The return of great power rivalries

Europe’s post-Cold War period of peace is more an aberration than a norm in the continent’s conflict history

Europe’s post-Cold War period of peace is more an aberration than a norm in the continent’s conflict history

Herr von Tschirschky, Imperial German diplomat and politician, said on New Year’s Day 1906 in Hamburg: “Germany’s policy has always been and would be to try to thwart any coalition between two states which might damage the interests and prestige of Germany. ; and Germany…would not hesitate to take whatever action it deemed appropriate to break up the coalition. Tschirschky, who would become foreign minister in two weeks, was referring to the Franco-British understanding and Germany’s growing concerns about it.

The security situation in Europe was undergoing massive changes. Russian power had collapsed in its Far East after the war with Japan in 1904-05. Faced with the erosion of Russian influence and the rise of Wilhelmian Germany, which together threatened to alter the balance of European power, France and Britain, competing colonial powers, drew closer. France had already concluded an alliance with Russia. The three would later form the Triple Entente, sparking a dangerous security competition in Europe with the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy), which would eventually lead to World War I in 1914.

Similarities from the past

There are similarities between events in Europe today and what happened in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. What sparked great power competition for security as World War I approached was the phenomenal rise of Wilhelmian Germany as a military and industrial power and the response of regional hegemons. When Otto von Bismarck became minister-president of Prussia in September 1862, there was no unified German state. Prussia was part of the loose and ineffectual German Confederation. Bismarck adopted an aggressive foreign policy, fought and won three wars – with Denmark, Austria and France – destroyed the confederation, established a stronger and larger German Reich which replaced Prussia.

During the last 20 years of Bismarck’s reign, Germany and Europe as a whole enjoyed relative peace. This was not because the chancellor had become a pacifist, but because he was constrained by the geopolitical realities of Europe. Bismarck remained focused on Germany’s internal transformation during his last two decades. It was on the foundations built by Bismarck that Wilhelmine Germany turned to weltpolitik at the beginning of the 20th century, seeking to dominate the world.

If Bismarck inherited a weak and loosely connected group of German-speaking entities in 1862, Russian President Vladimir Putin got a Russia in 2000 that was a pale shadow of what the Soviet Union was. Russia had lost vast tracts of territory, its economy was in freefall, its currency had collapsed, the standard of living of millions of Russians had plummeted and the world stature of the country, which had been one of the two post-war pillars The world order of war for nearly half a century had fallen. Bismarck spent his years in power expanding Germany’s borders and building a stronger state and economy. His successors went further to challenge the existing great powers in Europe. Post-Cold War Russia first focused on restoring the state and economy, then sought to expand its borders and challenge the continent’s balance of power – first the annexation of Crimea and now the invasion of Ukraine.

The existing great powers in Europe saw Germany as a threat to Europe’s balance of power and joined forces to contain its rise. Germany, on the other hand, saw the formation of the Entente as an existential threat and took steps to weaken the alliance (the Moroccan crises of 1905 and 1911 and the German intervention in the Bosnian crisis in 1908 ). The parallels are hardly to be missed. If Germany was then perceived as a revisionist power, Vladimir Putin’s Russia is today the revisionist power in Europe. While Germany felt insecure about the Triple Entente, as Tschirschky warned in 1906, Russia consistently expressed concern about the Eastward expansion of the Treaty Organization of North Atlantic (NATO). If the Entente countries saw the rise of Germany as a threat to the European balance of power, the Western alliance continued to see modern Russia as a security challenge, even after the collapse of the Soviet Union. While NATO expansion has heightened Russia’s security concerns, pushing it into aggressive moves, Russia’s aggression has strengthened NATO’s resolve to expand further into the vicinity of the Russia.

On “offensive realism”

The behavior of 20th century Germany and 21st century Russia can best be explained using what John Mearsheimer calls “offensive realism”. Offensive realists argue that “revisionist powers” tend to use force to rewrite the balance of power if they find the circumstances favorable, while status quo powers, or existing regional hegemonies, would seek to thwart any new country gaining more power at their level. costs. The result of this type of competition is constant rivalry and conflict. Look at the offensive gestures of Mr. Putin. He sent troops to Georgia, virtually ending that country’s NATO ambitions. He took Crimea without going to war. He sent troops to Syria not only to rescue Bashar al-Assad’s regime and protect Russia’s Mediterranean naval base at Tartous, but also to neutralize Turkey and Israel, both of Syria’s neighbors. He strengthened Russia’s primacy in Central Asia by bringing peace to Nagorno-Karabakh and sending forces to restore order in Kazakhstan. These successes undoubtedly boosted Russia’s confidence, making its leaders believe that it was finally strong enough to forcefully modify the balance of power in Europe. Then Russia invaded Ukraine.

But a major difference between the era of Wilhelminian Germany and modern Russia is that there were no well-defined international laws in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The international system has since evolved. But his basic instincts, as the realists claim, haven’t changed much. Mr. Putin’s Russia is not the first country that has violated the sovereignty of a weaker power and flouted international law in the “rules-based” order. It won’t be the last either. As the Athenians told the Melians during the Peloponnesian War, “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”.

Safety competition

As the war in Ukraine enters its fourth month, there is no clear winner in Europe. Russia apparently had two strategic goals in Ukraine – the first, to expand Russian borders and create a buffer. And second, to strengthen Russia’s deterrence against NATO. As Russia succeeded, albeit slowly, in expanding its borders by seizing almost all of eastern Ukraine, the war turned against its second objective – Russia’s inability to achieve a quick and pure victory in Ukraine and the tactical retreats she has already made have invariably dealt a blow to the perception of Russian power that existed before the war. This strengthened NATO, even pushing Sweden and Finland into its arms. Furthermore, economic sanctions would leave a long-term hole in the Russian economy.

But a Russia mired in Ukraine and encircled by NATO does not need to bolster Europe’s security. Russian advances in Ukraine may have been slow; he seemed ready to wage a war of attrition like the long wars that European countries fought against each other in the past. And despite the strong resistance it has faced in Ukraine, Russia remains too strong a military and geopolitical power to be pushed aside. As Henry Kissinger said in Davos, Russia has been and will remain an important part of the European state system.

The outlook is bleak. There will be no peace in Europe unless Russia accepts its diminished role and enters another period of strategic retreat (as it did after the disintegration of the Soviet Union), or the Europe and the West in general are not adjusting to Russia’s security concerns. Both seem unrealistic to this day. This means that even if the war in Ukraine ends, the fight for security in Europe will continue. The post-Cold War period of relative peace and stability in Europe, rooted in liberal internationalism, was an aberration rather than a norm in the continent’s long history of conflict. And what makes the latest round of great power rivalry more dangerous is that there are nuclear weapons on both sides.

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About Eleanor Blackburn

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