Unwanted war and the MDT
Our Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) with the United States is in the limelight again, after Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana called for its review.
The objection to the MDT is the US treaty obligation. Most of us want a Nato-type guarantee that “an attack on one member is an attack on all,” instead of the provision in the MDT that, in case of an armed attack, “x x x each party will act in accordance with its constitutional processes.”
These discussions are based on the premise that treaties are sacrosanct. In World War I, the Germans stated that a treaty is a “mere scrap of paper” when it invaded Belgium, in violation of the treaty guaranteeing the neutrality of that country. Britain and France exploited the German statement by creating the fiction that treaty commitments are sacrosanct. Actually, treaties throughout history have never been sacrosanct.
During prolonged wars, like the Napoleonic, the Peloponnesian and the Hundred Years’ wars, treaties were not merely ignored, members of an alliance also often switched sides. In World War II, at least six countries — Finland, Italy, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania — changed sides. In 1938, the British and the French dumped their treaty obligation and allowed Hitler to annex Czechoslovakia, thus confirming that what the Germans said in WWI was correct.
Since treaty commitments are not sacrosanct, there is a better explanation: that even without a treaty, a country will go to war if its national interest is at stake. This is best explained by a comment in the United States after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1991: “We will not intervene in Kuwait if it exports only tomatoes.”
Consequently, a grand coalition was formed to liberate Kuwait in 1991. None of the coalition members had any defense treaty with Kuwait. The casus belli of the coalition was to uphold the UN Charter; the hidden agenda was to prevent Hussein from controlling the world oil market.
Thus, national interest and the historical record of a country are better indicators of how a country will react to a given crisis. In the case of the United States, freedom of navigation has been a cornerstone of its foreign policy. To uphold this principle, the United States had fought four wars: the war against the Barbary pirates in 1805, the war of 1812 versus Britain, and World Wars I and II.
In 1812, the United States was still a developing country. Nonetheless, it took on England, the superpower of that time, on the issue of freedom of navigation. The United States had prospered through trade and commerce, hence its commitment to uphold freedom of navigation.
If China can convert the West Philippine Sea (WPS) into a Chinese lake, it will have the ability to interdict not only world trade and commerce, but also the projection of US power overseas. The US naval battle groups in the Pacific and in the Persian Gulf, for example, cannot mutually support each other in a crisis. If the United States allows this to happen, it will mean the end of Pax Americana. A superpower can remain thus only if it can freely navigate the seven seas and project its power to all parts of the globe.
Great Britain became so weakened by World War II that the Royal Navy ceased to rule the waves. Thus, it had to give up its world empire. It is highly unlikely that the United States will be the first superpower to abdicate its status by default, without going to war to uphold freedom of navigation. War will be the case if China interdicts freedom of navigation in the WPS.
In this regard, we may be looking the wrong way at the MDT. The imminent danger is that the United States may drag us into a war for which we are not prepared. Chinese hostile action against a US vessel conducting “freedom of navigation” trips in the WPS is covered by the MDT. The vessels and aircraft of both parties (the Philippines and the United States) is part of the “treaty area” in the MDT. This has been the case throughout history—the powerful member of an alliance dragging the weaker ally into an unwanted war.
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Hermenegildo C. Cruz was a career diplomat serving as our ambassador to the United Nations, the Soviet Union and to Chile and Bolivia. He holds the degree of master of arts in law and diplomacy from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.
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