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Balance of Power

Balance of Power

A. E. Campbell and

Richard Dean Burns

The balance of power appears at first sight a simple concept. It has been defined as "a phrase in international law for such a 'just equilibrium' between the members of the family of nations as should prevent any one of them from becoming sufficiently strong to enforce its will upon the rest." Yet the phrase has always been of more use in political polemic than in political analysis. Like other phrases with a strong emotional appeal it is vague, and it would lose its appeal if it were more precise. Its obscurities are several, but the most important is that it blends the descriptive and the normative. The condition is one, the term "balance" implies, toward which international life is forever tending. That is the descriptive element. But the condition is also one that may be upset, and right-thinking statesmen should constantly be on the alert to preserve or restore it. That is the normative element. These two elements reinforce one another. Because such a balance will be established in any event, it is sensible and moral to work toward it. Because people work toward it, it will be more readily established. Difficulties arise if either element is weakened. At what point is it right to abandon an old balance and accept a new one? Can a balance exist if people are unconscious of the need to maintain it?

Behind all the interpretations of the balance of power lies the appeal to realism in the conduct of international affairs. Realism remains the best, perhaps the only persuasive, argument for restraint; and it is common ground that the doctrine of the balance of power is a device to promote restraint, whether it is argued that lack of restraint is wrong, or dangerous, or ultimately bound to fail. In that sense the balance of power in international affairs is clearly related to the idea of checks and balances within a government, which is equally a device to impose restraint on men who might otherwise, seduced by power, abandon it.


The international balance received its classical exposition during the eighteenth century, about the time at which, largely during the struggle for independence of the American colonies, the idea of checks and balances within a government was elaborated. Although linked, the doctrines had important differences. The international balance existed, if at all, among similar entities, the recognized powers, which placed in the scale weights of the same kindmilitary power, actual or potential. It was the lack of any precedent and effective authority among nations that made the balance of power necessary. The threat of war maintained the balance, and sometimes war was needed to restore it. By contrast the domestic balance refined by the Founders was not among powers of the same sort, but among powers of different sorts. All these were derived from the people, who might limit, redistribute, or withdraw what they had given. And few believed that domestic society rested on the perpetual threat of strife.

It is not an accident that the doctrine of the balance of poweralike in international and in domestic politicsreceived its classic and most rigorous statements at a time when foreign policy was largely a matter for rulers who could use the war potential of their states for their own aggrandizement. It was because a ruler had to be able to wage effective war that he had to be allowed the armed force that contributed to his domestic control. British reliance on a navy rather than on a standing army was, and was known to be, important to the growth of British libertiesand later to American liberty. In a sense, therefore, the international balance of power was needed to check the pretensions of rulers who lacked any effective domestic check.

Many of the early American leaders, however, held the belief that in their new world a more justa more perfectsociety than that of Europe could be formed. Historians may differ about the degree to which that implied a regard for democracy. The tyrant people was hardly less to be feared than the tyrant king. But that sensible, rational menmen of property and standingcould cooperate for the common good, few doubted. To balance the servants of the public against each other was both a political safeguard and a political convenience, rendering excess less likely and vigilance less demanding. It was not a political necessity of the same order as the international balance of power. Americans quickly came to believe, and continued to believe through most of their history, that sound domestic institutions must bring sound foreign policies with them.

The balance of power, however, although it may act to restrain the actions of those who believe in the doctrine, is in the first instance a device to restrain others. Should not Americans, very conscious that other states were not founded on their own good principles, have been ready to consider contributing to the maintenance of an international balance when appropriate, more rather than less because their own domestic principles were sound? There is little evidence that they did consider doing so, and that fact may throw light on the limitations of the doctrine.

The revolutionary war itself provides an example of the balance of power in operation. A desire not to be involved in the European balance, not to be a weight in the British scale, had played an important part in the American demand for independence. It was the readiness of the allies in the coalition against Britain to abandon each other, and the readiness of Britain to calculate relative gains and losses, that made the outcome possible. Behind the behavior of all the parties in the American war lay a tacit agreement that American independence was acceptablethe Americans wanted to be removed from the British scale, the French and Spaniards wanted the colonies removed from the British scale, and on their side the British were finally convinced that that removal would not have disadvantages only. Such calculations may imply a large element of uncertainty as to how the independent United States would behaveWhy should their independence weaken Britain more than their continued existence as disaffected colonies?but in the event few of the negotiators had any doubt as to the only possible conclusion of the war.

