Understanding the nature and function of alliances within a particular iteration of the international system is useful for predicting – or shaping – change and avoiding systemic risk. If war drives history, alliance dynamics often drive war, either directly or indirectly by altering power-balances and creating opportunities for geopolitical adventures or imperial projects. One of the foremost questions in international affairs today, for example, is the future of the evolving BRICS bloc, a grouping consisting of Brazil, Russia, India, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and South Africa, among others. Intertwined with that is the even more critical strategic issue of what is sometimes called the Chinese-Russian ‘axis’, ‘alignment’, or even, ‘alliance’.1See, for example: Bonny Lin, ‘The China-Russia Axis Takes Shape’, Foreign Policy, 11/09/2023, https://bit.ly/3H41oNf (checked: 15/12/2023); Peter Dizikes, ‘Foreign policy scholars examine the China-Russia relationship’, Massachusetts Institute of Technology News, https://bit.ly/41vN9tW (checked: 15/12/2023); and, Chels Michta, ‘The China-Russia Axis Moves Into High Gear’, Centre for European Policy Analysis, 11/12/2023, https://bit.ly/3taKLfr (checked: 15/12/2023).
The United Kingdom (UK) is particularly good at the ‘game of alliances’. It became a global power as much by leveraging local partners as by projecting decisive force into distant theatres. It saw off the greatest foreign threats to itself – whether from Habsburg Spain, Napoleonic France or Wilhelmian and Nazi Germany, and then the Soviet Union – by creating or helping to create alliances ranged against the common menace. Insofar as the phrase can be applied outside its natural context, Britain arguably has a genius for alliance-making and, equally important, for alliance-keeping. It is no coincidence that the oldest continuous military pact in the world is the Anglo-Portuguese Alliance, originally established in 1386.
Alliances are a primary source of strategic advantage for countries engaged in geopolitical competition. They can also become a liability, whether as a drain on resources or even as a way of being dragged into wars. But in recent decades, against the background of globalisation and growing connectivity among nations and their interests, the utilitarian aspect of alliances has become increasingly overshadowed by a more nebulous sense of alliances as expressions of shared values and by a perhaps even more questionable notion that they are an unalloyed good in their own right.
This Explainer offers an introduction into some of the basic themes and questions regarding the nature, purposes and strategic management of alliance relationships, which the Council on Geostrategy’s Strategic Advantage Cell will explore in more detail over the coming year.
What makes an alliance
The ability to distinguish the real nature and function of an alliance – whether friendly or adversarial – and to characterise it from a geopolitical standpoint should be central to strategy-making. In practical international politics – as opposed to academic theory – the idea of ‘alliance’ often goes beyond the strict letter of international law, to include various forms of organised strategic relations, such as strategic partnerships, alignments, compacts, or minilateral arrangements, many which are based on clear agreements, communiqués or treaties.
The UK has been party to the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA) with Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand and Singapore since 1971 and recently entered into the Hiroshima Agreement with Japan. These agreements contain special clauses whereby the members can activate consultation mechanisms if specific conditions are met in the event of a crisis.2The founding Communique of the FPDA states: ‘in relation to the external defence of Malaysia and Singapore, that in the event of any form of armed attack externally organised or supported, or the threat of such attack against Malaysia or Singapore, their Governments would immediately consult together for the purpose of deciding what measures should be taken or separately in relation to such an attack or threat.’ Likewise, though less specific, the Hiroshima Accord commits the UK and Japan to ‘Commit to consult each other on important regional and global security issues and consider measures in response.’ See: ‘Malaysia And Singapore (Defence Arrangements) – Volume 815: debated on Monday 19 April 1971’, Hansard, 19/04/1971, https://bit.ly/3Rr8Ne4 (checked: 15/12/2023); and, ‘The Hiroshima Accord: An enhanced UK-Japan global strategic partnership’, 10 Downing Street, 18/05/2023, https://bit.ly/3RKQCkM (checked: 15/12/2023).
