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Alliances, Coalitions, and Ententes

Warren F. Kimball

During the end of the 1990s, globalism for most Americans meant an exhilarating combination of political security and economic prosperity. The Cold War had dissipated, while wages and profits seemed on an endless uptick. Intervention in a new outbreak of the Balkan wars came in association with some of the major western European states and partly under the aegis of NATO, but the reaction against the U.S. bombing of Belgrade illustrated just how tenuous alliance policy really was. For the administration of President Bill Clinton and most Americans, globalism did not mean becoming the world's police officer, or even joining a police force with worldwide responsibilities. The United Nations was not an alliance.

But on 11 September 2001, globalism took on a new meaning. The suicide attacks by nineteen Muslim terrorists on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in the District of Columbia demonstrated that America's comfort zone, that sense of political security originally fostered by time and distance across oceans, no longer existednot even as wishful thinking. The long-held belief in American invulnerability, enhanced by modern technology and dreams of Star Warlike defenses that could not be breached, collapsed along with the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

The initial response by the administration of George W. Bush was to seek revenge under the guise of "infinite justice." But that quickly gave way to the realities of identifying, locating, and either capturing or executing those who planned the hijacking of the commercial aircraft that flew into the towers and the Pentagon and their use as fuel-laden missiles. The implications of what could appear to be a "crusade" against Islam, particularly for U.S. oil policy in the Middle East, had a chastening influence, and American opinion seemed to move slowly but firmly against rash action. The administration acknowledged the difficulties and began the process of preparing the public for a long-term "war against terrorism."

Diplomats, led by Secretary of State Colin Powell, fanned out around the globe in an attempt to persuade, cajole, and even bribe (with foreign aid) other states to join the war effort as allies. Two old Cold War alliances, NATO and ANZUS, each formally declared the terrorist actions an attack on the entire allianceinvoking for the first time the "an attack on one is an attack on all" clause in each treaty. Even France, seen so often as hypercritical of the United States, praised President Bush for acting in a measured, responsible fashion. The Russian Federation, with its own history of concern about Islamic political influence (Afghanistan, Chechnya), led the way for new partners in the alliance against terrorism. And the United Nations Security Council passed an emergency resolution mandating that all members assist in the international effort against such terrorist attacks. Even China agreed. Islamic nations likewise condemned the attacks but backed away from allowing the United States to launch military operations from their territory against terrorists, while in Indonesia and Pakistan there were organized public demonstrations against the United States. Clearly, nearly all states recognized that terrorism posed a deep and frightening threat to the nation-state. The immediate aftermath of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks was history's most remarkable example of global cooperation. But for how long? During World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt understood that the Soviet Union was indispensable to victory, but that alliance did not survive the end of the common crisis. How the United States came to the point of making its twenty-first-century decision on globalism is buried, but not hidden, in the past.


American reluctance to participate in alliances, coalitions, and ententes was traditional until World War II. According to the conventional wisdom, in 1778, out of sheer necessity, but remembering the colonial experience of being dragged into European wars, the revolutionary leaders unhappily agreed to sign a political alliance with France. Some twenty years later, when that treaty seemingly forced the young American nation to choose between the two great antagonists in the Anglo-French conflict in Europe, the United States repudiated that alliance, fought a brief and undeclared war to make that repudiation stick, and then, embittered by the brief experience with "European-style" alliances, swore off such political activity forever. In his Farewell Address, George Washington warned against "permanent alliances," and in an inaugural address Thomas Jefferson provided the slogan that Americans seem always to need for a policy"entangling alliances with none."

For a hundred and fifteen years, until World War I, the American nation refused to indulge in the kind of international alliance politics that characterized European diplomacy. Even then, once propelled into the Great War, the United States took the moral high ground and refused to accept full membership as an ally in the coalition against the Central Powers, opting instead for the label "associated power." Disillusioned and angered by the selfishness that the European powers exhibited during the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, the United States attempted to withdraw from the international arena during the interwar period, only to be forced by Japanese and German aggression to come again to the rescue of the civilized world. The events of World War II forced the United States into what became a long-term alliance with Great Britain and a very short-term one with the Soviet Union. Then, as Cold War tensions mounted, the U.S. government negotiated a series of defensive mutual security alliances aimed at protecting the "free" world against Russian (communist) aggression.

Reluctant participation is clearly the tone of the entire story. Perhaps the thrust of generally accepted interpretations was best summarized by Thomas A. Bailey in his extraordinarily popular text A Diplomatic History of the American People : "The United States cannot afford to leave the world alone because the world will not leave it alone." In other words, historians have treated coalition and alliance diplomacy as part and parcel of the story of America's traditional isolationism.


Although the American public has never drawn sharp distinctions between alliances, coalitions, and ententes, its leaders have frequently acted in a way that indicated that they understood the differences. Alliances are properly formal agreements between nations that call for specific joint action and responses to given political situations. They can be outlined verbally, but they are normally committed to paper and are, therefore, recognized in international law. Although alliances relate to wartime situations, they are usually concluded in times of peace and last for significant periods of time.

Coalitions bring to mind the various European joint efforts against France in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Those wars saw various nations unite in military action against France frequently only after the fighting had actually begun. Short term and often not defined by written agreements, coalitions aim simply at the military defeat of a common enemy and do not relate to postwar considerations. Although the term is rarely applied, Russo-American cooperation during World War II against Nazi Germany was a coalition rather than an alliance. The only common ground was military victory over the enemy, and attempts by both nations to expand that limited relationship met with failure.

Entente, properly used, describes a far deeper relationship between nations than either alliance or coalition. An entente becomes possible only when two or more nations share a set of political goals and perceptions. The most obvious entente in American history has been the one that began to develop between Great Britain and the United States after the War of 1812. Frequently subjected to great strains, that entente was formalized as an alliance during World War II and the Cold War era. Such an entente is more a friendship than an alliance or coalition stimulated by sheer power politics, although the realities of international relations are never completely ignored.


Historians have frequently argued that America's antipathy to political involvement with Europe originated with the colonial experiences, when European wars spread to the Western Hemisphere. Yet even a cursory glance at colonial newspapers indicates that the English settlers in America viewed the wars with France and Spain as their own. Historians agree that the colonials considered themselves Englishmen right up until the American Revolution began, and there is no evidence to show that this feeling did not extend to England's wars as well. Reluctance to pay war taxes proves nothing; taxes are generally unpopular at any time. The peace settlements negotiated by the English may have angered the colonists, but only because the treaties seemed to give more benefits to the French or Spanish than the American colonists thought necessary. Even after the revolutionary war had begun in earnest, many American leaders could not bring themselves to negotiate any sort of alliance with their traditional enemyFrance.

What American leaders sought was not isolation but rather situations that clearly benefited national interests. Born into a world of traditional alliances and coalitions, the new American nation chose to avoid such associations not out of any moral or philosophical judgments, although such rhetoric abounded, but because, at least temporarily, an independent policy seemed to promise greater rewards. Thomas Paine, often misinterpreted as recommending isolation, made his point clear in the pamphlet Common Sense (1776):

Any submission to, or dependence on Great Britain, tends directly to involve this Continent in European wars and quarrels, and set us at variance with nations who would otherwise seek our friendship, and against whom we have neither anger nor complaint. As Europe is our market for trade, we ought to form no partial connection with any part of it. It is the true interest of America to steer clear of European contentions, which she can never do, while, by her dependence on Britain, she is made the make-weight in the scale of British politics.

Paine, who soon became impatient with the Revolution's conservatism, argued not for isolation but for a policy of impartiality designed to open all of Europe's markets to American trade. That policy, which soon stimulated America's strong support of neutral rights, hardly represented a new departure in foreign policy. The smaller nations of the world have always attempted to avoid choosing sides in struggles between the greater powers, although sheer geographic gravity made that rarely possible in Europe's history.

The debates among the revolutionary leaders over broad guidelines for American diplomats, discussions that culminated in the Model Treaty of 1776, illustrate the distinctions made by Paine. Despite the precarious military situation, some argued for only a commercial connection with France. Led by John Adams, these men obviously feared that the presence of French troops in America would mean merely swapping one imperial master for another. Although Adams's statements were couched in the broad, sweeping terms so popular with Enlightenment thinkers, his objections stemmed from two factors: his practical appraisal of America's political weakness and economic needs and his intense distrust of French motivesa distrust he held in common with his fellow New Englanders. Despite Americans' claims that they stood for a new approach to world politicsa novus ordo seculorum they had adopted policies that were merely variations of the realistic power politics of the Europe they professed to scorn. When military necessity forced the Continental Congress to seek a military alliance with France in 1778, the terms of that treaty were not fundamentally different from alliances negotiated by European nations. The French intended the United States to become a permanent client-state of His Christian Majesty, a sentiment embodied in a clause stating that the alliance would last "from the present time and forever." A plea from the United States to Spain for a similar treaty of alliance was ignored.

Nor did the United States go about alliance diplomacy any differently than its European predecessors. The peace negotiations aimed at ending the revolutionary war found the Americans as deceptive as France. Interpreting the alliance with France as selectively binding, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and John Jay negotiated an effective and separate treaty of peace with the Britisha violation of their agreement with France. Although they justified their actions by pointing out that France had intended to betray the United States, their argument contrasts sharply with the self-righteous claims that America would practice a new diplomacy in which, to quote Adams, "the dignity of North America consists solely in reason, justice, truth, the rights of mankind, and the interests of the nations of Europe." Ironically, Franklina man with long experience in the world of eighteenth-century diplomacy opposed such a violation of treaty obligations, while Adams demanded that they open negotiations with the British.

Although the treaties of alliance and commerce with France represented no breakthrough into some sort of new diplomacy, American leaders, particularly the New Englanders, viewed the new nation's diplomacy as somehow flowing from values and purposes different from those of Europe. Distracted by the social implications that went with their repudiation of an aristocratic class, many Americans confused diplomatic forms with substance. Refusal to dress like European diplomats became equated with a refusal to indulge in European-style power politics.

That image proved to be longer lasting than the alliance with France. The rhetoric of America's uniqueness and exceptionalism, something common among young, intensely nationalistic nations, meshed neatly with the notion that the United States practiced a new form of diplomacy. In reality, the only thing new about America's diplomacy was that geography permitted it to remain aloof from the constantly shifting balance of power in Europe. Hence, the decision not to join the League of Armed Neutrality was made because it was thought that the league offered no benefits to America, not because of any ideological opposition to taking sides.

By the mid-1790s, the French Alliance had become a detriment to the young republic. With the outbreak of the wars of the French Revolution, soon to merge into the Napoleonic wars, Presidents George Washington and John Adams feared that the United States would be drawn into a conflict in which it had no interest. Again myth overtook reality. French restrictions on American naval freedom appeared to be a direct retaliation for the refusal of the United States to live up to its treaty obligations, whereas the reality was that the French Directory believed that the recently negotiated commercial treaty between Britain and America (Jay's Treaty) contained secret clauses that amounted to a political alliance. The treaty contained no such political commitments, but the French argument struck home. When great powers go to war, neutrals can maintain their trade only at the risk of losing any claim to impartial economic policies. Although the United States did not sign Jay's Treaty as part of an anti-French policy, the French quite logically believed the opposite. Historians have argued that Washington's famous Farewell Address sprang primarily from domestic political considerations, but it was the awkward confrontation with Franceincluding attempts by the French directly to influence American electionsthat clearly stimulated his warning against alliances. Washington included a caveat that Americans soon forgot; he warned only against "artificial" connections with Europe, not ones that were natural and in the national interest. Since the Quasi-War with France followed soon after Washington's warning, Americans tended to view the address as an accurate prediction of the outcome of U.S. involvement in European alliances. The economic consequences that might have followed any American attempt to maintain real impartialitysomething that would have required economic isolationwere forgotten.


Thomas Jefferson obviously understood the difference between artificial and natural connections with Europe. His condemnation of "entangling" alliances referred to involvements in European politics, not to the defense of American interests. When, in 1802, France seemed about to occupy the Louisiana Territory, striking a wedge between the United States and land that many Americans assumed was destined to become part of the United States, Jefferson's thoughts turned to plans of alliance with Great Britain. The Louisiana Purchase made that unnecessary, and Jefferson then followed policies that subtly favored France in its conflict with the British. His reasoning was simple and logical: only the English had a fleet large enough to pose a military threat to the United States, and, hence, they were America's only potential enemy of substance. But none of his talk of alliance or his attempts to play at a timid and small form of alliance politics came to public attention. With "no entangling alliances" already a tradition, domestic political considerations made Jefferson keep such thoughts to himself and his closest advisers.

After a brief period of peace beginning with the Treaty of Amiens (1802), the Napoleonic wars started anew in 1803. Again the United States found itself caught between two great powers. As both England and France turned increasingly to economic warfare, American attempts to maintain business as usual were less and less successful. Frustrated in his attempts to negotiate arrangements that would permit American foreign trade to continue without harassment, Jefferson overestimated the value of that trade to the European powers and also turned to economic coercion. An embargo prevented all American ships from sailing to foreign destinations but drove home the lesson of America's economic dependence upon trade with Europea lesson statesmen have never forgotten.


The United States eventually became involved in the Napoleonic wars. Logic demanded that the nation choose one side or the other, but tradition, past experience, and the intense national division over the foreign policies of Jefferson and his successor, James Madison, made the decision difficult. George Washington had already become the nation's father figure, and no leader could ignore such pronouncements as the Farewell Address with impunity. Moreover, the unhappy experience with the French alliance made both politicians and the public cautious. More important, however, was the domestic political tug-of-war regarding foreign policy. Although President Madison and his supporters had strong sympathies for France, to have suggested an alliance with Napoleon would have confirmed the accusations of the Federalists, who claimed that the president had called for war to aid France, not to defend American interests. Since French violations of neutral rights had been as flagrant as those committed by England, that argument seemed plausible. So the United States entered the war against Britain, but without any alliance with Francea technique that the nation followed again in World War I a hundred years later.

The combination of luck and domestic politics that kept the United States out of a formal alliance with France in 1812 also made it possible for war-weary England to extend remarkably generous peace terms to the Americans. Despite an almost unbroken string of military defeats, the American public viewed the war as a great victory, thus adding to the tradition and myth that the United States need not and should not enter into alliances.

In the years immediately after the Treaty of Ghent (1815), the United States followed a foreign policy that took advantage of the European political situation. Designed and implemented primarily by Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, the policy took shrewd advantage of Europe's economic and psychological exhaustion following the defeat of Napoleon, of the Latin American revolts against Spain, of geography, and of the British desire to keep European power politics restricted to Europe. When the Latin American colonies revolted against Spain, the threat of intervention by the Holy Alliance (Russia, Prussia, Austria, and France) made Adams reconsider his earlier rejection of a British offer of an alliance. Nevertheless, Adams finally concluded, correctly, that England would act to keep other European countries out of the Western Hemisphere with or without an alliance with the United States, and he again spurned the offer. The British obtained a commitment from the French that they would not permit their fleet to be used for any transfer of Holy Alliance troops to Latin America. Once again American leaders had examined the possibility of entering into an alliance but had rejected that move; not because of tradition, but because a careful appraisal of the situation convinced them that such an alliance was simply unnecessary.

But it is out of such stuff that traditions are made. President James Monroe's Doctrine for the Western Hemisphere (1823) made British policy appear to be a function of American diplomacy. John Quincy Adams knew full well the emptiness of any threat from the Holy Alliance, but the American public treated the entire episode as proof of their nation's ability to solve its international problems without help. And so the United States proceeded through the nineteenth century armed with Washington's advice and a conviction that there was no need to play balance-of-power politics with the European nations.

