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Social Constructs on Bob; or, some macro-analysis of alliance interactions


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This is an essay I composed as an expansion on a previous OWF post of mine, and as an expansion on some posts in various embassies. It was originally intended primarily for internal consumption within the Order, as part of an internal cultural project. This essay does, however, not reflect any official policy or philosophy of the Order whatsoever, and is entirely a personal project of mine. It was made to be a contribution to an ongoing discussion, and not as a definite or final statement of truth. I welcome debate of its contents.


Since it has no secret or otherwise sensitive content, and has been generally positively received outside of the Order, I thought it might be a suitable post on these forums. It certainly felt like the ideas in this essay fit our current Zeitgeist on Bob. Because of the tutorial aspects of it, many will find the first parts rather obvious -- however, there may be some novel ideas, or at least less commonly discussed ideas, in the third part. Feel free to skip ahead to it if I am being too obvious.


What makes an alliance an alliance?

or, a general theory of alliance politics on Planet Bob

What is the difference between an alliance and a group of rogues? In order to answer questions such as that, we will attempt to formulate an outline of a general theory of alliance politics on our planet. By alliance politics, we mean the interaction of different alliances, and the factors affecting this. As such, we will not be touching upon any issues of how internal affairs of an alliance work, beyond their acting as such factors.
We are also not creating a normative theory – it does not prescribe that one ought to act a certain way, or that there is a right way for alliances or nations to interact. It provides a vocabulary to discuss its subject, it provides a model of what features are relevant to discuss, and it presents some barebones models of how these aspects interact and affect each other. That is, it is a way of thinking about how to act, not a way of acting. We will not be proclaiming order against chaos, but at most describe what these terms could mean and how they would affect other aspects of politics.
Having thus delimited the purpose and purview of our theory, we can present some example questions to discuss in our new framework:

  • What do we mean by the strength of an alliance?
  • What motivates alliances to act?
  • Why do large alliances generally sign more treaties than smaller alliances?
  • Why did the current war start with an attack on Aftermath?
  • Why do wars start?
  • Why are most alliances so similar to each other?
  • What is the difference between a group of rogues and an alliance?
  • Why do most alliances find it so hard to change themselves?

Part One – Resources, organization, and culture

The first concept we need to define is that of a resource. A resource is a trait of an organization that enables it to do something. There are obvious numerical resources, such as nukes. The 4200 nukes Pacifica had at the start of the ongoing war enable her to cause massive damage, the large amount of technology IRON has enable them to fuel their war machine, DBDC's top-tier nations allow them to dominate that tier, and so on.
There are also slightly less tangible resources, which are even more important, such as skills members have which enable an alliance to do things. The recruiters of Polaris are a resource, enabling Polar to gain members, and the Diplomatic Corps of Pacifica enable her to communicate and build relationships with other alliances.
Technological tools, going by names like Storm and Orion, enable alliances to operate more efficiently in many different ways – and the members who create these tools are themselves a resource, since they enable the creation of this resource, and its maintenance.
Treaties are another example of a resource – the Invicta-NpO treaty allows them to, to some degree, compel Polar to come to their defence. There are also even less tangible resources, such as the sense of loyalty to one's alliance many alliances inspire, which enables them to withstand longer wars.
We can also identify a set of traits of an alliance that border on resources, and function as means to organize and utilize their resources. They are things like the organizational structure of an alliance and how it is governed, but also more diffuse concepts, such as culture. They can act as resources in themselves – the autocratic structure of Pacifica enables swift decisionmaking, the democratic structure of Paradoxia allow members to feel they have influence – but they can also act as ways to utilize other resources – a bureaucratic structure assigning tasks to members.
In the same category, we also find alliance culture. It affects all of an alliance's actions, because it is in essence how the alliance sees the world around it. Alliance culture expresses itself in obvious ways, such as a NSFW discourse at NG, or celebrations of the August Revolution at the NPO, but it also expresses itself in things like what things an alliance values. That some alliances value concepts such as honour, morality, and loyalty, while others value fun, or community, or strength, is another important expression of culture.
In some sense, it can also be said that the structure of an alliance reflects its culture, and the culture of an alliance reflects its structure. You don't simply have an Emperor ruling an alliance, divorced from its culture – you have a culture of obedience to this central authority, and a culture of hierarchical governance, which supports the imperial governance. It is impossible to have structure and culture entirely divorced – sooner or later, one will start affecting the other, or the alliance will suffer.
In summary, an alliance has resources, which enable them to do various things, and it has organization and culture, which shape how these resources are used. The alliance organization structures their use, and culture shapes it in more intangible ways, and gives it direction. The strength of an alliance is, in this framework, simply the sum of its resources, modulated by its capability to use them.

