Vast accumulations of power in world politics invariably come crashing down, or at least that is the conventional wisdom of most historians and realist policy analysts. Any “overbalance of power”, whether in the form of powerful regional or global empires, hierarchic dynasties, or other kinds of hegemonic orders, eventually bites the dust because efforts to counterbalance ultimately succeed. If nature abhors a vacuum, international politics punctures an imbalance; imperial nabobs and other over-reachers always get their comeuppance.
If the lesson stopped there, things would be oh-so-simple and clear. Yet balance-of-power systems fail, too, because of the inherent rivalries they provoke. As shown by the constant tension engendered by the rise and fall of great powers, bipolarity is the least stable of systems, though based on an ostensible balance of power. The systems fail because one member (or set of members in alliance) strives for primacy, and a mere balance does not deter action by either side. The fact is that we live in a war-prone state system no matter how we arrange its power geometry—and the jury is still out on whether weapons of mass destruction have changed anything in that regard.
The matter does not end there. It begins anew when we ask: How is peace spread over any given region of the world? It is done by getting nations to join and cooperate within what becomes a huge overbalance of power. Indeed, an overbalanced peace born of voluntary cooperation is vastly better than a balanced one born of mutual fear. Overbalancing can be good if it comes into being in a certain way to serve certain purposes. But how, more specifically, do we distinguish good from bad overbalances, and, insofar as their dynamics go, how do we separate justifiable from illegitimate uses of force on behalf of maintaining or protecting an overbalance of power?
In judging whether an overbalance is good or bad for peace and security, the means of augmenting power are the main determinant. The European Union is an overbalance of power in its region, and it is a good overbalance because none of its members has ever been coerced to join. It operates consensually.
In other cases, the means of creating an overbalance may be in some sense illegitimate according to the norms of the day, but the ultimate effect can still be beneficial. Every state, after all, is an “empire” of sorts by origin. Most are formed through aggrandizement, whether of territory, people, or even other states. Yet depending on its behavior, a state may become a boon. It was not for nothing that Machiavelli commented about 500 years ago that all benign political orders rest on antecedent crimes. Thus the United States now owns about half of what used to be Mexico, but it is difficult to argue that the U.S. Southwest or its original inhabitants’ progeny have suffered as a result of the transfer of power. As Hobbes showed in Leviathan, even smaller states are in effect empires in the sense that civil society—once set up as part of the social contract—becomes a hierarchical overbalance of power to protect citizens from violent death only at the cost of their personal sovereignty.
There are many supranational agglomerations that constitute overbalances of various kinds of power, whose legitimacy turns power into authority. We generally do not wish to disassemble these agglomerations: the world trading system, complete with the WTO; the Universal Postal Union; the global communications networks, enabling everything from texting to emailing to tweeting to GPS; and a vast range of recreational and professional voluntary associations. Large corporations, and attendant forms of concentrated authority, can work if they can be disciplined and regulated, producing outcomes that benefit all or most users, citizens, or watchers.
So it is in international politics. The United Nations began as an alliance of 25 like-minded nations that defeated Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan; today, it is a world organization of 192 members. No one argues that the UN’s contemporary “overbalance of power”, at least in those functional domains where it actually enjoys authority, is bound to be crushed by dissident outsiders seeking to balance against its overweening administrative clout. Or consider the IMF, the European Union, and NATO: Clearly, some multinational agglomerations have considerable economic and military power, and hence political efficacy. The NATO example reminds us that, even if one considers military power alone, many episodes of overbalance have benefited the world as a whole as well as the nations directly involved in them.
Overbalance in the 19th Century
In the early years of the 19th century, most of Europe suffered under the military yoke of Napoleonic France. Yet that violent overbalance of power also brought remarkable modernizing influence to bear on a wide area. Napoleon brought the French civil code to conquered territories and dared allied autocrats to reinstate the old, unequal legal system. Militarily he incorporated much of Western Europe, Switzerland, northern Italy, what would become Belgium, and the Rhineland into his realms. He nominated the kings of Spain and Italy and married (in a second marriage) the Austrian Emperor’s daughter. But his overbalance provoked resistance because, however benign by some measures, it was not voluntary. Thus French power was never transformed into true authority.