Alternatively, there are deep and pervasive partnerships such as the British-American ‘special relationship’ which predates the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and exists in parallel to it, even though there is no single treaty of alliance. Instead, this most crucial of Britain’s relationships is a mix of highly-sensitive but highly-specific agreements – such as the UKUSA intelligence agreement originally signed in 1946 (evolving into the ‘Five Eyes’ and associated agreements, which include Australia, Canada and New Zealand),3See: ‘The British-US Communication Intelligence Agreement’, National Security Agency (US), 05/03/1946, https://bit.ly/47YzPka (checked: 15/12/2023). or the Mutual Defence Agreement of 1958, the New Atlantic Charter of 2021, and a host of other political commitments and long-running de facto cooperation in a variety of fields.4See: ‘The New Atlantic Charter 2021’, 10 Downing Street, 10/06/2021, https://bit.ly/41vQ3Pm (checked: 15/12/2023).
Likewise, the UK’s relationship with the Northern European countries – from Iceland to the Baltic states – is deep, expressed through the Joint Expeditionary Force and the bilateral security assurances London offered to Finland and Sweden while they applied to join NATO.5For a succinct overview of the UK-Northern European relationship, see: Alexander Lanoszka and James Rogers, ‘“Global Britain” extends to Northern Europe’, Britain’s World, 12/05/2022, https://bit.ly/3RK5wYP (checked: 15/12/2023).
Increasingly, the Chinese-Russian relationship follows a similar pattern, with no single overarching treaty, despite the two countries’ overlapping membership of other organisations like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) or BRICS. But relations between the two are deepening through a variety of other bilateral agreements – including the so-called ‘no limits’ declaration of 4th February 20226‘Joint Statement of the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China on the International Relations Entering a New Era and the Global Sustainable Development’, President of Russia, 04/02/2022, https://bit.ly/3GGbzY5 (checked: 15/12/2023). – and practical cooperation projects, supported by high-level political commitments.7Maria Papageorgiou and Alena Vysotskaya Guedes Vieira, ‘Assessing the Changing Sino–Russian Relationship: A Longitudinal Analysis of Bilateral Cooperation in the Post-Cold War Period’, Europe-Asia Studies, (2023). Indeed, a formal alliance between the two countries may not be necessary for their alignment and mutual assistance to solidify in geopolitical affairs.
In a relatively stable order, countries tend to seek strategic relations primarily with economic and developmental goals in mind, and often offered for no substantive reason other than fostering ‘good relations’ or aligning with wider trends in the system. But in periods of greater international volatility they often look to forge explicit alliances, which have a natural geostrategic function.
But the advantage and strength of alliances lies not as much in their being treaty-based – treaties have been broken before – as in the explicit nature of their provisions, be it in the positive (based on mutual defence) or in the negative (based on non-aggression). These often lay out specific obligations and expectations of their members. Even where important clauses technically leave political room for manoeuvre and interpretation during a potential crisis – as with NATO’s Article 5 – the role of allies and expectations of their behaviour are generally well delineated or backed up with military forces.8For example, the American, British and Canadian commitment to NATO was substantiated throughout the Cold War by their permanent deployments to West Germany and other countries. Today, the Enhanced and Tailored forward presences fulfil a similar function.
This broad clarity on ‘rights’ and ‘responsibilities’ under a formal alliance framework provides, in theory, a solid basis for developing inter-allied relationships further. It facilitates predictability and trust within the alliance, and can be conducive to increased stability in the international system, as seen during the Cold War stand-off between NATO and the Warsaw Pact.
And yet, the difficulty with drawing a sharp distinction in geopolitical terms between formal alliances and other kinds of organised strategic relationship is that the effect of each category might be the same. For example, countries have been known to provide substantial military support to others even in the absence of a formal alliance, such as in 1982 when the US helped the UK with intelligence and military support during the recapture of the Falkland Islands.
