Balance of Power Research Paper

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Outline

I. Introduction

II. Core Concepts and Dynamics of the Process

A. Polarity and Balance of Power

B. Bandwagoning and Collective Security as Alternatives to Balancing

III. Origins and History of the Concept in Practice

A. Emergence of the Concept in Practice

B. Institutionalization of the Balance Concept

C. The French Threat to Balance and the Concert of Europe

D. Balance of Power in the 20th Century

E. Balance of Power in the Nuclear Age

IV. Future Directions

V. A Unipolar System and Soft Balancing

I. Introduction

Balance of power is a concept within the realm of international relations that stretches back centuries in both theory and practice and is still among the prevalent topics of debate within contemporary political science. These centuries of historical perspective and scholarship, however, have served only to intensify the debate over the merits of balance of power theory.

There are many ways in which the term balance of power has been used in theory or in practice (Claude, 1962; Sheehan, 1996), and this variety of approaches to the concept demonstrates that the term is often used so freely as to potentially confuse rather than clarify its meaning (Sheehan). Despite this diversity, however, nearly all of these definitions center on the same general principles and assumptions and boil down to the central assertion that nation-states will ally with one another in order to create an equality of capabilities between opposing alliances that serves to preserve peace at the international level. Some scholars have attempted to codify the formal assumptions, conditions, and criteria for labeling an arrangement as a balance of power system, and perhaps the best known of these is Kaplan (1957). Based on theoretical modeling, he delineated six assumptions that had to be accepted, then outlined his six fundamental rules for a balance of power system. Although these and other attempts to formalize the process are aspiring to help the field of study and policymakers alike, the problem is that balance of power systems in practice neither cohere to all of the assumptions nor follow all of the rules set out by any given treatise on the subject. The global environment and the myriad of other variables are not static but rather are fluid in nature and are therefore difficult to prescribe (Claude, 1962).

Some scholarship has focused on the dynamic that exists between the main balance of power system and various local balances that exist as subsets of the main system, including the roles played by dominant and submissive balances within the overall system (Bull, 1977). Though there is no consensus concerning the full extent of the relationship between these smaller balances and the overall arrangement, it is generally agreed that these play an important role in understanding the true dynamic of any balance of power arrangement.

II. Core Concepts and Dynamics of the Process

Balance of power theory asserts that nation-states, as rational actors in an anarchical international system, will accumulate power in pursuit of national survival and will concurrently strive to make certain that no other actor accumulates sufficient power to threaten their own security. These assertions are firmly rooted in realist assumptions. Morgenthau (1948, 1978), the father of 20th-century classical realism, contends (among other things) that nation-states are the primary actors on the world stage, that nationstates are rational actors who make rational decisions, and that states relentlessly pursue power and capabilities in order to protect and promote their national interest (i.e., survival). States in the international system possess varying levels of power, and as such, strong states are perceived to be a threat to the security of weaker states. These weak states may thus find it necessary to enlarge their own military capabilities, known as internal balancing. When this is not an option, whether for economic or other reasons, weak states may ally with other actors in the system, known as external balancing, so that their combined power can sufficiently match that of an adversary or an alliance of adversaries, thus creating a balance among competing powers on the international stage that makes aggression much less likely. The security regime that results is an international system of distrust and competition among nation-states, all of whom could potentially be ally or adversary toward one another depending on a state’s security needs and the current balance among states and alliances. This dynamic is nothing new but rather has been a constant and recurring reality in international relations so long as there have been independent actors in an anarchical international system.

