The Balance of Power and War

The Balance of Power and War

The Balance of Power and War

According to realist International Relations theory, order of a kind and to a degree is preserved by two key institutions – the balance of power and war. The idea that the balance of power generates order is plausible enough, but to suggest that war is a source of order seems counter-intuitive, implausible and, indeed, somewhat distasteful. Nonetheless, this thought, however distasteful, must be borne with, because war, seen as a political instrument, does indeed play this role. It does so in two senses: first, as part of the balance of power, because, contrary to some accounts which suggest that the balance of power is designed to prevent war, war is an essential mechanism for preserving a balance, and, second, as a conflict-resolving mechanism that does something that the balance of power cannot do, namely bring about, as opposed to frustrate, change. In other words, war both complements and completes the balance of power. Without war, the balance of power could not operate as a functioning institution of an international system or society. War and the balance of power stand together – or, perhaps, fall together, because it may well be that there are features of international relations in the early twenty-first century which mean that an account of the world in which war plays a central role is indefensible, not simply on moral grounds, but as a practical proposition.

The balance of power

The balance of power is one notion that is virtually inescapable in the discourse of International Relations as it has developed over the last three or four centuries. The term goes back to at least the sixteenth century – although not to pre-modern times; according to Hume, the Greeks knew nothing of it (1987) – and was theorized in the eighteenth century and after. It appears in treaties (for example, that of Utrecht 1713), in the memoirs of statesmen and diplomats and in the writings of historians and lawyers. To the diplomats of the Ancien Régime, it was the underlying principle that created stability. By contrast, to radical liberals such as Richard Cobden it was a mere chimera, a simple collection of sounds with no meaning. In the twentieth century it has been invoked at one time or another by all the major international actors. Unfortunately, no one can agree on what it means. Scholars such as Martin Wight and Herbert Butterfield have between them collected examples of at least eleven different meanings revealed in the writings or speeches of its adherents. Neither is there internal consistency in the way particular writers use the term – Inis Claude, for example, notes that Hans Morgenthau shifts back and forth between several different meanings in his chapter on the subject in Politics Among Nations, a chapter explicitly designed to clear up confusions (Claude 1962: 25). No doubt almost every other writer could be exposed in the same way. What is to be done about this confusion? Claude more or less gives up, and tries to restrict the term to a description of the system of states as a whole – thus, a balance of power system is simply the term we give to a system which is based on sovereignty and the absence of world government. However, this is a little too defeatist. There is a root idea of some importance here, and it would be a shame to lose this as a result of past confusions. This root idea is the notion that only force can counteract the effect of force, and that in an anarchical world, stability, predictability and regularity can only occur when the forces that states are able to exert to get their way in the world are in some kind of equilibrium. The notion of a ‘balance’ is rather a bad metaphor here, if it suggests the image of a pair of scales, because this implies only two forces are in equilibrium. Better, although less conventional, is the image of a chandelier. The chandelier remains level (stable) if the weights which are attached to it are distributed beneath it in such a way that the forces they exert (in this case the downward pull of gravity) are in equilibrium. There are two advantages to this metaphor; in the first place it makes more difficult some of the more perplexing usages associated with the idea – it would become clear, for example, that ‘holding the balance’ is rather difficult, while a balance ‘moving in one’s favour’ is positively dangerous if standing under a chandelier. More seriously, it conveys the idea that there are two ways in which equilibrium can be disturbed, and two ways in which it can be re-established. The chandelier moves away from the level if one of its weights becomes heavier, without this being compensated for – if, let us say, one state becomes more powerful than others for endogenous reasons, for example, as a result of faster economic growth than other states. It also becomes unstable if two weights are moved closer together without compensatory movement elsewhere – if, for example, two states form a closer relationship than heretofore. Restoring stability can also take two forms – another weight increasing, or two other weights moving closer together. Put differently, disruptions are both created and potentially rectified by arms racing, or by alliance policy, or by some combination of the two. To illustrate these points in more concrete terms, consider a highly simplified account of the international system in Europe after 1871. First, in 1871, the system is more or less in equilibrium, following Prussia’s victories over Austria–Hungary (1866) and France (1870–1), and, crucially, following Bismarck’s decision not to use these victories to create a Greater Germany by incorporating parts of the Dual Monarchy in the new German Empire. There were tensions in the system, and loose, temporary alliances between states, but, on the whole, the system was in equilibrium. However, on one reading, in the late nineteenth century, German power increased as a result of German industrialism and population growth, to the point that a German superpower began to emerge, contrary to Bismarck’s intentions. This industrial strength transmitted itself into an active German foreign policy via such measures as a larger army, and the growth of a navy virtually from scratch. The response of the other European powers was first, to attempt to enhance their own power (by, for example, in France, extending periods of military training, and in Britain, engaging in naval building) and, second, to re-align, creating new military alliances. France and Russia ignored ideological differences and signed a formal alliance in 1892, Britain disregarded imperial rivalries and set aside a long policy of peacetime non-entanglement to become effectively associated with these two countries in 1904 and 1907 respectively. In short, both the methods identified above

