Global Governance
Do Empires Have Allies?

Great powers create alliances as formal institutions only to the extent necessary, to ensure their own interests. For example, the ability to deploy forces and assets in the event of a military conflict. But as such deployments become unnecessary, as technical capabilities increase or threats decrease, the value of allies becomes increasingly insufficient, writes Valdai Club programme director Timofei Bordachev.

By virtue of their drama, the events of recent months have naturally forced us to turn to the phenomenon of allied relations in the foreign policy of great powers. The change in the balance of power in the South Caucasus occurred as a result of a military clash between two neighbouring countries. One of them, Armenia, is home to a Russian military base and party to two regional organisations in which Russia is a key member: the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO). This formal relationship has naturally led to a debate about how far Moscow should have gone in granting security preferences to one of the warring parties, and leads us to ask: what role do alliances play in modern international politics?

Whether we like it or not, a great power — a member of the global nuclear “club” cannot have true allies. The relations among the “five” permanent members of the UN Security Council, and between them and the rest, are determined by their decisive military superiority. This superiority creates the basis for a permanent state, as George Orwell might have said, of “cold war” between them and other members of the international community. This “war” can proceed in a variety of ways, but even if very close cooperation comes to find practical expression, none of its participants is able to incorporate the interests of a partner into the system of its national interests.

Therefore, we should not be surprised that the United States fails to see Russia’s protection of its formal allies as just cause for intervention in the event that Russian security interests conflict with US sovereignty, and if Russia does not consider the interests of its allies a priority of its own foreign policy. This is especially true when it is not about the survival of an ally, but about them seeing their power diminished. In international relations, the stronger participants cannot enter into a struggle for the interests of the less powerful ones. The only exception can be the direct and obvious dependence of the survival of a stronger state on how well the interests of its junior partner are protected. But this problem is solved, as we can see, only by geography, which dictates the location of strategic sites within the territory of a neighbouring state. Even if the weaker countries, by their behaviour, do not create reasons for stronger allies to doubt their own loyalty, it is extremely difficult for them to prove their real need for their security partners to intervene.

This is especially the case when we talk about relations with a nuclear power. Given that among the countries of the “five”, even the least powerful, Britain and France, can solve the problem of survival on their own, it is rather difficult to convince the leading nuclear powers that the interests of their allies are of fundamental importance to them. This is the position of Russia and we cannot forget about this when assessing current events in its “near abroad”.

Due to their drama, the events of recent months have naturally forced us to turn to the phenomenon of allied relations in relation to the foreign policy of great powers. The change in the balance of power in the South Caucasus, as said before, occurred as a result of armed conflict where one of the combatants, Armenia, is a full member of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO).

The history of international politics knows quite a few examples of functional alliances, but does not know cases where states were different in their strengths. The most recent ideal example of allied relations was the interaction between Britain, the USSR and the United States during the Second World War. These combatants were equal in weight and shared a common goal — the destruction of Germany, which was pursuing an aggressive policy that ensured the stability of this alliance for several years. This coalition truly ended when the United States introduced nuclear weapons; the immediately changed the balance of power, which was never destined to return to its prior form. Moreover, the common enemy was defeated. The coalition of powers that defeated revolutionary France in 1813 did not last long either. During the Vienna Congress in 1815, the differences between Russia, Prussia, Britain and Austria became so great that it necessitated the return of France to the number of great powers to provide general balance.

Allied relations between the United States and Britain, as well as other NATO partners, are based on the absolute military superiority of Washington, and that is why the central issue of NATO since its inception has been the willingness of the United States to take risks associated with the implementation of the interests of other participants.

Britain and France in 1956, France during the colonial wars in Indochina and Algeria, as well as Britain during the conflict with Argentina over the Falkland Islands could fully realise that their main ally would provide support only where its immediate interests were affected.

Great powers create alliances as formal institutions only to the extent necessary, to ensure their own interests. For example, the ability to deploy forces and assets in the event of a military conflict. But as such deployments become unnecessary, as technical capabilities increase or threats decrease, the value of allies becomes increasingly insufficient.

So, do junior partners in allied relations have the right to count on something in principle? Yes, this can be said, but if the international context develops in their favour and a particular region is needed by a great power in connection with its own interests.