Balances occur as an outgrowth of the anarchical nature of the system, a fundamental assumption of the realist paradigm. Nation-states, the principal actors in this system, are ultimately unbound by any rulers or regimes above them, since any such organization or agreement would lack sufficient sovereign authority to compel specific state behavior (Waltz, 1979). The primary goal of each state is survival, which is pursued through the accumulation of power. From the realist perspective, power is generally gained by virtue of military capability, while economic capability is important primarily for its ability to gain additional military power. At this point, two additional realist assumptions come into play. First, the pursuit of power can be seen as something of a zero-sum game at the international level, meaning that the acquisition of power by one state comes at the cost of others in the system. In other words, power being a relative concept, gains by another actor will be perceived by potential adversaries as a relative loss for themselves. Second, aggression against weaker states is assumed to be a likely behavior of stronger states pursuing greater power and capability. In fact, Morgenthau (1948) contends that individual states seek superiority, not balance, and that the concurrent competition for superiority between states is what brings the balance itself.

Both of these assumptions being true, it stands to reason that the existence of weakness—and thus imbalance—in the system will lead to aggression on the part of the strong state, thus threatening the security of all actors. To prevent this, weaker states will put aside their own differences and form an alliance to protect their own security and prevent the stronger state from becoming hegemonic. It is the perceived threat of hegemony that matters. In this light, even traditional allies and states that have no history of conflict will engage in balancing behavior in order to prevent the ascension of a hegemon in the system (Waltz, 2000). Put another way, hegemony actually compels the process by which balance results (Waltz, 1993).

The realist paradigm, dominant in its influence among scholars and policymakers alike in the early days of the cold war, had by the 1960s and 1970s become the target of increasing criticism from those who saw the approach as both theoretically and methodologically flawed. Out of this criticism came Waltz’s (1979) Theory of International Politics, which redefined the paradigm as structural realism, or neorealism. According to Waltz, the balance of power concept was still the central organizing principle of the anarchical international system. States, in order to survive, are left with little choice other than to emulate those states that have proven successful in international affairs. As such, states will eventually all function and behave in essentially the same fashion, and a balance of power arrangement soon emerges. For such a system to emerge, asserts Waltz, all that is necessary is an anarchical international system and member states that wish to survive. He further explains that with the term balance he is referring to the state of the system as a whole and not to any particular subset of states within the system. Thus, there might be a given level of disequilibrium between two or more powers in a given balance arrangement, but other factors (such as the presence of equally balanced superpowers, for example) may be keeping the system itself in equilibrium despite the existence of such discord. Additionally, he argues that states do not need to actively pursue a balance strategy, because it is the natural result of normal relations between states in the international system. This point was argued by earlier scholars such as Claude (1962), who distinguished between “manual” systems where balancing strategy are actively pursued and “semiautomatic” systems where such a strategy is not as consciously or aggressively pursued. Morgenthau (1978) goes even further, asserting essentially that the emergence of equilibrium is an inevitable outcome of international relations.

A. Polarity and Balance of Power

There are various ways in which capabilities may be divided or distributed in the international system, leading to different forms of balancing between one, two, three, or more major states in the system. The ways in which balances of power are formed make a difference, scholars contend, because some balance arrangements are more stable and more capable of maintaining peace than are others (Snyder, 1997). The difficulty here is that there is disagreement on which balance arrangement brings the greatest stability. Waltz (1979) contends that stability comes from having the fewest possible great powers competing for power. Thus, a bipolar balance of power would be best. Other research, such as that of Singer, Bremer, and Stuckey (1972), asserts that in the 1800s, the incidence of war actually decreased as the number of great powers increased. This would seem to indicate that a multipolar system is more stable. Although they do concede that the opposite trend was true in the 20th century (most notably during the cold war), it is possible that this can be attributed to other factors such as the emergence of nuclear weapons, not to the innate stability of the bipolar system itself. Since the 1990s, researchers have debated the long-term prospects for peace in a unipolar system, where the dominant power may have primacy but not enjoy true hegemony. History has seen all three systems in play, including the multipolar system during the Concert of Europe, the bipolarity of the cold war, and the current unipolar arrangement that emerged after the Soviet bloc collapsed. These and other examples of each system are discussed later in the research paper.

