for the defense of the 50 states that make it up. NATO, or any other of our defense pacts, is thus premised on an absurdity. The premise of a mutual defense pact is that an attack on any one country within the pact is the same as an attack on them all. Well this is nonsense. An attack on Latvia (NATO) is not the same thing as an attack on Peoria. An attack on Colombia (Rio Pact) is not the same thing as an attack on Dubuque. An attack on the Philippines (bilateral agreement) is not the same thing as an attack on Charleston. An attack on Pakistan (bilateral agreement) is not the same thing as an attack on Baton Rouge. Any policy that pretends these scenarios are the same is based on a ridiculous fiction.
Any policy that would obligate the US to send our sons and daughters to fight a potentially nuclear war over Estonia is misguided and reckless. Since the U.S. will always be the big boy in these agreements, they amount to essentially the U.S. guaranteeing the security of smaller and weaker states without much added security for us in return, also known as freeloading. So if the U.S. is attacked, Trinidad and Tobago have our back (Rio Pact). Whew, I can sleep better at night knowing that.
When looked at on the grander scale, our mutual defense agreements may be even more absurd if that is possible. Taken as a whole, the European member nations of NATO have a greater population and combined economic output than either the U.S. or Russia. So in reality, as things currently stand, the relatively less populous and prosperous United States is protecting a relatively more populous and prosperous Europe from an even less populous and prosperous than either Russia? Heck, why isn’t Europe protecting us? And this presumes that Russia is even a treat to Europe, much less the U.S. Russia may or may not be a threat to some of its former satellites, but clearly no sensible person foresees Russian tanks rolling into Germany anytime soon. Germany would only be drawn into a conflict with Russia because of its mutual defense agreement with former Soviet satellites.
The U.S. was able to avoid entangling alliances for the first century and a half plus of our existence because of our fortuitous circumstances. We are a large country protected on two sides by large oceans and bordered on our north and south by relatively friendly neighbors. We didn’t form entangling alliances because we didn’t need them for our defense and we don’t need them now. We should be thankful for our good fortune and take advantage of it by practicing “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations-entangling alliances with none” as Jefferson suggested.
The elements that support the status quo arrangements do so not because they are necessary for the security of the United States. They do so because they want the U.S. to play the role of guarantor of global order, not because we must play it. This is a mug’s game motivated by ideological foolishness and no small amount of greed. We are being played for suckers by much of the world that is freeloading off our defense, and we are risking our safety and security as a result, not enhancing it.
*Note that Washington warned against “permanent alliances” and Jefferson warned against “entangling alliances.” I have sometimes seen entangling alliances mistakenly attributed to Washington by my fellow non-interventionists. I have done it myself in the past. Be careful because this gives the interventionists an opening to nitpick that Washington never said that, and avoid the larger issue.