What the Past Reveals


Peter R. Mansoor and Williamson Murray


Cambridge University Press, 2016


per Concordiam Staff

Seven precarious coalitions battled French attempts to dominate Europe in the Napoleonic wars. Only the last one ultimately prevailed at Waterloo to send the emperor into permanent exile and restore peace to the continent. That peace lasted nearly a century. The alliance itself, having achieved its primary aim, dissolved almost immediately.

The reason there had been six previous coalitions is that various nations had joined for strategic purposes. When those had been secured, they departed the coalition, or, in some instances, Napoleon defeated them and forced them into alliance with France. In those circumstances, the remaining coalition’s attempts to permanently defeat Napoleon stalled. Such is the way of most military alliances. Historically, they serve an immediate purpose to combat a credible and pending threat. Once the threat is removed, the armies disperse. Two Western democracies — the United States and United Kingdom — united with the totalitarian communist Soviet Union to battle the fascist powers of Nazi Germany, Italy and Japan in World War II. Once the Axis powers surrendered, members of the Allied coalition of necessity went their separate ways. In contrast, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization alliance of the U.S., Canada and many European nations has survived and succeeded for an unprecedented 70 years, even following the implosion of its chief adversary, the Soviet Union.

In Grand Strategy and Military Alliances, authors Peter R. Mansoor and Williamson Murray pull together leading historians to examine military alliances throughout history to establish parallels and discontinuities that are applicable to the present-day NATO alliance and to ad hoc “coalitions of the willing.”

Their premise is that today especially, alliance and coalition are essential requirements for a great power to achieve its strategic goals. The intent of this collection is to show the crucial importance that alliances and coalitions have played in the conduct of strategy in peace and in war over the centuries. In doing so, Mansoor and Murray seek to overcome what they see as the arrogance of, for example, American leaders who have at times in the past 30 years casually dismissed the importance of alliances, other than as “convenient political window dressing for American aims.” An alliance such as NATO has endured for 70 years because all members respect each other and contribute as best they can to the collective defense — an uncoerced coalition of the willing.

Mansoor’s and Murray’s collection notes the many alliances and coalitions that have succeeded, but their writers also discuss some that have failed magnificently, such as the German-Austrian “alliance” of World War I, and the Axis of Germany-Italy-Japan in World War II. Some alliances were interstate groupings formally constituted by treaty while some of the coalitions represented more informal groupings, brought together by common interest. They summarize that some consisted “of the willing, the more-or-less willing, and the not so willing.” These degrees of commitment matter less than an agreed strategy to stay together until a common enemy is destroyed.

In the coalitions against France, and then Napoleon, individual members participated for different aims, usually territorial. Some members did not see a necessity in defeating Napoleon for all time. Mansoor and Murray explicate that alliances are more likely to succeed the more closely their aims align. By the time of the seventh coalition, defeating Napoleon for all time had united the alliance members in a go-for-broke grand strategy. And that coalition succeeded where the previous six had failed.

Readers will discover that transparency and unity of command are key elements to successful alliances. The Allied powers in World War II worked tirelessly to ensure this in their respective theaters. Allied strategy sought to exploit the two fronts Germany faced in order to place the enemy in a vice grip. In contrast, the Axis powers did not unite and take military actions together for strategic aims. Germany surprised Japan with its invasion of Russia, while Japan surprised Germany with its attack on Pearl Harbor. They did not coordinate their operations to support the other in any meaningful way. And the Germans sometimes had to bail out Italy from misadventures not previously coordinated with Berlin.

This volume competently and comprehensively explores a variety of alliances, at least from a European perspective. These include the so-called Anglo-American way of war; the Anglo-Prussian alliance and the Seven Years’ War; the Franco-British military alliance during World War I; the Grand Alliance of World War II; and NATO adapting to survive in the Cold War.

Contributors also examine the political and military challenges of coalition warfare, starting with the Peloponnesian War and Sparta’s strategic alliances, and moving to the now obscure Anglo-Burgundian alliance and grand strategy in the Hundred Years’ War. A review of the Franco-American alliance tests the merits of the argument that the Americans could not have secured independence from Great Britain without France’s aid. Another essay disputes the practical utility to either country of the German-Austrian alliance in World War I. The most recent alliance reviewed is that of the 1990-1991 Persian Gulf War against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which is dubbed a “coalition of convenience in a changing world.”

This volume presents many important takeaways, the most important of which is that coalition warfare is hard. National interests often must be subsumed to keep squabbles at bay in diverse alliances. Lead nations must weigh competing cultures, resources and policies for all coalition members, Mansoor and Murray argue. In its alliances to fight global terrorism, the U.S., for instance, learned it needed greater sensitivity when operating with coalition partners who brought with them national caveats and differing means to operate, train and employ tactics. The authors write that the U.S. military performed poorly with allies because its post-Cold War professional education did not stress sufficiently the importance of alliance and training opportunities with potential allies. Part of this resided with seeking “partners as much to lend international political legitimacy to these ventures as it did to strengthen the coalitions in a military sense.”

Mansoor and Murray stress that “Alliances are stronger when allies need each other, either to stave off defeat or to secure victory. Alliances that include countries as mere political window dressing will invariably be weak creations of major powers with hesitant buy-in from reluctant allies.” In turn, “the creation of effective alliances among unequal powers is possible, but the most powerful alliance member needs to be willing to accommodate the interests of the smaller powers to ensure alliance harmony.”

One must appreciate why such cooperation is essential, whether to formal coalitions or to those that do not exist today, but may in the future, to address a pressing security challenge: Coalition management engages in friction, and friction is inherent in coalitions and alliances going back to the ancient world. The more opportunity to work out differences in peace, the greater opportunity to reduce friction in war.

The authors remind readers that alliance management occurs on three levels: political, military and technical. Of these, the political basis is the most important. The political goals underpinning alliances — whether defense against shared threats, a collective attempt to balance other powers, a mutual desire to conquer, the maintenance of the existing economic and security order, or other objectives — trump all other factors in determining their durability. In recent years, NATO has cooperated in peacekeeping, counterinsurgency and compliance operations. The Alliance has held together throughout, but what has given NATO a more urgent sense of purpose is Russian aggression in Central Asia and hybrid warfare and spoiler activities in Eastern Europe. Countering Russian actions requires political cohesion, and NATO has returned to its principles of active defense in response.

The case studies show that alliances that do not work in peacetime will perform no better (and probably worse) in wartime, when pressure on policymakers and military leaders increases by an order of magnitude. By contrast, leaders who take the time to understand the political and military cultures of allied nations will be most effective in fashioning a cohesive bond among them. “Relationships based on blood, friendship, honor and professional respect can help to smooth relations among allies,” Mansoor and Murray write. In an era when no nation can go it alone in a great military undertaking of any enduring consequence and purpose, these are lessons nations would do well to learn and embrace.  

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