by Prof. Gordon L. Bowen, Ph.D.
Why do political actors join with others, how do they do this, and to what effect? These concerns long have focused attention of political thinkers and political scientists. Two terms, coalition and alliance, are used to describe these relationships. Each has different connotations depending on whether domestic politics or international politics is being discussed; and depending on whether the particular domestic political process under discussion is that of the United States or that of a parliamentary form of democracy.
The definitions and discussions below illuminate these different usages. A final section discusses the role of allies in the Global War on Terrorism.
Coalitions in foreign countries’ domestic politics:
“In multiparty countries, the coalition involves a fusion of a number of individual parties into a working parliamentary majority.”
Jack C. Plano and Milton Greenberg, The American Political Dictionary 8th edition (NY: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1989): 61.
Coalitions in American domestic politics:
“Coalition: A temporary alliance or union of parties for the purpose of promoting a common legislative policy or electing candidates.”
Edward C. Smith and Arnold J. Zurcher, Dictionary of American Politics 2nd edition (NY: Harper and Row, 1968): 68.
“Coalition: The fusion of various political elements into a major American political party… In the United States… both major parties combine factions of liberals, moderates, and conservatives. Coalition is also used to describe any alliance among political groups… The coalition character of American major parties avoids black and white extremes of position that might split the American people into two hostile groups.”
Jack C. Plano and Milton Greenberg, The American Political Dictionary 7th edition (NY: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1985): 141.
“When I look out at this convention, I see the face of America, red, yellow, brown, black and white. We are all precious in God’s sight—the real rainbow coalition.”
Jesse Jackson, “Speech at the Democratic National Convention, Atlanta, July 19, 1988,” in Familiar Quotations ed. John Bartlett, 16th edition (Boston: Little Brown, 1992): 771.
“Major parties have lived more for patronage than principles; their goal has been to bind together a sufficiently large coalition of diverse interests to get into power; and once in power, to arrange sufficiently satisfactory compromises of interest to remain there.”
Richard Hofstadter, “The Age of Reform,” in The MacMillan Dictionary of Political Quotations eds. Lewis D. Eigen and Jonathan P. Seigel (NY: MacMillan, 1993): 493.
Coalitions in international relations. Different schools of thought in international relations analysis conceive alliances and coalitions differently. Realists follow the thinking of Hans Morgenthau, who viewed all actions taken by states to be undertaken to advance national interests defined as the accumulation of power. Thus, to enter an alliance or a coalition with another set of states, to realists is optional:
"Whether or not a nation shall pursue a policy of alliances is, then, a matter not of principle but of expediency. A nation will shun alliances if it believes that it is strong enough to hold its own unaided or that the burden of the commitments resulting from the alliance is likely to outweigh the advantages to be expected. It is for one or the other or both of these reasons that, throughout the better part of their history, Great Britain and the United States have refrained from entering into peacetime alliances with other nations.
Hans Morgenthau, "The Balance of Power," from Politics Among Nations (1949), in Essential Readings in International Relations, eds. Karen Mingst and Jack Snyder (NY: Norton, 2004): 127.
Many American liberals or idealists hold an opposite view, and regard international alliances as semi-permanent affiliations among like-minded communities. This assumption is often articulated in political speech that easily refers to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as The Alliance, as if the Atlantic partnership after 1949 represents the quintessence of aligning in general. This view has come to be associated with Democratic Peace thinking, a derivative of the political thought of Immanuel Kant that envisions world peace to emerge from the joining together of republics disinclined ever to aggress on one another due to their shared characteristics and other factors.
"The state of peace must be established, for the suspension of hostilities does not provide the security of peace... For the sake of its own security, each nation can and should demand that the others enter into a contract resembling the civil one and guaranteeing the rights of each... an ever expanding federation [of republics] that prevents war and curbs the tendency of that hostile inclination to defy the law..."
Immanuel Kant, "To Perpetual Peace: A Philosophic Sketch," in Karen Mingst and Jack Snyder, Essential Readings in International Relations 2nd edition (NY: Norton, 2004): 20, 22, 24.
In response to this way of thinking, George Modelski wrote:
"There are some... reasons why NATO cannot serve as the prototype of alliances. For one, it is as much the military arm of a political community built upon a common culture and shared sentiments as it is an alliance pure and simple. The NATO life cycle, moreover, is not yet completed and consequently, a historically-oriented account of it cannot be conclusive... not all instances of international cooperation which are political... can be described as 'alliances.' "
George Modelski, "The Study of Alliances," in Alliance in International Politics, eds. Julian R. Friedman et.al. (Bowton: Allyn and Bacon, 1970): 69.
Morgenthau concurred, arguing against conceiving alliances as deep marriages between contracted partners:
"A purely ideological alliance, unrelated to material interests, cannot but be stillborn; it is unable to determine policies or guide actions and misleads by presenting the appearance of political solidarity where there is none. The ideological factor, when it is superimposed upon an actual community of interests, can lend strength to the alliance by marshaling moral convictions and emotional preferences to its support. It can also weaken it by obscuring the nature and limits of the common interests which the alliance was supposed to make precise and by raising expectations, bound to be disappointed, for the extent of concerted policies and actions...
