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Binding Ancient Treaty

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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.


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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.
    • The Guildpact being magically enforced turned out to be a mistake since it never resolved the actual enmities that set the guilds against each other. When it breaks due to a paradox the entire plane spirals into chaos within hours.
    • The Guildpact is eventually restored when Jace Beleren solves the Dragon's Maze becoming the Guildpact incarnate. The magical enforcement is still there, but since the Guildpact is also a person who was smart enough to solve the Maze, it's also able to mediate peace between the guilds in a more mundane manner.
    • The Guildpact also had the advantage that several of the leaders who originally signed it are various flavors of immortal and still in charge of their respective factions millennia later.

    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.

  • 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. (Of course, when Aragorn made his first proposal, Théoden was under an evil influence, but by the time that the beacons were lit, he had been released from it.)
  • 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.

  • 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 who generally hates the Church, he ignores them. Since he has a reputation as being a badass who has acquired the nickname of 'Priest-Killer', 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 Seanchan 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 located in what is now 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.
  • In the Night Watch (Series) books, the Dark and the Light Others had once fought a devastating war that was only stopped, because they realized that they would destroy the world. Both sides signed the Grand Treaty that severely limits what they can do and enforces the balance between the two sides. The Treaty also demands the creation of the Night Watch (composed of Light Others) to monitor the actions of the Dark Others and the Day Watch being its Dark Other equivalent. There is also the Inquisition, composed of former members of both sides (who have grown disillusioned with their side's philosophy) to act as a neutral party and judge high-level Treaty violations. While both sides honor the treaty on the surface, the ancient and powerful leaders of both sides tend to play long games to try to earn advantages to their side. The Inquisition, while not particularly powerful in an of itself, does possess a cache of powerful magical artifacts that can be used in emergencies to bolster their strength. In addition, in case one of the sides chose to ignore the Inquisition's ruling, it's almost a guarantee that the other side would join the Inquisition and overpower the violator.
    • The novel Sixth Watch reveals the existence of a much older treaty between representatives of six different types of Others and a physical manifestation of the Twilight. In accordance with the treaty, the Others agree to watch over humanity and keep it from self-destructing in exchange for being allowed to exist. Unlike the Grand Treaty, this treaty has been largely forgotten by the vast majority of Others, including those who have been alive for millennia.
  • One recurring plot point in the Hythrun Chronicles is a treaty between Hythria and Fardohnya stating that if the male line of either royal family dies out, the other inherits both thrones. The treaty was written back when the two families were close kin (Hythria was founded by the husband of the then-Fardohnyan king's twin sister), but centuries later, they're no longer friendly, and the King of Fardohnya has no living siblings and no legitimate sons...
  • Silverwing: Bats are supposedly nocturnal as punishment for their neutrality in a prehistoric war between birds and mammals, enforced by the owls, who burn down the tree housing Shade's colony after he stays out to see the sun. The treaty is revoked after Shade rescues the owl king's son from a human weapons program in the second book.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Zig-zagged 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 a message to them invoking "Protocol Red Fifteen." Beka is surprised that he's trying to negotiate in the middle of a fight, only for the aliens—now identified as Pyrians—to stop shooting. However the Pyrians are simply being polite, and note that in their view Protocol Red Fifteen is no longer valid because their treaty with the Commonwealth expired when the Commonwealth expired. Still, they're willing to talk at this point, and are eventually swayed by Dylan solving their problem with the neutral freighters; "You may not recognize Protocol Red Fifteen, but I do."
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power: Discovering that Halbrand is a King Incognito and Sauron's forces are planning to attack the Southlands, Galadriel demands to speak to Tar-Palantir after Queen Miriel refused her plea to honor the alliance that once existed between Númenor and the Elves. Her actions land her in jail, but after escaping from her imprisonment, Galadriel heads to the king's chamber only to find Miriel already waiting for her. She learns from Miriel that shortly after her father became king, he was almost overthrown by the people for being Faithful to the Elves. And for this reason, Miriel had to adopt isolationist politics. But on the day Galadriel is ready to depart for Middle-earth, the Nimloth trees start to lose their petals, a sign Miriel interprets as the Valar's tears. She decides that helping Galadriel is what the Valar want from her, and spends the next days preparing for a military expedition in the Southlands.