British foreign policy continued to make such beliefs come true. Great Britain, busy in Europe and Asia, hoped to see the United States restricted in size and power, but never did the potential gains of such desires warrant the use of military force to ensure that they materialized. British leaders encouraged the Texans to remain independent after 1836, tried to hold onto the Oregon country, and hoped for a Confederate victory during the American Civil War, but whenever the U.S. government threatened to respond with force, the British backed away from the confrontation. Unwilling to fight the Americans, British statesmen repeatedly, if reluctantly, chose policies designed to make a friend of the United States.

At the same time two events served to fortify America's opposition to alliance diplomacy. The bloody and inconclusive Crimean War during the late 1850s seemed to demonstrate the bankruptcy of the European alliances, and the withdrawal of French troops from Mexico in 1867 indicated once again that the United States could itself deal with the "untrustworthy" European powers. The alliance system developed after 1871 by German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck only led American statesmen to condemn further such power politics.


By the end of the nineteenth century, American policymakers and political writers were convinced that alliances, coalitions, and ententes were all part of a dangerous concept of international relations. Convinced that alliances caused wars rather than prevented them, Americans looked upon the European political scene with contempt. Yet, at the same time, a small group of statesmen-politicians led by such ultranationalists as Henry Cabot Lodge, Albert Beveridge, and Theodore Roosevelt concluded that its size and economic power made it necessary for the United States to play an active role in international politics. As Theodore Roosevelt put it: "We have no choice, we the people of the United States, as to whether or not we shall play a great part in the world. That has been decided for us by fate, by the march of events. We have to play that part. All that we can decide is whether we shall play it well or ill."

With Roosevelt as president from 1901 through 1909, the United States had, for the first time as chief executive, a man who saw the nation's mission as much more than merely an example to others. Roosevelttaking his cue from the social Darwinists, but adding an optimism based on the American experiencesaw America's role in the world as unique and tinged with messianic destiny. He not only believed the United States was a nation with international responsibilities, he also unquestioningly embraced the idea that the fate of mankind depended upon America's willingness to accept those responsibilities. Roosevelt saw no need for anything less than American superiority in the Western Hemisphere, but he sought to avoid antagonizing Great Britain in the process. The community of Anglo-American interests had been growing since 1815, but not until Roosevelt's presidency did the government establish a strong, if unofficial, entente with Great Britain. Roosevelt's prejudice in favor of Anglo-Saxon "civilization" as well as his realistic appraisal of America's economic and military interests resulted in American influence invariably buttressing British goals in Europe. Roosevelt was not alone, as can be seen by such editorials as appeared in Harper's Weekly openly advocating American participation in the Anglo-French entente. Although Roosevelt, largely because of domestic politics, did not heed such advice, he supported various British attempts to dominate the European balance of power, the best example being his secret diplomacy during the Moroccan crisis of 19051906.

The political situation in Asia concerned Roosevelt deeply. Convinced that the United States had to act like a Pacific Ocean power, he even expressed a vague desire for America to join the Anglo-Japanese alliance, which was designed to delineate British and Japanese interests in China and to halt Russian expansion in the area. Although such active participation in an alliance seemed politically impossible, Roosevelt attained that goal in part without any domestic struggle. His role as peacemaker during the Russo-Japanese War found him privately applying diplomatic pressure; yet the American public, still committed to nonentanglement, approved what appeared to be a role of disinterested and uninvolved organizer of a successful peace conference. From 1905 through 1908, American and Japanese representatives held almost continuous talks about other mutual problems. Although the discussions were frequently unpleasant, a special relationship developed between the two nations. Roosevelt firmly believed that Japanese-American cooperationthe beginnings of ententewould bring peace, order, and stability to East Asia; and, as part of that policy, he recognized Japanese spheres of influence in Korea and northern China.

Roosevelt committed the United States to an active role in international affairsa commitment that had been growing out of American power as well as his actionsand put the nation on a path that could not be reversed regardless of the rhetoric of isolation and the natural desire to avoid the responsibilities that accompanied the thrill of world power. His successors, William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson, reversed his policies toward Japan (with dire consequences), but the commitment to an active international role remained.


On 6 April 1917 the United States formally joined a wartime coalition for the first time in its history. In refusing actually to join the Anglo-French-Russian alliance, President Woodrow Wilson hoped to avoid even an implied commitment to the many secret treaties that provided for the division of the spoils among the Allied Powers, although he also realized that American public opinion would support the idea of continuing some measure of aloofness from European political systems.

American entry into World War I supported Theodore Roosevelt's contention. Whether the cause was German submarine warfare, American national security, business investments in Europe, or a desire to control events, the United States obviously if unknowingly had accepted his argument that it had to "play a great part in the world." Inspired by Wilson's rhetoric about a world safe for democracy, Americans set out upon their own "Great Crusade." After the defeat of Germany and its allies, the United States hoped to reform Europe and establish a permanent peace. Frustrated by the slow pace of reform at home, many Progressive Era reformers looked to Europe and the world for new opportunities. Coalition diplomacy during the war reflected American distrust of Europe. It took the pressure of a German offensive to get U.S. generals to coordinate their actions with a newly created Allied commander in chief, and even then the United States refused to permit its troops to come under foreign command.

Woodrow Wilson's historic proposal for the League of Nations has rightfully dominated the history of the postwar period. Wilson's concept of collective security, however incompletely developed, clearly represents one of the few attempts by a major world statesman to find a workable substitute for the diplomacy of power politicsalliance, coalition, and entente. Wilson's proposal had a fatal flaw: it rested upon the creation of a homogeneous world economic-political system. The collective security approach required a remarkable degree of cooperation and trust among the major world powers, but such trust could develop only when they shared similar political and economic creeds, and that was not to be.

Instead, the peace settlements that followed World War I created a system of alliances and ententes by which the victors hoped to preserve the status quo. Although the United States refused a role in Europe when it rejected membership in the League of Nations, a proposed alliance with France against Germany might well have received Senate approval, but the Wilson administration lost interest in it following the rejection of the Treaty of Versailles. It soon became "traditional" again for Americans to speak disdainfully of Europe's power politics, never realizing that their government continued to display a strong interest in European events. In fact, American "observers" at the league's meetings frequently attempted to influence the deliberations, and throughout the 1920s and 1930s American policy paralleled that of Britain and France.

The peacekeeping system in Europe operated without overt American support, but the system for Asia sprang primarily from the efforts of the United States. The Washington Naval Conference of 19211922, called by Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes, resulted in a series of treaties, each of which involved the United States in Asian power politics. The Five-Power Naval Disarmament Treaty was aimed directly at ending the naval arms race between Japan, Britain, and the United States. The Four-Power Treaty between Britain, Japan, France, and the United States replaced the old Anglo-Japanese alliance with one that promised only consultations. Both agreements clearly implied American support for the status quo in the Pacific. The Nine-Power Treaty, which merely endorsed the Open Door in China, served to distract critics from the realities of the power relationships being established. American participation in this informal system had one limitation: there could be no prior commitments (entangling alliances?) requiring the use of either economic or military coercion.

The onset of the Great Depression in 1929 eliminated whatever slim chance there might have been of that system developing into a meaningful and long-term entente. Moreover, Germany, China, and the Soviet Union, all excluded from the power structure, soon mounted challenges that spelled the demise of the informal system that had spurned them. The 1930s saw most nations withdraw into themselves, but none more so than the United States. Embittered and cynical about their experience in Europe and the international community following the Great Crusade, Americans indulged in self-recrimination and vowed never again to try to "save" Europe from itself.

Despite the rising tension caused by Nazi Germany during the early and mid-1930s, Americans opposed any participation by their government in European politics. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, although concerned about the actions of Adolf Hitler, chose to follow the lead of Britain and France. Those nations, eager to avoid a military confrontation, repeatedly asked the United States for firm commitments. The pattern held for all of Hitler's and Benito Mussolini's aggressive moves right up until war began. The remilitarization of the Rhineland in 1935, the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1936, the intervention in the Spanish Civil War beginning in 1936, German Anschluss with Austria in 1938, and the takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1939, all saw the United States draw away from Anglo-French requests for some sort of alliance. Inaction resulted as each blamed the other for a lack of leadership. Whether an alliance would have prevented a conflict with Germany is questionable; so is the claim that American support would have made the British and the French more courageous in their diplomacy. What is not questionable was the American attitude toward an alliance. The general public, Congress, and most public leaders believed that alliances caused wars instead of preventing them, and they opposed any such arrangements for the United States.


Hitler's violation of the Munich Pact of 1938 opened the eyes of French and British leaders, and the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, following Germany's invasion of Poland, forced Americans to reconsider. Still, while they supported the Roosevelt administration's decision to permit the Allies to buy military supplies in the United States, few seriously considered an alliance and intervention. Memories of World War I were too strong. Despite later claims that public opinion had limited his freedom of action, Roosevelt apparently agreed with the majority of Americans. He understood that Britain and France were fighting America's war but saw no need for the United States to be anything except what he later labeled "the arsenal of democracy." The collapse of French resistance in June 1940 made the president willing to lend money, equipment, and technical aid to Britain (which culminated in the Lend-Lease Act of March 1941), but he remained convinced, even until early 1941, that a military alliance, and the shedding of American blood, might be avoided.

Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union made Roosevelt less optimistic, for it raised the specter of a level of German strength that would necessitate U.S. armed intervention, and by the fall of 1941 he had concluded that American intervention was necessary. But it took the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor to bring the United States into the war. Only then did Americans begin to understand the degree to which an Anglo-American alliancebased upon firm ententealready existed. During 1941 the United States and Great Britain developed a remarkably close relationship at the level of military and logistical planning, based on the probability of an alliance.

Even with such close cooperation, the Anglo-American entente, like almost all other ententes and alliances, was not an equal partnership. The British found themselves repeatedly in the position of the pleader, while the United States, with its vast economic strength, soon began to act like a senior partner. Only during the early stages of the war, when the overriding concern was the prevention of a defeat at the hands of Germany and Japan, did the two nations meet on equal ground. After it had become clear that victory was certainroughly about the time of the Tehran Conference in December 1943the United States more and more frequently forced the British to accept American decisions, particularly with regard to matters affecting the postwar situation.

Problems with what Winston Churchill called the Grand Alliance fell into three categories: military strategy, politics, and economics. Disputes over military strategy found the Americans stubborn and rarely willing to compromise. Exhibiting a strong distaste for consistent British attempts to make war serve politics, particularly the preservation of the empire, American military leaders refused to consider any alternatives that did not combine the quickest and least costly path to victory. Except for the invasion of North Africa, Roosevelt refused to overrule his military chiefs of staff, and that one exception came more from his desire to get American troops into action than because he accepted Churchill's grand strategy. The Normandy invasion, the daylight bombing of Germany, and the invasion of southern France are only the most striking examples of America's insistence upon implementing its own military strategy.

As ever, economics and politics interacted. Economic diplomacy between Britain and the United States, at least as it related to the critically important questions of the structure of the postwar world, found the Americans rigid in their views. That rigidity was modified by the American desire for a postwar political alliance with Britain. Thus, the United States could and did demand that Britain eliminate the imperial preference system, which gave special trading benefits to members of the British Empire. The British realized that the system itself had outlived its usefulness; but when the Americans pressed Britain to give up its colonies, the Churchill government dug in its heels. Faced with that response, Roosevelt backed off, partly in order to preserve the wartime alliance, but more and more in the later stages of the war because of his commitment to an Anglo-American political alliance in the postwar world.

A good example of this interplay between economic and political desires is in the case of atomic energy. Early in the war, the United States and Great Britain had agreed to work together to develop an atomic bomb. Initially, that cooperation was stimulated by fears that the Germans would develop the bomb first. But midway through the war, once the British had no more to offer, Roosevelt, at the instigation of his advisers, cut off the flow of information on atomic energy to England. They argued that Britain wanted to be privy to the secret in order to use atomic energy for commercial purposes after the war and that sharing nuclear knowledge would tie the United States to England politicallya reference to Britain's colonial problems. When Churchill protested vigorously, Roosevelt changed his mind. Not only had the president begun to worry about Britain's economic problems following the war, but he had come to assume Anglo-American allianceand their atomic monopoly after the war.

The Anglo-American entente was the deepest commitment made by the United States during World War II, but the coalition with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics proved the most importantand the most difficult. Even during the early 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt's attitude toward the Soviet Union had been one of practicality and persuasion, and once Hitler had invaded the Soviet Union, the president's nonideological stance made it easy to welcome the Russians as a military partner. Although Roosevelt has frequently been criticized as a political "fixer" rather than a man with an organized grand strategy, he clearly recognized the cardinal fact of the Russo-American coalition: if it defeated Germany and Japan (a certainty after the battles of Kursk, Stalingrad, El Alamein, and Midwayall by mid-1943), the Soviet Union would pose the major barrier to Anglo-American predominance in the postwar world. That left Roosevelt three simple but critical alternatives. First, he could include the Russians in the postwar power structure, hoping they would moderate their political and economic demands. Second, he could begin to confront Soviet power during the war by shaping military planning to meet postwar political needs. Third, he could firmly confront Soviet power late in the war, but only after military victory over Germany and Japan had been assured.

Despite advice from many, including Churchill, Roosevelt based his policy on the principle that the United States was not fighting one war in order to lay the groundwork for the next. Roosevelt refused to follow the path of confrontation; but cooperation, during and after the war, did not mean simple compliance with every Russian political demand nor did it mean that Roosevelt expected postwar Soviet-American relations to be without serious tensions. He merely emphasized the positive approach in the hope that it would engender a similar response. Nor was the dire warning given Roosevelt about Soviet intentions timely, for most came late in the war and well after most of the basic military strategies had been carried out.

Roosevelt's strategy failed to take into account the magnitude of the Soviet Union's distrust of the capitalist nations as well as his own advisers' intense fear of communism. He was by inclination a believer in personal diplomacy, and the general lack of enthusiasm within the U.S. State Department for a cooperative policy toward the Soviet Union forced Roosevelt to rely even more heavily on his own power and ability to shape events. More significantly, his conciliatory policies were not faithfully reflected by the American bureaucracy. Major changes in foreign policy can occur only when they generate the kind of national support that ensures that subordinates in the executive branch are actually thinking like the leadership. American policy toward the Soviet Union prior to World War II and the anticommunism of the Cold War show that Franklin Roosevelt's cooperative approacha policy that foreshadowed the idea of "peaceful coexistence"deviated from the norm of American foreign policy.

How the Soviet leaders, given their own ideological commitments and revolutionary experiences, would have responded to a totally candid and open Anglo-American policy during the war is uncertain. What is clear is that whenever Roosevelt hedged his betson the opening of a Second Front, on the Russian role in the occupation of Italy, on aid to left-wing partisan groups in EuropeSoviet leaders invariably accused the Anglo-Americans of playing political games. Although American policy toward Great Britain was frequently characterized by the same level of distrust as with the Russians, for example on the question of the imperial preference system, Soviet-American relations did not possess that community of interests that made it possible to transcend the differences. That, in essence, sums up the difference between an entente and a coalition.

