It is the balance of power, stupid

| Updated: June 23, 2022 21:31:27

Some argues that western media's coverage on Russia-Ukraine war is biased, one-sided and partial. 	—www.middleeasteye.net photo Some argues that western media's coverage on Russia-Ukraine war is biased, one-sided and partial. —www.middleeasteye.net photo

Since the war broke out in Ukraine in the last week of February this year, media in the Western world, both electronic and print, have highlighted  the atrocities committed by the invading Russian army against civilians and wanton destructions of  residential areas on daily basis. It is only natural for media to expose the relentless violence and mayhem caused by the war that has turned to be one of grim attrition. Professional obligations and the inherent sense of moral righteousness require such exposure and publicity from media whenever inviolable rights to life and liberty are transgressed.

But while appreciating this noble role played by the media in America and Europe (also Al Jazeera in middle east) in holding high the principle of human rights and fair play, it should be pointed out that the almost exclusive pre-occupation with this concern has precluded the media from seeing  and explicating the 'big picture' i.e. the cause(s) that  led to the war. It is important to place the heartbreaking scenes of deaths and destructions in their proper perspectives, not only to find out who are responsible for the carnage going on in Ukraine but also to prevent such occurrences of war elsewhere in the world  and also to bring the ongoing war to an early end.

To allow the war to continue as a test of strength without looking at the' big picture' (the underlying causes) is to prolong it till one side emerges victorious. But this victory in the classical sense, if it ever comes, will come with a sanguinary price tag in terms of human lives and property. Even then the peace achieved will be illusory because the underlying cause(s) will remain un-adressed. Helping Ukraine with more lethal and state of the art weapons without any attempt at a negotiated peace is a cynical way of helping the helpless civilians who are dying in hordes and losing their hearths and homes and places of work, worship and learning. It is only by looking at the big picture, the causes of the current war in Europe, that the unwarranted war in Ukraine can be brought to a negotiated settlement that will restore peace now and hold it in future.

This thinking out of the box (rights of a sovereign Ukraine) holds the promise of ensuring peace not only in Europe but in other flash points (e.g.Taiwan) as well.

The 'big picture' or the cause(s) that is missing from the news coverage of media and the public posturing and pronouncements of the leaders in the western world is the well-known principle of balance of power. The traditional balance of power assumed a  multi- polar world (in Europe) where  three or more major powers are forced to maintain balance  their military power and their national interests in order to keep peace and order. To put it in another way, balance of power ensures that when there are two major powers (economically and militarily) or two groups of  antagonistic countries, balance is achieved between the two or among  them  through tacit understanding of non- interference and non- aggrandisement (overt and covert) or through formal treaties. Such a parity of ' power' underlay peace in Europe over long periods of time. A quick overview of the origin and history of balance of power in Europe will be helpful in understanding why it is the missing link in the Western discourse of Ukraine war and how it holds the key restoring peace in Europe (and elsewhere) now.

The history of balance of power is as old as the European history. Greek historian and statesman Thucidides mentioned speeches by Corinthian politicians regarding the need to counter the imperial ambitions of Athens, Sparta and Thebes through such arrangement  of powers that would prevent one of the city states from committing aggression. This ancient theory resurfaced during Renaissance Italy in the twelfth century where city states like Florence, Venice etc. existed. Bernard Rucella, a member of the Medici clan which ruled Florence, explained the policy of balance of power in his account of the invasion of Italy by Charles XIII of France using the phrase 'balance of power' for the first time. Internationalism, which was the dominant trend of European international relations prior to the Treaty of Westphalia(1648),  gave way to the doctrine of balance of power. The term gained in importance after the Treaty of Utrecht (1713) where it was specifically mentioned. In accordance with the terms of balance of power enshrined in the Treaty, European states formed a sort of federal community (like the European Union now)  based on such a disposition of  national powers that no one state could  predominate and lord it over others. In the aftermath of the French Revolution (1789), the principle of balance of power emerged as the guiding motive behind various political alliances. The British historian A.J.P. Taylor wrote: 'Europe has known almost as much peace as war; and it has owed these periods of peace to balance of power. No one state has ever been strong enough to eat up all the rest. During the period of its dominance as a European system, during 1648 (Treaty of Westphalia) to 1914 ( prior to the first world war) there was no major war in Europe" (The Struggle for Mastery in Europe).

