Abandoning Who, When and What Exactly?

In April 2004, Spain “abandoned” the Iraq War coalition. The newly elected Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero announced the withdrawal of Spain’s 1300-strong contingent just hours after he had been sworn in. If Alex Weisiger got it right in his recent ISQ article, Spain’s decision can best be explained by battlefield developments: The Iraq campaign was going real bad leading to Spain’s decision to throw in the towel. Weisiger also points to an alternative explanation, which only applies, however, to coalitions fighting on separate fronts. In the latter case, Weisiger suggests, successful wedge strategies frequently play a role: fighting on separate fronts signals that interests among allies differ in important areas. Some of the allies thus might be inclined to accept a preemptive settlement with the enemy in an attempt to maximize their own benefits. Weisiger’s theory is interesting because it flies in the face of much of what has been said about coalition abandonment in the past. Most notably, Weisiger debunks conventional realist theories that suggest that coalition cohesion depends on threat perceptions (i.e., the greater the threat, the less likely states will abandon the coalition). He also questions arguments that point to problems of collective action (i.e., weak and small states are more prone to abandoning a coalition in an attempt to free-ride) or to the role of domestic politics in coalition abandonment decisions. Weisiger tests his theory using a dataset of all coalition participants in interstate wars between 1816 and 2003.

Looking at the dataset, a couple things strike me. First, it’s a real shame that Weisiger cuts off the dataset in 2003. He thus excludes all the instances of abandonment that occurred in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars (such as Spain from Iraq in 2004 but also the Philippines, Nicaragua, Italy from Iraq and the Netherlands, Canada, France from Afghanistan to name just a few). This fact is especially perplexing because his dataset contains only a very small number of instances in which abandonment actually occurred – 41 observations out of 97,393 observations to be precise, which amounts to 0.04%. These observations further drop to 22 out of 50,535 observations if the World Wars are excluded (which are arguably a little bit of a different animal – as Weisiger rightly suggests) and they fall to 10 out of 35,031 if we only look at coalitions built between 1945-2003. Now, the fact that these numbers are so small is not problematic per se. That’s reality after all. But it suggests two things: first, qualitative work on the precise causal factors that determine coalition abandonment is feasible (at a minimum when looking at the 1945-2003 period) and we would potentially learn a ton – especially with regard to how various abandonment rationales interact. Second, the very small number of abandonment cases raises the question of why this is such a rare phenomenon? Why do states hardly ever exit coalitions? During my own research on the Korean War coalition (forthcoming with ISQ), I came across South Africa, which threatened to exit the coalition in February 1952. The South African ambassador to the United States, G.P. Jooste, explained the decision to U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson by pointing to the U.S. government’s failure to heed South African demands for U.S. jet aircraft.1  The South African abandonment threat terrified the State Department. It felt vulnerable and worried that a South African exit “at this time might very well start [a] chain reaction [in the] reduction [of] forces [of] other countries [in] Korea with attendant weakening of UN position and encouragement [of the] enemy.”  As a result, State Department officials tried everything they could to persuade the Pentagon to provide these aircraft to South Africa, and it worked. South Africa stayed in the coalition. Arguably, a somewhat similar story can be told about the Gulf War coalition. Threats by Arab allies such as Egypt, Syria and Morocco to exit the coalition led (among others) to a U.S. decision not to overthrow Saddam Hussein (see e.g., Secretary of State James Baker’s memoir). Both of these instances would provide a different answer to Weisiger’s question of when states abandon coalition partners during war. These instances would suggest that states do so when intra-coalition negotiations over coalition objectives or coalition subsidies fail. 

Finally, who exactly gets abandoned?  Weisiger defines coalition abandonment the following way: “a country ceases to engage in organized military efforts against the enemy contrary to the wishes of its coalition partners.” He includes the Vietnam War coalition in his dataset and codes as abandonment the United States’ exit of the coalition in 1973 (alongside the exists of South Korea, Thailand and the Philippines respectively).  In other words, Weisiger suggests that all these countries “abandoned” South Vietnam. Now, let’s not fool ourselves. The Vietnam War coalition was entirely conceived, constructed and maintained by the United States. The U.S. government provided generous subsidies and other side-payments to South Korea, the Philippines and Thailand to participate in the coalition. As a result, I find it bizarre to code these cases as “abandonment” of South Vietnam in a coalition-sense of the term. Rather, the United States decided to shut down business in Vietnam and thus the intervention came to a halt. 

1 EMBASSY OF THE UNION OF SOUTH AFRICA (1952, February 11). Letter Embassy of the Union of South Africa to Dean Acheson, PPF: SMOF; Selected Records Relating to the Korean War; Department of State: Topical File Subseries; 6. Contributions to the UN effort [2 of 3: August 1950 – December 1951]; Truman Papers; Truman Library.

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