The Five Powers Defense Agreement: A Lesson for the United States

As the United States develops an “America first” foreign policy, it can learn about disengagement from the end of the British Empire in Asia.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the United States’ attempt to construct a world in its own image after the end of the Cold War has failed, and that many of our efforts to bring peace, stability and democracy to other countries have delivered exactly the opposite. At the same time, endless wars and foreign interventions have undermined America’s own defense and prosperity, and brought the U.S. few tangible benefits.

The time has come, therefore, to develop a truly “America first” foreign policy, as the U.S. no longer has the strength, capability or resources to police the world. If we cannot protect the world, then we can at least protect ourselves.

Whatever the specifics of an “America first” foreign policy may entail, such a project would immediately raise concerns about the “abandonment of allies” and the development of a “leadership vacuum” in international politics, which — it is assumed — countries like Russia and China would be quick to fill. Even if we wanted to disengage, a common argument goes, for these reasons and many more, we simply cannot.

On the contrary, however, such disengagements have been attempted in the not-too-distant past, and in the case of the United Kingdom’s disengagement from its Empire in Asia, have often been successful.

In the late 1960s, as the sun was finally setting on the British Empire, London faced the inevitability of its disengagement “east of Suez,” essentially abandoning its defense agreements with its former colonies in Southeast Asia — Singapore and Malaysia.

Such a disengagement was unpopular amongst the regional leadership, which included Australia and New Zealand, and Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew in Singapore pressed London to stay in the region, in order to tackle the Konfrontasi threat from Indonesia and growing Soviet expansion in the region, which was encouraged by Washington’s inability to defeat Hanoi.

The United Kingdom’s obligations to Singapore and Malaysia were solidified by the 1957 Anglo-Malayan Defense Agreement, which committed the UK, Australia, and New Zealand to provide a security umbrella for the newly independent Malaya.

Less than two decades later, however, the UK gradually phased out its treaty defense obligations in Southeast Asia, recognizing that the “forces of history” had shifted, and that London was no longer the world power it once was.

Waiting for the opportune moment, the United Kingdom ratified the Five Powers Defense Agreement with Singapore, Malaysia, Australia and New Zealand in 1971, freeing the UK from its obligatory defense agreements in the region, and allowing the country to focus on re-building its economy at home.

By admitting its own shortcomings, providing a window for its allies to build up their own defenses, and continuing to provide them with weapons and training, the United Kingdom enabled its allies in the region to competently protect themselves, and indeed all four regional allies have successfully fended off external threats, and remain strong and independent nations to this day.

Could a similar process benefit the United States, as we reach the end of our influence and capability abroad, and begin to re-focus on the much neglected and under-resourced rebuilding of our country at home?

Perhaps it can. And as an endless stream of crises continue to rage across the world, it appears increasingly clear that the United States has neither the resources nor the ability to bring all these troubles under control. We must therefore become far more selective in our international defense obligations, encourage our allies to build up their own defense capabilities, and enable them to police their own regions.

It is hard to image that the British took any great pleasure in dismantling their Empire, but disengage they did. As Washington looks out over the world, and sees a sky filled with smoke from a thousand raging fires, perhaps it is time we did the same.