The balance of power is one of the most influential ideas in the theory and practice of international relations and it plays a central role in both scholarly debates about international politics and policy debates about the current dominance of the United States at the start of the twenty-first century. Although it is often treated as a universal concept, theorizing about the balance of power is almost entirely based on the experience of modern European history. The theory has never been systemically and comprehensively examined in pre-modern or non-European contexts
Concept of Balance of Power in International Relations
In International Relations an equilibrium of power sufficient to discourage or present one nation or prevent one nation from imposing its will on or interfering with the interests of another. Balance of Power, theory and policy of international relations that asserts that the most effective check on the power of a state is the power of other states. In international relations, the term state refers to a country with a government and a population. The term balance of power refers to the distribution of power capabilities of rival states or alliance
The balance of power theory maintains that when one state or alliance increases its power or applies it more aggressively; threatened states will increase their own power in response, often by forming a counter-balancing coalition. Balance of Power is a central concept in neorealist theory.
It is difficult to give exact definition to balance of power because as Martin Wright says “the notion is notoriously full of confusions”. Inis.L.Claude also says: “The trouble with the balance power is not that it has no meaning but that it has too many meanings” But essential idea is very simple but when principle is applied to the international relations , the concept of power means “that through shifting alliances and countervailing pressures ,no one power or combinations of powers will be allowed to grow so strong as to threaten the security of the rest” as per Palmer and Perkins.
And finally Hartman explains concept of Balance of Power in International Relations as “a system in the sense that one power bloc leads to the emergence of other and it ultimately leads to a network of alliances”. The concept of balance of power rests on the assumption that excessive power anywhere in the system is a threat to the existence of the other units and that most effective antidote of power is power”
Balance of Power and International Relations
As a policy, balance of power suggests that states counter any threat to their security by allying with other threatened states and by increasing their own military capabilities. The policy of forming a geographically based coalition of states to surround and block an expansionist power is known as containment. For example, the United States followed a containment policy towards the Soviet Union after World War II by building military alliances and bases throughout Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.
As a theory, balance of power predicts that rapid changes in international power and status—especially attempts by one state to conquer a region—will provoke counterbalancing actions. For this reason, the balancing process helps to maintain the stability of relations between states.
A Balance of power system can functions effectively in two different ways:
1. Multiple states can form a balance of power when alliances are fluid—that is, when they are easily formed or broken on the basis of expediency, regardless of values, religion, history, or form of government. Occasionally a single state plays a balancer role, shifting its support to oppose whatever state or alliance is strongest. Britain played this role in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly in its relations with France, Russia, and Germany.
2. Two states can balance against each other by matching their increases in military capability. In the Cold War, the Soviet Union and United States both expanded their nuclear arsenals to balance against each other.
One weakness of the balance of power concept is the difficulty of measuring power. Ultimately a state’s power derives from the size of its land mass, population, and its level of technology. But this potential power—measured roughly by a state’s gross domestic product (GDP)—translates imperfectly into military capability. The effective use of military force depends on such elements as leadership, morale, geography, and luck. Furthermore, leaders’ misperceptions can seriously distort the calculation of power. During the Vietnam War (1959-1975), for example, U.S. presidents consistently underestimated the strength of the Vietnamese Communists because by conventional measures of power they were much weaker than the United States.
Balance of Power in Ancient Times
Historical examples of power balancing are found throughout history in various regions of the world, leading some scholars to characterize balance of power as a universal and timeless principle. During the Period of the Warring States in China (403-221 BC), the development of large, cohesive states accompanied the creation of irrigation systems, bureaucracies, and large armies equipped with iron weapons. These Chinese states pursued power through a constantly shifting network of alliances.
In ancient Greece during the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), the rising power of Athens triggered the formation of a coalition of city-states that felt threatened by Athenian power. The alliance, led by Sparta, succeeded in defeating Athens and restoring a balance of power among Greek cities.
In the 17th century the Habsburg dynasty, which ruled Austria and Spain, threatened to dominate Europe. During the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), a coalition that included Sweden, England, France, and The Netherlands defeated the rulers of the Habsburg Empire.
