Artur Brzeskot: Balance of power is back to the front

If you went to international relations course and the academic teacher never mentioned the balance of power, you should go to your alma mater to claim a refund. We can find this idea in Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War, Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince, Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, Carl von Clausewitz’s On war  and the ancient Indian writer Kautilya’s Arthashastra (transl. “Science of Politics”). This question is also central to the consideration of modern realists like Edward. C. Carr, Hans. J. Morgenthau, Robert Giplin, Kenneth N. Waltz… etc.

Despite its long and well documented history this elegant idea is forgotten or rejected by Polish elites. When we ask them why do Russia and Belarus have good relations? Most of them is reaching a conclusion it is the result of shared authoritarianism by Putin and Lukashenko, which reflexive anti-Polonism, or some other form of ideological solidarity. This presentation of collective amnesia encourages a lot of experts, journalists and political leaders to see our policy in ways that unwittingly push foes closer together and to miss chances to drive them apart.

The basic logic balance of power is simple. There is no government over governments on the world, which would regulate international relations, states have to guarantee themselves survival and they have to rely on their resources and calculations to avoid the worst being conquered, blackmailed, or coerced. If a threatened state faces an aggressive neighbor it can mobilize all of its own force. If it is differently this state has to seek an alliance with other states that face the same danger, in order to shift the balance more in its favor.

Furthermore, in extreme conditions forming a coalition might require a state to fight alongside another country it previously regarded as an enemy or even to take account of help from a great power that we assume it would be a very dangerous rival in the future. So, we should not be expected this fact that two the most democracies the United States and Great Britain allied with the genocidal beast the Soviet Union during World War II, because defeating Nazi Germany took precedence over their long-term and foggy concerns about tyranny of communism. Winston Churchill described this logic perfectly “If Hitler invaded hell, I would at least make a favorable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.” President Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke about this problem with the same sentiment “I could hold hands with the devil” if it would help beat the Third Reich. Another words, when you really need allies, you can’t be too choosy.

Of course, balance of power logic also later played an important role in U.S. foreign policy, especially when concerns about national security were apparent. In times of the Cold War America’s alliances (NATO – North Atlantic Treaty Organization and alliances in Asia) were formed to balance and contain the Soviet Union. The same motive led America to back an array of authoritarian regimes in Asia, Africa and Latin America. After all, Richard Nixon came open to China in 1972, of course he was inspired by a threat of the Soviet Union’s hegemony. In result he considered that closer relation Washington-Beijing would put Moscow at a disadvantage.

Although balance of power has a long history and an unquantifiable intellectual primacy over another paradigms, policymakers and pundits often fail recognize how it drives the behavior of both allies and adversaries. Part of the problem stems from that both America and Poland are strong tendencies to assume that every state’s foreign policy is shape by internal attributes for example: aspirations, concerns, calculations, domestic politics, economy, values, ideology as well eccentric leaders than by external factors for example: structural causes, anarchy, system self-help, polarity, external threats and finally by a balance of power.

From this point of view the United States’ natural allies are states, which shared its values. When some nations speak of America as a leader of free world, or when they describe NATO as “transatlantic community” (we should add: liberal democracies), they are suggesting that considering a steadfast affection to common vision of the world order. Of course, shared values are relevant, some empirical studies even evidenced that democratic alliances are more stable than one between autocracies or between democracies and non-democracies. But, it is worthy to sight, if we assume a priori, that states always are driven by motives from level an individual or a nation, i.e. determine their own hierarchy both friends and foes base on internal attributes, it can lead us astray in several ways.

First, if we consider that shared by us values are a unifying force, we are likely to overstate cohesion and durability any alliance. NATO is a good example, implosion of the Soviet Union to obliterate the most important cause for its further existence. Yet despite herculean efforts to give the alliance a new set of missions regressive scratches and stresses were not removed. These questions might be different if NATO’s wars in Afghanistan and Libya were a success, but they did not.

Of course, Ukrainian crisis slows down a tendency of decomposition and decline NATO temporarily, but this modest reversal merely underscores of validity theoretical hypothesis that external threats, i.e. fear of Russia, play in holding NATO together. In sum shared values are definitely insufficient to survival any coalition consists of nearly 30 states located on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, all the more, when part of its members evidently reject liberal axiology like Poland, Hungary and Turkey. There is no doubt about values in the preamble of Washington treaty 1949.

