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Alliances are a primary form of international relations (IR) and national security policy. In conventional usage, an alliance is a formal agreement between governments to provide military support under specific political conditions. This may include military operations separately planned and executed, or highly coordinated and integrated, and other measures such as arms transfers, intelligence sharing, and the use of bases, air space, waterways, and territory. Their most important dimensions fall into three categories: (1) basic purpose and function; (2) internal politics; and (3) external affects.
Basic Purposes and Functions
The primary function of an alliance is to combine military strength against adversaries. The combined strength may be used in various ways to advance collective and individual purposes. It is most often used for deterrence, to signal to potential aggressors that they will meet such combined resistance that aggression will not pay. But it may also be used more offensively to compel others into political submission. Both of these coercive strategies, nevertheless, hinge on the most basic alliance function, to promote cooperative war fighting, for that is what makes them credible.
Although the process is never frictionless, alliances tend to form and deform in response to shifting concentrations of power and the threats they pose. Because threats are a function of intentions as well as power, compatibility of national aims tends to drive alliance patterns. Alliances may also form along lines of ideological or religious affinity, because the shared values are likely to be endangered by common threats. In late-nineteenth-century Europe, for example, a conservative alliance based on monarchical solidarity—the Three Emperors League of Prussia, Russia, and Austria-Hungary—formed against the spread of radicalism at home and abroad. Thus the political logic of combining strength against a common threat holds, even when the calculus is not determined by external power configurations alone.
When alliances fight in general wars the common interests they stand for tend to reflect status quo or revisionist goals. The former seek to uphold the prevailing territorial divisions and political frameworks of an international system. The latter seek to overthrow them. At the start of World War II, the revisionist alliance (or “Axis”) of Germany, Italy, and Japan joined in rejecting the League of Nations, and in pursuing territorial conquests and a new international economy. It was opposed by a status quo alliance composed of Britain and France, and their allies in Eastern Europe.
But allies’ purposes are often more complicated than such broad generalities suggest, for partners will also seek parochial and perhaps contradictory aims, including control over each other. Once the Soviet Union and the United States joined Britain in World War II, their Grand Alliance sought not only to eliminate enemy regimes in Rome, Berlin, and Tokyo, but also to preserve fading empire, extend new spheres of influence over satellites, and create the United Nations and a multilateral liberal economic system. There were obvious tensions among these goals, and they were amply manifest in the international politics of the cold war.
Alliances require material and/or political sacrifices. They can also multiply dangers by provoking counter-alliances and new threats. Allies will thus struggle over the distribution of the costs and benefits of their enterprise, each trying to shift obligations and dangers onto the others. Two basic organizational features shape these internal politics: the number and relative strength of the allies. Increasing the number of allies makes it harder to reconcile disparate priorities. Equality of power among allies adds to the trouble by making it harder to determine whose contributions and priorities must trump. In bilateral alliances, the internal politics are least complicated between strong and weak partners, and more complicated between roughly equal ones. In multilateral alliances of unequal partners the internal politics are yet more difficult, and most difficult of all are multilateral pacts of equals. Regardless of what form an alliance takes, each partner will try to avoid two elementary risks: The first is being abandoned by one’s allies at a moment of grave danger; the second is being entrapped in a fight for an ally’s parochial interest that harms one’s own. These twin risks pose an inherent dilemma of alliance politics, and especially during periods of international crisis, much of alliance politics reflects the strivings of each ally to navigate through it.
Although it creates the danger of entrapment, forging an alliance in peacetime is advantageous because it allows allies to send diplomatic signals and coordinate military plans and forces in ways that increase deterrence and the prospects for military victory. In principle, the more deeply allies coordinate and integrate national strategies, forces, and operations the more effective and beneficial the alliance will be. Yet even when allies agree strongly about their common political purposes, and share a high degree of trust, the business of coordinating let alone integrating military strategies, postures, and operations, can be deeply divisive—within governments as much as between them. Traditional wisdom holds that divisions will recede as common dangers increase, and grow as common dangers fade. Thus wartime alliances tend to unravel after victory, as the Anglo-American–Soviet alliance did after World War II. However, the cleverest and most menacing adversaries will incite and exploit divisions within opposing alliances; then even great danger will not mute debilitating internal politics.
Important questions in IR concern the conditions for taming corrosive alliance politics. Shared norms and transparent decision-making may help liberal democracies to make and keep stronger alliance commitments. Institutionalized alliances, possessing routine processes for political decision-making and military coordination, supported by deliberative bodies and bureaucracies, may also be more robust. Such institutionalization, especially in an alliance of democracies, may even be transforming, creating an unusually cohesive security community in which partners tend to interpret and react to world politics in increasingly convergent ways. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)—the most institutionalized and democratic alliance in history—may for this reason have continued to function and adapt long after its main opponent, the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact, crumbled.
Alliances are a primary means for balancing power in international politics. Most dramatically this occurs when broad alliances form against an aggressor, like Napoleonic France, that threatens to suborn the international system. Short of such extremes, alliances may foster international order and stability by spreading deterrence and predictability among states and a sense of assurance and restraint within them. But alliances have often been seen as causing more not less international warfare. First, because competitions in alliance building can create spirals of insecurity that make war more likely. Second, because once small local wars start, alliances may widen them and make them more destructive through webs of commitments on each side. That pathology is most associated with the start of World War I in 1914 when two tight alliances, with France and Russia on one side, and Germany and Austria-Hungary on the other, became deadlocked during a crisis between Austria-Hungary and Serbia. Though both were conceived as defensive alliances to prevent war, they seem to have dragged the European powers, and much of the rest of the world, into catastrophe.
The idea that alliances promote peace and stability was boosted by NATO’s cold war successes in deterring a Soviet-led Warsaw Pact attack on Western Europe, and fostering cooperation within the alliance between historical enemies West Germany and France. Expectations about reproducing the latter effect motivated NATO expansion after the cold war, when former Warsaw Pact members in Eastern Europe were left in a region of strategic uncertainty without alliance safeguards. NATO’s members overcame internal disputes over the scope and pace of enlargement, and agreed to expand the alliance eastward to project stability and promote democracy within the new member states. This logic for projecting security through alliance growth thus evoked the idea that democratic alliances can instill deep bonds of common identity and security community.
In the first decade of the twenty-first century, the strongest case for such bonding remained the AngloAmerican alliance: forged in world wars, it was deepened and institutionalized bilaterally and multilaterally through NATO during decades of cold war. As their security concerns shifted to nuclear proliferation and transnational terrorism, those two allies showed surprising cohesion in fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. With other NATO members, however, especially concerning Iraq, there was greater political acrimony and less evident commitment to joint effort, showing that even the deeply democratic and institutionalized transatlantic security community remains vulnerable to divisive and perhaps debilitating internal politics.
As the century unfolds, two issues concerning alliances will loom largest for students and practitioners of international relations. The first is the extent to which traditional alliance frameworks can be retooled and mobilized to redress amorphous transnational terrorist threats that are less amenable to solutions based on combined military strength. The second is the extent to which traditional alliance frameworks will come into play against the largest and fastest-growing powers. Will new alliances form and tighten in reaction to preponderant American military power? Will alliances in Asia and the Pacific endure and grow—or whither and fracture—as China’s military posture and prestige climbs? The broad contours of twenty-first-century international politics will be defined by answers to these questions.
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