So the difference between a legal and political obligation can be a false distinction. What is required for a correct appreciation of the power and value of an alliance is a higher sense of realism which looks at the political and strategic logic which underlies its formal framework, whether legally-binding or not.9For example, Article 42(7) of the EU’s Treaty of Lisbon is technically more robust than NATO’s Article 5 (in that the former clearly demands a military response), but less credible – hence Finland and Sweden’s move to join NATO and accept informal security assurances from the UK in the interim. Here, strong and truly valuable alliances are based on shared interests – not on altruism. Seen from the standpoint of a country’s own national interest, joining an alliance must bring clear and enduring benefits. The nature of these benefits is usually contextual: it depends on the outlook of the international system and the global or regional balance of power.
What strategic advantages can alliances provide?
As the international outlook has become more competitive and confrontational, countries such as the UK have sought to induce ‘strategic advantage’ to amplify, multiply, accelerate and extend their strategic effect.10See: Gabriel Elefteriu, William Freer and James Rogers, ‘What is strategic advantage?’, Council on Geostrategy, 23/11/2023, https://bit.ly/4ajLprF (checked: 15/12/2023).
Fundamentally, in terms of strategic advantage, effective alliances catalyse national strategy by acting as force multipliers: they enhance military power and reach (e.g., intelligence sharing, reciprocal access or basing; multinational or joint forces); they drive economic benefits (trade, investment, and research and development); and they enhance political-strategic postures via mutual political commitments. In particular, a network of allies or partners can act as a backstop and support mechanism at times when a country enters a crisis or comes under political, economic or some other kind of pressure from an adversary. This type of reaction was on display after the Salisbury poisonings when the UK mobilised its network of allies and partners to organise an unprecedented expulsion of Russian diplomats from across numerous jurisdictions.
Geopolitically, alliances also extend a country’s security by providing strategic depth. In a geographic sense allies often function as physical buffers against military aggression – a prime consideration in the strategic mindset of NATO allies such as Germany – or provide spatial heft for those countries on the front line.
Finally, strategic relationships, whether formal alliances or more limited agreements and partnerships, are also a way to pool resources to accelerate the development of joint capabilities in ways or at a scale which none of the individual members can achieve on their own. Again AUKUS (in terms of its technological dimension) or the Global Combat Air Programme between Italy, Japan and the UK may be seen as an example in this case; another one is the European Space Agency which is effectively a space partnership building multinational capabilities such as the Copernicus Earth Observation satellite constellation. The NASA-led Artemis Programme and its associated Artemis Accords, whose object is to return and establish a permanent lunar presence, are likewise effectively designed as a group endeavour. Being part of such projects on good terms, rather than having full or exclusive ownership of it, can advance the national interests in powerful ways, all the same. In fact, working jointly – or in alliance – may be, especially in technology-focused domains, the only way to retain the ability to compete strategically at a global scale.
The power of alliance systems
Geopolitics can sometimes be seen as an interaction of competing alliance systems aiming for hegemony (and therefore security). It is rare if not impossible – certainly in the modern world – for a state to make a bid for regional, let alone international, primacy on its own. Imperial Japan from the 1930s onwards may have come closest, insofar as its expansionist programme was essentially self-sufficient (albeit Thailand was a formal Japanese ally). Even in that case, however, Japan’s strategy during the Second World War was enabled by its 1941 non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union – a negative form of alliance – and, concurrently, by its membership of the Tripartite Pact. All other great vectors of stabilising or revisionist power in the world have operated via formal alliances or deeply structured systems, whether Napoleonic France, the Holy Alliance, the Bismarckian arrangements and pre-1914 blocs, the fascist and Soviet coalitions, Arab alignments, the Iranian proxy network, or indeed the free world with NATO, AUKUS and the Five Eyes at its core.