When Napoleon was finally deposed after Waterloo in June 1815, the European world might have repaired to business as usual, with nations returning to their historic rivalries and conflicts, but they did not. A simple balance of power designed to prevent another outbreak of French military expansion would have been possible—indeed it would have been the diplomatic norm. But that is not what happened. The victors incorporated France into what became the Concert of Europe, an organization of the five major powers to promote and maintain peace while keeping legitimate governments in power. France was contained from within and therefore did not have to be contained from without.
This was not easy to do, and many temptations stressed the Concert’s unity. In 1820, for example, revolts in Greece against the Ottomans tempted Czar Alexander I to recognize an independent Greece and thereby humiliate Turkey, perhaps providing an avenue for Russian expansion toward the Straits. Under Prince Klemens von Metternich’s influence, however, Alexander stayed his hand and allowed Greece to seethe without touching off a major war. After 1830 and the revolution that dumped Charles X in France, Belgium declared independence from Holland. This raised a huge issue because the river Scheldt ran through Belgium, and any great power that held the mouths of the Scheldt possessed a dagger pointed across the Channel at Britain’s heart. France smacked its lips at the prospect of taking over Brussels and gaining advantage against London. Under Concert sponsorship, however, Britain and France held negotiations culminating in an 1833 agreement establishing the independence and neutrality of Belgium without any change in frontiers. France renounced any claims on Belgium and reassured England.
There were disagreements in the Middle East, too—nothing new. When Mehmet Ali, ruler of Egypt and vassal of the Sultan, attempted to gain additional sway over the Ottoman Empire’s Levantine domains, particularly Syria and what became Lebanon, Britain was initially cool toward Turkey. But Lord Palmerston, then British Foreign Secretary, concluded that undermining Turkey would pave the way not just for French influence but also for Russian primacy in the Dardanelles, controlling the access to the Black Sea from the Mediterranean. By 1841 Britain had persuaded all powers, even a reluctant France, to respect Ottoman territorial integrity and refuse to support or recognize further encroachments by Mehmet Ali.
All of these adjustments and arrangements depended not just on a balance of power but also on a shared understanding of the rules by which adjustments could be made short of systemic war. The rules, in turn, depended on the basic legitimacy that each of the powers guaranteed for the other four members of the Concert, and how that guarantee of legitimacy was accepted domestically.1 The Revolutions of 1848, however, brought an end to the Concert in its original form because they cast into doubt the legitimacy of some parties, and hence the informal set of rules that enabled them to adjust to each other’s interests.
The great change that 1848 signaled underscores the reasons for the failure of overbalances (as well as balances) of power. Successful overbalances depend not just on the extent of foreign opposition but also on the degree of their domestic support. The Concert could not protect the internal legitimacy of conservative institutions if revolutionary change undermined members of the Concert from within. The same was true of balances of power considered more generally: If aggressors got entire nations on their side, the balance of power would be much harder to implement. On the other hand, if public opinion within an aggressor state turned against its own aggressive government, as Woodrow Wilson declared it would do if states were democratic, then the aggressor state could stop its aggression short of being forced to do so by war.
The 1848 revolutions hit the German states and the Hapsburg Empire as well as France. Afterwards, all outcomes were possible, even in ostensibly liberal states like Britain and France. For regimes to remain in power in both Western and Central Europe, they had to garner foreign policy successes. For France this meant installing Napoleon’s nephew in power and seeking gains in northern Italy against Austria, which ruled Lombardy and Venice at the time. For England it meant helping German and Italian nationalists unify their countries and punishing an autocratic Russia.
