What Does It Mean To Be A U.S. Ally?

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.

Conclusion

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.

The Liberal World Order and the U.S. Alliance System: A Very Short History

After the Second World War ended in 1945, much of the world lay in ruins. After enduring a war that spanned nearly the entire globe, the loss of roughly 75 million people, and that cost trillions of dollars in damage, world leaders formed a system of international organizations and agreements to foster cooperation in the post-war world – the liberal international order. The liberal world order, which has governed much of international relations for more than 70 years, works to propagate democracy, market economies, the rule of law, and human rights.

As part of the liberal world order, the United States built a system of alliances in Europe and Asia, which have formed “the backbone of the liberal international order for more than 70 years.” The primary purpose of the alliance system was to maintain the balance of power on those continents against the United States’ Cold War rival, the Soviet Union. These efforts resulted in a series of formal treaty alliances based on collective defense.

U.S. Alliances in Europe

The European continent was nearly devastated after the Second World War. The United States, realizing that communism could potentially spill over into Europe, was instrumental in helping its Western European allies rebuild, particularly through the implementation of the Marshall Plan and the establishment of the Truman Doctrine. In this vein, in 1949, the United States, along with ten Western European countries and Canada, founded the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO. This multilateral alliance was created to counter and combat the Soviet Union’s desire to spread communism throughout Europe and, to this day, serves as the center of European security.

The NATO alliance has endured quite a bit in its existence. NATO experienced “the transformation of the European security system from East-West confrontation to a Western-centric post-Cold War, during which NATO conducted its first shooting war in the Balkans [in the 1990s].” After that, NATO participated in the wars in Afghanistan and Libya, a conflict in Somalia, among other involvements, and increased its membership total nearly two-fold.

While several countries joined NATO between the early 1950s and late 1990s, much of NATO’s expansion took place in 1999 and 2004, when ten former Soviet satellite states joined the alliance. Since the revolutions of 1989 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the desire of Central and Eastern European countries to join NATO increased dramatically.

While there were and remain some divisions between the NATO member states on expanding membership to these countries, NATO continued to expand. The idea behind this expansion was that membership would promote peace and stability in Europe, particularly among those in Central and Eastern Europe. Today, there are 30 NATO members states. Future expansion is constantly debated within the alliance and is the primary cause of tensions between the alliance and Russia. NATO recently announced that the alliance will be shifting its focus to the rise of China as well.

U.S. Alliances in Asia

Much like Europe, Asia was also ravaged by the Second World War. As a result, the United States established alliances with key partners in the region. In what is referred to as the hub-and-spokes system, the United States, through its bilateral alliances in Asia, had the same goal of countering the Soviet Union and its desire to spread communism.

For one, in 1952, the United States, New Zealand, and Australia signed a mutual defense treaty. Interestingly, New Zealand is no longer included in the formal treaty due to U.S. concerns over its nuclear policies in the 1980s. However, the United States and New Zealand remain close friends, just not formal allies. Australia is often referred to as one of the United States’ closest allies in Asia.

Moreover, the United States and Japan evolved from mortal enemies in the Second World War to close allies through the signing of the Treaty of Japan in 1951. Japan remains the United States’ closest ally in Asia. The United States also signed a mutual defense treaty with South Korea after the end of the Korean War in 1953, with a pledge that both sides would defend one another in the event of an attack.

The United States also has defense treaties with the Philippines and Thailand. The Philippines, formerly a U.S. territory after the United States defeated Spain in the Spanish American War in 1898, signed a treaty in 1951. The United States and Thailand were both signatories of the 1954 Manila Pact of the former Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO). Though the group disbanded in 1977, the Manila Pact outlines the U.S. security commitments to Thailand.

The United States and Taiwan were also formal allies when the U.S. signed a defense treaty with the Republic of China. This changed, however, when the United States officially recognized the People’s Republic of China as the sole government in 1979. Consequently, there are no security guarantees. Yet, the United States sells arms to Taiwan, much to China’s consternation. While the United States no longer has formal alliances with Taiwan and New Zealand, it still maintains alliances with Australia, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Thailand with a renewed focus on the rise of China.

Conclusion

After the Second World War, with much of the world in ruins, world leaders established the liberal world order. A major part of this order was the United States’ alliance system, designed to maintain the balance of power in Europe and Asia and counter the Soviet Union, its primary adversary. Over the past seven decades, these alliances have formed the backbone of the liberal world order and stand strong today.

Assuaging U.S. Allies in Asia

*This post is final in a series exploring what America’s allies in Asia can expect from the Biden administration and the regional concern about China’s recent assertive behavior.*

U.S. Alliances in Asia

At the end of World War II, the United States established a system of bilateral, treaty-based alliances[1] in the Asia-Pacific region designed to “contain communism in the region.” These alliances involve a “shared commitment to respond collectively to armed attacks.” In short, these allies are ones that the United States is willing (and obligated by the treaty) to defend if that ally is attacked.

Beyond those formal defense alliances, the United States also formed and maintained close and strategic partnerships with several other countries in Asia, most importantly, India. Through the Cold War and into the post-Cold War world, the United States has maintained these strategic alliances and partnerships to ensure stability in the Asia-Pacific region and to meet regional and global challenges head on. 

Credit: #PACOM
Vice President Joe Biden and Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken discussing Japanese and South Korean partnerships.

