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.
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.
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.
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.
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.