When an alliance comes with strings attached

Whether forged between nations, kings, or politicians, alliances typically carry obligations. 

Jason ReedReuters/File
US President George W. Bush steps from a Ger, a felt tent, while visiting Ikh Tenger in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, in 2005.

I sat on the tarmac of the Chinggis Khaan International Airport outside of Ulaanbaatar, waiting for a plane to load and take off before mine. It contained 180 Mongolian soldiers on their way to Iraq to join George W. Bush’s “coalition of the willing” – 34 nations committing troops to support the United States’ 2003 invasion of Iraq. I was in Mongolia conducting anthropological research on Mongolians’ perceptions of democracy. 

Like several other former Soviet countries, Mongolia wanted to show its solidarity with the United States. What better way to demonstrate its desire to make America its “third neighbor” than to support President Bush’s war effort? (Mongolia is landlocked, sandwiched between the Russian Federation and China; “third neighbor” refers to Mongolia’s interest in balancing its immediate neighbors with more Western-leaning nations.)

But did Mongolia want a true alliance with the United States, or was the relationship something else entirely? 

It helps to define “alliance.” Although many people – including scholars – often call any cooperative relationship between two powers an alliance, not all alliances are the same. Nations or people in a true alliance treat each other as equals. They work together to meet a common goal – defeating or deterring an enemy, for example. 

Allies make decisions together and they deal with the consequences of their decisions together. Once its goal is reached, an alliance may dissolve. The shared goal is the nucleus of the partnership.

Of the prominent US allies in the 2003 Iraq invasion, only the United Kingdom supported the war effort until 2009, when it withdrew its troops. Australia withdrew its troops in 2003 but sent in more troops in 2005. France, Germany, and New Zealand, traditional US allies since the end of World War II, refused to participate in the war effort.

Partnerships of unequal powers are really patron-client relationships. Here, the relationship is based on a prior obligation rather than a partnership centered around a common goal. 

The patron-client relationship always starts with a gift, and we know that there is no such thing as a free gift. If someone gives us a gift, then we are obliged to give something or do something in return. The gift giver becomes the patron of the gift receiver, who becomes the client. 

In a patron-client relationship, when the patron has a goal such as winning a war or an election, he or she does not consult the client about goals or strategies. Rather, the patron may “call in his chips,” requiring the client to help meet his goals by contributing in some way.

In the 2003 “coalition of the willing,” Mongolia and most of the other participating nations were the clients of the United States. As recipients of US foreign aid, it was in their best interest to appear to be supporting the US in its war effort.

We often see patron-client relationships in politics. I saw this firsthand when I lived in Pennsylvania. There, state legislators had access to a slush fund that they could draw from to sponsor a fire house or playground in their districts. The fund was called WAM, or “walking-around money.” It enabled elected legislators to become patrons to their districts. Voters became their clients and presumably worked to get them re-elected. 

We see political patron-client political relationships operating at larger scales, too, such as in the current presidential election. We voters do not like to see our elected officials “in the pockets” of special interests, lobbies, and large donors. When we do, we assume the politicians are clients in a patron-client relationship, and we assume their obligations will cloud their impartial judgment.

A good example is some people’s concern that Hilary Clinton’s ties to the Clinton Foundation and its acceptance of large donations while she is running for elected office. When Donald Trump claimed that he used his own money to finance his primary campaign, he was really declaring, to the chagrin of his party leadership, that he was not to be part of Washington’s massive network of intertwining patron-client relationships. 

Alliances and patron-client relationships are not new, of course. They’ve been a feature of human civilization for millennia, at least, and presumably these relationships have been critical in the formation of new political configurations, social institutions, and nation-states since the earliest state-like human societies.

The critical difference between alliances of equals and patron-client relationships became evident to me as I explored the roles of kings in newly emergent states. 

