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Balance of Power in International Relations

Written by: Shubhya Pandey - Student Semester IV, Hidayatullah National Law University, Raipur
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  • In International Relations an equilibrium of power sufficient to discourage or present one nation or prevent one nation from imposing its will on or interfering with the interests of another. Balance of Power, theory and policy of international relations that asserts that the most effective check on the power of a state is the power of other states. In international relations, the term state refers to a country with a government and a population. The term balance of power refers to the distribution of power capabilities of rival states or alliance.

    The balance of power theory maintains that when one state or alliance increases its power or applies it more aggressively; threatened states will increase their own power in response, often by forming a counter-balancing coalition. Balance of Power is a central concept in neorealist theory.

    It is difficult to give exact definition to balance of power because as Martin Wright says the notion is notoriously full of confusions. Inis.L.Claude also says: The trouble with the balance power is not that it has no meaning but that it has too many meanings But essential idea is very simple but when principle is applied to the international relations , the concept of power means that through shifting alliances and countervailing pressures ,no one power or combinations of powers will be allowed to grow so strong as to threaten the security of the rest as per Palmer and Perkins.

    And finally Hartman explains concept of Balance of Power in International Relations as a system in the sense that one power bloc leads to the emergence of other and it ultimately leads to a network of alliances. The concept of balance of power rests on the assumption that excessive power anywhere in the system is a threat to the existence of the other units and that most effective antidote of power is power.

    Balance of Power and International Relations

    As a policy, balance of power suggests that states counter any threat to their security by allying with other threatened states and by increasing their own military capabilities. The policy of forming a geographically based coalition of states to surround and block an expansionist power is known as containment. For example, the United States followed a containment policy towards the Soviet Union after World War II by building military alliances and bases throughout Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.

    As a theory, balance of power predicts that rapid changes in international power and status—especially attempts by one state to conquer a region—will provoke counterbalancing actions. For this reason, the balancing process helps to maintain the stability of relations between states.

    A Balance of power system can functions effectively in two different ways:

    1. Multiple states can form a balance of power when alliances are fluid—that is, when they are easily formed or broken on the basis of expediency, regardless of values, religion, history, or form of government. Occasionally a single state plays a balancer role, shifting its support to oppose whatever state or alliance is strongest. Britain played this role in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly in its relations with France, Russia, and Germany.

    2. Two states can balance against each other by matching their increases in military capability. In the Cold War, the Soviet Union and United States both expanded their nuclear arsenals to balance against each other.

    One weakness of the balance of power concept is the difficulty of measuring power. Ultimately a state's power derives from the size of its land mass, population, and its level of technology. But this potential power—measured roughly by a state's gross domestic product (GDP)—translates imperfectly into military capability. The effective use of military force depends on such elements as leadership, morale, geography, and luck. Furthermore, leaders' misperceptions can seriously distort the calculation of power. During the Vietnam War (1959-1975), for example, U.S. presidents consistently underestimated the strength of the Vietnamese Communists because by conventional measures of power they were much weaker than the United States.

    Balance of Power in Ancient Times

    Historical examples of power balancing are found throughout history in various regions of the world, leading some scholars to characterize balance of power as a universal and timeless principle. During the Period of the Warring States in China (403-221 BC), the development of large, cohesive states accompanied the creation of irrigation systems, bureaucracies, and large armies equipped with iron weapons. These Chinese states pursued power through a constantly shifting network of alliances.

    In ancient Greece during the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), the rising power of Athens triggered the formation of a coalition of city-states that felt threatened by Athenian power. The alliance, led by Sparta, succeeded in defeating Athens and restoring a balance of power among Greek cities.

    In the 17th century the Habsburg dynasty, which ruled Austria and Spain, threatened to dominate Europe. During the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648), a coalition that included Sweden, England, France, and The Netherlands defeated the rulers of the Habsburg Empire.

    Early in the 19th century, french emperor Napoleon I repeatedly made efforts to conquer large areas of Europe. A broad coalition of European states—including Britain, Russia, Austria, and Prussia—defeated France in a series of major battles that climaxed with Napoleon's defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

    The classical European balance of power system emerged thereafter in an alliance known as the Concert of Europe, organized in 1815 by Austrian statesman Klemens von Metternich. This loose alliance between Britain, Russia, Austria, Prussia, and France ensured that a handful of great powers would coexist, with none able to dominate the others. Under this system, and with Britain playing a balancer role, peace largely prevailed in Europe during the 19th century. During World War II, Germany's rising power, aggressive conquests, and alliance with Italy and Japan triggered yet another coalition of opposing states—notably the capitalist democracies of Britain and the United States, and the Communist Soviet Union.

