The National Interest
Ted Galen Carpenter
June 10, 2016

Since the end of World War II, U.S. officials have spurned George Washington’s advice that the republic should avoid permanent alliances. To wage the Cold War against the Soviet Union, the United States forged alliances with various nations around the world. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) would be Washington’s first such venture outside its traditional sphere of influence in the Western Hemisphere, but it was far from the last. Key bilateral military alliances with such countries as Japan, South Korea, and Nationalist China followed. So did U.S. efforts to create pale imitators of NATO in other regions, including the ill-fated SEATO in Southeast Asia.

One might have thought that the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union would have marked an end to such pactomania. But that assumption would have been wrong. Indeed, the United States exploited the power vacuum created by the collapse of the Soviet empire to add a plethora of formal allies in Central and Eastern Europe. During those same years, Washington’s involvement in the toxic rivalries of the Middle East deepened, and so did relations with a variety of allies and client states in that region.

Because of the vast number of security obligations the United States has undertaken over the decades, the system now resembles an overgrown garden in desperate need of pruning. Formal and informal security commitments now make the United States responsible for the security of more than sixty percent of the planet. One doesn’t have to be an alarmist to believe that such a burden is the operational definition of strategic overextension.

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