"General alliances are typically of temporary duration and most prevalent in wartime..."
Hans Morgenthau, "Alliances (from Politics Among Nations)," in Alliance in International Politics, eds. Julian R. Friedman et.al. (Bowton: Allyn and Bacon, 1970): 83, 85.
Some analysts emphasize the negative glue that unites alliances:
"Alliances are against, and only derivatively for, someone or something"
George Liska, Nations in Alliance (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1962): 12
International alliances, it must be recalled, often have involved quite temporary joining together of altogether incompatible political systems. Beyond uniting temporarily around policy toward a common adversary, alliances sometimes have emerged when states very different ideologically have found that they shared objectives toward some third party. This is how we should regard the 1939 non-aggression pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, an alliance that endured less than two years, but which during its duration sufficed to snuff out Poland. Ambassador Winston Lord generalized about this type of alliances when he opined about the fate of such international groupings:
“In coalitions of bitter enemies, the thugs usually prevail”
Winston Lord, U.S. Ambassador to China, in The MacMillan Dictionary of Political Quotations eds. Lewis D. Eigen and Jonathan P. Seigel (NY: MacMillan, 1993): 120.
this pattern is endemic to alignments among totalitarians, only, or whether it
reflects a deeper reality about international compacts among states, also
remains in dispute. What is certain is that changes in the distribution of
power among states often affect the condition of alliances. Much as
shifting electoral fortunes can change the arrangement among coalition partners
in multi-party systems of domestic politics, so shifts in the international
distribution of power (as via the outcome of wars) can create changed
perspectives about the need for alliance, and new incentives for states to make
new alliance arrangements.
“Almost every great war has led to a collapse of the coalition that won the victory.”
Foster Rhea Dulles, “The United States Since 1865,” (1959), in The MacMillan Dictionary of Political Quotations eds. Lewis D. Eigen and Jonathan P. Seigel (NY: MacMillan, 1993): 690.
Allies in the Global War on Terrorism
What are the most effective instruments of state policy in combating terrorism?
Counterterrorism policies of necessity must be multifaceted. In the best of worlds, effective infiltration of terrorist groups most could disrupt them by making available to state authorities sufficiently precise advanced warning to stymie attacks. We, however, confront a contemporary set of determined adversaries whose security measures often have frustrated this approach.
A range of less than perfect responses all must be pursued in order to prepare defenses. Information gained from electronic surveillance techniques (e.g., phone wiretaps; travel records, etc.), can be integrated with intelligence information from other measures to attempt to map “linkages” among suspicious persons, organizations, etc. A vigilant public whose eyes and ears are attuned to listen can augment efforts of state agencies in this regard, if habits of cooperation are cultivated. Measures to secure borders and ports should be adequately funded so to provide state-of-the-art technologies into the hands of security personnel.
Yet, no net of defenses can be guaranteed to be leak proof. Thus, offensive strategies also must be employed. When adequate intelligence is available, it is prudent to undertake covert action to detain, relocate, and interrogate those with knowledge of terrorist organizations’ plans. In such offensive operations more than high levels of training and capability are needed in a state’s specialized forces. Cooperative allies are crucial. The byways and customs of some of the toughest neighborhoods on the globe are best understood by those most experienced in traveling them. Thus, among all the many things that must be done to defeat the contemporary threat posed by international terrorism, it is most essential to establish and maintain cooperative operational relations with allies committed to the same goals.
As argued above, working cooperatively with knowledgeable local allies is essential. Yet, when a state’s vital national interests are at stake, excessive delegation of counter-terrorist operations to untested allies also can prove disastrous. The battle strategy employed by the U.S. in the campaign at Tora Bora, Afghanistan, 2001-2002, demonstrates this point. In early stages of the war in Afghanistan, strongly parallel interests reinforced the partnership of U.S. forces and the Afghan Northern Alliance. Both sought removal of the Taliban regime and shared the objective of their physical removal from Kabul, Kandahar, etc. But, while elements in the Northern Alliance favored expulsion of Al Qaeda from its mountainous redoubt at Tora Bora, their ardor for the project was considerably less intense than was the Americans’. The U.S. had a sharp need to decapitate terrorists whose mere departure from Afghanistan might satisfy many of the Afghan troops allied with the U.S.. In spite of these large gaps in will and in interest, the wrong choice was made by U.S. commanders. In perhaps the largest blunder along the pothole-filled road that is the Global War on Terrorism, significant operational responsibilities were delegated to these Afghan allies. No doubt: the American forces lacked much of the particularized knowledge our Afghan allies possessed at Tora Bora. But the discrepancy in zeal with which the two allied armies might have approached the task of capturing Osama bin Laden counterbalances that equation.
A close second in the catalog of U.S. missteps would be the over-personification of the enemy that has developed from recognition of this battlefield mistake. Even had Osama been slain at Tora Bora, the networks of militant jihadists far removed from there would still confront us. Indeed, conceptualizing the enemy as an organization, Al Qaeda, remains a central, recurring blunder.
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