Balance of Power: Dynamism Denied

Born in New York City, balanced uncomfortably on the cusp between the end of WWII and the post-war economic boom, I nonetheless had a unique vantage point to observe the developing international Cold War. It began almost immediately following World War II and lasted through most of the 20th century, basically all of my life. It certainly dominated my childhood. My home town quickly became an intensive immersion course in Cold War politics with the arrival of the United Nations. A fait accompli by the 1950’s, we all went to see its massive new headquarters on the East River, talk about it, and study it every week in school.

The Cold War’s vocabulary consisted of phrases like ‘The Warsaw Pact’ and the ‘North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) . The News of the Week in Review and Time Magazine (cover to cover), filled with reports of political realism, were assigned for weekly homework. I’m getting an ice-cream headache right now just remembering those discussions in class. That was where I first encountered the most important transitive verb and concept of the Cold War: the ‘Balance of Power’. Distributing equal military force among nations so that no one of them could dominate the others, alliances offered through NATO, we were told, would ensure that the balance would be maintained. Something about that promise always sent an icy shiver down my spine (like an ice-cream headache?). I was skeptical about all this power being balanced.

Air raid drills in school had us cover our heads with our coats, cowering on the floor outside our metal lockers. We questioned the efficacy of this posture to protect us from the bombs we’d thankfully never experienced ourselves. Aluminum dog tags we wore on chains over our undershirts suggested our bodies might need identification if we were injured beyond recognition or…killed; though no one said so. Even though I liked the dog tag, the ultimate purpose for the paraphernalia robbed me of my appreciation for it; as well as for the ‘Balance of Power’. We children were aware of a lot of pushing and pulling in the world of adults and politics, but very little balance; or none at all. Finding myself in a panic one day over some report of Stalin’s latest antics, I approached my father for consolation. My fear had escalated to the point where simply announcing I was afraid was the best I could do.

“Don’t worry about the Russians, Baby Dear,” he said. Both his surety and my nickname helped immediately, so of course I had to ask, ‘why not?’ in my new-found confidence. “Because they’re a mess—no food, a collapsing economy, no trade with other nations—economic  power is going to have a lot more sway than military might pretty soon.” I was thrilled to hear his expert economic analysis put the ‘balance of power’ back into a state of equilibrium; until he added, “The country to watch will be China. They’ll be the ones to rule the world in your lifetime.” So much for the ‘Balance of Power’.

I was at a reading recently given by the author of a newly published memoir, The Force of Things: A Marriage in War and Peace. The author, Alexander Stille, said that when his mother changed her own life, the whole dynamic of his parents’ marriage changed, too. He said the alteration brought a shift in the ‘Balance of Power’ between them. But what did it mean in a personal relationship where a possible trigger for nuclear war wasn’t the issue? I wondered if the author was so much a product of his (and my) time the phrase had sprung from his computer almost unwittingly. I was convinced there had been no balance at all in his parents’ marriage, just power, and mostly on his father’s side. So had he meant to say that a new Balance of Power had been created where there had been none before? Possibly, and yet he used the verb ‘shift’ specifically, so he seemed to be indicating a change in polarity.

A balancing act requires constant struggle; that very push and pull we were so aware of watching the Cold War unfold as children. Yet struggle is what makes things grow; keeps them in a state of dynamic health; alive. Once there’s no reaction anymore, no struggle at all, the relationship ceases to be. Oscar Wilde said, in his canny play The Importance of Being Ernest, “The very essence of romance is uncertainty.” You only have to hear it to know that it’s right. Create equilibrium and the correlation dies. My father had been eerily prescient about the demise of the Soviet Union as the object of our concern and China’s rise in importance. Our political relationships changed along with the shifting dynamics, just as Stille’s parents’ had. In fact, his mother abandoned the marriage without actually having to go anywhere. There was no more push or pull to speak of left, and so, no relationship. Stille felt she’d never been willing or able to ‘leave’ the marriage, but I think he may have been wrong. It seems she ended it as surely as if she’d walked out the door. I wonder if that’s the way the Cold War ended.

In international relations constructivists disown the ‘Balance of Power’ theory, so possibly personal relations should be just as leery of it. The school of political realism, where self-preservation is a primary guiding principle, would suggest the ‘Balance of Power’ is still necessary for survival, but perhaps the school of social realism has come to recognize how important stress and engagement are. Stille’s mother clearly figured it out.

What do you think? I’d like to hear from you on the ‘Balance of Power’ and engagement, even if I don’t agree with you. I welcome the push and pull!

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