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Alliances vs. Partnerships

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Alliance, partnership, partnership, alliance. It seems like those terms are used interchangeably by Defense Department officials in every other speech. However, those officials are choosing their words carefully, because in the world of international relations, alliances and partnerships are two very different things. 


Alliances are formal agreements between two or more nations. In national defense, they're promises that each nation will support the other, particularly during war.

Soldiers drag a casualty training dummy away from a containerized building during training.
Medical Course
From left, a U.S. soldier and two North Macedonia army soldiers evacuate a simulated casualty during a 7th Army Combined Arms Training Center combat lifesaver course in Vilseck, Germany, June 15, 2018. Students in this course learn to provide immediate medical care on a widely dispersed battlefield for patients awaiting further medical treatment and evacuation.
Photo By: Gertrud Zach, Army
VIRIN: 180615-A-HE539-0152C
Soldiers jumping out of aircraft
CALFEX Begins with Philippine HALO Jumps
Philippine army special forces soldiers conduct a high altitude low opening jump from a U.S. Marine Corps KC-130J Hercules during a combined arms live-fire exercise for Balikatan 2014 at Crow Valley, Philippines, May 15, 2014. 2018 marked the 34th iteration of the annual bilateral training exercise. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Allison DeVries.
Photo By: Marine photo
VIRIN: 140515-M-MN153-011

Some examples of alliances that the U.S. is in include NATO — the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (with 28 other countries), NORAD — the North American Aerospace Defense Command (with Canada), ANZUS — the Australia, New Zealand and U.S. Security Treaty, and the Moroccan-American Treaty of Friendship — which is America's oldest unbroken treaty. 

Treaties are the documents that seal the deal on alliances, so sometimes you might hear the term "treaty ally." Things like international boundaries, trade rules, human rights and even postal arrangements can also be set by treaties.

Three specialists come ashore from boat.
Icelandic Coast Guard exercise
Polish Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) specialists come ashore with the help of the Icelandic Coast Guard during exercise Northern Challenge 2017. The exercise Northern Challenge is a multinational Bomb Disposal Exercise which takes place at the Icelandic Coast Guard facility in Keflavik, Iceland.
Photo By: NATO
VIRIN: 171013-O-ZZ999-009
A group of Marines and Ugandan soldiers perform a water test
A U.S. Marine and Ugandan soldiers test water alkalinity during a water purification exercise in Jinja, Uganda, Dec. 5, 2017. The Marine is assigned to Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Crisis Response-Africa, which was deployed to conduct limited crisis-response and theater-security operations in Europe and Africa. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Patrick Osino.
Photo By: Lance Cpl. Patrick Osino
VIRIN: 171205-M-AS512-0111

Some treaties make room for alliances to grow. For example, the Atlantic Treaty, which founded NATO, says that membership is open to any "European state in a position to further the principles of this treaty and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area."

And in fact, the newly named nation of North Macedonia is well on its way to doing just that. The formal approval protocol is awaiting signatures from the 29 nations in NATO, a process that’s expected to wrap up by the end of this year or early next year.


Partnerships are less formal than alliances. Often called "strategic partnerships," they help build relationships between nations or organizations like militaries. Like alliances, they benefit the members of the partnership, but they can be short-term and don't involve a treaty.

Just because a country is an ally doesn't mean they can't also be a partner on things that aren't covered by an existing treaty.

Guardsmen and Ghanaian troops gather to saw wood.
US National Guard and Ghana Armed Forces
North Dakota Army National Guardsmen and Ghanaian troops assemble structures at the Bundase Training Camp in Ghana, July 20, 2018, as part of the United Accord exercise. North Dakota has been partnered with Ghana since 2004 as part of the State Partnership Program. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Brandon Ames.
Photo By: Army photo
VIRIN: 180720-Z-HD557-011

One way the DOD uses partnerships is in military-to-military exchanges. For example, the State Partnership Program puts National Guard units together with foreign militaries or the equivalent in partner countries to learn from each other and build cooperative, mutually beneficial relationships.

These "information exchanges" also include cultural experiences and infrastructure improvement projects. Right now, there are 76 partnerships in the program, and it has grown by about two to three countries each year.

Romanian navy member points weapon during drill
Romanian navy
A member of a Romanian navy boarding team takes aim during weapons drills on the rear deck of the Romanian frigate Regele Ferdinand in the Black Sea during manoeuvres with Standing NATO Maritime Group 2 (SNMG2)
Photo By: NATO TV
VIRIN: 180220-O-ZZ999-003
U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Jason Heinl, right, explains a communication device to a Philippine service member during Pacific Partnership 2015 in Capiz, Philippines, July 29, 2015. Pacific Partnership, in its tenth iteration, is the largest annual multilateral humanitarian assistance and disaster relief preparedness mission conducted in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.
U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Jason Heinl, right, explains a communication device to a Philippine service member during Pacific Partnership 2015 in Capiz, Philippines, July 29, 2015. Pacific Partnership, in its tenth iteration, is the largest annual multilateral humanitarian assistance and disaster relief preparedness mission conducted in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.
Photo By: DOD photo
VIRIN: 248980-L-MOU02-381

Another kind of partnership is Pacific Partnership. Every year during Pacific Partnership, the Navy sends out ships — including, usually, one of its two hospital ships, the USNS Comfort or the USNS Mercy — to visit countries in the Indo-Pacific region, like Bangladesh, Indonesia and Tonga.

While the ships are in port, sailors and civilians offer medical care to area residents and conduct civil engineering projects — like building or repairing schools and hospitals. The mission has grown a lot since it started in 2006, and now includes troops, civilian professionals and ships from several partnering nations.

Sailors paint a mural on a wall.
Mural Motif
Navy Lt. Sarah Louk paints a mural on the wall of the pediatric ward aboard the USNS Comfort, underway in the Caribbean Sea, Nov. 13, 2018. The Comfort is on an 11-week medical support mission to Central and South America.
Photo By: Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Kris R. Lindstrom
VIRIN: 181113-N-GN619-1045C
A sailor pushes a wheelchair and walks with a person to a ship.
Comfort Help
A sailor escorts patients to receive care aboard the Military Sealift Command hospital ship USNS Comfort in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Oct. 28, 2017. Comfort is moored pier side in San Juan, Puerto Rico, to provide humanitarian relief. Navy photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Ernest R. Scott
Photo By: Petty Officer 1st Class Ernest S
VIRIN: 171028-N-ZN152-0046C

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