Collapse of the Balance of Power

Introduction

The concept balance of power can be described as the attainment of the beginning of equilibrium in the distribution of world powers to attain a stable security situation. In such a system, security is guaranteed when the military capability of major powers is well distributed to ensure that there is no single state with the capacity to dominate the rest. In fact, countries are forced to form security alliances that coalesce around the relatively stronger powers (Hamilton & Herwig, 2004). According to the theory of the balance of power, war is inevitable when one country becomes much powerful than a combination of the others. A domineering state takes the advantage of its military superiority to attack weaker and conquers the neighbors, in so doing, it provides motivation for the threatened countries to form a defensive alliance. Therefore, for security to prevail, there must exist a multi-polar international system that allows a balanced distribution of power.

 

The Outbreak of World War I in the Perspective of Collapse of the Balance of Power

The outbreak of World War I can be understood in the context of the collapse of the balance of power. The drastic growth of Germans military superiority in the period towards 1914 made it hard for other states to deter Berlin from attacking neighboring countries. German had a bigger army than any other European state. It had 8.5 million militaries almost double the amount of the closest rival, Russia, which had 4.4 million (Hamilton & Herwig, 2004).

The balance of power was further altered when in 1879 German and Austria-Hungary entered into a military pact that rendered the states outside this pact more vulnerable to military conquest. Later in 1882, Italy joined this coalition to form a triple alliance. France, Russia, and Great Britain were sent into a panic by this development, which led to the three coming together to form the Triple Entente in 1907 as a counter strategy (Little, 2007).

The Alliance Systems

The balance of power before World War I revolved around the alliance system, in which there existed two alliances, the Triple Entente of Russia, Great Britain, and France versus the Triple Alliance of Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Italy. The formation of the Triple Entente in 1882 did not lead to amity and stability in Europe as was expected; instead, it upset Germany, which was surrounded by unfriendly states. As a result, Berlin engaged in an aggressive campaign to enhance its military capabilities and superiority. The relationship between the European powers in a balance of power arrangement meant that each state is in continuous response to real and imagined danger. The unification of Germany in 1870s gave it the impetus to dominate the European politics.

Nationalism and Failed Balance of Power

Nationalism is one of the common features that associated with the period before the outbreak of World War I (Hamilton & Herwig, 2004). Each country wanted to pose as a powerful nation for it to be considered in the alliance arrangements. German, Russian, French, and British troops formed the epicenter of nation-state power struggles. At the same time, Prussia, a state that had substantially grown in power and influence in the last decade, had played the role of the major protagonist in European wars at the time. Prussia attacked and defeated France, which gave it the political incentive to unify the remaining states in the south to create an Imperial Germany. Consequently, this event made Germany the most solid authority in Europe. The result became the creation of an obstinate problem to the balance of power in Europe (Little, 2007).

The sudden action of Prussia went unchallenged, thus destabilizing the security arrangement (Hamilton & Herwig, 2004). The other Great Powers failed to act, thus creating a fault line that heralded the collapse of the balance of power, which would later lead to the outbreak of the World War I. The weakness of the balance of power in the period 1800-1914 meant that states were free to act without considering the stability of the system. Germans aggressive nationalism grew due to lack of a strong system to check on the excesses of imperialistic overture that accompanied it, which created room for violation of international norms. The success of an equilibrium power distribution is anchored on deterrence of the major powers from acting unilaterally in a manner that jeopardizes the international security. A state that chooses to wage war must be ready for dire consequences. However, this was not the case when Prussia attacked France and later formed a stronger Germany. The Great Powers of Europe, at that time, did not intervene, which led to the creation of an anarchic system that allowed the dominant Germany to advance aggression without being deterred (Little, 2007).

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The balance of power does not guarantee long-term peace and stability, any changes in either of the alliance or the military capability of a major state can lead to war (Hamilton & Herwig, 2004). The unification of Germany and the subsequent military build-up rendered the balance of power arrangement obsolete. Each state embarked on the arms race and nationalism. Nations that could not cope up with the competition became more vulnerable to those that managed to drastically increase their military power. The international community could not contain Germans from attacking the neighboring states. In the balance of power system, all major states are supposed to be successful in an arms race, a situation that did not exist, thus the collapse of the equilibrium and world war consent the subsequent outbreak of the World War I (Hamilton & Herwig, 2004).