For much of the19th century major European powers maintained a tenuous balance of power among themselves through a forum known as Council of Europe. After 1848, this was challenged by a variety of factors including Britain's withdrawal into 'splendid  isolation', the decline of the Ottoman empire and  the rise of Prussia. The 1866  Austro-Prussian war  established the Prussian  hegemony in Germany, while victory in Franco-Prussian war allowed Prussia to consolidate the German states  into a German empire under Prussian leadership. In order to isolate France and avoid war on two fronts, Germany (Prussia) under the leadership of Bismarck negotiated the League of three Empires, Austro- Hungary, Russia and Germany. After the Russian victory in the Russo-Turkish war (1878), the League was dissolved due to Austrians concerns over Russian influence in the Balkans. Following this Germany and Austro-Hungary formed the Dual Alliance in which Italy joined later. When Britain and France attempted to negotiate with Russia, Bismarck replaced the League with the Reinsurance Treaty, a secret agreement between Germany and Russia. Bismarck viewed peace with Russia as the foundation of German foreign policy. But when Willhelm II became Kaiser he not only dropped Bismark from his government, he also did not renew the Reinsurance Treaty, upsetting Russia. France took the opportunity and concluded the Franco- Russian Alliance in 1894, followed by Entete Cordiale with Britain in 1904. The two Balkan wars in 1914  and the First World War that followed in the wake of these wars was a result of manoeuvrings for supremacy by  Britain, Germany and France to establish spheres of influence in Europe  by forming alliances with other countries. The principle of balance of power worked behind these shifting alliances, contributing to peace and stability when the alliances were not belligerent and bent on aggrandisement. Conversely, when the alliances were used for aggrandisement, the principle of balance of power fell by the wayside.

The experiences with wars in  Europe show that when an alliance of countries grow stronger than the rival one, temptation to wage war is strong. The country or countries that feel vulnerable or humiliated take recourse to measures in self defence. The experiences also show that when unfair terms are imposed on a country after its defeat (France after Franco- Prussian war, Germany after second WW) it adopts a policy of revanchism, taking revenge after gaining military strength. The second world war started because the Treaty of Versailles (1919) after the end of first world war did not ensure balance of power, either through terms acceptable to Germany or by taking measures to prevent its preparations for war in future.

After the second world war the western alliance, under North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and Warsaw Pact of communist countries under the leadership of Soviet Russia, maintained peace in Europe by establishing a new balance of power. It worked not only because of the collective strength of the member countries but largely because of the nuclear deterrent. Balance of power during cold war was ensured not through the classic multi- polarity but bi-polarity. The post-Soviet uni-polarity was not natural in as much as it created a power vaccuum. If Russia was included in the greater European community then it would not have indulged in nostalgia about its past glory as a great and balancing power. Nor it would have suffered any sense of insecurity after the loss of the balancing role of the cold war. But in their great  wisdom, western countries did not show any interest in this regard, and limited their interest to  the dismantling of socialist  economic model. On the contrary, the western countries under the leadership of America continued  to view Russia as an adversary. Not only the NATO alliance was maintained (even after the dissolution of Warsaw Pact) it was enlarged by co-opting former Russian satellite countries in east Europe. Each act of NATO enlargement was objected to by successive presidents of Russia on the grounds of security, which fell on deaf ears of western leaders. When Ukraine, having the longest border with Russia and hosting its only all weather naval port, was about to be embraced as a NATO member, Russia reached the end of its tether. Apprehending the balance of power dangerously tilting in favour of nuclear armed NATO( USA, UK, France) it annexed Crimea. It was obviously an act of aggression  but was meant to send out a  signal, both to Ukraine and to the western alliance. Instead of knee- jerk reactions and arming itself to the teeth with weapons supplied by the NATO countries, Ukraine should have taken heed and negotiated a settlement with Russia, avowing neutrality. That gesture of diplomacy would have mollified Russia. But this was not to be because of the goading by the cheerleader of democracy and the other member countries of NATO. But for their encouragement and assurance of continued supply of arms, Ukraine would probably have settled for a negotiated settlement. As for Russia, having Ukraine out of the fold of NATO would have given a modicum of sense of security, providing the last vestige of the erstwhile balance of power of the cold war era. There is no mistaking the fact that the Ukraine war is the result of the absence of balance of power in Europe in the post-cold war era which America and its allies are bent upon using in consolidating a uni-polar world arrayed against Russia.

This is borne out by the fact that at no stage of the Ukraine crisis leading up to the war, have they shown any interest in negotiated peace, not even now. America has made no bones about its intention of 'degrading militarily'. Russia, pushed to the wall, has predictably reacted in desperation. But before going into action it gave signal for over a month holding military exercise near Ukraine border. Unlike traditional military invasions, there was no surprise about its war against Ukraine. All that it wanted is that its security concerns in an Europe without balance of power should be taken seriously by the West.

Why can't the western media see this big picture when they cry hoarse about Russian war crimes? It is all about good old balance of power, my dear, sir.


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