¶ … Balance of Power Help Us to Understand the Origins of World War I?
The origins of the first world war of the 20th century are now a matter of historical record, but even prior to the outbreak of hostilities in 1918, most observers in a position of authority readily recognized that it was not a question of whether there would be a war, but rather of when and where it would begin (Fromkin 259). Because the "War to End All Wars" failed to do so, it is important to better understand its origins and the balance of power concept can facilitate that process. To this end, this paper reviews the relevant literature to explain how the balance of power can help modern observers better understand the origins of World War I, followed by a summary of the research and important findings concerning these issues in the conclusion.
Balance of Power in Pre-World War I Europe
What is a "balance of power"? According to the definition provided by Black's Law Dictionary, in international law, balance of power refers to "a distribution and an opposition of forces, forming one system, so that no nation or country shall be in a position, either alone or united with others, to impose its will on any other nation or country or interfere with its independence" (142). In reality, the fragile balance of power that existed prior to World War I was tenuous at best and virtually nonexistent at worst, with some authorities arguing that a wide array of external factors were the precipitating causes of the war. For example, van de Haar emphasizes that, "The balance of power between states has been seen as a major cause of war and destruction" (101). Moreover, the balance of power that existed in pre-World War I Europe was heavily influenced by internal strife within the major actors as well. In this regard, Fromkin notes that, "As its political and military elite recognized, Europe was in the grip of an unprecedented arms race [and] internally the powers were victims of violent social, industrial, and political strife" (259).
Besides external and internal strife, the major powers of pre-World War I Europe were confronted with a hodgepodge of longstanding treaties and alliances that further fueled the powder keg, with each side believing they could prevail in a war, especially one of relatively short duration (Magagna 2015). This point is also made by De Balla who, writing in 1932, notes, "The fundamental obstacle to reconciliation between France and Germany was the system of alliances devised to bolster up French hegemony on the Continent of Europe" (66). Both France and Germany had much at stake of course, but each country also had legitimate concerns about the true intentions of the other based on centuries of conflict with each side viewing the other with growing suspicion in the years leading up to the outbreak of hostilities. For example, Horn notes that in the years prior to World War I, "There was a preoccupation with the realities of power based on the French experience in the centuries before 1914. French security rested on a combination of alliances, military force, and economic might [and] the balance of power was at the core of French security policy" (166).
Likewise, the ambitions of Russia and Great Britain in pre-World War I Europe made the balance of power even more unstable, with British policymakers viewing German hegemony and Russian policymakers viewing the territorial ambitions of Germany and the growing naval power of Great Britain with alarm (McDaniel 42). Notwithstanding the fragility of the existing balance of power, efforts were made by policymakers to sustain it as long as possible to prevent the outbreak of armed hostilities. In this regard, McDaniel notes that, "The fear of Germany's growing power motivated British statesmen to conclude an agreement with the Russians. Though the agreement encompassed Central Asian affairs, the statesmen conceived of the agreement as a means to complete a series of accords aimed at maintaining the European balance of power" (42).
Despite some historians' argument that given the complexity and strategic significance of the issues that contributed to the outbreak of armed hostilities in 1914 that World War I was...
For instance, Fahey maintains that, "World War I was the war was not inevitable, but instead a unique breakdown of the usual restraints against war" (95). While there was sufficient blame to go around for the bloody carnage that would follow, Fahey places the majority of the blame on Austria-Hungary: "In 1914, Vienna placed Austria's position in the Balkans above the general opinion of Europe and the general balance of power" (96).
Indeed, because the major actors in World War I were inextricably committed to binding alliances, these commitments became the overarching factors that contributed to the outbreak of war rather than the isolated assassination of a minor archduke. As Fahey emphasizes, "The key flaw in 1914 was that the preservation of a military alliance had become an end in itself. Germany did not go to war to assist Austria-Hungary. Germany went to war simply to preserve its alliance. The same could be said of France" (97). Notwithstanding these assertions, though, Wilkinson suggests that the same could also be said of Great Britain which he views as being the 800-pound gorilla in the conflict. Indeed, Wilkinson writes, "Of all the great powers, [Great Britain's] involvement seems the most unnecessary. After all, she had kept out of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. Why not in 1914?" (22).
Certainly, just as it "takes two to tango," it takes two or more countries to engage in war but the First World War was not as inevitable as many modern historians contend due in large part to the actions taken by the British in response to conflict that took place following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The response by Great Britain is viewed by Wilkinson and like-minded historians as being incongruent with its otherwise-cordial relations with Germany. In this regard, Wilkinson notes that, "Britain's relations with Germany were mainly cordial. Indeed Joseph Chamberlain had pursued the possibility of an alliance between 1899 and 1901" (22). In addition, the British had peacefully resolved the Berlin-Baghdad railway and Portuguese colonial issues by 1914, and the royal families of both countries were closely related (Wilkinson 23). In fact, following the establishment of the Rhodes scholarships at Oxford University, Cecil Rhodes declared that potential candidates must be drawn from the British Empire, the U.S., and Germany (Wilkinson 23).
Moreover, the prevailing attitude concerning Germany among the general British population during the years prior to World War I was one of admiration, especially for their educational system, with the German people being viewed as "our German cousins" (Wilkinson 23). For instance, Wilkinson reports that, "C.P. Scott, the Editor of the Manchester Guardian, spoke for enlightened Britain in opposing the very idea of war against 'our German cousins.' While he attacking the general 'neurosis' with regard to the balance of power, he insisted that if Britain did have a natural enemy, it was Russia. The vast majority of the Liberal Party cordially agreed" (24). In sharp contrast to the British view of Germany at the time, its relationships with France and Russia had been strained, with Russia being viewed as a police state and France being widely regarded as a decadent and corrupt regime (Wilkinson 24). In sum, Wilkinson contends that, "Britain's responsibility must be assessed as against Germany's. After all, Britain declared war on Germany, and not the other way round" (25).
Against this backdrop, it is noteworthy that the purported balance of power that existed in pre-World War I Europe was based on collective security alliances that are, by definition, contrary to the concept itself. Drawing on the legal definition provided by Black's cited above, a true balance of power is balanced, with no one country or nation being able to encroach upon the sovereignty of another but this was clearly not the case in Europe at the time. In this regard, Sheehan points out that, "Collective security is traditionally viewed as being the antithesis of balance of power politics. As an approach to the creation of national and international security, it emerged from the ashes of the First World War as the precursor of a new world order to replace the balance of power system which had allegedly failed in 1914" (153).
Like modern software applications that trigger stock sell-offs when a certain price is reached and resulting in a snowball effect that transcends the original causal factors, the collective security agreements in place prior to World War I practically guaranteed that war would result given half a chance. For example, Sheehan notes that:
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