The Difference Between an Ally and a One-Night Stand

British prime minister Theresa May with Donald Trump. Flickr/Creative Commons/Number 10

Political-military alliances are supposed to reflect common strategic interests.

In response to President Trump’s recent animated telephone conversations with Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and with Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto, pundits expressed concern that the exchanges would devastate the U.S. relationship with two “long-time allies.”

But should Mexico be regarded as an “ally” of the United States? It is certainly a geographical neighbor and a trade partner. Many Mexicans live in the United States as legal and illegal immigrants, and much of the cooperation between Washington, DC and Mexico is actually aimed at preventing more Mexicans from crossing the border into a relatively unwelcoming neighbor.

Yet geographical proximity doesn’t necessarily make for a friendly, neighborly relationship, as attested by the history of relations between Germany and France or Turkey and Greece. If anything, common land borders can lead to tensions between countries. Nor do robust economic ties create the conditions for close alliances.

The United States is Venezuela's largest trading partner, and much has been written and said about the growing trade and investment links between China and the United States. But no one would describe Caracas and Beijing as allies of the United States. In fact, relations with those governments tend to be adversarial on many levels.

That millions of citizens and noncitizens of Mexican extraction live in the United States may have helped strengthen the bonds between the two countries, but that has also been a source of tensions in the relationship.

And in any case, despite the fact that German Americans are the largest of the ancestry groups, as reported by the U.S. Census Bureau (with an estimated size of forty-six million in 2014), the United States and Germany ended up fighting two shattering world wars in the twentieth century.

The relations between Australia and the United States do exhibit almost all the marks of an alliance—and also feel that way. They have been formalized by the Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty and the two countries’ membership in the exclusive Five Eyes group, or FVEY, an intelligence alliance that consists of the United States, Australia, Great Britain, Canada and New Zealand. The alliance commits them to joint cooperation in signals intelligence.

Australia has fought side-by-side with the United States in the two world wars and in most of the American military undertakings since World War II, including the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War and the Iraq War.

And as demonstrated by the success of Australian actors in Hollywood, it is safe to say that most Australians would be able to assimilate in American society and culture in a relatively short period.

On one level, applying the term “ally” so loosely, in times to almost every government that maintains a diplomatic relationship with Washington, is another example of the misuse of language. Like when you refer to your hundreds of “friends” on Facebook, many of whom you will probably never meet in person and who don’t even make the cut as your “buddies” or “acquaintances.”

But on another level, when it comes to the world of international relations, referring to anyone or everyone as an “ally” not only creates undue expectations on all sides, but also risks the chance of making the wrong move.

Paradoxically, because Australia is such a close ally of the United States, an angry exchange of words between their leaders would probably not damage bilateral ties between the two countries. A strong marriage will survive even the ugliest dispute.

But because Mexico and the United States aren’t allies, but only neighbors and partners, the angry conversations between President Trump and President Nieto could actually damage the delicate relationship and exacerbate tensions between the two countries over issues like trade, illegal immigration and drug smuggling.

“A great power like the United States gains no advantage and it loses prestige by offering, indeed peddling, its alliances to all and sundry,” wrote columnist and political philosopher Walter Lippmann. He warned Washington that an alliance “is like a chain” and the United States “is not made stronger by adding weak links to it.” In that context, Mexico is certainly a weak link.

However, since the end of the Cold War, Washington, under Democratic and Republican administrations, to use Lippmann’s phraseology, has been “peddling its alliances to all and sundry.”

NATO’s membership was enlarged from sixteen in 1990 to twenty-eight, and the organization has signed Individual Partnership Action Plans with eight other countries, including Ukraine and Georgia.

And the list of non-NATO allies now includes fourteen countries, ranging from Japan and South Korea, with which the United States has mutual-defense agreements, to the Philippines and Thailand, which have special security relations with Washington, and to Kuwait and Bahrain, U.S. military protectorates in all but name.

And let’s not forget the many other “allies” that joined the United States in the “wars” against terrorism and drugs, that belong to this or that “coalition of the willing” or happen to be occupied by the United States (Iraq) or NATO (Kosovo).