U.S. Influence Over Its Allies’ Behavior

There is nothing worse than group projects. Seriously, I hate them. Without fail, someone in the group will always shirk their responsibilities and leave the more dedicated students to do most of the heavy lifting. They free-ride off of people like me because they know I will pick up their slack and that I have very little leverage against them to prevent it.

The free-rider problem certainly isn’t new nor is it limited to group projects. It is pervasive in the international system; where there are alliances, there is free-riding. This is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which has been plagued by the collective action problem for decades. Most recently in 2011, only 8 of the 28 alliance members elected to contribute to the establishment of a no-fly zone over Libya. In his final address to NATO, former US Secretary of Defense Robert Gibbs harshly rebuked our allies for failing to contribute their fair share. He acknowledged that this would have to change if NATO is to survive.

Last year, I had to do a group project (ugh!) for a political science class where we analyzed the NATO intervention in Libya and I was intrigued by the strategic dynamics at play. Many NATO members were huge beneficiaries of Libyan oil but refused to contribute to the military effort, knowing that it would occur regardless of their support. As Robert Gibbs commented, this cannot bode well for the long-term future of the alliance. But what is the United States doing about it?

How does the United States influence its allies’ behavior? Do the President and Congress attempt to compel allies into cooperation with economic incentives or punishments? I will attempt to answer these questions by determining to what extent the United States alters foreign aid and bilateral trade to NATO alliance members following military interventions. It would seem that United States leaders should want to reward cooperative behavior and punish free-riding, but strategic considerations may sometimes override concerns over burden sharing. Understanding how the President and Congress promote alliance cohesion will help determine what methods are the most successful in exacting cooperative behavior from allies.

Scott Hiers



About scotthiers

Political science major at the University of North Carolina.
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4 Responses to U.S. Influence Over Its Allies’ Behavior

  1. chanpeterkim says:

    Hi Scott,

    Great topic. You obviously don’t like group projects, and you made an interesting connection to states!

    I would be careful with the underlying assumption of your paper that NATO states who have demonstrated a lack of cooperation have done so simply because they thought others would pick up the slack. There might be other factors at play, perhaps a desire to avoid bilateral tensions or not having financial resources to participate in a group effort. In your paper, be sure to defend the prevalence and influence of this “group mentality” in the “slacker” states.


    • scotthiers says:

      Hey Peter, thanks for the feedback–and I largely agree with your advice. I think for the purposes of this study, the reasons for not participating in an intervention (or contributing minimally) are of little concern. Economic incentives can push a state toward cooperation or against it. Certainly not all states that choose to free ride do so with malicious intentions. My underlying assumption lies in that the US, and NATO in general, has incomplete information about the motivations of member-states. But I would love to talk about this more at the conference. See you there!

  2. Hi Scott—this sounds like a great topic! One of my personal interests is the study of power and influence, so I’ll be especially keen to hear how you answer, “How does the United States influence its allies’ behavior?” Have you read any work on that subject before?

    Good luck on your research…and Go Heels!

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