B. Bandwagoning and Collective Security as Alternatives to Balancing

Running counter to the logic of balance of power is the phenomenon of bandwagoning. When a weaker state is faced with a potential threat from a predominant power, balance of power theory states that the natural tendency is to form an alliance with others that would rise to the level of the predominant state and keep it in check, thus preserving the equilibrium. However, history has shown that this is not always the case. On many occasions, these weaker states will ally with that predominant power, surmising that they can benefit from the additional security that the combined capabilities brings and that they will share in the spoils of any future military or other strategic gains. Within the literature, the structural realists perceive balancing to be the dominant behavior (Waltz, 1979) and perceive bandwagoning behavior to be the approach taken by states dissatisfied with the status quo that are willing to go to war to disrupt the equilibrium. Classical realists, meanwhile, are more apt to accept bandwagoning behavior by weaker states as a rational and logical strategy for preserving their own security. Among the prevailing avenues of discourse in this debate is the role that methodology plays in stacking the deck in favor of one or another perspective on the matter. This is a more formal, institutional approach wherein states enter into mutual agreement that an attack on any member state (or any aggression on the part of any state within the alliance) would be met with a collective response from all committed partners. There has been a sustained discourse between proponents of each approach in the literature, which is summarized well by Doyle (1994) and in other sources.

III. Origins and History of the Concept in Practice

A. Emergence of the Concept in Practice

Balance of power was first put into effect at the international level in Europe in the 17th century, in the aftermath of the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. This peace formalized a system that had been emerging among the great powers of Europe throughout the early part of the century, including the recognition of state sovereignty in the international system. States, eager to find paths to secular peace after roughly a century of wars based on religious and ideological differences, gradually embraced the logic that underpins balance of power theory, and by the end of the 17th century, it was the overarching approach of European nation-states to international relations and foreign policy. Anderson (1993) and others note that balance of power was not unanimously supported at the time, however. Criticisms of the approach included those believing that a unified Christian world was necessary to confront the threat of Muslim states. These critical voices lamented the secular and amoral nature of the balance of power system, even if they were not the loudest voices.

During this time, Britain became quite adept at working this system to its advantage, routinely playing the role of balancer to keep hegemonic aspirations in check and to make itself a central power in determining what the balance would be in the European system. This is a role that Britain would continue to play throughout the 17th and 18th centuries and beyond.

The balance of power system withstood its first major test in the 1680s, as Austria and Britain rose to counterbalance France’s predominant position in Europe, a position that was diminished by France’s concurrent and relative decline, thanks to mistakes made by Louis XIV and others. What eventually emerged was the first major international coalition constructed to counter a dominant state’s power. This Grand Alliance was based on the League of Augsburg and included (among others) Austria, Spain, Saxony, the Dutch Republic, and Britain. Britain became, in effect, the balancer in this coalition, essentially dictating treaty terms and working to keep the coalition together in the face of French power. It is asserted by some historians that Britain at this time realized that its true potential to influence European politics was in working to maintain a balance on the Continent that they could use to their own advantage (Sheehan, 1996).

B. Institutionalization of the Balance Concept

By the start of the 18th century, balance of power was an explicit part of the diplomatic equation for all major powers in Europe, and its practice entered what some have called a golden age (Morgenthau, 1978). In fact, it seemed to be the organizing principle of foreign relations (Anderson, 1993), on which all other decisions were based. Many reasons have been given for the prevalence of balance of power theory during this time, perhaps the best known of these being Rosecrance (1963). Among other reasons, he attributes the centrality of the theory to the absence of strong nationalist tendencies in most states, the prohibitively expensive nature of all-out war as compared to the relatively limited resources of states, and the use of so-called secret diplomacy (including bribery and espionage) to gain knowledge of others’ capabilities and intentions. War during this time was more limited in nature, using smaller forces and constricted to practical goals and objectives (rather than the grand religious and ideological campaigns that preceded and would follow this period). States saw themselves and each other as members of a fluid, cosmopolitan system in Europe, where every state was important and where alliances shifted on a regular basis to keep balance. It helped that during this time, the rulers of many member states were in fact of a nationality different than the state they were ruling. This served only to enhance the cosmopolitan and collective membership mentality of the system. Events during the 1700s, however, would illustrate that not all states were of equal importance, and that developments between so-called great powers that harmed smaller states but did not significantly upset the balance among the more powerful states were allowed to occur. Such was the case when Poland was partitioned in the 1770s by Russia and Prussia, and neither France nor Britain chose to intervene.

