The technicalities and realities of alliances
Sgt. Matthew Councill, a member of the 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team assigned to the Joint Multinational Training Group - Ukraine, listens as a Ukrainian soldier gives his team a mission brief before conducting section attack training at a Ukrainian base near Zhytomyr, Ukraine.

The technicalities and realities of alliances

Who are America’s allies? Is Israel an ally? Is Taiwan? Is Ukraine? For that matter, what exactly is an ally? The answer to these questions isn’t as clear-cut or obvious as we might think – a reality brought to light during the months-long debate over military aid for Israel, Taiwan and Ukraine.

Necessity “Ally” has always been a thorny word for Americans. After all, a wariness of alliances seems to be part of our DNA.

“It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world,” President George Washington declared, cautioning against “foreign alliances, attachments and intrigues.”

President Thomas Jefferson echoed Washington by calling for “peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.”

There’s more, though, to the story than what Washington and Jefferson said about alliances.

America pursued alliances from the very beginning. Many Americans forget that Benjamin Franklin traveled to Paris in 1776 to negotiate and ultimately secure an alliance with France. Between 1778 and 1782, as a State Department history details, France “provided supplies, arms and ammunition … troops and naval support … transported reinforcements, fought off a British fleet, and protected Washington’s forces in Virginia.”

In short, France – America’s oldest ally – helped Gen. Washington’s army defeat the British.

Although Jefferson, as president, spoke out against alliances, many Americans forget that Jefferson, as minister to France, proposed a U.S.-European alliance to fight piracy. 

These anecdotes from history highlight a larger truth: Allies help America do things America cannot do alone. As Gen. James Mattis puts it, “The strength of our nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances … While the U.S. remains the indispensable nation in the free world, we cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively without maintaining strong alliances.”

Of course, it took some time for American leaders to openly admit that. Heeding the words of Washington and Jefferson, President Woodrow Wilson insisted during World War I that the United States maintain its independence as an “associated” power, by bluntly, jarringly and quite undiplomatically declaring, “We have no allies.” Yet the United States was functionally, if not formally, an ally of France and Britain during the war.

This alliance in all but name did not survive beyond the war, however, and the United States retreated behind the false security of the oceans.

Then, in January 1942, just weeks after Japan’s surprise attack on an isolated outpost of an isolated America, President Franklin Roosevelt organized a 26-nation alliance to wage “a common struggle” against the Axis Powers.

After the Second World War was won – and in hopes of preventing a third – the United States forged an interconnected web of alliances spanning the globe: NATO, SEATO, ANZUS, the Rio Pact, bilateral treaties with the Philippines, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. As President John Kennedy explained, “We put ourselves, by our own will and by necessity, into defensive alliances with countries all around the globe.”

Speaking of the world wars and the postwar formation of NATO, the persnickety among us will point out that “Allies” with a capital “a” can have specific and precise meanings: “Allies” can refer to the World War II Allied Powers – led by the United States, Britain and Soviet Union – and even to the Allied Entente of World War I -- led by Britain, France and Russia. “Allies” can also refer to members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. NATO communications, materials and documents always capitalize “Allies” when discussing members of the alliance, which grew to 32 nations last month.

Technicality That brings us back to the present – and back to whether Israel, Taiwan and Ukraine are America’s allies.

In one sense – in a very technical sense – Israel, Taiwan and Ukraine are not allies of the United States. “Ally” is defined by statute as “any nation with which the United States is engaged in a common military effort or with which the United States has entered into a common defensive military alliance.”

The United States is technically not engaged in a common military effort with these nations and is definitely not in a defensive military alliance or mutual-defense treaty with these nations.

The absence of a defense treaty is surprising in the case of Israel, given how closely the United States and Israel collaborate on weapons development and weapons sharing, missile defense, basing, training, counterterrorism, intelligence operations, and cyber operations. Defense experts and policy analysts in both countries have suggested codifying what already exists in practice and hammering out a formal U.S.-Israel defense treaty. It’s worth noting that Israel has been designated as a “major non-NATO ally,” though that does not constitute a treaty alliance. Moreover, that group of countries also includes several that, unlike Israel, don’t share America’s values and only situationally align with America’s interests – countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Pakistan, Qatar and Tunisia.