For a short time after independence, Americans remembered that the European balance of power had played some part in their victory. George Washington's famous injunction against "excessive partiality for one foreign nation and excessive dislike of another" would hardly have been necessary had there been no Americans who wanted to align themselves either with Britain or with France. It would not have been uttered had American interests clearly required an alignment with either side. Yet in the political debates at the end of the eighteenth century there was already a large ideological element. Washington was not merely arguing that a due regard for the balance of power requires powers to hold themselves aloof until it is clear that the balance is about to tip, and then to place in the scale only such weight as is needed to adjust it. He was urging his countrymen not to take sides in European quarrels whose out-come could not affect the United States.


So well did Americans learn their lesson and follow Washington's injunction that during the Napoleonic Wars (18031815) Americans seemed to have little or no interest in the issues. Neutral rights, and no doubt a free hand in the Americas, were what concerned them. Neither the possibility that Napoleon might come to dominate the world, which loomed so large to many Britons, nor the possibility that he might overthrow the archaic monarchies of Europe and bring in a new order, which seemed to others an exciting prospect, affected Americans to any great extent.

By that time the doctrine of the balance of power had ceased to interest Americans, and so it remained for a full century. Most students would contend that a balance of power existed in the nineteenth century and perhaps worked more effectively than ever before or since, and that whether they chose to recognize the balance or not, Americans were beneficiaries of it. Americans then gave little weight to that proposition, and they were right. They quickly discovered a doctrine, or a practice, that served their needs better than any contribution to a balance of power. This was the American withdrawal from the affairs of Europein certain matters onlyenshrined in the Monroe Doctrine of 1823. Attacking the international system, the British radical Richard Cobden could use as one of his chief arguments the fact that "America, with infinite wisdom, refuses to be a party to the 'balance of power'" (Cobden's emphasis).

If Americans could so largely ignore the existence of the balance on which their security finally rested, it follows that the balance was more stable than it has often been. This is, clearly, a balance in one sense, and perhaps in the most obvious senseforces resting in equilibrium without perpetual adjustment and still more without fundamental readjustment. When the balance of power is most noticed, it is because it must be maintainedthat is, because it is in perpetual danger of tipping too far to one side or the other. What, then, is the condition of stability such that it can even be neglected? American experience suggests that it is the introduction of what might be called an element of friction into the balance, something that operates on neither side, but inhibits movement or makes it more difficult.

It was this friction that the geographical distance of the United States from the power center of Europe introduced, so that for Americans the balance of power was always less delicate. Until the era of modern communications, this distance clearly made it more difficult for the United States to intervene in a European quarrel. Both more resources and more time were needed to sustain effective intervention. On the other hand, the converse was equally true. While it might be arguable that the complete overthrow of the European balance, and the dominance of Europe by one power or group of powers, would endanger the security of the United States, it was also arguable that that dominance would have to be more complete than it was ever likely in practice to be. The balance in Europe would have to be tipped far past the point at which the security of some European states was endangered before there could be any threat to the security of the United States. As Abraham Lincoln put it, rhetorically enough, in an address before the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, on 27 January 1838: "All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Bonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years."

This meant that American reluctance to be drawn into the quarrels of Europe was for long a realistic one. Americans could benefit from the balance of power without being fully conscious of it. The European states made little effort to involve the United States in their concerns. The well-known claim made in 1826 by George Canning, then British foreign secretary, to have "called the New World into existence, to redress the balance of the Old," was confined in practice to denying France "Spain with the Indies." With that accomplished, there was an agreement (so general that it could be ignored) that there was no effective and inexpensive way of using American support in a European quarrel; nor, per contra, of using European support in an American quarrel. For most of the nineteenth century Britain was the only major power that had serious differences with the United States. Difficulties arose over Canada, over Britain's remaining Caribbean possessions, and over trade, but the British always concluded that such differences should be settledif need be, even by British surrenderwithout attempting to involve other powers. They were not prepared to call in the Old World to redress the balance of the New.

Perhaps this became most obvious at times when it looked as if the United States might not continue to dominate North America. In 1842 and 1843 it was widely supposed that Britain would guarantee the independence of Texas in return for the abolition of slavery thereas a preliminary to attacking slavery in the United States. "The present attempt upon Texas is the beginning of her operations upon us," wrote Secretary of State AbelP. Upshur. It came to nothing. Still more obviously, during the Civil War the Confederacy hoped for European recognition and even intervention. The hope rested on several grounds, but clearly implicit was the belief that a restored American union could not be in the interest of Europe. Nor was it. But none of the European powersamong which Britain was the keyhad sufficient interest in creating an American balance to justify the European risks that the effort would entail. The relative remoteness of America meant that the effort would have had to be greater than the rewards justified, and great enough to entail unacceptable risks nearer home. It remained possible, and it was easier and safer, to exclude the United States from a European balance than to draw the Americas into an enlarged world balance.

