February 27, 2006

The Alliance Game 

The whole "Port Storm" is bringing to the surface another of those fundamental semantic issues. This time, it's the meaning of the term ally. Other times has been the meaning of terrorism, and I'm sure you can find more examples.

A lot of the discussion revolves around whether the United Arab Emirates are "good allies" of the USA or not - and the preponderant opinion is that the UAE aren't.
However, I think that many with this opinion are applying wrong, or at least too restrictive definition of ally.

Let's begin with taking a look at a dictionary:

To place in a friendly association, as by treaty: Italy allied itself with Germany during World War II.
To unite or connect in a personal relationship, as in friendship or marriage. v. intr.
To enter into an alliance: Several tribes allied to fend off the invaders.

n. pl. al·lies
One that is allied with another, especially by treaty: entered the war as an ally of France.
One in helpful association with another: legislators who are allies on most issues. See Synonyms at

And now let's consider the practice of alliance: allies work together for a common objective. And this objective can be just a single one, limited in space and time.

During the course of history, the most unusual associations formed under this scheme. One of the biggest, and most mismateched, was the alliance between the USA and Stalin's USSR against the Axis (an alliance itself) during World War Two.

What emerges is that alliances are formed for mainly utilitarian reasons - because you need someone else to help you against a powerful enemy. Sometimes, the motivations can be very cynical: you need an ally to bear the brunt and/or provide cannon fodder. An alliance does not need commonality of culture or worldview, and not even liking each other. And often, when the common objective is reached former allies become enemies in turn.

Of course nations with similar culture and values, and already in a friendly relationship will easily become allies - but friendship is something much deeper and rare among nations.

There is a large part of Game Theory dealing exactly with the problem of forming coalitions: I don't remember the finer details now, but the driving force is convenience. In order to enter a coalition, players must be sure (or at least be convinced) that they will be better off than playing alone. Convenience can come even as bribes and payoffs; often pure gratitude isn't a big incentive.

Alliances, especially military and geo-political ones, are thus in the realm of strict pragmatism; often it's a matter of picking the less worse option out of an array of bad ones. For example, an useful ally for a certain objective may be hostile towards a third state that is your friend or ally for a different issue. Trying to use moral principles in order to choose allies is likely to end with a useless allliance - or even a counterproductive one. Allies must first of all be useful for achieving the objective at hand; if they're also loyal and dependable it's just a bonus. Yes, it sucks; no, it cannot be changed.

The UAE are host to five US military bases - and if you look closely, you will notice that the UAE span both sides of the peninsula forming the Hormuz Strait. This means that even if the strait is blocked, military supplies can still be transported on the ground to bypass the block. This is an important logistical asset. There is no doubt that the UAE has given important logistical support to the US military in the Persian Gulf. On the other hand, the UAE have also unsavoury connections to islamist elements; have a rather authoritarian government (but still more "liberal" than Saudi Arabia) and are definitely hostile towards Israel.

And this opens another definite can of worms: the nature of the USA-Israel relation. Leaving aside the conspiracy nutcases, I think that this relation is much more utilitarian than many like to admit, especially from the Israeli side. For example Israel would benefit from selling advanced weapons and military hardware to China, but the USA is not happy at all about that.

Is hostility towards Israel a valid reason for the USA to reject potential allies? Ultimately, this discussion is for the People of the USA to have, but considered all I explained above, I would say no.

So, allies want a payoff for their commitment to the coalition. This means that screwing them over isn't a very wise move: the next time around, they may very well screw you over (by the way, that would only be another application of Games Theory: the tit-for-tat strategy) - and if this occurs often, it becomes difficult to find new subjects willing to ally. Unless they desperately need it, but relations born out of need often are dysfunctional.

I have no evidence to state that the port deal is a sort of payoff to the UAE for their services. But I can safely state that rejecting the deal for reasons that it's hard not to pass as anti-Arab/anti-Muslim would probably cause some resentment in the UAE. No, they would not become rabid jihadis overnight - they would probably be much less enthusiast when it comes to do something for the USA.

Actually this is a general criticism I can move to America: often they seem uncaring and arrogant towards allies - even if that is not true. For example, the Cermis accident: even if the tragedy was by no means voluntary, and the trial of the crew followed the procedure written in the Italy-USA relevant treaties, the story left the impression that Americans do not care about or even despise non-americans (no, this is not exactly my opinion).

If you want to know more about the DPW Port Deal, read Dennis the Peasant: he provides answers to certain pertinent questions that very few others have asked - even among those who take pride in supposedly ruthless fact-checking.


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