Balance of Power Essay

Using two examples critically discuss the Balance of Power. In order to understand the meaning of Balance of Power, we should ask ourselves the question what we understand by ‘power’. Hard to define it or measure it, power is the ability to “do something or act in a particular way” or as Nye (2009:65) argues “the ability to achieve one’s purposes or goals. ’ In other words, the potential to influence other people to do what you want them to do. As many scholars would agree, balance of power can hardly have an exact definition.

A compelling definition given by the nineteenth-century British liberal Richard Codden states that balance of power is “a chimera – an undescribed, indescribable, incomprehensible nothing”. However, in this essay we are going to try to understand, explore and critically discuss the nature of this concept using two different examples from the late 19th and 20th century history – the pre-WWI conditions and the Cold War. To begin with, the 19th century was marked by stability and absence of warfare thanks to the desire to create equilibrium, peace and constrain international violence after the final defeat of Napoleon I in 1815.

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The attempt to create a true balance of power was fairly achieved using another principle aiming for peace – the concert of Europe. As Sheehan (1996:122) argues ‘the concert system was not a development of balance practice but rather represented a quite different approach to international security’. Furthermore, Fay(Fay cited in Sheehan 1996:122) adds that ‘The Concert aims to secure harmony and cooperation by conciliation and by minimising the tendency of the powers to group into opposing combinations’. Watson cited in Sheehan 1996:126), however, criticises it by calling it a ‘diffused hegemony’. He suggests that it was a variant balance of power system, but it was only focused on ‘maintaining a balance between the interests of such a small number of major states that the distinction from effective hegemony becomes blurred’. Different or not, the Concert of Europe fairly managed to create peace between the great powers. If the Concert of Europe is aiming for peace, the balance of power concepts strives rather more for stability without letting one country become stronger than another.

Both of those ideas are achieved during that period which persisted from 1822 to 1854 when the revolutions of liberal nationalism became too strong to hold on to the practices of providing territorial compensation or restoring governments to maintain peace and equilibrium (Nye, 2009). The period from 1954 to 1870 was far more unstable and changeling for some countries. For instances, the Crimean War was an example of a balance of power war in which Russia was prevented from pressing the weakened Ottoman Empire by France and Britain.

Political leaders dropped old rules and began to rely on the nationalism ideologies. Bismarck was not an ideological nationalist, he was rather more conservative man who wanted Germany to be united under the Prussian monarchy. On the other hand, the German politician was ready to use nationalist appeals and wars to defeat Denmark, Austria and France but nevertheless, he returned to his conservative place once he achieved his goals (Nye, 2009). Undoubtedly, during Bismarck’s period, balance of power was achieved.

He successfully managed Germany’s foreign affaires by smartly creating alliances and keeping good relations with Russia and Austria which would deprive France from finding an ally. Bismarck worshipped power and peace and believed in persuasion and not the threat of violence. Nevertheless, he knew the limitations of power unlike Hitler. His flexibility in dealing with international relations brought balance and stability in Europe (Rosecrance, 1974). From 1890 to 1914 the stability had gradually worsen with the absence of Bismarck.

Nye (1996:70) states several reason for that – ‘Germany did not renew his treaty with Russia; became involved in overseas imperialism; challenged Britain’s naval supremacy and did not discourage Austrian confrontations with Russia over the Balkans. ’ All those approaches led Germany to increase its power and break the stability in Europe. The concept of balance of power, however, is strongly related and often comes hand in hand with the concept of alliances. As Nye (2009:70) discusses alliances are ‘formal on informal arrangements that sovereign states enter into with each other in order to ensure their mutual security’.