The lesser partners in the Grand Alliance of World War II varied from such potential giants as China, to the small Central American states, to latecomers such as the newly constituted Provisional Government of the French Republic, which signed the Declaration of the United Nations in 1945. Intentionally vague, the declaration called only for mutual aid against the Axis nations and promised that no signatory would agree to a separate peace. Convinced that postwar questions were best left to personal diplomacy, Roosevelt refused to consider anything more substantial. American diplomacy during the war centered on the military defeat of the Axis, and relations with the less-important members of the United Nations were largely reserved to integrating their economic resources into the overall war production effort. Individual bureaucrats occasionally initiated and implemented policies that concerned America's postwar economic and political interests, particularly in Latin America, but such actions reflected traditional American attitudes, not any overall plan approved by the president.

Although Roosevelt's conception of a global balance of powerthe Soviet Union, the Anglo-American alliance, an Anglo-French association in western Europe, and eventually Chinaseems reflected in the Cold War power structure that soon developed, the president's vague ideas possessed a crucial difference: they emphasized cooperation, not distrust.

By the end of World War II the United States seemed on the verge of a radical departure from past policies. With Harry S. Truman replacing Roosevelt in the White House, alliance diplomacy aimed increasingly at containing and defeating what appeared to be the new enemy, the Soviet Union. The nature of that Cold War determined part of the structure of America's alliance system, but other aspects of alliance diplomacy stemmed from traditional American attitudes.


Much has been made of the shift in 1945 and 1946 of some key Republicans, particularly Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg, from apparent isolationism to internationalism. Their approach toward alliance diplomacy demonstrates why that shift was really a logical progression. Isolationism had never argued against alliances per se, only against "entangling" ones. The atomic bomb, when added to America's conventional military strength and to the nation's demonstrable economic might, seemed to guarantee that any participation in alliances would be on American terms. Only the other nations would be entangled. Even the British, rhetorically an equal partner because of the sharing of nuclear weapons, quickly found that economics put them in a secondary role. Participation in the United Nations organization posed no problems, since pro-American states could dominate all voting. Moreover, the United Nations made internationalism appear somehow different from and more moral than balance-of-power politics. Alliances, however, appeared unnecessary until 1947, when clumsy Soviet attempts to influence domestic developments in Greece and Turkey caused the president to announce the Truman Doctrine. A unilateral pronouncement rather than a negotiated alliance, the results were the same. The United States had committed itself to defend two distant nations and by implication many more.

Those implications became fact in September 1947, when the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, the first of many so-called mutual security agreements, came into being. The very label given such treatiesmutual security agreementstestifies to the long-lasting antipathy to the very word "alliance," although it was also a means of making such arrangements seem to fit the United Nations Charter. Although such a Western Hemisphere arrangement, dominated by the power of the United States, was part and parcel of the historic Monroe Doctrine, this particular treaty aimed primarily at preventing internal communist subversiona concern that related directly to the Cold War.

At the same time that formal alliances became part of American foreign policy, the United States used its entente with Great Britain to retain and expand the invaluable security assets of the British Empire. Reading the British a lesson in "informal" empire, the Americans continued to argue for independence for British colonies but then quietly provided financial and military incentives that would allow Britain to hang on to its military bases in those same colonies. Those bases would allow the United States to project its power and influence throughout the world.

As Cold War tensions increased, the United States resorted more and more to traditional balance-of-power politics in an attempt to maintain complete control. President Dwight Eisenhower and his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, have usually been pictured as the architects of the American alliance system, but the bulk of those alliances came into being during the administration of Harry Truman and his secretary of state, Dean Acheson. Following the Berlin airlift and the establishment of Russian hegemony in Czechoslovakia, the keystone of what was to become a worldwide structure of alliances came in April 1949, when, at the instigation of the United States, eleven other nations in the North Atlantic area joined the United States in signing the North Atlantic Treaty. The role played by that treaty in the Cold War is told elsewhere in this volume; but much of America's conception of its own role within that treaty structure existed separately from Soviet-American tension. From the inception of the treaty, the United States used the North Atlantic alliance to pursue two frequently contradictory goals. The treaty was primarily aimed at the military and political containment of the Soviet Union, a function in which the United States, by virtue of its overwhelming military power, dominated all strategic planning. Since the conventional and small nuclear forces of western Europe depended upon American nuclear weapons to act as the ultimate deterrent against any Russian aggression, the crucial decisions always lay with American leaders. Accordingly, the major NATO commands fell to Americans.

Yet that role as the military leader of the alliance became increasingly offset by American insistence upon western European unity. At the time that the United States initiated the North Atlantic Treaty it had already begun implementing the Marshall Plan. Although ostensibly designed to promote European economic recovery, the Marshall Plan also added an economic facet to NATO. The long-term program supported by the United States called for economic and political unity among the western European nations. In a transparent attempt to transfer their own federal system to Europe, Americans consistently demanded that western Europe work together; first at the economic level and then, it was hoped, at the political level. American leaders spoke jejunely of a "United States of Europe" and frequently seemed to assume that, once European unification had occurred, the United States could pull back into the Western Hemisphere. This new reform movementreminiscent of the Grand Crusade of three decades earlierfrequently clashed with American images of an evil and fanatical Soviet Russia, so powerful that only American military strength could defend the "free world." Just as an economically stable western Europe would eventually be able to compete with American business interests on an even basis, so the political and military strengthening of those nations inevitably meant that the United States would lose the total control of the North Atlantic Alliance that characterized the late 1940s and 1950s.

Initially, the North Atlantic Alliance exhibited great unity and strength under America's leadership, but only when the crisis was in Europe. As long as the Europeans feared Soviet expansion, either by force or subversion, they found NATO useful. But the Korean War, and American attempts to involve all its allies, found the western Europeans reluctant to translate a regional defense agreement into a worldwide crusade against communism. Despite a UN resolution that sanctified America's "police action" in Korea, the contribution made by the other members of the North Atlantic Alliance was a token one.

Asia posed special problems for the United States. The victory of the communist forces in China in 1949 stimulated an immediate attempt by the Truman administration to contain communism in Asia. In 1951 the United States signed a peace treaty with Japan that provided bases and similar methods of integrating that nation into the American alliance system, even if the Japanese constitutionwritten by the U.S. government prohibited the development of any large-scale military forces. Less hypocritical were the mutual defense treaties the United States signed with its ex-colony, the Philippines, and with Australia and New Zealand (the Pacific Security Treaty or, more usually, the ANZUS Pact). Yet those alliances too were a disappointment during the Korean War. Japan had no choice but to provide bases and similar logistical support, but the ANZUS Pact brought little in the way of concrete assistance to American forces.

By 1952 it should have been clear to American leaders that their conception of alliances against worldwide communism differed significantly from that of most of their allies. But the Eisenhower administration refused to reexamine the alliance system, choosing instead to expand it in two areas where the collapse of the European and Japanese colonial empires had left political chaos behindSoutheast Asia and the Middle East. Although specific events frequently stimulated the negotiation of specific alliances, the overarching purpose of the system was geographically obvious. The North Atlantic Treaty, which included Canada, Greece, and Turkey in addition to the United States and western Europe, blocked any Soviet expansion to the west, southwest, or north. The Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty, prompted by the collapse of French rule in Indochina and fear of the People's Republic of China, completed another portion of the cordon sanitaire, which also included Japan, South Korea, and the Republic of China on Taiwan (the last two each signed bilateral alliances with the United States shortly after the Korean Armistice of 1953). The containment ring around Russia and its supposed satellite, China, was nearly completed with the Baghdad Pact of 1955, which brought Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Turkey, and Great Britain into alliance together. The United States never formally joined the alliance (renamed the Central Treaty Organization, or CENTO, after Iraq dropped out in 1959 following a coup d'état against the pro-British Hashimite monarchy). But Congress and the president publicly committed America to aid the members in the event of aggression or externally supported subversion. There were large gaps in the geographic encirclement; India and Afghanistan, for example, refused all blandishments from the United States. Nevertheless, American schoolchildren during the 1950s and 1960s, their teachers, and their leaders all reveled in the illusory security of world maps, which imitated the ones that so delighted the English in the nineteenth century.

The enormous disparity in economic and military power between the United States and its Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern allies meant that their relationship was that of patron and client. Although Americans claimed to prefer liberal democracies as allies, they did not become involved in the domestic affairs of their clients unless there was communist subversion or aggression. The only criterion for an alliance with the United States became anticommunism. The liberal community in America justified actual or inferred alliances with dictatorships such as those in South Korea, Taiwan, Iran, and Spain because of the greater danger posed by militant, expansionist communism. Such nations had little choice but to accept American leadership, since American military and economic aid provided important props for their regimes.


Two events and two long-term developments in the late 1950s and in the 1960s forced major changes in America's alliance system. The events were the Suez crisis of 1956 and the Vietnam War; the developments were the steady relaxation of European fears of Russian aggression and the rise of mainland China as an effective world power.

The Suez crisis of 1956 found Great Britain and France, with Israel joining in for its own reasons, invading Egypt following that nation's nationalization of the Suez Canal. Ostensibly a fight to protect property, the Anglo-French action aimed at the restoration of their influence in the Middle Eastinfluence that had begun to diminish rapidly in the face of rising Arab nationalism. Since the Middle East had not yet become a zone of confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union, American leaders and the public viewed the Anglo-French action through their traditional prism of anticolonialism. Secretary of State Dulles publicly condemned the two European countries, and, in an ironically cooperative move, joined the Russians in applying intense pressure to force Britain and France to withdraw. Faced with such superpower unity, the two western European nations had little choice; but the diplomatic defeat at the hands of their longtime ally rankled. British conservatives had nowhere else to go, but a few years later, under the leadership of newly elected president Charles de Gaulle, the French redefined their relationship to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Arguing that Korea and Suez had proven that the United States cared only about its own interests and could never be counted on to defend western Europe (or anyone else), De Gaulle eventually pulled France out of virtually all the political aspects of NATO and withdrew French forces from the NATO military pool. Although the French promised to consider reintegrating their military forces if the need arose, the North Atlantic Alliance had obviously begun to deteriorate.

Still, the NATO alliance would have survived Suez and similar crises intact had the western European nations continued to fear either massive subversion or outright military attack by the Soviet Union. But those fears, at their height between 1948 and the end of the Korean War, had steadily subsided. Russian-instigated subversion seemed less likely in the wake of the remarkable economic redevelopment of western Europe, and all the members of the alliance simply assumed that the United States would retaliate with all necessary force in the unlikely event of open aggression. In short, the NATO alliance, like others, possessed a strength directly proportional to the size and immediacy of the jointly perceived threat to its members.

Another foundation of the North Atlantic Alliance, the Anglo-American entente, also changed drastically in the twenty years following the end of World War II. The outward signs of that change came in such episodes as the Skybolt missile debacle. The United States forced the British to accept an American missile system over strong protests from the British military establishment and then failed to put the system into production. But the real problem was the increasing American contempt for the deterioration of the British economy. Although Americans and the English continued to view the world through the same spectacles, the United States no longer looked for Britain to carry its share of the burden. Indeed, Britain appeared to be on the verge of economic and political collapse. Although fears of Britain's complete collapse were exaggerated, the United States refused to treat Britain as even a major partner, equal partnership having disappeared during World War II. Even the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom was thus forced to rethink its relationship with Europe. The result and the apparent end of the Anglo-American ententewas Britain's decision, reaffirmed in 1975, to join the European Common Market. But that decision, however clear-cut it seemed in the mid-1970s, did not eliminate the Anglo-American entente. Despite De Gaulle's insistence that Britain had to choose between Europe and the United States, as the twenty-first century dawned, British policymakers still assumed that they were best suited to act as the honest broker between the United States and Europe.


The North Atlantic Alliance had, by the 1970s, changed significantly from what it had begun as in 1949, but it still remained an important part of international power politics. The curious combination of historical experience, liberal political institutions, and varying but compatible combinations of capitalism, socialism, and the welfare state that characterize western Europe, Canada, and the United States provided a vague sort of ententeeven though many rejected the proposition that Russia and world communism posed a military threat.

In Asia the situation was far different. Although American leaders tended to believe, at least until the late 1960s, that the People's Republic of China took instructions from Moscow, U.S. policy still had to react to the reality of increasing Chinese power. Fears of another confrontation with China such as had occurred during the Korean War directed American efforts toward alliances that would guarantee that only Asians would confront Asians. Supporters and opponents both likened such policies to that of the Roman Empire, which relied upon mercenaries to guard its frontiers. American troops remained in South Korea, but a massive military aid program made the Republic of Korea forces the first line of defense. The Japanese had proven surprisingly reluctant to rearm themselves, and the United States retained military bases in Japan.

The Southeast Asia Treaty Organization of 1954 (SEATO) represented an attempt by the United States to stabilize the political situation in that area by bringing Britain, France, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Pakistan, the Philippines, and the United States together after the collapse of French rule in Indochina. With Malaysia, the Philippines, and the nations of Indochina all struggling against communist-led guerrillas, America's alliance diplomacy sought to bolster the existing governments with military and economic aid. Although such aid helped maintain the status quo in Malaysia and the Philippines, the situation in Vietnam seemed to leave the United States no choice between direct military intervention and a communist victory. Working on the assumption that the entire alliance structure in Southeast Asia would collapse one country at a timelike "dominoes"if Indochina came under communist domination, the United States guaranteed that very result by intervening unsuccessfully. Although the Southeast Asia Treaty remained in force, by the mid-1970s it had lost its effectiveness. Moreover, American requests to the SEATO and NATO nations for military or diplomatic support in Vietnam had met with even less success than during the Korean War. Clearly western Europe saw no connection between their security and the spread of communism in Asia, particularly since they no longer had colonies to protect.

By 1976 the American system of alliances so painstakingly constructed after World War II lay in disarray. Arab nationalism, focused on the problems of the Palestinian refugees and the existence of the state of Israel, had effectively destroyed the Middle East treaty. Although the ANZUS Pact remained, the defeat of American efforts in Vietnam and the rise of the People's Republic of China brought about American recognition of the communist Chinese government and a scramble by nations from Australia to Japan to establish friendly relations with the Chinese. Latin America, once so obediently proUnited States in international affairs outside the hemisphere, now shifted to an increasingly antiUnited States position as both the political left and right vied for public support. Outside of NATO, America's most entangling alliances were with the kinds of governments that the United States had condemned during World War II. Totalitarian regimes in Nationalist China, South Korea, Spain, and Greece all offered bases and staunch anticommunism in return for American economic and military aid. The key alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, still functioned, but the integration of Britain into Europe, the development of détente between the Soviet Union and the United States, the rise to prominence in many western European countries of seemingly moderate and democratic communist parties, and the reestablishment of the West German army as the most powerful in Europe outside the Soviet Union promised to force major alterations in the North Atlantic alliance as well.

On paper the Cold War alliance system appeared to be a radical departure from the early American proscription against entangling alliances. Actually those alliances had never "entangled" the United States. Rather, such agreements, whether explicit or implicit, had supposedly served American interests. George Washington might have disputed the argument that America's national interest demanded the worldwide containment of communism, but he would not have rejected on principle a system of alliances as the best way to achieve that goal. Like most American presidents, he was at home in the world of alliance diplomacy and power politics.

America's feeling of comfort with its postWorld War II alliance system allowed that structure to survive the demise of its putative rationalethe Cold War. But the Cold War had only been the front man, so to speak, for a deeper, more fundamental motive. Because the Western alliance system was so dependent on U.S. economic and military strength, it served as a vehicle for a unilateral globalism that allowed America to extend its hegemonyits influence and power throughout the world. But because that globalism was largely on American terms, it did not break the traditional rule against "entangling" alliances.

