Feb 06, 2003

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The Historical Roots of National Power

This brief essay will greatly oversimplify modern history to come to some understanding of the parlous situation the world is in now through the destruction of balance of power geopolitics.
By Peter Buitenhuis

The United States has emerged as the world's only military superpower.
In more and more situations, particularly under its present leadership, the U.S. exerts its muscle beyond the influence of any other power or organization.

While under-contributing to the United Nations budget, it can strongly influence its policies, helped by a skillfully administered propaganda campaign. President Bush has also pronounced the unprecedented doctrine that his country can intervene in the internal affairs of any nation which seems to threaten its interests. This doctrine, contrary to custom and international law, has led to Bush's intent to destroy Saddam and Iraq's military capability, insignificant as that may turn out to be.

The more recent threat posed by North Korea's repudiation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty on Nuclear Weapons is at least in part a reaction by the North Korean government to the refusal of the United States to enter into meaningful diplomatic negotiations in its insistence on control of that part of the Far East. We will in all likelihood see the doctrine of intervention enforced against other nations - or so-called rogue states - in the years to come, making the world a less and less stable place.

In the light of this situation, it is instructive to look at the historical roots of national power and the strategy that governed international relations from the eighteenth century up to the Cold War.

Nations are ruled by self interest. Always were. Always will be. This kind of self interest has a parallel in individual property rights. “An Englishman's home is his castle,” as the saying goes, but people often go to extreme lengths to protect, or expand, their property. The French forerunner of Marx, Proudhon, asserted in 1840 that “property is theft.” In Marxist states this dogma has had less and less appeal and led in part to their disintegration.

National self-interest explains why international organizations such as the United Nations and the World Court exist on such fragile foundations. Nations powerful or even willful enough can ignore their rulings - although the willful ones risk sanctions. Long before the existence of international organizations, strong nations attempted to implement national self-interest through the policy of balance of power - by which through manipulating alliances and creating treaties, nations could ensure that no single country could achieve dominant power in the comity. Dominance inevitably encouraged a nation to go to war to increase its property rights, so to speak. This brief essay will greatly oversimplify modern history to come to some understanding of the parlous situation the world is in now through the destruction of balance of power geopolitics.

Britain was particularly skillful at this game from the eighteenth century onwards, and made sure that no nation became powerful enough to dominate Europe. Much of Britain's ability to do this rested on sea power, which gave the nation not only military advantage but also substantial control of international trade. Such manipulation earned Britain the status as “perfidious Albion,” even though this balance of power policy did much to stabilize the historically warring countries of Europe. Control of the seas and trade also enabled Britain to develop its vast overseas empire.

The system broke down with the emergence of Napoleon and his meteoric victories against Italy, Austria, Prussia and Russia. Only Nelson's superb seamanship saved Britain from losing supremacy on the seas. Napoleon dominated Europe until his final defeat at Waterloo. The subsequent Treaty of the Congress of Vienna re-established the balance of power. There followed the so-called Pax Britannica, which established a relatively stable Europe right up to the Great War, 1914-1918.

Meanwhile in the Western Hemisphere, under the protection of British sea power, the new United States had expanded and prospered. The U.S. was in fact without the power to defend itself for much of the 19th century even though President Monroe proclaimed the Monroe doctrine in 1823, which denied European nations the right to colonize Central and South America. Nevertheless, the rapidly increasing population and industrial and agricultural output of the U.S. signalled the emergence of a major force on the world stage.

The U.S. Civil War appeared to give Britain a chance to reign in that power. By supporting the Confederacy, Britain hoped that the Union would break up and thereby establish a balance of two weaker powers. This policy was pursued despite the fact that Britain had abolished the institution of slavery in its possessions in 1833. Britain's plan to help break up the U.S. was thwarted by the Union victory, from which the country went on to rapid industrial and military growth.

The Great War, with the late entry of the U.S., gave evidence of this power. Moreover, huge loans from the U.S. to Britain, which enabled the latter to continue the conflict, left Britain impoverished and unable to sustain its large navy and empire.

After the Allied victory, President Wilson, idealist that he was, hoped to end the cycle of wars with the establishment of the League of Nations, which he believed would signal the end of balance-of-power politics. However, historic nationalisms and antagonisms as well as U.S. isolationism finally destroyed the League. In Europe, the devastation of war and subsequent inflation led to the emergence of aggressive fascist regimes in both Germany and Italy. Britain's weakness and isolationism resulted in the abandonment of its historic balance of power policy for that of appeasement. This inevitably brought on the Second World War.

When the U.S. entered the war in December 1941, it rapidly became the dominating power among the Allies. Harold Macmillan wryly observed in 1944: “[The British] are Greeks in this American empire. We must run the Allied forces HQ as the Greeks ran the operations of the Emperor Claudius.” Britain became the junior partner in what Winston Churchill called the Grand Alliance.”

After the war a new balance of power - and nuclear stalemate - emerged between the U. S. and Soviet Russia. Again, under this balance the world remained relatively stable, with the main aim of U. S. foreign policy to contain Communism throughout that world. The policy worked fairly well until the Vietnam War. That war was fought in the belief that Communism in the Far East would lead to the domino effect, in which country after country would fall under its dominance. This policy in effect underestimated the power of nationalism, which more than any other ideology led to U. S. defeat in Vietnam and its withdrawal.

Capitalism and democracy ultimately triumphed over Soviet Communism, partly because the U. S. could outspend the Soviets on arms. Soviet Russia collapsed under the weight of bankruptcy and tyranny, and the balance of the Cold War abruptly broke down.

A central problem with dominant power exerted by a democracy can be the pressures exerted on the government by special interest groups. The gigantic arms and oil industries of the U. S. obviously make their voices heard by an administration not much adverse to these interests, while some analysts believe that U. S. policy towards the Israeli-Palestine conflict is strongly influenced by the power of the Jewish lobby.

It seems that there is little that can be done in this situation. Canada and other so-called middle powers can try to exert moral suasion on the U. S., but morality has seldom played much of a role in international affairs. Nations can also hope to influence U. S. policy through the United Nations, but this tactic has recently had limited success. One possibly hopeful sign is the emergence of China as a world power. Communist ideology and its consequent tyranny have not prevented the rise of successful capitalist practices in industrial output and military hardware. Some power balance may arise from this situation. This may well lead to U. S. recognition of China's legitimate interests and of its influence in the Far East.

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