In this essay, we are going to focus on whether the balance of power is a cause of war and a way to a hegemonic system or a condition that promotes peace and global equilibrium. Moreover, we are going to analyse the importance of the balance of power in provoking major wars. Firstly, we will approach different notions of the word balance of power in a such way that we will aim to have a better understanding of the topic. Then, we will discuss the related problems that make the balance of power happen and promote wars including the security dilemma. Finally, we will determine the importance of the balance of power system in the origins of major wars by providing the analysis of two historical major war cases, the Cold War and the First World War which will help us reach a conclusion on how significant the balance of power is in the origins of major wars.
In International Politics, states perform in a system which has been tagged as balance of power and its study is a way of describing states behavior. The term can be traced to being coined a few centuries ago but as Hume (date, page) aptly points out, this way of operating, that has been defined as balance of power, “is founded so much on common sense and obvious reasoning, that it is impossible it could altogether have escaped antiquity”. When alliances are fluid and a states prime role is to linger onto keeping this equilibrium, peace is accomplished albeit this is not what history seems to tell us. This concept can be seen and analysed from different viewpoints since it has been highly debated and differently defined. The realist Morgenthau (2006, p. 179) describes it as “the aspiration for power on the part of several nations, each trying either to maintain or overthrow the status quo, leads of a necessity to a configuration that is called the balance of power”. The constructivist Wight (1979, p. 168) describes it as a chess game in which we “mentally pluck them the states out of their geographical setting and arrange them according to their alliances and affinities, with the underlying notion of matching their moral right and material strength”. The British Liberal Cobden (1878, p. 197-198) identifies it as “a chimera – an undescribed, indescribable, incomprehensible nothing”. In short, reaching a definition of balance of power relies on the epoch and the School of Thought approached to it, since different scholars perceive the balance of power in different ways. Though the common understanding of the term is that of equipoising the power between states in such a way of creating an equilibrium between them.
The feeling of insecurity and the tension that growing power of a state may cause leads us to one balance of power related term and problem: the security dilemma. This term has been related to the balance of power system since a state, in order to heighten its security, as Waltz (1979, p. 102) affirms, must protect itself in order to survive, subsequently must make alliances. Though, in order to protect itself, a state should have a strong military force, an alliance – or multiple ones – with other states driven by military reason. For example, during the period of the Second World War, Britain allied with the Soviet Union and what we witnessed was the cooperation of two minimum-sized states that decided they will be more secure against external threats from a larger state by forming an alliance (Nye Jr, 2003, p. 83). Therefore, this lack of confidence could be seen as a provoking action towards other states and, as a result, it might cause the start to an arms race which would create an imminent conflict since “among states, a state of nature is a state of war” (Waltz, 1979, p. 102). Moreover, the security dilemma, more than a security tightening of the state’s borders is perceived as an offensive action by states, leading us to the conclusion that the security dilemma provokes the start of conflicts and major wars.
Notwithstanding, there is also evidence that the balance of power came in use when a stable, even and peaceful system was needed. The politics ‘credo’, during the 19th century, was that the balance of power had to come in hand “for managing and restoring both opponents and allies” (Schroeder, 2000, p. 159). For instance, in 1815 during the Congress of Vienna, France, despite having made the whole Europe going through two murky decades of unforgettable butchery, was permitted to return to its pre-war status quo, which was of Great Power, and additionally, its borders did not demise but were reallocated to the original ones. In nuce, the Great Powers (Russia, Prussia, Britain, and Austria), even if disdained the option, acted to prevent a single state to gain much power and allude to another bloodshed. In this case, the balance of power was used to create an equilibrium and thwart the wake of conflict, as Mazzini affirmed “the so-called balance of power, is an ineffective lie if it is not an equilibrium or balance of justice” (Wight, 1975, p. 9). Therefore, we can assert that after 1815 in Europe this system was seen as a condition leading to peace as ‘restored’ Great Powers – Britain, France, Russia, Prussia, and Austria – through congresses and diplomacy, restored it and made sure to keep the European power system steady and equilibrated with the aim of preventing conflict. Thanks to the balance of power, after the wars, a collective security system was created. Thus, we can assert that the balance of power can also be considered among states as a condition for – and constituent of – peace.
