The Balance of Power and World War I

Probabilistically, the World War I was the unlikeliest war to occur, given the balance of power that subsisted before the war. There was a stable European order from the start of the 19th century to the early 20th century. The basic tenet of the balance of power is that no single country is allowed to become so powerful that it attains hegemony over a significant part of the continent. To hedge against such a situation, the European states continually fashioned alliances that mutated as the powers changed so as to maintain the balance. Once the nation-states establish that victory is not guaranteed, they abstained from wars. The collapse of such balance of power prompted World War I. A thorough analysis indicates that the consolidation of Germany coupled with advancement in military technology and consequent arms race significantly shifted the balance of power making Europe highly volatile. The assassination crisis proved to be the last straw that sparked the war. 

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The pre-World War I Europe was governed by anarchy. Most countries did not believe in international law and order. As such, each country was keen to align itself with powerful allies that may help in case of a war or any form of military aggression. The class notes explain that the European Anarchy was principally stable, because it was characterized by an underlying balance of power. For the whole century, the policy was effectual in averting full-scale wars. The concept of the balance of powers was introduced after the Napoleonic War. The concert of Europe decided that it was not prudent for any nation-state to achieve hegemony over a substantial part of the continent. They started forming coalitions to neutralize excessive powers of the powerful nations such as the Great Britain and France. By the fourth quarter of the 19th century, a healthy balance of power had been attained; the five major powers and their alignments enjoyed equal distribution of power. The coalition between Germany and Austria-Hungary was just as powerful as the Great Britain, France, and Russia coalition. Going to war increasingly became an irrational choice as the costs likely to be incurred during the war by far outweighed the projected benefits. However, as the time went by, a series of events took place, shifting the power balance and making the region politically impulsive.

All versus France

One of the core forces that prompted a shift in the balance of powers was the changing dynamics of the French aggression. When the concept of the balance of power as a war-deterrent tool was introduced, France was Europe’s greatest enemy. The Napoleonic War had aptly demonstrated that it was detrimental for one country to have considerable political power over the rest of the region. Soon enough, other nations started to support the countries bordering France to strengthen them militarily and hedge against any possible future military aggression by France. Maintaining the balance of power, then, was quite straight-forward. However, France quickly deteriorated. Its aggression towards its neighbors and the rest of Europe became less likely. Its deterioration coincided with the rise of other nation-states such as Austria-Hungary, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Prussia among others which became extremely powerful. In fact, through the 1866 Austrian-Prussian War and the 1870 Franco-Prussian War, these states revolutionized the art of war during the19th century. They proved that mass conscripted armies can decisively defeat long-service professionals used by the established countries. There-orientation towards mass conscription shifted the equilibrium. It also made it harder for Europe to maintain the balance since, unlike at the beginning where France was the core enemy, many countries had leveraged their population to enhance their military capabilities. It triggered a series of coalition-formation in a bid to maintain the sense of balance. When it could not be achieved, World War I proved to be the only logical solution.

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Consolidation of Germany and the Decline of Austria-Hungary

The rise of Germany as a European superpower substantially shifted the equity of power and triggered the World War I. The failure of the rest of Europe to react to the consolidation of Germany proved to be fatal, as its entrance significantly transformed the existent European geopolitics. Before its creation in1871, the primary European superpowers that helped maintain the balance of power were France, Brandenburg-Prussia, Austria-Hungary, and Russia. The entrance of Germany necessitated the reallocation of power to counter its influence. However, no concrete action was taken at the time to address the power imbalance. Consequently, Germany forged ahead with its plan to accumulate power and conduct several military expeditions across Europe. 

The ruler at the time, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, prioritized the economic prosperity as opposed to military supremacy. In as much as he was keen to elevate Germany to a superpower status, he barely fancied starting a war with the rest of Europe. Germany was quickly becoming a common enemy as its accretion of power was threatening the survival of some countries especially those that were bordering Germany. Otto von Bismarck persistently played down the perception of Germany as a threat, instead enforcing the power harmony through forming a coalition with Austria-Hungary and Russia, the two most conservative states at the time. The establishment of the Three Emperor’s League, as it was known at the time, was a protective measure to deter military invasion. The three states agreed to maintain the European balance of power through consulting each other on mutual interests and supporting each other in case of an act of military aggression on any of the members by a non-member. They also pledged to stay neutral when a member state pursued military interests against a non-member, particularly their enemies at the time; France and the Balkan nations. As Germany became more and more potent, though, Russia continually felt threatened. Ultimately, Russia broke out and aligned itself with the Great Britain and France, further upsetting distribution of military power and making Europe increasingly volatile.

Moreover, the abrupt change in leadership after the resignation of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck further enhanced Germany’s influence across Europe and disrupted the balance of power. The leaders who took over from him were keen to pursue expansionist foreign policies. Germany, thus, formed multiple alliances between 1890 and 1914. The unpredictability of the coalitions further made Europe unstable and ripe for war. The coalitions were not based on ideologies or any real enmity, but rather on real and perceived powers. As Germany became powerful, there was an extensive restructuring of the balance of power and the probability of warring. Its marginal propensity to wage war against other state increased considerably, as its primary goals mutated into the expansion of territory, power, and influence.