When the Soviet Union disintegrated in the early 1990s and NATO lost its enemy, the United States led the movement to preserve and expand the NATO Alliance. The western Europeans, their historical memories sharply focused on recent history, sought to prevent another German problem by perpetuating Franco-German collaboration (entanglement?). But for U.S. policymakers NATO expansion offered an opportunity to extend their nation's influence by fostering "democracy," both political and economic. Expanding the free marketplace for commerce and ideas replaced the "containment" of communism and the Soviet Union as the justification for retaining and expanding the NATO alliance and its extensive infrastructure. This was no new ideait had been a basic element in the rhetoric of Ronald Reagan and his administration during the 1980s. But once the Soviet threat disappeared, a debate ensued over whether or not the United States should continue to play the same extensive leadership role it had assumed during the Cold War. Was NATO even needed?

The administration of William Jefferson Clinton, fearful of losing its leverage in Europe, effectively ended the debate when it supported NATO expansion and then sent American military forces to the former Yugoslavia in an attempt to help end the bloodletting that had broken out along ethnic and religious lines. Democratic Party rhetoric may have referred more to political democracy than to the free market, but that was a matter of emphasis, not design. The epithet "isolationist" came to be applied to those who advocated anything but global involvement on American termsnot a new use of the term, but one that demonstrated the persistence of the desire, and ability, of the United States to follow a unilateral, my-way-or-the-highway style in foreign policy. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, the Republican administration of George W. Bush had confirmed U.S. involvement in the southern Balkans and expanded the American commitment in Macedonia.

American policymakers managed to square the circle, making a holy pretense of noninvolvement in the world while trying to shape that world in their own interests. Convinced that their nation offered a novus ordo seclorum a new and better world orderthey used alliances, coalitions, and ententes to extend the nation's reach. In 1776 that reach was limited by the practicalities of distance, wealth, and population. Two hundred twenty-five years later, those practicalities had disappeared, but the reach had not.


Barnet, Richard J., and Marcus G. Raskin. After 20 Years. New York, 1965. Argues that the alliance has outlived its usefulness and was, by the mid-1960s, contributing to increased world tension.

Beale, Howard K. Theodore Roosevelt and the Rise of America to World Power. Baltimore, 1956.

Coolidge, Archibald C. The United States as a World Power. New York, 1912.

DeConde, Alexander. Entangling Alliance. Durham, N.C., 1958. Investigates the French Alliance and its role in both foreign and domestic American politics during the 1790s.

. The Quasi-War. New York, 1966.

Esthus, Raymond A. Theodore Roosevelt and Japan. Seattle, 1966.

. Theodore Roosevelt and the International Rivalries. Waltham, Mass., 1970. Both Esthus works amply illustrate the president's search for closer relationships with the other world powers.

Gilbert, Felix. To the Farewell Address: Ideas of Early American Foreign Policy. Princeton, N.J., 1961. Stimulating group of essays that emphasize the intellectual and ideological attitudes of the Founders.

Goetzmann, William H. When the Eagle Screamed: The Romantic Horizon in American Expansionism, 18001860. New York, 2000. Short but stimulating essay dealing with nineteenth-century Anglo-American relations.

Goldgeier, James. Not Whether But When: The U.S. Decision to Enlarge NATO. Washington, D.C., 1999.

Graebner, Norman. "Northern Diplomacy and European Neutrality." In David Herbert Donald, ed. Why the North Won the Civil War. Baton Rouge, La., 1960.

Hinton, Harold C. Three and a Half Powers: The New Balance in Asia. Bloomington, Ind., 1975. Studies the Sino-Soviet rift as it relates to American foreign policy.

Iriye, Akira. After Imperialism: The Search for a New Order in the Far East, 19211931. Cambridge, Mass., 1965. Puts forth the concept of an informal system.

Kaplan, Lawrence S. Jefferson and France. New Haven, Conn., 1967. Imaginative discussion of Thomas Jefferson's willingness to consider alliances as well as his overall efforts to work within a world dominated by European power politics.

Kimball, Warren F. Roosevelt, Churchill, and the Second World War. New York and London, 1997. Examines the wartime Anglo-American alliance.

Kissinger, Henry. The Troubled Partnership: A Reappraisal of the Atlantic Alliance. New York, 1965. Defends the continued utility of a revamped NATO and is helpful for understanding the later policies of the Nixon and Ford administrations.

Louis, William Roger, and Ronald Robinson. "The Imperialism of Decolonization." Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 22 (September 1994): 462511. Discusses U.S. support for British military bases.

McNeill, William H. America, Britain, and Russia: Their Cooperation and Conflict, 19411946. London, 1953; New York, 1970. A remarkably perceptive study of the anti-Hitler coalition, only slightly outdated by the vast amount of documentation that has become available since it first appeared.

Neustadt, Richard E. Alliance Politics. New York, 1970.

Osgood, Robert E. NATO: The Entangling Alliance. Chicago, 1962. The standard historical study of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, although it must be supplemented by more recent studies.

Perkins, Bradford. Prologue to War: England and the United States, 18051812. Berkeley, Calif., 1961. Explains how the United States managed to enter the Napoleonic wars without joining either side.

Sherwood, Robert E. Roosevelt and Hopkins. New York, 1950. Perhaps the best study of Anglo-American relations during World War II.

Wolfers, Arnold, ed. Alliance Policy in the Cold War. Baltimore, 1959. Essays examining the broad sweep of alliance diplomacy.

See also Armed Neutralities; Balance of Power; Civil War Diplomacy; Collective Security; Consortia; Containment; Domino Theory; Foreign Aid; Internationalism; International Organization; Isolationism; North Atlantic Treaty Organization; PostCold War Policy; Treaties .

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I. The Study of CoalitionsWilliam H. Riker


II. Coalition FormationWilliam A. Gamson



The word “coalition” has long been used in ordinary English to refer to a group of people who come together (usually on a temporary basis) to obtain some end. Typically, a coalition has been regarded as a parliamentary or political grouping less permanent than a party or a faction or an interest group [seeParliamentary government]. Recently, however, the word has acquired a technical significance in social science theories with the elaboration (in the last two decades) of the theory of n-person games. The notion of coalition formation is central to this theory, since coalitions are the characteristic form of social organization by which the outcomes of such games are determined. To the degree that the theory provides a model for the study of national decision making in elections, parliaments, committees, cabinets, etc., or of international decision making in wars, diplomatic maneuvers, and international organizations, to that degree, coalitions are the characteristic form of social organization for political decision making generally.

The originators of the theory of n-person games, John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern, observed a fundamental difference, with respect to discovering the best way to win, between two-person games and games involving more than two persons: In two-person games, the problem for each player is to select the best strategy against his opponent; but in three-person or larger games, the problem for each player is to select partner(s) who can collectively win. They called the artifact resulting from the mutual selection of partners a coalition, and they constructed the whole theory of n-person games about the process of forming coalitions. Since politics is often defined as the authoritative allocation of values and since, in all but dictatorial or duopolistic situations, allocation is a process of coalition formation (Riker 1962, chapter 1), it is apparent that a theory of coalitions is a central part of a theory of politics.

Main problems

Three main questions have been dealt with in the theory: (1) How should winnings be divided to ensure victory for a player or a coalition? (2) Given a particular set of rules, what chance does a particular player have to be in a crucial position in a winning coalition? (3) Which potential partners should come together in particular play? The theories relating to each of these questions will be summarized and then attempts at verification and use of the theories will be discussed.

The division of winnings

The Von Neumann—Morgenstern notion of a solution is the main contribution here. The substance of this notion is that, while it is not possible to specify a uniquely preferable coalition, it is possible to specify a set of preferable imputations, that is, a set of preferable ways to distribute gains and losses. To explain this notion the following vocabulary is required.

Let there be a set of players, I, where I is given by {1, 2, … n}, and let the subsets of I, which are coalitions, be designated by S, T, …. Let the payment to each player at the end of the game be designated by xt, where i = 1, 2, …, n, so that the totality of payments, which is an imputation is a vector, x = (xl,x2 …, xn). Let the payment to a coalition, S, be designated by a function, v, which is a real valued set function with at least the following properties:

(1) v(ɸ) =0, where ɸ is the empty coalition; and (2) v(S È T) ≥v(S) + v(T), where S and T are disjoint subsets of 1.

The second property, superadditivity, records the fact that for at least some players in some games there is an increment in payoff from the very act of joining together. A coalition, S, is said to be effective for an imputation, x, if

That is, a coalition is effective if it can win as much or more than the sum of the payoffs to its members. An imputation, x, is said to dominate an imputation, y, if

( 1 ) S is not empty

(2) S is effective for x

(3) Xi> yi, for alH in S.

A solution, V , is a set of imputations such that (1) no y in V is dominated by an x in V ; and (2) every y not in V is dominated by an x in V. To illustrate, for the zero-sum three-person game in normal form (for definitions of “zero-sum” and “normal form” see, e.g., Riker & Niemi 1964) the set V is The essence of this definition is that, regardless of which winning coalition forms [i.e., (1, 2), (1, 3), or (2, 3)], still any one that does form ought to adopt a split-the-winnings-equally kind of imputation. The heuristic rationale leading to this definition is the observation that a player, i, who seeks to obtain is creating a situation in which he may receive the worst possible payoff, i.e., Xi = –l. If, in the course of negotiations, a coalition of players 1 and 2 has arrived at a tentative imputation y, where player 2 is likely to be especially receptive to offers from player 3 to form (2,3) with imputation and where, of course, y is now dominated by x. Thus player 1 is undone by his greed. On the other hand, none of the imputations in the solution are susceptible to that kind of renegotiation of coalitions, for no partner in a winning coalition is likely to feel disadvantaged by the imputation adopted. Hence, if an imputation in the solution is adopted, it is likely to be stable as are also the coalitions associated with it.

In short, a solution specifies a set of preferable imputations, but not preferable coalitions. Since, however, Von Neumann and Morgenstern had heuristically stated the problem of n-person games to be that of finding partners and since, in contrast, their mathematical “solution” specified not partners but rather the division of spoils among unspecified partners, much dissatisfaction has been expressed with the notion of a solution, and a number of alternatives have been offered (Von Neumann & Morgenstern 1944). The spirit of these alternatives, like the spirit of the Von Neumann-Morgenstern solution, is to pick out a limited number of acceptable imputations from the (usually) infinite number of imputations possible.

Ψ-stability: The most interesting of these alternatives is the notion of Y-stability, which can be explained with the following vocabulary: Let a partition of I into disjoint subsets be defined as a coalition structure, t . For example, if n = 3, the partitions ({1, 2}, {3}) and ({1, 3}, {2}) are possible coalition structures. Let Ψ denote a rule of admissible changes from t , and let Ψ (t) denote the set of coalition structures resulting from the application of Ψ to t. For example, if for n = 3, t is the partition ({1, 2}, {3}), and if Ψ is a rule that permits any coalition formed by the addition of a single player to an existent coalition, then Ψ(t) is the following set of alternative partitions:

[({1,2,3}), ({1,3}, {2}), ({2,3}, {1})].

Since the point of this argument is to set some limit on possible imputations and coalitions, one wishes to find pairs, (x, t ), of an imputation and a coalition structure such that players would not wish to depart from the pair (once they have reached it) by means of the changes permitted by Ψ. Such pairs, (x, t ), are in a kind of equilibrium, which Luce called Ψ-stability (1954). Formally defined, a pair, (x, t ), is Ψ-stable if:

(1) , for all S in Ψ(τ), and

(2) if xi = v({i}), then {i} is in τ.

The first condition states that, for any coalition, S, that might be formed by the application of Y to t , the players in this potential coalition cannot better themselves. The second condition states that if a player receives no more than he can get in the worst possible circumstances (i.e., when he is in a single-member coalition), then he must in fact be in such a condition in t , that is to say for a member, i, of a multimember coalition in t, xi> v({i}).

The advantage of this definition is that it permits some discussion of actual partners along with a discussion of imputations. Its disadvantage is that it requires a precise specification of Ψ for a particular game— and in social situations this is usually difficult to specify. Furthermore, there is an embarrassingly ad hoc flavor to the whole definition inasmuch as the specification of Ψ must be in terms of standards of behavior prevailing among particular players of a game.

Other alternatives to solution theory have also been offered, but they are no more satisfactory than what they purport to supplant; so instead of summarizing them here, the reader is referred to Luce and Raiff a, where Ψ -stability is also admirably discussed (1957, pp. 220–245).

The chance of obtaining a crucial position

Here the main contribution is Shapley’s notion of a value for n-person games, which is an a priori method for estimating whether or not, for a particular player, a game is worth playing (Shapley 1953; Shapley & Shubik 1954). Suppose, in a game of n players, a coalition of k players, where k≤n, is necessary to win. Let coalitions of k players be constructed by permuting the n players so that the first k players in any permutation are the minimally winning coalition, which is defined as a winning coalition that ceases to be winning if the kth player is subtracted. Let the kth position be designated as the pivot and let the number of times a player, i, occupies the pivot position be designated by pi. Since there are n! permutations of n, the chance, v, that a player, i, occupies the pivotal position is v(i) = pi/n!.

Underlying this measure of value are two crucial sociological assumptions: (1) Since the notion of pivoting is defined with respect to minimal winning coalitions, one infers that membership of a coalition in excess of the minimally winning size is irrelevant. This is a version of the size principle to be discussed below. (2) The expectation about imputations is quite different from imputations prescribed in the Von Neumann-Morgenstern solution. In a solution, the division of winnings among equally weighted members is, regardless of their position in the coalition, equal. But in the sociological theory underlying Shapley’s value, there is a time dimension to membership in a coalition so that the player in the pivotal position can expect to receive more than others. Over time, these advantages are expected to average out; but still the single imputation in the specific play is not an imputation in the solution. The difference is, of course, the assumption of the existence of a time dimension (and perhaps of a differentiation of roles in the coalition-formation process).

Which players should become partners

The main contributions here are those by Gamson (1961a; 1961b) and Riker (1962). Underlying these contributions is the size principle, which is the assertion that, with perfect and complete information, players should prefer minimally winning coalitions to larger winning ones. Using this principle, it is possible to show that if players have unequal weights then some possible coalitions are preferable to others, and indeed in some distributions of weights one possible coalition is uniquely preferable to others. Similarly, some players have unique advantages over others in the sense that the advantaged players can expect to be included in any preferable coalition. Since these two kinds of advantage are a function of the kind of ways in which the several weights can add up to k, which is the minimally winning size, it is not possible to specify in general these advantages for players and coalitions. Tables specifying these advantages for relevant variations in partitions of the total weight in the set of players are set forth in Gamson and in Riker for n = 3, 4, or 5. The most interesting result of such specifications is that usually the least weighty players ought to combine with each other, which leads to the somewhat paradoxical assertion that the weightiest player is usually the weakest in terms of combinatorial advantages. Note, however, that this conclusion follows from an argument in which perfect and complete information is assumed. Weakening the assumptions about information also weakens the force of this conclusion. As information is rendered less perfect and less complete, players may be expected to attempt to increase the size of winning coalitions above the minimum in order to guarantee victory.