Some realists argue – the hegemonic stability theory proponents – that the cause of the start of conflicts and major wars was the absence of a strong dominant power and they also support the idea that the system is more stable when the majority of the power is held by one side so the others do not dare attack it (Nye Jr., 2013, p. 82). An example of a hegemonic system in history is the post-Cold War period as after the dismantling of the Soviet Union, the United States settled in a position of a superpower and created a unipolar system. Though, this system, in relation to neorealist, can tumble easily since states will aim to gain more power than the hegemon’s and as John Mearsheimer (2001) claims “the international system would create powerful incentives for states to look for opportunities to gain power at the expense of rivals and to take advantage of those situations when the benefits outweigh the costs”. However, nowadays the global system has augmented its interdependentness and still the United States, or other major powers, have the capacity to exercise pressure and control at a different level – economic, military or policy. In spite of this, we can assume that one leading power would not necessarily stabilize or maneuver the international, or global, system.
First World War
In the recent centuries, the European system faced the advent of numerous conflicts and different major wars, in which all of the Great Powers present in the continent took part, a plausible example of this is theFirst World War. For some, the cause of First World War was fostered by a security dilemma caused by the rise of the German power and so the inability of countries to keep the balance of power. During the pre-War period, a number of alliances -these were common during the period since “a key instrument for attempting to maintain a balance of power is alliance” (Nye Jr, 2013, p. 83) – were created and the general ethos, as Waltz (1979, p. 102) stated, was that if “all states may at any time use force, all states must be prepared to do so”. In 1911, Germany’s stubborn seek of power became a menace for its surrounding countries – Britain especially – since with the “Tirpitz Plan”, Germany had a territory expansion possibility and its surroundings, which feared this, gave a start to the arms races. “Among states, a state of nature is a state of war” (Waltz, 1979, p. 102) and for fear of imminent attack Europe, subsequently, was divided into two blocs of alliances. France, Britain, and Russia formed “the Triple Entente” and Germany, Italy, and Austria-Hungary got united to form “the Triple Alliance”. We can so say that war was seen as a “corollary of the balance of power” (Vose Galick, 1955, p. 88) and subsequently this ‘balance of power system’, and the fear toward other countries gaining too much power (veering to the security dilemma), acted as a way to operate and lead to the advent of war.
The Cold War
During the Cold War the balance of power becomes the balance of terror since after Second World War, even if Truman’s administration worked against it, it was easily recognized that France was not a superpower, Britain had to recover from the war that left the treasury and the military drawn of every power and China was not going to be the West superpower. The remaining superpowers, that come out of the war in a predominant position, were the U.S and the Soviet Union, which were equally potent, entered in a unique competition with one another creating a bipolar system. Both superpowers become the foe of each other and could lavishly affirm to own nuclear weapons. In essence, the U.S. had the possibility to destroy the Soviet Union and vice versa, this lead to the withdrawn of the hypothesis of a war since these recognised that both had an equal chance to defeat the other. Moreover during the Cold War, which can be taken as an example, we can see how the balance of power intervened into keeping peace and prevent the start of another war. Unipolar system add….
In conclusion, it is important to note, that this theory was applied in bellicose actions that inevitably lead to war. To state the importance of this in contributing to the origins of major wars we analysed the pre-First World War period. Although, as we observed within the essay, the balance of power was occasionally used with pacifistic purposes and for keeping peace and equilibrium in the system. For example, the aims of Great Powers at the peace table during 1815, at the Congress of Vienna or, as analysed in the case study, during the Cold War where the balance of power avoided a major war. Concerning the question, we can say that the concept of the balance of power had an impact upon the decisions making in the military area, but not always with the intent of generating major wars. Therefore, in spite of all the arguments observed and analysed above – also it is largely agreed – that the theory, or system, of the balance of power, not only contributed, but had a significant role in the origins of major wars.