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The Return of the Great Power Rivalries


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


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Dimensions of the Article

  • Background of the First World War
  • Similarities with the Past
  • Offensive Realism
  • Future of Europe’s Security
  • Way Forward

Background of the First World War

  • The 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 Wilhelmine Germany, which together threatened to alter Europe’s balance of power, France and Britain, competing colonial powers, came together. 
  • France had already reached an alliance with Russia.
  • The three would later form the Triple Entente, triggering a dangerous security competition in Europe with the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy), which would eventually lead to the First World War in 1914.
  • What triggered the great power security competition in the run-up to the First World War was the phenomenal rise of Wilhelmine Germany as a military and industrial power and the regional hegemons’ response to it.

Similarities with the Past

  • When Otto von Bismarck became the Minister-President of Prussia in September 1862, there was no unified German state.
  •  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 that replaced Prussia.
  • Bismarck stayed focused on transforming Germany internally in his last two decades.
  • It was on the foundation Bismarck built that Wilhelmine Germany turned to weltpolitik in the early 20 century, seeking global domination.
  • If Bismarck inherited a weak, 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 was the Soviet Union.
  • Bismarck spent his years in power expanding the borders of Germany and building a stronger state and economy.
  • The post-Cold War Russia initially stayed focused on the restoration of the state and the economy, and then sought to expand its borders and challenge the continent’s balance of power — first the Crimean annexation and now the Ukraine invasion.
  • While NATO’s expansion deepened Russia’s security concerns, driving it into aggressive moves, Russia’s aggression has strengthened NATO’s resolve to expand further into Russia’s neighbourhood.

Offensive Realism

  • Offensive realists argue that “revisionist powers” tend to use force to rewrite the balance of power if they find the circumstances are favourable, while the status quo powers, or the existing regional hegemons, would seek to thwart any new country attaining more power at their expense.
  • The result of this type of competition is permanent rivalry and conflict.
  • One major difference between the era of Wilhelmine Germany and modern Russia is that there were no well-defined international laws in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
  • The international system has evolved ever since.
  • But its basic instincts, as realists would argue, have not changed much.
  • Mr. Putin’s Russia is not the first country that violated the sovereignty of a weaker power and flouted international laws in the “rules-based” order.

Future of Europe’s Security

  • Russia apparently had two strategic objectives in Ukraine —
  • One, to expand Russian borders and create a buffer.
  • And two, to reinforce Russia’s deterrence against NATO.
  • While Russia has succeeded, though slowly, in expanding its borders by capturing almost all of Ukraine’s east, the war has backfired on its second objective.
  • Russia’s inability to clinch a quick outright victory in Ukraine and the tactical retreats it has already made have invariably dealt a blow to the perception of Russian power that existed before the war.
  • This has strengthened NATO, driving even Sweden and Finland into its arms. Besides, the economic sanctions would leave a long-term hole in Russia’s economy.
  • But a Russia that is bogged down in Ukraine and encircled by NATO need not enhance Europe’s security.
  • As Henry Kissinger said at Davos, Russia had been and would remain an important element in the European state system.

Way Forward

The prospects are bleak. There will not be peace in Europe unless either Russia accepts its diminished role and goes into another spell of strategic retreat or Europe and the West in general accommodate Russia’s security concerns. Both look unrealistic as of today.

Source – The Hindu

November 2023