to deal with incipient disequilibrium were attempted.

The Balance of Power and War, Three Interesting Points

There are three interesting points about this story, two of which can be made here, the third being held over to the end of this section. The first is that the flexibility of the system decreases as alliances become firmly established, because then the system begins to look bipolar, and in a bipolar system, by definition, disturbances to stability can only be met by internal changes, and not by the construction of alliances. This is one of the reasons why classical balance of power theorists say that the ideal number of states in a balance is five – because this allows for three versus two formations which can be adapted as becomes appropriate, as opposed to bipolar systems which are inherently inflexible. However, Kenneth Waltz argues that in a bipolar system power management is easier as two parties can negotiate their way to stability more easily than is the case with any larger number. This first observation is somewhat arcane; more significant is the second point, the difficulty of thinking about the balance of power while using theoretically sophisticated notions of ‘power’. Balance of power theorists tend to see power as an attribute of states – Claude, for example, defines power in military terms throughout his work – and thus tend to be committed to a ‘basic force’ model of influence. However, basic force models are either wrong or tautological. If, on the other hand, we try to work with power-as-influence as our starting-point, the simple stories advocates of balance of power relate become incredibly complex narratives. For example, returning to the post-1871 narrative offered above, the idea that German power was the major disruptive influence rests on a basic force model of power; once we look at influence as revealed in outcomes, things look very difficult. We find that in most of the diplomatic crises of the period the German government was on the losing side, quite unable to convert its undoubted physical strength into favourable results at the conference table. This was why the German political elite in the years up to 1914 had such a strong sense that the rest of the world was against them; they were conscious of their lack of influence, while others were conscious of their superabundance of power.


Morgenthau argues that when states pursue their national interests and seek power in the world, a balance will emerge, ‘of necessity’ – but this is a very dubious argument, since he is well aware that sometimes balances of power do not emerge (Morgenthau 1948: 161). If he were not so aware, his advocacy of balance of power policies would be hard to explain; one does not need to proselytize on behalf of something that is really going to happen ‘of necessity’. Moreover, the historical record gives little support to the idea that balances of power are in some way ‘natural’ phenomena – as Martin Wight remarks, the historical record shows a tendency towards the concentration of power rather than towards its balanced distribution (Wight in Butterfield and Wight 1966: 167). More generally, anyone who wishes to argue that balances of power always will emerge is obliged to provide some account of agency, some explanation of how this automatic process gets translated into state policy.


