The Balance of Power Theory and the Origins of the WWI

Posted: April 26, 2017


The balance of power among the European nations in the 1900s is considered by many in the international relations field to have been the single most important factors that led to the declaration of the First World War.  According to Fromkin, the balance of power theory states that given that in anarchist systems, units are interested in security maximization for survival, they usually tend to guard against the rise of any hegemonic power concentrations around them that may pose security threats to them (157). They will normally do this through the internal balancing of power, that is, by building and strengthening their internal military capabilities or via external balancing which involves the aggregation of abilities and formation of alliances.  Alternatively, they could also do this through emulation whereby they adopt the potential hegemonic nation’s power generating activities.  Further,  the balance of power theory  is premised on the assumption that  due to concentrations and imbalances in material and military capabilities among nations and powers, there arises the need  for this inequality in power to be  put in  check and an equilibrium restored  so  that the major powers within the international system can survive (Fromkin 111).  The methods used by the great powers in restoring the balances include forming counterbalancing alliances, internal military security buildup, emulation, and partition.  This paper examines and explains the balance of power theory and how it can be used to account for the origin of the WWI. It argues that the need to adjust power due to power differences in Europe is one of the contributors and origins of the First World War.

According to Fromkin, the origins of the First World War may be attributed mainly to the balance of power that was taking place in Europe at the time the war began (215).  He argues that there was no other major reason or provocation that could have led to the bloodbath were it not for the power hegemony and the race for military prowess and showed off among the major powers, alliances, and allies.  It was not therefore by accident that the WWI occurred. At the center of this great power struggle are seen Austria-Hungary and Germany.  They are taken by most international relations scholars as being the ones that created the conditions necessary for one of the most devastating wars in world history.  Germany, for instance, in its international war of aggression, formed a treaty alliance with Austria. The same time, Russia and France formed a similar treaty alliance in resentment to Germany’s stance at the time. Germany then immediately set upon building and renewing its military and navy, ostensibly in readiness for a break-out of war due to the power differences and the political game plays in Europe.  Consequently, the Great Britain, then the most powerful nation both militarily and regarding maritime power,  recognized this as a threat to its internal and external security and hence began concluding international agreements with Russia and France.  This eventually created a situation whereby there were two major divisions of high power in Europe at the time:  the Central Powers and the Entente Powers.  The Treaty of Versailles is also seen by many as one of the ways through which power was to be divided in Europe and the need to restore the balance of power among the European nations.  It was an attempt to do away with the situations whereby some European countries dominated the balance of power. It is probably lack of this balance that eventually led nations to fight it out during the 1914-1918 war.

Further, under the balance of power theory, governments feel the urge to build up and maintain some of the most sophisticated war machines and military power to prevent one nation from dominating the balance of power.  This is related to the dilemma security concept whereby countries feel that any domination of the international or regional sphere and concentration of political and economic power in one nation is a security threat to itself.  As a result of this fear, such a state will usually try to maximize its economic, political and military resources to match the hegemonic power to prevent dominance. This power struggle, however, sometimes causes wars and conflicts as no nation would like to be outsmarted when it comes to military prowess (Fromkin 268). This may have been what happened before and during the First World War as European nations struggled to maintain the balance of power.  The European nations during this period, notably the Great Britain and Russia, felt that there was a need to set equilibrium to prevent Germany from dominating world economic power and politics. The anarchic system that was prevailing in Europe at the time to some extent also fueled the need to ensure a balance of power among the European states.  Thus, in a bid to ensure this power equilibrium, each European state began strengthening and solidifying its military and maritime war position and equipment in readiness for a world war that was then imminent owing to the threat posed by Germany.  Further, imperialism in Europe also facilitated this balance of power. The hegemony concept in Europe to an extent made war more likely among the major European powers since some states felt they were economically dominated by powerful states.  This led to the formation of alliances among states and unification of the great powers with the aim of counteracting Germany's dominance.

