President Trump has shocked the global foreign policy elite by questioning the value of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in the modern world. Good for him. Advancing America’s interests requires regular reassessment of costs and benefits of existing arrangements. Inertia and vested interests are no excuses for failing to be responsible.
Even as NATO seeks relevance a generation after the Cold War ended, its cousin in the Americas faces bigger challenges.
Established in 1947, the Rio Treaty — formally the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance — is shrinking. It once included all but four independent countries in the Western Hemisphere: Belize, Guyana, Suriname, and NATO-member Canada. Mexico dropped out in 2002, effective 2004, and Nicaragua, Cuba, Bolivia, Venezuela, and Ecuador have quit in the last five years. That’s right — until very recently the United States was treaty-bound to defend these countries, and they us.
Despite this treaty, not one Rio ally came to our aid in Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001, attacks. Operation Enduring Freedom even included China, Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, and Turkey. Even normally neutral Switzerland and Norway helped.
Reasons for Mexico and company to quit the Rio Treaty included the end of the Cold War and the U.S. siding with the U.K. instead of Argentina in the 1982 Falklands War. Some believe that “the Treaty implicitly lost legitimacy and force of law for all practical intents and purposes,” as Venezuela’s denunciation stated.
Considering how unhelpful Latin America was after 9/11, the treaty should lack legitimacy and force of law to Americans. Many of these countries could do more to control the traffickers of illicit narcotics and unlawful migration into the United States, the key security threats in our neighborhood.
Meanwhile, every independent country in South America has joined the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), and Mexico and Panama are observers. Modeled on the European Union, UNASUR includes mutual defense and security activities. The South Americans are taking care of themselves, and the Cold War is over.
We must ask whether the Rio Treaty still matters. A military alliance is for winning wars, not to promote economic development and conflict resolution. Perhaps diplomacy, technical assistance, and reducing barriers to commerce are more appropriate in the modern world. Maybe it’s just an empty shell kept around to benefit a handful of bureaucrats.
A mutual defense treaty doesn’t keep us from helping other countries. We assist Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Taiwan, just to name a few without treaties being in place.
So let’s get on with formally terminating our involvement in the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance. The benefits are negligible.
Admittedly, the current costs of the Rio Treaty are low. The United States has no major military deployments or installations in Latin America — primarily Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and counter-narcotics efforts centered in Honduras — and UNASUR has discussed evicting U.S. military forces. No Latin American country faces a significant overseas threat.
But we shouldn’t leave it lying around waiting to cause trouble. It’s better to scrap this permanent alliance and, if necessary, form ad hoc alliances for contingencies that emerge in years or decades.
President Trump can remove the United States easily. Article 25 states:
This Treaty shall remain in force indefinitely, but may be denounced by any High Contracting Party by a notification in writing to the Pan American Union, which shall inform all the other High Contracting Parties of each notification of denunciation received. After the expiration of two years from the date of the receipt by the Pan American Union of a notification of denunciation by any High Contracting Party, the present Treaty shall cease to be in force and with respect to such State, but shall remain in full force and effect with respect to all the other high Contracting Parties.
The United States can be out just two years after President Trump sends a letter.
We can maintain relationships without a treaty. It’s time to cast off a relic of days gone by, simplify our international commitments, and look forward to peace and prosperity in the Americas.
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