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Binding Ancient Treaty
Generations ago, the leadership of your ancestors were great friends with the people of Ruritania. They got along great and scribbled up all sorts of trade and defense agreements.

That was then. You guys haven't been that good of friends since that time, but now that The Empire is knocking on Ruritania's door and massing troops at its borders, this crapsack country's king has sent his ambassadors to their dilapidated embassy in your capital with the message, "You guys signed this treaty, you need to come help us!"

They've got you. Never mind the fact that nobody's cared about or invoked that treaty for hundreds of years, or the fact that every mortal involved with its writing is dead now. Your (country's) word is your bond, right? Not that you ever wanted to go up against The Empire; it's probably going to bring ruin to your nation... but, at least you have your honor.

The compulsion to honor the treaty might be magical; especially if the person that squeezed the treaty out of your country is an immortal sorcerer of some sort, or it might be based on a country's integrity or international legal code. More cynically, failure to honor the treaty could give other rulers an excuse to back out of their promises to you. Any or all of the above could trigger some penalty even worse than war if you renege on the terms of the treaty.

Particularly useful in enlisting the aid of a Proud Warrior Race Guy. Gondor Calls for Aid often results from one of these treaties.


Examples

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     Card Games 

  • Happened on the plane of Ravnica in Magic: The Gathering, where a supernatural treaty named the Guildpact was signed to bring peace to ten warring factions.

     Comic Books 

  • Used multiple times in Uncle Scrooge comics, with various factions competing to obtain symbolic artifacts that, due to ancient land ownership treaties, cede control over huge stretches of land to whoever owns the artifacts. In the end, when this results in the Native Americans owning Europe, governments are finally spurred to take action to stop this from happening again.
    • It should be noted that the comic itself points out why this is hypocritical behavior, with Donald and his nephews bringing up this fact to bring an end to the whole circus.
  • One issue of The Simpsons comic invokes this trope when the Simpsons end up living in a mall (Homer refused to sell the house to the development corporation responsible for turning the neighbourhood into said mall, so they built it around the house). Lisa does some research in order to get the corporation to tear down the mall, and discovers that the founder of Springfield signed a peace treaty with some Native Americans who had saved him from the brink of death, giving them sovereignty over their land (which happens to be the land the mall is on), only to betray that treaty later on by burning their village to the ground and killing all he found. Luckily, one member of the tribe escaped with her baby, and the treaty states that the land belongs to any living member or descendant of the tribe, which in this case happens to be Lenny.

     Film 

  • In The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Gondor Calls for Aid, and Rohan answers. Leads to a very cool scene where signal fires on various mountain tops, maintained by likely very cold soldiers for hundreds of years, are lit in succession to tell the Rohirrim that Minas Tirith needs help. As befits this trope, King Théoden refuses when Aragorn first proposes this, claiming that Gondor hasn't kept up their half of the bargain when Rohan needed help. However, when the fires are lit, he personally leads the Rohirrim to help, presumably, to show that Rohan honors their agreements.
  • It seems like the humans in Hellboy II: The Golden Army really ought to have remembered and honored their treaty with the elf king to leave the forests (and the supernatural creatures that live there) alone. Of course, that treaty was written hundreds of years ago. As it stood, they risked an unstoppable army of magic robots descending upon the human world.
  • The Canadian comedy Buried on Sunday centered on a small fishing community on an island of nova Scotia that due to a provision in an old treaty between Canada and Denmark had the right to secede from Canada. When their fishing quota is taken away the village invokes the treaty and declares themselves their own country. The Canadian government considers this a joke until they find out that a damaged Russian nuclear submarine came to the island and its four remaining crewmen sold the sub with its missiles to the villagers. They now have to take the treaty seriously since the village is now a nuclear power.