Social change in the nineteenth century, however, was to reveal certain limitations in the doctrine of the balance of power. Some advocates of the balance have defended it on the ground that it maintains peace, or, at all events, sets limits to warsa proposition supported to some extent by the American revolutionary war. Others have contended, with Edmund Burke, that the balance "has been the original [origin] of innumerable and fruitless wars" and "ever has been, and it is to be feared always will continue a cause of infinite contention and bloodshed." To such critics the purpose, or at any rate the desirable result, of the balance was the maintenance not of peace but of liberty. As many have pointed out, there is something inconsistent about the notion of going to war to preserve peace. One must calculate that continuing peace will result in some undesirable consequence, before war is justified. Loss of freedom is the most persuasive such consequence.

The nineteenth century saw the growth of romantic nationalism and democracy, and with it the demand of peoples for some voice in policy. In some areas rulers could behave as before, but increasingly the aggrandizement of princes was felt to have natural limits and was overshadowed by other forms of state activity. Within Europe, transfers of territory were found to cause more trouble than they were worth unless they were accompanied by wholesale transfers of population, a resource more acceptable in the twentieth century than in the nineteenth. The great revolution in nineteenth-century Europe, the unification of Germanythe unification of Italy had no equal consequenceswas tolerated partly because its effect on the balance of power was not immediately foreseen, and partly because it was held to be an expression of nationalism that could not justly be opposed, rather than mere Prussian aggrandizementso that it would increase stability rather than lessen it. In a war of the ordinary sort, by contrast, there were natural limits to what the victor could gain, and the destruction of a rival nation lay outside them. As that was accepted, it became possible to argue that defense itself, the most traditional and urgent duty of the nation-state, might have unacceptable consequences for the quality of life within the state. There seemed better ways than conquest to increase wealth and power. With the modern revolution in technology, and with the ever-increasing role of government in the lives of citizens, discussions of the balance of power took on a new dimension.


Thus, when World War I broke out, although all parties made some play with the need to maintain or protect the balance of power (which, of course, they interpreted variously), none of them could argue that governments, or princes, were behaving in the way that one would expect. German apologists had to contend that Germany was surrounded by malevolent foes and that the survival of Germany was at stake. The allies had to contend not merely that Germany was too powerful for comfort, but that German militarism threatened a European civilization that would otherwise be peaceable. The argument, in short, could not be cast in terms of the balance of power.

Americans were presented with a dilemma. It was not, in the first instance, a dilemma of policy. Clearly the United States was not immediately threatened. The great growth of American power during the nineteenth century, if it made the policy of fortress America less necessary, made it no less appealing. It was hard to argue that the victor in the European war, whatever the outcome, would turn on the United States. Americans were therefore forced toward moral judgments about the merits of the war. Some indeed argued that what was going on was an old-fashioned struggle for the balance of power, of a sort that revealed how politically backward even the most advanced European states were, and of a sort with which the United States had no concern. Others accepted the argument that German militarism was the root of the trouble. Historians will long continue to debate the causes that finally brought the United States into the war, and their merits, but it is clear that no balance of power argument would have sufficed. A balance of power argument would have kept the United States neutral. (With the advantage of hindsight it might be argued that since the United States was the beneficiary of a balance of power in Europe likely to be upset, the proper American course was to intervene delicately to tip the balance back to the point at which it had beenand no more. Yet because the balance was bound to shift, war or no war, as the whole history of Europe in the 1920s and 1930s was to show, that kind of intervention could not have been temporary and would have required a degree of anxious vigilance over the long term, which could have been neither sustained nor justified.) Neutrality, defended on grounds of self-interest and its morality, or intervention, defended on moral grounds, were the only serious alternatives and the only alternatives debated.

The decision for war was President Woodrow Wilson's, and in taking it he was much moved by the realization that if the United States did not participate in the war, it would have no voice in the settlement that followed it. As part of the settlement Wilson was determined to establish an international concertthe League of Nationswhich would bring about a better world order. Wilson's hostility to the balance of power was intense, and it was widely shared by Americans of his day. In an address at the Guildhall, London, on 29 December 1918, Wilson stated that

the center and characteristic of the old order was that unstable thing which we used to call the "balance of power"a thing in which the balance was determined by the sword which was thrown in the one side or the other; a balance which was determined by the unstable equilibrium of competitive interests; a balance which was maintained by jealous watchfulness and an antagonism of interests which, though it was generally latent, was always deep-seated.

Wilson made an automatic connection between the balance of power and spheres of influence, to which he was equally opposed. That connection is characteristic of much American thinking on the subject; its consistency with adherence to the Monroe Doctrine is clearer to Americans than to others.