C. The French Threat to Balance and the Concert of Europe

The next major challenge to the balance of power system in Europe was the expansion of French power under Napoleon Bonaparte in the first decade of the 19th century. With the exception of Britain and Russia, most of Europe was either under French control, pressed into alliance with France, or too decimated by war to effectively challenge further French expansion. The French forces were finally turned back by Russia in 1812, causing a domino effect that led to the general defeat of France soon after. As Europe subsequently tried to restore balance to the system, there was a general belief that the fluid, semiformal alliances that characterized balance of power in the 18th century would not be enough. There must be developed, it was believed, a way to make the forthcoming balance more permanent and institutionalized. The result was the Concert of Europe, a multipolar balance of power between Austria-Hungary, Britain, Prussia, Russia, and France. Jervis (1985) has asserted that the dynamics and characteristics of the Concert of Europe, which emerged immediately out of (and in direct response to) the events leading to the Congress of Vienna in 1815, can also be seen in the aftermaths of World War I (1919) and World War II (1945). This postwar period, which stretched into midcentury, was indeed marked by a more structured system than that of the previous century, marked by a multitude of formalized agreements and an abundance of international meetings at which the great powers were represented. The Concert period was also more stratified than that of previous iterations of balance of power theory. Second- and third-tier powers were not afforded the same rights as the great powers, and they were often not considered in managing the rivalries and competing interests among Austria, Britain, Prussia, Russia, and France. In matters of foreign policy and international relations, these managing powers extensively deferred to and considered the concerns of one another. The agreements reached were then handed down to the other actors in the system, who were largely relegated to accepting and adhering to the agreements without much question. Some scholars of the period have referred to these lesser states as buffer states that helped to preserve the peace between the great powers (see Craig & George, 1990). In addition to lacking the resources and capabilities of these great powers, the lesser states were often dependent on one or more of the great powers for economic health and military security.

The Concert of Europe fell into disarray by midcentury, starting with a wave of revolutionary movements in Europe in 1848. By the 1850s, most notably with the Crimean War in 1854, the great powers had begun waging war with one another, a reality that would continue until the 1870s. The balance of power system that was so meticulously crafted and so painstakingly executed for decades was lost. The wars that took place radically altered the political landscape of several states, since borders were redrawn and many smaller states were assimilated into larger ones. The new balance that eventually emerged from these great-power clashes bore little resemblance to that of the Concert of Europe but instead reflected the increased and more direct competition that existed among the great powers in the new international balance. Factors such as growing nationalism and the push of the Industrial Revolution served only to intensify the loose and tentative nature of the new arrangement.

D. Balance of Power in the 20th Century

By the 1890s, a new and more stable balance of power began to emerge. Unlike the multipolar system of the early 19th century, the emerging order was decidedly bipolar in form, characterized by two competing alliances of great powers in Europe that encouraged a level of zero-sum-game thinking that had not yet been experienced. Without buffer states and with no viable option for any state to remain neutral (i.e., outside the bipolar confrontation), even moderately small crises had the potential to affect the balance and bring the system to the brink of war. Although this prospect may have initially had the effect of keeping existing alliances in place and preventing relatively small situations from getting out of hand, the system itself served to breed distrust and apprehension between the two sides and helped to elevate tensions to crises and crises eventually to war in 1914.