    Tabletop Games 
  • In Dungeons & Dragons, there's the story of Pact Primeval, an ancient agreement between the gods and the angels who would become the first Devils, on their right to punish and claim the souls of mortal sinners when they die. The Pact is very real, and 3 copies exist - one in the heavens, one in the Nine Hells, and one in Mechanus. It doesn't seem to be a Magically-Binding Contract, but gods are defined by their promises and pledges, Devils are nothing but Lawful, and Mechanus is nothing but Lawful. Thus there's no incentive for any of the involved parties to breach the pact.
  • Symbaroum: The metaplot contains a major deconstruction. The elves of Davokar claim to have signed a treaty, the Iron Pact, with The Empire of Symbaroum. The elves claim that this treaty with "the humans" gives them the exclusive right to settle in Davokar in perpetuity, and to kill any trespassers. The humans, on the other hand, claim that the treaty, if it ever existed (and there is no evidence apart from the word of the elves that it did), was with Symbaroum, not humanity as a whole, and expired when the Empire fell. Also, given that the human settlers in Davokar are refugees from a virulent plague, a couple of extremely destructive wars and a mass migration, it's unlikely they would be in a position to honor the Iron Pact even if they wanted to.

    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.
  • This will happen in Galactic Civilizations. You don't actually need an official Alliance with another nation: if you are simply on very good terms with them they may still appeal to you for aid (or demand it, if they're evil). What having an Alliance does is cause you to automatically declare war on anyone who declares war on your ally.
  • 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 in addition to 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 3,000 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 since the Hiigaran-Taiidan war that led to the Exile, in which the Taiidani burned most of the Hiigaran civilization to the ground in a Roaring Rampage of Revenge. Unfortunately, since the Taiidan Empire has grown significantly in the past 3000 years, they can lord over all the other races with impunity, even if they merely pretend to be a part of the Galactic Council. Even their own people are so disgusted by it that a civil war breaks out with support from a small but significant chunk of the fleet that aids the Kushan in the final battle. That genocide led to the Taiidan Empire's downfall.
    • An entry in the Historical and Technical Briefing and the prequel game Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak reveal that the ban wasn't completely forgotten but has merely passed into myth. The religious fanatics of Kiith Gaalsien oppose the Northern Coalition's space program and attempts to reach the Prime Anomaly because of their belief that their god Sajuuk will punish everyone for this. While the various kiithid of the Coalition are, presumably, aware of the myth, they pay it no heed, especially since their actions are dictated by necessity (Kharak is becoming less habitable year-by-year, and the entire Kushan race is on the brink of extinction, unless they find a way to get off the planet).
  • 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.
  • The Elder Scrolls series has the Bosmer (Wood Elves) and their "Green Pact". In exchange for Y'ffre's (the forest spirit of Valenwood) patronage, they have sworn never to harm any plant life in Valenwood (though they can import timber from other regions of Tamriel when necessary), and must live on an almost exclusively carnivorous diet. One of the most prominent aspects of the Green Pact dictates that the Bosmer must consume the flesh of fallen invaders as it is not allowed to rot within Valenwood. (Bosmer living outside of Valenwood appear to be exempt from the Pact.)

    Web Comics 
  • Girl Genius: The Corbettites and the Heterodyne family made a treaty generations ago that the Heterodyne's have actually kept. So long as the Corbettites keep some artifacts that are so dangerous that the Heterodynes couldn't trust themselves to protect them without being tempted to use them again safely locked away, no Heterodyne troops will attack Corbettite trains, railways or stations. The agreement has been in place for centuries, and has never once been broken.

