Would the United States go to war over marine life illegally harvested in the South China Sea? The very thought of such a thing sounds ludicrous. But under the U.S. Mutual Defense Treaty with the Philippines, it is a possibility.
For the past month, China and the Philippines have traded threats over a disputed area in the South China Sea after Philippine authorities seized what they said was illegally harvested marine life from Chinese ships, only to be blocked by Chinese ships when a Philippine navy warship tried to tow the Chinese vessels.
Chinese state media have talked of military action while its government has warned Chinese citizens in the Philippines that they may be at risk because of nationalistic sentiment there.
The disputed area is the resource-rich Scarborough Shoal, about 130 miles from the Philippine mainland. The group of reefs, rocks, and small islands are named after the East India Company ship Scarborough that was wrecked there in 1784.
China, which calls the shoal Huangyan, maintains that it has been Chinese for centuries; the Philippine government, which calls the area Panatag, claims that it has appeared as part of the Philippines on maps dating back to the 1700s.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta maintained that the United States was not taking sides in the territorial dispute but would honor its treaty obligations.
At the same time, U.S. troops have begun training exercises in Australia.
The 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty between the United States and the Philippines is a short agreement consisting of eight articles.
Most Americans probably have no idea that such a treaty to defend the Philippines exists. But it is just one of many. The United States has similar treaties with Japan, South Korea, and Australia, as well as many "security arrangements" and "status of forces agreements" that clarify the terms under which U.S. troops are stationed in other countries.
The most well-known U.S. military alliance is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) between the United States, Canada, Iceland, and 24 other European countries and Turkey. A few years after the fall of the Soviet Union, NATO was expanded to include 10 former members of the Warsaw Pact. That means that the United States is committed to going to war over Poland, just as the British were when they committed the greatest blunder in their history in giving Poland a "blank check" that drew them into World War II.
Military alliances are dangerous things, especially when they are misinterpreted. Article III of the Tripartite Pact of 1940 between Germany, Japan, and Italy committed the three powers "to assist one another with all political, economic, and military means if one of the Contracting Powers was attacked by a Power at present not involved in the European War or in the Japanese-Chinese conflict."
World War II would have never happened had it not been for World War I and the military alliances that existed among the Great Powers.
Although U.S. foreign policy had become increasingly interventionist since the Spanish-American War, the United States generally steered clear of entangling alliances until the end of World War II.
The current U.S. foreign policy of maintaining entangling alliances is hazardous to American blood and treasure. And not just because they are all grossly one-sided. Nothing that happens in the South China Sea is worth one drop of American blood or one dollar from the U.S. treasury.
Conflict, injustice, and oppression throughout the world are unfortunate things. But the United States cannot right every wrong or correct every injustice in the world. It is not the job of the United States to police the world, put out fires around the world, or be the world's hall monitor, social worker, parole officer, or peacekeeper.
Laurence M. Vance is a policy advisor for the Future of Freedom Foundat