Fun Fact: Hawaii Is Not Covered in NATO Treaty

U.S. Navy photo via AP

Well, this seems odd. 

I just learned that if somebody--say the Chinese--attacked the Hawaiian Islands as part of a campaign to seize Taiwan--attacked the military bases in our 50th state NATO countries would not be obliged to help defend the US. 


As a practical matter, it probably doesn't mean much, because aside from France and Great Britain no European country would add that much to our capabilities in a war with China. 

But it still seems weird

Sweden became the newest member of NATO earlier this month, joining 31 nations in the security alliance, including the United States. Well, make that 49 of the 50 United States.

Because in a quirk of geography and history, Hawaii is not technically covered by the NATO pact.

If a foreign power attacked Hawaii – say the US Navy’s base at Pearl Harbor or the headquarters of the Indo-Pacific Command northwest of Honolulu – the members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization would not be obligated to rise to the Aloha State’s defense.

If you think about it, this quirk explains why Great Britain could only count on the United States to help in its war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands. As a NATO country that had been attacked you might have expected other European countries to come to their aid, but sure enough everybody chickened out. 

Except Ronald Reagan, of course, who helped Maggie Thatcher kick Argentina's butt. It was actually a bit surprising they did so, given that they were on the end of an extremely long supply line and their aircraft carrier was stocked with Harriers, which aren't really fighter aircraft. 


The exception is spelled out in the Washington Treaty, the document that established NATO in 1949, a decade before Hawaii became a state.

While Article 5 of the treaty provides for collective self-defense in the event of a military attack on any member state, Article 6 limits the geographic scope of that.

“An armed attack on one or more of the Parties is deemed to include an armed attack on the territory of any of the Parties in Europe or North America,” Article 6 says. It also says any island territories must be in the North Atlantic, north of the Tropic of Cancer.

A US State Department spokesperson confirmed that Hawaii is not covered by Article 5, but said Article 4, which says members will consult when “the territorial integrity, political independence or security” of any member is threatened, should cover any situation that could affect the 50th state.

I wonder about that. I suspect that our NATO allies might participate in any action we take out of self-interest--best not the bite the hand that feeds you and all that--but that provision in the treaty is big enough to drive a truck through. 

There is little doubt the UK would come to our aid because of ties to Australia and New Zealand, who would likely be dragged into the war. But I wouldn't count on France to hop on the war bandwagon, even if the US were directly attacked. France has nukes and is notoriously...independent. They would choose based on national interest, not questionable treaty obligations. 


I would hesitate to predict what China would or would not do in the case of an invasion of Taiwan. Tactically, an attack on Hawaii is a no-brainer, but strategically, it is playing with fire. The same holds true for an American attack on the Chinese mainland. It's the logical place to strike tactically, but the escalation game gets very complicated. 

Smarter and more experienced people than me have gamed this out, of course, and many people assume that things would escalate (short of nuclear war) quickly. 

A 2022 wargame scenario run by the Center for a New American Security played out with China attacking US command and control installations in Hawaii as part of its war to take Taiwan by force.

John Hemmings, senior director of the Indo-Pacific Foreign and Security Policy Program at the Pacific Forum, says Hawaii’s exclusion from NATO removes “an element of deterrence” when it comes to the possibility of a Chinese strike on Hawaii in support of any potential Taiwan campaign.

Leaving Hawaii out lets Beijing know that NATO’s European members potentially have a bit of an “escape clause” when it comes to defending US territory in such a hypothetical situation, he says.

Of course, everything about Taiwan contains an escape clause, including a US commitment to defend the island. Biden has indicated that we would defend the island, but technically, our official position remains ambiguous. 


"Strategic ambiguity" and all that. 

China is facing structural challenges, and everybody wonders whether the country will get old before it gets rich. It's economy is facing huge challenges, which either means that Taiwan is too big a mountain to climb right now or that invading Taiwan would be a great way to rally support for the government in tough times. 

Only one thing is certain: no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy. And the best way to avoid having to dust off those battle plans is to be very prepared to fight. 

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