Two accounts of the balance of power which do meet, or successfully avoid, this criterion are given by Bull and Waltz. On his account, the ‘balance of power’ is what will happen if states take notice of their surroundings, adjust their policies to changes in the configuration of power worldwide, and, a critical proviso, if the actual distribution of power is such that a balance can emerge. Waltz does not argue that balances of power will always emerge – for example, when discussing the bipolar nature of the then current (1979) world he remarks that the most likely shift away from bipolarity would be towards unipolarity (that is, an end to the anarchical system) – if the Soviet Union were unable to remain in competition with the United States (Waltz 1979: 179). His point is, rather, that other states would not want this to happen, and would do everything they could in terms of realignment and enhancing their own capabilities to stop it from happening – a point neorealists have repeated since the end of the Cold War. On Waltz’s account, the system influences agents via the imperatives of rational choice. To act in such a way that balances of power emerge is to act as a rational egoist in the face of a particular set of circumstances, namely in response to changes in the distribution of power that might affect adversely a state’s capacity for self-preservation. It should be stressed that states do not wish to create balances of power, at least not as a first preference. This is even true, perhaps especially true, of bipolar balances. Each party would actually like the other to disappear, and would be prepared to take steps to bring this about if it could do so without risk. But, of course, this is not possible, and the ‘second best’ solution is to jointly manage a bipolar balance. Again, generalizing the point, no state really wants to see a balance of power emerge; balances of power are accepted because there is no better game in town, no alternative source of security anywhere near as effective. Waltz is clear that the balance of power is the theory of international politics, but it should be stressed that other writers employing the same general line of argument have come to different conclusions. One alternative to balancing is ‘bandwagoning’ – that is to say, lining up behind a state that is rising in power – and it has been argued quite cogently both that this is sometimes a rational strategy to follow and that the historical record suggests that states are actually every bit as likely to bandwagon as to balance (Walt 1987). Contemporary tendencies for states to bandwagon behind the dominant US are examined in Chapter 12. However one judges the argument here, the central point is that it is not quite as obvious that states will engage in balancing behaviour as Waltz assumes; there are other rational responses they might have to the security dilemmas that face them. Hedley Bull, in his The Anarchical Society, briefly considers the idea that a balance of power might emerge, as he puts it, ‘fortuitously’, simply as an unintended consequence of the actions of states (Bull 1977/1995/2002: 100). However, having considered this possibility he rejects it on the grounds that such fortuitous circumstances could not be expected to provide the basis for any kind of medium- to long-term stability. States motivated only by rational egoism would take the first chance to upset a balance. Instead, the burden of his argument is that the balance of power is a necessary adjunct to any kind of international order, that only when power is balanced have states any real freedom in the world, and that balances of power will only emerge and be sustained when states are aware that this is so and willing to act accordingly.


In other words, the balance of power is a kind of artefact, something that states, or a significant proportion of states, are willing to see as a desirable end. If a balance of power is to work, states must want it to work, and must be committed to the idea that the preservation of the system of states is desirable. As always with theorists of international society, it is the normative basis of the relationship that is crucial. To return to the European example outlined above, the balance of power was established initially in 1871 because Bismarck was committed to at least a version of these norms; he wanted Germany to be the most powerful state in Europe, but he did not want the system to be replaced with a German Empire – thus he was willing to assist in the birth of a new balance of power, in contrast to at least one of his successors, Hitler, and possibly also to the Emperor William II. On this account the balance of power is an artefact, something made by human beings; is it a cultural artefact? It might be thought that the motivation Bull seems to think is necessary could only come from a society which is, to some degree, culturally homogeneous, and it might be doubted whether the normative basis for the balance of power could work in the modern, post-European world. Bull was clearly concerned about this as evidenced by his last work on Justice in International Relations, and on the expansion of the international system (Bull 1984; Bull and Watson 1984). On the other hand, Frost has argued that the ‘settled norms’ of the modern system, norms which have been tacitly accepted by almost all states, include a commitment to the continuation of the system and that this entails the need to preserve a balance of power – there is no need to assume that this is a specifically European attitude (Frost 1996).


