19 Jan 2021 21:36 IST

The world's changing alliances are head-scratching

The global logic of strategic alliances among nations has become a matter of convenience with no depth

A nation is supposed to be a superset of the smallest element in society — the family. Leaders are human just like everyone else. Yet, a quick look at the history of the last hundred years shows that nation-States act in ways that granular families never do. Family friends fall into two broad categories. The first is based on some kind of ideology and identity — such as similarities in ethnicity, race, gender, location, language, cultural or religious beliefs, or affinity towards an organisation, such as school, college, or work. The second is based purely on transactional conveniences. If you drop my son at school, I will pick your daughter on the return.

Nations are reasonably good at maintaining alliances based on ideology and identity. The Germanic countries of Switzerland and Austria are so close culturally that they could practically be integrated into one nation without too much consequence, other than obviously hurting national pride. Most of the Arab nations in West Asia are friends with each other because religion and language hold them together. The NATO countries continue to maintain a friendly alliance bound by the conviction that freedom and human rights matter and a fragmented Europe resulted in two world wars.

But what is confounding is the way in which nations establish and maintain transactional relationships with each other, often with no deep bonds. A friend today could turn into a foe tomorrow. Or vice versa.

Friend or foe


Portrait of the late Chinese leader Mao Zedong at Tiananmen Gate in Beijing, China   -  AP


When the father of modern China, Mao Zedong, became victorious in the civil war over the Nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) Party of Song Jiaoren and Sun Yat-sen, he owed his success to unrelenting support from Russia, and later, the Soviet Union. But after World War II, Mao slowly began to sour from the alliance. During the Cold War of the next four decades, China kept a safe distance from the Soviet Union, although the two countries frequently collaborated on votes in the UN Security Council. China’s about-face is significant because it maintains a 4,200 km land border with Russia. After Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms helped launch China as an economic power, Russia and China are back to being die-hard friends.

In 1910, Japan annexed all of what is now North and South Korea, consolidating power in the region. In 1941, Japan attacked China, a country nearly ten times larger in population. This immediately brought the militias of the Chinese Communist Party and KMT together against a common enemy. America imposed a steel and oil embargo on Japan to punish the island nation's imperialist actions. Four months later, Japan responded by attacking Pearl Harbour in Hawaii, in what was then the first attack of a sovereign nation on American soil.

In retaliation in 1945, America dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki immediately bringing the war in the Pacific theatre to an end. For two countries that fought so bitterly, what followed was remarkable. America immediately befriended Japan — in part as a check against Soviet power in the region — and heavily invested in Japan’s defense. To this day, the America-Japan alliance is one of the strongest in the free world. The other Axis powers of the day — Germany and Italy — also owe their immediate post-war prosperity to American investment, and continue to maintain strong relationships with America, not only bilateral but also through NATO.

In 1953, Richard Nixon, then the US Vice President was extremely critical of China’s communist roots and Mao’s steadfast commitment to socialism. This was during a period of intense anti-Communist suspicion in America when every arm of government was mobilised to fight the ideology. Yet, nineteen years later, as President, Nixon opened up to China by shaking hands with Mao in Beijing, a moment that was unthinkable even the year before.



US President Nixon (left) shakes hands with Mao Tse Tung in an unannounced meeting in Peking on February 21, 1972   -  AP




America’s trade relationship with China flourished for the next 44 years only to be constrained by President Trump’s China policy. Now, President-elect Biden has signalled that relations with China will return to the Obama-Biden years.

Diplomatic ties

For decades, States like Bahrain, Sudan, and the UAE refused to even recognise that the State of Israel exists. Today, all countries enjoy diplomatic relationships with Jerusalem, including inter-country flights.

The following exchange in the classic BBC political satire Yes Minister (Season 1, Episode 5: The Writing on the Wall (1980)) between the wily Sir Humphrey Appleby and Minister Jim Hacker is worth repeating in the context of Brexit.


Still from Yes Minister   -  the hindu





Sir Humphrey: The [British] Civil Service was united in its desire to make sure that the Common Market didn't work. That is why we went into it.

Hacker: [shocked] What are you talking about?

Sir Humphrey: Minister, Britain has had the same foreign policy objective for at least the last five hundred years: to create a disunited Europe. In that cause, we have fought with the Dutch against the Spanish, with the Germans against the French, with the French and Italians against the Germans, and with the French against the Germans and Italians. Divide and rule, you see. Why should we change now, when it's worked so well?

Hacker: That's all ancient history, surely?

Sir Humphrey: Yes, and current policy. We 'had' to break the whole thing [the EEC] up, so we had to get inside. We tried to break it up from the outside, but that wouldn't work. Now that we're inside we can make a complete pig's breakfast of the whole thing: set the Germans against the French, the French against the Italians, the Italians against the Dutch... The Foreign Office is terribly pleased; it's just like old times.

Hacker: But surely we're all committed to the European ideal?

Sir Humphrey: [chuckles] Really, Minister.

Hacker: If not, why are we pushing for an increase in the membership?

Sir Humphrey: Well, for the same reason. It's just like the United Nations, in fact; the more members it has, the more arguments it can stir up, the more futile and impotent it becomes.

Hacker: What appalling cynicism.

Sir Humphrey: Yes... We call it diplomacy, Minister.