The Danger of Entangling Alliances

John Glaser, January 03, 2014


Historian Margaret MacMillan has published a lengthy report for the Brookings Institution exploring the “lessons of the Great War” and drawing parallels between the state of international affairs prior to WWI and today. In one section, she discusses “The Temptations of the Client State” and the problems that arise when great powers staunchly support smaller client states.

Great powers often face the dilemma that their very support for smaller ones encourages their clients to be reckless. And their clients often slip the leading strings of their patrons. The U.S. has funnelled huge amounts of money and equipment to Israel and Pakistan, for example, as China has done to North Korea, yet that has not given either the Americans or the Chinese commensurate influence over the policies of those countries. Israel, while hugely dependent on America, has sometimes tried to push Washington into taking pre-emptive military action. And Pakistan gave sanctuary to America’s global enemy number one, Osama bin Laden.

Moreover, alliances and friendships forged for defensive reasons or mutual advantage can look quite different from other perspectives. Before 1914 German statesmen assumed that the military pact between France and Russia was really designed to destroy Germany. Today Pakistan feels threatened by the links between India and Afghanistan, while the U.S. tends to see a challenge in China’s increasing influence in Central Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

Making matters worse, patron nations are reluctant to abandon their clients, no matter how far they have run amok and no matter what dangers they themselves are being led into, because to do so incurs the risk of making the greater power appear weak and indecisive.

This is perhaps the most important reason to avoid what 18th century American revolutionaries called “entangling alliances.” As George Washington famously said in his Farewell Address:

The Nation, which indulges towards another an habitual hatred, or an habitual fondness, is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest…Hence frequent collisions, obstinate, envenomed, and bloody contests.

As any college freshman can tell you, that is one of the key lessons of WWI: Entangling alliances on all sides created a snowball effect that made a relatively insignificant event, the assassination of the Austrian archduke, an immediate global conflagration.

The soundness of George Washington’s advice continues to be borne out today. America’s “habitual fondness” and established alliance with Saudi Arabia persists despite the blowback that U.S. support for Arab tyrannies elicits in the form of anti-American terrorism and despite Riyadh’s veritable opposition to key U.S. foreign policy initiatives, like a diplomatic opening with Iran. Saudi Arabia has suspicious ties to Islamic jihadist groups and supports extremists in Syria; a policy that has come close to propelling the U.S. into another reckless military quagmire in the Middle East. Members of the U.S. Senate have said that classified materials connect Saudi Arabia in some way to the 9/11 attacks – a connection that was perhaps overlooked because the U.S.-Saudi alliance is seen as sacrosanct in Washington, DC.

Our alliance with Israel also causes Washington to subordinate its own interests for another, also generates anti-American terrorism, and, as MacMillan explains, has sometimes “push[ed] Washington into taking pre-emptive military action.” As with the U.S.-Saudi alliance, the alliance with Israel has colored America’s perception of who the great enemy bogeymen in the Middle East are. Both have encouraged unnecessary American military engagements Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, and beyond.

America’s alliances in the Asia Pacific region, particularly with Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines, have exacerbated tensions with China and quite obviously, as MacMillan predicts, encouraged recklessness. Where the region’s smaller states might otherwise back down to a rising regional great power like China, they have instead been bolstered by America’s security guarantees, standing up to China’s territorial and maritime claims in a way that makes conflict more likely. This system of alliances could easily turn a small clash in the Asia Pacific into a great power war, just as happened with WWI.

“America’s national-security elites act on the assumption that every nook and cranny of the globe is of great strategic significance and that there are threats to U.S. interests everywhere,” writes renowned international relations theorist John Mearsheimer in his most recent piece for The National Interest. “Not surprisingly, they live in a constant state of fear.”

The fiction that every corner of the Earth is a vital U.S. interest and the consequent state of perennial fear together make unnecessary conflict more likely. And that is the great danger of entangling alliances.

24 Responses to “The Danger of Entangling Alliances”

  1. Legitimate national security interests are limited to the geographical confines of the 50 states, and don't include Israel, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, or anywhere else. Following Washington's advice could have saved millions of lives and untold trillions of expense. What does lie in every corner of the globe are opportunities for corporate profits that flow through international banks. If national security elites can advance their personal interests by feigning national security interests all over the globe then the war industries, multinational corporations and international banks who also stand to profit are happy to let them make the claim. It's a racket, a big, fat, stinking crime racket.

  2. As the U.S. military continues to act like it's the world policeman, those at home must unwillingly pay the price.

  3. Assassinating democratically elected leaders like Patrice Lumumba, Mosaddegh, Allende and aiding fascist and dictatorial regimes for self interests (including bananas!) does not make a policeman. A Mafia and the Medicci, perhaps… monkeys.

  4. I would change the Mearsheimer quote:
    "America’s national-security elites act on the assumption that every nook and cranny of the globe is of great strategic significance and that there are threats to U.S. interests everywhere,” writes renowned international relations theorist John Mearsheimer in his most recent piece for The National Interest. “Not surprisingly, they live in a constant state of fear.”

    to this:
    America’s national-security elites act on the assumption that TO KEEP THE GRAVY TRAIN ROLLING AND GENERATE DOLLARS AND PUBLIC SUPPORT FOR THE MILITARY INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX, every nook and cranny of the globe is of great strategic significance and that there are threats to U.S. interests everywhere. Not surprisingly, they USE THEIR MEDIA AND EVERY OPPORTUNITY THEY CAN TO MAKE AMERICANS live in a constant state of fear.