Part 2 – Goals, strategies and conflicts

So far, we have a very static picture of the alliance – it is, but does not do. Naturally, real alliances do act and attempt to shape the world around them. The model we have built so far can answer what tools they have to do so, but does not give us any way of explaining why they do what they do.
The answer to this question was touched upon when we discussed culture. Alliances have goals, which are shaped by their culture. Goals can be divided into two categories – rational and emotional. The former are motivated by the latter, so that rational goals are ways in which the alliance thinks it will achieve its emotional goals.
One of the key goals shared by basically all alliances is organizational survival – that is, they want to continue existing in some form. Generally, they also want to retain as many of their resources as possible. Another key goal is that they wish to retain their community – alliances on Planet Bob are, in almost all cases, as much social organizations as they are political organizations. People want to keep the framework through which they interact with their friends.
There are also other goals, such as power – the desire to win, or to dominate. This can also be present as a rational goal – that is, power as a means to achieve some other goal. Similarly, goals of destroying another alliance can be either rational – one perceives the alliance as a threat to one's own goal achievement – or emotional, such as revenge or grudges.
Wars generally start when these goals clash between alliances. When an alliance desires power, or revenge, this will cause conflict, as alliances' interests clash. This means that even alliances who do not desire power or revenge can be compelled to act as if they did, in order to ensure their own survival.
In rational goals, one can generally identify two broad types of strategy – passive and active strategy. An passive strategy can be described as security through obscurity. It fits alliances whose goals are only survival and community, and which are relatively weak. These alliances lack the resources to do things, and also lack the ambition to.
It thus makes sense for them to avoid gathering too many other resources, to appear small, and for them to align themselves to one major power sphere. This strategy, if it works, makes sure that no one desires to target them specifically, through not appearing to be a threat. They avoid appearing like a threat through not having the resources to be threatening, and by making sure their goals do not clash with those of other alliances.. The Legion is a typical example of an alliance implementing this strategy.
An active strategy involves actively acquiring resources, and attempting to neutralize threats through the use of these resources. This strategy is typical for larger or more ambitious alliances, who either have goals beyond survival, or who have too many members or other resources to be able to remain in obscurity. An alliance implementing this strategy will seek out more resources, sign treaties spread over the treaty web, and be an active player in world politics. These alliances are generally the ones who start wars and take the initiative in shaping the world. One clear example of an active strategy alliance is TOP.
That said, not all alliances or groupings manage to implement a strategy successfully. One recent prominent example is the abject failure of FA for the Aftermath bloc leading up to the current conflict. Essentially, it was a failure to transition from an passive to an active strategy as their bloc grew out of the sizes where an passive strategy is feasible. It could also be phrased as a failure to keep the size of their grouping down, as an passive strategy would proclaim they ought.
In a similar vein, the position Polaris finds themselves in in this war could be explained as a failure to be sufficiently active in their strategy, or as a failure to utilize their resources optimally.
In summary, an alliance has two types of goal – emotional and rational. The first and foremost emotional goals are community and organizational survival, which almost all alliances strive for. Other examples of emotional goals are power and revenge, which only some alliances desire. Alliances are goal-rational – that is, they act in an optimal way to achieve their goals. Emotional goals spring from alliance culture, while rational goals spring from rational goals and alliance resources. Wars and other conflicts start as a consequence of alliances having conflicting goals.
Rational goals give rise to two broad types of strategy – passive and active strategy. Passive strategy means minimizing the threat one poses, and is essentially security through obscurity. Active strategy means gathering resources and actively dealing with threats. Generally, weaker alliances choose passive strategies, while stronger alliances choose active strategies. Alliances or groupings that do not choose an appropriate strategy often find themselves in a weak position.

