Alliances are another part of international relations where power alone doesn't help explain or guide foreign affairs. Alliances, on the surface, seem like nothing but constraints: a nation isn't free to exercise power in its own interests if it's held back by its alliances. The classic example of alliance gridlock is the League of Nations, powerless to stop Italy's invasion of Ethiopia. While Mussolini conquered Ethiopia, the European powers dithered. Except in cases of direct attack, like a Soviet invasion of West Germany, they don't really help. And even mutual defense pacts, like the alliance commitments triggered in 1914 by a small-scale dispute in the Balkans, have their risks.
Once again, power blinds us to how the world really works. In this case, an exclusive focus on power also makes us chafe at the things that actually help us. Alliances are a lot like the medieval idea of freedom: feudal pacts, the medievals argued, honestly did create constraints on lordly power. But without the vassal's promise to provide men-at-arms or money when the need arose, the lord didn't really have that much power to project.
In the 20th and 21st centuries, the same principle applies: not only do alliances put constraints on national power, but they also free countries to summon resources they wouldn't otherwise have.
- A foreign government sympathetic with our cause can use treaty commitments to convince its own population. The United States was able to use this technique to get a larger commitment in Bosnia and Kosovo from NATO countries.
- The alliance is based on general interests and principles to which the members have already agreed. Finding consensus to take collective action in a particular conflict is therefore much easier. The NATO countries' common determination against any European genocide ("never again") also helped make joint action in the 1990s Balkan wars possible.
- Alliances help sustain the war effort. Diplomacy unfettered by alliances, of course, give any nation the ability to support our war effort now, but abandon it later. Alliances close off these escape routes, or make them harder to find, once the shooting starts. For example, backing out of Kosovo is one thing; backing out of NATO treaty obligations is something else entirely.
I won't bother listing the constraints that alliances create, because we've all heard them countless times. Instead, I wanted to make the less obvious point: if you think power is everything, alliances can only feel confining. In fact, alliances can be quite liberating, once you notice the leverage they provide.
This article in today's Los Angeles Times paints a pretty stark picture. Although NATO activated Article 5, the mutual defense clause, for the first time in the alliances' history after 9/11, the Bush Administration was famously uninterested in getting NATO consensus for the war in Iraq. And now...Well, let's just say, the Europeans aren't too eager to deploy troops to Iraq.
You might recall that the United States did invoke NATO treaty obligations in Afghanistan. Not surprisingly, therefore, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq look very different from one another. This quote from the article couldn't have said it better:
Even so, most members take the view that "Afghanistan is where NATO's credibility is on the line," said a NATO official. "In Iraq, it's the U.S.' credibility that's on the line."