While Germany was on an upward trajectory, Austria-Hungary was experiencing the exact opposite. Its political power was fast waning, and this destabilized Europe’s equilibrium. The Balkan states were quickly becoming capable, particularly Serbia. Russia too exhibited opportunistic tendencies and was augmenting its influence in Eastern Europe. Ordinarily, stronger countries wage war to defeat major enemies or to advance imperialistic interests. Declining states, on the other hand, pre-empt a defeat. Hence, the declining Austria-Hungary was on a war-path because it faced a survival threat. The state in question probably fancied a full-blown war that will disrupt the whole of Europe to buy time to reverse the decline. Ultimately, Austria-Hungary triggered World War I as it was at the center of the assassination crisis.

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The Arms Race and Militarism 

The arms race was probably the most notable phenomenon that restructured the equity of power and destabilized Europe. As noted earlier, the arms race in Europe during the pre-World War I era was triggered by the 1866 Austria-Prussian War. During the war, Austria appropriated mass conscripted armies which proved to be more effectual than professional soldiers. Mass conscription afforded countries soldiers who were more motivated and abrasive, driven by nationalist ideologies, unlike the professional soldiers who conceptualized war as an occupational duty. The same situation was replicated in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War. It provided the much-needed evidence that the re-orientation to mass conscription was the most prudent way to attain military supremacy at the time. The key implication of this revolution was that many countries emerged as potential superpowers in Europe.

However, the mass army enrollment logic as a military supremacy tool did not last for long. Countries like Germany and Great Britain re-oriented to naval modernization. It prompted a transformation of attitudes of European governments as they progressively saw war as a valid foreign policy option. The military modernization of some countries triggered an arms race. Each country felt obliged to enhance its armed forces might in the pretext of maintaining the balance of power. However, in reality, the nations only managed to further upset the existing balance.

The government of Germany and Austria-Hungary were the most militaristic governments in the end of the 19th century. They were followed by the Great Britain, Russia, and France in building up their armies and navies. By the time the war started, each country had set up a formidable military force and was prepared for a war of any magnitude. For instance, by 1914, Germany had recruited an upwards of 2,200,000 soldiers and had manufactured over 97 fully-functional warships. Austria-Hungary had 810,000 soldiers and 28 warships. Italy had recruited 750,000 soldiers and had manufactured 36 warships. France too was determined to participate in restoring parity by recruiting a strong team of 1,125,000 soldiers with 62 ships at their disposal. Russia had a military base of 1,200,000 soldiers and 30 warships while the Great Britain had a moderate army of 711,000 soldiers and 185 warships. Furthermore, almost all European countries trained their young generations to become a standing army or reservists, who would provide military backup when needed. It is estimated that Germany had trained 8.5 million men as a standing army while Russia had 4.4 million men as reservists. France had 3.5 million men while Austria-Hungary had roughly 3 million people on standby. The Germany army remained the biggest and the best trained on the continent nevertheless. Its influence was, however, effectively curtailed by the Russian army, which was the fastest growing at the time.

The effects of the arms race ultimately aroused tension between the global political powers and triggered the World War I. As the countries continually built their military capacities, they also became increasingly suspicious of each other’s’ intentions. Germany and Britain, for example, were relentlessly arguing over the size of their navies. At some point, each felt that it was its duty to limit the size of the other’s navy so as to maintain the balance of power. The British developed a belief that Germany was actively challenging its naval superiority as Kaiser Wilhelm began to build new, large Dreadnoughts battleships. The Germans figured that these new ships would come in handy in threatening the British colonies overseas. Consequently, the British also started building Dreadnoughts, apparently to maintain the balance of power. It went a step further to befriend the Japanese in 1902 so as to have a close friend in the Pacific area that could help the Britons in the case of military aggression. The arrogance, with which Germany engaged in the arms race, made the other countries suspect that it had sinister motives and intended to rule over the rest of Europe. It further exacerbated the political volatility in Europe. By the time the assassination crisis occurred, Europe was already deeply polarized; a potential warzone that only needed a tiny spark to cause a full-scale war.

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In conclusion, it is evident that the fracturing of the balance of power in Europe triggered the World War I. The collapse of such equity was not instantaneous; it took place over a long stretch of time. It started with the changing power dynamics, as several smaller states accumulated military might. Unlike in the past, when it was easier to maintain the balance of power through limiting France’s military explorations, harmonizing the influence of the numerous emerging smaller states through coalitions proved improbable. The consolidation of Germany coupled with the drastic decline of Austria-Hungary also significantly restructured the balance of power. The perception that Germany’s influence across Europe had reached a threatening level forced the rest of Europe to antagonize it. Lastly, the arms race triggered enmity between the various nation-states as they militarized to keep up with each other. The states thought building respective military might strengthen the balance of power. However, it achieved the exact opposite as it increasingly made going to war a rational choice. Ultimately, the consequent imbalance of power triggered World War I.

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