By: Paulina Mangubat
June 30, 1977 - The Southeast Asian Treaty Organization dissolves
What do the United States, France, Great Britain, New Zealand, Australia, the Philippines, Thailand and Pakistan all have in common?
Well, not much—anymore.
Once upon a time, these radically different countries were members of the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO), an international defense alliance formed in September of 1954 after the completion of the Manila Pact. Although SEATO is now widely regarded as a failed international experiment, it was originally intended to function as the Southeast Asian version of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
The Manila Pact, which is contextualized within the peacekeeping aspirations of the Charter of the United Nations, contains the requisite promises of mutual aid and self-help. A deeper look into the history of SEATO, however, reveals a different motive.
According to the U.S. State Department, SEATO was primarily established in an effort to prevent communism from spreading into and taking over Southeast Asia. As a matter of fact, a short note at the end of the Manila Pact titled “Understanding of the United States of America” clarifies that SEATO’s definition of an armed attack was inherently tied to communist aggression.
Most of SEATO’s member states maintained their ties to the alliance because of their geopolitical interests or pre-existing colonial relationships. But the U.S., in particular, had unique reasons behind its SEATO ties. In addition to advancing its Cold War containment strategy, the U.S. also used SEATO to justify its role in the Vietnam War.
But not everyone was sold on SEATO. Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru vocally rejected SEATO when it was still in its early planning stages, and maintained that India had developed an alternative plan revolving around the Colombo powers: India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Burma and Ceylon.
SEATO’s displayed weaknesses and eventual dissolution indicate that India might have been on the right track when it declined British calls to join the organization.
As time wore on, SEATO’s military weaknesses became more and more apparent. Because SEATO was not a military alliance, member states were left to react individually to domestic threats. NATO, on the other hand, was bound to a military mechanism that detailed the process of deploying forces or obtaining foreign intelligence in times of crisis.
The most interesting critique of SEATO was that it fueled a new kind of colonialism. Although the alliance was based around maintaining peace in Southeast Asia, only three of its member states were actually Asian. Some of SEATO’s most vehement critics eventually accused the U.S., France and Britain of using the alliance to further dominate their Asian peers. Concerns about colonialism, as well as general cultural differences, only further precipitated SEATO’s demise.
Member states began withdrawing from SEATO as early as the 1970s. When the Vietnam War ended in 1977, the U.S. lost its primary motivation for staying in the alliance. SEATO was permanently disbanded shortly thereafter.
SEATO was an alliance that was formed in response to an immediate threat instead of a long-standing set of shared values. When the threat disappeared from Southeast Asia, it seems, so too did the ties between SEATO’s member states.
The rise and fall of SEATO illustrates how different entities can quickly come together in an attempt to ward off a common enemy.
It also demonstrates that some relationships simply aren’t built to last.
Paulina Mangubat is a communications intern for the EastWest Institute. She is a Barnard College senior majoring in political science and East Asian studies. She tweets @paulinaVEVO.