Monday, July 22, 2013

More on 'Soft Alliances'

In my latest essay in EconomicTimes (see also my previous post), I argued that the US and India need to develop a ‘soft alliance’ in order to have a steady relationship that is not bogged down every time there is an election campaign in either country or whenever political attention flags and the bureaucrats take over.  Since I could not define the concept in an opinion piece, I am outlining my view of the concept here.  By ‘soft alliance’, I mean a partnership short of a formal military alliance but one of long-term strategic empathy in which the partners act to support each other other militarily, diplomatically and politically, both in direct confrontations with other states as well as in other circumstances. 

There are a number of examples of such soft alliances.  Because most people in Delhi would be most familiar with it, I cited the Indo-Soviet/Russian partnership as an example.  Going back to the early 1960s, and continuing in a thinner form even today, Moscow and New Delhi have supported each other almost instinctively.  And they supported each other even when they disagreed with each other, keeping their disagreements to their private dialogue rather than outlining it in public.  For example, the Soviet Union was embarrassed about having to repeatedly cast vetoes on behalf of India during the 1971 India-Pakistan war because much of the rest of the world wanted a ceasefire, but they did it.  Similarly, the Soviets were strong supporters of nuclear non-proliferation but they muted their criticism (at least in public) when it came to India’s refusal to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).  India returned the favour, repeatedly supporting Moscow on issues such as its invasion of Afghanistan even while New Delhi expressed its displeasure privately.  We did have a ‘Friendship Treaty’, of course, but most of the support they gave each other was almost instinctive rather than contractual, which is what I mean by strategic empathy.  And this relationship remains one of India’s most valuable even today, though Russia’s dalliance with Beijing (being driven by foolish American policies – but more on this later) might unfortunately end this in the coming decade. 

The other example, again from South Asia, is the Pakistan-China axis.  Again, this ‘all-weather’ relationship is based not on contractual alliance obligations but on strategic empathy.  Beijing and Islamabad cooperate on wide variety of international issues, undermining Indian interests on a host of issues – from its pursuit of Nuclear Supplier’s Group (NSG) membership to its UN Security Council membership, from Afghanistan to terrorism-related issues. 

As I said in my essay, I do think that it will be difficult for India and the US to reach this level of comfort.  My argument is that this is what the two countries should aim at because there are strong strategic requirements mainly with regard to balancing China’s rise as well as countering the Sino-Pak soft alliance, something that the Indo-Soviet soft alliance is no longer managing very well.  In addition, for India, having Washington in its corner can be greatly beneficial on a variety of global issues because the US continues to remain the world’s most powerful player. 

As far as I am aware (and do correct me if I am wrong), this concept has not been used before in the literature.  I can think of only two instance in international politics literature where the term has been used.  Raju G.C. Thomas refers in an essay to an India-US-Israel soft alliance but uses it to refer to the growing military relationship between the three countries and does not elaborate on the concept itself (Raju G.C. Thomas, “South Asian Security Balance in A Western Dominant World”, in T.V. Paul, James J. Wirtz, and Michel Fortmann (editors), Balance of Power: Theory and Practice in the21st Century Stanford University Press, 2004, pp. 327-28).  Mun Heng Toh uses the term to refer to partnerships that can generate economic synergies between otherwise competing economies in the context of regional trading arrangements/agreements (RTA). 

Stephen Walt has spent a lot of time outlining a theory of alliances.  His definition includes both formal and informal alliances; what I am doing is separating the two.  Formal alliances are difficult in some couplings for a variety of reason including domestic political culture, but the logic, obligations and behaviour would be very different in an informal alliance as compared to formal alliances.  To give only one example, intra-alliance politics work very differently in these two forms of alliances. 

Soft alliances are also distinct from a related concept, soft balancing.  Soft balancing refers to countering a particular threat.  Though it has been used largely in examining how other powers counteract US hegemony, it can also be used in other areas such as regional politics.  Soft alliance differs, I think, in that the objective is not just countering a threat – though that might be an important driver – but a broader international partnership.  

Anyway, this is an initial take.  I look forward to comments and critiques . . . 


  1. Rajesh: There is already a concept called 'Entente" to describe such soft alliances. I use it to describe as a tool for soft balancing. Soft balancing coalitions can be both against power and against threats, although I think it is mostly applicable against threats.
    T.V. Paul, McGill University

  2. Prof. T.V. Paul wanted me to post an additional comment; something is going wrong with the comments section on my blog:

    Rajesh: I am using the concept in the book I am working on soft balancing in historical perspective (very early stage). I don't see any issue in linking your concept and soft balancing. Countries can develop soft/ad hoc alliances (this is the idea I had in mind in the IS article) as a tool for soft balancing. Soft balancing is a strategy to my mind and soft alliance is a tool for that strategy. This way, you may be adding more to the concept's development than articulating it differently. The fundamental question is what is the purpose of soft alliance?

    1. My response to Prof. Paul: Thank you for those comments (and I hope the ‘comments’ gremlins are sorted out now). I agree that these (alliances, entente, soft-balancing) are all related concepts. But my sense was that both alliances (normal/military as well as informal) and ententes are about dealing with a specific threat, and are thus limited to that threat. Thus, the two concepts are almost synonymous. The key distinction appears to be between formal and informal alliances. And ententes (or diplomatic coalitions, as you mention in your essay in International Security) usefully captures this difference between formality and informality. I see soft alliances as informal too, but unlike other types of alliances or ententes as not being tied to a specific threat, even if that might be one aspect of it. The relationship then would be much broader and deeper than purely a creature of convenience. The Indo-Soviet relationship and other similar types of relationships are good examples. Though both sides also used it to balance other powers occasionally, the relationship was not just about the balancing but went beyond that and was much more enduring.

      Looking forward to your book on soft balancing; meanwhile I still have to read your Pakistan book. I will post my review here!