Early in the 19th century, french emperor Napoleon I repeatedly made efforts to conquer large areas of Europe. A broad coalition of European states—including Britain, Russia, Austria, and Prussia—defeated France in a series of major battles that climaxed with Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.
The classical European balance of power system emerged thereafter in an alliance known as the Concert of Europe, organized in 1815 by Austrian statesman Klemens von Metternich. This loose alliance between Britain, Russia, Austria, Prussia, and France ensured that a handful of great powers would coexist, with none able to dominate the others. Under this system, and with Britain playing a balancer role, peace largely prevailed in Europe during the 19th century. During World War II, Germany’s rising power, aggressive conquests, and alliance with Italy and Japan triggered yet another coalition of opposing states—notably the capitalist democracies of Britain and the United States, and the Communist Soviet Union.
Balance of Power and Cold War
Balance of power so perfectly described the polarity of the Cold War that it became integral to, indeed practically synonymous with, the concept of the East-West order. Although the image was so familiar as to be almost transparent, a great deal of political presumption was locked within its crystalline structure. East and West existed, and there was a "balance" between them that presumably somehow "weighed" a quality called power, possessed by the enemies, each side, in the way material objects possess mass. This enemy, real enough, but also postulated by the balance of power-without an enemy, what would be balanced?-served to solidify political alliance, and hence political identity, on both sides. Throughout the Cold War, divisions among states party to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) or the Warsaw Pact, as well as divisions within each state, were obscured by the need to maintain a common front against the enemy.
In the context of the balance of power, the discipline of strategic studies turned on a single inquiry: to what extent did an event, either actual or possible, enlarge the military potential of one side or the other? This inquiry often raised nice issues of judgment. For example, both the United States and the Soviet Union long maintained inefficient capacity for the manufacture of steel in order to serve anticipated wartime needs. Within the contours of the strategic argument, the precise relationship between the capacity to manufacture steel and military fitness was debatable, but the stakes and the terms of the argument were clear . Equally clear was what was not at issue in the security debate, viz. broader questions of political conduct. Political questions, such as how to pay for the subsidy, were not unrelated, but were considered analytically separable inquiries. Just as participants in a sport rarely consider the appropriateness of the rules that inform their game, the balance of power so well defined strategic questions that larger questions went unasked.
Today, a strategic study is a far trickier business. The East-West order, which defined both the actors and the objectives, no longer exists. In the words of Polish politician Bronislaw Geremek, we are confronted by dangers, not enemies. There is no balance of power with danger, no conflict with danger. Danger may be assessed. But without a hard-edged notion of conflict to provide a context in which probability can be calculated, danger assessment is a hazy enterprise. Suppose, for plausible example, that the European Union is somehow at risk from unrest in Southern Europe. Should the Union attempt to integrate its forces to defend itself against Southern Europe? Should a new wall be built? Or should the Union attempt to integrate Southern Europe into its defense structure, either through NATO or the Western European Union, in the hopes of minimizing the risk of violent disorder? How much of Europe (what is Europe?) should be included in this process of integration? Should this process be limited to the military sector, or should it include the economy? How complete, and how swift, is this effort to be? And so forth.
Strategy that would confront such threats requires a view of politics considerably more nuanced than polarity; policy cannot be determined by argument that one "side" enjoys some military advantage over the other. Strategic thinking now entails politics, economics, and history, in addition to its traditional focus on military capability, because a strategic world where security is threatened by dangers rather than enemies is complex and vague in ways that the old strategic world was not. In response to uncertainty, the new strategic thinking seeks stability more avidly than it seeks some ill-defined "advantage." Stability is hardly a new concern; what is new is that stability has become virtually the only concern. So, for example, it recently appeared to make strategic sense to cut the size of our military, in part because the federal deficit was thought to hamper national competitiveness and economic unrest was seen as a greater threat to our security than invasion. Similarly, it makes strategic sense for Western European states to give money to help the young governments of Central and Southern Europe stabilize their economies, not because those governments plan to invade, but because their failure may lead to massive immigration or civil war. Rather than the purchase of military hardware, security concerns now impel the provision of loan guarantees. Strategy used to mean the attainment of military superiority, or at least deterrence; it now means the pursuit of social stability. Politics writ large has absorbed strategic studies.
