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In the national interest

How patriotism informs our international alliances


President Harry Truman signs the bill implementing the North Atlantic Treaty in 1949. Wikimedia Commons

In the national interest
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In his farewell address to the nation at the close of his presidency, George Washington famously advised Americans to avoid “entangling alliances.” For over a century, Washington’s people kept his advice, regarding it as necessary to authentic national independence. Americans regarded alliances as dangerous because they undermined national sovereignty, limited freedom of action, and risked drawing the nation into unwanted wars.

Furthermore, Americans throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries regarded foreign alliances to be unnecessary, given the fact that vast oceans separated the United States from Europe and Asia, and because America did not have serious threats on their own continent. The United States unsuccessfully invaded British North America (Canada) during the War of 1812, but the threat Britain posed to America waned after that war ended in 1815. War threatened again over Oregon Country in 1845-46, but the crisis was resolved with the Buchanan-Pakenham Treaty in June 1846, settling the territorial dispute between Great Britain and the United States by establishing the 49th parallel as the northwestern boundary between the United States and British territory. Mexico was defeated in the Mexican American War of 1846-48, and the end of that war made the United States the dominant country in North America.

World War I (1914-1918) changed American attitudes and policies about alliances. With American entry into the war on the side of the Allies in 1917, the United States aligned itself to the British, French, and Italians in the defeat of Imperial Germany and the Central Powers. In World War II (1939-1945), the United States again allied itself with the British and French, as well as the Soviet Union, to defeat Germany, Italy, and Japan. With the end of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War, the United States turned aside from the advice of its first president for good.

In doing so, the United States saw itself as acting in its own interests and in the interest of keeping the world free from Soviet domination. America joined Western European nations in forming the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1949. It also committed itself to defending its World War II ally, Nationalist China, which had exiled itself to Taiwan after China fell to the Communists in 1949. Also in 1949, the United States entered into formal diplomatic relations with the state of Israel. By 1952, the United States had established alliances with Japan, the Philippines, New Zealand, and Australia under the terms of the Treaty of San Francisco, which formally ended World War II in the Pacific.

Since then, America has maintained alliances everywhere in the world. American policymakers have recognized at least three broad aims in creating alliances, all of which bear moral and diplomatic significance.

Americans who love their country with a rightly ordered love should not recoil at the continued maintenance of powerful alliance systems.

First, American alliances are meant to uphold an international order that guarantees free international trade and navigation and observance of international law. For example, the United States led an international effort to throw back the invasion of South Korea by North Korea in 1950 and again after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. Those acts of aggression were direct threats to international law, namely, that every nation has the right of self-determination and security against aggression from its neighbors.

Second, alliances provide collective security. American interests lie in the interests of its partners and the security of one partner is found in the security of all. Furthermore, the resources and power of combined and unified allied effort better ensure a victorious result should war come.

And thirdly, alliances provide deterrence. Potential enemies are meant to take a moment of pause before attacking an American ally, with the understanding that the combined power of the United States and its allies renders a decision to go to war against them out of the question.

The alliance systems created by the United States after World War II have been largely successful at maintaining, for the most part, a just international order under law, collective security in times of war and the threat of war, and deterrent sway against potential aggressors. Global war, nuclear holocaust, international economic collapse, continental genocides, and other mass nightmares have been averted since 1945 because of the system of alliances created and maintained by the United States through the vision of shrewd and prudent policy makers such as George Kennan, Dean Acheson, John Foster Dulles, Dean Rusk, Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, George Schultz, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, James Baker, to name a few.

As we look on at the simmering conflict in the Middle East, Americans who love their country with a rightly ordered love should not recoil at the continued maintenance of powerful alliance systems, such as our alliance with Israel. The world has always been a dangerous place, and for most of the period since 1945, it has been most dangerous to the enemies of just order and freedom thanks to indispensable American leadership. It is the present task of the American patriot to demand of its policymakers to ensure that those who would set themselves up as enemies of peace, justice, and order in the world think twice before challenging the United States and its allies.


John D. Wilsey

John D. Wilsey is associate professor of church history and philosophy at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a research fellow at the Center for Religion, Culture, & Democracy, an initiative of First Liberty Institute.


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