Chain ganging

Chain ganging

Chain ganging is a jargon term in the field of international relations describing the elevated probability for inter-state conflict or conflagration due to several countries having joined together in alliances or coalitions. The agreed principles of such alliances typically include mutual-defence clauses requiring that, in the case of one member state suffering military attack from another power, all members must declare hostilities against that offending power. The result of such an arrangement is an elevated probability for an international conflagration, since the case of an actor attacking another power would almost certainly trigger--whether intentionally or not--a multinational conflict involving (potentially) infinitely more actors than the original two states which had attacked and been attacked, respectively. An additional feature aggravating the situation that exists when countries chain-gang is that no member state--at least according to sworn agreement or treaty--has the option to refuse to participate in this involvement: once the states have agreed to the alliance, they are bound by obligation to join in the hostilities or conflagration as soon as they have begun in one state.

Historical examples

An empirical example of the chain-ganging dilemma is World War I. Familiarity with the European allieances of the time considered, Germany and Austria-Hungary were codependent apart from the rest of the continent. When Italy decided to part from the Triple Alliance, both Austria-Hungary and Germany were alone, for the most part, in Europe and surrounded by the Allied Powers. The defeat of either of the two would severely weaken the remaining member. "The defeat of defection of a major ally would have shaken the balance, each state was constrained to adjust its strategy and the use of its forces to the aims and fears of its partners.


The term is a metaphor deriving from chain gangs, groups of people--usually prisoners or slaves--bound together with chains or other devices as they work or march. Like a real-life chain gang, the states joined together in a chain-gang, according to bound obligation, have no option to refuse to follow along with the intent of the others. However, in reality, the members of a chain-gang coalition can and sometimes do choose to refuse to acquiese, in which case they may face international ostracism (at least from the other members of their former alliance), and possibly courtship on the part of rival coalitions. This is because, typically, few punitive actions exists in the realm of international law that can sufficiently compel a power to follow its obligations at all costs, and therefore, the incentives to breaking ranks cane sometimes be rather high, especially when the state does not agree with the actions taken by the other members of its coalition.

See also


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