What Allies Want: Reconsidering Loyalty, Reliability, and Alliance Interdependence

12 May 2020

International diplomacy stretches well beyond pleasantries and 30-second media grabs. How one ally perceives and responds to the behaviour of another, can influence significant trade or economic decisions in the region, destroy foreign policies and even result in war.

In the latest edition of International Security, Iain D. Henry, lecturer at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, argues that states don’t always expect, or demand, their allies to behave in a loyal manner. This position holds significance for theories of alliance politics and international reputation, as well as contemporary alliance management.

The article, “What Allies Want: Reconsidering Loyalty, Reliability, and Alliance Interdependence”, uses the First Taiwan Strait Crisis (1954-1955) to demonstrate despite United States (U.S.) decisionmakers concerned about being perceived as disloyal to the Republic of China, most allies actively encouraged the U.S. to compel the Republic of China to withdraw from disputed territories and reduce the risk of conflict.

Article abstract

Leaders believe that if their state abandons one ally during a crisis, then their state’s other allies will expect similar disloyalty in the future.

Thus, a single instance of disloyalty can damage, or even destroy, alliances with other states.

Because of this belief in interdependence—that developments in one alliance will also affect other alliances—the desire to demonstrate loyalty has exercised a tremendous influence on U.S. policy.

But is indiscriminate loyalty what allies want?

The First Taiwan Strait Crisis (1954–55) case study suggests that allies do not desire U.S. loyalty in all situations. Instead, they want the United States to be a reliable ally, posing no risk of abandonment or entrapment.

In the First Taiwan Strait Crisis, several allies worried that U.S. loyalty to the Republic of China increased the risk of unwanted conflict, and as the crisis persisted, these allies sought to restrain the United States and thus reduce the likelihood of war. Although U.S. leaders were reluctant to coerce the Republic of China into backing down during this territorial dispute with the People’s Republic of China, other U.S. allies actively encouraged such disloyalty.

These findings have significance for theories of alliance politics and international reputation, as well as contemporary alliance management.

Read the full article in International Security.

This abstract is published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Image: Aaron Burden on Unsplash.

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