This structural aspect of the current Westphalian era of history has been overlaid, increasingly in recent decades, by a new phenomenon which progressively is shifting the understanding and power of alliance systems. It stems from the fact that decolonisation, the fall of the Soviet Union and the process of globalisation have added new actors and strategic complexities to international relations. The ability to operate effectively across this web of relationships – the network, or convening power of a state – is at a premium in the information age. In today’s networked world, alliance formation and coordination helps shape global agendas on complex issues from technological standards or green energy transition to sanctions and trade regimes.
The net result is that, today, alliances offer the possibility of operating far more sophisticated grand strategies. National goals, such as establishing a sphere of influence via creating various dependencies on oneself, can be pursued by manipulating alliance systems, rather than war. A sophisticated country with a deep alliance system should be able to mobilise its allies via persuasion or more coercive means in order to re-align and re-order parts of the wider international system against the aggressor’s interests.
Most importantly, an alliance system can (or should) function as a deterrence mechanism which increases the cost of aggression for an external power. The multiple layers of agreements, cooperation and other forms of connectivity between the members of an alliance system ensure that an attacker seeking to disrupt one member of the system will inevitably end up harming others, thereby multiplying the forces ranged against itself. In other words, alliance systems have a bearing, theoretically, on the cost-benefit calculations of aggression. This reality is often missed in over-simplified debates which compare single countries head to head, e.g., Russia versus the UK – when in fact the true comparison in such a case would be Russia versus Britain’s entire alliance system. How such systems actually operate in an emergency and how much they retain from their pre-crisis potential is a different matter to be assessed separately, but the fact of their existence and the strategic depth and deterrence they provide is not to be overlooked.
The problem with alliances
Alliances are not an unalloyed good, and they are certainly not free. They come with costs and risks, which may come to outweigh their benefits. Crucially, both the cost and risk profile of alliances changes over time with the evolution of the world system – which is why these constructs require not just constant re-evaluation but also re-calibration. In particular, an alliance’s ability to multiply a country’s power can lead, over time, to an over-reliance on alliance-derived benefits. Decades of constructing policy based on assumptions of continued support from stronger or weaker allies can create dangerous habits which become exposed as the systemic structures underlying the initial rationale for an alliance change.
Alliances have always been prone to the risk of one member (often weaker) dragging all the others into war. The outbreak of the First World War is the classic example, with Russia acting in defence of Serbia (technically a non-ally), triggering a chain reaction which would drag in the French and, ultimately, the British against the Central Powers. Today, for example, there are concerns that NATO could be drawn into war with Russia by some allies’ support for Ukraine, or that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan might compel American or Japanese intervention; in both cases this is the result of complex allied-like political commitments made to each embattled government, and the way in which the fate of these countries has become bound up with the viability and credibility of wider alliance systems.
A different kind of risk may arise from within an alliance, even in the absence of direct external aggression. It is a matter of historical and indeed contemporary record that alliances can be weakened, impaired or even debilitated by some of their members playing a double game, such as Hungary and Turkey (or Germany in relation to energy until 2022) are sometimes accused of doing in respect of their present relations with Russia, for example. Such behaviour can have deep and far-reaching consequences for the other members of the alliance, if its net effect is to undermine their jointly-agreed policy. To the extent that some allies contribute more than others to the struggle against the perceived common adversary, such internal allied dysfunction can leave them over-exposed if one part of the alliance works against the other.
There is never anything automatic or guaranteed about the functioning of alliances even when they are backed by the tightest treaties or political commitments. The full discharge of allied responsibilities has and will always be, in the final instance, subject to the sanction of political approval at the moment of decision. It is precisely an alliance’s importance in relation to a country’s national interest, which should normally be counted as its strength, that can in fact be its weakness – or even its undoing – when it is put to the test and fails. Security guarantees or assistance may not be triggered as envisaged due to domestic political debates in allied capitals – or their resources and attention might already be engaged elsewhere.
