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International Security 27.4 (2003) 184-219

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The Political Economy of Alignment
Great Britain's Commitments to Europe, 1905-39

Kevin Narizny


Few issues cut so deeply to the core of international relations theory as the origins of diplomatic alignments. If only one of the great powers had chosen a different alliance strategy at any of several critical junctures over the past century, the course of world history might have been radically altered. Germany might have succeeded in the conquest of Europe, or it might have been deterred from hostilities altogether. Much depended on Great Britain, which avoided entangling itself in continental crises until each world war had already become inevitable. By making a stronger commitment to France in the early 1910s, or by forging a close partnership with the Soviet Union in the late 1930s, Britain might have been able to persuade German leaders that military conflict would not have been worth the risk. Given the enormous stakes of great power politics, it is of vital importance for the field of international relations to provide a compelling account of how states choose their allies and adversaries.

The academic debate over alignment has centered on two schools of thought within the realist paradigm. One view posits that states tend to balance against the most powerful actor in the system; the other asserts that states concern themselves only with specific threats to their national security. 1 Using these theories as a point of departure, many scholars have also explored second- order factors that affect great power alignments, including offense-defense balance, revisionist motives, domestic regime characteristics, and intra-alliance bargaining dynamics. 2 Such works have not directly challenged the core assumption [End Page 184] that states respond to either power or threat; instead, they have attempted to refine and develop the basic tenets of realism to gain more explanatory leverage over a wider range of cases. 3

The literature on the origins of alignment has provided many valuable insights into state behavior, but it rests on deeply problematic theoretical foundations. Its focus on power and threat is premised on the idea that states' search for strategic partnerships is motivated above all by the desire for security. This is an eminently reasonable assumption, but it is woefully incomplete. Security is not an object unto itself; it has no meaning in isolation of interests. Most obviously, states have an interest in protecting their homeland from invasion, but that may not be the only consideration influencing their alignment decisions. Unfortunately, realism has almost nothing to say about the process by which other such interests are defined. The best it can do is to try to infer from states' actions, ex post and ad hoc, what concerns other than self-preservation might have contributed to their broadly conceived "national interest."

The problem of interest definition comes sharply into focus when states are internally divided over the question of alignment. If, as realists assume, a state's optimal strategy can be derived from an objective evaluation of its abstract "national security" requirements, partisan turnover in its executive leadership should have little effect on the essential character of its foreign policy. Only if different parties hold irreconcilable views on the nature of the international system or the intrinsic value of certain goods within it should they pursue divergent alignment strategies. Realism simply lacks the conceptual tools to deal with this eventuality. Most realists would concede that "domestic politics matters," but not at the stage of interest definition. They maintain that the international system creates unique "national interests" for states, so they incorporate domestic politics only to the extent that it constrains the pursuit of such interests. Yet, partisanship is nothing like a constraint; instead, it is a fundamental disagreement over the means and ends of foreign policy. [End Page 185]

Great Britain prior to both world wars is a case in point for these theoretical issues. From 1905 to 1939, its political parties consistently took opposing positions over their country's alignments with the European great powers. In the years leading up...


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