The absence of a defense treaty is increasingly worrisome in the case of Taiwan, which is under constant threat from People’s Republic of China (PRC) warplanes and warships, PRC ultimatums, and PRC threats to annex the island democracy by force. If Beijing takes that step, no one knows for sure how America would respond.

Under a policy dubbed “strategic ambiguity,” as outlined in the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), the United States declares, vaguely, that “any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means” would be a “grave concern” and promises, vaguely, to provide Taiwan “arms of a defensive character.” There’s nothing in these lawyerly words that guarantees Taiwan’s security or obliges the United States to come to Taiwan’s defense. It wasn’t always this way. The United States and Taiwan were formal allies, bound by a mutual-defense treaty, between 1955 and 1979. Mirroring similar treaties with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia and the transatlantic community, the U.S.-Taiwan treaty declared that “an armed attack in the West Pacific area directed against the territories of either of the parties” would oblige the parties to “act to meet the common danger.” The clarity of that treaty was replaced by the ambiguity of the TRA. 

Finally, the absence of a mutual-defense treaty with Ukraine is a source of contention and consternation. Recognizing that the only guarantor of security in Europe is the NATO alliance, President George W. Bush led a bloc within NATO in March 2008 pushing to bring Ukraine (and Georgia) under the NATO umbrella. France and Germany opposed that effort. And since NATO operates by consensus, Ukraine and Georgia were left on the outside looking in. Some observers view that decision as a bullet dodged for NATO. But others point to that decision as an opportunity missed – and a green light for Vladimir Putin. After all, Putin invaded Georgia in August 2008 and then Ukraine in February 2014 (and again in February 2022). There’s no mystery as to why Putin has moved against Georgia and Ukraine yet kept his hands off the Baltics and Poland. He covets all of these territories. But the Balts and Poland are NATO members; Ukraine and Georgia are not. And so, rather than deterring a war of aggression as a NATO member, Ukraine has been forced to wage a war of self-defense as a NATO aspirant.

Reality Yet with all that said, with the specificity of the letter of the law as a backdrop, it’s telling that the men and women who write the law – senators and representatives – routinely talk about “our allies in Ukraine,” “our allies in Taiwan,” “our Israeli allies,” “support of our allies in Israel,” and “providing support for our allies – specifically right now: Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan.”

The same goes for executive branch officials – presidents, ambassadors, Pentagon administrators and top White House aides – who talk about the need “to support our allies in Ukraine,” who describe “the robust relationship that exists between the United States and our allies in Israel,” who express support “for our allies in Israel,” who argue that “standing by our allies in Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan is a moral imperative,” who rally support for “Ukraine … our friend and democratic ally.”

Those words – and America’s sometimes-fitful actions in support of Israel, Ukraine and Taiwan – underscore that not every ally has entered into a formal defense treaty with the United States. Nations “engaged in a common military effort,” as the statute acknowledges, also could be considered allies. In fact, some of those nations live up to the title “ally” far better than nations that enjoy the protection and benefits of a mutual-defense alliance with the United States, as Americans are reminded from time to time.

Russia, Iran, China and their proxies are America’s main adversaries. Thankfully, U.S. troops aren’t engaging Russian mercenaries and soldiers in the mud of eastern Ukraine, or conducting counterterror raids in the hellscape of Gaza, or manning the air and coastal defenses of Taiwan. But Ukrainian, Israeli and Taiwanese troops are undeniably confronting these enemies – our common enemies. As such, they are “engaged in a common military effort” with the United States. The more successful they are, the less likely it is that U.S. troops will have to fight those enemies directly. And that’s why arming and helping these nations – whether we label them Allies, allies, associated powers, friends, security partners or all of the above – is in the national interest.