On Bull’s account we aim to preserve a balance of power in order to preserve international ‘order’. Does this mean ‘peace’? Not necessarily. Here, the third point raised by discussion of the post-1871 system can be made. Post-1871 was also pre-1914. It might be thought that it tells us that this system failed in 1914 – but it could equally well be argued that in terms of the preservation of international order, the

 The Balance of Power and 1914–18 War and Subsequent Event

1914–18 war and subsequent event amount to a vindication of the balance of power. At a human level, this is a terrible conclusion, but one that is difficult to avoid if one accepts that preventing the dominance of the system by any one power is a good, and if one acknowledges that, in some circumstances, this can only be achieved by violence and war. It may well be that, generally, international order equates to peace, but this cannot be guaranteed; sometimes the price of peace will be too high. This is a view sanctioned by the history of the last four centuries, which can easily be told in terms of a series of bids for hegemony that were successfully resisted by a balance of power politics that relied upon war as a possible tactic. War plays an important role in maintaining a balance of power system, as a concomitant to alliance politics and arms races – that is to say, these are ways of maintaining a balance without war, but if they fail war may be necessary. However, there is a further role for war in this kind of international system. The balance of power is about stability, equilibrium, the prevention of change, but, sometimes, the resolution of conflict requires change, change that can only come via war. In this sense, war does not indicate the failure of conflict resolution – rather, war is a means of conflict resolution. This is a point that needs to be explored in some depth.


The political conception of war

In the twentieth century, the common-sense view of war came to be that it is a pathological phenomenon, that war represents a breakdown, a malfunctioning, of the international system, or, perhaps, a sign of the immaturity of a people or a civilization – this last was the view of, for example, Freud (1985). However, to understand the role of war in a balance of power system, it is necessary to realize that this is mistaken. War is a normal feature of international relations, a normal part of the functioning of the international system, and in no sense pathological, although it may be regrettable. To see how this could be so, we need to examine briefly some alternative accounts of the causes of war, before outlining the view of war that makes sense of this position – the Clausewitzian or political conception of war. The causes of war is a subject dominated by one study, and it is extraordinary that Kenneth Waltz, the author of Theory of International Politics, the book that raised the level of theoretical discourse in the discipline so dramatically in 1979, should also have authored, in 1959, Man, the State and War, the standard work in question – although, from some perspectives, the later book could be regarded as an elaboration and re-working of the third section of the earlier study. In the 1959 volume, Waltz identifies three ‘images’ of the causes of war, the third of which formed the basis for his later study.


The first image stresses human nature. Wars occur because of some aspect of human nature, an argument that can be cast in theological, psychological, psychoanalytic, or, popular nowadays, socio-biological terms. We are fallen creatures, cast out of the Garden of Eden, preternaturally prone to violence. We are possessed by thanatos, a death-wish. We are the only animal that kills intra-specifically, that does not possess an inhibitor to prevent us killing our own kind (it should be noted that this is not actually the case, although it is widely believed to be true). These are elaborate arguments, and they may contain some element of truth, but they do not explain war. War is not similar to murder, grievous bodily harm, or individual acts of violence – war is a social institution, and as such requires a social explanation. To explain social phenomena by reference to the nature of individuals is ‘reductionist’ – a term Waltz would also employ to some effect in his later study. The second image focuses on the nature of societies rather than of human beings. War is caused by a particular kind of society – the choice here is very wide, ranging from autocracies and monarchies (the liberal view) to democracies (the autocratic view), from capitalist societies (the Leninist view) to communist societies (the capitalist view). Once again, one can tell a good story in support of the war-proneness of each of these kinds of society, but each explanation misses a crucial point. As far as we can tell, all societies which have had any kind of regular contact with other societies seem to have experienced some kinds of war – even those democracies that do not fight other democracies fight non-democratic systems with some regularity. The only exceptions to the ubiquity of war are a few rare cases where extreme climatic conditions – as with the Inuit in the Arctic – make war effectively impossible. This suggests that the second image is no more capable of providing general explanations of war than the first.


