Europe’s Third Strategic Disaster and the Future of the Westphalian Order

The balance of power concept is the optimal, if not perfect, method of maintaining peace between nations. This is why it was predominant from the mid-17th to the early 20th century, or practically the entire period that Europe dominated world affairs. It was only Europe’s first geopolitical disaster (1914-1918) that put an end to the balance and for that matter to the rules-based wars as such. After WWII, the number of important world powers was reduced to just two – the USA and the USSR – and relations between them were not those of a balance of power. They were transformed into containment in terms of substance and mutual deterrence as a method of maintaining global peace.

Today, the alignment of forces in the world is changing once again. Formerly targets of the big game, China and India are emerging as sources of expansion and domination in their own right, including beyond their periphery. More likely than not, Europe is on the threshold of its third geopolitical disaster (the other two striking in 1914 and 1939), which will lead to the definitive loss of its strategic agency. In 2014, the long smoldering conflict between Europe and Russia escalated into an active phase. If it becomes systemic, the European powers will lose their most important diplomatic resource – the ability to put their eggs in many baskets. Even during the first Cold War (1947-1991), France, for one, retained relative autonomy. Not so now.

Therefore, the question of whether the events in Ukraine are a major fault line or just an ordinary, if acute, controversy between strategic partners is of crucial importance for Europe’s future. The visits to Russia by the heads of the leading European powers, Germany and France, can be seen as reaffirming the desire to preserve the historically formed framework of relations with Russia on the part of the Europeans who retained a measure of prestige. But they may also prove tactical steps that fail to reverse the general trend towards finalizing the curtailment of Europe’s international positions. The new world is harsh and it is quite likely that the Europeans will be able to survive in it only under the strict control and surveillance of their US allies. In the meantime, the European centuries-old principles of international relations will become the responsibility of totally different players.

One of these days we will mark the 400th anniversary of the Thirty Years’ War, the most important armed conflict in human history. The Prague Defenestration of May 23, 1618, when the Protestant representatives of the Czech Estates threw the Emperor’s lieutenants out of windows of Prague Castle, ushered in a total war in Europe and the most horrible calamity in the history of contemporary Christendom. The fundamental cause of this clash was the displeasure of the new contemporary power centers – the Protestant states and France – with the Catholic Habsburg Empire’s monopoly position in Central Europe. The hostilities were conducted with extreme harshness, with the German lands losing 40% (and in some places, 70%) of their civilian population. One-third of German towns were burned down.

While at its start the war was a sufficiently well-structured conflict hinging around religious differences, it degenerated into a classical war of all against all nearer its end. It was only a series of revolutionary and Napoleonic wars that France waged two centuries later and the Great War of 1914-1918 that could eclipse the Thirty Years’ War in scale. We are not speaking about World War II, which became a world war in the geographical sense as well.

But the real historical importance of these 400-years-old events is not in their scale or damage caused by the hostilities. After all, the abovementioned later conflicts proved even worse. Neither do we speak about the wars that repeatedly befell the great Chinese civilization. The Thirty Years’ War is the centerpiece of world history because of its influence on the development of the international political system. In his World Order, Henry Kissinger noted that the brilliance of the Westphalian system and the reason for its spread throughout the world was that it was procedural rather than substantive.

It was that 1648 evolved the first ever rules of international relations, most importantly, the universal reciprocal recognition of legitimacy and formal equality of states as “citizens” of the international system. Formally, the equality principle was breached only once when the UN Security Council was established with its group of five states, which had the right to approve decisions mandatory for all other world countries. Another Westphalian principle was cujus regio, ejus religio borrowed from the 1555 Peace of Augsburg, which meant an actual ban on religious wars. But the treaties also contained purely material provisions related to territorial transfers. Let us note that the Westphalian rules in no way regulated the transition of one state’s territories to another. Neither was it restricted and thus the European powers spent the next two centuries fighting predominantly for lands and resources.

The material basis – military might – is also inherent in the third fundamental principle of the Westphalian system, the balance of power or a combination of states’ capabilities, where none of them can be stronger than all others taken all together. This rule is as important for the maintenance of   more or less peace as difficult to implement in practice. The growth of a state’s relative power cannot be restricted by the state in question, since this is unnatural. But the others must grow stronger on their own and be responsible about that, thus preventing the potential hegemon from becoming one formally. The danger emerges when one power’s natural edge over all others at the global and regional level turns insurmountable.

The collapse of the USSR and the end of the first Cold War created a hypothetical opportunity to cease reciprocal containment and intimidation and no longer think about the balance. Moreover, there were material prerequisites for that in the 1990s and the early 2000s. In terms of its combined might and that of each power component aside from the nuclear, the US was the incontestable leader whose level could not be reached by anyone. Besides, the combined capabilities of Russia and China at that historical juncture and, even more importantly, the quality of political relations between them made it impossible for them to jointly balance America. But this situation has been changing in recent years. And yet, mutual containment or intimidation persists as the basis of peace between the most likely potential adversaries, Russia and the United States.

Meanwhile, Russia and China are rapidly drawing ever closer together and the revival of Moscow’s military capabilities is complemented by the growth of Beijing’s economic (and now military) power. Together, they are able to balance the US on the global scale, if not do this already. At the same time, both powers retain elements of mutual containment in their relations with America, containment whose classical version was so brilliantly described by George Kennan 70 years ago. It is about restricting the expansion of a partner and strategic adversary. Eventually, the Big Three will preserve both the balancing principles historically inherent in the international system and the 20th-century containment and intimidation. As repeatedly predicted, the latter continues to play a positive role.

In turn, Europe, with its exhausted potential, can no longer be seen as a component of the global balance. India is on its way in. Its joining will create the conditions for the international system to return back to what it was in the latter half of the 17th and throughout the 18th century, when the classical balance of power was maintained and the states, though clashing frequently, didn’t do that to the “mortal end.” Jointly, the four powers will be able, by organizing smaller and less powerful partners in coalitions, to rather flexibly ward off a total conflict. Of course, this system is a far cry from the conscious or “mature” (to use the term coined by the so-called English school of international relations) balance of the epoch between the 1815 Vienna Congress and the 1914 disaster. But this is better than the chaos that followed the failure of attempts by a certain power to impose its hegemony after 1991. A more long-term question is how long this new state will be? If, like in the past, it will last for 150-200 years, we can be optimistic about the future.            
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.