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  • Writer's pictureParley Policy Initiative

The Four P's of Alliance Management

Linchpin. Cornerstone. Ironclad. Unshakable. Unbreakable.

There are many terms used in today's diplomatic parlance to describe the bond between military allies, all of which are meant to reassure each other and the world of how closely aligned they are. No matter what the conditions beneath the surface may be, the outward-facing appearance must always be one of unity and alignment, lest the media and the world speculate upon a fraying of ties and a worsening of relations.

In this sense, many may assume that anything less than perfect relations would imply fissures that threaten to break apart an alliance. In that situation, every misstep and every source of tension seems critical and urgent. Indeed, this can (and has) led many policymakers down one of two treacherous paths. One path leads to frustration and fighting with the ally, and the other leads to anxiety and fawning by doling out unilateral concessions. Neither of which are helpful for maintaining a healthy relationship.

All too often, policymakers forget this fundamental truth: treaty alliances are in a constant state of tension. They are in tension because the relationship is predicated upon a formal agreement that has trade-offs in the form of rights, duties, and obligations. That tension invariably manifests itself in problems that emerge from time to time. Thus, the strength of an alliance is not in its ability to avoid those inevitable problems; rather, it comes from its ability to work through them.

The key in alliance management is being able to diagnose those problems for what they really are. The best method of doing so is by understanding the "Four P's" of alliance management: policy, process, personality, and politics.


Policy problems exist for one of three reasons. First, the security situation may evolve in ways that were not envisioned when two or more governments decided to form an alliance. For example, there may be new or emerging threats that simply did not exist when they first decided to become allies, or they may be seeking to understand how to expand the scope of their alliance relationship.

Second, there could be outdated policies that create problems in the present day. Internal circumstances within the alliance change over time, whether it is organizational restructuring, growing or waning instruments of power, establishment of security relationships with other partners, or demographic issues, to name a few. If the terms of the security relationship do not match the practical conditions within an alliance, problems could manifest.

Third, there could simply be bad policy in place. Maybe it is bad because policymakers cobbled it together haphazardly to accommodate near-term political demands. Perhaps it was just poorly designed by the alliance managers who happened to be in the room. Maybe the policy consists of too many compromises that make it ineffective or inefficient. There are any number of reasons why bad policies exist, but when they do, they can create problems in alliance management.


Process problems relate to procedures for doing things under the architecture of the alliance. It could be that the allies have a mutually agreed-upon way of doing something, and someone failed to follow those procedures. It may be that an established process is in place, but the situation is so severe that it requires close coordination to ensure that there are no deviations from that process. Finally, it could be that the allies put into place procedures that seemed like a good idea on paper but simply do not work in practice.


Personality problems emerge simply from the fact that in-between two or more big governments are human beings. Those humans bring myriad temperaments, biases, levels of training, and understanding of both the utility of relationship and the issues it faces. Personality can contribute to tension at all levels of alliance management whether it is the action officer who is trying to resolve working level issues, or a senior policymaker who is informing decisions at the highest levels.

What if somebody's goal is to elevate him or herself within a government rather than really pursuing national interests or the interests of the alliance? What if a government official simply does not know how to negotiate? What if an alliance manager has a short temper or an ill disposition towards the other ally?

All of this can introduce tension within an alliance relationship from either side and can create problems that otherwise would not exist.


Finally, there are sources of tension in alliance management based on politics. Sometimes, there will be domestic political interests that are specific to a political party, special interest group, or a particular policy audience within a country that contravene broader national or alliance interests. Perhaps an administration is trying to make sure that its preferred party wins a number of seats in an election and does not want alliance issues to influence the outcome. Maybe there has been an incident involving the allies, and one of the parties is taking action to appease its electorate or political base.

Political tension is precarious because politicians tend not to care about long-term costs; rather, the first tier on their hierarchy of needs is political survival. Another problem is that politicians will tend to demand policy or process solutions, even when the source of the problem is purely political in nature. This leads to policy compromises and/or institution of illogical processes that actually create more problems down the road.