  5. Correction re Mossadegh. He was not assassinated. He was removed from office, after which he retired to his home, where he died about a decade later.

  6. Correction to the correction re Mossadegh. Kermit Roosevelt, the CIA coup organizer in Tehran gave hundred of thousands of dollars (in today's money many millions) to the notorious thugs to start street demonstrations and attack Mossadegh's house and kill him. As a child I witnessed the whole thing with my two eyes as we where neighbors and friend of the Mossadeghs. They invaded the house and looted everything while my family and other neighbors rushed the old Mossadegh from one rooftop to another to a hiding place. Fearing his imminent on the spot assassination if discovered, it was arranged for him to surrender to the Shah's police and prosecutor. He was jailed for months while his show trial proceeded. They gave him a life sentence and due to his old age and serious illness put him under house arrest in his country house where we had a chance to visit him. It is important to note that in his trial he vigorously defended his actions and his support for the constitutional monarchy which the Shah and the Anglo-American interests were keen to subvert and to establish an absolute and obedient monarchy.

  7. The United States should terminate ALL international military alliances, but keep a working special relationship with Britain Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. We should trade and sell American products everywhere, and use our Navy to support that commerce when it is threatened. The Monroe Doctrine should still be enforced.

  8. Make that a crooked cop.

  9. What century do you live in??

  10. Regardless, Thomas, he was a duly elected leader, by the Iranian electorate; but US leaders illegally removed him from office and installed the Shah, a brutal, sadistic dictator who formed the vicious, cruel SAVAK Secret Police.

    Iran, back then, was a sovereign nation, and it still is today. If America's Founder and first President, George Washington, were to come back from his grave as a spirit, he would haunt DC, starting with the White House, and moving on to Capitol Hill, the Pentagon, and the State Department, not to say the Intelligence agencies, and repeat his Farewell Address word for word.

  11. "..use our navy to support that commerce when it is threatened."

    Like in 1914-19 when the blockade of Germany prevented Americans from trading with her?

    And the offending party? GREAT BRITAIN. One of the very countries you advocate a "special relationship" with.

  12. Thanks for your response and your comments to my correction, although I have to say that my reply, although lacking your detail, is essentially correct and requires no further comment. I'm not asking for revelation of any state secrets, but I am curious about your relationship with Mossadegh and his family.
    Your account of Mossadegh's trial, conviction, and banishment does follow popular accounts that I have read. Thank you for reminding me.

  13. I agree entirely that Iran was a democratic regime under Mossadegh and is again today under the Islamic Republic. I am a steadfast opponent of my country's policy on Iran, which, unfortunately, is guided very much by Israel, and never miss the opportunity of reminding my American fellow citizens of Washington's Farewell Address.

    I visited Iran three times in the 1970s, the last time in November 1977, and would welcome the opportunity to go again as a simple tourist, not as a regimented member of a tour group.

    Best regards, Eileen K.
    Tom Hussey

  14. That is correct–and the US was actually more pro-German at the start of WW1 than pro-British. In 1916 a German U-boat, the 'Deutschland' was even allowed to dock in a US port carrying trade goods after running the Royal Navy's blockade. However, US opinion of Germany began to change after the 'Lusitania' sinking (thank you, Winnie Churchill) and the phony Zimmermann letter episode, probably engineered by Britisn Intelligence before Woody Wilson caved in and declared war on Germany in 1917.

    The US should have no entangling alliances with anyone and no "special relationships", not with Great Britain, certainly not with Israel.

  15. Hmm…. imperialist capitalism and "free trade" blocks duly support by a Marine Expeditionary Force when requested by lobbyists.

    Yes, smells like 1900, the good old times.

    But we already have Hawaii and the Philippines and China is open doored enough. What else can we do?

  16. Relevant: Ralph Raico in 1983 talking about "open" markets:

  17. If we want our elected leaders to stop creating entangling alliances then we must be politically active.
    If you do not support our alliance with the Saudi regime then please copy and past the link into your browser and sign the petition.

  18. Agreed. No trillions have been "lost" or "wasted" – they've simply been "transferred" to those who incited the madness of war. The millions of lives lost include not one the those who incited the wars. A farce of hideous proportions.

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  20. But we should, for obvious reasons, maintain "special relations" with Mexico and Canada, and I would argue, with Cuba, all due to their immediate or close proximity with the U.S. And with Japan for as long as the no-war constitution we imposed on Japan in 1947 is adhered to.

    Israel has maintained its hold on the U.S. through its skillful exploitation of the Shoah (Nazi holocaust) and ,of course, generous campaign contributions to our too-easily corrupted Congress members. Avram Burg, a Speaker of the Knesset in the early 90s, but who has since renounced Zionism, wrote a corrective to the Israeli exploitation of the Shoah, about 2006 "The Holocaust is Over. We Must Rise from its Ashes." He went so far as to suggest that Auschwitz be razed because it has become a pilgrimage site for those determined to keep the Shoah alive.

  21. […] which I’ve mentioned I’m making my way through, has a nice example of how dangerous entangling alliances can be. Not only does Gates write frankly about how U.S. interest are subordinated to those of our […]

  22. […] which I’ve mentioned I’m making my way through, has a nice example of how dangerous entangling alliances can be. Not only does Gates write frankly about how U.S. interests are subordinated to those of our […]

  23. if you did your research, you would have known that it was Thos. Jefferson, not Washington, who warned against entangling alliances. Check it out.

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