Th. Rothstein Justice, 4 February 1911

The German Menace
2. The Figment of the Balance of Power

Source: Justice, 4 February, 1911, p.5;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

In foreign, as in domestic politics it is necessary to guard against certain cant phrases which are habitually used by the ruling classes and their apologists whenever an act of aggression is contemplated by them. In the domestic sphere we at any rate – I mean Social Democrats – have learnt their meaning, and know pretty well how to guard against them. Not so in the domain of foreign politics. There our greater ignorance and our natural patriotism render us an easy prey of cant phrases, dimming our perception of the things that are and making us accept things as they seem.

Of such cant phrases in the domain of foreign politics that of the “balance of power” is one of the choicest and one of the most mischievous. I would not have thought of dealing with it but for the strange use which comrade Hyndman, following the example first set by the “Times,” in the celebrated article, “The Principles of Foreign Policy,” in its Empire issue of May 24, 1909 and since repeated by it on numerous occasions, made of it the other week in “Justice,” in speaking of the purport of the Triple Entente. I think I am not mistaken in saying that, prior to its revival by the “Times” on that occasion, the phrase concerning the balance of power had not been used in this country (except with derision) for well nigh half a century. Before that the phrase, no doubt, was very popular. It was used by all international jurists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in the midst of the incessant wars which were flooding the Continent of Europe with blood, and it was made excellent sport of by the statesmen of the first half of the nineteenth century, the Metternichs and Castlereaghs, and their immediate successors, when the task of winding up the affairs of the Napoleonic empire engaged the enlightened energies of the numerous would-be heirs and legatees. The revolutions of 1848, which opened the era of the struggles of nationalities, sounded the death knell of the doctrine. The young bourgeoisies of the smaller countries refused to be the pawns in the game of the four bigger Powers, England, Prussia, Austria, and Russia, for the preservation of the precious “balance of power” and where the pawns revolt, there, of course, comes an end to the power of the Kings.

In the interpretation of the international jurists the doctrine of the balance of power was meant to signify a state of things in which “no potentate or State shall be able absolutely to predominate and prescribe to others”; and the diplomatists and statesmen who were carrying on the less harmless game of intrigues and wars were supposed to be merely translating that doctrine into practice. When, for instance, England was assisting Frederick II. in laying the foundation of the “Prussian traditions of aggression” in the Seven Years War – a policy which “incidentally” resulted in the wresting from France of Canada, India, and several islands in the West Indies, while permitting the dear ally to receive all the kicks – the thing was supposed to be done our of a most disinterested desire to save Europe from the French “menace” – that is, in the interests of the European balance of power, Similarly the wars with Napoleon, were supposed to have been dictated by the anxiety to save Europe from the domination of a single despot, and thus to restore the previous balance of power. In the end, as we know, England came out of the job very handsomely, having destroyed the French “menace” to her commerce and colonial expansion, and having increased the confines of her Empire by such pretty slices as South Africa, taken away from the Dutch. On the other hand, Europe, freed from a “single despot,” was now placed under a thousand despots, whom, it afterwards took two generations to displace. None the less the struggle with France, we were told at the time, was but an act of unselfish devotion before the altar of the balance of power, and its interesting results were but “incidents” providentially dispensed by way of rewarding England for her virtues.

It is certain that a doctrine more hypocritical and mischievous has never been invented by the jurists, diplomatists and “statesmen.” In the best of cases it never meant anything more than what is now understood by the theory of status quo; and in the worst, which were the most numerous, it merely served as a cloak for aggression. It was so certainly in most cases with England. The standing object of her foreign policy ever since the revolution of 1688 was the humiliation of France, her most formidable commercial and colonial rival. In order to attain it, England carried on incessant wars, got up all possible combinations of Powers on the Continent, bribed and corrupted monarchs and statesmen right and left, allied herself with Prussia, and subsidised her in all her aggressions, connived at the repeated partitions of Poland, gave Genoa to Sardinia, Sicily to Naples, Lombardy to Austria – all under the cloak of the preservation of the balance of power, and with very excellent results to herself. It was only after the commercial and colonial power of France had been broken that the doctrine of the balance of power gave way to the doctrine of non-intervention and England, sure and safe in the possession of her economic and colonial supremacy, but with a universal reputation for selfishness and perfidy, retired to her “splendid isolation.”

And now, after a lapse of half a century, the doctrine of; the balance of power is being again revived and studiously propagated. For nearly a century and half England was on the most intimate terms with Prussia. It was she who gave Frederick the money – £2,200,000 in hard cash – with which he effected the second partition of Poland, just as she subsequently gave money to Prussia under the terms of the Russian-Dutch Loan with which to suppress the Polish insurrection of 1830. She confined herself to an empty protest when Prussia grabbed Schleswig-Holstein, just as she had done twenty years previously when Austria grabbed Cracow; and so far from opposing Prussian aggression in the war with France after Sedan, she subsequently made use of the power of Bismarck in order to get into Egypt. It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that Prussia has become a great Power, indeed, the most formidable on the Continent – with the active assistance and with the full sympathy of England. It may be said that after 1871 all balance of power on the Continent ceased. Of course, there was Russia, which was still thought of as a great military Power; but, so far from redressing the precious balance, she was on the same side of the scale as Prussia (now become Germany). Yet England never thought of the “unnatural” position which was thus created in Europe, and not only did she not endeavour to form a combination of other Powers to counterbalance the domination .of Prussia, but she continued, by commission and omission, to support the latter throughout her diplomatic and political career.

As I said, this policy of assisting Prussia in the consolidation and extension of her political power was primarily due to England’s desire to break up the power of France, but at the end of the long process the British diplomatists made the startling discovery that they had driven out Satan merely to install Beelzebub. It must be clear to the reader, if I have succeeded in carrying him with me so far in the view I take of the doctrine of the balance of power, that the latter sudden resurrection at the present time is but due to this discovery. So long as Prussia’s “traditional” aggression was directed against other countries, the impaired state of the precious balance of power never troubled the minds of British diplomatists. It at once became a serious concern to them when Prussia was conceived to entertain aggressive designs against the commercial supremacy of these islands. Immediately the ancient business began of forming alliances to counterbalance the domination of the “single despot” (it was now the Kaiser), and the doctrine under which England could come forward as the champion of European freedom, while really concerned only about her own selfish interests, was revived with all the pomp and circumstance of the days of Pitt and his immediate successors.

It will be understood that am not judging here of the morality or otherwise of these methods of diplomacy and foreign policy, but merely pointing out what their real nature and purpose is. We ought to guard against appearances, and know that when the balance of power is being spoken of in connection with the German “Menace” the intention it to get some foreign Power or Powers to assist, England in crushing a dangerous rival.

It is doubtful, to say the least, if the doctrine will “catch on” now as it did so well in olden times. When Jaurès, at a memorable sitting of the French Chamber, in July, 1909, warned M. Pichon “to beware of the cliques in London which would seek to embroil France with Germany for their benefit,” M. Pichon could well smile at the naiveté of the Socialist orator who thought him and his colleagues such fools. Neither France, as I shall show in a subsequent article, nor Russia, as demonstrated at Buchlau and Potsdam, nor Italy and Austria, as the British diplomatists at one time foolishly thought, have so far evinced the slightest inclination seriously to accept the revived doctrine and rally to England with a view to “restoring” European equilibrium for her benefit. Somehow or other, in spite of occasional outbursts of spleen, these Powers find that they can pretty well manage their affairs with Germany at the other side of the balance, and the exhortations of the British Imperialist Press remain largely a voice crying in the wilderness.

I shall treat in my next of the kindred subject of German aggression against the smaller nationalities.