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Balance of power



Many analysis pieces on the developments unfolding in the Middle East region apply the “balance of power” theory. There is abundant evidence, however, that strategies lead to balances of power merely on paper. I will cut to the chase with a concise definition of the theory.

What is “balance of power”?

The “balance of power” theory is based on the principle that international security will get a boost when military power is distributed in a way that no state is powerful enough to overcome others. The theory predicts that if a government comes in possession of enormous power, it will exploit that power to attack weaker states. Such a prospect prompts the states that are exposed to risk to consider joining one another in the form of defensive coalitions. Some proponents of realism believe such an alliance could bring about more stability by staving off acts of aggression — that, of course, would be the case if there was a balance of power among the rival coalitions.

The theory is, however, wrong, or — in other words — does not sound totally sensible. Let’s first look at the concept of “superiority” and the factors that could disturb the balance of power.


Superiority equals enjoying more privileges (A general take on the nature of rivalry)

Superiority can come about if one of two political or military rivals manages to gain a special privilege that would be inaccessible to the other. Such a privilege could take various forms, including regional geography, dominance over waterways and straits, or notable infrastructure — such as IT and economic capabilities — and possession of unique arms — namely long-range missiles and surveillance aircraft — besides domestic production capabilities, etc.

It is the collection of privileges that gives superiority to one rival over the other and, in general, disrupts the balance of power. It is the same points of strength (privileges) and weakness that define the strategies of rival parties against one another or to deal with domestic woes and attempts from abroad to exploit their national resources.

In the military sphere, however, the realities on the ground in the world today signal something else.

A prime instance

A prime instance Looking back at the eight-year war imposed by the ex-Iraqi regime on Iran in the 1980s, we witnessed that a disruption in the balance of power between the two regional powers emboldened the Ba’athist regime in Baghdad to invade Iran. Border frictions had in fact existed between the two neighbors prior to the war, but the balance in the power of the two states was preventing armed confrontations or large-scale military attacks capable of causing damage to fundamental infrastructure in one of the two countries. As soon as it detected a power vacuum in Iran following the Islamic Revolution, nascent at the time, the regime of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein wasted no time in waging war on the Islamic Republic.

That was a classic example of how the balance of power works. History abounds with similar examples, but counterexamples are rare. This does not, however, mean that the less powerful side would set aside reservations and go to war without collecting enough intelligence and properly calculating the level of the rival’s strength.

There are also very few cases in which a state acted on precise intelligence about a rival’s political, military, and economic might and launched a well-calculated and consequently successful invasion.

In some other cases, the aggressor cannot be viewed as a strategic rival, such as when it is terrorist or separatist groups targeting a country’s central government.

Another living example is a Saudi-led war of aggression underway against Yemen since early 2015, which pits a multinational coalition of invaders joined by Saudi Arabia, the US, and seven other countries against the resistance axis (Yemen and Iran). The two conflicting sides are not competing on equal terms when it comes to numbers, military equipment and forces, political influence on the international stage, and, above all, economic power. The US-Arab coalition appears to be superior on all those fronts.

Ex-US President Barack Obama pursued a strategy designed to bolster the military power of its economic allies in the Persian Gulf region through extravagant sales of state-of-the-art arms. Such a policy was meant to tilt the balance of power heavily in favor of Saudi Arabia — America’s closest ally in the Persian Gulf region — and stoke fear among the kingdom’s regional rivals. The arms sales were part of Washington’s broader agenda to prevent its strategic rivals — Russia and China — from using the security loopholes in the region and wresting control of the arms market there. Furthermore, Obama’s strategy was aimed at preventing the Arab states from seeking to fulfill their domestic needs on their own and begin to independently manufacture domestic military equipment.

The driving force behind this long-standing strategy has been fear-mongering, exaggerating the threat from the rival, faking a disruption in the balance of power, and offering proposals to restore the lost balance.

This strategy of the US has always worked!

Strategic concepts of war: confrontation with grouplets, limited war, and large-scale war

In the 1960s, Henry Kissinger hit out at the US nuclear security policy and criticized the country’s insistence on developing nukes. He asserted that although nuclear arms had led to a balance of military power between the US and the Soviet, such arms would limit America’s ability to tackle simple post-war issues. In the face of small-scale conflicts — such as a regional dispute or an encounter between an ally and Communist grouplets — would the US be able to respond by merely relying on its nuclear superiority? Kissinger concluded that the US, in the post-World War II era, would be faced with minor conflicts and trivial confrontations, while America’s adversaries would also get their hands on nuclear weapons, a scenario that, Kissinger argued, compelled the US to boost its conventional arms to the level of its nuclear deterrence.