Austria, Prussia, and Russia, however, came under even greater challenge. Russia sought to protect the Ottoman Christians in Turkey, but France and Britain opted to stop any such Russian encroachment, leading to the Crimean War (1854–56). France then staged a war against Austria to benefit Piedmont’s hold on Lombardy and to start the process of uniting Italy, a project designed, in the simplest geostrategic sense, to keep Hapsburg armies north of the Alps. For its part, Prussia needed successful wars to convince the independent German duchies of the benefits of German unification. First, in 1864, both Austria and Prussia attacked Denmark, and then they fell out over the spoils of the Schleswig-Holstein accession. Finally, France, falling into Bismarck’s trap, demanded concessions in Luxembourg, which outraged even the southern Germans. After the 1870–71 Franco-Prussian War, the victorious Prussians could create the united Germany (without Austria). Thus, the Concert’s ban on war fought directly between members was overthrown because successful war reinsured liberals and conservatives who held the reins of power. Popular opinion ratified German successes even though they were achieved militarily under Otto von Bismarck’s autocratic regime.
After Bismarck’s victory in 1870–71 a new overbalance of power became possible. Germany was now a satisfied power, newly sated by the unification of the German states and the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine, and only wished to preserve its position against possible revenge by France. Unlike Napoleon, Bismarck knew where and when to stop. In 1873, he allied with Austria and Russia, but this entente did not survive Russia’s war with Turkey in 1877 and Disraeli and Bismarck’s Congress of Berlin, which deprived Russia of its territorial gains, leaving St. Petersburg bruised and disconsolate. In reaction, Germany quickly moved to forge a permanent alliance with Austria-Hungary in 1879. Italy was added, and the Triple Alliance formed in 1882.
The German Chancellor’s ultimate objective was still to bring in Russia, and he did so in the Russo-German Reinsurance Treaty of 1887. Bismarck solidified this position by getting Britain to support his Mediterranean agreements, which were directed against any further Russian expansion in the Near East that might menace Turkey. Bismarck could therefore rest content that others would do his work for him, as he blandly presided over European politics. The German Chancellor reassured England by not building a navy and by not seeking colonial gains that would impinge on the British Empire. The very inconsistency of German commitments to Austria and Russia tied his hands and facilitated decent relations, if not warm friendship, with both sides. Russia joined Germany in 1887 because a connection with France might involve war with Berlin as revanchists gained influence in Paris.
The Bismarckian four-versus-one overbalance against France, for as long as it lasted, was possible because Germany had become a satisfied state. It shared ideological goals with Russia and Austria and got on well with Britain in terms of empire. All sides of German opinion enthused over the successful unification. Bismarck’s two Eastern allies competed, but he refused to choose between them in their Balkan rivalry and encouraged them to find an accommodation. The German Chancellor avoided the later mistakes of Wilhelm II, who dropped Russia and did not pick up England, thereby diminishing Germany’s long-term position, and switching an overbalance to a mere balance of power: Triple Alliance versus Triple Entente.
In short, what is usually referred to as a single Concert system that lasted nearly a hundred years was really not that at all. What started out in 1815 as a shared order with well-understood rules of adjustment—a trans-imperial civilization—devolved after 1848 into a precarious balance-of-power arrangement without rules and largely without a shared civilization. It morphed, after 1871, into a German-dominated overbalance. And then, colonial competition, geopolitical logic (largely concerning the receding Ottoman Empire), and vainglorious leadership in Germany after Bismarck, created an even more precarious balance-of-power arrangement that collapsed in 1914 into world war. Overbalance kept the peace, first in true concert form and then in a German-dominated form, while balance shook and finally wrecked the peace.
Overbalance in the 20th Century
Overbalance also kept the peace in the second half of the 20th century, but not in exactly the same way. In the 20th century, three factors defined successful overbalancing. The first was the economic power of the leading actors. The second was the degree of domestic support they received from their own populations and populations in other countries that felt an affinity with them. The third was the momentum in world politics of particular ideas or ideologies that were gaining adherents internationally. Overbalancing works best to keep the peace when the values of the member state or states that make up its leadership are supported domestically in a range of other societies, and when domestic change abroad is likely to advance its values still further. It fails when the momentum passes to challengers and their value sets. Even aggression can succeed if internal political values shift in the aggressor’s favor.