The research was part of a Santa Fe Institute project, supported by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation, that is looking anew at the beginnings of state organization all over the world —from Mesopotamia and Egypt to China, Hawai’i, Mesoamerica, and South America. 

In all eight places, territories were ruled by kings (or sometimes queens) who were believed to be inspired by divinity. Commoners in these societies farmed or made crafts, while a ruling elite managed their coordination and fought wars. 

Surprisingly, such state-level organization arose independently in several societies around the world. Because these traditions had no contact with each other, we know they developed their state-formation patterns independently. 

The Institute’s project sought the common patterns in these seemingly separate emergent societies. My part of this research was to figure out how rulers reduced their risk of losing wars. By comparing rulers’ actions in traditional states, I found that both alliances and patron-client relations played important roles at least as far back as the beginnings of these eight states. 

I also found that warfare was “built into” the political patterns of all the states. Rulers were expected to be warriors and military leaders who could expand or at least protect their existing territories. Sometimes, these rulers formed true alliances and fought together against a common enemy. In these cases they strategized together and divided up the spoils of war.

In 1428, the rulers of three Aztec towns – now part of Mexico City – formed a Triple Alliance. Together they conquered the Basin of Mexico. They divided it into three separate kingdoms but continued to work together to subdue smaller kingdoms, capture people for human sacrifice, demand tribute, and control trade routes. Once these goals were achieved, the alliance disintegrated; by the time the Spanish arrived in 1519, one of the partners, Tenochtitlan, had dominated its former allies and ruled the territory from the Pacific to the Atlantic.

But most rulers did not form true alliances, or partnerships of equals. Instead, those with greater military might turned the conquered rulers into clients. They often gave lavish gifts to secure the new patron-client relationship.

The greatest gift a conquering ruler could offer to secure a client’s loyalty was his sister or daughter in marriage, and we have evidence that six of the eight early states in our study did this. These royal women carried the royal blood of the conqueror, thought to be superior to the royal blood of the conquered. By mingling superior blood with his own, the client ruler raised the prestige of his heirs, and so his line — his dynasty — could rise in rank in the region.

Of course, gifting a daughter or sister not only signaled the conquering ruler’s superiority, it also had the advantage of turning the conquered into long-term clients, at least as long as the marriage lasted. Trying to avoid client status, four of the societies (Egypt, Hawai'i, Aztec and Inca) eventually opted for royal incest.

Sometimes client rulers wanted to break away from their patrons. They signaled this desire by abusing or trumping up charges against their royal wives so that they could legitimately execute them. Two client rulers of the Aztec refused to accept primary wives from their patron but married each other’s daughters instead. In a true alliance, the brothers-in-law waged war against their superior.

Client rulers knew that they owed their patrons a great debt. When the time was right, patrons demanded military support – warriors, troops, and sometimes provisions – from their clients. Although we find patron-client relations in all the traditional states, we do not know when they first emerged. We do know they have persisted from one form of state organization to another. 

Why would they persist, especially in situations of war? The simple answer is that they work. To win a war, it helps to have three things: more troops than the enemy, intelligence about the enemy’s plans, and superior technology. Alliance-building and patron-client relations helped leaders amass more troops and often learn about the enemy’s plans – and this true whether a society is pre-industrial, industrial, or post-industrial. 

Politics in a democracy may be seen as a kind of war, although it is designed to be bloodless. There are winners and losers. Leaders build strategies for defeating the opposition. They ally themselves with equals, become patrons to constituents or lower-level candidates, and obligate themselves as clients to donors. But in the long run, the number of “troops” – the relative number of voters who actually vote – determines the winner.  

Paula Sabloff is a political anthropologist and an external professor at the Santa Fe Institute. She is applying statistical and network analysis to eight archaeological databases to compare the emergence of traditional states around the world and to understand modern Mongolians’ changing ideas of democracy and capitalism as they abandon socialism  the central theme of a book and a series of papers she has authored. She holds a PhD and MA from Brandeis University and a BA from Vassar College.

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