Why Balance of Power Can’t bring Lasting Peace to Somalia

By Daniel Nyakora, Kenya

Al-Shabab militia fighters in Somalia. /AFP

The balance of power is the allocation of power amongst actors (state or non-state) to ensure that no one actor can seriously threaten the fundamental interests of another. In the 19th Century, the balance of power was first applied amongst the European states to maintain their sovereignty. Until a few decades ago, the actors in the balance of power were still state actors. Today, we also have non-state actors who play a very significant role in the balance of power. These include armed groups such as Al-Shabab in Somalia and Al-Qaeda in the Middle East. These actors are the main participants in the ongoing wars around the world. The wide belief that the balance of power in the 19th Century Europe resulted to peace and that present wars between states and armed groups can be solved by applying the balance of power system is inaccurate. The current war is Somalia, although on a smaller scale, provides a clear evidence of the inability of the balance of power to bring peace. Similarly, the peace that resulted in Europe cannot be attributed to the balance of power since it was instituted for other reasons that seriously threatened peace. Therefore, the balance of power cannot be used to bring peace.

To begin with, the balance of power system never achieves equilibrium. Hence, it cannot attain peace. It desperately attempts to strike a balance amidst “continuous [and perpetual] wars between changing partners” Waltz argues that the first concern of the partners in this arrangement is to maintain their position in the system. Therefore, if a weaker side realizes that it cannot increase its internal power enough to maintain its security, it aligns with another power to make a relatively larger power and thus secure their survival in the system. This shifting of sides never ceases since smaller parties always form new alliances whilst breaking old alliances. The result of this is continuous rivalry and wars between the parties. In Somalia for instance, after the collapse of the state in 1991, different clan-based armed groups attempted to use the balance of power approach to counter the expected war between each other. This action merely triggered perpetual wars between the clans, which called for the intervention from Somalia’s neighbors. The international community created the Transitional National Government (TNG) in Somalia to counter the political calculations of the armed groups. However, the TNG was perceived to be another rival power and not the supreme authority. Some groups aligned with the TNG while other groups aligned together and formed the Al-Shabab. This new alliance of armed groups waged war against the TNG. In 2006, Ethiopia also joined the war to support the TNG while the Al-Shabab created an alliance with the Al-Qaeda. This formation of alliances continues to date. The combat between different alliances of armed groups and the TNG continues as the balance of power still strives to trike equilibrium.

Similarly, application of the balance of power between warring parties encourages more war. For instance, the application of the balance of power between the United Nations and the Somali armed groups resulted in more war. Initially, the UN under United Nations Operation in Somalia (UNOSOM) came to Somalia to deliver humanitarian assistance to the casualties of the inter-clan war and the famine . However, the armed groups, especially the Al-Shabab jeopardized their activities by attacking and looting UNOSOM camps. According to the armed groups, the UNOSOM was treated “as another actor that would be in the balance of power- something to be aligned with or against” This made the UN effectively declare war on the armed groups and sought to forcefully implement political goals in Somalia. Apart from delivering humanitarian assistance, the UNOSOM wanted to suppress the power of the armed groups and establish a government in Somalia. Some armed groups such as Group 12 succumbed to the UNOSOM forces and aligned with it while other groups aligned against it. This gave the Al-Shabab the strength wage more war against the UNOSOM and the TNG. It is interesting that these wars were not to gain the control of the state but to “determine allocation of gains or losses among contenders and settle for a time the question of who is the stronger”

Despite these points, some people argue that the balance of power is effective in ending wars. They hold that the balance of power was applied in the 19th Century Europe and that peace dominated for a hundred years. However, many contemporary writers during that time agree that the Hundred Years’ peace did not result from the balance of power. The European countries instituted the balance of power for other purposes and peace was not one of them. However, the balance of power was a system aimed at keeping the political power of every European country as low as possible. Toynbee outlines that this was made possible by a “system of pressures” The European countries formed an alliance whose purpose was to pressurize any political entity that attempted to acquire more power that the prevailing average. The impact of this system was greater on the more powerful states in the alliance than their less powerful counterparts. Powerful countries could not acquire any territory (however small) since such an action would trigger reproof and pressure from the rest of the states. On the other hand, the less powerful states could acquire large territories and their actions would go unnoticed by the alliance. In the political atmosphere at that time, according to Toynbee, such unevenness in the distribution of political pressure would result in war and not peace.

Intuitively, the balance of power sets the precondition for war. The balance of power in the 19th Century Europe and in Somalia did not result from the desire of peace but from the expectation of violence. Lasswell says that all states in Europe looked ‘suspiciously at their neighbors’ and it is this fact that triggered the formation of a political association to collectively check each other’s power. Similarly, the after the collapse of the Somalia state, clan-based armed groups anticipated attacks from other clans. Weaker clans felt that the stronger clans would wage war against them and conquer them as a result. They therefore formed alliances to counter this expected combat. These alliances set the preconditions for the war in Somalia. It is believed that these alliances were amongst the first triggers of the feud in Somalia.

This is the why the balance of power is misused as a system of war. In the 19th Century, European states created the balance of power system only to maintain their independence through any violent means. A state would prove its autonomy by fighting away any state that would attempt to annex it. Weaker states sustained their autonomy by combining their power to counterbalance the power of the stronger states. Schumann points out that the balance of power was meant to sustain state sovereignty and to maintain the international law. The European states at that time were so much concerned about their independence and would not care about peace for as long as they maintained autonomy. Therefore, the less powerful states develop a collective interest in opposing the most powerful states forcing them to relinquish some of their power. This was the basis of the balance of power. It ensured that no political entity overcame another in terms of power hence all states preserved their sovereignty.

The United Nations still applies the balance of power as their main strategy to end civil wars around the globe even after its perpetual failure in bringing peace. The United States also continues to apply the same failed balance of power approach in fighting the never-ending war in the Middle East. The big question is: Why is it that this system is still being enthusiastically applied despite its obvious inability to bring peace? Clearly, the balance of power exacerbates the situation in the battlegrounds. Perhaps it is time they used a different approach to end these wars. Maybe international community should seriously consider the interests of these armed groups and end these wars through peaceful negotiations with them.

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Daniel is a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania planning to double major in Economics and Actuarial Mathematics. He is also interested in international relations and particularly international business. He has done a research on the balance of power system and how it impacts the economy of East Africa and Africa at large. Daniel is also actively involved in the student government. He currently represents his College house in the Residential Advisory Board and holds a leadership position in the House Council.

Daniel is also a University Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania. Having born in Kenya, he is motivated to conduct more research on emerging trends in international business and technology.