The Balance of Power

In the literary world, the central concept of politics and international relations known as “the balance of power” was showcased in a very subtle manner in Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” The discussion was between an Italian diplomat and a Russian statesman at a gala, whereby the Italian diplomat emphatically spoke of the centrality of this concept of balance of power in the world of politics and international relations. Tolstoy added in another part of this famous novel that in matters relating to war and peace, it is the small things in life that matter most and when added up, these small things make the biggest difference in the ultimate outcomes pertaining to the issue of war and peace.

            Arguably, the concept of balance of power as the central concept of politics and international relations comes from the natural philosophy of Sir Francis Bacon, who is a rather famous philosopher within the British empirical tradition. Bacon suggested that nature itself is a political and moral entity that is essentially in sync with man’s acquaintance and dealings with both good and evil. Man began developing notions of both good and evil after Adam and Eve’s fall from heaven, according to Bacon, who evidently acquired this notion from theological narratives. Before Adam and Eve’s fall from heaven, there was no dichotomy between good and evil. Everything was good.

            But as a result of man’s perpetual struggle between good and evil which began with Adam and Eve’s acquaintance with this dichotomy as a result of taking the fruit of the “forbidden tree,” the universe has since been in a constant but stable state of war. This war is being fueled by the mutual interactions between the “material appetites” of a multiplicity of individuals, with the primary appetites being pleasure and self-preservation. In turn, the pursuit of these material appetites by a multiplicity of individuals is ultimately limited and moderated by action and counteraction.

In a sense, Baconian natural philosophy consists of hedonism and survival as its two contrasting poles with gradations in between. Man is then caught in a constant pendular swing between these two poles of human nature. In a metaphysical sense, human nature is then intertwined with the moral world, with the latter being manifested by politics and international relations and thus its central concept, namely, the balance of power. Both nature and the moral world as manifested by politics and international relations shed light on the truth pertaining to human nature from a Baconian standpoint. Perhaps the role of Britain in the international system as the “offshore balancer” between nations driven by human nature as perceived by Bacon – who in turn acquired his views mainly from Machiavelli – stems from this particular mode of natural and moral philosophy. Churchill is known to have said that in the event of a conflict between Germany and Russia, Britain would not take sides between two equally hedonistic parties. Instead, Britain would cast its lot with the weaker side until it gains the advantage, and once the balance of power shifts, Britain would then cast its lot with the other side.

            Nevertheless, the basic scientific principle embedded in the concept known as the balance of power which stems from the mutual action and counteraction of “material appetites” such as pleasure and self-preservation is equilibrium or “social homeostasis,” which can also be found in other scientific disciplines such as physics, biology, and economics. Before equilibrium and social homeostasis is established, however, the balance of power is in a constant state of flux due either to an attempt to alter the status quo by a particular nation or the flux is due to the efforts of the status quo power to preserve its dominant position in the international system, according to Hans Morgenthau.

There are also two basic forms of balancing. For one, there is “internal balancing,” which is the act of internal development on the part of a nation that in turn enables it to tilt the balance of power against an adversary. Also, there is “external balancing,” which is the act of tilting the balance of power against an adversary after the act of “internal balancing.” Stabilizing the balance of power, which is always in a state of flux, can only happen through a political settlement or mutual understanding between the major powers which in turn leads to order and peace out of what is otherwise anarchy and chaos. As Mao famously said: “All under the heaven is in great chaos.”

            But in a balance of power arrangement, stability does not always suffice as a prevalent condition given that stability could also consist of the elimination of one element of the international system by another element. Thus, what entails a balance of power arrangement is the preservation of all elements in the international system, according to Morgenthau. What can also be inferred from Morgenthau is that instability in the international system occurs when two powers of equal or relative weight pursue what are in essence “imperialistic policies” vis-à-vis one another. In some way, each major power feels threatened by the other because of the imperial pursuits of the other, as was the case in the Cold War of the 20th century between the United States and the former USSR. As a result, each side forms an alliance system in order to check or counteract the actions of the other side, and after a certain degree of fluctuation resulting from the interactions of the two sides, equilibrium and social homeostasis is then established.

            Because of the fact that the principles of equilibrium and social homeostasis are to be upheld in the overall balance of power in order for there to be peace and stability in the international system, it follows that if any single country becomes overwhelmingly powerful and then dominates the international system by suspending the power equilibrium, the chances of war increase in the international system. Therefore, as a component of the balance of power, multipolarity actually brings peace and stability in the long run if managed properly by an intelligent leader.

            Amidst major power competition, small countries are either neglected, protected, or sandwiched by the major powers depending on where the focus of the major powers is directed. In turn, small countries either balance or hedge between two opposing major powers, or they bandwagon with one major power over the other. Establishing or even tilting the balance of power in one’s own favor requires a certain level of ambiguity, deft, flexibility, and maneuvering. Therefore, a political genius is required in every state apparatus a la Bismarck in the 19th century to uphold a very complex and delicate balance of power in the international system. Any semblance of disequilibrium in the international system that arises from the hyper-militarization or misbehavior of a hegemonic power leads to the inevitable dismantling of global order and stability.