This leaves the third image which, as will have been anticipated, points to the international system as the essential cause of war. The argument here has been rehearsed above enough times to make any lengthy restatement redundant. States have interests, which at times may clash; in an anarchical system there is no way of resolving such a clash of interests which is binding on the parties; most of the time the parties will not wish to resolve their difficulties by violence, but sometimes they will – war is the ultimate resort of states who can see no other way to have their interests met. It should be noted here that the third image explains why war is possible – in order to explain why any actual war takes place we will need to bring into play societal and individual factors. One final way of making the same point is to stress the difference between civil and international war. A civil war is a pathological condition, since it represents the breakdown of normality. In principle, states have methods of conflict resolution which forbid the use of force; sometimes a problem emerges which cannot be contained by these mechanisms, and violence – civil war, if on a large enough scale – ensues as a result. International war is not like this; as between states, war is the (ultimate) mechanism for the resolution of conflict.


This is a political account of war, and an account of war as the product of a rational choice, a weighing of the costs and benefits of the instrumental use of force. This sounds quite modern, but the writer who first set out this position and identified the key points in the argument did so nearly two centuries ago. This was the Prussian general and prototypical military intellectual, Karl von Clausewitz, whose master work, On War, was published posthumously in 1831. Clausewitz was a moderately successful senior staff officer, with campaign experience in the service of the Czar and the King of Prussia in wars against Napoleon, and later an instructor at the Prussian Staff College, the most advanced centre for military thought of its day. In this latter capacity he produced the drafts for On War, and its origins are reflected in the fact that most of its contents examine the minutiae of tactics and strategy, and, given the changes in technology and society generally, are of little relevance today. However, Clausewitz was an intellectual soldier, a product of post-Enlightenment German thought, someone who was steeped in current thinking on the state and society. As a result, in addition to the technicalities, his book also includes some (quite short) reflections on the nature of war and its role in the international relations of the day – reflections which have been required reading ever since.


The gist of these reflections is that war is (or should be) a controlled, rational, political act. War is an act of violence to compel our opponent to submit to our will; in famous words, it is not a mere act of policy but ‘a true political instrument, a continuation of political activity by other means’ (Clausewitz 1976: 87). Here we see the continuity between war and peace. War is not the end of political activity, it is conducted for political purposes. Clausewitz was a soldier, but a soldier who stressed the importance of political control of the armed forces. On his account, war rests on a triad of factors – animosity directed against the enemy which is provided by ‘the people’, the management of contingency which is the role of the army, and the aims and objectives of the war which are determined by the political leadership. It is crucial that these three moments are not confused; the army are entitled to ask of the government that they be given resources appropriate to the tasks in hand, but they are not to set these tasks. The government sets objectives but should not interfere with the means chosen for their achievement. The people should support army and government, but not restrict their freedom of action.

The extent to which Clausewitzian ideas chime with neorealist thought is striking. Although the former does not use the terms ‘costs’ and ‘benefits’ it is clear that this is what he understands by the instrumentality of war. An interesting question is whether Clausewitz was an ‘offensive’ or a ‘defensive’ realist, to use the current terminology. Defensive realists assume that states are essentially reactive, prepared to defend their position but not likely to pre-empt potential opponents, while offensive realists assume that states will attempt to solve their security dilemmas by striking first if they can get away with it. One suspects that he would have sympathized with the latter position, but, at the very least, the prudent, calculating manner he advocates involves the rejection of crusades and vendettas. Moreover, for Clausewitz and his philosophical contemporaries, war is fought on behalf of the nation, and underwritten by national support, but it is not fought by the nation. As in the writings of his great contemporary Hegel, war is for armies and a clear distinction is to be drawn between combatants and non-combatants. Civilian, or, at least, political, control, is central – Clausewitz would have subscribed to Lloyd George’s maxim that war was too important to be left to the generals, and would have had no sympathy for the bombast of some twentieth-century commanders, or the view (held, for example, by Eisenhower against Churchill in the Second World War) that war is a technical business and that politicians have no business interfering in strategic concerns. A Clausewitzian approach would have spared the twentieth century many disasters. The downside is also readily apparent – a willingness to use force that seems not to grasp the moral seriousness of the decision to employ violence for political ends, an acceptance of the notion that states must always be the judges in their own cases, an inability to see beyond the confines of the nation to a wider humanity. In the nineteenth century we might accept that a Clausewitzian view of war is an accurate description of how things were, and, on the whole, a more satisfactory view than the alternatives. In the twentieth century there were many reasons for doubting this.


