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    4 Jun 2015

    US Now Bound by Treaties to Defend a Quarter of the World

    In his famous 1796 Farewell Address to the nation, President George Washington wisely counseled that “we may safely trust to temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies,” but “[i]t is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world,” and “to have with them as little political connection as possible.”
    Judging by America’s present role in foreign affairs, however, it seems we have completely neglected Washington’s injunction against forming permanent entangling alliances. Today, Americans are pledged by treaty to defend a full quarter of the world.
    The United States is bound by a number of treaties that could, in theory, force it to get involved in a war if an ally is attacked. Consider, for example, the situation in Ukraine, a non-member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. If a NATO ally were to find itself under similar threat from Russia, the U.S. may find itself duty bound to war.

    Or alternatively, cast your mind to the South China Sea and its territorial disputes. If China were to engage militarily with the Philippines at some point in the near future, the U.S. may well be expected to step in to protect its ally: Since 1951, the U.S. and the Philippines have had a bilateral agreement for mutual defense.
    It goes without saying that war with either Russia or China would be a very big deal – especially if that war is on behalf of a third party. This becomes more startling when you realize that, thanks to various treaties and deals set up since 1945, the U.S. government might be legally obligated to defend countries containing 25 percent of the world’s population.
    That figure comes from “The Myth of Entangling Alliances,” an article by Michael Beckley, an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Tufts University, published this month in the International Security journal.
    In his calculations, Beckley used two alliance data sets, the the ATOP dataset and Douglas Gibler’s alliance dataset, to find U.S. defense pacts. To be fair, this results in a broad definition of what constitutes a defense pact: While clearly defense-orientated pacts such as NATO or bilateral agreements are included, the Organization of American States (OAS) also features, even though the OAS is rarely considered a defense pact (the more narrowly focused Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance deals with defense and has fewer members).
    Beckley also includes two countries where no formal defense agreement has been signed (Israel and Taiwan), arguing that the Taiwan Relations Act and American pledges to support Israel act as de facto pledges of support.
    By this count, 69 countries have some form of defense pact with the United States, and as Beckley notes, they make up around 75 percent of the world’s economic output. By WorldViews’ own count, the combined population of these countries and the United States itself is in excess of 2 billion.

    That’s a remarkably large amount of the world for the United States to be obligated to protect, especially considering that the country largely kept clear of alliances for the first 165 years of its existence (it did sign one, with France, during the revolutionary war). In fact, America’s founding fathers had promised to avoid alliances like this altogether.
    “Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations,” is how Thomas Jefferson put it in his inaugural pledge. “Entangling alliances with none.” …
    President John Quincy Adams said, in a famous Independence Day speech, July 4, 1821:
    Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. 
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