Part 3 – Institutions and legitimacy

So far, we have created a picture of what an alliance is, and what it can do. It has resources, culture, organization, goals, and strategies. From this model of the alliance we should expect alliances to be highly heterogeneous, with each alliance adapting within these constraints, to optimally achieve their goals. However, it is clear from looking at real alliances that this is not the case.
Most alliances are largely similar. They have a similar organization, use similar tools, sign only some very few types of treaties, and act in largely similar ways. Almost all new alliances sign protectorate treaties, almost all alliances have an announced governmental structure, almost all alliances declare their wars on the OWF, and so on. Clearly, our model is lacking in some aspect, since it cannot explain this homogeneity.
The central concepts which we will introduce to explain this uniformity are those of an institution and of legitimacy. An institution is a tradition on how to act, which is commonly accepted and not commonly questioned. For example, the “Declaration of Existence” for new alliances is a typical institution. Everyone does it, and the fact that existence needs to be declared is rarely questioned. Other examples of institutions are the charter of an alliance, which purports to define a framework within which the formal structure of the alliance is defined, and the treaty, which purports to oblige alliances to act in certain ways.
Institutions are an expression of the collective culture of the group sharing the institution. They define a framework through which one acts. There is nothing preventing someone from creating an alliance without a DoE, or from signing some treaty not falling on the usual NAP-PIAT-ODP-ODoAP-MDP-MDoAP-MDAP spectrum – institutions are fundamentally social constructs, and can as such be broken.
However, through following the institutions of our society, an organization gains legitimacy. Legitimacy is exactly a measure of how well an organization obeys these institutions. An organization which follows them sufficiently closely is labelled an alliance, while an organization that does not follow them is either labelled as being rogues, or not seen as being an organization at all.
Institutions reduce the effort required for alliances to interact, through establishing norms of expected and accepted behaviour. Through this mechanism, alliances also become more trustworthy as they become more legitimate, as other alliances have an easier time understanding them. A fundamental maxim of Foreign Affairs is that communication breeds trust, and distrust breeds hostility – and legitimacy is one of the core mediators of trust.
Through these effects of reducing transaction and information costs, it becomes rational to act according to institutions, even if the institutions are not in themselves rational. For example, an alliance without a government structure will be seen as less trustworthy and less able to follow through on commitments, and thus have a harder time getting tech deals. A lack of legitimacy causes a lack of trust which hurts resources.
There are some central institutions which are worth mentioning, even if they may seem entirely obvious. The core institution of our society is that of goal-rationality – that is, that alliances act in ways they expect to help them to achieve their goals. Through following this norm, the actions of alliances become comprehensible and possible to predict. An alliance which did not follow this institution would quickly cease to be seen as an alliance at all. A closely connected institution is that of alliances having as their emotional goals primarily community and organizational survival. That is, an alliance exists primarily to perpetuate itself. Alliances do not, as a rule, commit suicide, and only disband as a very last resort.
Beyond explaining the distinction between an alliance and a group of rogues, we can also use our institutional viewpoint to explain the relative difficulty and infrequency of change, both on a planet-wide scale and in an individual alliance. Most of the types of change that are of interest – things like breaking up the treaty web, or getting shorter wars – can essentially only be achieved through changes in our institutions. Such change is generally accomplished by pushing against the boundaries of the institution – by accumulation of small deviations from the norm, the norm changes.
However, such acts of contradiction to institutions are going to decrease the legitimacy of the alliance doing so, and as such hurt it. Therefore, we can explain the slowness of change by the fact that change is costly in many ways, and generally hurts the integrity of an alliance.
An entirely analogous framework applies to changes within an alliance – the institutions are internal, the actors are individual rulers instead of alliances, and the legitimacy in question applies to individuals and groups of individuals instead of to alliances or blocs. With these substitutions made, the same theory essentially applies.