The aftermath of World War I revealed a world much different than the one that existed when the war had begun. Perhaps the most significant changes related to the receding regional balances of power that had persisted as independent entities for centuries and to the inclusion of non-European powers (most notably the United States) into the ranks of the great powers. After the war, these regional systems took a back seat to the global balance that had emerged when Britain, France, Russia, and the United States allied to counter the threat posed by Germany and Austria-Hungary. The divide was bipolar amongst the so-called great powers involved in the war, with the opposition between sides resting on reasons that were decidedly more nationalistic and ideological than in past regional systems. This changing dynamic had a negative impact on the flexibility of the balance of power system, since states were discouraged from remaining ideologically neutral and thus could not effectively claim a role as balancer.

As they did in 1815, the victorious powers sought to make more permanent the emerging balance and the wartime alliances that had thwarted German aggression in Europe in World War I. This effort met with only partial success. One reason why this effort ultimately fell short was a failed attempt at creating a permanent venue for international diplomacy, the League of Nations. Another factor contributing to the failure of the post–World War I balance of power was the inability of the victorious alliance to sufficiently weaken and pacify Germany. In addition to all this, international actors not central to the immediate postwar arrangement were discounted or ignored by the major powers, actors that would eventually come to influence the system in ways that were not anticipated.

Morgenthau (1978) asserts that it was not World War I that changed the existing balance of power arrangement but rather a number of other transformations in the international system that had the greatest impact. Perhaps the most important of these is what Morgenthau referred to as “nationalistic universalism,” wherein states worked to export or otherwise impose their own system of political, economic, and moral value systems on others in the system in a way that had not been seen in prior centuries. This practice continued throughout the 20th century to be sure and made for a system that was both less flexible and less grounded on shared political and ethical values than had been the case in the past. In this way, struggles between adversaries in the new balance took on a much more ideological tone, one in which there was little room for compromise.

E. Balance of Power in the Nuclear Age

These dynamics became more defined in the aftermath of World War II. The first global balance of power arrangement, forged only two decades before the outbreak of World War II, failed to prevent the recurrence of German aggression in Europe. It also failed to fully account for the actions of actors that fell outside the scope of the traditional alliance system forged by the great powers after World War I, including those of Japan and China. The World War I–era system would experience a significant reorganization by the end of the war in 1945. In addition, trends that had become significant leading into the 20th century, including the prevalence of nationalism and ideological differences, would rise to become major factors in shaping the new system by midcentury. These and other emerging dynamics would contribute to the creation of a new balance of power unlike any that had existed in the past three centuries.

The states that emerged as the world’s great powers after World War II were, for the first time, not based in Europe. In fact, the traditional great powers of Europe became distinctly second-tier powers under the new arrangement, with only limited ability to shape or influence the balance of power between those actors in the first tier. In addition to this distinction, there were other characteristics of the new bipolar balance between the United States and the Soviet Union that made the new system different from any other to that point. For one thing, the differences between these two great powers were primarily ideological in nature and built on a foundation of what Morgenthau (1978) called “nationalistic universalism,” a trend in the system that had begun to emerge in the aftermath of World War I. Each side was convinced of the moral and political superiority of its own ideology and worldview and was equally convinced that the other represented a threat to its own existence. This instituted a system that left no room for compromise, and that discouraged the existence of neutral states or balancers among the world’s second- and third-tier powers. It also became a stark zero-sum-game atmosphere, wherein any gains by one side were perceived to cause a comparative loss for the other. Competition for third-party actors was intense, and the importance of these states was often elevated because of the zero-sum-nature of great-power competition. Morgenthau discusses the expansion of primary global actors into “empty spaces,” making a distinction between such behavior among European powers in the 19th century and that of the United States and the Soviet Union during the cold war. Another significant difference in the new postwar balance was the fact that the two leading powers were quite significantly beyond any other states in the system, to the point that they were appropriately labeled super powers in the new balance. Put simply, no other actor in the system was perceived as having sufficient power and capability to challenge either the United States or the USSR.

