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 Royal Shakeup in Jordan

In early April, the Jordanian government accused King Abdullah II’s half-brother, Prince Hamzeh, of “destabilizing Jordan’s security.” That weekend, Jordan’s king charged Prince Hamzeh with attempting to stage a coup, supported by several members of his inner circle and foreign backing. The prince, not surprisingly, denied any involvement in the plot, though he did take the opportunity to point out the graft that plagues Jordan’s government.

The United States, meanwhile, is monitoring the situation closely and quickly emphasized its support for the Jordanian king. The State Department’s spokesman recently reiterated Jordan’s importance to the United States, stating that “King Abdullah is a key partner of the United States, and he has our [the United States’] full support.” President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. spoke with King Abdullah to express his support and strong bilateral relations as well.

In all the turmoil and uncertainty, why is Jordan such a close friend to the U.S.?

A Stable Ally

The United States has long considered Jordan to be a close friend and partner through both Republican and Democratic administrations, lauding the Hashemite Kingdom as a bastion of stability in arguably the most volatile region in the world. Jordan was largely free from the political unrest and upheaval that raged through the Middle East and North Africa during the Arab Spring a decade ago. Moreover, Jordan is a long-time key counterterrorism partner, globally supporting U.S. forces and security operations.

Jordan has also been a major partner in the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State and served as a “key overland conduit to Iraq” during the Iraq War. Jordan has absorbed over 1 million refugees who fled Syria during the decade-long civil war, according to Jordanian officials.

In the past, Jordan has sided with the Sunni Arab states against Iran. This proves significant to the United States as the Sunni Arab states and the United States have historically enjoyed close relations and each country views Iran as a primary adversary.

Since Jordan and the United States share close ties, recent events and any resulting instability in the Hashemite Kingdom could potentially impact the Biden administration’s approach to the larger Middle East.

Biden Wants Out

For one, Biden is “deprioritizing” the Middle East in favor of concentrating U.S. foreign policy more on the great power rivalries with China and Russia and the myriad domestic problems the U.S. is facing at home. Like the Obama and Trump administrations, despite failing to extricate the United States from the forever wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and other commitments which have dominated U.S. Middle East policy, Biden hoped to reduce U.S. focus on and commitments to the Middle East.

To deprioritize the Middle East, the United States needs its key allies in the region onboard. When asked about the United States’ closest allies and friends in the Middle East, most analysts talk about Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and, increasingly less, Turkey. This list should always include Jordan.

Since Jordan is considered by the United States and the West to be one of the consistently stable countries in the region, the U.S. has been able to take this fact for granted. However, the royal shakeup in Jordan could impact the region’s stability. Beyond that, instability resulting from King Abdullah’s latest skirmish with his half-brother could hinder Biden’s plans to downgrade the Middle East’s centrality in U.S. foreign policy.   

The Two-State Solution

The Biden administration has indicated they wish to “re-establish the goal of a negotiated two-state solution as a priority in U.S. policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” The two-state solution has long remained the only viable solution to this conflict and calls for granting the Palestinians an independent state alongside Israel. This arduous and tedious project, which has thwarted many presidents, will not be possible unless Jordan is involved.

Jordan is a critical player in the United States’ pursuit of a two-state solution. Firstly, Jordan was one of the first Arab states to sign a peace treaty with Israel in 1994, and has maintained relatively friendly relations ever since. Conversely, Jordan is also a “key interlocutor with Palestinians.” Today, Jordan is home to millions of Palestinians who fled to the Hashemite Kingdom after the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948 and 1967.

As the New York Times recently noted, Jordan “is important to any future peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.” If Jordan were to succumb to chaos and instability, whether due to the recent flare up or another set of events, the prospects of a two-state solution between the Israelis and Palestinians would seem even more remote than they already are.

Conclusion

The recent tussle within the Jordanian royal family seems to have mostly subsided. However, this series of events is a good reminder to the United States just how much a relatively stable country in an otherwise volatile region can easily upset the fragile balance. This is especially true as the Biden administration has plans to focus less on the Middle East and perhaps find a solution to the very complex Israeli-Palestinian conflict.