Musings about small powers and their alliances with great powers

Most countries are not great powers, but small powers. 
Some of them seek national security by being allied with at least one great power. Curiously, most don’t and still retain their sovereignty. 

First: The downside
An alliance with a great power usually incurs some costs including the risk of being called to help in a conflict. Such a disadvantage requires at least equivalent benefits, or else the alliance would be a political mistake. 

Protection against invasion?
Many if not most small powers in a written alliance with a great power are not at immediate risk of aggression today, and plenty of them are actually so very distant from reasonable candidates for aggression that the classic motivation can hardly be the main benefit: The alliance with a great power does not protect them against aggression, since there is no such threat anyway.

The naval view
Protection against an indirect aggression, such as severed maritime trade lines, may be another benefit. This is a curious proposition, though. Countries such as Brazil, South Africa or Australia may be very dependent on maritime trade, but there is really only one navy capable of posing an existential threat to it: The only navy which routinely deploys and sustains entire battlegroups thousands of miles away from home. The only affordable protection against such a threat is indeed to be its ally. An alliance with a world-leading navy may indeed secure maritime trade, but one should be aware that this is because it neutralizes the only major naval threat, not because one would fight side by side with it against the only major naval threat. This has important consequences for naval planning and budgeting, of course. It would amount to fighting off phantoms to still pretend one needs to build up and maintain naval strength once the only major naval threat was neutralised politically.

The nuclear umbrella
Another possible motivation for a small power to enter and maintain an alliance with a great (nuclear) power is to gain a seat under its nuclear (deterrence) umbrella. This clearly played a huge role during the Cold War, but we shouldn’t forget that it’s in great part the nuclear non-proliferation treaty which created this situation. Is the nuclear umbrella still a powerful reason for an alliance with a great (nuclear) power? There are today probably only five countries with a reasonable fear of attack with nuclear weapons in the next years: India, Pakistan, South Korea, North Korea and Israel. Three of these are nuclear powers themselves, and all five have had ongoing and irregularly lethal conflicts with at least one neighbour for two generations. Countries such as Indonesia, Nigeria, Chile or New Zealand hardly need a seat under a nuclear umbrella any time soon.

Demands on the small power
There is a recurring talking point about the relationship between junior and leading alliance partners: The assertion of free-riding. Free-riding signifies that one party enjoys benefits generated by another without paying for it. The application of this term in regard to collective defence is typically less restrictive and also applies to an incomplete compensation instead of only to no effort at all. Interestingly, nobody ever seems to accuse the most obvious free rider, Iceland, of it. Free-riding accusations thus don’t appear to be driven by morale standards, but by political demands for more benefits for the leading partner.

What constitutes an incomplete compensation for protection in an alliance? A country which is not threatened and thus could within the status quo provide for its own security with its current military power can hardly be a free rider in an alliance. This means that mere differences in relative (% GDP) spending levels cannot be a sufficient criterion for it. Maybe the criterion is whether the junior partner makes enough of an effort for its own security? This criterion is at times being applied to continental Europe within NATO, usually with the false assumption that it couldn’t defend itself without extra-continental assistance (against whom, the red horde of 1988?). Yet this criterion can hardly be a suitable one either, since the classic motivation for an alliance is exactly that united every ally needs to make less of an effort for his own security than if they were on their own. The entire free riding angle appears to be driven by faulty logic and feelings rather than by rational thought. 

The level of effort
So how should a small power determine its effort for national or collective security in an alliance if it decided to join and maintain it? It is a tricky question and the only final answer is probably to let democratic legitimation rule on the question: Whatever national security effort a democratically legitimated parliament authorises is at least legitimate, even if no-one knows an analytical rule for the optimum level of effort.

It’s in part so very difficult to determine the correct level of effort because the payment happens in more than one currency: It’s not just money, but also additional foreign policy restrictions and conflicts and notably, bodies and blood. It has been common since ancient times that junior allies contributed military forces to the wars of their leading ally. Classical Athens is such an example, but the Hun horde, the Roman Republic and the British Empire applied this concept as well. It has been applied in living memory during the Second World War, the Vietnam War, in two recent wars against and in Iraq and the ongoing civil war in Afghanistan, too. Small powers need to keep a wary eye on this, though: Historically such troops-contributing small powers were typically not sovereign, but rather vassals. There is a fuzzy line between being a de facto vassal and being a sovereign junior partner in an alliance. Official censorship and self-censorship come to mind as analogies for this.

Most discussions about small powers and their alliances with great powers have very different angles than this text. The reasons are probably some not mentioned yet underlying assumptions as well as dominant narratives. Rarely does anyone sum up the immense advantages enjoyed by an alliance-leading great power; the dominant narrative is typically about what the small power should do additionally. This coincides with the institutional self-interests of the small power’s national security establishment and this again may explain why the dominant narrative is so readily accepted by so many voices. 



  1. My impression of the talk about free-riding alliance members is that it's primarily expressed by american pundits (and their vassals) in the context of Europe not splashing its military power onto Afghanistan in such quantity that the US can take its troops somewhere else.

    Specifically I recall the free ride talk came up as the US pulled troops out of Germany because they had to save money somewhere, and there where very indignant about that. Presumably they though Germany could have sent more men to Afghanistan so the americans wouldn't have to and could keep sending their men on vacation to Germany?

    I was going to say that the only reason the pundits don't accuse south america for free-riding on the protection of the US is because the US funded most of the military dictatorship that plagued the region. But then I realized it's probably because the pundits forgot there is something south of Mexico...

    1. The free-riding accusations have a stark contrast between how many people take them as gospel, while on the other hand a rational examination can destroy such accusations on so many levels.

    2. "as the US pulled troops out of Germany because they had to save money somewhere, and there where very indignant about that."

      Who exactly was indignant about that? Certainly not the US.
      "Presumably they though Germany could have sent more men to Afghanistan so the americans wouldn't have to and could keep sending their men on vacation to Germany?"

      Presumably you know that if more Bundeswehr was sent after they lost MES to the Taliban, then more Americans would have to be sent to support them, seeing as how Bundeswehr hubschraubers are curiously incapable of flying east of the Oder-Neisse line.

      And who exactly is the enemy (enemies) South America in total had to defend themselves against?
      Straw man arguments are so silly, try to come up with something better.

    3. Get your facts straight. CH-53GSs flew in AFG for years.
      This shitty small wars did hit the Heer at the time of a fiscally delayed replacement of the old Cold War helicopter generation, though.