Magazine article Chicago Policy Review (Online)

How Should We Understand Alliance Formation in a Multilateral World?

Magazine article Chicago Policy Review (Online)

How Should We Understand Alliance Formation in a Multilateral World?

Article excerpt

For several decades, bilateral modeling has been the central tool in much of the theoretical and empirical research on alliance formation. Theoretical investigations into alliance formation were traditionally rooted in dyadic game-theoretical frameworks that feature two primary parties. For example, these models might examine the trade-off of an alliance relationship where a weaker party gains security while ceding policy autonomy to a stronger party. Empirical research has also concentrated almost exclusively on pairs of states when designing research and testing hypotheses pertaining to alliance formation because this framework is favorable in formalizing arguments.

However, alliances cannot always be assumed to be bilateral given that international relations take place in a multilateral context. According to data from the Alliance Treaty Obligations and Provisions (ATOP), between 1815 and 2003 approximately 90 percent of bilateral alliances were formed through a multilateral pact. With the dominance of bilateral studies, this fact has received far less appreciation than it deserves. A recent study by Fordham and Poast states the need for international relations research on alliance formation to focus on a multilateral, rather than bilateral process. Because theoretical concepts and arguments made under dyadic models do not accurately reflect multilateral circumstances, dyadic analytical approaches fall short in terms of providing a complete understanding of many real-life instances of multilateral alliance formation.

Indeed, because alliances can involve more than two members, they often originate from a multilateral context. The formation of an alliance may hinge on the inclusion or exclusion of a particular entity; thus, an alliance might not make sense without considering the involvement of other parties. By redefining alliances to have originated from a multilateral process, the authors revisit the various influences on alliance formation. In particular, they reevaluate William Riker’s size principle, which states that politicians form optimal-size winning coalitions to maximize their respective votes. The authors find that the size principle is also applicable to military alliances.

Riker’s size principle suggests answers to questions that can only be tested in a multilateral framework: How much power should prospective allies contribute to an alliance? Should the alliance continue to add allies to escalate its total military capabilities? To what extent should the alliance aggregate military power? These questions insinuate that alliances should lead to an optimal level of aggregate capabilities and curb their expansion from that point onward. The underlying rationale lies in a simple claim that applies to any coalition where participants must distribute a finite stream of benefits: having more members implies that each receives a smaller share of the benefits. In other words, powerful coalitions should not invite additional allies when they add little or nothing to the probability of victory since they would diminish the benefits each member receives. In the case where additional members decrease the probability of victory, the expected benefits to each member will surely decline. Thus, the notion of “strength in numbers” does not always apply; coalitions that hold enough power should not invite additional members.

Bearing in mind a multilateral setting, the authors conduct a set of statistical tests to determine the optimal level of total capabilities as it relates to the high likelihood of alliance formation. …

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