National Leaders, Political Security, and the Formation of Military Coalitions

Military coalitions are everywhere. In the last quarter century, the United States has built them to confront Iraq, to intervene in the Libyan civil war, to eject Serbian forces from Kosovo, and presently to stem the growth of the self-styled Islamic State on the Syria-Iraq border. Coalitions also figured prominently in the Korean War, both World Wars, and the attempted Anglo-French-Israeli seizure of Suez in 1956. One common feature of these coalitions, however high the stakes over which they fight, are that they tend to be purpose-built, tailored to the crisis at hand. Yet our best theories of military cooperation tend to focus on long-run factors like alliances, military power, and regime type rather than short-term ones.

In “National Leaders, Political Security, and the Formation of Military Coalitions,”  we build a formal theory of coalition building that takes this short-term nature of military cooperation into account, and we test it against the record of coalition participation in crises in the latter half of the 20th century. While national leaders can make side payments (aid, trade, cash, or policy concessions) to secure a partner’s cooperation and bolster their chances of military victory, they’d rather control those resources or policies on their own if they can. This is a common way to understand how leaders secure cooperation–-witness the package of political and economic concessions Turkey received for participation in the 1991 Gulf War coalition or the territories promised Italy to lure it away from the Central Powers in 1914.

Perhaps understandably, leaders are stingy with these side payments and political concessions. When leaders are politically secure (that is, when they can weather a foreign policy failure at minimal risk to their hold on power), we show that they can afford to forego the support of coalition partners, building coalitions with only those states that share their preferences---that is, those whose support they can secure cheaply. However, when leaders are politically insecure, then the domestic political boost from victory in a crisis or war renders them more eager both to take on militarily valuable coalition partners and to pay a hefty price for it. Politically insecure leaders are more likely to build coalitions than secure leaders, and they are also less selective, taking on partners with increasingly divergent preferences---partners they would surely avoid if given the chance, not only because of the large price tag but also because of the risk of fraught postwar relationships with their erstwhile partners.

In addition to improving our understanding of military coalitions, both in their emergence and their makeup, we hope that our article highlights the value in fleshing out the largely unexplored process by which states build military coalitions---these crisis-specific commitments that sit somewhere between alignments and alliances yet are more common in conflicts than both. Coalitions can facilitate burden sharing and increase available military power, but they can also touch off further rounds of conflict expansion and shape the ability to send credible signals that might avert war. For these reasons understanding the politics of their formation is more than an “academic” exercise; it may help us better predict international outcomes beyond the simple process of taking sides in disputes or wars.

Full Text PDF   Find Replication Data
Discuss this Article
There are currently no comments, be the first to post one.
Start the Discussion...
Only registered users may post comments.
ISQ On Twitter