Book review: “The Origins of Alliances” by Stephen M. Walt


"The Origins of Alliances" by Stephen M. Walt. Cornell University Press, 1986, R$ 32,99 on

Among the new generation of international relations students around the world, Stephen Walt is perhaps best known for his blog, his controversial The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, which turned into a bestseller in the United States, and for Taming American Power, which explains why the United States arouses worry, fear and resentment around the world, while Americans tend to see U.S. preeminence as benign or positive. Taming American Power turned into a landmark book on U.S. power and grand strategy in the age of unipolarity, drawing on insights from realist theory and exploring the strategies that other states use to oppose or counteract U.S. primacy.

Yet despite these important contributions, The Origins of Alliances, written in 1986, quite possibly remains Walt's most lasting contribution to the theoretical debate. That is because, together with Revolution and War, it substantially refines realist theory, identifying balance of threat, rather than balance of power, as the major factor when seeking to explain how states choose their friends. This matters because in doing so Walt essentially integrates a range of domestic variables (including perceptions and intentions) into the realist model, turning it into a far more sophisticated and applicable theory. While Walt also ascribes  importance to geographic proximity to explain alliance formation, his argument that perceptions matter in alliance politics and that material capabilities and power structures cannot explain everything is both a critique of previous realist thinkers and a way to acknowledge the importance of non-realist arguments - and yet, his arguments and approach remain fundamentally of realist nature.

Focusing on the balance of threat leads Walt to important conclusions for American policy: since threats are being balanced, rather than power, the United States was able to maintain alliances comprising three times more people than those of the Soviet Union. The balance of threat thesis provides a better understanding on alliance formation in the Middle East than variables of ideology, foreign aid, and political penetration. Assessing alliances in the Middle East between 1955 and 1979 (which, it must be noted, also makes the book one of the best accounts of postwar alliance diplomacy in the Middle East) the author writes that nations are more likely to team up against strong states than to bandwagon by joining them. This is a strong argument against U.S. foreign policy makers during the Cold War who thought that "if our allies were uncertain about our ability or will to counter Soviet aggression, they would be strongly tempted to adopt a neutralist position." Walt believes the continued U.S. urge to be perceived as omnipotent and invulnerable to be both ineffective and too costly.

Walt's skepticism of a muscular US foreign policy should not be misunderstood for traditional US isolationist tendencies. Quite to the contrary, the author argues that "history suggests that a major war is more likely when the United States withdraws from world affairs."

At the same time, he asserts that

History also suggests that U.S. military intervention in the Third world is more likely to lead to despotism and prolonged civil war than to stable and workable democracy. Paradoxically, therefore, U.S. leaders must show greater imagination, wisdom, and restraint, because the problems to be faced will be more ambiguous and the resources available to address them will be fewer.

It is precisely this argument which Walt has continuously made over the past decades, and which he has recently made regarding a possible U.S. intervention in Syria.

As Walt writes in The Origins of Alliances, he was "struck by the sharp discrepancy between what scholars wrote about alliances and what contemporary policy-makers apparently believed." Walt is thus not only one of the rare leading thinkers who actively embraces technological change (he blogs and tweets), but who has also consistently cared about policy making without abandoning theoretical rigor. 

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