Much more energy has been expended on the elaboration of the theory of coalitions than on the verification of it. The paucity of attempts at verification is explicable in terms of a theoretical difficulty : The whole theory is normative in the sense that it specifies what rational players should do to obtain the best possible payoff. It does not specify what real players will in fact do. To render the normative theory into a descriptive one, it must be assumed (1) that some players (that is, at least the winners) are rational, in the sense that they prefer to win rather than lose, and (2) that some political situations are sufficiently analogous to abstract games so that the theory of games is also a theory of political coalitions. Many social scientists are suspicious of both assumptions, and, given their reluctance to adopt them, the theory remains unverifiable just as all normative theories are unverifiable as truth-functional sentences. Nevertheless, some social scientists have been willing to assume that institutions that favor winners encourage the existence of rational political men and that political situations in which participants perceive their problem as one of winning are quite analogous to abstract games. Hence they have regarded the theory of coalitions as descriptive and have sought to verify it, hoping thereby to verify as well the assumption about rationality.

Verification and the “solution.”

Several experiments, most of which are well summarized by Rapoport and Orwant (1962) and Riker and Niemi (1964), have been conducted to test some features of the notion of a solution. In general, the results of these have not verified the Von Neumann-Morgenstern theory, except when special precautions have been taken in the experimental design to encourage subjects to behave highly competitively. Usually the imputations arrived at have been of the sort (1/n, 1/n, …, 1/n), instead of the prescribed a1, a2, …, ak, β1 β2,…, βn-k, where ai = ai and ai> 0 > βi. The latter imputation has been achieved with fair consistency only when, for example, stooges have been inserted among sophisticated subjects to insist upon imputations of the prescribed kind. Several explanations for the failure have been advanced, to wit, that the experimental design (1) failed to protect the outcome from the influence of variables in subjects’ personalities (e.g., their attitudes toward gambling); (2) failed to provide stakes large enough to induce rational behavior; and (3) permitted subjects to perceive the experimenter as another player in an (n + l)-player game, in which the imputation (1/n, 1/n, …, 1/n,–n) may be in the solution (provided the game is regarded as discriminatory). Further experiments with improved designs are necessary before any conclusion can be drawn on the truth or falsity of solution theory.

As for the notion of Y -stability, the one attempt to use it in analyzing a real situation (which attempt amounts indirectly to an attempt at verification) has produced interesting and intuitively plausible, but far from definitive, results. Luce and Rogow (1956) analyzed a simplified version of the three houses of the national legislature in the United States (i.e., the president, in his legislative capacity, the Senate, and the House of Representatives) in which there were assumed to exist two parties each with some members who always voted with the majority of the party (die-hards) and some who might on occasion vote with a majority of the other party (defectors). They examined the legislative branch according to variations in numbers of party members and numbers of die-hards and defectors in each party and produced two conclusions that do not otherwise seem immediately obvious: (1) a president is weak when either party has a more than two-thirds majority in Congress and (2) a president is strong when there is no party that can obtain a two-thirds majority even with the help of defectors from the other party. These nonobvious, but intuitively satisfying, conclusions suggest that much can be learned by further application of Y -stability theory to other situations.

Verification and use of value

It is hard to imagine how the notion of value might be verified, for it is a method to evaluate rather than predict or prescribe. Riker tried to determine by statistical analyses of roll calls in an assembly whether or not legislators seek to improve their chances of occupying the pivotal position; but his data and procedures were too crude to lead to any sure conclusions (1959). The notion of value has, however, been used to evaluate several real constitutions, treating them as games to be played: the Congress in the United States; the Security Council of the United Nations (Shapley & Shubik 1954); the Electoral College in the United States (Mann & Shapley I960; 1962); and the federal relationship in the United States, Canada, and Australia (Riker & Schaps 1957).

Verification of prescriptions on partners

Vinacke and Arkoff (1957) and Gamson (1961b) have attempted to verify Caplow’s predictions in experimental situations. Their results, with some reservations, tend to verify his specifications of preferable coalitions. Riker has offered historical evidence for the acceptance of the size principle by politicians in national and international political situations (1962, chapters 3, 7). Barth, assuming the size principle, has shown that Afghan chieftains conduct their intertribal diplomacy in terms of it (1959). Although far from satisfactorily verified, this feature of the theory of coalitions is closer to verification than any other.

Further developments

Considering the previous development of the theory of coalitions, it seems likely that future expansion of the theory can be expected only if additional sociological assumptions can be incorporated in the mathematical theory. The original theory of solutions to n-person games contained a bare minimum of assumptions about behavior, viz., (1) rational motives, i.e., participants’ desire to win rather than to lose; (2) sets and subsets or the notion of coalitions itself; and (3) super additivity. Out of these minimal assumptions, Von Neumann and Morgenstern were able to arrive at the theory of solutions, which, however, seemed inadequate because it specified only the division of winnings and not the choice of partners. Luce’s step toward the discussion of partners (i.e., Ψ -stability) involved the introduction of an additional sociological assumption, namely, the existence of a standard of behavior, Ψ , that admitted some kinds of bargaining about membership in coalitions but not others. Caplow’s discussion of partners and Riker’s elaboration of the size principle required the introduction of both the notion of differentials in weights (which is substantially equivalent to the introduction of the notion of “power”) and the notion of a majority. Since these elaborations of the theory of coalitions depended upon the addition of sociological premises, it can be expected that future elaborations will depend on future additions.

Dynamics of growth

One promising additional sociological assumption is the notion that coalitions go through a process of growth. Let the situation at the beginning of any decision-making or allocative process be such that participants are partitioned into n single-member subsets. Define coalitions as winning or losing subsets when a winning subset exists, and define protocoalitions as subsets when no winning coalition exists. Then the process of decision making is the transformation of some protocoalition into a winning coalition. If a winning coalition consists of k members, where 1/2nkn, then the process of decision making or allocation is the development of a protocoalition from 1 member to 2 members, from 2 to 3 members,… from (k – 2) members to (k – 1) members, and from (k – 1) to k members. There are several crucial stages in this process, especially the movement from one-member to two-member protocoalitions and the movement from (k– 1) to k members (which latter may be called the “end-play”). Riker has set forth some of the strategic considerations of the end-play, but these have as yet to be developed in a general statement (1962, chapter 6). His conclusions can be summarized, however, as the assertion that the strategy of end-play is to find, for a given structure of protocoalitions, that coalition that most nearly approaches the minimally winning size. Doubtless many other strategic considerations enter into the growth process, although these are as yet unspecified.


Defining roles as positions specified by the rules of any particular process of coalition formation, Von Neumann and Morgenstern assumed that while roles of players may differ with respect to advantages in the rules, still the roles are identical with respect to the kind of behavior in bargaining. Furthermore, they assumed that players could rotate indiscriminately among roles. There is no reason to suppose that either assumption is appropriate for the description of the natural world. Indeed, it is likely that in reality there exists a variety of roles in the coalition-formation process: for example, leader, the role of initiating that bargaining by which protocoalitions are enlarged; follower, the role of moving, at the instigation of a leader, from a single-member protocoalition to a larger one; pivot, already defined as that follower who becomes the kth member of a minimally winning coalition; reliable follower, the role of irrevocably accepting membership in a multimember protocoalition; defecting follower, the role of accepting and subsequently rejecting membership in a multimember protocoalition; wallflower, a member of a single-member coalition who is not sought out for the role of follower; etc. Doubtless the theory of coalition formation may be rendered more appropriate for the study of nature by mathematizing the essential features of behavior in each of these roles. For example, with respect to the role of leader, it is likely, as Riker has argued, that his payments are different in kind from the payments to followers, that the leader (who quite possibly starts out as a wallflower) is willing to forgo material reward for the sake of obtaining the psychic reward of leadership and that the leader may, for the sake of retaining his leadership, pay out more material rewards than his prospective coalition can win. Assuming these possibilities do in fact prevail, then the notion of a solution must be modified. Solution theory requires a symmetric kind of imputation (although it allows for unequal rewards for roles with unequal advantages in the rules). But if differentials in behavior may affect imputations, then the notion of “equal rewards for equal advantages in the rules” must be abandoned for a notion of unequal rewards according to whether the participant plays the role of leader or follower, with the leader accepting the lesser material reward. (The sociological, but not the mathematical, consequences of accepting the notion of these differentials in roles is set forth in Riker 1962.)

In the beginning of this article, it was suggested that a theory of coalitions amounted to a theory of politics. The subsequent considerations, however, suggest that a theory of coalitions adequate to serve as a theory of politics has not yet been developed. The hope for the next generation is that it will be.

William H. Riker

[Also relevant are the entriesDecision making;Game theory;Simulation.]


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Few areas exhibit less external uniformity than the alliances of men. “Politics makes strange bed-fellows,” we say to express our bewilderment at some new coalition which belies our expectations from past knowledge of the participants. But this is not the only kind of surprise that the study of coalition formation has in store. “Strength is weakness” and “Playing to win is playing to lose” are only two examples of the lessons to be drawn from this area of human behavior. The fact that these lessons are not yet proverbial indicates only that the term “coalition” is in need of clarification, since the phenomena to which it should be applied are already sufficiently familiar.

As with many other terms, it is possible to use “coalition” in a manner that robs it of much of its meaning. Thus, it is sometimes used to mean no more than the kind of joint activity displayed by, say, two young children who hide in the same place when it is time for them to go to bed. A common extension of this usage is to denote the mutuality of affective support that often accompanies such activity; for instance, if the children agreed to tell their mother that they were fish and did not need to sleep, this little fantasy might be said to express a temporary coalition against the mother.

It is necessary to guard against such uses of “coalition” because the immense influence of Georg Simmel in this area has made them all too frequent. Simmel ([1902–1917] 1950, pp. 135–136) argued that in any closely knit group of three persons— a “triad,” as he called it—situations were bound to arise in which two of the three would regard the third as an intruder. But Simmel’s interest in triadic situations extended mainly to those in which there is no coalition of two against one, even in the sense of shared affective support. The situations to which he gave most attention are those in which two members of the triad are in conflict with each other and the third either mediates between them or acts as tertius gaudens— that is, as one who draws comfort and advantage from the conflict. Nevertheless, a number of social scientists have drawn on Simmers formulation to support the proposition that any triad tends to split into a coalition of two and a third who is excluded.

The old proverb that when two is company, three is a crowd, undoubtedly has some truth in it and is worth investigating. But the truth of this proverb, or its scientific equivalent, is less at issue here than its relevance for the topic of coalition formation. If every clique within a larger group is to be called a coalition, then any partitioning of a group into subparts on whatever basis could be viewed as a “coalition structure,” and the study of coalitions would be coextensive with the study of cliques or even with the entire field of sociometry. In order to avoid this kind of confusion, coalitions should be defined far more narrowly.

Defining a coalition

In this article, “coalition” will be used to mean the joint use of resources to determine the outcome of a decision, where a resource is some weight such that some critical quantity of it in the control of two or more parties to the decision is both necessary and sufficient to determine its outcome. Participants will be said to be using their resources jointly only if they coordinate their deployment of resources with respect to some decision. That is what is meant by saying that they have formed a coalition.

Some studies which have been cast in terms of coalition formation do not seem to meet the above criteria. For example, in Mills (1954) subjects were asked to decide (not necessarily on a group basis) what verdict they would have cast had they been present at the trial of Herman Melville’s hero Billy Budd, and various indices of support between each pair of participants were calculated. But if such an experiment deals with coalition formation, it must be possible to say what kinds of resources are being deployed. To include the Mills study in our definition, we might consider “arguments” as the resource, so that persons who argued in favor of the same verdict would be coordinating their use of resources, and this would count as a coalition. But the fact that two people who argue for the same verdict have come to like or respect each other would still be only incidental to the coalition situation.

Not all situations in which resources are used to affect the outcome of a decision involve coalition formation. This can be made clearer for situations involving several parties by first examining the simpler two-person situation. Schelling (1958) classifies two-person games of strategy into “pure coordination” games, “pure conflict” (or “zerosum”) games, and “mixed-motive” games. One good example of a pure coordination game is the relation between two bridge partners, since they have the same interests and their only problem is one of coordinating their strategy. In contrast, the relation between two teams in bridge is one of pure conflict, since their interests are diametrically opposed. The classic example of a mixed-motive game is the situation known in game theory as the “prisoner’s dilemma,” in which neither of two prisoners accused of complicity in the same crime can be condemned if neither confesses; if only one prisoner confesses, the other will be condemned and the one who confessed set free; and if both confess, both will be condemned (Rapoport & Chammah 1965; Rapoport & Orwant 1962). Thus the players are partly in conflict, because one prisoner can be set free only at the expense of the other, and partly in harmony, because both prisoners stand to gain if they agree not to confess, though this joint strategy will bring each of them less than the maximum he might have gained independently. The situation poses a dilemma because the prisoners are assumed to be held incommunicado, and each therefore has to make his decision in ignorance of what the other will do.

Schelling’s classification can be adapted to cover situations involving more than two parties. Thus pure coordination games would be those in which there exists a solution that brings the greatest possible return to all parties at once, and there is no reason to exclude any participant, since in pursuing his own interests, each party is aiding the others to achieve theirs. The problem would then be one of achieving this goal as efficiently as possible by coordinating the use of all available resources. But to call this a coalition situation would be to dilute the meaning of the term, since any group in which there was no conflict of interest and which was pursuing some common goal could then be called a coalition. Much the same considerations apply to pure conflict situations; the issue of whether to form a coalition does not arise, since no player has anything to gain by forming one— indeed, the joint use of resources may be forbidden by the rules of the game. It should be noted that some n-person, zero-sum games are not pure conflict games, since they may allow some of the players to pool their resources and so gain at the expense of the other players. A pure conflict game, however, is one from which coalitions are excluded, either by definition or because there is no incentive for them.

It therefore seems necessary to conclude that coalitions can take place only within the context of mixed-motive, n-person games, in which both conflict and common interest are simultaneously present, and must govern the courses of action chosen. This is because in such games there is no outcome that brings the greatest possible return to all players at once, while there is always the possibility that at least two of the players may do better if they pool their resources.

The term “coalition” can now be defined with greater precision. It is the joint use of resources to determine the outcome of a decision in a mixedmotive situation involving more than two units. Many studies of three-person groups that have been cast in coalition terms have not studied coalition formation under the above definition, though this does not mean that they lack relevance for the study of other aspects of group behavior.

Theories of coalition formation should predict who will combine with whom and how they will split the proceeds. Social scientists are not directly concerned with how people should behave in coalition situations, though obviously they can study normative prescriptions by treating them as statements about expected behavior. Each of the different theories of coalition formation that will be described depends on a different set of basic assumptions. In order to show how each type of theory can be applied, the following example of a coalition situation will be used. Suppose that successive polling at a political convention has reduced the list of candidates to three: candidate A, who controls 48 per cent of the votes; candidate B, who controls 30 per cent; and candidate C, who controls 22 per cent. Each of the three has absolute control over the votes of his supporters. The rules state that whoever obtains a simple majority is nominated.

Predicting coalitions

The first type of theory to be dealt with is minimum resource theory, which was first developed by Gamson (1961a) and Riker (1962), though some features of the theory were anticipated by Caplow (1956; 1959). The central hypothesis of the theory is that a coalition will form in which the total resources are as small as possible while still being sufficient. Thus, to use the convention example, since the coalition BC, with 52 per cent of the vote, is the smallest of three possible winning coalitions, it is clearly the one that will be formed. In this situation, strength, as defined by the amount of resources possessed before any coalition is formed, is really weakness, since the strongest candidate, with control over 48 per cent of the votes, is excluded from the winning coalition.

The cheapest coalition principle can be applied to groups of any size. It does not necessarily imply defeat for the strongest players; for example, if there had been a four-man game in which candidates A and B each controlled 24 per cent of the votes, with candidate C controlling 22 per cent and candidate D 30 per cent, candidate D would have been both the strongest player and a member of the cheapest winning coalition. Thus it is not true to say that initial strength never pays off in a coalition situation; strength is weakness only under certain conditions—conditions that can be clearly specified by minimum resource theory.