“At a minimum, the conventional capability of the free world should be of such a size that a nuclear defense becomes the last and not the only recourse. The best situation is one in which the conventional forces of the free world can be overcome only by nuclear weapons. There is no technical reason why this should not be possible,” according to Kissinger. Strengthened conventional forces, he argued, “would increase the flexibility of our diplomacy. They would enable us to negotiate the control of nuclear weapons with confidence.”

Employing Kissinger’s strategy, the US has since been treating its nuclear arsenal as the backbone of its military might, while building up its conventional forces, successfully triggering conflicts, forming coalitions, and selling conventional arms. America’s success in developing its conventional forces has been reflected in arms sales to Europe, South Korea, and Japan besides such sales to Taiwan in the face-off with China and to Arabs, Israel, and Turkey, which have been engaged in their own bilateral or regional confrontations.

Kissinger’s strategy paved the way for the US to have political presence and stand prepared for limited military action in many parts of the world. Backed by its nuclear and conventional arms, the US enjoys a free hand in dealing with terror groups and waging limited attacks or large-scale wars against other countries. The question is, however, whether these nuclear and conventional arms — along with the leverage that they bring — would actually lead to a balance of power.

Strategic concepts in ruins

The answer to the question lies in the 9/11 terror attacks on US soil, in the aftermath of which Washington went to unsuccessful wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and intervened militarily in the wars in Syria and Yemen, but in vain.

In these cases, not only no balance has been created, but strategic myopia has also emerged. Kissinger’s strategy has only dragged the US into those wars, but left the country bogged down in the conflicts as it offers no way out.

The developments on the ground show that the balance of power — unlike the definition on paper — can only be worthwhile if it protects a country from attacks. The performance of Yemen’s Ansarullah movement on the battleground against the US-backed coalition — particularly its destructive counter-raids on Saudi Aramco’s Abqaiq oil processing facility — exposed the technological weaknesses of America’s defense systems, among them the Patriot missile batteries that have been deployed to safeguard key Saudi oil installations.

It may appear simple and natural for a small group to be able to take advantage of the military equipment it has developed on its own and deal blows to a much bigger enemy through guerilla or, in general, irregular warfare; but Ansarullah’s attacks must not be compared to those by a terrorist or secessionist group against a central government. The raids on Aramco’s oil processing plants successfully targeted the maximum-security heart of one of the world’s most strategic locations, where the most advanced defense systems are at work.

If a small group like Ansarullah — with limited military hardware at its disposal — is capable of carrying out such a flawless, precise, and effective raid, it will not be possible at all to put mere written equations into practice in the case of a limited or large-scale war between two powers in order to organize a military formation or generate computer simulations aimed at preventing the success of an adversary like Iran via anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) techniques even in the most heavily-secured sites. This, however, does not mean that Iran’s foes — including the US and Arab regimes — would not be able to launch similar attacks in response or adopt preemptive measures, but the original fact — which has been the theme of this piece — is that balance of power cannot come about — even in theory — by developing and employing military equipment. And growing progress in the area of military technology will, despite hefty spending, move to further complicate efforts to create balance.

An end to the ‘balance of power’ theory

Those interested in such analysis have undoubtedly read many commentary pieces in the media and online social networks that talk about the capability of a group such as Daesh to push the national armies of Iraq and Syria to the verge of collapse or about Ansarullah’s drones, worth only several hundred dollars, successfully penetrating multimillion-dollar Patriot missile shields. As already mentioned, such calculations (about the quantity, power, and quality of the arms or even their formation) in strategy games involving a group and a power or two powers only create balance on paper and cannot act as a sturdy defensive barrier on the actual battlefield.

Now, it does not matter how the Arab-US coalition chooses to respond, which could be a limited military reaction to Iran regardless of the outcome that, itself, may trigger an all-out war or draw a limited or no response at all from Iran. What really matters is that “the balance of arms” is no longer existent. Such a situation may have resulted from either modern technology or Iran’s bold moves, but there is no possibility for a return to the previous page. From now on, the existing arms solely act as tools that could be put to use in the moment, not a decorative hiding place that offers a feeling of safety like the view that the Arab states hold about the possession of arms.

The theoretical system of establishing a balance of power and arms is long gone.


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