Different states can ally for many reasons but often they are security or military as well as the sharing of different ideologies. Starting from the 19th century, European countries had started forming different alliances for security reasons in order to attempt to maintain the balance of power. Striving for equal distribution of power, first the Dual Alliance was formed in 1879 between Germany and Austria-Hungary. Soon after, the Austro-Serbian Alliance and the Triple Alliance were formed. As mentioned above, Bismarck’s successors were ager for more power and consequently Germany gained strength on many levels, surpassing Britain and France which led to breaking the balance. Germany’s heavy industry increased as well as the military capability including an organization of a massive naval armaments program. Germany started dominating the continent of Europe which soon became the biggest cause of the WWI (Nye, 2009). As mentioned above, there are several definitions and types of balance of power and often they might slightly differ from one another .

Vattel (cited in Sheehan 1996:3) argues that it is ‘an arrangement of affairs that no state shall be in position to have absolute mastery and dominate others’, but on the other hand (Claude cited in Sheehan, 1996:3) states that if one country become more powerful than others, then they should feel threatened and ‘respond by taking equivalent measures’ The aim is the same, stability and flexibility need to exist but the problem is using what methods will that be achieved.

If Bismarck, in order to achieve balance of power, persuaded other states rather than threatening them with violence, then is threatening with violence a useful tool for achieving this balance? A good example for this is the Cold War where this method proves to work to some extent. The international system between 1945 and 1990 was struggling to maintain the stability and equilibrium between the superpowers and their respective blocks.

Given that things were slightly different as they were only two great powers at that moment – the US and the USSR it was again a case of balance of power. Mandelbaum (cited in Sheehan, 1996:171) discusses that ‘balance of power is defined by the condition of the international system rather than its composition’. Even though only two countries were trying to maintain the balance Mandelbaum adds ‘out of the same fundamental condition, anarchy, came the same general result-equilibrium, defined as the absence of preponderance. The test was more psychological rather than physical where both sides strive to prevent preponderance by the other and in the same time each capable of destroying the other. The clash that started between the two superpowers was because of a security dilemma, but the bipolarity resulted in constant communication between the two sides, which had been trying to calculate forces for 45 years (Nye, 2009). It was highly expected that with the emergence of nuclear weapons, earlier practices such as balance of power would be abolished but the nature of international relations was not hanged. Both sides explored possibilities of moderating their competition through the mechanism of arms control and as Sheehan (1996:173) also suggests ‘it encouraged the development of a balance of power system based upon the doctrine of deterrence; one in which the great powers paradoxically amassed huge amounts of military power in hope that they would never have to use it. ’ Nuclear deterrence works differently from the pre-nuclear balance of power as it is more of a physical phenomenon.

It is not about how you react but it is about how the other person would react in the same circumstances (Sheehan, 1996). With the appearance of nuclear weapons though, somewhat new type of balance of power was suggested often referred to as ‘balance of terror’. However, those two concepts are not the same. ‘Balance of terror’ suggests that mostly political power is being balance rather than crude military capacity (Sheehan, 1996). With the terror balance, however, occurs the idea of bipolarity when two large states such as the United States and the USSR have nearly the same power.

It takes place quite rarely, but often states tighten so much that the flexibility is lost (Nye, 2009). Also, in the case during the Cold War, a nuclear balance of terror took place where both states estimated military strengths as we clearly saw during the arms race (Sheehan, 1996). Balance of terror might be a different concept, but it took place hand in hand with the balance of power during that period. To conclude, the fundamental notion of balance of power is described to create stability and parity between states.

But since this notion has existed for many years, we should not be surprised if it has changed over the years. As noted above, balance of power has many definitions and types. During the pre-WWI conditions, we could see some aspects of it in the Concert of Europe and Bismarck’s method of government whereas in during the Cold War a rather rare type of balance of power existed between the US and the USSR with the appearance of nuclear weapons.

This concept might not be the best policy that ever existed but it surely strives for the most important thing – peace. Bibliography Nye, J. S. Jr. 2009. ‘The Cold War’, Understanding International Conflicts, London: Pearson Longman Rosecrance, R. 1974. ‘Kissinger, Bismarck and the Balance of Power’, Millenium – Journal of International Studies, 3: 45 Sheehan, M. 1996, Balance of Power History & Theory, London, New Fetter Lance