The vague character of threats to social security means that when we cannot quarantine social instability (as we frequently do with those chaotic Africans), intervention is likely. In a dangerous world, security is obtained by proactive measures designed to shore up the social order. In contrast, in the traditional world of enemies, security is the capability to respond to the threat posed by the enemy. (Only rarely has security been thought best obtained by preemptive attack.) So we long preserved the capacity to respond to Soviet aggression with nuclear force, if necessary. The very language of the clichÃ is reactive. Today, the United States is criticized not for its lack of readiness, but for not taking enough action within the former Soviet Union to help ensure that the weapons of mass destruction remain in sane hands. In this light, the invasion of Panama and the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement may be understood as attempts to establish a viable social order in situations that present profound threats to our security, our lust for drugs and the weaknesses peculiar to a highly technological economy.
If security is now better procured than defended, then early intervention will often be more effective and cheaper than late intervention. Contemporary strategic thinking inclines to the adage "a stitch in time saves nine." Diffuse threats to security should be addressed before they have time to gain focus and momentum. The task for contemporary strategic thinking is therefore the avoidance, rather than the development, of the logic of war. For example, it is has for some time been argued that more decisive action by the European Community (and then the European Union) and the United Nations at the outbreak of violence in Yugoslavia might have prevented at least some of the carnage and associated risks. War, even civil war, has its own awful logic, and the various factions in what was Yugoslavia fought within that logic, to regain territory lost by military action, to avenge loved ones, and so bloody on, in the gyre of public and private violence bemoaned since the Oresteia. Had the logic of violence not been established, Yugoslavia might be merely politically fractious, like Belgium or even what was Czechoslovakia. The transformation of strategy amounts to an imperative to intervene, militarily if necessary, in the service of order.
Balance of Power Today
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 left the United States as the world’s sole superpower. Balance of power theory suggests that without the Soviet threat the United States, as the dominant world power, will face difficulties in its relations with such states as China and the European powers. For example, key countries such as China, Russia, France, and Germany all opposed the United States invasion of Iraq in 2003 in diplomatic arenas such as the United Nations. Yet this opposition did not stop the United States from acting, exposing the significant gap in military capability that now exists between the United States and the rest of the world. Small states that fear the United States are no longer able to join a counterbalancing coalition to protect their security. Instead, many are developing nuclear weapons in an attempt to dramatically expand their military capability. For example, North Korea claimed in 2003 that it was developing nuclear weapons to balance against U.S. power.
The changing nature of power in the contemporary international system further complicates the operation of the global balance of power. Globalization, the Internet, weapons of mass destruction, and other technological developments have made it possible for small states and even non state groups to acquire significant power. These factors also dilute the relative importance of military power. For example, after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States assembled a broad coalition to invade Afghanistan, using military force to topple the Taliban government and end the Taliban’s support for al-Qaeda terrorists. This application of military power did not provoke a balancing coalition of other states, but it also did not end the terrorist threat to the United States. In the future, the balance of power may continue to operate among states engaged in prolonged disputes, but it is less applicable to conflicts involving terrorists and other non state groups.
The balance of power has been a central concept in the theory and practice of international relations for the past five hundred years. It has also played a key role in some of the most important attempts to develop a theory of international politics in the contemporary study of international relations. Another basis for the realist theory is the idea of a balance of power and the anarchic nature of the global system as there is no effective global government and the world system is anomic (without rules). This ties in well with the idea of global relations being one of self help and each state striving to promote its own interests at the expense of others. In short, realists see the global system as one of self help. The idea of the balance of power is put in place to explain the situation where states will ally themselves to prevent the hegemony of one state over all others. Balance of Power, theory and policy of international relations that asserts that the most effective check on the power of a state is the power of other states.
Balance of Power Since 1945
In neither world war, then, did the United States enter for considerations of the balance of power. In both, the entry of the United States so quickly and completely tilted the balance of power in favor of the side it joined, that had the United States been regarded as an element in the balance, the wars in the form they took would never have broken out. After World War I, the United States withdrew in disillusionment. After World War II that recourse was not open, although many in the Truman administration feared it and worked to prevent it. It took time before it became apparent, either to Americans or to any others, that the balance had been shifted permanently during, and to some extent as a result of, the war. It took time before it was realized that Britain would not recover, that France was not a world power, and that noncommunist China would not become the guardian of the Far East. Yet, paradoxically, while the postwar hope of a concert gave way, just as it did after the Congress of Vienna (1814–1815), to an ideological confrontation, the balance of power was being restored.
