Alliances Essay

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Alliances, or formal associations between two political bodies to further their common interests, are one of the most recurrent phenomena in the field of international politics. Most definitions of alliance focus on four basic elements: its formal nature (based on a treaty signed by states), its cooperative dimension (states agree to join forces to pursue some common goal), its external orientation (alliances are usually against states outside their own membership), and its military character (the content of cooperation is related to security). Overall, this conception is a correct one, albeit of a limited nature.

Power Aggregation Model

Most Scholars Believe That Underlying All alliances are the convergent interests of the individual member and that the interests in question are directly linked to security, broadly defined as protection against a powerful enemy. Thus an alliance is simply—or mostly—the union of the forces of those who, fearing that they are incapable of dealing with the enemy on their own, decide to cooperate with other states in the same situation. This is the essence of the power aggregation model, which is probably the most common interpretation of alliances. It should be pointed out that balance of power theory, and alliance theory, clearly overlap. As stated by Hans Morgenthau in 1973, alliances are nothing more than a means whereby states maintain an approximately equal distribution of power; as such, alliances are a particular manifestation of the more general state behavior known as “balancing.” This classical view has been partly modified by noticing that the behavior of states is not based on the need to balance power but to deal with threats, as described by Stephen Walt (1987): In deciding whether a given state represents a threat to our security, we need to take account not only of its aggregate power, but also of its geographical proximity, its offensive power, and its aggressive intentions.

Balancing Versus Bandwagoning

However, states do not always unite against a state that threatens them. Sometimes, on the contrary, they form alliances with the latter, thus adopting a policy known as bandwagoning. The dichotomy of balancing versus bandwagoning has been hotly debated, and there is no agreement on which represents the most common behavior, in empirical terms. To further complicate matters, scholars such as Randall Schweller (1994) argue that the term bandwagoning should be used to refer to alliance not with the state posing the threat, but simply with strong states. From this perspective, the most important factor affecting alignment is the compatibility of various different states’ political objectives rather than the power (or threat) imbalance: If one state is satisfied with the status quo, it will join a conservative alliance, even if the latter is the strongest force. On the other hand, a revisionist state will be driven more by the desire for “profit” than by the desire for security, and thus will align itself with the strongest revisionist power in ascendance at the time.

Tools Of Management

All those views, despite their differences, share the same conception of alliances as aggregation of power. Yet, alliances also can be seen as something profoundly different; i.e., as tools of management. A rapid survey of the most important alliances from 1815 to 1945 led Paul Schroeder to conclude in 1976 that the wish to aggregate power against a threat is not always of vital importance for the creation of an alliance; that all alliances work, to a certain degree, restricting and controlling the actions of the allies themselves; and that certain alliances may be employed in order that even an adversary joins our side and is thereby constrained by the alliance itself. Those ideas have brought to the forefront the fundamental issue of interallied relations, shedding light on their ambiguous nature. Accordingly, some political scientists, such as Patricia Weitsman (2004), have expanded the role of threat in the creation and functioning of alliances to include threats posed by one’s ally. Others, such as Jeremy Pressman (2008), have focused on how states use alliances to restrain their partners, thereby preventing war.

The most important contribution, however, comes from Glenn Snyder’s (1997) alliance security dilemma. In every alliance, states tend to oscillate between two opposite fears—abandonment and entrapment. The former concern is that an ally abandons us, either directly (by abrogating a treaty, for example) or indirectly (by denying its diplomatic support during a crisis). The latter refers to the risk of being drawn into a war provoked by an intransigent or reckless ally. The common response to the fear of abandonment is to “get closer” to the ally; that is, to increase those incentives that may induce the ally into keeping its initial pledge. The usual response to the fear of entrapment is to “get away”; that is, to reduce one’s obligations or threaten to withdraw one’s support. If a state chooses to get closer, it reduces the risk of abandonment but increases the risk of entrapment; on the other hand, if a state chooses to get away, the opposite will be true. Thus, the policies adopted to prevent abandonment make entrapment that much more likely, just as the policies designed to avoid entrapment make abandonment more likely.

A Typology Of Alliances

All this points at a striking variety of types of alliance, as can be seen not only in the degree to which the various members condition the behavior of the others, but also in the tone of their relations, which may vary from tense to cordial, and from a position of reciprocal support to one of mutual diffidence. One way of dealing with such a variety is by means of a typology of alliances, based on two dimensions, one internal and one external. The first allows one to distinguish between symmetric and asymmetric alliances, according to whether power relations between the allies are balanced or skewed in favor of one of them, respectively. In the second dimension, we have homogeneous and heterogeneous alliances, depending on whether members respond to converging constraints and opportunities, or on whether they react to diverging constraints and opportunities, respectively.

Combining these classes of alliance, four types are obtained. In the aggregation alliance (homogeneous and symmetric), decisions are taken by mutual consent, and both parties obtain reasons for satisfaction from their collaboration. In the guarantee alliance (homogeneous and asymmetric), although the weaker party’s interests are safeguarded, the content of the agreements reflects first of all the major ally’s preferences. In the hegemonic alliance (heterogeneous and asymmetric), the two parties are in divergent positions, and the imbalance in power relations allows the major ally to drag the other ally along, imposing solutions that are at least partially damaging for the latter. And in the deadlocked alliance (heterogeneous and symmetric), the members, who have equal bargaining power and hold positions that are difficult to reconcile, end up paralyzing each other.


  1. Cesa, Marco. Allies Yet Rivals: International Politics in 18th Century Europe. Translated by Patrick Barr. Standford, Calif.: Standford University Press, forthcoming. Liska, George. Nations in Alliance.The Limits of Interdependence. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1962.
  2. Morgenthau, Hans J. Politics among Nations:The Struggle for Power and Peace, 5th ed., rev. New York: Knopf, 1973.
  3. Pressman, Jeremy. Warring Friends: Alliance Restraint in International Politics. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2008.
  4. Schroeder, Paul W. “Alliances, 1815–1945:Weapons of Power and Tools of Management.” In Historical Dimensions of National Security Problems, edited by Klaus Knorr, 227–262. Lawrence, Kan.: Allen, 1976.
  5. Schweller, Randall L. “Bandwagoning for Profit: Bringing the Revisionist State Back In.” International Security 19, no. 1 (1994): 72–107.
  6. Snyder, Glenn H. Alliance Politics. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1997.
  7. Weitsman, Patricia A. Dangerous Alliances: Proponents of Peace,Weapons of War. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2004.
  8. Walt, Stephen M. The Origins of Alliances. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1987.

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