    Balance of Power and Cold War

    Balance of power so perfectly described the polarity of the Cold War that it became integral to, indeed practically synonymous with, the concept of the East-West order. Although the image was so familiar as to be almost transparent, a great deal of political presumption was locked within its crystalline structure. East and West existed, and there was a "balance" between them that presumably somehow "weighed" a quality called power, possessed by the enemies, each side, in the way material objects possess mass. This enemy, real enough, but also postulated by the balance of power-without an enemy, what would be balanced?-served to solidify political alliance, and hence political identity, on both sides. Throughout the Cold War, divisions among states party to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) or the Warsaw Pact, as well as divisions within each state, were obscured by the need to maintain a common front against the enemy.

    In the context of the balance of power, the discipline of strategic studies turned on a single inquiry: to what extent did an event, either actual or possible, enlarge the military potential of one side or the other? This inquiry often raised nice issues of judgment. For example, both the United States and the Soviet Union long maintained inefficient capacity for the manufacture of steel in order to serve anticipated wartime needs. Within the contours of the strategic argument, the precise relationship between the capacity to manufacture steel and military fitness was debatable, but the stakes and the terms of the argument were clear . Equally clear was what was not at issue in the security debate, viz. broader questions of political conduct. Political questions, such as how to pay for the subsidy, were not unrelated, but were considered analytically separable inquiries. Just as participants in a sport rarely consider the appropriateness of the rules that inform their game, the balance of power so well defined strategic questions that larger questions went unasked.

    Today, a strategic study is a far trickier business. The East-West order, which defined both the actors and the objectives, no longer exists. In the words of Polish politician Bronislaw Geremek, we are confronted by dangers, not enemies. There is no balance of power with danger, no conflict with danger. Danger may be assessed. But without a hard-edged notion of conflict to provide a context in which probability can be calculated, danger assessment is a hazy enterprise. Suppose, for plausible example, that the European Union is somehow at risk from unrest in Southern Europe. Should the Union attempt to integrate its forces to defend itself against Southern Europe? Should a new wall be built? Or should the Union attempt to integrate Southern Europe into its defense structure, either through NATO or the Western European Union, in the hopes of minimizing the risk of violent disorder? How much of Europe (what is Europe?) should be included in this process of integration? Should this process be limited to the military sector, or should it include the economy? How complete, and how swift, is this effort to be? And so forth.

    Strategy that would confront such threats requires a view of politics considerably more nuanced than polarity; policy cannot be determined by argument that one "side" enjoys some military advantage over the other. Strategic thinking now entails politics, economics, and history, in addition to its traditional focus on military capability, because a strategic world where security is threatened by dangers rather than enemies is complex and vague in ways that the old strategic world was not. In response to uncertainty, the new strategic thinking seeks stability more avidly than it seeks some ill-defined "advantage." Stability is hardly a new concern; what is new is that stability has become virtually the only concern. So, for example, it recently appeared to make strategic sense to cut the size of our military, in part because the federal deficit was thought to hamper national competitiveness and economic unrest was seen as a greater threat to our security than invasion.

    Similarly, it makes strategic sense for Western European states to give money to help the young governments of Central and Southern Europe stabilize their economies, not because those governments plan to invade, but because their failure may lead to massive immigration or civil war. Rather than the purchase of military hardware, security concerns now impel the provision of loan guarantees. Strategy used to mean the attainment of military superiority, or at least deterrence; it now means the pursuit of social stability. Politics writ large has absorbed strategic studies.

    The vague character of threats to social security means that when we cannot quarantine social instability (as we frequently do with those chaotic Africans), intervention is likely. In a dangerous world, security is obtained by proactive measures designed to shore up the social order. In contrast, in the traditional world of enemies, security is the capability to respond to the threat posed by the enemy. (Only rarely has security been thought best obtained by preemptive attack.) So we long preserved the capacity to respond to Soviet aggression with nuclear force, if necessary. The very language of the clichà is reactive. Today, the United States is criticized not for its lack of readiness, but for not taking enough action within the former Soviet Union to help ensure that the weapons of mass destruction remain in sane hands. In this light, the invasion of Panama and the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement may be understood as attempts to establish a viable social order in situations that present profound threats to our security, our lust for drugs and the weaknesses peculiar to a highly technological economy.

