The Origins of Alliances by Stephen M. Walt
Outline: Walt presents balance of threat theory as a reformulation of balance of power theory to explain
How are alliances made? Walt makes a significant contribution by surveying theories of the origins of
international alliances and identifying the most important causes of security cooperation between states. In
addition, he proposes a fundamental change in the present conceptions of alliance systems. Contrary to
traditional balanceofpower theories, Walt shows that states form alliances not simply to balance power but
in order to balance threats. Walt begins by outlining five general hypotheses about the causes of alliances.
Walt tries to build a case for a "balance of threat" theory as distinguished from the traditional "balance of
A common neorealist argument is that states balance against power. Walt changes this, arguing that states
balance against threats (defined not only by power, but also proximity and intentions). He also argues
against two other prominent hypotheses (namely, that foreign aid or foreign penetration/influence make
alliances more likely) and he argues that another prominent hypothesis (that ideology matters) has far less
influence than we might think.
A central task is to explain why states sometimes balance and why they sometimes bandwagon. Walt notes
that balancing is far more common, but points out that bandwagoning does become likely under certain
conditions (e.g. when one state is much weaker [i.e. as a form of appeasement], or if no allies are available,
or if the war is already in progress).
Walt also explores the different implications of balancing and bandwagoning. An interesting one: credibility.
Walt argues that balancing alliances will have natural credibility (since each state joins out of selfinterest
to defend itself), but bandwagoning alliances will require costly actions to make commitments credible (i.e.
for the larger state to credibly commit not to turn on its partner). So information and credibility are not
importance concepts in a balancing world. Interesting. See Morrow 1999 and Fearon 1998, in particular.
Drawing upon diplomatic history and a detailed study of alliance formation in the Middle East between 1955
and 1979, he demonstrates that states are more likely to join together against threats than they are to ally
themselves with threatening powers. Walt also examines the impact of ideology on alliance preferences and
the role of foreign aid and transnational penetration. His analysis show, however, that these motives for alignment are relatively less important. In his conclusion, he examines the implications of "balance of
threat" for U.S. foreign policy:
Looking at alliances in the Middle East between 1955 and 1979, Walt argues that nations are more likely to
ally against strong states than to "bandwagon" by joining them. But the process is better conceived as a
"balance of threat" than a balance of power. That perspective leads Walt to happy conclusions for American
policy: since threats are being balanced, not power, the United States has been able to sustain alliances
comprising three times more people and GNP than those of the Soviet Union.
An alliance is a promise of future intent and involves military collaboration. This distinguishes them from
nonmilitary associations, such as economic cartels, and from collective security organizations, such as the
Walt's The Origins of Alliances is about alliance formation rather than the politics of alliances. States have a
choice between balancing (allying against) or bandwaggoning (allying with) the threatening power.
Offensive bandwaggoning is alignment with a dominant state in order to share in the spoils of victory.
Defensive bandwaggoning is a form of appeasement in order to avoid being attacked. In general, security
considerations tend to dominate ideological ones. Walt considers, foreign and political penetration as
instruments of alliance.
For tradional I.R. authors like Niou,Ordeshook and Rose, Balance of Power balance means stability
system stability and resource stability. The core of the theory is the part pertaning to system stability. They
assert that states will voluntarily cede resources to a stronger challenger, and the challenger will accept in
preference to gaining the same amount by war. This idea is the linchpin of the theory. Conceiving alliance
values in terms of resources captures a distinctive element of international politics, i.e. that gains and
losses are counted more in terms of strategic values or relative power than in terms of intrinsic values.
One obvious difference is that for Niou,Ordeshook and Rose alliances are offensive driven by greed. For
Walt, they are chiefly defensive , driven by fear. For Walt, geographical proximity is a threat; for Niou,
Ordershook and Rose, proximity is stabilizing.
States ally to balance against threats rather than against power alone. Although the distribution of power is
an extremely important factor, the level of threat is also affected by geographic proximity, offensive
capability and aggressive intentions.
The power of other states can therefore be a liability or an asset, depending on where it is located, what it
can do and how it is used. A central question is how states respond to threats by balancing (allying with others against the prevailing
threat) or bandwagoning (alignment with the source of danger). Walt asserts that, for the states that matter,
balancing is the rule. He surveys the diplomatic history of the Middle East between 1955 and 1979 and
discovers that balancing is far more common than bandwagoning. When bandwagoning does occur, it is
among weaker states both because they
are more vulnerable to pressure and because their resources are inconsequential when allies are
unavailable and when leaders believe that potentially threatening states can be successfully appeased. In
addition, Walt concludes that ideological similarities and statesponsored instruments of increasing alliance
commitment, such as foreign economic and military aid, are subordinate to security preferences in alliance
In terms of the Middle East, Walt claims that the