In the discipline of International Relations, the term “bandwagoning” is used to describe the act of a weak State that joins a stronger party to gain protection and advantages (Schroeder, 1994, p. 117), believing it is not strategic to oppose the threatening neighbour due to its military capabilities (Mearsheimer, 2001, p. 163).
In this article, the phenomenon of bandwagoning will be first described in its causes and consequences. Then it will be addressed the scholars’ debate over whether it is a behaviour adopted only by weak States or, on the contrary, even by medium-sized and Great Powers, providing relevant examples and insights on whether bandwagoning is or is not the norm in international politics.
According to Stephen Walt (professor of IR at Harvard University), a State’s reason to bandwagon can either be an offensive or a defensive one. The former envisages sharing the spoils of victory in a military conflict, which will be divided unequally, due to the difference in capabilities between the bandwagoner and its “allied” Power. The latter aims to seek appeasement and avoid an attack (Walt, 1985, p. 8).
It is also relevant to point out that States tend to bandwagon not necessarily towards the most powerful State, but towards the most threatening one.
Bandwagoning is a costly solution, as it entails the bandwagoner sacrificing some degree of independence to the stronger state, by whose mercy will depend the survival of the former (Mearsheimer, 2001, p. 163). Therefore, according to several Realist Theory scholars, bandwagoning is rare in international politics. States will almost always prefer balancing against a rising threat rather than bandwagon with it, to avoid sacrificing their freedom and to maintain the balance of power among them. Indeed, bandwagoning would decrease dramatically every State’s chance of survival against stronger powers (Clementi, 2017, p. 129). For this reason, Great Powers join the weaker side in a dispute or war more often than the stronger one (Waltz, 1979, p. 126).
This reasoning implies that only the weak States bandwagon. However, as it will be shown in this article, this is not always the case.
It is indeed true that most bandwagoner States in modern and recent history were minor Powers. John Mearsheimer (professor of IR at the University of Chicago) and Walt explain this as the only way to survive when they are isolated diplomatically and not able to be strong enough to defend themselves (Mearsheimer, 2001, p. 163; Walt, 1985, p. 16).
There are countless examples of such behaviour. For instance, in the Great Northern War (1700-1721), as the fortunes of war were reversed after the Swedish defeat at Poltava in 1709, neighbouring weaker states (like the Kingdom of Denmark-Norway, the Kingdom of Prussia and the Electorates of Hanover and Saxony) bandwagoned towards Tsarist Russia. They perceived it as the new regional hegemon and attempted to gain their own share of the Swedish empire (Schroeder, 1994, p. 123).
Another clear example are the minor European States involved in the First World War: Bulgaria bandwagoned towards the Central Powers after early successes in the Balkans, while Romania, Portugal, Greece, and other States in the rest of the world joined the Allies in the last years of the war. Even if geographically very distant from the conflict (take for instance the participation of Brazil, Siam, and the Republic of China), these minor States aimed to gain from seating at the winner’s table.
In addition, let us consider State behaviour before and during the Second World War. In the second half of the 1930s, several European States such as Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Norway declared neutrality and renounced to make efforts to defend themselves against an increasingly expansionist Third Reich. Hungary and Poland joined Hitler in the partition of Czechoslovakia following the Munich Agreement (1938). Romania, Hungary, and Bulgaria joined the Axis during WWII. Many neutral States in Europe (like Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland) leaned towards Berlin until the tides of the war turned in the 1940s (Schroeder, 1994, p. 123).
On the other hand, there had been several cases of bandwagoner medium-sized and Great Powers in modern and contemporary history. For instance, between 1865 and 1875, a period which Schroeder defines as “Britain’s Unipolar Moment” (Schroeder, 1994, p. 123), several Great Powers in Europe bandwagoned towards London through partnership and alliances. In addition, during WWI, Italy and Japan bandwagoned with the Allies to obtain territorial gains after identifying them as the stronger side, even though they effectively were or behaved as Great Powers of the time.
Moreover, Chamberlain’s United Kingdom was certainly not balancing the threatening German Reich through its appeasement policy, and neither was the non-aggression Molotv-Ribbentrop Pact established in 1939 between Berlin and the Soviet Union, but rather they were both accommodating Hitler to avoid war (Schroeder, 1994, p. 123).
Furthermore, one of the most recent examples of bandwagoning is the Western Bloc during the Cold War. Indeed, in the wake of WWII, European élites were more concerned with preventing the rise of communist parties to power than with the external balance of power. Thus, Western Europe bandwagoned towards the United States to gain protection from the Soviet Union and American economic aid, which helped consolidate their internal political situation (Layne, 2006, p. 23; Walt, 1985, p. 36).
Finally, it is relevant to remember that Great Powers consider their allies’ bandwagoning as harmful to their own international position, and this signals that the said potential bandwagoners are not irrelevant players in international relations. For instance, in the years before WWI, Alfred Tirpitz (German Secretary of State of the Imperial Navy) believed that the UK could have been convinced to maintain neutrality or to join the Reich in case of conflict through the development of the German Navy (Walt, 1985, p. 6). A more recent example of this thesis is the shared belief of US Presidents John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Ronald Reagan and of US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. They believed that, should Washington show a lack of will or strength to maintain its role of reference of power internationally, it would soon lose its strategic allies worldwide, which would bandwagon towards the threats they aimed to avoid through their allegiance to Washington (Walt, 1985, p. 6).
In conclusion, there is wide academic debate on the exceptionality of bandwagoning as an International Relations phenomenon, and on which kind of actors most frequently adopt such behaviour.
However, the examples analysed in this article seem to suggest empirically that bandwagoning occurs in international politics more frequently than it is believed and, most importantly, is adopted not only by minor Powers but even by middle-size or Great Powers occasionally, whenever such strategy is more cynically convenient according to their own national interest.
Clementi, M. (2017). Kenneth Waltz: Anarchy and International Politics. In F. Andreatta, Classic Works in International Relations (pp. 123-135). Il Mulino.
Layne, C. (2006). The Unipolar Illusion Revisited. International Security, Vol.31, No. 2, 7-41.
Levy, J., & Thompson, W. (2005). Hegemonic Threats and Great-Power Balancing in Europe, 1495-1999. Security Studies, 1-33.
Mearsheimer, J. (2001). The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company.
Schroeder, P. (1994). Historical Reality vs. Neo-Realist Theory. International Security, Vol. 19, No. 1, 108-148.
Walt, S. (1985). Alliance Formation and the Balance of World Power. International Secuirty, Vol. 9 No 4., 3-43.
Waltz, K. (1979). Theory of International Politics. Reading, Massachussets: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.