Review of International Studies

Research Article

‘Alignment’, not ‘alliance’ – the shifting paradigm of international security cooperation: toward a conceptual taxonomy of alignment



This article provides a working taxonomy of the concept of ‘alignment’ in the discipline of International Relations (IR); a heretofore major deficiency in the otherwise abundant literature on alliance/alignment. It further contends that the label ‘alliance’ is commonly employed reflexively and unreflectively, where in fact the term ‘alignment’ would be a superior and more accurate descriptor. This contention is buttressed by empirical developments in international politics. The article makes the case that the contemporary security environment is characterised by multiple forms of ‘alignment’, not just alliances, in their many guises. In addition, we can identify ‘coalitions’, ‘security communities’, and ‘strategic partnerships’; all distinctly different from the conventional ‘alliance’ archetype. It concludes that a change in our thinking about defining and conceptualising alignment and alliance is required to bring disciplinary work closer in line with the paradigmatic shift that is occurring in contemporary international politics.

(Online publication May 12 2011)

Thomas S. Wilkins is a Lecturer in International Security at the University of Sydney (Centre for International Security Studies). He specialises in the study of alliances and coalitions, and the security architecture of the Asia-Pacific Region. Of interest to readers of this article are the following publications: ‘Japanese Alliance Diversification: A Comparative Analysis of the Indian and Australian Strategic Partnerships’, International Relations of the Asia-Pacific, 11:1 (January 2011); ‘The Russo-Chinese Strategic Partnership: A New Form of Security Cooperation?’, Contemporary Security Policy, 29:2 (August 2008) and ‘Analyzing Coalition Warfare from an Intra-Alliance Politics Perspective: The Normandy Campaign 1944’, Journal of Strategic Studies, 29:6 (December 2006).

* The author would like to thank Dr Hiroshi Katsumata, Professor Alan Dupont and Professor Peter Curson for comments on earlier drafts; also Research Assistant Dr Minako Ichikawa-Smart, and Interns Ania Dziubdziela, Beatriz Haro-Martinez, and Julia Lee for their administrative support. I would also like to extend my gratitude to the anonymous reviewers of RIS.