“We cannot enter into alliance with neighboring princes until we are acquainted with their designs” – Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Alliances in warfare can be essential. They both provide assistance in your campaigns and also ensure the ally will not join the other side. However, the problem is that those who would be your so called “friend” often have an agenda of their own, which does not necessarily agree with yours. They may want to take advantage of the alliance to settle old scores with their arch enemy. They may also want large rewards for helping you, sharing in the spoils of a conquered land. They may want you to defend them from the others side. They may also have deceitful tricks up their sleeves, perhaps to invade your lands when you are gone or suddenly change sides when you are vulnerable. Alliance could also leave you with little choice but to back your ally and drag you into a messy war with devastating results.

On June 28, 1914, a Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand—heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire— along with his wife, Sophie. The assassination of Franz Ferdinand set off a rapidly escalating chain of events: Austria-Hungary, blamed the Serbian government for the attack and hoped to use the incident as justification for settling the question of Serbian nationalism once and for all.

Because Serbia was supported by Russia, Austria-Hungary wasn’t able to do much more until it received assurance from German leader Kaiser Wilhelm II that Germany would support their cause. On July 5, 1914, Kaiser Wilhelm secretly pledged his support. The Monarchy of Austria-Hungary then sent an ultimatum to Serbia, with such harsh terms as to make it almost impossible to accept. On July 28, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, and within a week, Russia and its ally, Belgium, France, Great Britain and Serbia had lined up against Austria-Hungary and Germany, and World War I had begun

How could that happen? The world thought it couldn’t happen — Germany and Britain were each other’s single biggest trading partners; the royal families were blood relatives — yet it did.

Historian Christopher Clarke says political leaders become hostage to events. Simmering tensions built up over a number of years and geo-strategic alliances could easily tip the world into all-out war. Because of alliance (helping each other in time of conflict), a relatively small conflict that, if they occurred in a different dynamic would lead to nothing, managed to trap two blocks of nations into war with devastating consequences.

By the time the war was over and the Allied Powers claimed victory, more than 16 million people were dead. Europe lay in ruins: the Kaiser gone, the Austro-Hungarian Empire dissolved, the Russian Tsar overthrown by the Bolsheviks, France bled for a generation, and England shorn of its youth and treasure. A millennium in which Europe had been the political centre of the world came to a crashing halt.

In Athens and Sparta case 2,400 years ago, conflicts between the two led each to strengthen alliances with other states in the hopes of counterbalancing the other. But entanglement runs both ways. When conflict broke out between the second-tier city-states of Corinth and Corcyra (now Corfu), Sparta felt it necessary to come to Corinth’s defense, which left Athens little choice but to back its ally. The Peloponnesian War followed. When it ended 30 years later, Sparta was the nominal victor. But both states lay in ruin, leaving Greece vulnerable to the Persians.

In 1796, George Washington, America’s Founding Father who served as the first president of the United States from 1789 to 1797, announced his decision to step down from the presidency. In his valedictory farewell speech, he included a short passage defending his policy of ignoring French requests for American assistance in its conflict against Great Britain. In an attempt to keep his remarks apolitical, Washington defended his policy by framing it as generic guidance for the future and avoided mentioning the French by name.

“The great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign nations, is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. Europe has a set of primary interests, which to us have none, or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves, by artificial ties, in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities… it is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world; so far, I mean, as we are now at liberty to do it; for let me not be understood as capable of patronizing infidelity to existing engagements”— George Washington’s Farewell Address

Although some might interpret Washington’s advice to apply in the short term, until the geopolitical situation had stabilized, the Washington Doctrine of Unstable Alliances or Caution Against Entangling Alliances continue to be used as a central argument for American non-interventionism foreign policy for more than 150 years. According to the policy, the United States should consider external alliances as temporary measures of convenience and freely abandon or reverse them when national interest dictates. The policy has been cited as a rare example of an explicit endorsement of ‘reversal of alliances’, a state abandoning an ally for an alliance with a recent enemy, sometimes against the former ally.

Consider the current conflicts between the Chinese and US, it would not take much to ignite the powder keg of war. Admiral Chris Barrie, former Chief of the Australian Defence Force from1998 to 2002, once said: “a miscalculation or misunderstanding could tip countries over the edge, countries would be backed into corners and they have no way of talking their way out”.

Forming alliances with other states in the hopes of counterbalancing the other sounds a great strategy. However, entanglement runs both ways. Introducing other states also means adding more variables into existing conflicts making them more difficult to solve. In Austria-Hungary vs Serbia case, having an alliance and the backing of mighty Germany, gave Austria-Hungary a false sense of security that they had the upper hand. Consequently, that gave Austria-Hungary the confidence to send an ultimatum to Serbia with such harsh terms as to make it almost impossible to accept. There were many more examples from history where all it takes was a simple miscalculation or misunderstanding to start a chain of events that cause a major war.

“Study your enemy so that you know who you are fighting, but study your friends too, so that you know who’s fighting along you” – Mufunwa Khavhela

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