The approach of World War II presented Americans with a dilemma of a different sort. The Great Depression diverted attention from international affairs, but increasingly Americans could not avoid being drawn into efforts to mitigate both the depression itself and the political consequences that seemed to follow. The whole structure of reparations and war debts set up at Versailles would alone have required American involvement. The rise of aggressive regimes in Italy, Germany, and Japan, together with the long-cherished hope that they might be rendered more moderate by well-calculated economic concessions, or by democratic strength and solidarity, or a combination of these, ensured it. By contrast with the years before World War I, few Americans doubted on which side their sympathies lay. Whatever their fears of communism, the Soviet Union was quiescent, and the actions of the Nazis deprived their claim to be a bulwark against communism of all appeal. Secretary of State Cordell Hull (19331944) shared Wilson's dislike of the balance of power, and had learned it in the same school; but such views, although they became influential again later, were irrelevant in the 1930s, when it became ever clearercertainly to President Franklin D. Rooseveltthat the important contest was not among rival states but between dictatorship and democracy.

Paradoxically, the desire of Europeans, especially the British, that the United States should become part of the balance of powerthat the New World should be called in to redress the balance of the Oldand the fact that Americans had little doubt on which side their sympathies lay, did almost nothing to make policy decisions easier. The arguments, both within the American government and between Americans and British, are a fascinating and complex field, on which much work remains to be done. But in essence a dispute developed among the allieseven before the alliance was formedover who should contribute how much to the common cause. The residue of American security, which was very great, together with well-founded doubts as to whether the interests of the United States might not be better served if some accommodation were reached in Europe without American interventiondoubts shared by some European statesmen, such as Neville Chamberlainmeant that American activity was diplomatically ineffective. A slow process of economic support for the Western democracies did begin, and might in time have drawn the United States into the war, but Hitler had the good sense to avoid the mistakes of his predecessors, and he was at great pains to avoid giving the United States an occasion for belligerency. That occasion was, of course, provided by Japan.

Some exponents of balance of power theory have argued that the theory requires that nations should match, if need be by war, any increase in a rival's power, actual or foreseen, even in the absence of any aggressive act. But all the evidence suggests that even when nations have adequate cause for war, they do not go to war unless they also have an occasion for war. The occasion, the indicator that the right moment for war has arrived, is vital. Of course, occasions for war can be manufactured when they are needed; but they are hard to manufacture, or even to identify, for a nation that disposes of such great reserves of security as the United States. One important argument is missingthe argument that if the nation does not fight now, it will be too late to fight tomorrow. It is that argumentwith its corollary that opponents must be supposed to know how sensitive one's position is, and that therefore their threats are not accidental but evidence of real intentionwhich identifies most clearly the occasion for war. At Pearl Harbor, in 1941, the Japanese faced the United States with an affront such as no nation could possibly let pass. The Germans had been most careful to avoid an affront. (In World War I, on the other hand, when by reviving their unrestricted submarine campaign they deliberately took the risk of American intervention, a good many Americans could still be found to argue that the affront was not great enough to justify war in the absence of a real threat. The cause of neutral rights and of democracy had to be invoked.)

Just as a nation needs a signal to begin a war, so it needs a signal to stop, and that signal is often even harder to give or to detect. Because statesmen in the modern world are seldom wholly cynical, they commonly feel that war has been forced on them. As a war continues, they begin to raise their demands to include compensation for losses incurred. It is therefore hard to identify the point at which agreement for a truce can be reached, short of the final defeat of one side. Every success by either side leads it to think that final victory may be possible; every defeat, that this is not the moment to negotiate. It is the intellectual difficulty of translating the theory of the balance of power into a workable policy in a specific situation that, more than anything else, ensures that this theory is seldom of use when the time comes for negotiation.

These generalizations are supported by American practice in two world wars, yet American practice was not different from that of any other nation. Neither Britain nor France paid any special heed to the balance of power during either war. No way could be found of ending either war without the complete defeat of one side. After each war the recourse was not to some restored balance, but to a congress system. The experience of the League of Nations suggested to the allies in 1945 that no security structure was worth anything unless the great powers agreed, and that the right of veto might as well be formally accepted. If the five powers were not in agreement, the hope was at best for stalemate, by the agreed inactivity of four if one stood out. As always at the end of a war, what was in people's minds was peace, rather than either liberty or justice.


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 (18141815), 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 groupssometimes called the "simple" balanceis 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 areawestern Europewhere 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 balancelacking nuclear capacity, it is true, but disposing of real force. It became almost conventional to speak in terms of a world of five polesthe United States, the Soviet Union, Europe, China, and Japanto 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 restraintdeliberate if tacitby 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 postCold 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 postCold 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 postCold 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 historythe 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 oftenand especially after 1945consciously 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 motivationthe 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 communicationsworldwide telephone systems and television networks, and later the Internetwas 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" balanceas during the Cold War or the years immediately preceding World War Ithere 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.