In the internal case, we also get a mechanism of decoupling of formal and informal structure. That is, the formal structure – how things are supposed to be done, according to the charter and other such legal documents – does not always determine how things are actually done. People act according to institutions, tradition, and practicality rather than according to the book.

In summary, institutions are socially accepted norms for behaviour on the international stage. An alliance which acts against these loses legitimacy. Legitimacy is the social currency which determines who qualifies as an alliance, and who does not. Through these institutions, transaction and information costs decrease, while trust becomes more possible. These effects of trust in turn makes it rational to act according to institutions, even if they are not rational in themselves.
Two central institutions are those of goal-rationality – that is, that alliances act in order to achieve their goals, and of survival – alliances have their own continued existence as their first and foremost goal.
The framework of institutions and legitimacy can also explain the slowness of change, as changing institutions involves breaking them, which hurts alliances. The same model explains the slowness of change on an alliance scale. We also find that the formal and actual structure of an alliance do not necessarily match. This decoupling, caused by institutions, habit, and practicality, further explains the difficulty of changing an alliance.

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This is a good analysis, although I disagree with some minor details regarding Polar's pre-war agenda. I would also go deeper into why legitimacy, as we previously discussed, is so relevant to the civilized world. It's nice to see quality work coming from my old Order again, thanks for sharing Saxasm.

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Technological tools, going by names like Storm and Orion, enable alliances to operate more efficiently in many different ways and the members who create these tools are themselves a resource, since they enable the creation of this resource, and its maintenance.

I'm indeed a much wanted resource. Dajobo is however a lousy bidder.
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"Abject" failure? You wound me, Saxasm.


Regardless, it's all good stuff, and I enjoyed the tutorial aspect of it. If only everyone taught their new members so effectively, we might see more new faces around here. Something to think about, at any rate. Keep it up.

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Abject failure? Interesting choice of words, Saxasm. There was little way of knowing someone you were considering a treaty with would attack you randomly (seemingly randomly), I'm sure this was all planned well in advance. Also, weaker alliances are weaker because they choose passive strategies, it really isn't the other way around. Stabbing people in the back, ignoring treaties, and treating your friends and allies like pieces of meat isn't our forte. If that makes us weak and abject failures, I for one am happy to be just that. Someof what you said makes sense, though. Please continue. 

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Abject failure? Interesting choice of words, Saxasm. There was little way of knowing someone you were considering a treaty with would attack you randomly (seemingly randomly), I'm sure this was all planned well in advance. Also, weaker alliances are weaker because they choose passive strategies, it really isn't the other way around. Stabbing people in the back, ignoring treaties, and treating your friends and allies like pieces of meat isn't our forte. If that makes us weak and abject failures, I for one am happy to be just that. Someof what you said makes sense, though. Please continue.

This leads to another subject that could be covered: the fact that sometimes cultures are fundamentally incompatible and will always conflict. For example, Lulzist culture (Im not talking about RIA but actual lulzist entities) has almost always been in crass contradiction to the ethics of civilized culture. Or as Wes highlighted, the fact that many cultures are defensive in orientation and thus passive by default.
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The topic of your essay "What makes an alliance an alliance" can be shortned to: "What is an alliance". IMO, an alliance is a group of nation rulers under common leadership. And since they are under common leadership, they need to share common norms of conduct, at least norms concerning subordination to the leadership. Alliances can also have different common norms of conduct, not only regarding subordination to the leadership, but also different matters. Hence the "intangible" (other then NS, member count etc.) differences between alliances.

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