To an important extent, therefore, the calculations related to the reliability of allied assistance at any point in time are an extremely politically-sensitive exercise to undertake within government; any leak of potentially-negative assessments in this regard can be very damaging to allied relations. Yet the risk of not operating such analyses and of being surprised at the crucial moment is also worth more consideration.
Reliability or – seen from an adversary’s point of view – credibility is the fundamental currency of alliances. The credibility of an alliance is essential for its success, not just in the calculations of its adversaries but also of those of its own members – especially the weaker ones – and its wider ‘friends’.11See: Iain Henry, ‘What Allies Want: Reconsidering Loyalty, Reliability, and Alliance Interdependence’, International Security 44:4 (2020), pp. 45–83.
In terms of alliance politics, the most controversial aspect is the financial cost of maintaining them. Alliances can be very expensive, especially if they include specific provisions for military contributions. Within an alliance such as NATO, where debates on ‘burden-sharing’ have become particularly acute, there are in fact multiple cost drivers. Alliance custodians, such as the UK and US in NATO’s case, may be expected to deploy forces overseas, at high cost. But a host nation, such as Romania, or Western Germany during the 1949-1989 Cold War, may also incur substantial upkeep costs – including updates to local infrastructure or even payments to support allied forces – and will often need to invest heavily in interoperability.
At the same time, in crude terms, military protection offered by a powerful custodian often buys it political-strategic advantages in an area of strategic interest to itself: it is not an act of charity and magnanimity but a clear politico-military calculation. Placing troops and/or military installations abroad – again such as the UK and US have done in Eastern Europe not just through rotational deployments but through bilateral (especially via Aegis Ashore ballistic missile defence sites) and minilateral efforts (such as through the Joint Expeditionary Force) – increases local defences but also exposes the local government to higher political risk. This deepens such countries’ dependency on their protectors, together with the latter’s influence over the former’s policy. Nothing in this trade-off dynamic is historically new or specific to modern alliances.12See: Hal Brands and Peter D. Feaver, ‘What Are America’s Alliances Good For?’, Parameters 47:2 (2017), pp. 15-30.
One less discussed aspect of alliances is the cost of opportunity, as other relationships or decisions become either very costly or completely closed off to members on political grounds – and usually with good reason. The Huawei case is one of the best examples of this kind in recent years, with many US allies being pressed into scuppering the cheaper Chinese option for 5G at Washington’s insistence.
Finally, alliance management, particularly in terms of coordination between allies, is another important cost associated with this kind of activity – but also, arguably, the least noticed and understood in public policy conversations. Large alliances can become unwieldy, a source of distraction, and can sap political energy and bandwidth, while alliance management can become a difficult burden. Even worse, maintaining alliances and relationships can become an end in itself for national bureaucracies whose natural tendency is to expand their remit and responsibilities. This is why any extra layers of commitments added to a country’s existing alliance system must be assessed primarily for their real-terms impact on the net balance on an alliance’s costs and risks.
Most of history unfolds through combinations and re-combinations of alliances and other forms of organised strategic relations. It is very rare when a political entity accomplishes anything of note – including its own survival over time – on its own. Even a successful hegemon with great authority and military power, such as the UK after 1815 or the US during the 1990s, will depend on a system of allies and partners to uphold its position. Managing those alliances and strategic relationships, as well as being prepared to reengineer them as new geopolitical circumstances dictate, is central to maintaining geopolitical power.
The question of how to assess opposite alliance systems is fundamental to contemporary Net Assessment. The ‘balance of power’ is rarely the balance between the main powers in the system, but that between alliance systems. This is why Britain’s alliances and strategic relations are important: because an adversary knows that aggression against the UK would have broader, potentially worldwide consequences, given the global network of relationships that the British maintain. Keeping those alliances as capacious, effective and efficient as possible is a key element of securing strategic advantage and generating national success.
This Primer is part of the Council on Geostrategy’s Strategic Advantage Cell.