Allison, Graham, and Gregory F. Treverton, eds. Rethinking America's Security: Beyond Cold War to New World Order. New York, 1992. A stimulating collection of essays by leading thinkers.

Butterfield, Herbert. "The Balance of Power." In Herbert Butterfield and Martin Wight, eds. Diplomatic Investigations. London, 1966.

Cronin, Patrick M., ed. From Globalism to Regionalism: New Perspectives on U.S. Foreign and Defense Policies. Washington, D.C., 1993.

Dehio, Ludwig. The Precarious Balance. Translated by Charles Fullman. New York, 1962.

Dosch, Jöm, and Manfred Mols. International Relations in the Asia-Pacific: New Patterns of Power, Interest, and Cooperation. New York, 2000.

Gaddis, John Lewis. The United States and the End of the Cold War: Implications, Reconsiderations, Provocations. New York, 1992.

Gulick, Edward V. Europe's Classical Balance of Power. Ithaca, N.Y., 1955. Focuses on the struggle against Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna.

Haas, E. B. "The Balance of Power as a Guide ofPolicy-Making." Journal of Politics (1953).

Henrikson, Thomas H. Balance-of-Power Considerations for U.S. Foreign Policy in the Post-Soviet Era. Stanford, Calif., 1993.

Hinsley, F. H. Power and the Pursuit of Peace. Cambridge, 1963. Dated but still useful.

Kegley, Charles W., and Gregory Raymond. A Multipolar Peace: Great-Power Politics in the Twenty-first Century. New York, 1994.

Kegley, Charles W., and Eugene R. Wittkopf, eds. The Future of American Foreign Policy. 2d ed. New York, 1994.

Kissinger, Henry. "Balance of Power Sustained," In Graham Allison and Gregory F. Treverton, eds. Rethinking America's Security: Beyond Cold War to New World Order. New York, 1992.

Krauthammer, Charles. "The Unipolar Movement." In Graham Allison and Gregory F. Treverton, eds. Rethinking America's Security: Beyond Cold War to New World Order. New York, 1992.

Lang, Daniel G. Foreign Policy in the Early Republic: The Law of Nations and the Balance of Power. Baton Rouge, La., 1985.

Link, Arthur S. Wilson the Diplomatist. Baltimore, 1957. A small classic on the American statesman who gave most thought to this problem.

Morgenthau, Hans. Politics Among Nations. 5th rev. ed. New York, 1978.

Nye, Joseph S., Jr. "What New World Order?" In Charles W. Kegley and Eugene R. Wittkopf, eds. The Future of American Foreign Policy. 2d ed. New York, 1994.

Wight, Martin. "The Balance of Power." In Herbert Butterfield and Martin Wight, eds. Diplomatic Investigations. London, 1966. An elegant and perceptive essay, historical in approach.

. "The Balance of Power and International Order." In Alan James, ed. The Bases of International Order. London, 1973.

Wolfers, Arnold. Discord and Collaboration. Baltimore, 1962. Adopts the approach of political science.

Wright, Moorhead, ed. Theory and Practice of the Balance of Power 14861914. London, 1975. A convenient short selection of European writings.

See also Alliances, Coalitions, and Ententes; Cold War Evolution and Interpretations; Cold War Origins; Cold War Termination; Collective Security; PostCold War Policy; Protectorates and Spheres of Influence.

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Balance of Power

Balance of Power


The concept of the balance of power is indispensable to the understanding of international relations, despite the very different meanings and uses of the notion and the equally divergent assessments of the political realities to which it refers.

Some authors apply the term “balance of power” to any distribution of power among states, whether it be one of relative equilibrium or even one of disequilibrium—for instance, a situation in which one state has a preponderance of power in a certain area. When the independence of some states appears threatened by the moves of one or several of the others, the former states try to prevent the latter from imposing their domination either in the form of hegemony or in that of a regional or even a world empire. In this connection, the term “balance of power” has been used (a) to refer to a policy on the part of states that deliberately aims at preventing the preponderance of any one state and at maintaining an approximate equilibrium of power among the major rivals and (b) to designate nate a system of international politics in which the pattern of relations among the actors tends to curb the ambitions or the opportunities of the chief rivals and to preserve an approximate equilibrium of power among them. In this article the concept will be limited to the meanings listed above under (a) and (b) and to that distribution of power which can legitimately be called balanced.

