And the main challenge to the status quo, arguably, is the rise of China, although there are domestic challenges to the status quo as well. It has been said that alliances are a function of the ‘balance of power’ principle in international affairs. As a result, one nation enters into alliances in order to balance its power against the power of another nation. Hans Morgenthau argued that in a broader sense, a nation has three options in a balance of power dynamic or situation. For one, a nation can increase its own power in order to balance its power against the power of another nation. Second, a nation can enter into an alliance with other nations in order to boost its power vis-à-vis the power of another nation. And third, a nation can resort to measures and tactics aimed at undermining the power of another nation.
Henry Kissinger defined an “alliance” in the following manner:
“An alliance comes about as an agreement on specific facts or expectations. It creates a formal obligation to act in a precise way in defined contingencies. It brings about a strategic obligation fulfillable in an agreed manner. It arises out of a consciousness of shared interests, and the more parallel those interests are, the more cohesive the alliance will be.”
Kissinger added: “Alliances grow out of a consciousness of a defined common interest identified in advance.” In turn, there is a distinction to be made between an alliance system on one hand and a system based on “collective security” on the other hand. Whereas alliances arise out of a balance of power dynamic and scenario between two adversarial nations, a “collective security” system is a “legal construct” with rules which everyone is expected to abide by for the sake of preserving international order and peace.
The balance of power and thus an alliance system are both suspended in a unipolar system such as the one we experienced with the United States towards the end of the 20th century and at the beginning of the 21st century. In general, alliances arise when a balance of power dynamic arises between two adversarial nations in the international system. In turn, smaller countries join with one side in order to avoid domination by the other side. There is also the issue of “balancing” versus “bandwagoning” which needs to be highlighted. When one is “balancing” through an alliance, one is essentially allying with others in opposition to domination and hegemony. On the other hand, when one is “bandwagoning” with a dominant and hegemonic force, one is joining with the force that is seeking domination and hegemony over others. In a sense, through a balance of power dynamic and the alliances which emerge out of them, one is either joining the main threat in the system or is opposing the main threat in the system, with the main threat being domination and hegemony.
Hence, there are offensive alliances on one hand, and there are defensive alliances on the other hand. And in general, it is the alliance which seeks domination and hegemony over all others which is deemed as the main threat in a balance of power dynamic or scenario. Alliances essentially arise in response to a threat, namely, domination and hegemony. Certain scholars have argued that domination and hegemony is the “logical choice” and that domination and hegemony is the only way to ensure one’s security as a major power. As a result, bandwagoning with the hegemonic power appears to be the more common practice or trend in the international system, as we see in the case of the United States at the moment and how many countries bandwagon with the United States, even though the United States has adopted a policy of domination and hegemony over the course of the last few decades. But as we have seen with the two most recent cases or projects in global domination and hegemony prior to the United States, namely, Nazi Germany and the former Soviet Union, both cases or projects in global domination and hegemony eventually collapsed and failed. Thus, even if bandwagoning is the common practice or trend at the moment, it cannot endure forever.