By definition, a balance of power implies a situation in which all states are relatively equal and thus there are no threats of aggression between the states and domination of one of them. This state of affairs would require all the states to have equal military capabilities, such that no single state could attack another. When a stronger state attacks a weaker one, chances are that the weaker belligerent will seek to form a defensive alliance with other states. A strong aggressive state becomes a threat to international peace and security, and thus justifies the formation of an international alliance against itself. When one state decides to attack another, it becomes a global matter since other countries cannot be sure that the aggressor will not attack them. Different states are likely to pick different sides in the conflict. Some join a defensive coalition, while others will try to balance out the conflict by supporting the opposite side. This paper examines the power tussle between the European states and the balance of power narrative that made the world come to the First World War.
WORLD WAR I
The First World War has been blamed on several things, including an imbalance of power between the European states, especially after Russia started reconstructing its military, and having endured an embarrassing failure in the Bosnian Crisis. With Russia’s aim at improving its military, there were some undertones of tension amongst the other European powers that had also been under strain for decades before World War I. It can be argued that the events leading to World War I have begun over four decades earlier than the official year of 1914 (Musa & Korobko 62). The major European powers consisted of Italy, Germany, France, Russia, and Britain as well as Austria-Hungary. These nations were all considerable powers and yet they had profound differences that had often resulted in diplomatic clashes and misunderstandings. While they were also closely connected and thus had to remain relatively peaceful to collaborate economically, these states had territorial interests that often created major crises.
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For instance, the Balkans was a major area of conflict as the powers were set to gain control over this area. Austria-Hungary, for example, was very obvious in their claim over the territory of Serbia and they plotted an attack that set wheels in motion for the outbreak of World War I. Austria-Hungary in this case is the stronger power that had the political will and the military might to attack a weaker state. It must be noted here that at the time, Serbia was a new kingdom with limited military capabilities. It would thus have been an easy conquest for the Austrian-Hungarian army. However, other European powers had also had an interest in the Balkans. There was a clear territorial conflict of interests at the roots of the First World War. And while the Austrian-Hungarian attack on Serbia is not extensively mentioned with regards to the causes of the First World War, it can be seen that this act of aggression created a highly flammable situation that had been building up for over a decade (Musa & Korobko 31). Historians continue to look at this aggression, and especially at the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand as the finger on the trigger for the entire war. After the Balkan crisis, other European powers had a just cause to attack Austria-Hungary orally. Previously, there had already been two different sets of powers in the region, with Germany and Italy had allied with Austria-Hungary and Britain with Russia allying with France. Before the Bosnian crisis, these alliances had not been crystallized. However, they solidified with one group standing with Austria-Hungary and the other forming a hostile coalition. HOW THE BALANCE OF POWER APPLIES IN THE WORLD WAR I NARRATIVE
The three important countries for the beginning of the World War I are Austria-Hungary, Serbia, and Russia. Austria-Hungary attacked Serbia after the assassination of the heir to the throne, and his wife Sophie. The two kingdoms came to war based on speculations and internal politics that could have possibly been resolved otherwise. One may have expected Serbia and Austria-Hungary to resolve their differences in a diplomatic manner. The problem however is that Austria-Hungary was looking to control the Balkans and attacking Serbia was an opportunity that they had been waiting for. The Balkan region was of interest to other European powers as well. Russia was slowly consolidating its ties with Serbia, and after the attack, they were inclined to deploy their own revamped military might against Austria-Hungary. Each one of these countries had a legitimate reason for a war. The Austrian-Hungarian interest was in annexing new territories in the Balkans, the Serbians were defending their legitimacy as a kingdom and the Russians were balancing out the situation by offering their support to the allied state.
AUSTRIA-HUNGARY, SERBIA, AND RUSSIA
In 1914, Austria-Hungary was not exactly the strongest power in Europe (Musa & Korobko 68). The empire not only had numerous deficiencies in terms of its military resources owing to unfavorable conditions in their domestic politics. The ruling class had been unable to provide the required funding that would see this country triumphing over Serbia in an easy maneuver as it was planned. Austria-Hungary had only the will and the courage to attack Serbia because it was a newly formed state with limited resources and experience at its disposal. This means that the First World War as a result of one colossal miscalculation by Austria-Hungary. They forgot to consider other powers that had an interest in the Balkans and thus did not anticipate the backlash from the other European powers that would have supported the Serbians.