But what are the grounds on which the cheapest coalition prediction rests? One answer is that in many coalition situations the players believe that no one should gain proportionately more or less from a coalition than the amount of resources he is able to contribute to it. A convenient name for this belief is the parity norm. It should be noted that it is a belief about what the players feel in general that they deserve, not an empirical estimate of the distribution of power in any particular situation.

The parity norm is merely the ancient principle of distributive justice applied to coalitions. “A man in an exchange relation with another will expect that… the net rewards, or profits, of each man be proportional to his investments” (Homans 1961, p. 75). This norm discourages the formation of coalitions that are more powerful than necessary, because if a player gains from a coalition an amount proportional to the resources he brings to it, it is obviously to his advantage to join the coalition in which his resources will represent the largest possible share of the total resources pooled.

A second theory, the theory of minimum power, is based on an interpretation of L. S. Shapley’s method for evaluating the worth of an n-person game for any player (Shapley 1953). This method is based on the number of times a player is the “pivotal” member who turns an insufficient coalition into a winning one. The method is, of course, part of mathematical game theory, and the descriptive application of it proposed here is in no sense intended as a contribution to that normative theory. One may interpret Shapley’s measure of pivotal power as a measure of a player’s initial bargaining power. This type of power is clearly distinct from the amount of a player’s initial resources. In simple terms, a player’s pivotal power is the proportion of times his resources can change a losing coalition into a winning one. It is expressed by the index P/N, where N is the total number of permutations among the players and P is the number of permutations in which his resources are pivotal (Shapley & Shubik 1954). Thus, in the three-man convention situation, since there are 3! or six permutations, each candidate will be pivotal twice. The relative power of the candidates is there-fore equal, even though their initial resources are unequal.

One way of giving descriptive relevance to the concept of pivotal power is to assume that all players in a coalition situation will demand a share of the payoff proportional to their pivotal power. By deductions analogous to those in minimum resource theory, it follows that the winning coalition will be the smallest one possible in terms of the total pivotal power of its members. Thus, in the convention example, since each possible twoman coalition is the same “size,” each is equally likely to occur. It also follows that, since partners have the same power, the rewards of coalition will be divided in equal shares.

A third theory of coalition formation known as anti-competitive theory is an outgrowth of a series of experiments by Vinacke (1959; Bond & Vinacke 1961), many of which involved female subjects. The basic assumption of anti-competitive theory is that players in the coalition situation do not want to compete with each other; on the contrary, they are concerned mainly with preserving social relationships within the group. It follows that coalitions in such a group will form along the lines of least resistance. This behavior is quite unlike that predicted by minimum resource theory, which assumes that players are trying to get as much as they feel is owed to them, or by minimum power theory, which assumes that players are trying to get as much they can. The “line of least resistance” in anti-competitive theory can be defined as the relation that exists between players who, if they combined, would have no problems about how to divide their gains. This would seem to be especially true of players who have equal amounts of initial resources, since both the parity norm and the principle of pivotal power would prescribe that, if they combined, they would share their gains equally.

Of course, if either the parity norm or the pivotal power principle were followed to the exclusion of any other principle, the players would not need to bargain even if their resources or power were unequal. But in actual coalition situations the possibility that one principle may be invoked against another can never be ruled out, and it therefore seems likely that, where resources are unequal, bargaining of some kind will take place.

Players who are interested in minimizing the disruptive effects of bargaining are likely to avoid the hard and skillful bargainer. It follows that, where the anti-competitive norm exists, playing to win is playing to lose, since the more openly a player seeks to get as much as he can, the less likely it is that he will find a partner who will help him to get it. This can lead to the ironic situation that those players who ultimately profit most from a coalition situation are those who have made least effort to do so.

In the convention example it is not clear what the outcome would be under the assumptions of anti-competitive theory, especially since initial resources are unequally divided between the candidates and the possibility of bargaining, as already explained, cannot be ruled out. If candidate A builds up his lead in voting strength by his known skill in bargaining, he may find himself without support from the other, initially weaker candidates if both the parity norm and the anti-competitive norm are at work in the situation. A player who looks for allies from a position of strength may find not only that playing to win is playing to lose but also that, in coalition situations, strength is weakness.

Coalitions and social organization

Coalition theory is relevant for understanding social organization in two ways: (1) in the rise of new forms of social organization and (2) in the operation of existing social systems.

The rise of social organization

Coalitions may be viewed as a nascent form of social organization. They may, of course, simply break up into their constituent parts, or they may become stable and institutionalized. In the latter case, the process of coalition formation is a social organizational process; it is an important mechanism for the creation of new social organizational forms.

In the primary group and ad hoc laboratory groups which have so frequently served as the object of empirical studies of coalition formation, individuals form coalitions and their coalitions are unlikely to be given any formal or permanent status. When, in more complex forms of social organization, the coordination of resources does become highly stable and enduring, are we still justified in calling them coalitions? The answer seems to depend on (1) the degree of institutionalization of the coalition and (2) the maintenance of the original boundaries of the units which form the coalition. For example, consider a situation in which a number of originally autonomous units join in an association that draws on the resources of the units to compete for the achievement of their collective goals. The new association might become so successful that its maintenance becomes more important for the members than the achievement of any advantage relative to each other. Finally, the autonomous nature of the original units may disappear completely.

The formation of a labor union, for example, does not seem too different from such a situation. Individuals who are seeking better working conditions, material benefits, and sometimes more general social changes are induced to join an association. This union comes to symbolize the collective interest of the members to such a degree that they are willing to forgo some short-run interest to themselves—for example, the kind of interest that would be served by “scabbing” or strikebreaking. Or they will be willing to risk personal injury and arrest to administer sanctions to those who do participate in such activities. Such forms of social organization are no longer nascent; they have arrived.

Coalitions in existing social systems

Coalition formation is important through its connection with cleavages and integration in a social system and through its impact on the content of decision. The constituent parts of a coalition do not always lose their separate identity. The Democratic party has a stable existence, but the diverse set of interests which constitute it have maintained their own boundaries. One faction of a political party may continue to act as an autonomous unit and to form coalitions on certain issues with other parties (Luce & Rogow 1956). Even when the original units dis-appear, coalitions may be quite relevant. New is-sues may create a new set of autonomous factions, perhaps quite different from the original units which formed the association. In either case, coalition formation is intimately connected with the structure of cleavages within a social system; such a structure provides the units from which coalitions are formed.

Since coalitions form around decisions or sets of decisions, the maintenance of a coalition will frequently require the tacit neutrality of the coalition on issues which divide the members. Lerner and Aron (1957) argue that the defeat of the European Defense Community (EDC) by the French National Assembly was particularly understandable in light of the coalition demands of the Mendes-France government. The MRP, chief supporters of EDC, were in opposition because of other issues (Indochina), while the Gaullists, who were part of the governing coalition, opposed EDC. Vigorous sup-port on this issue by the Mendes-France government would have made salient a set of cleavages that crosscut the governing coalition.

A shifting coalition structure tends to reduce the severity of cleavage, since today’s enemy may be needed tomorrow as an ally. On the other hand, a shifting coalition structure also reduces the degree of consensus required for action to occur; it need be based only on the temporary conjunction of interests. Coalition formation, then, involves one process by which cleavage and consensus are balanced in social organization.

William A. Gamson

[See alsoCohesion, social; Cooperation; Game theory; Groups; Parties, political; Sociometry;and the biography ofSimmel.]


Bond, John R.; and Vinacke, W. Edgar 1961 Coalitions in Mixed-sex Triads. Sociometry 24:61–75.

Caplow, Theodore 1956 A Theory of Coalitions in the Triad. American Sociological Review 21:489–493.

Caplow, Theodore 1959 Further Development of the Theory of Coalitions in the Triad. American Journal of Sociology 64:488–493.

Gamson, William A. 1961a A Theory of Coalition Formation. American Sociological Review 26:373–382.

Gamson, William A. 1961 An Experimental Test of a Theory of Coalition Formation. American Sociological Review 26:565–573.

Gamson, William A. 1962 Coalition Formation at Presidential Nominating Conventions. American Journal of Sociology 68:157–171.

Gamson, William A. 1964 Experimental Studies of Coalition Formation. Volume 1, pages 81–110 in Leonard Berkowitz (editor), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology. New York: Academic Press.

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Luce, R. Duncan; and Raiffa, Howard 1957 Games and Decisions: Introduction and Critical Survey. A study of the Behavioral Models Project, Bureau of Applied Social Research, Columbia University. New York: Wiley.

Luce, R. Duncan; and Rogow, Arnold A. 1956 A Game Theoretic Analysis of Congressional Power Distributions for a Stable Two-party System. Behavioral Science 1:83–95.

Mills, Theodore M. 1954 The Coalition Pattern in Three Person Groups. American Sociological Review 19:657–667.

Rapoport, Anatol; and Chammah, A. M. 1965 Prisoner’s Dilemma. Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press.

Rapoport, Anatol; and Orwant, Carol 1962 Experimental Games: A Review. Behavioral Science 7:1–37.

Riker, William H. 1962 The Theory of Political Coalitions. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.

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Vinacke, W. Edgar; and Arkoff, Abe 1957 An Experimental Study of Coalitions in the Triad. American Sociological Review 22:406–414.

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Originally a word for union or fusion, the term coalition came in the eighteenth century to mean a temporary alliance of political parties. In modern social science, the meaning has broadened to include any combination of two or more social actors formed for mutual advantage in contention with other actors in the same social system. In most contemporary theories of coalition formation, it is taken for granted that the principles governing coalition formation are not much affected by the size of the actors, who may be small children or large nations, but are significantly affected by the number of actors in the system. In the sociological and social-psychological literature, interest has focused on coalition formation in social systems containing three actors, commonly known as triads, and on the factors that influence the formation of coalitions in that configuration. Coalitions in triads have certain properties that are very useful in the analysis of power relationships in and among organizations. Moreover, tetrads, pentads, and higher-order social systems can be viewed for analytical purposes as clusters of linked triads. In the literature of political science, the principal topic has been the formation of electoral and legislative coalitions in multi-party and two-party systems.

The social science perspective on coalitions derives from two major sources: the formal sociology of Georg Simmel (1902) and the n-person game theory of John Von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern (1944). Simmel had the fundamental insight that conflict and cooperation are opposite sides of the same coin so that no functioning social system can be free of internal conflicts or of internal coalitions. Simmel also proposed that the geometry of social relationships is independent of the size of the actors in a social system but heavily influenced by their number; that social systems are held together by internal differentiation; that relationships between superiors and subordinates are intrinsically ambivalent; that groups of three tend to develop coalitions of two against one; and that, in stable social systems, coalitions shift continually from one situation to another.

While the basic ideas are attributable to Simmel, the analytical framework for most of the empirical research on coalitions that has been undertaken so far is that of Von Neumann (and his collaborator Oskar Morgenstern). Any social interaction involving costs and rewards can be described as an n-person game. In two-person games, the problem for each player is to find a winning strategy, but in games with three or more players, the formation of a winning coalition is likely to be the major strategic objective. The theory distinguishes between zero-sum games, in which one side loses whatever the other side gains, and non-zero-sum games with more complex payoff schedules. And it provides a mathematical argument for the equal division of gains among coalition partners, the gist of which is that any essential member of a winning coalition who is offered less than an equal share of the joint winnings can be induced to desert the coalition and join an adversary who offers more favorable terms. In the various experimental and real-life settings in which coalitions are studied, this solution has only limited application, but game theory continues to furnish the vocabulary of observation.

Some recent writers identify coaliton theory as that branch of game theory involving zero-sum games with more than two players and game theory as a branch of rational choice theory (Wood and McLean 1995). The basic assumption of rational choice—by voters, lobbyists, legislators, and managers—has been vigorously attacked (see Green and Shapiro 1994) and as strongly defended (Nicholson 1992, among many others). The critics argue that rational choice theory is essentially self-contained; its elaborate intellectual apparatus does not provide a clear view of political action. The defenders say, in effect, that judgment should be withheld.

Meanwhile, game theory (and its coalition branch) have been developing new ideas, largely based on the key concept of equilibrium. Equilibrium in a game is that condition in which none of the players have incentives to deviate from their chosen strategies. It is called Nash equilibrium, after its formulator (Nash 1951), and has been extended to include two interesting varieties: subgame perfect equilibrium and Bayesian equilibrium. The former requires that rational players refrain from incredible threats. The latter replaces the players' initial knowledge about payoff schedules with a set of probabilistic statements, subject to change by additional information. Another interesting innovation is the concept of nested games (Tsebelis 1990), in which the apparent irrationality of players' moves in a given game is a rational consequence of their concurrent involvement in other games.

Modern empirical work on coalitions falls into two major categories: (1) experimental studies of outcomes in games played by small groups—games that have been devised by the experimenter to test hypotheses about the choice of coalition partners and the division of coalition winnings under specified conditions, and (2) observational studies of coalitions in the real world. Stimulated by the publication of divergent theories of coalition formation (Mills 1953; Caplow 1956; Gamson 1961) in the American Sociological Review, coalition experiments became part of the standard repertory of social psychology in the 1960s and continue to be so to this day (Bottom, Eavey, and Miller 1996). A great deal has been learned about how the choice of coalition partners and the division of coalition winnings are affected by variations in game rules and player attributes. Much, although by no means all, of this work has focused on three-player games in which the players have unequal resources and any coalition is a winning coalition, the distribution of resources falling into one of three types: (1) A>B>C, A<B+C; (2) A=B, B>C, A<B+C; and (3) A>B, B=C, A<B+C. With respect to the choice of coalition partners, the central question has been whether subjects will consistently choose the partner with whom they can form the minimum winning coalition, or the stronger partner, or the partner who offers the more favorable terms, or the partner who resembles themselves in attributes or ideology. The general finding is that each of these results can be produced with fair consistency by varying the rules of the experimental game. The division of winnings between coalition partners has attracted even more attention than the choice of partners. The question has been whether winnings will be divided on the principle of equality, as suggested by game theory; or of parity, proportionate to the contribution of each partner, as suggested by exchange theory; or at an intermediate ratio established by bargaining. Although many experimenters have claimed that one or the other of these principles is primary, their collective results seem to show that all three modes of division occur spontaneously and that subjects may be tilted one way or another by appropriate instructions. Additional nuances of coalition formation have been explored in games having more than three players, variable payoffs, or incomplete information. Non-zero-sum games and sequential games with continually changing weights have been particularly instructive. The findings readily lend themselves to mathematical expression (Kahan and Rapoport 1984; Prasnikar and Roth 1992).

The explicit application of coalition analysis to real-life situations began with William Riker's (1962) study of political coalitions in legislative bodies; he discerned a consistent preference for minimal winning coalitions and emphasized the pivotal role of weak factions. Theodore Caplow (1968) showed how the developing theory of coalitions in triads could be used to analyze conflict and competition in nuclear and extended families, organizational hierarchies, primate groups, revolutionary movements, international relations, and other contexts. The initial development of observational studies was relatively slow, compared with the proliferation of laboratory studies, but there were some notable achievements, particularly in family dynamics and international relations, where coalition models fit gracefully into earlier lines of investigation. Coalition theory was also applied, albeit in a more tentative way, to work groups, intra- and interorganizational relationships, litigation and criminal justice, class and ethnic conflict, and military strategy. However, the bulk of empirical research after 1980 was undertaken by political scientists and focused on international relations, with particular emphasis on nuclear deterrence (Powell 1990) and on the formation of legislative coalitions (Laver and Schofield 1990; Shepsle 1991; Krebbiel 1991; Cox and McCubbins 1993). Some investigators have shifted their focus from coalition formation to coalition breaking (Lupia and Strom 1995; Horowitz and Just 1995; Mershon 1996), which appears to follow a quite different dynamic. Economists have studied customs unions, trading blocs, and other forms of economic combination (Burbidge et al. 1995; Yi 1996). But with a few notable exceptions (e. g. Lemieux 1997), sociologists have tended to neglect the study of coalitions since the promising beginnings of the 1970s.