It has often been argued that the balance of power is really an imbalance of power. If the balance is to work at all, there must be at least three parties, such that any two can overpower the third, should its activities become too threatening. More than three is better; but three is the minimum. The idea of balance as implying some sort of equality gives way readily to the idea of balance as superiority of force on the side of the existing order. The balance between two powers or groups—sometimes called the "simple" balance—is altogether too unstable. It requires a degree of vigilance, of preparedness, of national concentration on defense, which is ultimately intolerable. The Cold War implied just such a balance, of course, and it should come as no surprise that the rhetoric of the Cold War, on both sides (although recent attention has been given to that of the West), did not speak of balance at all, but looked to victory. That is a characteristic of the simple balance.
It was well recognized that the United States and the Soviet Union were in direct and unique competition. The appalling consequences of nuclear war introduced a new kind of stability. The so-called balance of terror or balance of deterrence ensured that each nuclear power was anxious not to give the other power any sort of signal that would justify an attack, and was also anxious not to identify such a signal. This caution was compatible with, and even required, an arms race. It was not by accident that for a time the chief danger to stability was thought to arise in an area—western Europe—where nuclear power could not be used with any advantage, yet which was regarded as vital. Talk of tactical nuclear weapons showed more wishful ingenuity than realism, and much of the American emphasis on strategic nuclear superiority derived from the knowledge that only such superiority could counter Soviet geographical advantages in Europe.
If it was compatible with an arms race, the American-Soviet balance was also compatible with an ideological struggle waged with vigor on both sides. It is false to claim, as some revisionist historians now do, that the Cold War was started and maintained only by the United States; and that the Soviet Union, much weakened by the world war, was merely pursuing the traditional aims of Russian policy. (Those aims had been opposed by Great Britain for a century, and it is odd to find the Left arguing that a policy of oldfashioned imperialism is acceptable and, in essence, advancing the doctrine, if not of the balance of power, at least of spheres of influence.) The ideological struggle reflected the knowledge of both great powers that they contended in a fast-changing world; and the Cold War began to lose intensity, not when the protagonists decided to abandon it but when world circumstances changed and new elements began to contribute to the balance—lacking nuclear capacity, it is true, but disposing of real force. It became almost conventional to speak in terms of a world of five poles—the United States, the Soviet Union, Europe, China, and Japan—to which perhaps the oil-producing states should be added. These poles differ from the great powers of old in that they are not of the same sort. Only two are nuclear in any serious sense. Other differences readily suggest themselves. It is as a consequence of this development that serious discussion of the balance of power is again taking place.
Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, a student of Clemens von Metternich and Otto von Bismarck, naturally introduced the concept of balance into his discussions of foreign policy; he would not have done so if the preconditions had not been there. Yet, while he spoke of Soviet policy as "heavily influenced by the Soviet conception of the balance of forces" and as "never determined in isolation from the prevailing military balance," he was more apt to speak of American policy as seeking a "balance of mutual interests" with the Soviet Union and as moving toward détente through a "balance of risks and incentives." Such language was chosen with an American audience, and with the preconceptions that Kissinger believed Americans have, in mind. Nevertheless it shows two elements almost wholly lacking in classic balance of power theory: the recognition that nations may now offer domestic rewards and suffer domestic penalties in the conduct of international relations, and the conviction that the domestic penalties will be too great without an agreement on restraint—deliberate if tacit—by the opponents. The balance of power is seen not as replacing cooperation, but rather as requiring it.
The Cold War ended with a whimper, not the civilization-ending "bang" some analysts predicted. The Soviet Union simply chose to withdraw from the superpower competition. With the subsequent disintegration of the Soviet Union, the United States became incontrovertibly the world's dominant economic-military power (a title it had actually had for much of the Cold War). Without an apparent foe to challenge its security, the major question confronting U.S. foreign policy was what would succeed the Cold War's bipolar balance of power. The issue among academics and political commentators was whether the United States should (1) emphasize its dominant position as a "unipolar" global power, or (2) seek a leading role in a tripolar or multipolar system.
The conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer advocated the former. Krauthammer defined "unipolar" as meaning the United States should act unilaterally in resolving international matters that threatened its national interests. Acknowledging that the United States had lost the dominant economic position it had held during the early Cold War years, he nevertheless asserted that America remained the principal center of the world's economic production. An aggressive, determined U.S. foreign policy, backed by the world's greatest military prowess, Krauthammer argued, could dominate world politics. Perhaps in the future the United States might become the largest partner in a multipolar world; until then, however, he wanted Washington leaders to continue acting unilaterally. He concluded that "Our best hope for safety is in American strength and will, the strength and will to lead a unipolar world, unashamedly laying down the rules of world order and being prepared to enforce them." It would be a Pax Americana in which the world would acquiesce in a benign American hegemony.
Other analysts envisioned a multipolar post–Cold War world, probably comprised of three or four power centers, in which the United States would remain the most affluent and powerful but would not be hegemonic. Joseph Nye, for example, suggested that a U.S. long-term unilateral hegemony was "unlikely because of the diffusion of power through transnational interdependence." Preferring the term "multilevels of power," Nye endorsed preserving a strong military but predicted that the United States would not be able to dominate or direct the economic and political centers in an interdependent world. Thus, Washington should cooperate with like-minded nations in meeting such international concerns as conflicts between world markets, the acquisition by small nations of unconventional but destructive weapons, the international drug trade, environmental dangers of technological society, and diseases that can spread across continents.
Lawrence Freedman, who shared Nye's basic conception, focused on America's successful strengthening of democracy in Asia and western Europe after 1945. This, he argued, had created valuable political-military allies who rebuilt the world's economic foundations, promoted political democracy, and played the crucial role in halting communist expansion. In due course, these nations began competing with American business for world trade and investments because the United States had encouraged European economic unity and a prosperous Asia-Pacific rimland. Freedman foresaw that these European and Asian allies would press for a greater post–Cold War role in international affairs and, if Washington accommodated their expectations, all parties would benefit. If, however, the United States chose to deal unilaterally with economic and trade issues, there could be greatly increased tensions or even military conflict.
Both Freedman and Nye anticipated that states outside the American-European-Japanese centers would likely pose the gravest threat to global stability. During the Cold War the super-powers had been able to dampen most conflicts in Third World regions; it proved more difficult thereafter. The demise of bipolar constraints made violent confrontations stemming from festering ethnic, tribal, nationalist, religious, and territorial disputes more likely. And indeed, as John Lewis Gaddis reminded us, the first post–Cold War year "saw, in addition to the occupation of Kuwait, the near-outbreak of war between India and Pakistan, an intensification of tension between Israel and its Arab neighbors, a renewed Syrian drive to impose its control on Lebanon, and a violent civil war in Liberia." It seemed a harbinger of things to come.
In Nye's view, attempting to deal unilaterally with these and other looming upheavals would place a heavy burden on the American treasury and national will. Far better, he argued, to seek multilateral cooperation to control the peripheral troubles. Failure to contain regional conflicts could put global stability in jeopardy.
President George H. W. Bush's formation and direction of an international coalition to drive Iraq out of Kuwait in 1990 and 1991 had the trappings of both unilateral determination and multi-lateral cooperation. In his victory speech of 6 March 1991, Bush called for a "new world order" that would enable the United Nations to fulfill its obligation to provide for the collective security of the weaker nations, and for a U.S. program that would assist in stabilizing the Middle East.
Bush's visionary statement generated much discussion in the months thereafter, but skeptical voices were quickly heard. Henry Kissinger, now a political commentator, lauded President Bush's building of a coalition to defeat the Iraqi aggression, but he derided the notion of a new world order. "The problem with such an approach is that it assumes that every nation perceives every challenge to the international order in the same way," he wrote, "and is prepared to run the same risks to preserve it. In fact, the new international order will see many centers of power, both within regions and among them. The power centers reflect different histories and perceptions." In Kissinger's view, the essential thrust of the new American approach should be the recognition of regional balances of power to establish order. "History so far has shown us only two roads to international stability: domination or equilibrium. We do not have the resources for domination, nor is such a course compatible with our values. So we are brought back to a concept maligned in much of America's intellectual history—the balance of power."
