While the North Atlantic Treaty (NAT0) is alive and well after seventy years, now with thirty members, SEATO has long-since been forgotten. As a distant “cousin” of NATO, SEATO (Southeast Asian Treaty Organization) was intended to provide the same rationale in Asia as NATO did in western Europe, i.e. to provide a collective defense against the spread of global communism.
As a reminder, SEATO began in 1954 after the expulsion of France from Vietnam (Battle of Dien Bien Phu) and was used by the Eisenhower Administration as cover for the growing U.S. commitment to South Vietnam, particularly against Communist China. SEATO had eight members, including three from NATO (the U.S., France, Britain), and the rest were from Asia, the Philippines, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, and Pakistan.
But as a vehicle for collective defense, SEATO was a poor substitute. It neither provided for true common security, with no joint military command, no standing armed forces, and had only a vague and ineffective commitment against a “common danger.” Only Thailand was technically located in Southeast Asia, but Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia were given “observer” status and were included within SEATO’s geopolitical range.
But SEATO had internal issues that were absent in NATO. Only the U.S. believed in the threat, while the others either sent token forces or ignored the issue altogether. Laos and Cambodia actually became U.S. targets, while Thailand, New Zealand, Australia, and Pakistan joined for purely political, as opposed to security, reasons.
But the main reason for SEATO’s eventual collapse was the nature of the existing threat, an internal insurgency from Hanoi as opposed to a conventional threat from Moscow. As a functioning alliance, SEATO was purely American, and, as the U.S. stayed in Vietnam and as the war dragged on without end, the alliance simply became irrelevant. As British security expert Sir James Cable put it, SEATO was “a fig leaf for the nakedness of American power …a zoo of paper tigers.”
While members either ignored it and some (Pakistan, France) dropped out, the fall of Saigon in 1975 exposed the shallow shell of the American Asian commitment. SEATO was formally dissolved on June 30, 1977, never to be heard from again (until now).
Then what would be the purpose of reviving the memory of such a regional disaster? While history is supposed to “repeat,” the admonition can be taken too far, as well. The circumstances for SEATO’s demise have long since disappeared, while alliances continue to remain necessary pillars of national, and regional, security. SEATO failed, NATO succeeded, so what?
The Trump Administration heralds MAGA as its prime raison d’état for national security. While a colorful slogan, the notion has practically no meaning outside our shoreline. If anything, it recalls the isolationist organization formed in 1939 to keep the U.S. out of war. And we all know how that went (“America First”).
Seventy-five years after World War II, NATO is alive, well, and expanded; the EU (minus Britain) is the same. How has the world changed?
For most of its history, the threat against the U.S., existential and geopolitical, has originated in Europe. If it wasn’t our British “cousins,” it was Germany (twice), then Russia, which became the Soviet Union, but is back as Russia again.
Where is that threat now? The original motivation for NATO, 1949, has, like SEATO, long since disappeared. If it wasn’t so culturally accepted, the newest threat from Europe, Russian “meddling” in local elections, would be laughable, even if true.
Even if Putin intervenes in, say, Milwaukee’s election, how does that compare to Stalin and the millions of Red Army legions reaching the channel ports of France and Belgium? How do the election results in Cleveland compare to the Cuban Missile Crisis? To juxtapose today’s Russia in the same breath as the Cold War is to confuse American security issues with those of Ukraine, Croatia, and the Baltic states. It is also to confuse the dimensions of a world war, with thousands of nuclear weapons, against a nuisance on our doorstep (“rats in the closet”).
The world’s geopolitical interests have, as predicted, moved from Europe to Asia, where China holds sway and threatens the new, and future, order.
This is not only an Asian issue; it is global. China is the new threat to American and world stability, and the United States, as in 1949, has reached a crossroads to go one way or another.
True, we have bilateral agreements to protect vital interests, especially with Japan and Taiwan. But neither of those obligate the U.S. to automatically use military force. Nor are there existing arrangements to use force in the rest of Asia. As policy analyst Robert Kagan put it recently (regarding Taiwan), “Are we prepared to go beyond statements and sanctions if the Chinese call our bluff?”
In effect, the U.S. is “isolated.” Again.
Historically, isolated countries rarely act alone, which is why there are alliances. MAGA cannot deal with China and Asia. It will be necessary for a new American administration to take historic steps and create an innovative security arrangement between ourselves and related, and relevant, Asian partners. Who shall be involved, under what circumstances, for how long, and with what will have to be settled. But it is needed.
This year, the Trump Administration made concrete moves in this direction. On March 26, it signed the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) and advanced new arms sales to Taiwan. On July 23, Secretary of State Pompeo asked in a speech that “every leader of every nation insist on reciprocity … transparency and accountability from the Chinese Communist Party.”
In November, members of the four-power Asian “Quad” (the U.S., Japan, Australia, India) will hold joint naval exercises for the first time, a step that U.S. officials see as a significant move toward a formal alliance. Communist Vietnam, a target of Chinese pressure, also agreed to align with the Quad for economic and military security. While most experts on the issue maintain an official skepticism, the grand diplomatic trajectory in Asia appears headed toward some sort of historic realignment.
A decent beginning, so long as we don’t “repeat” SEATO.