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The balance of power is, arguably, the most central theoretical concept in the study of international relations, yet it is also one of the most controversial concepts in the field. It is a significant concept because it underpins how theorists of a realist predisposition think about international relations, and realism is one of the most widely acknowledged general theories in the discipline. The concept is also controversial because realism, in general, and the balance of power, in particular, have always been fundamentally challenged by other schools of thought. Advocates of the balance of power argue that it helps account for the most fundamental features of international relations and, in particular, the survival and stability of any system of independent states. Critics, by contrast, attack the concept by insisting that it is either incoherent, thereby promoting a spurious understanding of international relations, or dangerous, because it promotes policies that can lead to international tensions and often war. this research paper first examines the balance of power metaphor and describes its historical development. It then discusses the roles the concept has in contemporary thought, especially in the work of Hans J. Morgenthau and Kenneth N. Waltz.
The controversy that surrounds the balance of power is not a recent phenomenon. It can be traced back for several centuries, although there is no authoritative genealogy of the concept. Debates about the balance of power became a regular feature of the theory and practice of international relations in Europe from the 16th century onward. The balance of power is generally regarded as an essentially Eurocentric concept, although this assessment remains somewhat speculative because so little is known about the theory underpinning how other international societies have operated.
While the balance of power is generally regarded as a concept that is quintessentially related to international relations, it is also a concept that is regularly used across the social sciences as well as in general parlance. However, outside international relations, the balance of power is not seen to be particularly controversial. The term is employed ubiquitously because it acts as a metaphor that effectively transforms our conventional understanding of power. Unadorned, power is generally treated as an attribute that enables an agent possessing power to regulate the activities of other actors. In the literature on power, this usage is often referred to as a behavioral or agential conception of power. The balance of power metaphor transforms this conventional meaning into a structural or systemic conception of power.
When treated as a metaphor, the balance of power has been associated with a wide array of images, from a chandelier to the arch of a bridge. The image that most frequently springs to mind is a set of scales. From the perspective of international relations, the scales can be viewed as a system in which the weights that are placed on the pans of the scales are equated with the power capabilities of the states that operate within the system. What the metaphor demonstrates is that if the weight/power is increased in one pan, then the weight/power on the other pan is automatically affected. It follows that power must be treated as a relative rather than an absolute phenomenon. But the metaphor can also indicate that if there is a disproportionately heavy weight placed in one pan of the scales, then it is possible to establish an effective counterbalance by placing a number of lighter weights on the other pan. The even distribution of power that is then formed is often represented as the definition of a balance of power.
If the metaphor is brought into focus, however, it is clear that this very specific meaning should be subsumed under a much broader conception that associates the balance of power with a system in which power is a structural attribute. Such a system is, in effect, constituted by the distribution of power that forms within the boundaries of the system. So in a multipolar system, for example, there are several main poles of power, whereas in a bipolar system there are two main poles of power, and in a unipolar system there is only one main pole of power. This structural conception of power has attracted the attention of many historians, theorists, and practitioners from the past and the present who have wanted to understand international relations, and it has led them to presuppose that the behavior of states is or at any rate should be significantly influenced by the structure or balance of power that helps constitute the international system.
In general usage, by contrast, the same kind of assumption is not made. If a wife goes out to work and earns an independent income, it can be argued that the balance of power within the marriage will shift as a consequence. Or, in a multiparty system, if two opposition parties ally, then the balance of power within the political arena will alter. In both cases, the metaphor brings the structure of the system into focus. But there is no presumption that a change in the balance of power will necessarily strengthen or weaken the system. The metaphor simply highlights the change in the distribution of power. But in international relations, there is a long-standing political myth that states will respond to changes in the distribution of power in a way that ensures that international stability is restored. But the veracity of this myth has also long been challenged, and a significant counter-myth has arisen asserting that the preoccupation with the distribution of power in international relations is a major source of conflict and disorder. This controversy about the balance of power has been carried forward into the contemporary discipline and accounts for the very distinctive role that the concept plays in international relations.
Historical Development of the Idea
Despite its putative importance, we still do not have a very developed understanding of how the ideas associated with the balance of power have evolved across time. Nevertheless, it is generally accepted that the contemporary conception of the balance of power can be traced back to the Italian city-state system and that the key ideas relating to the concept began to take shape in the 15th century. By the start of the 16th century, Francesco Guicciardini (1483-1540), a practicing diplomat and an acquaintance of Niccolo Machiavelli, was able to call on these ideas when he came to write The History of Italy. He wrote this history in response to the French invasion of Italy in 1494; his aim was to trace what he viewed as the tragic loss of independence by the Italian city-states in the first decades of the 16th century. He shows how these states failed to respond adequately to external pressures until eventually most of them were absorbed by the Hapsburg Empire. The book provides the first case study of states failing to follow the logic of a balance of power system and, as a consequence, succumbing to hegemony.
