Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Book VI, Ch 6, Balance of Power

Clausewitz starts off this chapter with an extension of the range of resources that the defender has at his disposal, these in addition to those listed in Chapter 3 as being responsible for defensive strategic success.  This includes the militia (which exhibits distinct advantages and limitations as compared to the army; fortresses; the people (as in assisting the army operating on their own territory) which can be armed and become yet another source of power – the people in arms; and finally the defender’s allies.  In describing this last source of the defender’s power, Clausewitz provides his view of the balance of power in Europe:

If we consider the community of states in Europe today, we do not find a systematically regulated balance of power and of spheres of influence, which does not exist and whose existence has often been justifiably denied; but we certainly do find major and minor interests of states and peoples interwoven in the most varied and changeable manner.  Each point of intersection binds and serves to balance one set of interests against the other.  The broad effect of all these fixed points is obviously to give a certain amount of cohesion to the whole.  Any change will necessarily weaken this cohesion to some degree.  The sum total of relations between states thus serves to maintain the stability of the whole rather than to promote change; at least, that tendency will generally be present.

This, we suggest, is how the idea of the balance of power should be interpreted; and this kind of balance is bound to emerge spontaneously whenever a number of civilized countries are in multilateral relations.

To what extent this tendency of the common interest helps maintain existing conditions is another question.  One can certainly imagine changes in relations between individual states that would strengthen this effect, and others that could weaken it.  The first kind are attempts to perfect the political balance, and as their aim reflects that of the common interest, the majority of the parties would be in favor.  The other kind, however, are deviations, hyperactivity of individual states, actual cases of disease; one should not be surprised that diseases occur in a loosely constituted polity such as a multitude of states of various sizes after all, they also occur in the marvelously structured organic whole of living nature.

We have here Clausewitz’s view of international relations with the tendency to be towards maintaining the status quo.  We see here a close relationship between international relations during peace (a state of rough balance) along with the states of balance, tension and movement used to describe wars between political communities (Bk III/Ch 18).  Notice that in Clausewitz’s time, no “systematically regulated balance of power” existed, whereas today we have “attempts”, that is institutions – for instance, the World Bank, IMF, G-8 to monitor and maintain economic stability -  which are seen as in every one’s interest.  In fact forming and furthering these institutions is a major part of what has adequately maintained US supremacy up to this point in time, that is a hegemonic power acting, or seemingly acting, in the best interests of all.

The problem comes in when the strongest power is seen as acting only in its own interests, or as Clausewitz mentions, the “hyperactivity of individual states” . . .

It may be objected, of course that history offers examples of single states effecting radical changes that benefit themselves alone, without the slightest effort by the rest to hinder them.  There have even been cases in which a single state has managed to become so powerful that it could virtually dictate to the rest.  We would reply that this does not disprove the tendency on the part of common interests to support the existing order; all it shows is that at the moment the tendency was not sufficiently effective.  Aspiration towards a goal is not the same as motion, but that is not to say that it is a nullity – witness the dynamics of the heavens.

We therefore argue that a state of balance tends to keep the existing order intact – always assuming that the original condition was one of calm, equilibrium . . .

As in normal human relations, people resent being ordered about, but if you make it a question of what is in their own best interests . . . appear to be even subordinating your own interests to those of the group, who is to complain?  That was essentially US policy imo up to the mid 1990s.

So why is this whole system of a balance of power not more obvious?

The balance of power system only reveals itself when the balance is in danger of being lost.  As long as the natural weight of states is sufficient, without noticeable distortion or moral exertion, to keep everything in its place and the whole machine steady – that is, free of violent oscillations – there is no question of a balance of power system; the balance simple exists in itself.  We see this in northern Europe, where Sweden, Denmark, Poland and Russia existed from the days of Gustav Vasa to the Thirty Years War without the dominance of any state, and without any effort to prevent such dominance.

Clausewitz, Historical and Political Writings, p 244.

Very close to Weber here as in actual structures of power only being visable when they are under stress, but perceptions count as well.  Epochs approach the possibility of war in different ways.  In 1908 Hans Delbrück wrote:

Bismarck founded the Triple Alliance to protect Germany against a simultaneous attack from Russia and France.  At that time the only rival of England in the other parts of the world were these two powers.  Germany counted on the benign neutrality of England in any continental war.  How the world has changed!  It is correct that we are now in danger, but no Bismarck could warn us of this danger because we are the relatively strongest power and weaker powers naturally ally against the strongest.  But we cannot and do not want more of the European continent.  The decision to go to war lies with Russia . . .

Conclusions?  Cohesion, which I will return to later, exists both within the political community and within what we can call “international society” (following a classical realist view here).  Should international society share the same basic interests, that is continuation of the status quo, then we have a stable balance of power.  Should one state/political community attempt to reorder this status quo they court the possibility of bringing the other states in against them.  Should this state attack a weaker state, the defeat of the weaker state could be intolerable to the status quo powers which will in turn prompt their involvement (in whatever way).  Should a hegemonic state that has established various “attempts” to promote the status quo and a satisfactory balance of power change policy and subvert those very same “attempts” – even unintentionally – then the hegemonic state risks becoming its own worst enemy.

4 thoughts on “Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Book VI, Ch 6, Balance of Power”

  1. Clausewitz expressly limited his analysis to Europe on this point.

    I do not know how much he knew about other places. But, the tendency to have a system of states in balance was unique to Europe. Elsewhere, there tended to be a regional hegemon, and not a system of balancing states.

