Through the use of coalitions and military pacts, nations and states have throughout history sought to maximize their self-interest, both in defense and expansion. For example, alliances between the Greek states helped stave off a Persian incursion. Likewise, the various Goth tribes banded together to weaken the Western Roman Empire. Similarly, the Britons unified to stand against the Danish raiders, and the French sided with the American colonists to undermine the British Empire.
In all these cases, their leaders made alliances to strengthen the state defensively and its external influence on the world stage. Moreover, these leaders calculated the risks undertaken in selecting the partners they believed would be most strategically beneficial to those ends through collective security (Miller 1999). The following article will examine the development and challenges for strategic alliances from the beginning of the Twentieth Century until the present and how states fostered trust between one another through collective security to support states’ self-interests.
At the beginning of the Twentieth Century, with globalization rapidly increasing, alliances between states began to play a much more significant and strategic role in geopolitical affairs. The cause of World War I was a direct result of cascading involvement of partner states in both the Triple Alliance and Triple Entente as each declared war on one another in support of their allies (Morrow 1993). World War Two escalated similarly as the German Wehrmacht seized neutral states and occupied allied nations.
Partnerships within the Axis and Allies formed again to those during the Great War. The Cold War also set a clear delineation in shaping strategic alliances between the democratic West and the communist East. Many of the smaller states force to choose and become proxies in numerous low-intensity conflicts between the two sides that spanned the globe. The sale of newer and more effective arms and military technology is another foreign policy method that revolves around forming and maintaining strategic alliances. Weapons and military equipment sales were a significant diplomatic component during the Cold War to coerce weaker states into picking a “team.” Today, states use arms agreements more to build and maintain trust between states, usually part of a larger aid package (Krause 2002).
In the post-Cold War era, strategic alliances took on a less critical role in preventing another global war or as a form of collective security. Instead, they shifted to more of a peace enforcement role. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO, for example, was initially founded to serve as a deterrence against Soviet aggression in Europe or the U.S. but now serves as peacekeepers in conflict zones and as part of multinational forces on the various fronts of the Global War on Terrorism (Brzezinski 2009).
The decision to maintain the NATO alliance even after the Warsaw Pact disbanded served to aid the European partner states more than just retaining the collective security and inclusion of the U.S. in that role but laid the groundwork for the formation and expansion of the European Union. The trust developed between the European states paved the way for more productive negotiations within all other geopolitical realms, such as trade and interstate travel. This mutual trust allowed the EU to grow and thrive (Wallander 2000).
Contemporary strategic alliances also serve as a foreign policy tool to influence the international community more effectively, especially when seeking authorization for military force against another state. Examples of this include military intervention in Libya in 2011, the invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, and even smaller military campaigns in places like Somalia, Kosovo, Haiti, and throughout Africa, not just by the U.S. but also the U.K., France, and Russia (Thompson 2006).
Conversely, strategic alliances can also hinder a state’s military pursuits if partner states do not support the proposed military action. For example, NATO partners such as France and Spain did not support the invasion of Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein’s regime or withdrew their support later. In both cases, these NATO partners decided it was no longer in their state’s best interests or security to stand by the alliance.
The Global War on Terrorism has, in general, challenged strategic alliances because of the dynamic and fluid nature of counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, and stability operations. As a result, each state has had to evaluate what benefit a collective security action will garner them in one theater or another and how it serves the interest of their security agendas and geopolitical relations (de Nevers 2007). These disagreements over unconventional warfare and AUMF and issues on internal state security have increased tensions between strategic partner states. As a result, they have strained diplomatic relations and trust even in other areas of geopolitics.
In closing, military alliances have been an integral part of state security since humans began living together in communities and have only grown in scope and breadth as the world became a more globalized society. States selectively chose to entrust allies who shared a common enemy or sought to expand their influence with a similar ideology or agenda and combine their military forces to serve those security self-interests. Modern strategic alliances have since evolved from a predominately “us versus them” form of collective security agreement to more of a collaborative partnership to address a myriad of threats and maintain global order.
Finally, while many states have become more closely bonded because of these strategic alliances, contemporary international conflicts, particularly those associated with combatting radical extremism and terrorism, have strained many of these long-standing partnerships. As a result, NATO and alliances like it may soon cease to exist as we currently know them.
Brzezinski, Zbigniew. 2009. “An Agenda for NATO.” Foreign Affairs 88 (5): 2–20.
De Nevers, Renée. 2007. “NATO’s International Security Role in the Terrorist Era.” International Security 31, no. 4 (2007): 34-66.
Krause, Keith. 2002. “Multilateral Diplomacy, Norm Building, and UN Conferences: The Case of Small Arms and Light Weapons.” Global Governance 8 (2) (Apr): 247-263.
Miller, Lynn H. 1999. “The Idea and the Reality of Collective Security.” Global Governance 5 (3) (Jul): 303-332.
Morrow, James D. 1993. “Arms versus Allies: Trade-Offs in the Search for Security.” International Organization 47 (2): 207-233.
Thompson, Alexander. 2006. “Coercion Through IOs: The Security Council and the Logic of Information Transmission.” International Organization 60 (1): 1–34.
Wallander, Celeste A. 2000. “Institutional Assets and Adaptability: NATO after the Cold War.” International Organization 54, no. 4 (2000): 705-35.
Ben is a former U.S. Army Mountain Infantry Platoon Sergeant and served in domestic and overseas roles from 2001-2018, including, from 2003-2005, as a sniper section leader. Besides his military service, Ben worked on the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq’s protective security detail in various roles, and since 2018, he has also provided security consulting services for public and private sectors, including tactical training, physical and information security, executive protection, protective intelligence, risk management, insider threat mitigation, and anti-terrorism. He earned a B.A. and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies from American Military University, a graduate certificate in Cyber Security from Colorado State University and is currently in his second year of AMU’s Doctorate of Global Security program.