The Trump Years

U.S. relations with its key partners were largely bumpy during the Trump administration. Former President Trump castigated Japan and South Korea, demanding that the two allies pay more because the United States posts U.S. troops in those countries as part of the security alliances. This, in turn, caused these key allies to worry that  whether America’s commitment to them is conditional. Conversely, some in Asia appreciated Trump’s tougher stance on China and the fact that he tried to engage with Kim Jong Un on North Korea’s nuclear program, with little to no results.

Trump further damaged U.S. ties to the region by removing the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal and further scorning the “open, multilateral trading regimes that have buoyed Asia’s economic success.” As the Economist observes, “Never has America’s ability to underpin Asia’s stability and prosperity been so doubted by the region’s leadership and policymakers as over the past four years.”

The Biden Administration

President Joe Biden began his new administration by contacting the leaders of the United States’ key allies and partners in Asia, specifically Japan, South Korea, Australia, and India. He reiterated his commitment to the bilateral relationships. Consequently, these countries have all signaled eagerness to work with the Biden administration and want to work with the United States to counter what they view as the most pressing issues in their region: the rise of China and its increasingly assertive behavior throughout the region. 

China’s Aggressive Behavior in the Asia-Pacific Region

China’s political, economic, and military assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific region has increased in recent years. From sending ships to put pressure around the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea to its crackdown in Hong Kong or its territorial disputes in the South China Sea to its recent incursion of war planes over Taiwan to its genocidal repression of the Uighurs in the Xinjiang province, China’s behavior is, one could argue, aggressive.

Most of the United States’ allies and partners have expressed concern over this growing assertiveness. As a result, the Biden administration has “stressed the importance of allies in responding to the strategic competition posed by Beijing.” Scott Campbell, a member of the Center of Strategic Studies aptly described Biden’s approach: “China policy in 2021 I think is actually going to be about ally policy.” This is evidenced by the commitments and reassurances that Biden made when reaching out to its key allies and partners in Asia.

Japan

Japan views China as a threat to its security. In fact, Japan is “actively promoting military and economic partnerships with countries in the Indo-Pacific region to counter China’s rise.” During his conversation with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, Biden confirmed his commitment to “provide extended deterrence to Japan,” including affirming that the U.S.-Japan security treaty includes the Senkaku Islands, which both Japan and China claim.  

South Korea

South Korea’s relationship with China has been largely civil and even prosperous. What concerns South Korea is China’s continued relations with North Korea. China is essentially North Korea’s lifeline in a world where it has been very isolated, serving as North Korea’s most important trading and diplomatic partner. This causes grave concern to South Korea due to the North’s unchecked nuclear program and a desire to reunite the Korean peninsula. Recognizing this vulnerability, Biden spoke of bolstering the U.S.-South Korea alliance, which is “the linchpin for peace and prosperity in Northeast Asia.” 

Australia

Australia has also voiced concerns about China’s regional behavior and has participated in a few diplomatic spats with Beijing. In his recent phone call with the Australian prime minister, Biden, much like with South Korea and Japan, reiterated the importance of the alliance and discussed how the two allies can tackle the global challenges that face them, including the rise of China. After speaking with Biden, Morrison tweeted, “There are no greater friends and no greater allies than Australia and the U.S.

India

India is also enthusiastic and hopeful about the prospect of U.S.-Indian relations during the Biden administration, particularly in the face of China’s recent aggression. “China is the big elephant in the room,” noted an Indian writer and analyst. Long-existing tensions between India and China came to a head last summer when the armies from each side lined up along the disputed border in the Himalaya Mountains. Biden spoke with his Indian counterpart, promising to build upon the relationship and collaborate on global challenges.

The “Quad”

One multilateral forum with which the United States and its allies has countered a rising China is through the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, also known as the Quad, comprised of the United States, Japan, Australia, and India. Originally formed in 2004 to provide humanitarian assistance and disaster relief after a tsunami devastated countries in the Indian Ocean, Australia pulled out in 2007. The Quad was rehabilitated in 2017, expanding into military and economic areas as a result of the rise of China. The Biden administration has signaled to its allies will not be soft on China and will likely continue to use the Quad as a means of countering China in the Asia-Pacific region.

Conclusion

China’s rising assertiveness in Asia is a recognized challenge by the United States and its allies and partners in the region. Countering China’s assertiveness remain be at the center of the Biden administration’s approach and includes reassuring U.S. allies and partners that the United States will cooperate and consult with them on what has been mutually agreed upon as the most pressing issue in the region: China’s increasingly assertive behavior.


[1] In the aftermath of World War II, the United States signed defense treaties with the following countries: The Treaty of Peace with Japan was signed on September 8, 1951; Security Treaty Between Australia, New Zealand, and the United States (ANZUS) on September 1, 1951; Mutual Defense Treaty Between the United States and the Republic of Philippines on August 30, 2951; Mutual Defense Treaty Between the United States and the Republic of Korea on October 1, 1953; and the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty (Thailand) on September 8, 1954. Currently, the United States has five treaty alliances with countries in the Asia-Pacific: Australia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, and Thailand. The New Zealand leg of the ANZUS alliance was suspended in the mid-1989s as a result of New Zealand’s nuclear policies. Today, the United States and New Zealand remain close friends but no longer formal allies. The United States and Taiwan were once allied under the Mutual Defense Treaty Between the United States of America and the Republic of China, signed December 2, 1954. That treaty was terminated by the United States in1979 as a result of the U.S. decision to switch official recognition of the People’s Republic of China. The Taiwan Relations Act now guides U.S, -Taiwan relations and was enacted on April 10, 1979 to ensure that the United States would continue to help Taiwan defend itself against an attack by the People’s Republic of China.