The Serbian kingdom was a weaker state in this conflict because they did not have the resources to match the Austrian-Hungarian army, which had close to 1.5 million soldiers (Paoletti 71). Estimates indicate that the Serbian army only had about 270,000 men and irregular supporters with little or no military training at all. As a new kingdom, Serbia was not considered a major threat in the region (Paoletti 72). The Austrian-Hungarian army was expected to defeat the kingdom in one swift attack In the First World War, Russia was recovering from the failure in the Bosnian Crisis in which they backed Serbia. After this war, the nation embarked on reconstruction and improvement of its military system, which resulted in Russia having one of the most sophisticated and possibly the strongest armies in the region. Based on their relationship with Serbia, they were inclined to support the weaker state in the unfolding conflict with Austria-Hungary. Russia was a major power in international politics and their support for Serbia presented a problem to the rest of the great powers in Europe.
THE BALANCING ACT
While the war may have started with an assassination of a member of the Habsburg royal family, Russia’s participation as a Serbian ally is what pulled the rest of the world into the war. Russia was too powerful for a conflict between Austria-Hungary and Serbia. Serbia had been willing to negotiate with Austria-Hungary but Russia was already preparing for war. It claimed that the demands of Austria-Hungary would undermine Serbia’s position as an independent state. And while the Serbians may have been guilty of the assassination, they were not willing to lose their independence on Russia’s watch. After Russia joined the conflict, Germany also made a move. Germany had plans of its own but covered them with strong ties to Austria-Hungary. Germany had initially warned Russia not to interfere in the conflict, thus justifying their position to launch an attack as an ally to Austria-Hungary. Germany dragged France into the conflict by warning them to stay neutral in the conflict. The French however were not about to allow the Germans to dictate their foreign policies, thus they sided with Russia in the war. This prompted Germany to attack France as well. The British then also had to attack Germany, who was threatening to attack Belgium as well. Japan joined in the war against Germany owing to its ties with England.
This narrative provides a vivid picture of how the war came to such proportions. It was initially a conflict between two unbalanced powers, and in the end, all of the European powers were involved to ensure their interests. Russia needed to support Serbia because Serbia could not defend itself against the 1.5 million soldiers in the Austrian-Hungarian army. They required support from their more powerful allies (Locker). If Austria-Hungary was left to attack Serbia, it would have resulted in a massacre of the Serbian people and an eventual conquest of the Balkans considering that the terms of the initial peace negotiations were meant to undermine Serbia’s existence as an independent state. Great Britain, for example, declared war on Germany because the Germans were dragging Belgium into the conflict by forcing them to collaborate and allow German troops to pass through their territory on their way to France (Charmley 14). France did not have any interest in the Balkans, and neither did Germany and Britain. This means that they were all fighting a war that had nothing to do with the initial cause. It can also be noted that it was Austria-Hungary that declared war on Russia and not the other way round. This means that Russia’s involvement was only a support role for the weaker Serbian army and thus the actions of the Austrian-Hungarian government remain the main cause that caused the First World War.
Balance of power revolves around forming defensive as well as offensive alliances and coalitions. In the case of the conflict between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, it can be said that while the Serbians were responsible for the assassination, which was used by Austria-Hungary as an immediate cause for war, there was much more at stake than justice and revenge for the murder of a royal family member. Russia had already failed to help Serbia in the Bosnian crisis of 1908-1909, and it needed to redeem its position as a great power in Europe. Austria-Hungary used the assassination as a pretext to act on their interests in the Balkans. Germany justified their involvement as an ally of Austria-Hungary and France and Belgium refused to be bullied by Germany. Great Britain also got tired of the growing pressure from Germany. This implies that while there were political issues involved, the war is basically a result of a balance of power between the European states.