Security Studies Program Seminar

Wedge Strategies in Balance of Power Politics

Timothy Crawford
Assistant Professor, Boston College

11 April 2007


Questions Motivating Inquiry:

How do I know a wedge strategy in action when I see it?

There's lots of advice out there telling you to split alliances, but what else does IR theory tell us?


Arguably one of the preludes to the 2003 Iraq War was Saddam Hussein's ability to breakup the 1991 Coalition and thus presage a failure of deterrence.

Equally, how might China fracture US alliances in Asia?


  1. Form a heuristic – we should be looking for wedges
  2. Develop the concept
  3. Links to larger patterns of IR
  4. Conducive conditions
  5. Trade-offs and perverse consequences

Main Points:

DEFINITION – A wedge strategy seeks to divide opposing alliances, or to prevent them from forming; the content of a wedge strategy should involve a “biased accommodation,” i.e. skewing of promises/rewards to encourage one opposing party to defect.

Notably, they are not 1) confronting adversaries with uniform pressure (that constitutes “toughness” or “bullying”), 2) alignment change via regime change in one of the opponents (that's subversion), or 3) military defeating adversaries in sequence.

An offensive wedge strategy is where a revisionist state tries to split two status quo powers from each other to make cheap gains, while a defensive wedge strategy is employed by a status quo power to fracture a revisionist alliance to focus capabilities on the more threatening challenger.

Ways to Classify Wedge Strategies:

Positive vs. Negative Alignment Goals = recruit vs. neutralize states

Preventive vs. Reactive = prevent opposing coalition formation vs. undermine existing coalition

You thus get a typology of wedge strategies:

Neutrality Reinforcing Strategy (Preventive + Negative) = prevent threatening alliances from forming by increasing incentives for potential adversaries to stay on the sidelines

De-Alignment Strategy (Reactive and Negative) = convert an existing adversary into a neutral

Realignment (Reactive + Positive) = take an adversary's ally, cause it to defect, bring it onto your own side, and now you BOTH stand against the adversary

Preclusive (Preventive + Positive) = convert a neutral into an ally

Conducive Conditions/Wedge Issues:

  1. Ideological Antinomy
  2. Intra-ideological Competition
  3. Endogenous Revisionist Aims
  4. Centrifugal Economic Vulnerabilities
    -- They may be latent in relationships
    -- We still need to develop a rubric by which to understand the interactive effects and how they create opportunities for exploitation
    --It is clear, though, that conceptions of identity create such cleavages that you can play countries off one another by exploiting said fissures

Tradeoffs and Perverse Consequences

  1. Ideological Inconsistency
  2. Inconvenient Allies
  3. Cohesive Outbidding
    --The awareness that there is an outside bidder can cause existing parties to strike new bargains to solidify the relationship
  4. Divisive Outbidding


Rapporteur: Joshua R. Itzkowitz Shifrinson

back to Wednesday Seminar Series, Spring 2007