What Does It Mean When States Are Strategically Aligned?
By Jeremy Burkett, alumnus, International Relations, American Military University
Strategic alignment is a bilateral relationship that measures how much one state cooperates with another on issues that face both states. The strength of this relationship is determined by how the policies of each state affects their mutual interests (Green and Szcechenyi, 2015).
Determining the Degree of Alignment
If one state’s policy takes security away from another state, this is an unaligned strategy, or a negatively aligned strategy. If one state’s policy helps another state gain security on a bilateral issue, then it adds to the strategic relationship between the two states. If two states cooperate enough, a strategic partnership develops.
According to Green and Szcechenyi (2015), issues that affect the degree of alignment between states include:
- Devotion of resources to defend one’s territory and deter potential aggressors
- E.g., the United States helps provide security to European states such as France and Germany by putting military units within their borders.
- Border and territorial security
- E.g., the United States is unaligned with Mexico on the issue of border security because Mexico would like an open border to promote growth, while the United States would like a more closed border to keep out troubles related to Mexican drug cartels.
- Transnational security issues such as trade routes and climate change
- E.g., the Paris climate accords have multiple countries aligned to solve the problem of global warming. Without this agreement, this worldwide issue would continue unhindered.
- Ideological issues such as trade relationships, aid, and war aid
- E.g. the United States has vowed to defend the other member states of NATO in the event of an attack on those states.
- Sale of military weapons to help secure borders and engage in wars
- E.g. the United States sells weapons to Israel to help increase its security.
States can cooperate on these issues to their mutual benefit, but they can also choose to pursue policies to their own benefit at the expense of another.
Friends and Enemies
So how can you tell if two states are friends or enemies? It can be said that it just the summation of their degree of alignment on bilateral issues, but the degree of alignment between states regularly shifts. This is because every state is trying to pursue a foreign policy that serves its own interest. That being said, a state is usually considered to be a friend or ally when there is strategic alignment in most of their policies, and generally considered to be an enemy when its strategic policies are sharply opposed.
Oftentimes, a state might lend some level of security to another state on certain issues but compete with them on other issues. The relationship between most states falls into this category. It is rare for a state to be completely aligned with another, just as it is rare for a state to be completely unaligned with another. However, both relationships do exist. For example, the U.S. and England are almost completely strategically aligned, whereas Israel and Iran are almost wholly negatively aligned on all their policies.
Why States Cooperate on Security
One further question to be explored is what happens when a state strategically supports another’s interests for the purpose of providing additional security for itself? Does that compromise or help the strategic position of the helping state? Geostrategic questions such as this lead states to support others in struggles that do not fall under their narrow interests.
An example of this is the U.S. and its support for Israel, which Mearsheimer and Walt (2007) explore thoroughly in the book The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. The authors argue that the U.S. support of Israel is a product of mismanagement of strategic resources and that Israel adds less security than is valuable to the U.S. in this relationship. This argument proposes that states should only be aligned if they gain adequate security in the relationship.
But according to Ducu (2014), a state’s power includes hard power, economic power, and its strategic considerations, which helps to explain why it might be worthwhile for the U.S. to align itself with Israel since it still gets something in return. This is another geostrategic strategy, and it is akin to the economic strategy of free trade in that any security a state can gain is a good thing.
These two arguments illustrate a realist and liberal approach to geopolitical strategy. Mearsheimer and Walt’s realist argument is that the U.S. should gain more than the other state in each of its bilateral relationships. Ducu argues that any gain the U.S. receives in its relationships is a good thing, which is a liberal approach. Both demonstrate that states strategically work towards helping one another, regardless of whether or not it is a relative gain or an absolute one.
Realignment and Conclusion
Realignment occurs when a state shifts its policy in consideration of the position of another state; the policy shift results in greater commonality with the other state and a more positive relationship. For example, if the U.S. changed its policies and put in a lot of work to assume a “green” worldview, it would generate a positive shift in its relationships with states in the European Union that take environmental issues seriously.
Realignment can be a planned strategic maneuver, where the intention of a state is to change the working relationship between itself and another state, or an unplanned one, where the change is the result of acute changes to an internally planned policy. Unplanned maneuvers are often the result of shared goals being pursued simultaneously, such as participating in coalitions during wartime, which will realign states and their interests (Jung, 2012).
The alignment of states, and their constant realignment, contribute to ongoing power struggles among international players. State leaders are always evaluating how to serve the best interest of their state and whether to cooperate or compete with other states.
About the Author: The author is Jeremy Burkett, a recent graduate of American Military University with a bachelor’s in International Relations. Jeremy lives in Texas and plans to pursue writing and another degree in pursuit of his career goals. This is Jeremy’s second article. To contact the author, send an email to IPSauthor@apus.edu. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.
Ducu, D.S. 2014. “The Impact of Ukraine Crisis on China’s Position in the International Arena.”. “Carol I” National Defense University.
Green, M. J., & Szechenyi, N. 2015. US-Japan relations: Strategic Alignment. Comparative Connections, 17(1), 11-18,151,153-154.
Jung, Karsten. 2012. “Willing or Waning?: NATO’s Role in an Age of Coalitions.” World Affairs 174 (6): 43-52.
Mearsheimer, J.J. & Walt, S.M. 2007. The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy. New York: Straus and Giroux.