Second, if whoever ignores balance of power politics he may be surprised, when the others allied forces against him. The George W. Bush junior administration was shocked even blasted when France, Germany and Russia joined efforts to block Uncle Sam in the UN Security Council during an attempt authorization invasion on Iraq 2003. Paris, Berlin and Moscow took this step, because they consider rightly that overthrow Saddam Hussein it is a risky play and may be a threat for themselves (if we look at current deconstruction of the Middle East in sum Schröder, Chirac and Putin were right). American leaders were not able to understand why close their allies Germany and France did not agreed to overthrow Saddam, a brutal dictator, and transform the region along democratic line. As Bush’s national security advisor Condoleezza Rice said later that America did not understand this problem.

It worth to sight that American officials were equally surprised when Iran and Syria joined forces to help Iraqi insurgency. These hard facts should suggest that any efforts of U.S. administration has to fail. We have to realize that Iran and Syria would be next on the United States’ list if war and occupation in Iraq were succeeded. On the other hand Teheran and Damascus behaved just as balance of power predicts, i.e. threatened states join forces, to deter and finally to defense against any aggression. Conclusion: from a political point of view neither Americans nor Poles should tangle into the stupid wars and later to be surprised that events turned tragic.

Third, if we focus on political and ideological affinities and ignore a role of shared threats by our foes, it encourages us, to see our adversaries as more unified than they really are. Instead of recognizing that our opponents are cooperating with each other largely for instrumental or tactical reasons, policymakers and commentator quickly assume that enemies are bound together by deep and common goals. In an earlier era of international relations Americans saw the communist world as unified monolith, they mistakenly considered all communists everywhere were reliable agents of the Kremlin. This mistake not only led them to miss or even to deny rancorous conflict between Moscow and Beijing, but also U.S. leaders mistakenly assumed that non-communists leftists were likely favorable to Moscow as well. The same mistakes were made by Soviet leaders, and strongly disappointed, when their efforts towards non-communist Third World socialists frequently backfired.

This strange instinct functions also current, in phrases like “axis of evil”, it allegedly suggested that Iran, Iraq and North Korea were part of unified front, in false terms like “islamofascism”, whether the most stupid hyperbola makes a comparison Putina and al-Assada to Hitler. Instead of seeing extremist movements as competing organizations with a variety of worldviews and objectives, policymakers and pundits routinely act and persuade as if our foes were operating from an identical playbook. These groups are often far from a common doctrine and suffer deep schisms and ideological fractions, personal injuries and rivalries, and they join their forces more only from necessity than conviction. Of course, extremists still cause trouble for world peace, but assuming all terrorists are loyal soldiers in a single global movement makes them look scarier than they really are.

Let’s go into our backyard in Europe. Poland also should know to divide its rivalries, unfortunately instead of it, our policy drives our enemies closer together. We can take an obvious example, although there may be some modest ideological common ground between Belarus and Russia, each of these states has its national interests and agendas. For this reason their collaboration should be analyze as a tactical alliance rather than as a cohesive or unified front of authoritarian regimes under the name of the Union States of Russia and Belarus (in Polish language acronym of this name means “bully”). If we will leverage on Belarus, it seeks help in Moscow, it merely gives both regimes a motive to help each other.

Last but not least, ignoring balance of power dynamics squanders one of Poland’s chief geopolitical advantage. As the middle power in the Central Europe, our country has enormous latitude when choosing allies and thus enormous potential leverage over them. Given this asset, we can sometimes play harder ball, to take advantage of regional rivalries when they occur. It can let us to be watchful for opportunities to drive wedges between our adversaries. Of course, this approach requires flexibility a sophisticated understanding of regional affairs, an aversion to special relationships, and most of all rejection policy of demonizing countries with which we have differences.

Unfortunately, Poland has done exact opposite for the past few decades especially in the Eastern Europe. In result we have frozen relations with Russia, cold attitudes towards Belarus, Lithuania and currently also towards Ukraine. Instead of exhibiting political insight our elites have rigidly stuck at especially relations, Germany and France were once, now we deepened an exotic alliance with Great Britain, further Hungary, Romania and Croatia – Three Seas Initiative. In sum with certain exceptions, and outside Europe (vide: China), we have treated our adversaries like pariahs (vide: Lukashenko), we threaten them and impose against them sanctions or give them the empty promises, instead of taking serious their aspirations and concerns. The results of this policy, alas, speak for themselves. Thus I postulate may a balance of power is back to the front not only our strategy, but all the West, and especially the United States, because rest of the world has already broken to ignore a realistic dictum.


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Polish version: Równowaga sił powraca na front