     Literature 

  • In Raymond E.Feist's Empire Trilogy, an ancient pact keeps the Cho-ja in Tsuranni lands opressed, until Lady Mara of Acoma provides them with a chance to finally break the unfair treaty enforced by the Assembly of Magicians upon them.
  • In The Lord of the Rings, the Rohirrim have been living for five centuries in an ex-province of Gondor in return for aid in war. In something of an aversion, when Gondor Calls for Aid it specifically does not do so by invoking the treaty (although they would technically be within their rights to do so), but simply asks them to remember their long friendship and do the decent thing. The Rohirrim being a Proud Warrior Race, they do. (The fact that the last guys to back out of a mutual defense treaty with Gondor got cursed with an eternity of undeath may or may not have been a factor.)
  • The Treaty of Vo Mimbre in The Belgariad established a bunch of things that turned out to be very, very useful for the resolution of the plot. Including getting the main character married. Needless to say, the instant it gets brought up, the Tolnedrans immediately try to alter it on the grounds that, well, it's hundreds of years old. (The protagonist also makes a couple of alterations on the grounds that he wants to be happily married.)
  • A strange version of this is attempted in the Judith Krantz novel Dazzle. While trying to prevent her father's land from being sold, Jazz digs up an ancient covenant signed in the 1800's saying that the parties involved wouldn't sell the land. Since this book takes place in the 1990's, that doesn't mean a darned thing when you are trying to prevent the sale of a ginormous amount of untouched land in southern California.
  • Uhtred notes that the church tries this a lot in the Saxon Stories. True to form as an unrepentant and profoundly anti authoritarian worshipper of Thor, he ignores them. Since he has a reputation as being a Bad Ass, no one is overly inclined to push him on it.
  • In Star Trek: Ex Machina, the Shesshran race had one of these with the Fabrini, which they honoured when the Fabrini's Yonadi descendants later wanted to colonize a world in their star system. In Shesshran culture, contracts and promises are held in the highest esteem, so even though they weren't entirely happy about it, they were quick to permit the Yonadi settlement on the neighbouring planet.
  • Inverted in the Heralds of Valdemar novel By the Sword, when Valdemar comes to Rethwellan to beg for military aid against Hardorn. Rethwellen's king is aware of a treaty from a few generations back that gives Valdemar the right to demand their help, but Valdemar seems to have forgotten about it, and he isn't much inclined to enlighten them. It falls to the protagonist, who is the granddaughter of one of the witnesses to the agreement, to bring everything to light and secure the necessary aid, which turns out to be in the best interests of everyone after all.
  • This is a major issue in The Wheel of Time series regarding the Seanchan. A thousand years ago, Artur Hawkwing united the continent under his rule. His empire dissolved with his death, but the son who led an expedition to another continent managed to conquer that land, and a new empire arose claiming to be descended from Hawkwing's blood. When the Seamchan finally returned to the main continent, they expected everyone to bow down to them immediately, rather than viewing them as a foreign invasion force.
  • In The Road to Omaha, a former US General finds an ancient Indian Treaty that states that an obscure Native American tribe owns everything within several hundred bowshots of a point now located in Omaha, Nebraska (Essentially most of the city, including the headquarters of the Strategic Air Command) and goes to the Supreme Court on their behalf purely to embarrass the United States government.

     Live-Action TV 

  • Aversion in Andromeda. An alien race is shooting at Dylan's ship and causing trouble for the people he is trying to convince to join his New Commonwealth when Dylan broadcasts some code. Beka is surprised and incensed that he's trying to talk with these people, only for them to stop shooting, but then the aliens (known as the Pyrians) proceed to say how the treaty Dylan is invoking was considered null and void with the fall of the original Commonwealth. However, they are willing to talk at this point.
    • The Pyrians are actually more likely to honor agreements than any other power. This appears to be subverted in a later episode, when the Pyrians start attacking merchant ships belonging to a human mining colony. Dylan intervenes but eventually figures out that the reason the Pyrians were attacking was because the colonists were smuggling a substance highly-addictive to the Pyrians into their territory. So the Pyrians have only been policing their borders for drug smugglers (they could've blown up the planet if they wished).

     Video Games  

  • Be careful about who you make a permanent alliance with in Civilization 4, because you'll be going to war with whomever that faction fights.
  • In Dragon Age: Origins, the plot revolves around the Grey Wardens using a set of Ancient Treaties in order to rally the Circle of Magi, the Dwarves of Orzammar and the Dalish Elves to create one Badass Army in order to take on the Archdemon and end the Fifth Blight. Played with in that all three were willing to join out of pure self-interest anyway but are distracted by their own problems. You can also get Templars instead of mages, werewolves instead of elves, and golems instead of dwarves. These mostly involve slaughtering the first choice, however.
  • Subverted in Homeworld: When the Kushan test the Hyperdrive for the first time, they unknowingly broke a 4,000 year old treaty forbidding them to do so. This results in the Taiidan Empire committing genocide on the Kushan.
    • However, no other race is ok with this, especially since atmosphere-deprivation weapons are illegal. Unfortunately, since the Taiidan Empire has grown significantly in the past 4000 years, they can lord over all the other races with impunity, even if they merely pretend to be a part of the Galactic Council.
  • Master of Orion 2. Sign an alliance with one race, and they'll ask you to declare war next month. If you refuse, they declare war on you. Just maintain non-aggression pacts and remain neutral while the other empires kill each other off.
  • Naturally, these crop up on occasion in Cyber Nations. Usually the signatories downgrade a treaty if they're that out of touch with each other.
  • In WarCraft, Anduin Lothar was able to bring the High Elves into the Alliance because they had an ancient pact with the Arathi Empire, and Lothar was the last descendant of the Arathi royal bloodline.
    • After the end of the war (and Lothar's death), the elves leave the Alliance, claiming that it's the Alliance's fault that their forests were burned so badly.

