Despite the problems with alliances, Realists have often used them to try to reduce wars. For instance, after the enormously disruptive and destructive Napoleonic wars, the great powers of Europe formed the Concert of Europe in 1815. They contained but did not attempt to destroy France, restored and helped each other maintain the monarchical system, and tried to maintain peace by collective security and negotiating their various interests and disputes in regular meetings. The only armed conflict among the major powers during 99 years was the Crimean War between Britain and Russia. However, the rise of Germany in the late 1800s and early 1900s unraveled the balance of power that was the basis of the system and led to WWI and WWII.
Another Important Alliance - NATO
Today, NATO is by far the most powerful and important military alliance in the world. It was originally set up in 1948 to defend Western Europe against the USSR when the Cold War began after WWII. After the Cold War ended, the Eastern European countries who had previously been under Russian rule got the Clinton and Bush 2 administrations to expand NATO to protect them. NATO now includes most of the countries in Eastern Europe, and the Bush 2 administration even wanted to invite the Ukraine and Belarus, which border on Russia.
The Russians have been very unhappy with this, seeing Eastern Europe as their traditional buffer zone and area of influence (“The Near Abroad”) and saying that this violated a 1990 agreement between Bush 1 and Mikhail Gorbachev that the U.S. would not expand NATO. NATO invited Russia to participate in security decisions, but Russia refused and their dissatisfaction with the situation remains. When the leader of the neighboring country of Georgia defied them, they attacked and split off parts of Georgia’s territory. To the Russians, the ultimate provocation was talking about bringing Ukraine, where the Russian empire began and which they consider part of Russia, into the EU and NATO. They took over Crimea and are using their special forces and local militias to occupy Russian-speaking areas of Eastern Ukraine.
Russia has also used economic leverage. They twice increased the price of the natural gas flowing through its East European pipelines, sometimes even cutting off the flow entirely, and used oil and gas money to buy up media companies, electricity producers and other major corporations in neighboring countries. They also imposed trade sanctions on Belarus, Ukraine and Georgia at various times and built pipelines that bypassed Ukraine.
Meanwhile, during the reduction of the Soviet military threat to Western Europe, NATO members redefined its mission to include new challenges such as humanitarian missions and defense against terrorism So, NATO used military force against Serbian aggression in Yugoslavia and against the Taliban in Afghanistan. NATO also took a leading role in the overthrow of Libya’s Ghaddafi. Now that the Russia threat is back, NATO is focusing on protecting bordering countries like Poland, the Baltic countries and the Balkans with rotating missions and training.