Moreover, under the balance of power, groups of nations or individual countries may come up with a policy designed self-protection against other states through matching their internal powers against the hegemonic nation’s power.  This balancing of power among states can be done by way of increasing a country’s internal power such as through arms race, the addition of power and also through cooperation among states.  This balancing of power system played out in Europe by the time the Napoleonic Wars ended and the World War I began.  The Great Britain was seen as the nation that held the balance.  The alliance of France, Britain, and Russia in unity against Austria-Hungary and Germany is the primary factor that led to the world war one as it pitted two powerful unions against each other.  The two means of stabilizing the European systems and maintaining peace before the WWI included hegemonic regulation and hegemonic power objectivity (Lecture, August 2016).  Further, using the structural theory which is the fundamental concept of realism,  the balance of power explains the origins of the WWI in that it examine how the balance of power in a hegemonic and anarchic system as was the case in Europe works.  In the 1914 Europe, for instance, Germany held the hegemonic power followed by France, Russia, and Austria-Hungary (Lecture, August 2016).  On the other side of the historical divide, Great Britain, the then center of economic and military power in Europe, also held power. This situation of power imbalance created mainly by the formation of alliances among nations led to tensions among states hence resulting in the outbreak of the WWI.  This balance of power can either be stable or unstable. The stable balance of power is where there is a relative strength among adversaries while in an unstable system, there is a shifting of capabilities consisting of rising and declining powers. This, according to Lecture, August 2016, increases the possibility of war and hence this is what might have been what played out before 1914 hence making the WWI almost inevitable.  The unstable balance of power is a threat to the declining powers and an opportunity to the rising powers as the case in 1914 with countries like Germany and Great Britain against France and Russia.

Also, the balance of power also entails nations doing s cost-benefit analysis and hence weighs the potential benefits and costs of war before waging war.  Where the balance of power between or among states is equal and constant, war is never a rational choice for the states involved. On the other, where the balance of power among nations is so great that some countries dominate the balance of power, there likely to be conflicts aimed at restoring the balance of equality among states. The reason for this is that normally, the expected benefits of war must be greater than the costs of going to war (Lecture, August 2016). This is exactly what happened in Europe among the great powers hence leading to the First World War.  This careful balancing of military, economic and political power among European states acted as a prelude to the world war one as it prepared nations internally for any eventuality, having noted the rise of fascist Germany and its strong alliances with Russia and France.  According to Froomkin, after the end of the domination of Europe by the French Napoleons, there was a race towards maintaining a system of political and military balance called the balance of power. It was specifically aimed at the maintenance of international order by making it difficult for a nation state to use its power to dominate others within the imperial system.  This way, it was believed that nations would not attempt to expand militarily due to fear of other states reprising through equal dominant force. However, the consolidation of Germany and Italy into vigorous and powerful nation states radically changed the balance of power structure in Europe (146). This made the possibility of an outbreak of a major world more evident than it had been before in the world history.  Had the state of power been equal among the European nations before 1914, probably the WWI could have been avoided since then nations would have had not a rational choice for waging war?  For, before 1914 Europe, states were presented with four main situations and choices: advantageous peace, status quo or peace, war and defeat (Lecture, August 2016).


In summary, as has been shown in the above discussion, the balance of power concept before 1914 in Europe among Britain and Germany with their respective alliances explains the origins of WWI. Though initially aimed at ensuring peace by maintaining a system of economic, political and military balance or equilibrium among states, the balance of power could not be maintained following the rise of stable nation states like Germany and Britain. Their hardline stances and the arms race thwarted the possibilities of continuing any balance hence making the breakout of the war between these states and their allies more imminent than it had even been before.  Moreover, as Froomkin succinctly puts it, the disruption of the balance of power between the dominant European powerhouses and their alliances created a situation whereby each tried to build up their military and political power structures in anticipation of a war hence the slightest provocation and tension led to the WWI.

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