Whatever the field of application, the examination of coalitions, especially the simple coalition of two against one, provides a key to the social geometry of innumerable situations involving conflict, competition, and cooperation. In nearly every conflict, each of the contending parties seeks the support of relevant third parties, and the side that gains that support is likely to prevail. In very many competitive situations, the outcome is eventually decided by the formation of a winning coalition. And any system of cooperation that involves a status order must rely on the routine formation of coalitions of superiors against subordinates and be able to counter coalitions of subordinates against superiors.

All of these situations are susceptible to coalitions of two against one, which tend to transform strength into weakness and weakness into strength. Under many conditions, in the first of the triads mentioned above (A>B>C, A<B+C), both A and B will prefer C as a coalition partner; his initial weakness ensures his inclusion in the winning coalition. When A>B, B=C, A<B+C, B and C will often prefer each other as coalition partners; A's initial strength ensures his exclusion from the winning coalition. When A=B, A>C, C's initial weakness again makes him a likely winner. The first purpose of any hierarchy must be to restrain in one way or another the inherent tendency of subordinates to combine against superiors. Although force and ritual are often deployed for this purpose, the stability of complex status orders depends on certain interactive effects that appear in triads with overlapping membership, called linked triads. In such clusters, the choice of coalition partners in one triad influences the choices made in other triads. The natural rules that seem to govern the formation of coalitions in linked hierarchical triads are that a coalition adversary in one triad may not be chosen as a coalition partner in another triad, and that actors offered a choice between incompatible winning coalitions will choose the one in the higher-ranking triad. The net effect favors conservative coalitions of superiors against subordinates without entirely suppressing revolutionary coalitions of subordinates against superiors.

Cross-cutting the coalition preferences that arise from unequal distributions of power and resources are preferences based on affinity, compatibility, and prior experience with potential partners. These other bases of coalition formation are conspicuous in intimate groups such as the family, where same-sex coalitions alternate with same-generation coalitions.

The study of coalitions in nuclear families is particularly rewarding because the distribution of power in the triad of mother-father-child changes so dramatically as the child grows, and because same-sex coalitions are differently valued than cross-sex coalitions. The initial distribution of power between husband and wife is always transformed by the arrival of children; most cultures encourage certain patterns, such as the Oedipus and Electra complexes dear to Freudians: coalitions of mother and son against father and of father and daughter against mother. Research on the contemporary American family suggests that parental coalitions are quite durable, both mother-daughter and mother-son coalitions against the father are very common, father-daughter coalitions against the mother much less so, and father-son coalitions against the mother comparatively rare. Sibling coalitions are most likely among same-sex siblings adjacent in age. Sibling aggression is endemic in families of this type, especially in the presence of parents. An interesting study by Richard Felson and Natalie Russo (1988) suggests that parents usually take side with the weaker child in these incidents, and this leads to more frequent aggression by the excluded child. There are very few family conflicts that cannot be instructively described by a coalition model.

The application of coalition theory to international relations was particularly rewarding with respect to the "strategic triangle" of the United States, China, and the Soviet Union during the Cold War era of 1950–1985. In one of the many studies that have examined the internal dynamics of this triad, James Hsiung (1987) concluded that China as the weak player in this triad benefitted much more than either of the superpowers from the various coalitional shifts that occurred over time, as would be theoretically expected in a triad of this type (A=B, B>C, A<B+C). A study by Caplow (1989) explained the failure of peace planning in 1815, 1919, and 1945, by showing how efforts to put an end to the international war system were undermined by the formation of coalitions to prevent the domination of the peacekeeping organization by the strongest of the victorious powers. Many older studies of international balances of power visualize international relations as a game in which the first priority of every major player is to block the domination of the entire system by any other player. Frank C. Zagare's (1984) analysis of the Geneva Conference on Vietnam in 1954 as a three-player game compared the preference schedules of the three players and showed how they combined to produce the unexpected outcome of the negotiations.

Both family dynamics and international relations in peacetime exemplify situations of continuous conflict, wherein relationships have long histories and are expected to persist indefinitely, and the opposition of interests is qualified by the necessity for cooperation. The choice of coalition partners and the division of winnings is strongly influenced by the past transactions of the parties and by the fact that payoffs are not completely predictable. Continuous conflict triads with A>B>C, A<B+C often alternate the three possible coalitions according to circumstances: the conservative coalition AB reinforces the existing status order; the revolutionary coalition BC challenges it; and the improper coalition AC subverts it.

Episodic conflicts, by contrast, involve discrete zero-sum games played under strict rules. The passage of any measure in a legislative body necessarily involves the formation of a coalition. Even when one party has a solid majority, its members will seldom be in complete agreement on an issue. The formation of a coalition for the passage of a specific measure usually involves hard bargaining and payoffs negotiated in advance. Under these conditions, the tendency to minimize costs by forming the minimal winning coalitions is very strong. When A>B>C, A<B+C, a BC coalition is highly probable. Empirical studies of legislative voting bear this out, although more than minimal coalitions also occur, for various reasons.

The resolution of disputes by civil and criminal litigation is another variety of episodic conflict that can be studied as a coalition process. Donald Black (1989) explored the triad of judge and courtroom adversaries and discovered a clear tendency for judges to favor the litigant to whom they are socially closer, ordinarily the litigant of higher status—a tacit conservative coalition. But in forms of dispute resolution where the third party is less authoritative, the weaker adversary may be favored. Marital counselors, for example, often side with wives against husbands, and ombudsmen and other relatively powerless mediators normally incline toward the weaker party.

In terminal conflicts, the object is the permanent destruction of adversaries, and the formation of coalitions is a delicate matter. In the triad where A>B>C, A<B+C, a successful BC coalition that destroys A leaves C at the mercy of B. Indeed, any winning coalition is hazardous for the weaker partner. A fragile peace can be maintained if A>B>C and A=B+C; the BC coalition forms as a matter of course, creating what is known as a balance of power. This has been the key configuration in European affairs for the past several centuries. The balance breaks down with any significant shift in the relative power of the parties; for example, if A grows stronger than the BC coalition, it will be tempted to conquer them. If B becomes equal to A, an AB coalition may be tempted to attack and partition C. If C grows stronger and the triad assumes the form A>B, B=C, B+C>A, the formation of a BC coalition to overthrow A is likely. In the eighteenth century, the breakdown of a balance of power led to war without delay. Under current conditions, the breakdown of a balance of power among major industrialized states does not involve an automatic resort to arms, but in several regional arenas, such as the Middle East, the old mechanism is still intact.

Terminal conflicts occur also within nations as coups, resistance movements, and revolutions. One common pattern is the urban uprising against a dictatorial regime, in which the players are the government, the army, and the populace. If the army continues to support the government and is willing to fire on the populace, the uprising fails, as in China in 1989. If the army sides with the populace, the government is overthrown, as in Indonesia in 1998. Often the issue is undecided until the moment when the troops confront the demonstrators. At a more fundamental level, successful revolutions require a coalition of formerly separate factions against the ruling group.

Every organization generates both internal and boundary coalitions. Internal coalitions are activated whenever persons or groups of unequal status interact before witnesses. In general, the presence of a high-status witness reinforces the authority of a superior, while the presence of a low-status witness reduces it; examined in detail, these catalytic effects are delicate and precise. Boundary coalitions occur whenever one organization has permanent relations with another. Their respective agents must form a coalition with each other to perform their functions, and that coalition pits them both against their own colleagues, always with interesting consequences.

In a long-term perspective, the three bodies of coalition studies, theoretical, experimental, and observational, have developed unevenly. The theories are elaborate and elegant. The experimental studies have explored nearly every possibility suggested by the theories, run down every lead, manipulated every variable. But in sociology, as distinct from political science and economics, the observational studies have scarcely tapped the rich possibilities suggested by the available theories. The most important work remains to be done.

(see also: Decision-Making Theory and Research)


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Coalition Building

Coalitions refer to the temporary formation of persons, groups, or even nations for some type of joint or common action. It is most often used in relation to political or national issues, such as in the Coalition to Protect Senior Care. In business, coalitions have been present for many years as a means of bringing together people, departments within an organization, entire companies, or industries with some common purpose. Examples of such purposes might include achieving a common corporate goal, lowering insurance rates, regulating an industry action, or strategic planning. Coalitions are an exercise in power, whether in politics or business.


The concept of coalition building has too often been confused with interest groups and lobbying. The term refers to the formation of different interests, but not necessarily with the same intent as an interest group. From the French coalascere, the word is generally defined in political terms. Most early coalitions were temporary alliances formed among nontraditional allies to combat a common foe. An example of this type of usage is the coalition between the United States and Afghanistan (as well as other countries), in which a multi-national force comes together to fight militants in Afghanistan. Coalitions are also formed for election purposes. A historical example of this is the Republican Party, formed in the mid-nineteenth century from representatives from virtually all parties then existing on the American political sceneWhigs, Democrats, Free-Soilers, Abolitionists, Know-Nothings, members of the temperance movement, and others without a party allegiance. All of these elements did not survive the formation of the Republican Party as we know it today.


There are various definitions of a coalition that fit an organizational behavior setting. One simply states that a coalition occurs when members of a group organize to support their side of a particular issue. Another definition refers to a coalition as a relationship over a specific issue. Coalitions exist to preserve and even enhance self-interests, whether those of an individual or group, and achieve an adequate balance of power favorable to the coalition members' advantage. A more complete definition is a group formed to pursue a strategy that will be to the advantage of those most directly affected.

Another example of a coalition is one that forms over the issue of funding for management information systems within a single organization. Individuals express initial concern about a lack of resources to fully develop an integrated information system, yet have no formal way to share concerns with management. These individuals represent several units within the organization, including accounting, research, marketing, and distributionfew of whom commonly interact with the others. The issue focuses on management's budget control. But, as a group, membership serves on the overall organizational budget planning committee. At the point of decision making, the

coalition acts in accord with common interests to recommend a comprehensive information system mutual to the needs of all units. Once this recommendation is forwarded to the organization's executive, the coalition disbands or continues, depending on the final decision on how the resources are to be used for information management.

Whatever definition of coalitions is accepted, understanding organizational coalitions enhances understanding of behavior in complex organizational structures. Coalitions are a potent force in organizations. Organizational behavior literature is largely independent of the social psychology literature on coalitions, yet a closer tie between the two fields is building. Likewise, business and organization literature has not utilized the vast literature of political science that examines the unique formation of coalitions for mutual goals. The merging of these three independent disciplines into a body of coalition literature can only enhance our understanding of the formation of groups for common purposes.


A review of the business and behavioral science literature on coalitions suggests the following are common characteristics found in most coalitions:

  1. Members act as a group.
  2. They are formed for a specific purpose.
  3. They contain a group of interacting individuals.
  4. They are independent from the organization's formal structure.
  5. They have no formal structure.
  6. They are oriented to a specific issue to advance the group's purpose.
  7. Perception of membership is mutual among members.
  8. They have an external focus.

These characteristics may be common with other types of groups within organizations, but coalitions are separate and quite often powerful. As a part of an organizational power structure, coalitions are frequently seen as a manager's legitimate search for power, and as such, are used to increase personal power or to achieve organizational goals. When building a coalition, potential members will identify those individuals or groups who have a common interest or goal and who are most likely to join. Generally, coalitions take time to form as participants

identify the common goal, the best manner to approach that goal, and the individuals or groups most likely to share the preferred strategy of goal-seeking. Borrowing from social psychology literature, Coalitions form, one person (or group) at a time.

Coalitions are used to increase a power base. Therefore, an understanding of coalition building is integral to a comprehensive knowledge of organizational behavior. In politics, the word temporary is closely associated with coalitions, but this is not necessarily the rule in corporate life. Social psychologists Keith Murnigham and Danny Brass conclude that successful coalitions are fluid, form rather quickly, expand, burst at the moment of decision, and then rapidly disappear. Other types of relationships within the organization can include alliances, networks, cliques, a supportive managerial relationship, and other forms. Networks are a broad-based cooperative pursuit of general self-interests, while alliances involve individuals or groups supporting each other. A clique is a group of individuals held together by a common interest. Cliques often form coalitions. Research indicates that some surreptitiousness (e.g., mobilizing quietly) may be essential to building a coalition. There is also research concluding that resistance, fear of retaliation, and insults often create ripe conditions for coalition building.

Several conditions have to be present for the formation of a coalition. First, there has to be an issue that requires addressing or interest in an issue that coalition members find they have in common. Second, potential members have to share a belief that they can achieve success through building a coalition. Third, there must be an understanding that the action taken has to be jointly performed. Once these criteria are met, the building of the coalition begins. Generally, coalition members form from a weaknessthat is, individually they are not strong enough in the organization to achieve their goal.

When this collective action leads to a response, coalitions can take one of several directions. If initially successful, the coalition may grow. But the same is true if the coalition first encounters failure yet persists in reaching a collective goal. Disbanding the coalition is also a possibility in either scenario, resulting in the dormancy of the coalition. Coalitions may well be strengthened by success and continue to grow in power and influence. A dormant coalition may also be able to exercise power at a later time, but this is unlikely in most organizations. Coalitions may prevail and coalition goals may become the dominant organizational goal, although this alternative course of coalition action lacks adequate research findings from which to derive any solid conclusions. The stability of coalitions thus depends on goals, course of action, outcomes, and continued common interest.


Coalition goals generally focus on the distribution of resources, usually a source of contention in organizations. The lack of adequate resources, changes in the resource base, perceived inequitable resource distribution, and lack of a comprehensive understanding of resource allocation frequently result in the development of coalitions. Research also indicates that those with broader discretion and influence in job responsibilities and work activities are more likely to participate in coalition building. When the work environment is more rigidly controlled, coalitions are not as likely to be pursued as a strategy for addressing collective goals.

An example of a coalition and its effectiveness can be found in Belarus's 2007 bid for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council. Objecting to the country's record of human rights violations, more than 40 nongovernmental organizations from around the world came together to condemn Belarus's bid. As a result of these efforts as well as campaigns by the United States and parts of Europe, Belarus was defeated and did not win a seat on the Council. Although an example of a very powerful coalition, it includes most of the common characteristics of the coalitionan interacting group (the nongovernmental organizations), a specific purpose (blocking Belarus's bid), a concentrated act (petitioning the UN), no formal internal structure (a group of organizations), external focus (the leadership of an intergovernmental human rights body), and orientation to advance the members' purpose (human rights advocacy).


The concept of coalitions has undergone differing applications and meanings within organizational theory. The earliest uses focus on conflicts within organizations and the presence of multiple goals within the same organization. Herbert Simon, former professor at Carnegie Mellon University and 1978 recipient of the Nobel Prize in economics, was one of the first researchers to identify the issue of conflict over goals in an organization. Simon, however, failed to mention coalitions arising within the organizations over this conflict. Simon's 1958 book, Organizations, which he co-authored with James G. March, mentioned coalitions between but not within organizations. March, also at Carnegie Mellon and later at Stanford, did draw a relationship between coalitions and organizations in a 1962 article in the Journal of Politics. March continued his work with Richard Cyert (also at Carnegie Mellon at that time and later president of the institution from 1972 to 1990) in works like the 1963, A Behavioral Theory of the Firm.

