Alliance Formation and the Balance of World Power Short Summary

Table of Content

In his article, Alliance Formation and the Balance of World Power, Stephen M. Walt explores the causes of alignment. To gain an understanding of how states select their alliances, Walt defines three key areas – alliances as a response to threat, alignment between consistent ideologies and the tools of bribery and penetration – in the bipolar political world of 1985, influenced by the power of the Cold War’s main actors, the USA and USSR.

One of the main assumptions of this period is that most states were affiliated with or relied upon one of the two super powers for political, economic and military support, thus making alliances and their formation a central issue in Cold War politics.

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Causes of Alignment – What are they?

Walt identifies the formation of alliances as a response to threat as the most significant factor of the three. The necessity for states to either “bandwagon” or “balance” is an assumption derived from the bipolar structure of the contemporary political world, and is a particularly realist idea, as the main motivation for creating these alliances is self-interest, pursuit of power and the maintenance of national security.1

“Ideological solidarity” (p 18) – Walt borrows Hans Morgenthau’s term – is the term used by Walt to describe the alliances resulting from shared “political, cultural, or other traits” (p 18). The assumption that peace will dominate amongst ideologically similar states is a direct result of a bipolar world structure and an idea consistent with liberal political theory.2 From liberalism stems the democratic peace theory.3

Walt introduces “bribery” and “penetration” (pp 27-33) as tools for alliances. Bribery, or the exchange of aid for favourable relations, is an idea relating to the self-interest described in realism.


Auxiliary Arguments

Under his heading, “alliances as a response to threat”, Walt develops two main arguments: the cooperation of states to avoid domination, which he calls “balancing” and the acceptance of domination by a stronger power, known as “bandwagoning”.

Walt assesses the different sources of threat, and then states that balancing behaviour is more common and likely than bandwagoning, and identifies the situations where bandwagoning is likely to occur.

This argument relies on the assumption that the subject is a highly charged bipolar world, of which an integral part is determining alliances based on threat, and policy pertaining to realism is necessary.

Walt demonstrates that ideology is a factor in choosing alliances, but this has only a mild influence at best, and conflict based on ideological similarities is also quite possible. The democratic peace theory states that war is unlikely between democratic nations, which supports Walt’s original argument. The subconscious belief of the inferiority of communism and other non-Western cultures such as the Middle East is a flaw in Walt’s argument and leads to his claims that under communism, factions conflict, and that any success achieved under such regimes is by chance and unique.

Walt describes bribery and penetration as tools used by states in seeking out allies. The notion of bribery implies the provision of assistance from one state to another. The assumption that all states, as a rule, will respond to such tributes and that only their continuation will maintain an alliance is one typical of realism. The very idea of acquiring allies suggests self-interest.

Walt states that these “policy instruments” (p 27) facilitate alliance formation rather than create them, and are rather limited in their effect.

Marginal Arguments

Walt uses the examination of the different factors of alliance formation to put forth a commentary on the actions of the US, both past and future. This marginal argument and the rest of the article can be mutually exclusive. The commentary uses the ideas of the main body of the article, but they do not rely on one another.

Logic – How well does the author present his case?

Walt’s logic is effective and portrays his ideas clearly, however he is somewhat held back by the underlying rejection of communism as a viable and equal political system. This affects the logic of his article in that some of his claims become irrational when using communist regimes as evidence, “Once self-sufficient Communist States emerged, the unchallenged role of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was a thing of the past” (p 21). Walt fails to define who these self-sufficient Communist states were, and how they affected the Soviet Union’s hegemony.

In the same attack of irrationality, he attributes the success of Anwar Sadat in achieving effective Arab cooperation between 1971 and 1975 to other inadequacies.


Walt organises his article into three main sections, each outlining one of his key concepts. These all work towards establishing an understanding of how alliances are formed. Within these sections he discusses different sides of the argument and through the use of extensive empirical evidence arrives at clear conclusions.

After exploring the three main concepts, Walt uses his analysis as a guideline for a commentary on the state of international relations and the position of the US within it. The main concern here, as in the article, is alliances and whether the US is in a stable position and has an advantage over the Soviet Union. Although he justifies many of his points with empirical evidence, Walt retains a dismissive disposition in relation to Communism’s stability and aggregate power, by making seemingly biased, self-contradictory and unclear claims.

Empirical Content – How evidence is used

Walt supports each statement he makes with empirical evidence. Furthermore, the evidence he uses is generally taken from 20th century politics and political theory, which supports the relevance in its use, and improves its significance.

These examples are clear and concise. On proximate power: “if the British press pay more attention to the increase of Germany’s naval power than to a similar movement in Brazil, this is no doubt due to the proximity of the German coasts and the remoteness of Brazil.” (p 10)


Stephen Walt provides a clear understanding of how alliances were formed during the Cold War, and identifies some key features such as balancing and bandwagoning. Although his methodology and logic are clear and simple, he does fall victim to ungrounded arguments at times, when his use of evidence fails to support them. He uses his analysis to compose an effective commentary at the conclusion of the article, on how the US should approach the future.


Gil Merom, Understanding Current Issues in International Security, Sydney University, 2004

John Baylis and Steve Smith, The Globalization of World Politics (2nd ed.), Oxford University Press Inc., 2001

Gil Merom, Lecture notes and tutorial overheads, Government and International Relations, 2004

Immanuel Kant, Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch

1 This essay will take realism as defined in The Globalization of World Politics (2nd ed.), Chapter 7, John Baylis and Steve Smith

2 This essay will take liberalism as defined in The Globalization of World Politics (2nd ed.), Chapter 8, John Baylis and Steve Smith

3 Immanuel Kant, Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch

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