Conditions. A balance of power may exist whenever there are at least two major actors in the international competition. The term “balance of power” referring to a system designates a pattern of relations among more than two major units, i.e., a multipolar system. However, even in a bipolar world, such as the one in which we have lived since 1945 or Greece in the fifth century B.C. as described by Thucydides, it is perfectly conceivable that one power—the one that is on the defensive and tries to prevent the adversary from establishing its preponderance—should pursue a balance-of-power policy in order to checkmate its rival; if it is successful, the distribution of power thus obtained may once again be called a balance.

When there are more than two major powers, a balance-of-power system may appear, even if the main actors do not have as a policy goal the establishment or maintenance of equilibrium; the system may emerge because of political circumstances rather than as the product of statesmen’s intentions and choices. Among these circumstances are:

(a) a relative equilibrium of power among the major units;

(b) a frontier at which those units can expand and at which their occasional clashes are likely to be less dangerous than clashes in the core area of international politics;

(c) domestic regimes in which the state’s control over the political allegiance and economic activities of the citizens is not exclusive;

(d) relative technological stability, especially in the area of military technology;

(e) the possibility of a common conception of international legitimacy.

Even though each unit may not have as an explicit goal the maintenance of the system, such a conception allows for a kind of common language in the manipulation of the system and usually pre-supposes a modicum of similarity among regimes and among beliefs concerning the nature and role of the state. These conditions of relative homogeneity were met to some extent among the Greek and Italian city-states, as well as in the European state system from 1648 to 1789 and from 1815 to 1914.

Methods. The methods used by states which lead to or preserve a balanced distribution of power are not the same in a bipolar system and in a multipolar one.

In a bipolar system the chief contenders are concerned primarily with the development of rival networks of alliances, with the preservation of unity within their respective camps, and with gaining support from the uncommitted states. In a multipolar system the balance of power is maintained among the main units either peacefully or through the use of force. The peaceful methods consist of rewards for good, i.e., moderate, behavior (for instance, in the form of compensations) and of threats of punishment in case of bad behavior (facing the troublemaker with the prospect of being stopped by an overwhelming coalition if he pushes too far). The use of force includes the resort to wars of two different sorts: “stalemating” wars, in which a coalition of powers tries to stop the alliance of those states that seek to modify the status quo, and “imbalance” wars, in which the troublemaker has to confront a coalition of all or most of the other major units, for instance, the War of the Grand Alliance, 1688-1697, in which Louis xiv had to face such an alignment. Britain, from the sixteenth century to the early twentieth, often played the part of the “balancer,” i.e., a state sufficiently aloof from the competition of Continental powers to intervene only when a troublemaker threatened to disrupt the balance by his actions and in such a way as to throw its weight to the side of those threatened by him.

It can be seen that a balance-of-power system, in contrast with a bipolar one, presupposes among its chief actors (a) flexibility of alignments, i.e., the willingness to make alliances with almost anyone in case of need—in particular in order to stop a troublemaker—without any concern for the domestic regime or ideology of the ally and the willingness to abandon or break such alliances whenever the initial circumstances have changed, and (b) an acceptance of international hierarchy, i.e., the refusal to envisage such permanent hostility among the major actors that the recruitment of clienteles of allies among the smaller states would become imperative and the consideration of occasional common interests of the major states impossible.

Effects. International competition is fundamentally uncertain: the ends pursued by states are multiple, often intangible, and frequently contradictory; the power at their disposal is not measurable, nor is it the measure of foreign policy. Consequently, any configuration of power that can be called balanced is necessarily unstable.

Such instability is, of course, much greater in a bipolar system, in which any sudden advance— geographical or technological—of one of the contenders may destroy the precarious equilibrium. A multipolar balance-of-power system is only comparatively stable. First, the system may be endangered by changes in the conditions listed above: the balance-of-power system of the nineteenth century was gradually weakened by the rise of nationalism; one should never forget that a system is the outcome of a great number of circumstances beyond its own control. Second, the mechanism itself has flaws. Since no power is always sure in advance that it will be stopped by the others if it pushes ahead, this uncertainty of calculations and alignments leads to wars that can be called disturbances in the system, caused by the more ambitious actors. To these must be added the disturbances caused for the maintenance of the system by the powers that try to stop a troublemaker. A balance-of-power system is not necessarily a peaceful one. Nor does it necessarily protect the independence of small states, as was shown by the partitions of Poland in the eighteenth century. Nor does it necessarily satisfy the big powers: their policies frequently aim at aggrandizement rather than status quo, at superiority rather than balance; the frustration of their ambitions by the very success of the balancing mechanism may lead them to destroy the system, either deliberately or through actions incompatible with the maintenance of the system (such as the formation of rigid alliances on the eve of 1914).