            As demonstrated by history, the hegemonic power loses credibility and legitimacy as a result of hyper-militarization and suspicious behavior, as was the case with Germany in the late 19th to early 20th century according to Henry Kissinger. In turn, Europe never recovered from the disequilibrium in the international system stemming from the countervailing alliances that formed in the late 19th century between Germany and Austria on one hand, with France and Russia on the other hand, which resulted largely from a general reaction to German hyper-militarization. Also, from a military and strategic standpoint, the balance of power is significantly impacted by the advent of first and second-strike capabilities which in turn are laced with nuclear power. What proceeds from this situation is either an arms race or negotiations aimed at arms limitations in order to reduce tensions.

In order to tilt the balance of power against the former USSR after a diminution of American power resulting from Vietnam which in turn buoyed the Soviet position vis-à-vis the United States for a certain period of time, President Richard Nixon – with the support of Henry Kissinger – reached out to China, a long time foe, in order to pull the Chinese towards cooperation with the United States which in turn would calcify a Sino-Soviet split that would induce the collapse of the USSR in a matter of years. What emerged from America’s outreach to China was an opportunity to exploit holes within Sino-Soviet relations and create a structure known as “Triangular Diplomacy” which is perhaps still relevant to this day. As the late Zbigniew Brzezinski said: “Push China, and the Russians will follow.”

            Now that the Sino-Russian alliance has renewed itself as a result of the Ukraine and Crimea episode of 2014, the United States may have to employ the Kissingerian strategy of having relations with China that are better than the relationship Russia enjoys with China in order to weaken Russia’s position from a balance of power standpoint. The need to weaken Russia’s position from a balance of power standpoint results from another bout of American “relative decline” similar to the one experienced in the 1970’s which stems from a loss of American morale due to Middle Eastern wars and Afghanistan. In a basic sense, the United States will have to determine whether Russia or China is the worst of the two evils per se, and then employ the Kissingerian strategy towards either Russia or China in order to prompt yet another Sino-Russian split. In essence, the geopolitical circumstances stemming from the prevailing balance of power necessitates a tradeoff.

How to go about making this tradeoff is something that will inevitably be the subject of debate within the American bureaucracy and intellectual circles. But in the American system, it is the president who ultimately settles foreign policy debates and disputes that are otherwise unsettled despite facing stiff resistance from both the bureaucracy and intellectual circles. Nevertheless, any dialogue with China, once it arises, will have to consist of four basic elements:

  1. Taiwan
  2. Rationale or intent of US forces in Northeast Asia
  3. Role of China in the international community
  4. Geographical scope of the “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI)

But as the Chinese have shown in the past, they have a keen interest in broadening the dialogue with the United States over transnational issues. As Mao once told Richard Nixon: “The small issue is Taiwan; the big issue is the world.” Moreover, the tradition of resorting to diplomacy with China in order to tilt the balance of power against traditional adversaries such as Russia is already established and well-known, and it is called “The China Card.” This maneuver, namely, “The China Card,” would arguably put the United States in a dominant international position vis-à-vis Russia and Iran.

            In the end, no discussion of a balance of power would be replete without an assessment of what constitutes power itself. Power, as stated by Morgenthau, consists of six dimensions. For one, there is the military dimension of power. Second, there is the economic dimension. Third, there is the territorial aspect of power. Fourth comes natural resources. Fifth is population. Finally, there is the spiritual dimension, which consists of what is considered to be the national spirit. It is in fact the spiritual aspect of power that is preponderant and it is the most important dimension or factor of politics and international relations. As Henry Kissinger wrote, all politics is psychological.

Given the psychological and spiritual nature of power, it ultimately follows that the realm of politics and international relations is of a mysterious nature which can neither be preached nor taught. In terms of nature, which is intertwined with the moral world of politics, Bacon wrote: “Man, being the servant and interpreter of Nature, can do and understand so much and so much only as he has observed in fact or though of the course of nature; beyond this he neither knows anything nor can do anything.” Due to its mysterious nature and its obviously Manichaean dimension, politics and international relations can only be experienced and practiced, and it is the experience and practice of politics and international relations which spawns the scientific and theoretical aspect of this particular discipline.

Also, as the political scientist Robert Pape has written, the ascendancy of the United States in the international system after World War II and its incredible ability to balance against adversaries like the former Soviet Union has been attributed largely to America’s “benign intent.” But in recent years, the intent of the United States has come under scrutiny resulting from American actions that led to the renewal of the Trans-Eurasian drug trade stemming from Afghanistan in addition to the unwarranted invasion of Iraq that led to the creation of ISIS in the heart of the Middle East. As a result, the United States has not had the same success in attracting support from other countries against China as it did vis-à-vis the former Soviet Union. Once again, America must prove its benign intent towards others and corroborate its intent with corresponding words and actions if it seeks to tilt the balance of power against its foremost adversaries in the months and years to come.

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