Guicciardini’s use of balancing metaphors is restricted to the start of the book where he examines relations among the city-states in the final decades of the 15th century. The focus is on Venice, Naples, Florence, Milan, and Rome, and he acknowledges that relations among these city-states were characterized by suspicion and jealousy. But he also notes that Venice was by far the most powerful state in the system and, moreover, that it had hegemonic ambitions. But the logic of this situation as depicted by Guicciardini is that it preserved a balance of power system because, by forming an alliance, the other city-states were able to counterbalance Venetian power and thereby preserve the independence of all the city-states. Guicciardini, however, also acknowledged that rivalry among the less powerful states could potentially threaten the overall stability of the system.
But this stability was preserved, according to Guicciardini, because the ruler of Florence, Lorenzo de’ Medici, recognized the importance of maintaining peace among the less powerful states and preserving the alliance against Venice. As a consequence, he was willing to operate as a balancer within the system. In other words, Guicciardini argues that Lorenzo had to constantly shift his own position in relation to the other states in the system in order to ensure that the overall balance was sustained.
What began to destabilize the system at the end of the 15th century was an emerging tendency by the city-states to invite outside states to help settle disputes among the city-states. The problem with this tactic, as Guicciardini saw it, was that states such as France outweighed the combined strength of all the Italian city-states. Nevertheless, when the Milanese concluded that Florence and Naples were forming an alliance against them, they called on France for assistance. But this move had the effect of destroying the Italian balance of power system and Guicciardini resorted to medical metaphors to characterize the subsequent developments. Eschewing the balance of power metaphor, he argued that external intervention was a medicine with effects that were far worse than the original disease.
The History of Italy was translated into other European languages, and the ideas associated with the balance of power were rapidly diffused across Europe during the 16th century. By the end of the century, therefore, the balance of power was viewed as a Europe-wide phenomenon. But during this period, the meaning of the balance of power was also extended beyond the idea of shifting alliances in a competitive or adversarial system. For millennia, there has been a metaphorical link between scales and justice, and during the 16th century, there was a growing tendency to discuss the balance of power in terms of a just equilibrium. In other words, the balance of power began to be associated with the establishment of a distribution of power that was not only regarded as stable but also fair. Initially it was argued that the balancer state must have this capacity to establish the link between stability and justice. But, over time, a stable and just balance of power was seen to arise from a general agreement among the great powers in Europe, and so the concept began to be viewed as a product of great power cooperation and mutual association. By the start of the 18th century, Europe-wide peace agreements such as the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 began to make reference to a just equilibrium in their formal provisions. At this juncture, therefore, the balance of power was seen to provide the constitutional basis for what was called the Republic of Europe. As a consequence, it then became possible to extend the idea of the balance of power back to the idea developed by Greek and Roman theorists of a mixed or balanced constitution. But the relationship between these sets of ideas has yet to be teased out in any detail.
By the 18th century, however, there was also growing resistance to the idea that the balance of power could be treated as either some kind of a natural or a man-made law that could promote peace and stability. On the contrary, the balance of power was seen to be irrevocably tied to a system where war was endemic. By the 19th century, critics such as the British radicals Richard Cobden and John Bright were going further and arguing that the balance of power was an utterly meaningless concept. From their perspective, only by moving beyond the balance of power thinking was it possible to promote a peaceful world. The battle between advocates and critics of the balance of power persisted throughout the 20th century and, almost inevitably, when the study of international relations developed as a formal academic discipline during the present era, the balance of power immediately became one of its central but also deeply contentious concepts.
Contemporary Study of the Balance of Power
It is not difficult to demonstrate that the balance of power occupies a central position in the contemporary study of international relations because the concept lies at the heart of two of the very most influential theoretical texts published since the end of World War II. The first, Hans J. Morgenthau’s Politics Among Nations, published initially in 1948, epitomizes classical realism and the second, Kenneth N. Waltz’s Theory of International Politics, published in 1979, spearheaded what is now known as neorealism or structural realism. Despite the fact that these texts are still enormously influential, both texts and, in particular, their use of the balance of power have come under continuous criticism ever since they were published. It is certainly not the case, therefore, that either realism or the balance of power has ever occupied a hegemonic position in the field. Instead, it is more appropriate to see them as occupying the central ground but at the same time being engaged in a constant debate with critics coming at them from a number of very different directions.
As a classical realist, Morgenthau was well aware that he was working in the context of a long-standing tradition of European thought that embraced the concept of the balance of power, and he recognized the need to take into account both its adversarial and its associational dimensions. From his perspective, the American Constitution and other similar domestic arrangements provided the most effective examples of a functioning balance of power system, and it followed that, in an international context, the balance of power could work at best only imperfectly. For Morgenthau, the golden age for the balance of power was the era of dynastic international politics in the 18th century when states were governed by an international aristocracy that formed a distinctive international society. Under these circumstances, it was possible to achieve a just equilibrium by means of largely consensual and Europe-wide peace agreements. But even when these agreements broke down, Morgenthau argued that the uncertainties associated with any attempt to calculate the prevailing balance of power generated restraint on the part of the rival dynasties and encouraged them to operate on the basis of the established dynastic rules of the game. At the same time, however, he readily acknowledged that the world had moved a very long way from these conditions. In the aftermath of World War II, what he saw were two ideologically driven behemoths operating in the absence of any international society. The United States and the Soviet Union were restrained only by the crudest kind of balance of power, and he feared for the future of the world. Morgenthau argued that only if the two sides adopted the tools of classical diplomacy was there any hope that humans would survive.