The second significant period of coalition research centered on James Thompson, who adopted the work of

March and Cyert in his 1967 book, Organizations in Action, where he coined the term, dominant coalition. Thompson (who was teaching business at Indiana University in 1967) concluded there were certain constraints on coalition building, mainly the organization's technology and environment. Thompson theorized that the more uncertainty in organizations due to technology and environment, the more power bases that exist. The coalition grows as the uncertainty increases.

Thompson also used the term, inner circle to describe the select few within an organization whose connections provide them with influence. Their role in coalition building is often one of leadership, but they seldom act alone in achieving goals. Their power is enhanced as the coalition strives to achieve a group goal; thus, the individual and coalition feed off each other. Carrying Thompson's point one step further, interdependency in an organization creates a greater likelihood for the formation of a coalition or coalitions.

A third phase of coalition scholarship was generated with the introduction of political science and social psychology methods and studies to organizational behavior. This led to the current divergent use of the term, and research from several disciplines points to how individual efforts at influence become the basis for coalition building. The application of different schools of research on coalitions led to more thorough study into the formation and operation of coalitions in the organization. In addition, game theory proponents contribute to understanding of the role of coalitions and their formation.

More recently, research into coalitions has moved away from the organizational environment to the political arena where coalitions have an impact on business. Periodical literature is highlighted with articles on how coalitions influence international business and economics, the health care industry, diversity and integration issues, foreign trade, the insurance market, and community activism. In the area of organizational behavior, research centers on the role of coalitions in organizational change, or how groups with seemingly dichotomous interests merge to exercise power on business strategy and decision making within an organization undergoing significant administrative and structural change.

In their seminal article on coalition research, William Stephenson, Jone Pearce, and Lyman Porter (of the University of California at Irvine) state that the study of coalitions has yet to produce any new way of understanding organizational processes. Considering the wide array of research from psychology, political science, game theory, sociology, and organizational behavior, their conclusion still begs an adequate answer. We can come to an understanding of the conditions necessary for the formation of a coalition, how they are built, how they exercise power and influence, and how they survive or disband, yet the question of the role of the coalition in organizational behavior remains unanswered and fertile for the researcher so inclined to look further for questions and answers.

SEE ALSO Group Decision Making; Group Dynamics;Managing Change; Organizational Structure; Teams and Teamwork; Trends in Organizational Change


Johns, Gary. Organizational Behavior: Understanding and Managing Life at Work. New York: HarperCollins, 1996.

March, James G., and Richard M. Cyert. A Behavioral Theory of the Firm. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1963.

Murnigham, John Keith, and Daniel J. Brass. Intraorganizational Coalitions. In Research on Negotiation in Organizations. eds. Max H. Bazerman, Roy J. Lewicki, and Blair H. Sheppard. Greenwich: JAI Press, 1991.

Pfeffer, Jeffrey. New Directions for Organization Theory: Problems and Prospects. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Ray, Debraj. A Game-Theoretic Perspective on Coalition Formation (The Lipsey Lectures). New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Roberts, Joan M. Alliances, Coalitions and Partnerships: Building Collaborative Organizations. St. Paul, MN: New Society Publishers, 2004.

Simon, Herbert A., and James G. March. Organizations. New York: Wiley, 1958.

Stephenson, William B., Jone L. Pearce, and Lyman W. Porter. The Concept of Coalition in Organization Theory and Research. Academy of Management Review (April 1985): 256268.

Thompson, James D. Organizations in Action: Social Science Bases of Administrative Theory. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967.

UN: No to Belarus on Rights Council. Human Rights Watch. Available from:

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Coalition Theory


Political scientists, along with counterparts in other social science disciplines, have sought a number of theoretical approaches to describing, explaining, and predicting coalitional behavior. Coalitions arise in situations with at least three actors (individuals, groups, countries), wherein no single actor can achieve an optimal outcome on its own; rather, cooperation with one or more other actors is necessary. Coalition theories purport to shed light on why alliances emerge, why they take the forms they do, how they endure, and why they collapse.

Much of coalition theory embraces the basic assumptions of rational political behavior. Faced with dilemmas about how to maximize gains through cooperation with one or more other parties, rational political actors will weigh preferentially ordered alternative strategies and consistently pursue coalition options connected with more preferred outcomes. The game-theoretic tradition, which has dominated coalition research, flows directly from this foundational assumption of rationality. Game theorists view the process of coalition formation as a social interaction in which bargaining behaviors can be modeled by a priori assumptions and deductive propositions about what the negotiators value most.

Conventional coalition theory generally makes four assumptions: relevant players in the coalition game are unified parties, each of which can be considered a single bargaining entity with indivisible motives; the coalition game is zero-sum, with gains by one party constituting losses for another; the universe of possible coalitions is formed by all winning combinations of actors; and the game of coalition formation is a single-shot event, independent of previous or future bargaining between the parties to the game. From these baseline assumptions, formal coalition theory has advanced at least two major strands of research: size-criterion studies (the office-seeking tradition) and ideological/policy distance (the policy-seeking tradition).

In his 1962 book William Riker deduced a size principle by which in n -person games coalitions of minimum size would be expected to form. Hoping to craft a minimum-winning coalition large enough to win but no larger, rational actors in Rikers model would, for example, consistently decide to form coalitions of no more than 201 members in a 400-seat parliament. Similarly, in the hypothetical 400-member parliament a coalition of two equally powerful parties combining for 60 percent of the seats would be preferred to a coalition of four equally powerful parties with 60 percent of the seats. The clear assumption is that the overwhelming motivation of rational political actors in coalitional situations is the zero-sum maximization of a fixed prize to be shared among the fewest actors possible. Self-interested actors driven by garnering for themselves the largest share of a fixed-sum prize tend to see the virtues of compromising principles or policies if doing so increases the likelihood of winning.

Advocates of a rival policy-seeking theoretical approach to understanding coalitions countered that actors seek to build alliances with those partners closest to them ideologically and do not simply jump to form alliances with any constellation of strange bedfellows that produces victory. In this theoretical camp, articulated most clearly by Abram De Swaan in his seminal 1973 book, the argument is that players in the coalition game seek to minimize the range of policy disagreement and ideological heterogeneity among members of a potential winning coalition. In a legislative context, this anticipates that the most frequent type of coalition found would be those in which members of the winning government would be adjacent or connected if placed on an ordinal, single-dimension left-right ideological scale.

Coalition theory has developed considerably since the pioneering works of Riker, De Swaan, and others. Scholars now seek to replace the traditional office-seeking versus policy-seeking dichotomy by borrowing from spatial theories of party competition to model bargaining on the basis of multiple policy dimensions. Still, criticisms of traditional coalition theory abound. Detractors contend that formal theories based on rational choice/game theoretic propositions fail to capture the practice and reality of coalition politics. Models of unconstrained minimalist rationality operating within the context of laboratory-pure games, say the critics, cannot account for the frequent departures from minimum-winning coalitions (namely, the occurrence of oversized surplus majority coalitions or undersized minority coalitions). Further, it may be wrong to assume that all coalition actors pursue the same goals, behave as monolithic unitary actors, and engage in the same kind of complex calculus of mathematical alternatives. Whereas some political scientists see the way forward as a choice between formal coalition theory (based on deductive assumptions about rational behavior) and rich description (detailing cases and actor characteristics), others claim such a choice to be a false dichotomy. Advancing knowledge about political coalitions, this latter group contends, will come through systematic and meaningful measurement of structural features that constrain rational behavior.

SEE ALSO Coalition; Game Theory; Government; Left and Right; Majorities; Minorities; Parliaments and Parliamentary Systems; Political Science; Politics; Rational Choice Theory; Zero-sum Game


Baron, David P., and John A. Ferejohn. 1989. Bargaining in Legislatures. American Political Science Review 83 (4): 1181-1206.

De Swaan, Abram. 1973. Coalition Theories and Cabinet Formations: A Study of Formal Theories of Coalition Formation Applied to Nine European Parliaments After 1918. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Gamson, William A. 1961. A Theory of Coalition Formation. American Sociological Review 26 (3): 373-382.

Laver, Michael, and Norman Schofield. 1990. Multiparty Government: The Politics of Coalition in Europe. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. (Repr., Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998.)

Pridham, Geoffrey, ed. 1986. Coalitional Behaviour in Theory and Practice: An Inductive Model for Western Europe. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press.

Riker, William H. 1962. The Theory of Political Coalitions. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. (Repr., Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1984.)

Tsebelis, George. 1990. Nested Games: Rational Choice in Comparative Politics. Berkeley: University of California Press.

William M. Downs

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Government, Coalition


A coalition government exists when two or more political parties formally agree to share executive responsibility and cabinet posts. Proportional representation systems common among parliamentary democracies often produce election results in which no single party wins an absolute majority of seats in a legislature. Such situations yield incentives for parties to build alliances in order to form a new government; absent the emergence of a coalition, the country is left either with leadership that does not command majority support or with the necessity of calling new elections. In political systems that encourage government by coalition, votes do not directly determine the composition of a new government; rather, they only determine which political parties will sit in parliament. Once that initial issue is settled, elected representatives and party leaders negotiate from among a potentially huge number of party combinations and permutations in search of a winning majority. Postelection coalition building can take days, weeks, and even months to complete, with the result being capture by one party of the premiership and distribution across coalition members of important posts such as foreign affairs, finance, justice, and the like. Coalition government stands as an alternative model to majoritarian governance, the latter being characterized by winner-take-all first-past-the-post electoral systems that favor clear distinctions between winners and losers.

Coalition government is the subject of a voluminous literature within the political science discipline. As a system of governance, the multiparty coalition is studied most frequently in European democracies whose electoral rules provide for even a modicum of proportionality. Italys penchant for short-lived postwar coalition governments is notorious, as is Belgiums complex process of managing a delicate linguistic divide through coalitions. The reluctance of postwar German electorates to grant power exclusively to a single party has meant that coalition governmentsometimes matching the countrys two largest parties in the same grand coalitionhas been the norm there. Beyond Europe, coalition government is a standard expectation of democratic process in such countries as Israel, India, and Japan.

Advocates of coalition government tout the models ability to forge compromise and cooperation, and they point to greater inclusiveness as an additional virtue. Political parties in coalitional systems are competitive, but the prospect of governing with ones competitors after an election can moderate campaign rhetoric. Granting new or untested parties a share of executive power as junior coalition partners may likewise moderate political extremism. According to supporters of this institutional approach to democratic governance, policies emerging from multiparty coalition governments should have a better chance of societal acceptance and successful implementation because they are the products of compromise rather than the imposition of political will by a lone dominant party.

Detractors claim that coalition governments are prone to weakness and instability, and because they can blur lines of accountability their democratic credentials are sometimes called into question. Opponents also object to the possibility of governments that are little more than coalitions of losers, marked by parties and adversaries whose electoral scores have just dropped precipitously but who nonetheless join forces to cling to power and forestall their mutual demise.

SEE ALSO Elections; First-past-the-post; Government; Parliaments and Parliamentary Systems; Plurality; Winner-Take-All Society


Dodd, Lawrence C. 1976. Coalitions in Parliamentary Government. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Downs, William M. 1998. Coalition Government, Subnational Style: Multiparty Politics in Europes Regional Parliaments. Columbus: Ohio State University Press.

Mershon, Carol. 2002. Costs of Coalition. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Müller, Wolfgang C. and Kaare Strøm, eds. 2000. Coalition Governments in Western Europe. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

William M. Downs

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The term coalition encompasses a wide range of political activities and outcomes. At the most basic level, a coalition is said to exist when two or more political groups or actors agree to pursue some common objective(s), pool resources in pursuit of such common objective(s), and actively communicate during joint action to achieve such common objective(s). In contrast to the competitive, majoritarian, winner-take-all approach to politics, coalitions emphasize collaboration and group coordination. Understanding coalitions helps scholars and practitioners answer one of the immutable questions of politics: Why do avowed adversaries sometimes cooperate? If politics is largely about bargaining and compromise, then the transformation of political competitors into allies is of the utmost importance, whatever the situation, setting, or scope.

Researchers and theorists ask three classes of questions about coalitions: those concerning coalition formation, those concerning coalition maintenance, and those concerning coalition termination. Observers of coalition formation attempt to explain, and purport to predict, the outcomes and payoffs to political actors engaged in bargaining over the composition of a coalition. Much less studied but no less important is coalition maintenancethe concerns of coalition maintenance shift analysis from outcomes to processes, asking questions about communication among partners, joint decision making, policy output, and the efficacy of an alliance. A more recent scholarly concern with coalition termination seeks to identify the sources and consequences of coalition breakup.

As a basic unit of analysis in political science, coalitions are scrutinized as they occur among such actors as interest groups in society, political parties in the electorate, legislative factions in representative assemblies, and states in the international arena. There are, for example, constellations of small grassroots groups that coalesce as social coalitions to advance a shared agenda (as illustrated by the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition for advancing civil rights in the United States). There are electoral coalitions in which cooperating political parties agree to transfer voter support to one another in districts where doing so enhances the likelihood of victory (as in Frances double-ballot system for parliamentary elections). There are ad hoc legislative or voting coalitions in which members of political parties agree to join forces in support of specific policy or legislation (as in the U.S. Congress).

Perhaps most prominent in the political science literature on coalitions is the scrutiny given to power sharing or governing coalitions, in which political parties agree to collaborate in the joint distribution of cabinet posts and government ministries. Often, small minority parties located strategically in between major party blocs become kingmakers, holding disproportionate power to make or break a winning coalition. Outside the Anglo-American democracies, from Italy to Israel and Belgium to Germany, such governing coalitions are typically the norm in parliamentary systems. In international politics, strategic alliances linking two or more states in pursuit of some commonly shared objective may be referred to as coalitions (as in the case of the United States coalition of the willing designed to oust Saddam Husseins regime in Iraq). A rich body of literature seeking to develop and test coalition theories has focused on the motivations that lead political actors to pursue coalitions of different sizes (minimum-winning coalitions or oversized coalitions ), ideological complexions, and novelty.

SEE ALSO Alliances; Coalition Theory; Congress, U.S.; Cooperation; Democracy; Government, Coalition; Hussein, Saddam; Minorities; Parliaments and Parliamentary Systems; Political Parties; Politics


Baylis, Thomas A. 1989. Governing by Committee: Collegial Leadership in Advanced Societies. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Cook, Terrence E. 2002. Nested Political Coalitions: Nation, Regime, Program, Cabinet. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Groennings, Sven, E. W. Kelley, and Michael Leiserson, eds. 1970. The Study of Coalition Behavior: Theoretical Perspectives and Cases from Four Continents. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Hinckley, Barbara. 1981. Coalitions & Politics. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

William M. Downs

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co·a·li·tion / ˌkōəˈlishən/ • n. an alliance for combined action, especially a temporary alliance of political parties forming a government or of states: a coalition of conservatives and disaffected Democrats. [as adj.] a coalition government. DERIVATIVES: co·a·li·tion·ist / -nist/ n.

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the union of a mass of separate bodies; an alliance of political parties, states, or persons. See also combination, fusion, league.

Examples: coalition of interests, 1779; of parties, 1715.