History of United States and Its Alliances
On April 4, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) will turn 70. This is an incredible historical feat. Alliances never last long, and the fact that NATO transcends oceans and continents makes the longevity of this alliance all the more impressive.
There are those in the United States who have never liked the alliance, or at least America’s participation in it, and often argue that America’s growth into the most powerful polity in world history, with the world’s freest people enjoying their liberties, has been done unilaterally thanks to our unique culture and set of institutions. Daniel Larison, a senior editor at The American Conservative with a PhD in History from the University of Chicago, is probably the most sophisticated proponent of this line of argument. Ron Paul, the former Congressman from Texas, is probably the most well-known proponent.
Unilateralists call themselves “non-interventionists” in the United States (their opponents refer to them disparagingly as “isolationists”) and while I don’t agree with them, they make a really good argument using history as their guide.
Prior to World War II, the United States had signed just one official alliance with another polity: the Treaty of Alliance with France that lasted from 1778-80. So from the start of the Revolutionary War (which was really a secession from the British Empire rather than an actual revolution) in 1776 to Washington’s entrance into World War II in late 1941, the United States had joined one alliance, and it was a short-lived alliance that would make or break the existence of the republic. (During World War I, the United States was an “affiliated partner” rather than an official ally.)
According to unilateralists like Larison and Paul, then, the United States has no need for allies. The republic has done just fine on its own without them, and the “entangling alliances” Thomas Jefferson warned us about only lead to problems abroad.
Fair enough, but what do we call the Oneidas and Tuscaroras, two Native American polities that fought alongside the United States during its secession from the British Empire? Affiliated partners? The decision of the Oneidas to leave the Iroquois League (a British ally) and fight alongside the American rebels had serious implications for not only North America but the world. Yet the Oneida were not allies?
The United States has a long history of entering into alliances of convenience, and a short history of building and then leading stable coalitions of military partners around the world. Contrary to what unilateralists like Larison and Paul would have you believe, then, alliances have shaped the destiny of the republic since its founding. And, more importantly, these alliances of convenience have their intellectual roots in George Washington’s foreign policy. Washington’s foreign policy even has its own name: the Washington Doctrine of Unstable Alliances. According to Washington and other elites of the founding era, the United States should freely enter into, and exit, alliances as necessary (Jefferson was a big fan of this Doctrine, too). This stands in stark contrast to the idea that the United States only soiled its virginal unilateralism once, when it was in dire peril and needed a helping hand from France to fend off an evil empire.
Washingtonian alliances throughout American history
Aside from fighting alongside the Oneida and Tuscarora during its secession from the British Empire, the United States forged alliances with Sweden, in 1801 to fight the Barbary states, and with the Choctaw, Cherokee, and some of the Creek during the ill-fated War of 1812. In fact, one of the reasons the United States got pummeled in the War of 1812 was the lack of Native allies relative to the British, who had secured alliances with at least 10 Native American polities.
The American push westward saw a plethora of shifting alliances with Native peoples, all of which tilted in eventual favor of the United States (and to the detriment of their allies).
The American foray into imperialism in the late 19th century saw alliances with several factions in Cuba and the Philippines that were more interested in extirpating Spain than thinking through an alliance with an expansion-minded United States.
In 1832 the United States entered into a Washingtonian alliance with the Dutch in order to crush some Barbary-esque states along the Sumatran coast. The alliance led to the eventual, brutal conquest of Aceh by the Dutch and a long-lasting mutual friendship between the Americans and the Dutch that has continued into today.
From 1886-94 the United States and its ally in the South Pacific, the Mata'afa clan of Samoa, fought Germany and its Samoan allies for control over the Samoan islands. The Boxer Rebellion in China saw the United States ally with six European states (including Austria-Hungary) and Japan, and affiliate with three more European states and several Qing dynasty governors who refused to follow their emperor’s orders.
NATO’s continued importance
Clearly, the United States has followed its first president’s foreign policy doctrine for centuries. Washington warned that his doctrine was not to be an eternal guideline, though. Indeed, the most-cited case study Washington Doctrine of Unstable Alliances is not the American experience in the 19th century, but the Nazi-Soviet one of the 20th, when the Germans turned on the Soviets as soon as it became expedient to do so.
The establishment of NATO has forced the United States to become reciprocal in its alliances with other countries. The republic can no longer take, take, and take some more without giving something in return. This situation of mutually beneficial exchange has tempered not only the United States but everybody else in the world, too (especially in the industrialized part of the world; the part with the deadliest weapons). Free riding will most likely continue to be a problem within NATO. The United States will continue to pay more than its share to keep the alliance afloat. And that’s perfectly okay considering the alternatives: imperialism (far more expensive than free riding allies), ethnic cleansing, or oscillating blocs of states looking out for their own interests in a power vacuum, like the situation Europe found itself in during the bloody 20th century.