War in the twentieth century

In the nineteenth century, the view that war was a legitimate act of state was broadly accepted by international lawyers as a concomitant to the doctrine of sovereignty. So long as the war-making body had the authority to act, and followed the correct legal procedures (a proper declaration of war, for example), war could be waged lawfully, and without any legal interest in the reasons for this act of state. This is no longer the case. The Covenant of the League of Nations of 1919, the Pact of Paris of 1928, the United Nations Charter of 1945 and the London Charter of the same year – which established the War Crimes Tribunal that sat at Nuremberg – taken together have established a new legal regime in which war is only legitimate in two circumstances, as an act of self-defence, or as a an act of law enforcement to assist others in defending themselves. Not only is this the current legal position; it also seems to correspond to the ways in which most people thought about war in the twentieth century, namely as a disaster that should be avoided at almost all costs – indeed, the current law on war is more likely to be criticized for being too permissive than for restricting the activity too closely. Both morally and legally, a Clausewitzian view of war seems today to be unacceptable.


Of course, from a realist point of view, all this is by the by. If states still make war on Clausewitzian lines, then the fact that law and public opinion goes against them is neither here nor there. At best it explains some of the peculiarities of modern war, in particular the unwillingness to call a spade a spade – hence the British Government always refers to the South Atlantic Conflict of 1982 rather than the Falklands War, the problems involved in fighting a declared war being too complicated to contemplate. Some try to, sometimes – but on the whole, twentieth-century conditions worked against war being fought in terms of Clausewitzian calculations. There are two points here, one about the actual calculations, the other about the role of calculations in decisions for war.


The first point is simple; in the twentieth century the costs of war rose dramatically, while the benefits either remained the same or, more often, fell. The rise in destructiveness of war has been exponential – from the mayhem of machine guns, breechloading artillery and barbed wire in the First World War, to the strategic bombing of the Second to the threat of nuclear annihilation of a potential Third World War. The economic structures of society are destroyed by war, financial resources dissipated, political stability undermined. The benefits of success have not risen in the same way; in material terms the rewards for a successful war are now less significant than they once were. National wealth does not, on the whole, come from the conquest of territory or the cornering of raw materials – although, as the invasion of Kuwait in 1990 suggests, there may still be, in some circumstances, possibilities here. A successful war may remove an enemy or competitor, and there may be circumstances in which this is a very worthwhile result – but on the whole one would expect far fewer wars to emerge from rational calculation in the twentieth century than in the nineteenth. Yet the former was a century of warfare, by most statistical indices more war-prone than the latter, which suggests that war is no longer fought as a rational act, but for some other reason.


A clue to this other reason comes when we examine the fate of Clausewitz’s triad under modern conditions. The people, the army and the government are supposed to have one function each which fits in with the other two – the raw feelings of the people are harnessed to political ends by the government which are then translated into action by the military. This can still work, but only rarely. Returning to an earlier example, the North Vietnamese were remarkably Clausewitzian in their approach to the Vietnam War, not altogether surprisingly since their ideological influences – Marx, Engels, Lenin and Mao – were all avid readers of Clausewitz. The North Vietnamese people were mobilized behind the war, but not allowed a say in its execution. The political leadership held tight control over the objectives of the war, and the army was given freedom of action only in its proper sphere of operation. By contrast, the US army was given no clear objectives in Vietnam. The US president interfered with military operations, to the point of actually choosing bombing targets from the White House briefing rooms. The US public was never mobilized behind the war effort, and, via the media and Congress, set political constraints on the war which were detailed, inconsistent and deeply harmful to the development of a coherent strategy.