    Clausewitz, at least in On War, does not seem to make much of the unique role of Britain as the “offshore balancer”. A good discussion of that role is in George Kennan’s first chapter in American Diplomacy:

    Today, standing at the end rather than the beginning of this half-century, some of us see certain fundamental elements on which we suspect that American security has rested. We can see that our security has been dependent throughout much of our history on the position of Britain; that Canada, in particular, has been a useful and indispensable hostage to good relations between our country and British Empire; and that Britain’s position, in turn, has depended on the maintenance of a balance of power on the European Continent. Thus it was essential to us, as it was to Britain, that no single Continental land power should come to dominate the entire Eurasian land mass. Our interest has lain rather in the maintenance of some sort of stable balance among the powers of the interior, in order that none of them should effect the subjugation of the others, conquer the seafaring fringes of the land mass, become a great sea power as well as land power, shatter the position of England, and enter—as in these circumstances it certainly would—on an overseas expansion hostile to ourselves and supported by the immense resources of the interior of Europe and Asia. Seeing these things, we can understand that we have had a stake in the prosperity and independence of the peripheral powers of Europe and Asia: those countries whose gazes were oriented outward, across the seas, rather than inward to the conquest of power on land.

    Kennan here also notes the importance of America as the successor “offshore balancer” — though he does not use that term — on a global scale.

    Ludwig Dehio, in Ludwig Dehio, The Precarious Balance: Four Centuries of the European Power
    Struggle (1948) gives a good discussion of the balance of power in Europe, and the key role of the island power.

    My point is this: Does the balancing mechanism come into play “naturally”, or is it a unique feature of the European system? Does a “Global” system tend toward a balance, or toward a hegemonic arrangement?

    Whatever the case may be on that question, it is absolutely correct that an existing hegemon, as the USA was on September 11, 2001, and as it to some degree remains to this day, should NOT embark on a revolutionary enterprise to overturn the status quo. Claiming to be embarking on a program of democratizing the Middle East, however half-baked and half-cocked those pronouncements turned out to actually be, was a really terrible idea.

    As you put it, the “cohesion” of the system, once disrupted and set in motion, is unlikely to settle into a new pattern that is favorable to the currently most powerful player.

    Kennan, Dehio or Clausewitz could all have told Mr. Bush and his coterie of advisors that the alarm and counter-reaction they would provoke would offset any potential gain — even if the goal in question had not been a fantasia to start off with.

    Powerful states that benefit from a status quo that they built themselves, nonetheless seem to always want to push things too far. They take the favorable conditions that were carved out by the blood and guile and work of their predecessors as the order of nature, and think that even more should be available on demand.

    This is, of course, tied in to the whole business of ends and means being aligned, and knowing what kind of war you are getting into and what you want to get out of it.

  2. Lexington Green-

    Is it so surprising that a Prussian like Delbrück, or Weber, or Clausewitz would see England as a natural ally? Given their history before 1880? Don’t quite get the point there.

    “My point is this: Does the balancing mechanism come into play “naturally”, or is it a unique feature of the European system? Does a “Global” system tend toward a balance, or toward a hegemonic arrangement?”

    Ideal types . . .

  3. Sorry, not clear. The point is not to see England as an ally. The point is to see that the only reason the system is one of equilibrium, where no single continental hegemon emerges, is because the offshore balancer constantly takes the side opposing the major landpower, and is impervious to direct attack by the landpower. So, Spain, then Bourbon France, then Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, then Kaiserian Germany, then Hitlerian Germany all fell before a coalition of powers financed and assisted by the island power. Neither Parma, nor Turenne, nor Napoleon, nor Falkenhayn, nor Guderian could lay a glove on directly. Nor was Philip II, or Colbert, nor Bonaparte, or Tirpitz or Raeder or Doenitz able to build a fleet that could take on the island power and destroy its contro of the seas.

    In East Asia, the natural order is to have China be the dominant power, with occasional challenges from the steppe, or internal dissolution, but the “order of nature” is one of a large, central, hegemonic power.

    The question then is, can the USA play the same balancing role on a global scale perpetually? Or will the global system be one in which there is a hegemonic power? It seems that the global system will remain multipolar for a while to come.

  4. Lexington Green-

    “The point is not to see England as an ally. The point is to see that the only reason the system is one of equilibrium, where no single continental hegemon emerges,”

    Not so sure about this. Perhaps Delbrück saw if better than we do. Did Britain’s decision in 1914 maintain the European balance of power, or rather destroy it? Was Germany a rash hegemonic wannabe, or rather a status quo power in 1914? How exactly did Britain benefit from all this?

    Svechin thought that the British argument for going to war to defend Belgian neutrality a joke, rather their intention was to destroy their main commercial rival. From the British perspective, there were great prospects for the blockade of Germany in 1914, who could have guessed that Fritz Haber would come up with a process to make synthetic nitrates . . .

    George F Kennan of course wrote “The Faithful Alliance”, where his argument was that the Franco-Russian Alliance of 1894 set the stage for the unleashed militarism which led to the Great War. A great read btw.

    “The question then is, can the USA play the same balancing role on a global scale perpetually? Or will the global system be one in which there is a hegemonic power? It seems that the global system will remain multipolar for a while to come.”

    By “perpetually” you mean of course forever, which is highly unlikely. Prediction is mostly beyond the range of strategic theory, although the events of the past eight years should give us enough to start with.

    The US imo needs to return to the values that we stood for in 1989 when all of the East Block looked to us with hope, that is the example we set in Europe up to that date. I remember those days, they were the most amazing of my life.

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