    If security is now better procured than defended, then early intervention will often be more effective and cheaper than late intervention. Contemporary strategic thinking inclines to the adage "a stitch in time saves nine." Diffuse threats to security should be addressed before they have time to gain focus and momentum. The task for contemporary strategic thinking is therefore the avoidance, rather than the development, of the logic of war. For example, it is has for some time been argued that more decisive action by the European Community (and then the European Union) and the United Nations at the outbreak of violence in Yugoslavia might have prevented at least some of the carnage and associated risks. War, even civil war, has its own awful logic, and the various factions in what was Yugoslavia fought within that logic, to regain territory lost by military action, to avenge loved ones, and so bloody on, in the gyre of public and private violence bemoaned since the Oresteia. Had the logic of violence not been established, Yugoslavia might be merely politically fractious, like Belgium or even what was Czechoslovakia. The transformation of strategy amounts to an imperative to intervene, militarily if necessary, in the service of order.

    Liberal Realism and Balance of Power

    Liberal realism's concern with the balance of power necessitates that liberal states must be willing to use power and force to support the balance of power against threats hostile to self-interest and liberal values. The Reagan administration believed that it was necessary to counter the Soviet threat in order to purge the "intense emotional resistance against the use of U.S. power for any purpose" created by the American experience in Vietnam. Again, the Reagan administration's perspective included prudence and liberal conviction. Kirkpatrick suggested that "[w]hat is called the conservative revival is just this: the return of American confidence in our values, and in our capacities, and of American determination to protect ourselves--from war and defeat." Kirkpatrick also emphasized the broader liberal conviction in the Reagan administration's willingness to use American power.

    The restoration of the conviction that American power is necessary for the survival of liberal democracy in the modern world is the most important development in U.S. foreign policy in the past decade. It is the event which marks the end of the Vietnam era, when certainty about the link between American power and the survival of liberal democratic societies was lost.

    The Reagan administration's sensitivity to the prudential and liberal aspects of the balance of power and its willingness to use American power to confront threats to self-interest and liberal values illustrate well the liberal realist tradition's perspective on the balance of power.

    Balance of Power Today
    The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 left the United States as the world's sole superpower. Balance of power theory suggests that without the Soviet threat the United States, as the dominant world power, will face difficulties in its relations with such states as China and the European powers. For example, key countries such as China, Russia, France, and Germany all opposed the United States invasion of Iraq in 2003 in diplomatic arenas such as the United Nations. Yet this opposition did not stop the United States from acting, exposing the significant gap in military capability that now exists between the United States and the rest of the world. Small states that fear the United States are no longer able to join a counterbalancing coalition to protect their security. Instead, many are developing nuclear weapons in an attempt to dramatically expand their military capability. For example, North Korea claimed in 2003 that it was developing nuclear weapons to balance against U.S. power.

    The changing nature of power in the contemporary international system further complicates the operation of the global balance of power. Globalization, the Internet, weapons of mass destruction, and other technological developments have made it possible for small states and even non state groups to acquire significant power. These factors also dilute the relative importance of military power. For example, after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States assembled a broad coalition to invade Afghanistan, using military force to topple the Taliban government and end the Taliban's support for al-Qaeda terrorists. This application of military power did not provoke a balancing coalition of other states, but it also did not end the terrorist threat to the United States. In the future, the balance of power may continue to operate among states engaged in prolonged disputes, but it is less applicable to conflicts involving terrorists and other non state groups.

    The balance of power has been a central concept in the theory and practice of international relations for the past five hundred years. It has also played a key role in some of the most important attempts to develop a theory of international politics in the contemporary study of international relations. Another basis for the realist theory is the idea of a balance of power and the anarchic nature of the global system as there is no effective global government and the world system is anomic (without rules). This ties in well with the idea of global relations being one of self help and each state striving to promote its own interests at the expense of others. In short, realists see the global system as one of self help. The idea of the balance of power is put in place to explain the situation where states will ally themselves to prevent the hegemony of one state over all others. Balance of Power, theory and policy of international relations that asserts that the most effective check on the power of a state is the power of other states.

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