Kissinger was correct to point to Americans' complicated relationship with the balance of power, but it was also true that the nation's leaders had often—and especially after 1945—consciously sought the equilibrium he so valued. The 1990s witnessed numerous regional, ethnic, and nationalistic struggles; U.S. officials, finding few of these conflicts fundamentally threatening to the global equilibrium, stayed out of most of them. When they did intervene, humanitarian concerns were a key motivation—the American military and economic response to such episodes as upheavals in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo were aimed in large measure at reducing human suffering and restoring local political stability. Even then, intervention happened at least in part because Washington policymakers determined that these upheavals, if allowed to spread, could in fact upset the regional balance of power.
American decision makers understood that the military component of the global equilibrium increasingly shared center stage with other elements as the world became more interconnected. The impact of technology, most notably personal access to various forms of global communications—worldwide telephone systems and television networks, and later the Internet—was impossible to ignore, and the 1990s witnessed economic interdependence that found manufacturing, banking, and merchandising virtually ignoring national borders. In search of continued economic growth and prosperity, Americans increasingly embraced the idea of globalization. President Bill Clinton stressed the interconnectedness of global economic affairs and the necessity of U.S. leadership in this area.
Few in Washington disagreed, and the 2000 presidential campaign saw much more agreement than disagreement between the two major candidates about how the United States ought to exercise leadership in the world arena. Once in office, however, the administration of George W. Bush immediately moved to adopt a starkly unilateralist approach of the type espoused by Charles Krauthammer and others. The Bush team ignored or refused to endorse several international treaties and instruments, most notably the Kyoto agreement regarding environmental pollution standards, and insisted on pursuing a missile defense system that would involve the abrogation of the 1972 ABM treaty and, perhaps, stimulate a new arms race. Even though these policy decisions provoked serious objections from America's allies, and more strenuous protests from other nations, there seemed little concern in Washington about searching for an international consensus.
Critics of George W. Bush and of unilateralism complained that the approach indicated a failure to see the fundamental limits of American power, even in a one-superpower world. The critics achieved a measure of vindication with the terrorist attack on the United States on 11 September 2001. The assaults on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon exposed America's vulnerability to a new destabilizing force: global terrorism. The Bush administration, while not disavowing its unilateralist inclinations, appeared to recognize the desirability of a "global coalition" to meet a newly recognized challenge that largely ignored the traditional international power structure. There were differences of opinion inside and outside the administration on how best to wage the struggle against terrorism, but on one thing all could agree: the United States could not do it alone.
The history of modern international relations, and of the American part in them, then, suggests a certain pattern. Americans, though often professing a distrust of European-style balance of power politics, have nevertheless sought precisely such a balance of power, or equilibrium, in world affairs. That preference survived the important shift from a world of very slow social change to a world of awesomely fast social change. It survived the end of the Cold War. It had not prevented wars nor served effectively to restrain any state that sought advantage from an active policy; it meant only that at the eleventh hour, coalitions formed to oppose serious attempts at world dominion. In this process the United States played an appropriate part, allowance being made for the great security provided until the mid-twentieth century by its geographical position.
The practical preference for an international balance does not always give rise to anything that can be called a theory of the balance of power, nor even to the use of the term in political discussion. At times when the balance is a "simple" balance—as during the Cold War or the years immediately preceding World War I—there is little discussion of a concept to which appeal cannot usefully be made, and what discussion there is, is apt to be critical. Equally, a period of great international complexity and uncertainty does not seem to be one that a theory of the balance of power can helpfully elucidate. Somewhere between these extremes the greater flexibility provided by a "complex" balance allows the idea of a balance, as something desirable and as a positive interest of the contending parties themselves, to be advanced. Because the balance is at its most stable when people need not consider its maintenance or even its existence, the discussion of balance is at best an indicator of strain in international affairs; but it may indicate the least amount of strain that mankind is likely to achieve.