Significance of alliances



March 12, 2022


M. Ali Siddiqi casts a glance at efforts to jointly operate

The Russian-Ukrainian conflict has brought to fore the significance of alliances in the international arena. It has become quite clear that alliance system is as relevant now as was before and therefore it is imperative to look at various aspects of this practice. It must always be borne in mind that the international system is anar¬chic and all bargaining among states takes place in the shadow of the use of force. States that can muster more military force can retain their security and compel concessions from others. States maintain their security by deterring threats against them and successful deterrence requires convincing potential adversaries that pursuing gains at a state’s expense through the use of force would be unsuccessful or prohibitively costly due to the state’s ability to wage a successful war.
Similarly, states can receive concessions from other states by convincing those states that resisting demands will be unsuccessful or prohibitively costly due to the superior military power of the challenging state or coalition. In the event that deterrence or com¬pellence fails and states find themselves at war, they are more likely to win the war with allied support than without. Alternatively, states may use alliances to reduce their individual defence burdens. To the extent that economies of scale exist in the provision of defence, states might find it more efficient to com¬bine their defence preparations with other states rather than bear the full burden of defense provi¬sions on their own.
It is in this context that the alliance system is required to be viewed. It is therefore obvious that an alliance is a formal agreement among inde¬pendent states in the international system to coop¬erate in the event of conflict with outside parties. Alliances are distinguished from informal alignments by their codification in a written document; while states that share interests and tend to coordinate behaviour may be termed aligned only states that have made an international legal commitment to assist one another are allied. Alliances involve promises of assistance in the event of military conflict with outside parties. They are distinguishable from other forms of military cooperation such as arms sales agreements and intelligence-sharing agreements.
It is also known that most alliances are formed through treaties in which specific promises made in these treaties can vary significantly. Some alliances commit the signato¬ries to assist one another in the event a member state is attacked and these are often referred to as defence pacts. Other alliances provide for states to assist one another in accomplishing offensive goals, usually in addition to defensive promises. Many alliances, however, fall short of guaranteeing active partici¬pation in conflicts that may arise and instead com¬mit the member states to remain neutral and pro¬vide no support for the adversary of an ally in the event the ally becomes involved in conflict or com¬mit the members to consult in the event of threat and make every attempt to produce a coordinated response without any specificity about what that coordinated response might be.
In many cases, alliance treaties also specify the conditions under which the obligations come into force. Rather than applying to any military con¬flict, an alliance may apply only to conflicts with specific adversaries, in specific loca¬tions, or in conjunction with a specific dispute. Alliances also vary in the level of peacetime investment and coordination they require. While some alliance treaties only require action in the event conflict emerges, others provide for the development of organisations and military integra¬tion during peacetime, for one state to place troops on the territory of an ally during peacetime or for shared development of defense and foreign policy.
In addition, alliances vary in size and length of term. Some alliances are bilateral agreements, while others are large multilateral entities. Some alliances are formed for temporary purposes for the duration of an ongoing war whereas others are designed to last for long peri¬ods of time with provisions allowing for renewal. Interestingly, however, many alliances are formed between strong states and weaker states. Since weaker states usually cannot offer much increased military power to strong states with the exception of a few weak states that occupy strate¬gically important geographic locations, one might reasonably ask why strong states would see benefit in allying with weaker states. Two explanations in this respect are given: that strong states have self-interest in the security of some weaker states due to factors such as valuable economic relationships or rival¬ries with other major powers and are willing to bear the costs of defending those states; and that weaker states are willing to offer stronger states other advantages in return for an alliance.
It is essential to observe that given the fact that there is no institution to provide external enforcement of contracts in the interna¬tional system, it is given to conjecture why states believe that alliances will be reliable. In fact, this is a sig¬nificant concern and almost assuredly prevents some potentially beneficial alliances from occur¬ring; states should be reluctant to depend too heav-ily on other states to guarantee their security and when deciding to form alliances must consider the incentives that their allies will have for fulfilling their alliance commitments in the event of conflict. Having said that, however, many allies do have incentive to work with their partners due to shared interests and the formalisation of cooperation in an alli¬ance treaty enhances the probability of future joint action.
It is also pointed out that forming and institutionalising an alliance are costly. Not only do states have to negotiate the agreement but they then have to imple¬ment military coordination clauses and coordinate their foreign policies to make the alliance credible. In addition, violating a previous commitment can have negative repercussions for the international reputation of a state and the domestic reputation of a leader. The strongest effects of alliances are on the probability that militarised disputes occur and the probability that wars expand. Alliances affect the probability that states chal¬lenge the current status quo and make threats involving the use of military force.
One of the positive aspects of an alliance is that states with allies are less likely to find themselves challenged because potential adversaries understand that to compel compliance would involve facing a joint military effort involving the target and its allies. On the other hand, states that have allies commit¬ted to help them may be more willing to challenge the status quo and threaten the use of force in the expectation that their targets will concede their demands. It must however be kept in view that while defensive alliances may deter the ini¬tiation of disputes, when deterrence fails, states with allies may be more willing to resist a chal¬lenger’s demands and take the dispute to war.
One of the worrying aspects of alliances could be that in their efforts to diffuse wars beyond their initial participants may create larger, more severe conflicts. Alliances have spillover effects on other kinds of interna¬tional cooperation as allies tend to trade more with one another, that allies are more likely to settle disputes among themselves peacefully and that institu¬tions initially formed to support alliances become useful for a wide range of other cooperative activities as well. For all the pros and cons the alliance system is there to remain a potent form of international matters. TW

M Ali Siddiqi is a writer who contributes to leading periodicals


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