The key point here is that this latter state of affairs is far more common than the Clausewitzian purity of the North Vietnamese. North Vietnam, the Prussia of South east Asia, recreated a Clausewitzian environment by having nationalism without democracy, and a state strong enough to control the army and not to be constrained by informal expressions of popular opinion. This is a very unusual combination. In the advanced industrial countries public opinion and democratic institutions mean that ‘the people’ are hard to mobilize, and, once mobilized, will refuse to play their designated role as cheerleaders of the government and army – they insist on playing a major role in determining goals and approving (or more likely disapproving) strategies and tactics. Congressional and Parliamentary investigations in the US and UK into the reasons for and intelligence concerning the 2003 Iraq War, as well as in-depth and often critical media coverage of the conflict, have infuriated the governments concerned, but such questioning is, nowadays, more or less inevitable – and, in any event, US public support for the ‘War on Terror’ remains high and largely unquestioning. In the less developed countries, nationalism without democracy is quite common, but the state rarely has the capacity both to control its own armed forces and to ignore the disaffection of its people. Riots and civil unrest can be every bit as effective in influencing war aims as a democratic media and free elections.


In short, Clausewitzians face two problems when dealing with public opinion. In the first place, it may be very difficult to get the public ‘on side’, as the phrase goes. In the 1930s it took a long time for opinion in Britain and the United States to realize that war was probably necessary – in the 1960s the US was never able to persuade a large enough majority of Americans that Vietnam justified the effort they put into it. However, once public opinion is ‘on side’ it is very difficult to restrain it. Whatever the merits of the ‘unconditional surrender’ doctrine of the Allies in the Second World War, it is clear that any alternative approach – and especially any suggestion that in future the Soviet Union might prove more of a problem than post-war Germany – would have been ruled out by public opinion. Perhaps public opinion would have been right, and was right over Vietnam – but the point is that is not a very Clausewitzian way of doing business. There is, however, an even more fundamental problem with the Clausewitzian account of war, which is that it may be culturally specific. Nineteenth-century European war was a very formal business, with uniformed armies occupying clearly delineated territory, a code of conduct which was usually (although not always) observed, a formal declaration and a formal end, the peace treaty. The ‘decisive battle’ was a feature of Napoleonic, Clausewitzian and Victorian accounts of war – Creasy’s Fifteen Decisive Battles is a key text here, showing a clear progression from Marathon to Waterloo (Creasy 1902). States fight in a formal way and make peace in a formal way. Hanson calls this The Western Way of War (1989) and traces it back to the wars of the Classical Greek cities, in which citizen heavy-infantry would fight one, highly stylized, battle per campaigning season, with a clear-cut way of determining winners and losers based on possession of the battlefield. This, he suggests, gives modern Europe its governing idea of what a war is like. However, he argues that it is highly untypical of the warfare of most civilizations, which is much more informal, is not dominated by set-piece battles, and rarely leads to any kind of decisive moment, much less a peace treaty.


The West is, of course, aware of this kind of warfare, but regards it as the exception rather than the rule and gives it special labels – guerrilla war, low intensity conflict, police action, dirty war, Kipling’s ‘savage wars of peace’. The point to make here is that the exception may be becoming the rule. Constitutionally secure liberal democracies do not fight each other – but then no one fights each other in the old way anymore, except on very rare occasions such as the Falklands/Malvinas War of 1982 or the Gulf War of 1990–1. Even in these two cases, the parties that were clearly defeated have refused to behave like nineteenth-century gentlemen and make treaties which acknowledge this fact. Instead, they hang on, hoping something will turn up. Again, the Israelis have repeatedly ‘defeated’ their enemies in set-piece battles but they have been unable to turn these victories into political results – indeed every ‘successful’ military action seems to have weakened their bargaining power by undermining the sympathy previously shown to the underdog by Europeans, and by many Americans. More characteristic of modern warfare was the imbroglio in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, where quasi-regular armies vied with armed bands of ‘volunteers’, and local warlords owed only tenuous loyalty to their nominal superiors, where alliances shifted on a day-by-day basis and the ‘frontline’ was difficult to define, where territory changed hands without set-piece battles, and where formal armistices and peace treaties were signed and broken, signed again and broken again. This was the non-Western way of warfare encroaching on the West in a most painful way. The sensational victories in war-making but equally spectacular failings in peace-building following both the 2002 Afghanistan war and the 2003 Iraq war of the US and its allies also demonstrate the point. In both cases, the overwhelming military force of the Coalition has not even been enough to control the haphazardly organized and poorly armed insurgents in each state, let alone to build and protect new political systems.