Much of the reason for this reality was the emergence of a new dynamic into the international system, what might most appropriately be labeled as the most significant and consequential characteristic of the post–World War II international system: the existence of nuclear weapons (Gareau, 1962). Some of the early scholarship on cold-war international relations, including that of Burns (1957), posited that nuclear deterrence would take the place of balance of power concerns in managing the anarchy of the international system. Indeed, it seemed possible that the presence of such weapons of mass destruction and the reality of mutually assured destruction that emerged as a result might impose an order over anarchy that was not previously possible on the international stage. Brodie (1946), for example, wrote at the time that the presence of nuclear weapons would change the nature of military power such that the goal would no longer be to win wars but rather to avoid them altogether. Though not a proponent of this view, Waltz (1981) does acknowledge that the nuclear threat effectively eliminated the prospect of war between the superpowers and contends that the possession of such weapons by more states may have spread the “nuclear peace” and lessened the instances of war in the system. Deudney (1993) argues that this argument implies the ability of nuclear weapons, in theory at least, to overcome anarchy and impose order on the international system, though this was not Waltz’s intended message. Others, however, have asserted that although the nuclear dynamic altered how balance of power worked, it nonetheless was still the overarching consideration for each of the superpowers and the other states within their corresponding blocs in the international system (Snyder, 1965). Bull (1977), for example, stated that balance of power no longer focused on amassing enough military force to acquire and hold physical territory, but rather centered on amassing enough of a “second-strike” capability to retaliate even in the wake of a nuclear attack.

This bipolar balance of power was built on deterrence, which depended (at least to some degree) on the subjective judgments of actors and their adversaries with regard to capabilities, intentions, and the resolve to carry out stated and implied threats. As such, some have labeled this more of a balance of terror than a balance of power (Sheehan, 1996). In the cold-war arrangement, war avoidance became a primary objective, to a degree not seen under previous arrangements, and deterrence became the primary mechanism with which to achieve that goal.

IV. Future Directions

The events of the 1980s marked the demise of the bipolar balance of power that had dominated international relations for half a century. In the resulting international environment, rife with uncertainty and seemingly rapid change, there are at least two areas of inquiry sure to garner a large amount of attention from balance of power scholars: the long-term viability and consequences of a unipolar system and the growing role of soft balancing in shaping international relations.

V. A Unipolar System and Soft Balancing

A unipolar system eventually emerged from the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the end of the cold war, the first time in history that so much power was held by one state with global interests and a global reach. This system brought with it consequences that international actors to that point not been forced to confront, including significantly altered alliance choices and bargaining strategies, among others (Walt, 2009). There is no consensus, contend Walt and others, about whether the current period of unipolar balance will be harmful or beneficial over the long term. Although proponents of hegemonic stability theory (e.g., Keohane, 1984) believe that a single, hegemonic leader can benevolently impose a greater degree of peace and order on the international stage, others fear that a single, unchecked power can lead to a sense of imperialism and unilateralism. Evidence of both can be found since the survival of the United States as the lone global superpower. Critics point to the Bush Doctrine, which advocates unilateral action and the possibility of preemptive war, as evidence that a unipolar distribution of power can bring about conflict in the international system. In fact, some contend that the current unipolar arrangement is more illusion than reality and that the system is poised for a return to multipolarity (Layne, 1993).

However, states in the current distribution are not nearly powerful enough to effectively challenge the power and capabilities of the United States. It is also true that, with the spread of democracy and a capitalist economy to previously undemocratic and noncapitalist countries, states are much less likely to risk war over policy or ideological differences. So what can weaker states do to counter the predominance of a lone superpower? The answer may be soft balancing, which entails smaller states countering the hegemon (or, in the present setup, the state with primacy), using diplomatic, economic, and other nonmilitary means to counter the dominant power (Pape, 2005;Wohlforth & Brooks, 2005). Joffe (2002) and others contend that this type of behavior could very well be both an acknowledgment that no power (and presumably no coalition) could effectively match the United States’ military capabilities but that the behavior is intended to avert hegemony and bring the world to a multipolar arrangement by nonmilitary means. Much is yet to be determined to this end, but there is still much to observe, investigate, and research.

See also:

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