About the author
Gabriel Elefteriu FRAeS is Deputy Director at the Council on Geostrategy.
This publication should not be considered in any way to constitute advice. It is for knowledge and educational purposes only. The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Council on Geostrategy or the views of its Advisory Council.
No. GSPE02 | ISBN: 978-1-914441-53-0
- 1See, for example: Bonny Lin, ‘The China-Russia Axis Takes Shape’, Foreign Policy, 11/09/2023, https://bit.ly/3H41oNf (checked: 15/12/2023); Peter Dizikes, ‘Foreign policy scholars examine the China-Russia relationship’, Massachusetts Institute of Technology News, https://bit.ly/41vN9tW (checked: 15/12/2023); and, Chels Michta, ‘The China-Russia Axis Moves Into High Gear’, Centre for European Policy Analysis, 11/12/2023, https://bit.ly/3taKLfr (checked: 15/12/2023).
- 2The founding Communique of the FPDA states: ‘in relation to the external defence of Malaysia and Singapore, that in the event of any form of armed attack externally organised or supported, or the threat of such attack against Malaysia or Singapore, their Governments would immediately consult together for the purpose of deciding what measures should be taken or separately in relation to such an attack or threat.’ Likewise, though less specific, the Hiroshima Accord commits the UK and Japan to ‘Commit to consult each other on important regional and global security issues and consider measures in response.’ See: ‘Malaysia And Singapore (Defence Arrangements) – Volume 815: debated on Monday 19 April 1971’, Hansard, 19/04/1971, https://bit.ly/3Rr8Ne4 (checked: 15/12/2023); and, ‘The Hiroshima Accord: An enhanced UK-Japan global strategic partnership’, 10 Downing Street, 18/05/2023, https://bit.ly/3RKQCkM (checked: 15/12/2023).
- 3See: ‘The British-US Communication Intelligence Agreement’, National Security Agency (US), 05/03/1946, https://bit.ly/47YzPka (checked: 15/12/2023).
- 4See: ‘The New Atlantic Charter 2021’, 10 Downing Street, 10/06/2021, https://bit.ly/41vQ3Pm (checked: 15/12/2023).
- 5For a succinct overview of the UK-Northern European relationship, see: Alexander Lanoszka and James Rogers, ‘“Global Britain” extends to Northern Europe’, Britain’s World, 12/05/2022, https://bit.ly/3RK5wYP (checked: 15/12/2023).
- 6‘Joint Statement of the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China on the International Relations Entering a New Era and the Global Sustainable Development’, President of Russia, 04/02/2022, https://bit.ly/3GGbzY5 (checked: 15/12/2023).
- 7Maria Papageorgiou and Alena Vysotskaya Guedes Vieira, ‘Assessing the Changing Sino–Russian Relationship: A Longitudinal Analysis of Bilateral Cooperation in the Post-Cold War Period’, Europe-Asia Studies, (2023).
- 8For example, the American, British and Canadian commitment to NATO was substantiated throughout the Cold War by their permanent deployments to West Germany and other countries. Today, the Enhanced and Tailored forward presences fulfil a similar function.
- 9For example, Article 42(7) of the EU’s Treaty of Lisbon is technically more robust than NATO’s Article 5 (in that the former clearly demands a military response), but less credible – hence Finland and Sweden’s move to join NATO and accept informal security assurances from the UK in the interim.
- 10See: Gabriel Elefteriu, William Freer and James Rogers, ‘What is strategic advantage?’, Council on Geostrategy, 23/11/2023, https://bit.ly/4ajLprF (checked: 15/12/2023).
- 11See: Iain Henry, ‘What Allies Want: Reconsidering Loyalty, Reliability, and Alliance Interdependence’, International Security 44:4 (2020), pp. 45–83.
- 12See: Hal Brands and Peter D. Feaver, ‘What Are America’s Alliances Good For?’, Parameters 47:2 (2017), pp. 15-30.