So, for example, now the prospects of the Russian military presence in the Caucasus after the end of an agreed-to five years, required for the full implementation of their humanitarian mission, will depend only and exclusively on the quality of relations between Russia and Azerbaijan. The fact is that in all other respects, Russian participation in the affairs of both Armenia and Azerbaijan is of a moral rather than a selfish nature, which was perfectly illustrated by the President of Russia, when he told the Valdai Club in October that a repeat of the Armenian genocide is unacceptable.

Vladimir Putin Meets with Members of the Valdai Discussion Club. Transcript of the Plenary Session of the 17th Annual Meeting
Vladimir Putin took part, via videoconference, in the final plenary session of the 17th Annual Meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club. This year’s theme is “The Lessons of the Pandemic and the New Agenda: How to Turn the World Crisis Into an Opportunity for the World”. The plenary session’s moderator was Fyodor Lukyanov, Research Director of the Valdai Discussion Club.

Club events

It would be an excessive academic oversimplification to insist that the institutions for multilateral cooperation that were created by Russia and several countries of the former USSR are exclusively a product of Russian international political weakness or powerful external constraints.

Of course, some may argue that the balance of forces within the EAEU or the CSTO dictates exactly this line of reasoning. However, the EAEU, for example, was created in its present form in 2015 after Moscow had regained the necessary opportunities to return to implementing the full-fledged policy of a great power.

The argument of proponents of the institutionalist approach, who believe that institutions invariably reduce transaction costs and are therefore advantageous, is more convincing here. Russia within the EAEU acts as an equal partner in the decision-making mechanism with states whose power capabilities cannot be compared with Moscow. But it significantly cuts costs due to the fact that a number of important issues are resolved jointly.

In the same way, it would probably be wrong to say that Russian is exclusively focused on its own security interests in maintaining its presence and obligations outside its borders. However, in this respect, it is not exceptional among the great powers, and has demonstrated a very clear tendency towards decline at the level of international politics. We cannot name a single third country capable of presenting Russia, China or the United States with an alliance that any of them would find essential. Moreover, at a time when the world increasingly depends not on complex institutionalised systems, but on the rational understanding by states of the fatal consequences of military decisions, the presence or absence of formal allies has also changed its nature and meaning.

We see that the ability of the United States or the EU to mobilise allies in response to the decisions of international institutions amounts to practically nothing in reality. If these decisions are directed against the weakest members of the international community, they are already in a vulnerable position. If they are directed against the strong ones — China or Russia — then the consequences are, of course, inconvenient, but not critical. The fact that Moscow and Beijing have no allies in the sense that the United States has them does not change anything in the balance of forces in the framework of international politics.

But if they create a formal alliance with each other, this will put the international system on the brink of revolution, since such an alliance of equal forces would need to define a common specific goal and adversary.

We conclude that when it comes to the great powers, the phenomenon of alliances between unequal forces faces two conceptual difficulties. First, they are not needed, and, second, they are not possible. But if, when speaking of alliance, we mean a different, formally unequal state of relations, then it is very likely that another term should be applied. As a highly respected expert from Armenia determined in early October 2020, it was an illusion that Russia should fight for Armenian interests; the truth is that it is Armenia that should fight for Russia’s interests. For this, the country must, on the basis of a rational assessment of its capabilities, behave in such a way that its place in the system of interests of a great power is not only the result of subjective self-assessment, but at least somehow reflects objective reality.

The great powers are now completely losing interest in assuming excessive obligations. The last exception is the leading European countries, but their limited opportunities dictate the need to get rid of obligations, if not in words, then in deeds. This process is objective and there is no reason to think that it can be reversible.

Over the past few years, we have argued quite a lot, with good reason, that in modern conditions, small and medium powers can pursue a more multi-vector policy. Most former Soviet states, as well as countries, for example, in Southeast Asia, officially say that the opportunities offered to them by the great powers make it rational to avoid siding strongly with any one of them. But we must not forget that the foreign policy flexibility of the great powers is increasing to exactly the same extent — they are less and less in need of allies, and less and less willing to invest in the creation of an international order, at the global or regional level, and less and less willing to take risks, where there is no threat to their vital interests. Moreover, the material basis for such behaviour is still much more solid than for everyone else.
New Status Quo in Nagorno-Karabakh and Regional Players
On November 16, the Valdai Club held an online discussion, titled "Regional and International Consequences of the Nagorno-Karabakh Crisis", timed to coincide with the release of the new Valdai Club report, "Breaking the Status Quo and the International Dimension of the Crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh".
Club events
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.