Iron, Blood, and the Balance-of-Power in Europe

The balance of power in a multipolar system of international politics involves more than two nations of generally equal strength competing in multiple spheres of interest (territorial, economic, social doctrine are all examples of nation-state interests). A balance of power is the codification of reality–no one nation can overpower all the others and establish hegemony and imperialism[1].

In a multipolar world order the hegemonic state does not exist. All of the great states, for example WWI’s France, Great Britain, Germany, Russia, Austria, and the Ottoman Empire on the eve of of the war, had made the choice of siding with the triple entente or triple alliance. No one power (technically) forced another power to ally with them, it was made of that societies governments free will, by what was perceived as their rational interests. All the states in a balance of power are basically playing with the same rulebook, there’s an understanding that each power will compete for its self-interest, but that the guidelines of the international order will mostly be adhered to. Kissinger explains in his work that the balance-of-power was not flawless, but could properly function under conditions of multiple points of comparable power in Europe,

The balance-of-power system did not purport to avoid crises or even wars. When working properly, it was meant to limit both the ability of states to dominate others and the scope of conflicts. Its goal was not peace so much as stability and moderation. By definition, a balance-of-power arrangement cannot satisfy every member of the international system completely; it works best when it keeps dissatisfaction below the level at which the aggrieved party will seek to overthrow the international order.”[2]

This is the status quo the Austrians, Russians, Prussians, British, and Bourbon France were playing until the late seventeen hundreds. The French revolution exulted the spirit of Rousseau’s general will and liberal ideas were promoted, attempting to overturn the status quo. “Popular sovereignty” was one of these fashionable liberal ideas during the French revolution. The French state, now as a revolutionary power, confronted the coalition of conservative monarchs with the belief that the authority of government comes from the consent of its people, and the revolutionary state was willing to use force to promote this idea against monarchical states. “Force might conquer the world but it could not legitimize itself. It was Austria’s task to preserve her integrity as the repository of all that remained of the old principles and the old forms, and this in the course of time was due to bring Austria powerful allies.”[3] It’s not hard to decipher why the monarchies would disagree with Napoleon and resist his attempt to overturn the status quo i.e. the divine right of kings. A monarchies power, absolute like Russia’s or not, came from God, not the people. But what makes a state revolutionary, is not necessarily its own internal doctrine but Kissinger will tell us,

that it possesses the courage of its convictions, that it is willing, indeed eager, to push its principles [upon the status quo] to their ultimate conclusion. Whatever else a revolutionary power may achieve therefore, it tends to erode, if not the legitimacy of the international order, at least the restraint with which such an order operates. The characteristic of a stable order is its spontaneity; the essence of a revolutionary situation is its self-consciousness.[4]    

With Napoleonic conquests came not only empire, but the twin troubles of liberalism and nationalism. Conquest was not for limited victory that could then be used in diplomatic maneuverings at a later date, but to overturn the ideas from which the international order affixed its legitimacy. The ideas he brought with him sought to give people the right to decide their own fate. For empires like Austria this was unacceptable, its polyglot nature couldn’t be held together by nationalism or liberalism, but only the centrality of the crown tied the multinational people together. Without the Hapsburg king Austria as an empire did not exist.

The 19th century would see the rise of Prussia as the problem state. The Austrians at the end of the Napoleonic wars sought to marginalize Prussian dominance among the Germanic states to its south and west. But as Austria’s fortunes waned and Prussia’s rose; as Austria’s Metternich past and Prussia’s Bismarck came, the political conditions of central Europe changed and the expansion of Prussia as the new strength of central Europe was set. The unification of the German empire would not be fashioned as a liberal or democratic body politic as Frederick III, the 99 day king that succeeded the first emperor of Germany, had hoped, but as Bismarck predicted, by blut und eisen.[5] Bismarck however, was not as attached to Prussian militarism as many of his compatriots, he sought limited wars for specific political objectives. His predecessors would not be so limited however, because by the 20th century both Prussian militarism and folly would engulf not just Germany but the whole of Europe and the world. Hitlerism would act as perhaps the greatest revolutionary threat[6] to the European order since Napoleon.

The security dilemma however, when both weakness and strength are provocative, can be construed as having an impact on both these outbreaks of world war. The absolute security of one state pre-WWI cannot be secured without the absolute insecurity of all other states. A balance of power includes within its composition both uncertainty and a level of insecurity. When a state tries to create a situation of absolute security, like Napoleon did by seeking conquest after conquest, or Germany did by rearming after WW1, it puts other states on alert. In International Relations we try to distinguish between offensive and defensive realism, but none of these states could really have a clue whether the development of another nations military was for one purpose or another, or rather if after the buildup the armaments would then be used for new purposes. I wouldn’t necessarily say that balance of power diplomacy leads to the security dilemma, but I would state that a power attempting to override the status quo by military means, specifically total war, could intentionally upend the delicate balance if they believe conditions have changed to the point where they no longer see other nations as a threat that can’t be overcome. Ultimately, the states that tried to upend this balance; revolutionary France and Germany, found themselves on the losing end of their wars. Ultimately the United States, or the Anglo-American vision of liberal institutionalism that constrains militarism and acts as a conduit through which international politics can transition, won the world wars. The balance-of-power post-Vienna Congress did not include room to maneuver new inequities in the dynamic power struggles between states, so war could generally be relied upon to signal that a change in dynamics has occurred and must have consequences.

[1] indirect and direct foreign dominance

[2] Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994), 21

[3] Henry Kissinger, A World Restored (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, edition 79), 17.

[4] Henry Kissinger, A World Restored (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, edition 79), 3.

[5] Accredited to Bismarck when asked in what fashion the unification of Germany would take. detailed text of speech

[6] It perhaps could be said that Russia’s queer religious proclamations in the Balkans or mysterious fervor for opening the Dardanelles were a threat for their ideological and personal nature.

2 thoughts on “Iron, Blood, and the Balance-of-Power in Europe

  1. Pingback: NATO Nations Not Living up to Their Obligations | The International Scope

  2. b) In 586 BC the Chaldeans took over Judah, destroyed the temples and enslaved some citizens.

    As time went on, man was no longer satisfied with a God they could not see,
    hear, or touch. It is ideal if the first target you take is rich.


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