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The two words alliance and coalition seem to have the same general meaning:

a group of political partners with similar aims

Is there a difference between them? Are there clear-cut rules as to when one would be preferred over the other? Or are pretty much interchangeable in just about any context?

  • Etymologically interesting. It looks like co-ali-tion, would have the same middle part as the start alli-ance from "ally", ult. from latin ad ligare = bind together. But it seems that coalition is ultimately from Latin. co-alere "jointly grow up" – James K Oct 27 '16 at 10:28
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The two terms are closely related, and even interchangeable in many cases. However, the two words focus on different things. Alliance is more about mutual interests or benefit, while coalition is more about doing some action.

The use of both terms is not limited to the political context. They can be used in other contexts: military, financial, commercial, technological, and so on. Having said that, I agree that coalition is used most often in the political context for "a temporary alliance of political parties forming a government or of states" (see below).

Here are their definitions, according to Oxford dictionary:

alliance (noun)
1. A union or association formed for mutual benefit, especially between countries or organizations.
1.1 A relationship based on similarity of interests, nature, or qualities.
1.2 A state of being joined or associated.

coalition (noun) A temporary alliance for combined action, especially of political parties forming a government.

Here is a quote from Get Them On Your Side by Samuel B. Bacharach (chapter 5):

Formally defined, a coalition is a politically mobilized collection of interest groups or individuals committed to achieving a common outcome (i.e., resistance or change). Through political mobilization you create a group that has some sense of shared goals and/or a sense of connected interests. A coalition is an alliance for joint action.

In short, a coalition is an alliance for joint action.

  • Also, a coalition is more tentative than an alliance. – reinierpost May 26 '16 at 19:50
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An alliance is more loose than a coalition. A coalition is a group that are identified with the same action. For example, if The U.S. forms a coalition with India, China, South Korea, and Japan, whatever they do, they all take the blame. If the U.S. forms an alliance with Britain, France, and Germany, if Germany attacks someone, the U.S. is not responsible to as great an extent. Alliances are more for defense, whereas coalition are more for joint attack.

But it really doesn't matter in a casual context, no one is going to blame you for saying alliance when it should be coalition.

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    Welcome to the ELL :-). This is a very concise answer, but it would be even more useful to both the OP and future visitors of the website if you included references to support it. – Lucky May 9 '15 at 0:16
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Alliance is a pact used before the election but Coalition is done after the election, this is the main vital differences in both the terms however both terms are same .

  • I don't know why you're differentiating these based on elections, but since the terms are used between sovereign (independent) countries as often as between political parties, that can't be the whole story. – Nathan Tuggy Sep 17 '15 at 20:46
  • In Neal Stephenson's book REAMDE one of the user factions in a fictional WoW-like game is called the Earthtone Coalition. The meaning has little to do with elections. – ColleenV parted ways Sep 17 '15 at 23:21
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To consider as an event of a conflict between nations, alliance, and coalition means differently. For alliance, Alliance is an agreement between two nations, enter into voluntarily that represents a non-binding commitment to help each other in event of arm conflict. Non-binding by binding lesser than a coalition to tie, for instance, the tying of hands or feet together, so that the tying still gives the opportunity to untie the tying.

And

For the coalition, A coalition is a set of nations that simply fight together in a war whether or not they have a prior agreement to do so. To illustrate, a coalition is a tying. The tying up of hands and feet together, thus, die or live together in this binding. In this binding, the only chance to untie the binding is leaving from the treaty of the coalition.

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