Moreover, when Germans built an army of about 8.4 million, surpassing the number of a combined Great Britain, France, and Austria-Hungary force, the risk of Berlin starting the war with any nation became imminent (Hamilton & Herwig, 2004). The fact that one or more Great Powers could join Germany to form an alliance left the international security situation in a precarious state. Moreover, the rapid growth of the military capability of German in the period preceding the World War I left the international community with minimal options to maintaining peace and stability. The war became inevitable as Berlin enhanced its military, which gave it the impetus to wage war any time without much fear of retribution. Some critics maintained that since aggression would appear unattractive, this would be more stable and would be averted if there was a balance of power among the rival coalitions.

The balance of power in Europe for a long time helped to maintain relative stability but did not cure the endemic animosities between the major powers. The Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871 left France more wounded and resentful of the Germans. Consequently, it embarked on a plan to avenge the losses that were incurred. Berlin, on the other hand, tried as much as it can to sideline Paris in European affairs by maintaining working relationships with Russia and Austria-Hungary (Little, 2007).

Presence of Many Wars

Another aspect that demonstrates how the collapse of the balance of power led to World War I is the preceding numerous wars that offered suitable ground for a global crisis. In the period between 1900 and 1914, several wars, which involved major powers, were fought across the continents. The first and second Morocco crisis in 1905 and 1911, Bosnia crisis of 1908, the Italy-Turkish War- Ottomans, 1911-12, and the Balkan crisis of 1912-13 prepared the international community for hot war (Little, 2007). The balance of power system failed to prevent war or conflicts that would lead to military aggression. The state of equilibrium between the great powers could not be maintained, which increased the volatile nature of international relations. Surprise shifts in alliance formation left the system more unstable.

Britain, which had for a long time taken an aloof position on international conflicts, joined the Triple Entente, a development that Germany did not expect. With this new arrangement, German became more worried about its neighbors, which gave it a reason to prepare for pre-emptive strikes on the other major powers that it deemed adversaries. Sustained fear is the trigger of war-like activities among major powers, which, in the long run, breaks the stability of the system when one state or alliance amasses more military strength than the other.

The balance of power arrangement did not guarantee peace, but independence of the major powers. Smaller states played as cheers to superior nations (Little, 2007). Consequently, this explains the existence of many wars involving great powers in the era before the World War I. Without peace, war becomes unavoidable and stability endangered. The recurrence of law-scale wars and crisis provided a fertile ground for the collapse of the balance of power and the subsequent outbreak of the major war.

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According to Little (2007), rivalry over disputed territories between major powers provided fertile ground for hot war. France, Britain, Russia, Italy, Germany, and Austria-Hungary were in one way or another in conflicts of the control of territories in Europe and Africa. The international system did not provide a peaceful framework to solve such challenges, but rather it was the military superiority or lack of it that dictated how nation-states solved issues among themselves.

The military action remained one of the most potent weapons of dealing with the crisis, a confirmation that the balance of power arrangement did not hold much ground in securing the international system (Hamilton & Herwig, 2004). The common trend in the pre-World War I conflicts was the use of the military, war could only be postponed to give states time to build up their combative capabilities. A state that had lost in a previous war got preoccupied with how to avenge its losses and humiliation. In this respect, the formed alliances were more of preparation for war than averting. Once a major power in an alliance felt secured enough, courtesy of strong allies, it made advances towards attacking the other states. Overlapping interest meant that an attack on a minor state would trigger the involvement of major powers, thus the challenge of minor conflict on the relationship between Great Powers at the time.

Militarization

Hamilton and Herwig (2004) affirm that a failed balance of power led to the militarization of Europe, which made it hard for stability to last. Each of the major power engaged in military build-up due to the anarchic state of the international system. War is much predictable in the balance of power system, the very reason to why stability does not last. Sustained suspicion among major players propagated the idea that military superiority was a key to state survival. In the long run, a country than attained some progress in military enhancement did not haste to taste its strength by instigating an armed crisis.

Conclusion

The outbreak of World War I can be explained through the perspective of a failed balance of power arrangement between the major powers of that time. The failure by Russia, Britain, France, Ottoman Empire, and Austria-Hungary to deter Prussia from attacking France and later forming a stronger Germany worked against the equilibrium of the international system, which created room for the conditions that could later lead to the start of World War I. Germanys aggression in the pre-1914 period was necessitated by the failure of the balance of power arrangement, which did not deter Berlin from making dangerous military moves. The Triple Entente, which was expected to stabilize the international system by deterring Germans from carrying out attacks on France, Britain, Russia or their interest created more tensions. It led to the formation of the Triple Alliance, a creation that gave Germans an impetus to be more hostile to other major powers. The escalating hostilities led to a full-scale war in 1914, thus, the failure of the balance of power to prevent war.

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