A summary of "Alliances: Balancing and Bandwagoning" by Stephen Walt.

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According to the article, countries often "bandwagon" or "balance" when they encounter a threat. The author defines "bandwagoning" as the process whereby one state forms an alliance with the threat (often another powerful country), while "balancing" is the process whereby two nations with the same power join forces to defeat the threat. The author also points out that states are more likely to balance if they share their borders with the threatening state. The balancing agreement usually ends after the threat has been neutralized. In bandwagoning, states that encounter an external threat to national security will often join forces with the most threatening state. However, unlike balancing, bandwagoning states will disintegrate when the threat becomes too serious. Although balancing is popular, countries will bandwagon if they don't find a close ally.

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In Stephen Walt's essay "Alliances: Balancing and Bandwagoning," he presents a framework for understanding international relations not unlike the relationships found in game theory. The nature of an alliance depends on a state's response when facing an imminent, proximate threat. It can either choose to balance, that is, to form an alliance with a nearly equal or weaker state to curb the influence of a more powerful state, or if it is a weak state itself, with no other allies available, it can choose to bandwagon, that is to align itself with the threatening state.

But the innate power of a foreign state is not the sole influence on an alliance choice; aggregate power, geographic proximity, offensive power, and the aggression level of its intentions must also taken into consideration by threatened states.

Although it might seem natural for a powerful state to choose a bandwagoning strategy when seeking to subordinate numerous client states, the implicit aggressiveness this involves is inherently volatile and potentially destabilizing. This is why, in most scenarios, balancing is most often preferred by statesmen, regardless of the power of their state; no one can be completely sure of what another will do.

In peacetime and the early stages of war, states are more likely to choose to balance, to combine their forces, to defeat their greatest threat, but they will bandwagon with the winning powers once victory seems certain. However, the choice of balancing remains the most common in international relations due to its stabilizing influence.

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What Walt is saying in this article is that states have two possible reactions when some other state becomes a danger.  They can form alliances either to A) balance the power of the "new" state or to B) "bandwagon" -- that is, to become friendly with the new danger so that it will not threaten them.

Walt says states will tend to balance against threats when

  • They themselves are relatively strong
  • When there are allies who might help them
  • During a war, especially, when the war is serious

He says that states will bandwagon when

  • They themselves are weak
  • There are few likely allies to help them against the new power.
  • In peacetime or at the start of a war
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