The U.S.-led overbalance of the mid-20th century grew out of bipolarity, but in the beginning of the Cold War era it was not clear it would mature in the direction it ultimately did. Franklin D. Roosevelt, influenced by Halford Mackinder and Nicholas John Spykman, feared Soviet geopolitical power and wanted to keep U.S. soldiers in Europe after World War II to blunt Soviet expansion; he never believed that the United Nations alone would keep the peace. Immediate postwar politics made that impossible, and under Harry Truman the American army practically scuttled itself after V-J Day.
More important, in the first two decades of the Cold War, many believed that the Soviet and Communist bloc’s economic momentum was more impressive than that of the West. Many also believed Stalin’s remark to Tito, that “whoever occupies a territory also imposes his own social system.” Force alone could reform opinion in such newly conquered realms. If true, then even an alliance like NATO could not fully balance Soviet expansion, for it needed to influence the domestic politics of each vulnerable country to succeed. And many believed that socialism was the normative wave of the future.
In these circumstances many Western diplomats believed that Soviet power was “irreversible” and could increase further. Thus the domestic balance of opinion in the West came to be just as important, if not more so, than the external balance of power. An overbalance of force might theoretically have been accumulated even by a weak Soviet Union, if domestic opinion in the West had acceded to anti-democratic outcomes in a range of crucial states.
This dour state of affairs did not last long. Western economic successes soon dwarfed what the “socialist camp” could achieve through sweated labor and a low developmental base. It turned out that public opinion in Soviet satellite states was able to demand change despite the ever-present threat of Soviet coercion, and even Soviet leaders had to adjust. Already by 1969, when the United States put a man on the Moon and returned him safely to earth, Soviet ideological influence in the Third World began to wither, and the trend away from command economies and stultified authoritarianism had become irreversible. Perhaps History did not yet end, but by the mid-1980s the trend was clear. By every reasonable measure liberalism was far more effective, economically and politically, than any brand of communism.
Undoubtedly, first Mikhail Gorbachev and then Boris Yeltsin hoped they could reach an accommodation with the West and perhaps join it. That possibility had never been ruled out, even by George Kennan. They believed that NATO would be disbanded, or at least that Russia could become a regular member of it as France had been included in the Concert of Europe in 1815. U.S. partisans of “offshore balancing” also called on the United States to withdraw from NATO and Europe.2
These hopes were not vindicated. The West accomplished the peaceful end of the Cold War by accumulating an overbalance of power in its own hands. In democratic, economic, and military terms, the West vanquished the East, which has floundered since and not been able to devise an effective counterstrategy. Moscow did not lose the Cold War because of any perturbation in the balance of power, but rather through an increasingly irresistible overbalance against it in economic, political, and ideological terms. The military balance functioned as mere background to these factors; it was not trivial, to be sure, but neither did it determine the outcome.
China and the Overbalance of Western Power
Beijing has now entered the international lists and wishes to change things. It wants new institutions, parity with the United States, and a vast range of the Pacific littoral to cultivate unilaterally. It would like to expand its influence, or perhaps even its borders, in Central Asia where Kazakhstan and Mongolia reside, in what is now Mackinder’s famous Heartland.3 It does not want to join anyone else’s overbalance of power but rather to create its own.4 This means running or replacing key institutions like the IMF, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization, and establishing a dominant presence in the G-7, which would then become G-8 or G-9 (depending on Russia’s inclusion or exclusion). Militarily, China wants aircraft carrier battle groups to match those of the U.S. Navy in the Pacific and at least equivalence in nuclear potency and long-range weapons. The PLA will not settle for less.
In achieving those objectives the problem is not the GDP of the United States, which China will surpass by 2050, as Xi Jinping correctly predicts. The West as a whole and the rest of the world presents the problem.