    Real Life 
  • The oldest diplomatic alliance still in force began with the Treaty of Windsor, signed between Portugal and England - the agreement having been established in 1373 and the actual treaty being signed in 1386. The British invoked it (with other incentives and reasons) to coax Portuguese assistance in both World War I (in which Portugal contributed troops to the Allies) and World War II (in which Portugal—by then a conservative/quasi-fascist dictatorship—remained neutral but gave the Allies critical help, particularly the use of the Azores and Madeira as mid-Atlantic resupply stations). The Portuguese had less luck invoking it when India invaded Portuguese-held Goa (Britain cited many things to counter Portugal there, like how India was part of The Commonwealthnote ), as well as that time it almost got broken. That said, the Anglo-Portuguese Alliance is less of this trope than most think, as it was repeatedly reaffirmed over the centuries, largely because the same powers that England/Britain saw as a threat (France and Spain) were also threats to Portugal or its interests, and their colonial interests were generally either well away from each other or compatible (for instance, the Brits never begrudged the Portuguese their hold on Goa while they held India, and the Portuguese never had designs on an Indian colony bigger than Goa). The alliance was also supported by a strong trading relationship throughout; Portugal was a good market for English textiles, and the English aristocracy has long absolutely adored port wine, to the point that most port houses have English names. Not for nothing did English economist David Ricardo's seminal 1817 treatise on the concept of comparative advantage use the example of English woolens and Portuguese wine. note 
  • While the network of interlocking treaties that triggered the massive involvement in World War I largely only went back fifty years (except, as mentioned above, the Anglo-Portuguese Alliance), 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 1839 Treaty of London, whereby the Great Powers of Europe all recognized the independence of Belgium in exchange for a pledge by Belgium to remain permanently neutral (with an implicit counterpromise that the Great Powers would intervene if anyone violated the neutrality). This treaty 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, and declared they wouldn't help unless Austria-Hungary ceded some border territories that Italy claimed at their own. 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 (though the rise of the concepts of international law and crimes against humanity, and economic integration have somewhat undermined the former; whether this is a good thing continues to be debated).
  • 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, whose peoples have grievances going back over a thousand years and which 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 nationsnote  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). Ironically, the United States is much more likely to abide by such treaties now than it was at the time they were signed.
  • The US military also still controls the infamous military base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. They built this base after the Spanish-American War, when Cuba gained independence from the Spanish Empire but was then promptly occupied by the US. Over the following decades, Cuba threw off Uncle Sam's influence — especially once Fidel Castro stepped up to the plate — but the US military has still held on to that base despite cutting off most other diplomatic relations with Cuba for half a century.
  • 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 (albeit a highly unreliable and informal one until the establishment of the Entente Cordiale about half a century later), making it another case of this trope altogether.
  • Magnificent Bastard that he was, Otto von Bismarck of course made use of those more than once.
    • First he baited Denmark into a war it could not win by digging up an old treaty from 1460 that Schleswig and Holstein would be "op eewig ungedeeld" (forever un-separated), which he (through what modern historians have called a perhaps somewhat liberal interpretation of said treaty) claimed Denmark was violating through a new constitutional reform triggered in part by different inheritance laws in Denmark proper and Holstein. (This is a simplification—as The Viscount Palmerston said, "Only three people have ever really understood the Schleswig-Holstein business: the Prince Consort, who is dead; a German professor, who has gone mad; and I, who have forgotten all about it.")
    • After he won that war in 1864 and another against erstwhile ally Austria in 1866, he finagled his way into a war with France that let France come off as the aggressor (the casus belli was the question of whether a distant relative of the Prussian king could or should inherit the vacant Spanish throne, to which the French demanded an unequivocal no for all eternity which the Prussian king was unable to give and which Bismarck doctored into an insult to France to be reported on by the French press). Bismarck had since engineered "Schutz- und Trutzbündnisse" with the South German states calling for joint defense should any of them (or Prussia) come under attack from an outside enemy. As France was technically speaking the aggressor, France now found itself facing all of Germany (sans Austria) with no allies in sight.

Alternative Title(s): Forgotten Alliance