On the Balance of Power (Theory)

As shared previously on this blog, I will be sharing some of my essays and reflections done as part of my undergraduate studies in SMU.

This post will centre on the Balance of Power (BOP) theory, which was meant as a summary of an introduction to what it is.

The BOP is one of the oldest and most important ideas in international relations. Naturally, there are several interpretations and revisions. In essence, BOP explains the foreign policy and behaviour of states; and therefore the outcomes in the international system as a result of states’ actions.

Here, it is important to emphasise once more that there are numerous interpretations of this theory. However, I interpret it as follows.

BOP posits that:

  1. States act to create and preserve a balance of power in the international system for their own survival
  2. When power is imbalanced, the security of weaker states is threatened. These weaker states will then act to restore the balance, by internal balancing – increasing their own power and/or external balancing – forming alliances and/or going to war.

BOP is closely related to realism – the idea that power is the determining factor in international relations. This is because in BOP, states are assumed to seek survival as independent units. This is because the international system is anarchic – there is no overarching governing authority that determines and regulates the behavior of states effectively, therefore to survive, states must seek power. This leads to a natural competition for power among states. When one state is stronger than others, it seeks to impose its will on weaker states.

Some may point out that the United Nations (UN) is an overarching authority that mitigates the degree of anarchy in the international system. However, the UN is too often conveniently disregarded by powerful-enough states whenever there is a clash of opinions and interests. For example, North Korea has been ignoring UN sanctions and resolutions for decades. Similarly, UN member states can cut off diplomatic relations with other UN member states with little repercussions (yes, I am referring to Qatar). Even ‘liberal’ countries such as the United States has conveniently ignored UN rulings several times. The US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 was also not authorised by the UN. Ultimately the UN is not an effective source of authority in the international system as its operational structure requires sovereign, self-interested states to be willing to cooperate (particularly, the Security Council). As a result, as long as these member states are self-interested, the UNSC remains ineffective in reducing the anarchic nature of the international system.

Now, back to the BOP. Let’s see the application of BOP in real life – post-1648, i.e Europe after the Peace of Westphalia. I quote and adapted the following example from Henry Kissinger’s World Order. Britain’s “control of the seas enabled it to choose the timing and scale of its involvement on the Continent to act as the arbiter of the balance of power… So long as England assessed its strategic requirements correctly, it would be able to back the weaker … against the stronger, preventing any single country from achieving hegemony in Europe and thereby mobilize the resources of the Continent to challenge Britain.” This BOP lasted until WW1, limiting the scale and casualties of wars because “equilibrium is the goal, not conquest”. Britain fought in numerous European wars, but with shifting alliances. Its guiding principle was the preservation of the balance of power – when power is in equilibrium, Britain is secure. But eventually European states saw Britain as a bigger threat than France, causing many of them such as France and Spain to support the independence of British American colonies. 

BOP theory generally predicts that:

  1. Long-lasting hegemons rarely arise in multistate systems
  2. because the other states will soon balance against it

This is seen in the example of Britain, and also the Concert of Europe more generally. Also, some realists today predict that balancing is bound to happen in the future as US power becomes too threatening (i.e. hegemony is never permanent)

There are some criticisms of the BOP:

  1. ‘Great Power Bias’ – only powerful states have the ability to balance against a growing hegemonic state. Small states, knowing that they can make at best a marginal difference, sometimes balance, but also bandwagon – i.e. side with the hegemon.
  2. Economic liberals argue that increased economic interdependence, is the main factor that determines balance of power politics. States that have stronger economic interdependence are less likely to ‘balance’ against each other militarily – because this disrupts trade.
  3. Proponents of democratic peace argue that if states involved are democratic, they are less likely to balance against each other.

To sum up, my opinion is that the world today is vastly different from the world in which the original BOP theories were developed, especially in terms of economic interdependence and globalization. The original BOP theories are too rigid and narrow, perhaps because some scholars wanted to turn it into some kind of a social science law but in reality, states can use more than just two ways to check the growing power of other states (or they might not want to check it if they see the power as benign!). Instead of a deterministic BOP worldview – it might be better to see it as a guide, used in combination with other relevant theories.

This is well summed up in the paper “Conflict or Cooperation?: Three Visions Revisited” by Richard Betts, he wrote and I quote “If good sense is to shape US foreign policy, there needs to be a fourth vision – one that integrates the compatible elements of these three in a form that penetrates the American political mainstream”

Of course, this applies to not just the US, but every country, especially if leaders do not want to be slaves of defunct economists or political theorists.


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