In recent months, the status and future of U.S. alliances has been a central focus of the Biden administration’s foreign policy. In several recent speeches and public addresses, President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. and his Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, have pledged to “reaffirm and reimage” the United States’ alliances.
After four years of angering and alienating America’s closest friends under the Trump administration’s America First mantra, the Biden administration now stresses the importance of redefining and recalibrating those relationships, noting that the United States’ alliances are “our greatest asset.”
The renewed focus on America’s closest friends and allies thus presents the question: what is an ally?
What is an ally?
The word “ally” is used often in U.S. foreign policy circles. Since the end of the Second World War, the United States has maintained a system of alliances that plays a key role in America’s ability to achieve its foreign policy objectives and safeguard its national security. The defining element of these alliances is the mutual defense treaties signed by the United States and its allies, cementing each country’s willingness and obligation to defend one another in the event of an attack.
The terms friend, partner, and ally are often used interchangeably. Yet there is a difference between an official ally and a partner or friend. While the United States maintains ties with several countries that play crucial roles in U.S. foreign policy, it has no treaty commitments to defend these countries, classifying them instead as friends and partners rather than official allies.
Who are the United States’ allies and closest friends?
My April 15 post explored how the United States designed an alliance system in Europe and Asia after the Second World War to combat communism. Largely though, the United States has maintained this system with some changes along the way. In 2017, an Economist/YouGov poll surveyed participants in the United States, asking respondents whether a country rated as an ally or enemy on a five point scale.
The poll’s results indicated that Americans typically agree on the United States’ closest friends, located primarily in Europe, North America, and Asia. Interestingly, the countries identified in 2017 as the United States’ closest pals tracks with the countries that the United States established defense treaties with after the Second World War. According to the poll, the United States’ top ten closest friends and allies listed by the respondents included Canada, Britain, Australia, France, Ireland, Italy, Germany, New Zealand, Sweden, and Norway.
Always the Friend, Never the Ally
Nevertheless, the United States has several close friendships that, while not official allies, are critical to its foreign policy. For example, in the Middle East the United States has close ties with Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt. In Europe, outside of its 30 North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies, the United States has long provided support to, and relied on, countries such as Finland, Sweden, and Ukraine.
In Latin America, Colombia, Bolivia, and Mexico are often considered close friends to the United States. Similarly, in Africa, the United States has worked closely with countries like South Africa, Ethiopia, and Nigeria. And, in Asia, aside from the countries included in its hub and spokes system, the United States is deeply committed to its friendships with countries with which it does not have defense treaties, including Taiwan and Singapore.
While the relationships between the United States and these countries may not constitute an official alliance, they are still crucial to the United States’ foreign policy.
In foreign policy, friends and partners are often confused with allies. There is a difference, however, in referring to countries that maintain friendly and cooperative ties and the countries that maintain defense treaties, obligating the signatories to defend the other country in the case of an attack.
The United States has preserved a system of alliances for over seven decades, recognizing that those relationships would allow the United States to fend off threats to its national security. Today, a list of America’s closest friends looks strikingly like the alliance system it developed in 1945.
Beyond those alliances, there are countries throughout the world with which the United States has close and cooperative ties, but that are not considered to be official allies. Those countries are still essential to U.S. foreign policy.