There is at least some evidence that can be read as suggesting that some Western military thinkers have understood this shift in the nature of warfare rather better than Western governments or public opinion. The US armed forces have been developing doctrines for the employment of coercive measures of a non-conventional kind for some time. The new American soldier (‘land warrior’) will be expected to display his or her prowess by employing the latest technologies not in set-piece battles against regular opponents, but in more informal situations where the political interests of the United States need to be supported by a show of violence. This capacity for ‘virtual war’ which, given the publicity surrounding it, may be intended to be ‘virtual deterrence’, has been mapped by postmodern enthusiasts such as the Tofflers (1993) and Der Derian (1992).

One of the reasons why the Western way of war is being rejected in the West itself is, perhaps, traceable to wider changes in late modern society, and in particular to the apparent ending of the ‘warrior culture’ in the West. Although Western public opinion has not abandoned the idea that it may sometimes be necessary to use force in international relations, the demand nowadays is to minimize casualties amongst one’s own troops, and also amongst ‘enemy’ civilians. The US reliance on air-power and its refusal to commit its troops in battle until the ground has been thoroughly prepared by ‘precision’ bombardment has been noted by many writers, and is in part a reflection of this changing ethos (Coker 1994, 1998; Ignatieff 2000). The Kosovo Campaign of 1999 represents the apotheosis of this approach – a ‘zero casualty’ war, for NATO at least, and to most people’s surprise apparently actually won by air-power. On the other hand, apparent political acceptability of the level of casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq, modest though they have been by the standards of the twentieth century, may suggest that, for some Americans at least, 9/11 and the War on Terror have changed the nature of this particular game.


A central feature of this kind of warfare is that it cannot so easily be seen as a viable means of conflict resolution. In the 1860s there were conflicting views of the future shape of German politics. Prussia under Bismarck settled the matter by allowing von Moltke to win him three Western, Clausewitzian wars in succession – decisive battles at Sadowa in 1866 and Sedan in 1870 determined the outcome. Defeat was reluctantly accepted, peace treaties were signed, and the German Empire was formed under the aegis of Prussian military might. A problem was solved, although a new problem emerged, as is usually the way. It seems inconceivable that a sequence of events such as this could happen today. Wars are not formally declared, they do not formally end; they peter out or they fester on. Sometimes a stalemate emerges, sometimes imposed from outside – the ‘non-war’ in Cyprus in 1973 has been stifled by a UN peacekeeping force but the conflict remains unsolved; indeed, the very stalemate removes the impetus for solution. In other circumstances, such as Somalia and Rwanda, the impact of informal war may be the collapse of a society and a descent into anarchy, a descent which outsiders are effectively powerless to halt because, in the absence of clear enemies, clear battle lines and regular armies, external intervention becomes almost impossible. Even in Kosovo, where the military outcome was decisive, it is by no means the case that the losers have accepted the verdict of the (air) battlefield – instead NATO is faced with the prospect of maintaining Kosovo as a protectorate for the foreseeable future. All this suggests that any account of war which tries to give the modern phenomenon its older, European function will miss the point in a very big way.

4 thoughts on “The Balance of Power and War

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