     Real Life 

  • The oldest diplomatic alliance still in force began with the Treaty of Windsor, signed between Portugal and Britain.
  • While the network of interlocking treaties that triggered the massive involvement in World War One largely only went back fifty years, that's still a long enough time for the actual signatures of the people who scribbled the treaty to not be the same as those who were in charge at the start of the war. Given how devastating it was for everyone's chits to be called in at once, WWI deserves special mention here.
    • Of particular note is the treaty which brought Britain into the conflict: the Treaty of London (signed 1839), which was so archaic that even after being told it was being invoked the German Chancellor could not believe the two countries were going to war over "A scrap of Paper".
    • It's entirely possible (and theorized by more than a few historical scholars) that the "ancient alliance treaties" were just a good way to get involved. Germany wanted France and a large part of Northern Europe. Britain had a vested economic interest in seeing the balance of power in Europe stay the same. Everyone acted as they wanted and justified by saying they needed to.
    • Subverted by Italy: they were in the Triple Alliance with Austria-Hungary and Germany, but when their allies asked them to do their part the Italians pointed out that the Triple Alliance was defensive in nature and Austria-Hungary had declared war first (admittedly because Serbia was supporting terrorism that had just resulted in the heir to the throne being assassinated), and declared they wouldn't help unless Austria-Hungary ceded some border territories that Italy claimed at their own (never mind that most of their inhabitants preferred staying Austrians). With Austria-Hungary not even considering it, Italy brought this to the logical conclusion by declaring war against their previous allies when the Entente promised them those disputed territories and more if they did just that.
  • The treaties arising out of the Peace of Westphalia (1648) after the Thirty Years' War delineated the makeup of Europe's national boundaries for a rather long time. That's not the important and still binding part. The important parts are:
    • The specific endorsement of National Sovereignty, meaning that a country cannot be interfered with in its internal affairs (the fact that something was going on internally in another country was often used as an excuse to start a war), and:
    • An explicit universal prohibition against Piracy, meaning that any country could try any pirate in any court anywhere in the world. Both concepts are still in force today throughout the world.
  • Britain still has a right to recruit in Nepal, and uses it. It was included in the peace treaty of a war long ago at the request of officers who had seen the Gurkhas as enemies and were so impressed that they wanted them as allies.
  • The North Atlantic Treaty, the document that created NATO, was signed in 1949. The threat for which it was originally designed—the Soviet Union and its puppet regimes—has not existed since approximately 1990.note  Article Five of the treaty states that an attack on one member (with a couple of geographic caveats to keep territories and colonies from being a trigger) is equivalent to an attack on all members, meaning that if some minor member of NATO gets into a shooting war with a major world power then it could ignite World War III. On the other hand, that very fact has likely prevented several conflicts from escalating further, and it has found new life as an organizing force when Europeans and/or the US get involved in overseas conflicts such as Libya.
    • Left unclear is what would happen if war broke out between NATO members, which is more plausible than you might think given that Greece and Turkey, who have been enemies for thousands of years and still have major ongoing diplomatic disputes, are both members.
    • France, while they never formally withdrew from the North Atlantic Treaty, left the unified NATO command structure in 1966 partly because it didn't want to have to blindly jump into a war if another NATO nation decided to shoot first and talk later and partly because Charles de Gaulle was both keen on France being able to pursue her own foreign policy (including being able to negotiate a separate peace with the Soviets in a hypothetical ground war) and bristled at what he saw as really close cooperation between the US and UK within NATO's policy-making. All non-French units based in France were asked to leave, mostly American ones. They were still going to help out if the Soviets made any moves on the other members (plans were developed that would allow French units to integrate back into NATO in short order), but outside of that France was going to do its own thing; they didn't reintegrate into NATO's command structure until April 2009.
  • Subverted in Thucydides telling of the Peloponnesian War. The Athenians wanted the island of Melos. The Melians wanted to be independent. Athens told them that they will submit, or be invaded and crushed. The Melians appealed to Sparta (which Athens was in a sort of Cold War with), with the central argument that Sparta had such a treaty with them. Sparta told them that such a treaty meant nothing. The Melians held out anyway. Athens invaded, and wiped out the Melians.
  • Although newer than most of the entries on this list, the United States ratified nearly 400 treaties with various Native American tribes from 1778 to about 1850. These treaties are effectively considered to be between sovereign nations and many of them are still enforced in one way or another to this day (which is why many reservations allow gambling and have unique tax situations). Whether a certain treaty still applies, or if it even can be enforced, is a complicated enough issue that there is a specific specialization of law study for it (Tribal Law).
  • Scotland and France had the "Auld Alliance" against England from at least 1295 until 1560, with some sources at the time having claimed (falsely) that the treaty dated back to the time of Charlemagne, who became king of the Franks in 768. The earliest realistic date for the start of the alliance was 1173, and there was informal cooperation against their common foe before the alliance was formalized.
    • Arguably, it was reinstated when Scotland merged with England into Great Britain and then the United Kingdom, and then France reconciled with Britain and formed an alliance that arguably dates back to at least the Crimean War or a bit earlier, making it another case of this trope altogether.


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alternative title(s): Forgotten Alliance
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