If only international relations (IR) were predictable. It used to be that the number of weapons each unit (bands, tribes, towns, countries) had could fairly accurately distinguish between the great-, middle-, small-, and non-powers: from spears, swords, and bayonets to guns, cannons, and missiles, the tendency to bandwagon against the most powerful unit generated those venerable, even inviolable "balance of power" concept (about a typical military tussle) and its "balance of terror" equivalent (military tussle at the nuclear level). A legion of philosophers from Thucydides and Kautilya Pandit to Thomas Hobbes and Niccolo Machiavelli traced that tendency to the "self-help" or "ego" instinct. Charles Darwin, Klemens Wenzel von Metternich and Henry Kissinger, among others, gave it a face, determined by concurrent survival-of-the-fittest contests, and labelled "great powers" or "superpowers." Not everyone agreed with the logic. Plato and John Locke, for instance, believed altruism to be stronger, though Jean Jacques Rousseau's "social contract" made an equally convincing case for an egoist-altruist mixture. Never-ending conflicts at the start of the 21st Century give the "self-help" postulation a distinctive edge.
Nevertheless, one cannot but detect a in ball game change today: either new instincts adding on to old ones, or old instincts reconfiguring themselves. IR students, typically trained on the classical post-Westphalian European balance of power system and the 19th Century Concert of Europe, have no qualms comparing these to the 5th Century BC Peloponnesian War, with Greek city states pushing competition to the limit, or what Machiavelli found in the 13th-14th centuries between Italian city states (Italy itself would start its statehood process from 1861). IR students can now find his observations in Prince, or Thucydides's History among nation states (or state-nations) today, as between the Soviet Union and the United States until the late 1980s - and not just between "great power" aspirants, as the India-Pakistan rivalry exemplifies.
Note how, by the time of the U.S.-Soviet rivalry, one other factor commanded greater attention: ideology. Of course, neither communism nor democracy/capitalism determined the Cold War: nuclear weapon-construction pushed both against each other in such an eyeball-to-eyeball way that one just had to blink, given the enormous costs, for both sides to survive. Putting aside the military capabilities and economic resources, though, the ideological hangover, to put it in synchronic terms, managed to hang on. It's most explicit and emotional manifestation came subsequently with the "clash of civilisation," in which, not capabilities nor costs, but cultural traits were put on the line.
Returning back to those historical annals, armed this time with culture, we can even justify how balance of power rivalries could easily be embedded within a "civilisation" context. Examples include the west versus the rest, as in Greece (or Macedonia) against Persia, the Roman Empire against Egypt, or fast-forwarding to today's Europe, against Islam, whether through the Crusades or against the Mongols or Ottomans subsequently. Even within Europe, the Romans thought so highly of what they had (again, apart from weapons and wealth), that they called northerners like Germans (for example, Arminius/Hermann in the 1st century AD) and Hungarians (the 5th century Attila the Hun), "barbarians." Similar mindsets would crop up with the classical 19th Century balance of power practice: Henry Kissinger never tired of informing us of the subtle tussle between the divine-rights monarchs (of Austria-Hungary, Prussia, and Russia) and the power-balancing monarchs (of Great Britain), or between the revolutionaries Metternich feared in mid-century (a youthful Karl Marx, among others: remember the failed outbursts of 1848?), and the emerging "bourgeoisie."
This ideological strain seems to be just as stubborn as the egotism Thucydides and others found in their "princes." Communism, for example, was crippled when the Soviet Union dissolved without a fight; but not in China, Cuba and North Korea. In fact, with China becoming so ardent a neo-liberal player, the more interesting question is not whether Chinese capitalism is real or can survive, but why communism is not being abandoned.
Like China wants to hold on to some other defining feature than military capabilities, it seems like the former classic balance-of-power players across Europe have also been doing so since World War II, using economic resources to create a European-ness, much like Latin countries have been doing, either under a Bolivarian banner or simply a non-Gringo (anti-United States) outfit to ventilate a separate identity from both Europe (in spite of their dominant languages, Portuguese and Spanish) and the United States (in spite of it being one of their dominant trading partners).
We see a mixture of weapons, economic resources, and this "something else" across the Middle East too: behind the military and economic scramble between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the Sunni-Shia schism is just as sturdy an identity as the many ethnic divisions within the Sunni world, between Kurds and Turks, Baluchis and Punjabis, Pashtuns and Tadjiks, and so forth.
Israel against the Arab world exemplifies all of the above. All Arab countries have ganged up against the most superior military power of the region, Israel (briefly invoking a touch of the balance-of-power instinct), but how they bicker against each other more frequently than against Israel defies balance-of-power explanations. Another oddity begs attention: if Israel is the most powerful country, why have not other powerful countries rallied against it? Attention immediately turns to the United States, but the United States may be too infiltrated with Jewish support-bases to offer any balance-of-power food for thought, regardless of which party makes decisions. European countries have been more verbally motivated than physically to "balance," not Middle East peace, but more Israel's access to human rights, for example, with similar Palestinian access. Russia, on the other hand, sees more Arab followers than any pro-Israel inclination, thus setting up a balance-of-power configuration but in a ballpark not conducive to, nor connecting with, any meaningful balance-of-power tussle: neither for Russia's globally, nor for Middle East people against Israelis when they are so engaged in do-or-die conflicts among themselves. China does not smell cash to get involved, nor is the arena a necessary juncture for either its "Silk Route" or "String of Pearls" re-enactments.
Ironically, the Israel-Arab divide might actually be the oldest based upon ego (and the power it translates into). That it was couched in cultural and religious partly explains why it still remains unresolved, indeed, why no resolution may ever be possible. If we go back to the scriptures (any monotheistic ones), Ibrahim's/Abraham's split loyalty to Ismail/Ishmael and Ishaq/Isaac, the Prophets of the Muslim and Jewish faiths, behind the ‘ego’ (power), we might find an instinct that needs neither military nor economic capabilities, but in conjunction with them, can create more havoc, nullify any expectation, and thwart any predictions.
It is why we see geographical sensitivities that make no military or economic sense today: Russia preying upon East European countries, even though the historical attribution to its search for a warm-water port is obsolete today, or coat-tail China, for example, through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, in spite of stubborn border differences; it is why the United States will always paint an "evil" force somewhere out there, if not through the Monroe Doctrine in the 19th Century against Europe (when it was friendly enough with Russia to buy Alaska), then by way of the "better dead than red" campaign against the Soviet Union during the Cold War, or the post-Cold War "Axis of Evil" labelling, not out of traditional military impulses, but through ideological fear of some abstract terror emanating from tyrants. It is why we see dictators, no matter where and of what stripe, happier together than in other types of company; and likewise, as Immanuel Kant had predicted, why democracies do not fight each other.
Ultimately, instinct boils down to our own personal lives and our own neighbourhoods. Whether our property has a border-fence or not tells us much about our dominant instinct. We should not be surprised to see as many borders with sentries (the egoistic instinct), as not (altruistic), with many mixed locations (the uncertain instinct). This particular series explores Bangladesh within such a rivalry playground. Turning to Bangladesh itself (in the fourth and fifth articles in the series) is paved by discussing today's "great power rivalry" (the second article), and "non-great power" dynamics (third article), to expose the necessary contexts. What we will find, in the final analysis, can be summed up in one cliché: once evident as a bug, instincts always remain a bug, distinguishing them from policy-making, which changes colours, like a chameleon, depending upon the policy-makers' calculations. Instincts have not been so successfully cloaked.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.