Waltz approached the balance of power from a very different direction, and he reached a very different set of conclusions from those of Morgenthau. He was writing in the context of a detente that marked a period of relaxation in the Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union; however, his aim was to establish a general theory of international relations that would transcend historical difference and help reveal the essential differences between domestic and international politics and explain why the structure of the international system has proved so enduring.
In the first instance, therefore, Waltz argues that all political systems can be categorized under one of two headings: hierarchy or anarchy. In a hierarchical political system, actors are functionally differentiated and power is distributed on a vertical plane, so that actors can exercise power over sub-ordinate actors in the hierarchy but will themselves be subject to the power of actors that occupy a superior position in the hierarchy. Having made the distinction, however, Waltz focuses his attention almost exclusively on anarchic political systems where actors are seen to operate on a horizontal plane. In other words, these actors do not consider that they are operating in a hierarchy or in a functionally differentiated system. They view themselves as independent and autonomous actors operating on the basis of self-help and so they are primarily concerned, in the first instance, with maintaining their independence and autonomy. To be able to do this, they must, from the start, establish how power is structured in the system. This requires them to identify the dominant actors in the system—those actors that possess a disproportionate amount of the overall power in the system. Cutting through complexity, Waltz distinguishes between bipolar and multipolar systems. Then, contrary to Morgenthau, he aims to show theoretically why multipolar systems are prone to generate an unstable balance of power, whereas bipolar systems are prone to generate a stable balance of power.
Focusing first on multipolar systems, Waltz argues that if the balance of power begins to move against any of the dominant states in such a system, they will be pushed to respond by either internal or external balancing. Internal balancing requires the actor to enhance its power position by domestic means. The most obvious mechanisms are either to expand existing military resources or to seek technological improvements. But Waltz also acknowledges that in a self-help or anarchic political system, there will be a tendency for any action that gives an actor a potential or future power advantage to be emulated by the other dominant actors in the system. As a consequence, he argues that in an anarchy there will be a tendency for actors to take the form of like units.
In a multipolar system, however, Waltz argues that when the balance of power shifts, there is the alternative strategy of external balancing. In other words, states can form alliances with each other to enhance their security. But Waltz is very well aware that alliances are an inherently unstable feature of any anarchic system. The literature on alliances reveals that an alliance generates at least two contradictory fears. On the one hand, there is the fear of entrapment, as the result of being drawn by an ally into an unnecessary or dangerous conflict. But, on the other hand, there is also the fear of abandonment. Such problems are endemic in a multipolar system. The problem persists even in the face of a rising hegemon when, rather than forming an overwhelming alliance, states will often choose to pass the buck and, at least in the first instance, leave it to other states to confront the hegemon.
Because of these sorts of uncertainties, it becomes extraordinarily difficult in an anarchic system to identify the nature of the balance of power at any point in time. Nevertheless, despite these uncertainties, Waltz argues that there is sufficient flexibility in the system to ensure that any potential hegemonic state will eventually be met by an effective counterbalancing alliance. But, by the same token, Waltz insists that it is very much easier to identify the state of the balance of power in a bipolar system: There are no alliances to complicate the assessment, and the two dominant states simply have to monitor each other’s activities. As a consequence, not only are there fewer sources of instability, but it is also easier for the two dominant states to reach mutual agreement and thereby to move from an adversarial balance of power through to an associational balance of power, although Waltz does not use this terminology.
Waltz has proved to be extremely influential because he articulated a balance of power theory in such unequivocal terms, and it has encouraged other theorists to either revise or reject the theory. Offensive realists argue that dominant states aim to maximize their power position, and they characterize Waltz’s approach as defensive realism because of the assumption that dominant states only aim to preserve their independence. They dismiss the idea of an associative balance of power and are much more willing to entertain the possibility of hegemonic success. In the same vein, theorists working from a world-historical perspective insist that anarchic systems transform into hierarchical or at least unipolar systems on a very regular basis. This poses a very significant problem for Waltz and for the balance of power theory more generally. But a more immediate problem for Waltz is the persistence of unipolarity in the post-Cold War world. Waltz insisted after the demise of the Soviet Union that unipolarity is a very unstable structure and that it would rapidly give way to multipolarity. But realist critics argue that there are few signs that any states are willing to compete with the United States in the military arena and that in any event Waltz’s own Neorealist logic can be used to show why unipolarity is a very stable structure. It is unlikely that these debates are going to be easily resolved, and, as a consequence, the balance of power will continue to provide a theoretical focal point for theorists and practitioners in the future.
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