Improving the American Debate on the Strategic Value of Alliances and Partnerships

CSPS Fellow Jim Cahill discusses the strategic logic behind alliances and the danger of reducing alliances to a partisan fight in an election year.

One of the most visible U.S. foreign policy issues in recent times is the role that security alliances and partnerships should or should not have in promoting national interests.  This national attention comes with the increasing risk of opinion polarization: the two sides of the political spectrum adopting entrenched positions without much strategic reflection.  The opinion polarization is reflected in a recent Chicago Council on Global Affairs poll, which shows significantly different views between political parties – with 85% of Democrats and only 65% of Republicans, in favor of security alliances.  

Opinion polarization increases the risk of miscalculation, as the pursuit (or retreat from) alliances and partnerships risks becoming an end in itself, rather than a component of a broader strategy.  National security practitioners and voters should be aware of this risk, and strive to think deeper about the role that alliances and partnerships should optimally play in advancing foreign policy interests in various contexts.  

Those in favor of alliances claim that they enhance states’ readiness to respond to future national security crises and are a more efficient approach to national defense than going at it alone.  Those that are opposed claim that alliances degrade states’ freedom of action by potentially entangling states into conflicts that they would otherwise avoid. 

As these opposing positions become further entrenched, the tendency to apply them as a boiler plate solution regardless of context increases.  A boiler plate approach is dangerous because alliances are valuable in some strategic situations, and of little worth in others.  Advantages and disadvantages vary depending on context.  Instead of instinctively adopting partisan views, we need a more holistic approach to alliances.  There is an abundance of theoretical research that supports the formation and implementation of more functional and strategically-minded foreign policy.  

Internal versus External Balancing

Kenneth Waltz explains that the anarchic nature of international politics requires states to adopt “self help” balancing behaviors or live at the mercy of other states.  Balancing behaviors come in two forms: internal or external.  Internal balancing is the self-reliance based approach – enhancing one’s own national defense capabilities.  External balancing is the international cooperation based approach – seeking temporary alliances with other states that share a common threat or objective, thereby combining military power between the allying sides. 

In up-front financial cost, internal balancing is the more expensive approach.  A stand-alone security system is more costly than pooling resources with an ally or partner.  External balancing, with its enticement of a lower sticker price, is less reliable because allies’ national security interests are never perfectly compatible.  So ultimately, external balancing may prove more costly than internal balancing in the long run if one does not carefully select their allies.

Entanglement Theory

Entanglement theory is the view that alliance commitments drag states into unwanted wars.  George Washington’s warning to “steer clear of permanent alliance with any portion of the foreign world” is illustrative, as is the U.S.’s deliberate avoidance of alliances up to the Second World War.  Since 1945, the U.S. has followed an opposite approach, including through alliances with NATO, the Republic of Korea, Japan, and Australia.  Have these alliances increased the risk of entanglement?  Michael Beckley found in his analysis of 188 militarized interstate disputes that U.S. alliances have more often had the opposite effect of restraining U.S. interventions or preventing escalation.  

Despite Beckley’s rearward-looking findings, entanglement theory remains an important consideration moving forward.  U.S. security alliances all originated in the Cold War strategic context.  When the Cold War ended, these alliances were not disbanded as Waltz would have predicted.  The critical question now is whether the alliances’ guiding principles are adapting in pace with the strategic environment changes.  If so, the alliances can continue to perform strategically.  If not, then alliance commitments no longer strategically worthwhile could very well compel U.S. participation in costly interventions.


In a presidential election cycle as unpredictable and dynamic as this one, both the Left and Right have a tendency to drift toward entrenched, diametrically opposed positions. This is not unexpected.  However, when it comes to the consideration of the strategic value of alliances, national security practitioners and voters must not fall for the bait.  Deeper strategic reflection is necessary because the next administration’s approach to long-standing U.S. mutual defense arrangements will have large implications to U.S. and international security.  Balancing and entanglement are two of many theoretical concepts that can help us think about alliance policy implications more holistically – and in doing so help improve the likelihood that the next President will possess the ability to objectively manage the challenges and opportunities inherent to alliances.  

Jim Cahill is a Ph.D. Candidate in George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government.  His current research focuses on the relationship between pre-war military planning experiences and wartime military effectiveness.  He previously served as a Senior Military Advisor at the Department of State; as an Army Strategist at the Department of the Army, U.S. European Command, and U.S. Forces Korea; and as an Army Aviator in the Third Infantry and First Cavalry Divisions.  He holds a Masters of International Public Policy from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). 

Photo can be found here.