However, the real merit of the multipolar balance-of-power system lies elsewhere: it does not eliminate .war or international inequities but tends to moderate them. Wars started and gains made by troublemakers may be stopped by other states: the wages of sin, so to speak, will be small. Wars waged to preserve the system are fought for limited goals and with limited means. The very “cynicism” of a diplomacy that envisages no permanent commitments contributes to such moderation. The balance-of-power system has its own sanctions— political rather than moral or legal—but even the “delinquent,” once he has agreed to play again according to the rules, is allowed to return to the fold. The limitation of ends and means that the system enforces and the recognition of the major units’ common interests, which is both a condition and a consequence of the system’s operation, permit the development of international law on a basis of reciprocity. Balance-of-power systems thus appear as the golden ages of the skillful diplomat and the complacent international lawyer; they are the ages when power is managed in the most civilized manner and the sword, which is of the essence of world politics, is either sheathed or used to warn and to wound rather than to kill.

History. The concept of the balance of power has been discussed in all the situations in which there were a number of independent units competing for power. There is almost no mention of this concept during the Roman Empire and the Middle Ages, but Thucydides referred to it and so did Italian writers of the Renaissance. Later, a number of British thinkers analyzed the balance of power as a means of preserving moderation in international politics and as a goal for British policy: Francis Bacon, Lord Bolingbroke, and David Hume showed an acute awareness of the advantages of such a system, of the delicacy of its operations, and of Britain’s special position. Two kinds of critics of power politics countered with attacks against the balance of power. Thinkers, such as Rousseau and Kant, for whom the imperative of peace—i.e., an end to international anarchy—was supreme denounced the balance as an immoral sport of kings and a mere continuation of what Hobbes called the state of war. Thinkers, such as Richard Cobden, who thought that industrial and commercial developments would unite the peoples of the world attacked balance-of-power thinking as an obstacle to progress. This somewhat paradoxical hostility of political and economic liberals to a system that tends to moderate violence culminated in Woodrow Wilson’s repudiation of the balance of power and in his appeal for a “community of power” to replace it.

The establishment of the League of Nations was an attempt at substituting collective security—i.e., a system in which all states commit themselves to the repression of individual resorts to force—for the old system in which the individual state’s use of force was considered legal and in which other states joined in order to stop a troublemaker only if they felt that this was in their interest at the moment. The interwar period was marked both by the failure of collective security and by the absence of any balance-of-power system. In a heterogeneous world, some of the major states remained in isolation and the defenders of the status quo failed to stop the aggressors. [SeeCollective security.]

Assessment. After World War II, controversies among writers resumed. At one end, some remained faithful to the ideal of collective security and carried on the liberal critique of the balance of power. At the other extreme, Hans Morgenthau (1948) described the balance as the necessary outcome of the inevitable struggle for power and prescribed it as a desirable policy for the United States. In the middle, a growing number of scholars have preferred to abandon advocacy for analysis and to dispel confusion by sorting out the various meanings and uses of the concept, by studying the historical circumstances of past balance-of-power systems, and by trying to see to what extent the concept remains useful in the new conditions of the nuclear age.

Most of the transformations that are, or may be, necessary stem not from bipolarity—a phenomenon that is neither new nor final—but from the invention of thermonuclear weapons.

If we consider the distribution of power, we find that there is a need to distinguish the new “balance of terror” from the old balance of power. The latter consisted of an approximately even distribution of capabilities that included actually mobilized military forces, military potential, and economic and human resources; it involved primarily the power to defend and to seize territory. The balance of terror is based on readily available thermonuclear forces; it exists even if the rival quantities are unevenly matched as long as each side has enough of these forces to inflict unacceptable reprisals, for this balance involves the power to deter or to destroy.

If by balance of power we mean a policy, nuclear weapons have complicated the making of such a policy for their possessors. On the one hand, calculations of power have become even more uncertain because of a galloping technology and the fortunate lack of experience in thermonuclear strategy. On the other hand, one may argue that the power to deter and destroy no longer entails the need to control large areas of territory and to line up numerous allies; indeed, allies whose protection may require risking the destruction of the nuclear protector may well be more a nuisance than an asset. However, a state that would possess only thermonuclear weapons might find itself locked in the dilemma of “holocaust or humiliation” in every crisis. Moreover, the very prudence shown by nuclear powers and the trend toward the invulnerability of the nuclear forces of the chief contenders tend to restore the importance of the classical ingredients of power.

If we look at the post-1945 system, we find that the superpowers are increasingly reluctant to use large levels of force in their confrontation for fear of escalation. We find also that the residual risk of all-out war, which nuclear weapons create despite the trend toward invulnerability, may still be exploited in some important areas to redress an imbalance in nonnuclear forces. Thus, thermonuclear weapons tend to inject into a basically unstable and revolutionary bipolar system an element of moderation; if we reserve the term “balance-of-power systems” for multipolar moderate ones, the present bipolar one may deserve to be called a “balance-of-terror system.” Whether this element of moderation would survive in a world in which the number of nuclear powers multiplied is far from clear.