In most economic areas there is already an overbalance of power China can join but not dominate. The United States and Europe together constitute a bloc of $34 trillion in GDP; add Japan and the total rises to more than $40 trillion. American hedge funds have assets of $3 trillion and have leveraged commitments totaling $30 trillion. According to the Bank of International Settlements, derivatives contracts totaled $600 trillion in 2010. The Chinese, by themselves or in partnership with would-be allies, will never approach these figures, and any sudden move to withdraw assets from Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Beijing would scuttle China’s growth and possibly its entire economic system. The market is hesitant now to lend money to Russia. Suppose it deigned to accept repos from China, forcing instantaneous repayment of bank loans throughout China’s shadow banking system. What would be the result? However independent China may become in military terms, it cannot opt out of the world economy. Thus there is already an abiding economic overbalance of power; China is and will remain a beneficiary, but it cannot disengage from this largely Western creation.
More important still are the likely shifts in China’s internal politics, brought about in some part by the prospect of free elections in Hong Kong in 2017. Hong Kong voters are about to be asked to choose among, say, three or four Beijing-nominated candidates for top posts in the administrative district. But the democracy movement in Hong Kong will want a say in the nominations, not just in choosing among those already pre-selected pro-Beijing candidates to stand for office.
Over time this kind of thing is inevitable. Consider the evolution of European history. The romantic, populist/monarchical revolutions of 1830 did not displace the old regime; the edifice shuddered, but it did not collapse. The revolutions of 1848, however, ultimately forced conservative states to change, embracing nationalism and foreign policy success to stay in power, and World War I, the reflection of that nationalism, ultimately toppled the old order.5 As political change took place, liberal democratic governments were first challenged by the rise of fascism and Japanese hyper-nationalism and imperial expansion, but in the aftermath of war, liberal governments came to power all over Europe and then more generally over most of the world. Unlike Russians in 1985, Chinese citizens have services like Google and Weibo to keep up with global knowledge and experience. They know their countrymen are imprisoned merely for publishing the facts concerning Chinese elite corruption. For a while sheer economic success will pacify dissent, but in the long run neither the economic success nor the quietude will endure. Political change will come to China just as it did to Europe.
But what shape will that change take? This is where a Western overbalance of power becomes crucial. A balance of power will merely lead to bipolar competition, as it did in the early phases of the Cold War. An already-constructed Western overbalance, however, with multiple outposts in Asia, stands a very good chance of attracting China. This is because China’s problems have little or nothing to do with its raw or relative military or economic power; they have nearly everything to do with the slowness of its political transformation.
If China remains hostile to the West for any of a variety of reasons, it will not prosper or succeed. The question, then, is under what circumstances China will be admitted to the councils of Western power. (Russia was denied entry in 1996, and there has been no change since, except in the wrong direction.) So Beijing must calculate what it needs to do, mainly in terms of political experimentation, to qualify for membership in the stronger West. Greater freedom in Hong Kong could lead to an experimental opening in Guangdong, where elections have already been used to settle economic disputes. A more rapid negotiated incorporation of Taiwan would assist this process, for then China might have one country and two or three different internal systems within it.
China’s joining the West cannot at this point be confidently predicted, but a Western overbalance is the way to encourage that ultimately desirable result. This is not a time for the U.S. government to downplay its alliance structure, even in the absence of major direct threats to which it needs to respond. It is rather a time to cultivate its leadership of an overbalance of power that relies on economic dynamism, political legitimacy, wide affinity, and ideological appeal far more than it does on military might. China’s future—and a future world great power concert—probably depend on it.
1This observation goes to the heart of Henry Kissinger’s first book, A World Restored (1954), and is noted in that context by Parag Khanna in “A World Reimaged”, The American Interest (July/August 2014).
2See John Mearsheimer, “Back to the Future: Instability in Europe After the Cold War”, International Security (Summer 1990).
3See Yun Sun, “March West: China’s Response to the U.S. Rebalancing”, Brookings Institution, January 31, 2014.
4See Martin Jacques, When China Rules the World (Penguin, 2009).
5See Arno Mayer, The Persistence of the Old Regime: Europe to the Great War (Pantheon Books, 1981).