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Whatever Happened To SEATO … And Could It Still Happen To NATO?

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was created after World War II to provide a mutual defense structure for the European allied nations.  It is praised as one of the most durable, effective and successful mutual defense organizations in history.  It has been expanded and is currently the reason that Russian troops are surrounding Ukraine – the only non-NATO nation that stands between the eastern edge of NATO and the Russian border.

NATO, however, was not the only such mutual defense treaty created after the War.  There once was something called SEATO – the South East Asian Treaty Organization.  You do not hear much about that one because it officially ended in in 1977.  But why?

SEATO was founded in 1954.  Led by the United States and Great Britain, the initial treaty included Australia, New Zealand, Philippines, Thailand and Pakistan.  Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos were not allowed to join in a mutual defense organization due to agreements reached after the French Indonesian War – but were essentially included as official “observers.”  Things may have been very different in Southeat Asia had they been given full membership.

SEATO was considered central to President Truman’s Containment Policy – crafted to prevent communist China from extending hegemony over the Southeast Asian countries – just as NATO was conceived as the means to prevent Russia from moving further west of its post-war occupation position.

Under the provisions of SEATO, any incursion by China into any of the treaty nations would have provoked a response from all the SEATO nations – similar to Article 5 of the NATO agreement, but not as a formal commitment. There was wiggle room.

Unlike NATO – in which the original members had a singular common interest – the SEATO nations were not so cohesive.  Pakistan, for example, was looking for security from India more than China.

Arguably, SEATO was undermined – perhaps fatally – by a major diplomatic error on a part of the Truman administration.  Although Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos were technically included in the defense pact, Truman drew his “Chinese containment” line off the Asian shore – signaling that Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos were not the protective interest of the United States.

When China started promoting rebellion in Vietnam, the western nations responded with the French taking up what became the war in Vietnam.  The old Containment Policy was replaced with the “Domino Theory” – that the fall of one southeast Asian nation would lead to the next … and the next.

Eventually, the United States took over from the French – launching the American Vietnam War.  But already the cracks were appearing in SEATO.  France and Pakistan opposed American intervention in Vietnam.   Pakistan eventually withdrew from SEATO because it believed its interests in its growing conflict with India were not being recognized.

In addition to the member-nations diverse interests – compared to NATO — SEATO was weakened by the lack of an effective unified military response.  Following the American defeat in Vietnam – and the takeover of the country by a Chinese-backed regime – SEATO collapsed completely and was disbanded in 1977.

In an academic sense, one can wonder what the situation in southeast Asia would be like today had SEATO been crafted as was NATO – and had Truman not blundered his Containment Policy.  More importantly, are there still lessons to be learned for the future of NATO?

While much more durable, NATO is starting to show some cracks in its solidarity.  While NATO was a nation of “democratic republics,” the inclusion of Turkey – or at least how it has evolved – has brought in the first quasi-authoritarian state – and one with different interests than the old NATO.

There is also a growing division between the old western NATO nations and the more recent member in east Europe.  We see that in the Ukrainian situation – with the eastern nations more determined to fight Russian expansion and to effectively militarize Ukraine.

Germany has been the most reluctant to aid Ukraine.  It has refused to join in sending military weapons to the beleaguered nation.  It has been expanding a cooperative relationship with Russia – and is committed to be a major oil customer for the Kremlin.  It has not committed to suspend the completion of the North Stream Pipeline if Russia invades Ukraine. German currently gets 42 percent of its energy from Russia.

Like China and SEATO, Russian President Putin is not only recognizing the fissures in NATO, but he is also using every tool in his toolbox to widen those cracks to break the solidarity of the Organization.  NATO looks strong yet today, but it is fair to say it is not as strong as it was in the past.  And that should concern the western alliance.  

So, there ‘tis.

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