Solving alliance problems

So, what should alliance managers do when problems arise?

The first and most important step is to diagnose the problem. All too often, alliance managers simply want to find a quick solution, so they pursue whatever they think is the best and most immediate option. However, they should take the time to define the true nature of the problem they face before trying to design solutions.

Problems in alliance management may have multiple dimensions. For example, if an allied helicopter had to make an emergency landing on an empty soccer field, it could introduce policy, process, and political dynamics. With regard to policy, the question is whether there are provisions in place for compensating any potential damages. For process, are there established procedures for securing the aircraft until it can be fixed and flown out of the field? As for politics, what is the reaction of the local populace, and how is the allied government handling that?

Once alliance managers diagnose the problem sets, they can then turn to developing solutions that align with them. For example, if there is a policy problem, they can amend existing policy or negotiate new policy with the ally. If there is a process problem, they can either work with the ally to ensure that the process is being implemented appropriately or update the process to something that works better. The solutions to those problems tend to be straightforward. That is not to say that they are easy, but they are practical in nature.

Personality and politics are different animals. The solutions are rarely straightforward and the atmosphere while working through them tends to feel elevated and urgent. In principle, there are four behaviors that are useful for addressing those problems.

The first is to train alliance managers for their roles and responsibilities specific to a particular alliance. It is a bad assumption to think that just because someone is competent in one professional field, that they will somehow be immediately capable in an alliance management role. It is an equally bad assumption to surmise that experience or understanding of one particular alliance is applicable to another–every alliance has different interests, institutions, trade-offs, policies, and processes. Thus, it is critical that all alliance managers receive at least a crash course for their respective countries or regions before taking on those responsibilities.

The second is establishing a clear understanding of interests vis-à-vis an alliance relationship. When alliance managers fully understand those interests, it is easier to exercise flexibility and determine solutions that are within the boundaries of those interests. It is also easier to isolate personality problems if an individual policymaker or alliance manager is stepping outside of those interests.

Third, alliance managers should strive for clarity, consistency, and transparency. These are the principles that make for good faith behavior in any relationship, but particularly between governments. Clarity is important in terms of being clear in one’s interests, policies, and processes. The second principle relates to consistency of interests and steady, coherent implementation of policies and procedures. Finally, transparency is important in eliminating any misinterpretation or miscalculation in alliance management and for ensuring that any public reporting on friction points actually reflects the true nature of the problem(s) at hand.

Finally, patience is key. In terms of personality problems, governments tend to rotate alliance management personnel. Given this, sometimes the answer is simply to shelve issues until there is a new counterpart sitting across the table.

The same principle applies to politics owing to a concept known as the issue attention cycle (originally conceived by Anthony Downs in 1972), illustrated in the figure below:

This concept explains how issues can rise in prominence among the public and policy circles (whether from a triggering event, media revelation, or other form of discovery), demanding attention from policymakers. Those policymakers will jump on the issue and begin trying to resolve it, but what often happens is they realize that changing the policy will incur costs in time, money, political capital, distraction from other priorities, etc. As time goes on, interest from the public and policymakers wanes, until it is no longer a problem demanding political-level attention.

How this applies to alliance management is that when a problem emerges that has political dynamics, the key is to exercise patience and deliberate coordination. Isolate and work through any policy and process problems that may exist, demonstrating clarity, consistency, and transparency in interactions with the ally. If appropriate, engage via new or existing consultation mechanisms to exchange information on interests, policies, and processes. Rebuff any attempts to manufacture a “quick-win” solution that reinforces politicized alliance management.

This will likely mean weathering a political storm, but as this article points out, another will invariably come. It is better to weather those storms in the near-term than to erode the foundation for good faith alliance management that is necessary for the long-term health and success of a security relationship.

Cable No 11_The Four P's of Alliance Management
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U.S. and Japanese officials pose during a land return ceremony in Naha, Japan, May 2018


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