The achievement of a balance of power in the sense of an even distribution or of a successful policy has also been affected by developments only indirectly connected with nuclear weapons or quite independent of them. The basic units are not only the states but also new entities, such as the emerging European community and a host of international organizations, which are stakes, as well as forces, in the competition. Both the ideological and revolutionary character of postwar world politics and the resort by the superpowers to forms of action other than the military forces that are too dangerous necessitate the inclusion of new elements of power and influence in the calculations of states. Hence the idea of a “multiple equilibrium.” This suggests that in a system that now embraces the whole world and performs functions previously excluded from the once much more limited realm of world politics, assessments of power become progressively more complicated. The balance of power (as distribution and policy) used to be essential because war provided the minute of truth in the tests of states. Today, a balance is essential primarily in order to prevent war. As a result, the minute of truth is postponed, and all the intangible components of power and all the uses of power short of massive coercion gain in importance—elements and uses that are very widely distributed and hard to evaluate. Today’s international system is bipolar at the level of the balance of terror, polycentric as a result of the decline in the actual use of large-scale force, and incipiently multipolar as a result of nuclear proliferation. But as long as the competition continues and the risk of war persists, i.e., as long as there is no mutation in world society, the distribution of military power (both nuclear and traditional) may well remain crucial.

Stanley Hoffmann

[See alsoInternational politics; Power transition; Systems analysis, article onInternational systems. Other relevant material may be found inInternational relationsandNational interest.]


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balance of power

balance of power meant different things at different times and operated centuries before it was ever defined. Article I of the first treaty of Paris of May 1814 spoke of establishing ‘a system of real and permanent Balance of Power’ in Europe. Writing of the period before 1914 the British foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, said, ‘I imagine it to mean that when one Power or group of Powers is the strongest ”bloc” in Europe, our policy has been, or should be, that of creating, or siding with, some other combination of Powers, in order to make a counterpoise to the strongest Power or Group and so to preserve equilibrium in Europe.’ Grey had in mind the balance between the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria, and Italy and the Dual Alliance of France and Russia. In 1864 another foreign secretary, Lord Palmerston, had provided a definition which was still closer to that of 1814 than to that of 1914. He said, ‘It means that it is to the interest of the community of nations that no one nation should acquire such a preponderance as to endanger the security of the rest; and it is for the advantage of all that the smaller Powers should be respected in their independence and not swallowed up by their more powerful neighbours. That is the doctrine of the balance of power and it is a doctrine worthy of being acted upon.’ The doctrine was always strongly attacked by radicals. Richard Cobden called it a ‘figment’, which he could never understand. John Bright rejoiced that it was dead, intemperately proclaiming that it had burdened the nation with debts, killed hundreds of thousands of Englishmen, and ‘desolated’ millions of families. Cobden and Bright objected to it, in part, because it was associated with the preservation of the Vienna settlement, arrived at at the end of the Napoleonic wars. The aim had been to ensure stability. So long as the territorial balance then created between the five great powers was preserved, no one power would be strong enough to disturb the peace. If any tried, the other four would automatically form a coalition against it. It has convincingly been argued that Bismarck destroyed the open self-balancing Vienna system by his obsessional creation of tight alliances to protect the newly unified Germany.

Muriel Evelyn Chamberlain

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balance of power

balance of power, system of international relations in which nations seek to maintain an approximate equilibrium of power among many rivals, thus preventing the preponderance of any one state. Crucial to the system is a willingness on the part of individual national governments to change alliances as the situation demands in order to maintain the balance. Thucydides' description of Greece in the 5th cent. BC and Guicciardini's description of 15th-century Italy are early illustrations. Its modern development began in the mid-17th cent., when it was directed against the France of Louis XIV. Balance of power was the stated British objective for much of the 18th and 19th cent., and it characterized the European international system, for example, from 1815–1914. After World War I the balance of power system was attacked by proponents of cooperation and a community of power. International relations were changed radically after World War II by the predominance of two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, with major ideological differences between them. After the 1960s, with the emergence of China and the Third World, a revived Europe and Japan, it reemerged as a component of international relations. With the collapse of the USSR in 1991, the United States, as the sole remaining superpower, became dominant militarily and, to a lesser degree, economically, but in the early 21st cent. China emerged as a significant counterbalance to the United States economically.

See H. J. Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations (1960); H. Butterfield and M. Wright, ed., Diplomatic Investigations (1966); P. Keal, Unspoken Rules and Superpower Dominance (1984); R. J. Lieber, No Common Power: Understanding International Relations (1988).

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