The enemy of my enemy is my friend

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The enemy of my enemy is my friend is an ancient proverb which suggests that two opposing parties can or should work together against a common enemy or that they are also enemies. The earliest known expression of this concept is found in a Sanskrit treatise on statecraft, the Arthashastra, which dates to around the 4th century BC, while the first recorded use of the current English version came in 1884.[1][2]

The proverb is sometimes phrased as "the enemy of mine enemy is my friend" or "my enemy's enemy is my friend."[citation needed]

International policy[edit]

In his Arthashastra: Book VI, "The Source of Sovereign States", Kautilya writes:[3]

The king who is situated anywhere immediately on the circumference of the conqueror's territory is termed the enemy.
The king who is likewise situated close to the enemy, but separated from the conqueror only by the enemy, is termed the friend (of the conqueror).

— Kautilya, Arthasastra

World War II[edit]

The idea that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" functioned in various guises as foreign policy by Allied powers during World War II. In Europe, tension was common between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union. Despite their inherent differences, they recognized a need to work together to meet the threat of Nazi aggression under the leadership of Adolf Hitler. Both U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill were wary of the Soviet Union under the leadership of Joseph Stalin. However, both developed policies with an understanding that Soviet cooperation was necessary for the Allied war effort to succeed.[4] There is a quote from Winston Churchill made to his personal secretary John Colville on the eve of Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa). He was quoted as saying, "if Hitler invaded Hell, I would make at least a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons."[5] The Soviet leader reciprocated these feelings towards his Western allies. He was distrustful and feared that they would negotiate a separate peace with Nazi Germany. However, he also viewed their assistance as critical in resisting the Nazi invasion.[6]

The doctrine of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" was employed by nation states in regions outside of the European theater as well. In the Second Sino-Japanese War, within the Pacific theater, an alliance was formed between Chinese Communist and Chinese Nationalists. Leading up to this, these forces had battled each other throughout the Chinese Civil War. However, they formed an alliance, the Second United Front in response to the mutual threat of Japanese aggression.[7]

Cold War[edit]

The doctrine was also used extensively during the Cold War between Western Bloc nations and the Soviet Union. The Soviets and the Chinese aided North Korea during the Korean War as well as the Viet Cong/North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War to oppose American foreign policy goals.[8][clarification needed] Likewise, the United States and its allies supported the Afghan Mujahideen after the Soviet invasion in the hopes of thwarting the spread of Communism.[9] In the Third World, both superpowers supported regimes whose values were at odds with the ideals espoused by their governments. These ideals were capitalism and democracy in the case of the United States[citation needed], and the Marxist–Leninist interpretation of Communism in the case of the Soviet Union. In order to oppose the spread of Communism, the United States government supported undemocratic regimes, such as Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire and Augusto Pinochet in Chile.[10][11]

The support provided by the Soviet Union towards nations with overtly anti-Communist governments, such as Gamal Abdul Nasser in Egypt, in order to oppose American influence, is another example of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" as policy on an international scale.[12] The Soviets also backed India to counter both the pro-American Pakistani government and the People's Republic of China (following the Sino-Soviet split), despite the fact that India had a democratic government.[citation needed] Similarly, China, following the split, lent support to nations and factions that embraced an anti-Soviet, often Maoist form of Communism, but whose governments nonetheless embraced Sinophobic policies at home, such as the Khmer Rouge.[citation needed]

Middle East[edit]

In an example of this doctrine at work in Middle Eastern foreign policy, United States backed the Iraqi government under Saddam Hussein during the Iran–Iraq War, as a strategic response to the anti-American Iranian Revolution of 1979.[13] A 2001 study of international relations in the Middle East used the proverb as the basis of its main thesis. The thesis examined how enmity between adverse nations evolve and alliances develop in response to common threats.[14]

Balance theory[edit]

Main article: Balance theory

In mathematical sociology a signed graph may be used to represent a social network that may or may not be balanced, depending upon the signs found along cycles. Fritz Heider considered a pair of friends with a common enemy as a balanced triangle. The full spectrum of changes induced by unbalanced networks was described by Anatol Rapoport:

The hypothesis implies roughly that attitudes of the group members will tend to change in such a way that one’s friends’ friends will tend to become one’s friends and one’s enemies’ enemies also one’s friends, and one’s enemies’ friends and one’s friends’ enemies will tend to become one’s enemies, and moreover, that these changes tend to operate even across several removes (one’s friends’ friends’ enemies’ enemies tend become friends by an iterative process).[15]

Frank Harary described how balance theory can predict coalition formation in international relations:[16]

One can draw the signed graph of a given state of events and examine it for balance. If it is balanced there will be a tendency for the status quo. If it is not balanced, one should examine each of the bonds between pairs of nations in a cycle with regard to relative strength in the situation. One might then predict that the weakest such bond will change sign.

Harary illustrated the method as a gloss on some events in the Middle East using several signed graphs, one of which represented eight nations.

Alternate takes[edit]

In the early 21st-century webcomic Schlock Mercenary, one character espouses a more limited take on the saying: "The enemy of my enemy is my enemy's enemy: no more, no less".[17]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The Arthashastra. Retrieved 15 December 2014. 
  2. ^ Wickman, Forrest (16 May 2013). "Fact-Checking Spock: Was the "Enemy of My Enemy" Guy Really Killed by His "Friend"?". Slate. Retrieved 24 January 2014. 
  3. ^ Kautilya "Arthasastra" translated by R. Shamasastry, Third Edition, Weslyan Mission Press 1929 Mysore, p. 296.
  4. ^ Stefan, Charles G.Roosevelt and the Wartime Summit Conferences with Stalin. University of North Carolina.
  5. ^ Sir Winston Churchill: Biographical History Churchill College, Cambridge
  6. ^ Kenez, Peter (2006). A History of the Soviet Union from the Beginning to the End (2nd Ed.). Cambridge University Press.
  7. ^ Chinese Civil War.
  8. ^ Poroskov, Nikolai (April 30, 2005). The USSR was actively involved in the war in Vietnam 30 years ago. Pravda.
  9. ^ No Regrets: Carter, Brzezinski and the Muj.
  10. ^ French, Howard W (September 8, 1997). Mobutu Sese Seko, Longtime Dictator of Zaire. The New York Times.
  11. ^ Kornbluh, Peter (October 24, 1999).Still Hidden: A Full Record Of What the U.S. Did in Chile. The Washington Post.
  12. ^ Anti-Communist Rally. June 23, 1961. Time.
  13. ^ Dobbs, Michael (December 30, 2002). U.S. Had Key Role in Iraq Buildup. The Washington Post.
  14. ^ What Is the Enemy of My Enemy? Causes and Consequences of Imbalanced International Relations, 1816-2001, Dr. Ilan Talmud et al (Haifa University website)
  15. ^ Anatol Rapoport (1963) "Mathematical models of social interaction", in Handbook of Mathematical Sociology, v. 2, pp 493–580, especially 541, editors: R.A. Galanter, R.R. Lace, E. Bush, John Wiley & Sons
  16. ^ Frank Harary (1961) "A structural analysis of the situation on the Middle East in 1956", Journal of Conflict Resolution 5: 167–78
  17. ^ Tayler, Howard (March 8, 2003). "Schlock Mercenary". Retrieved December 4, 2016.