Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

The Biden Administration Is Addicted to Partnerships

| Oct. 03, 2023

The inauspicious return of the Cold War strategy of "Pactomania."

It's hard to think of two modern secretaries of state as dissimilar as Antony Blinken and John Foster Dulles. Dulles was by most accounts a stiff, relentlessly serious, and buttoned-up Wall Street lawyer with a moralistic streak, the living embodiment of the WASP-y eastern establishment. By contrast, Blinken is usually described as friendly, cosmopolitan, unpretentious, and easy to work with. He's a self-described pop music buff who appears to have decent blues guitar chops. If you can picture Dulles bending a note on a vintage ax and channeling his inner Muddy Waters, you've got a more vivid imagination than I do.

But these two very different men are eerily similar in at least one way: each thought the best way to keep U.S. adversaries contained was to round up as many states as possible into U.S.-led security arrangements. This strategy didn't work that well for Dulles, however, and I suspect it won't pan out the way Blinken hopes, either.

Back in the early years of the Cold War, Dulles led a series of diplomatic initiatives that critics labeled "Pactomania." As an advisor to President Harry Truman, he negotiated the initial version of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty and helped facilitate the ANZUS treaty between the United States, Australia, and New Zealand. As secretary of state under Eisenhower, Dulles backed the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO), which brought together Iraq, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, and the United Kingdom. Washington was not a formal member of this arrangement, but it signed bilateral agreements with each of the member states and attended meetings as an observer. Convinced that neutrality was "an immoral and shortsighted conception," Dulles was also the architect of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), whose members were United States, France, Great Britain, New Zealand, Australia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Pakistan. Together with NATO, the bilateral U.S. commitments to South Korea, the Philippines, and Japan, informal but significant support for Taiwan and South Vietnam, and the U.S. role in the Organization of American States (founded in 1948), this ever-expanding array of security commitments sought to contain communism around the entire perimeter of the communist world and the Western Hemisphere as well.

What about now? Even before relations with Russia deteriorated, the United States had been steadfastly committed to open-ended NATO enlargement and the gradual expansion of security partnerships in other key regions. By 2015, in fact, the United States was committed to defending nearly 70 countries around the world, together comprising more than 2 billion people and about 75 percent of global economic output. That impulse has only deepened in the wake of the war in Ukraine, with Washington actively supporting the entry of Sweden and Finland into NATO and insisting that Ukraine (and possibly others) will be welcomed into the alliance at some point in the future. The Biden administration has also worked to deepen the so-called Quad (U.S., India, Australia, and Japan) in the Indo-Pacific and has helped broker a new level of security cooperation between Australia and Great Britain through the AUKUS technology-sharing deal.

But wait, there's more! President Joe Biden helped mend fences between South Korea and Japan at a Camp David summit and Biden and Blinken have spent considerable time and political capital cajoling Saudi Arabia and Israel into normalizing relations in exchange for some still-unspecified amount of American blandishments or security guarantees. (For recent critiques of this particular endeavor, see here and here). And let's not forget those two democracy summits, during which Biden and Blinken tried to line up the world's democracies and reverse the rising tide of authoritarianism that has been underway for the past 17 years....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M..“The Biden Administration Is Addicted to Partnerships.” Foreign Policy, October 3, 2023.

The Author

Stephen Walt