10 of History's Most Important Alliances
April 4, 1949, marks the founding of NATO, or North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which means that the alliance turns 70 years old this year. The anniversary has inspired the usual op-eds from conservatives, liberals, and libertarians, but while these opinions about NATO may be predictable, they may also be useful for understanding broader patterns in contemporary American society.
Conservatives, for instance, are split on the issue. Traditionalist and religious conservatives want Washington to come home, while more secular and business-oriented conservatives continue to argue that the United States is indispensable to a world beset by dark forces. This foreign policy difference of opinion among conservatives mirrors the widening split in domestic conservative politics more generally.
Liberals have a predictably convoluted stance that also mirrors domestic political trends: They don’t know if NATO is good because of its military connections, but they do know the alliance should still be funded by taxpayers anyway because of its good intentions.
Libertarians are as split as conservatives, but theirs is a split at the international level rather than domestic. Most American libertarians argue that the United States should leave NATO, but most European libertarians think the alliance is still necessary. These are understandable positions, given each side’s neighbors, but NATO plays a bigger role in European domestic politics, too. Without the alliance, the populist surges in Europe would not have as many constraints tying them down. As Dutch political theorist Edwin van de Haar points out, alliances fit in well with the libertarian preference for more fluidity between states.
Seventy years is a long time for anything, much less an ocean-spanning military alliance of democracies. So, in honor of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and all of its warts, here are 10 of the other greatest alliances in history.
10. Warsaw Pact (1955-91). NATO’s nemesis, the Warsaw Pact was set up by the Soviet Union in response to NATO after Moscow failed to reunify Germany. Composed of a bunch of puppet regimes in eastern Europe, the Warsaw Pact was an honorable sentry for Moscow’s paranoid central planners. When the USSR collapsed in 1991, so did this alliance. Today, many of its members have joined NATO, much to the chagrin of Russia.
9. Delian League (478 BCE-404 BCE). The Delian League was an anti-Persian alliance of city-states led by Athens. The alliance defeated Persia, but that was just one of its many successes. Under Athenian leadership, trade flourished in the Greek world, piracy in the Aegean Sea was eliminated, and rule of law began to become standardized for certain segments of Greek society, like the economy. After the victorious war against the Persians was over, many members of the league tried to leave, but Athens had gone broke funding the war and wanted its allies to pay their fair share of the costs. Instead, the infamous Peloponnesian Wars broke out.
8. Peloponnesian League (550 BCE-366 BCE). Led by Sparta, the martial and land-based counterpart to commercial and sea-based Athens, the Peloponnesian League eventually defeated the Delian League after a brutal, decades-long war. To win the war, though, Sparta took money from the hated Persians and promised to recognize Persian leadership over Asia’s Greek colonies. Desperate to end the war, the Peloponnesians used Persian money to build a fleet and beat the Delians at their own game. Once Athens surrendered, the Spartans famously demanded that the Delian “long walls” come down first.
7. Triple Alliance of 1865 (1865-72). Latin America has long been sclerotic when it comes to military science and diplomacy. In 1865, though, when the United States Civil War was coming to an end, the Latin American countries of Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay signed an alliance against Paraguay and almost wiped the country off the face of the earth. The end result, though, was victory for the alliance and utter devastation for Paraguay. In fact, this 19th century war was the bloodiest conflict in Latin American history. Maybe scleroticism in military science and diplomacy ain’t a bad thing ...
6. Holy League of the Great Turkish War (1684-99). Of all the various anti-Ottoman alliances that were patched together by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, the Holy League of 1684 stands out for its powerful members and successful outcome. The Holy League consisted of Venice, Russia, the Holy Roman Empire, and Poland-Lithuania. Pope Innocent XI was responsible for the formation of the Holy League, and it marked the first time in history that Russia joined an alliance of European states. The Ottomans got crushed, and had to cede large swaths of its territory. The Great Turkish War and the Holy League marked the beginning of the end of the Ottoman Empire.
5. Triple Alliance of Mesoamerica (1430-1521). In 1430, three city-states in Mesoamerica formed an official alliance after they helped each other stifle another city-state’s violent dynastic succession dispute. Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan, together with Huexotzinco, fought together in the Tepanec War. When the war ended, Huexotzinco left the alliance, but the other three founded what was to become the Aztec Empire. The alliance went on to build a polity that inspired fear and hatred throughout Mesoamerica, which ended up helping the Spaniards when they came to Mexico looking for allies.
4. Imperial alliance of the Genkō Incident (1185-1333). In medieval Japan, an interesting shogunate known as the Kamakura governed for a couple of centuries. The Kamakura era is the era where samurais rose to prominence in Japan and the official imperial family was kept around only to be used as a figurehead. Aside from the decline in power of the imperial family, the Kamakura era is known for the expansion throughout Japan of several Buddhist schools of thought and the destruction of not one but two Mongol invasion fleets. The Imperial family eventually built an alliance out of several aristocratic clans and destroyed the Hōjō clan, which ran the Kamakura shogunate.
3. Maratha Confederacy (1674-1871). The history of India is still a work in progress (people like Sarath Pillai are doing good research trying to alleviate this). The Maratha confederacy started out as an alliance against the Muslim Mughal Empire and a couple of petty Muslim sultanates, but the confederacy quickly grew into an empire until 1772, when the far-flung empire became too large to govern effectively and a confederal arrangement was again adopted by Maratha elites. The confederacy beat the British in the first Anglo-Maratha War (1775-82), though by 1871 the British had overwhelmed and outfoxed the last major polity to resist British imperialism. Hindu-centric political parties in India sometimes drum up the Maratha when they want to stoke religious tensions, but the confederacy governed over Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jains, Buddhists, and Sikhs relatively equitably during the 200 years of its existence.
2. Seven Warring States (403 BCE-221 BCE). The Seven Warring States were Chinese polities that sought to establish their rule in place of the dying Zhou Empire. For roughly 200, years these seven states allied with each other and against each other in a hodge-podge of entangling alliances. The Qin state eventually won out, but the era of oscillating alliances and warring states was also a time of intellectual, cultural, scientific, and spiritual flowering in China. The Warring States period is sometimes called the Golden Age of Chinese philosophy, with Confucianism, Daoism, Mohism, and many other schools of thought all competing for the hearts and minds of China’s deepest and most brilliant citizens. Near the end of the Warring States period, a last gasp alliance was made between three rival states to try and stop the Qin from attaining hegemony, but it failed miserably.
1. Triple Entente (1907-14). There must be something to be said for European diplomacy. Every corner of the world had networks of alliances and balances of power and this-and-that, but the Europeans perfected diplomacy. How they came to perfect diplomacy has still not been answered definitively, but the Warring States era in China might provide a clue. As China broke up into polities competing for land, money, people, and all the rest, ideas began to flow more freely (as did money, people, and all the rest). The competitive, decentralized nature of Europe is probably the main reason why European diplomacy became so sophisticated over the course of the last 250 years. Of course, you could always argue the other way around and point to all the bloodshed that was caused by “sophisticated” diplomatic arrangements like the Triple Entente.
Have a good weekend.