Balance of power (international relations)

The balance of power theory in international relations suggests that national security is enhanced when military capability is distributed so that no one state is strong enough to dominate all others.[1] If one state becomes much stronger than others, the theory predicts that it will take advantage of its strength and attack weaker neighbors, thereby providing an incentive for those threatened to unite in a defensive coalition. Some realists maintain that this would be more stable as aggression would appear unattractive and would be averted if there was equilibrium of power between the rival coalitions.[1]

When confronted by a significant external threat, states that look to form alliances may "balance" or "bandwagon". Balancing is defined as allying with others against the prevailing threat, while states that have bandwagoned have aligned with the threat.[2] States may also employ other alliance tactics, such as buck-passing and chain-ganging. There is a longstanding debate among realists with regard to how the polarity of a system impacts on which tactic states use,[3] however, it is generally agreed that balancing is more efficient in bipolar systems as each great power has no choice but to directly confront the other.[4] Along with debates between realists about the prevalence of balancing in alliance patterns, other schools of international relations, such as constructivists, are also critical of the balance of power theory, disputing core realist assumptions regarding the international system and the behavior of states.[5]


The principle involved in preserving the balance of power as a conscious goal of foreign policy, as David Hume pointed out in his Essay on the Balance of Power, is as old as history, and was used by Greeks such as Thucydides both as political theorists and as practical statesmen.[6]

It resurfaced in Renaissance among the Italian city-states in the 15th century. Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan, and Lorenzo de' Medici, ruler of Florence, were the first rulers actively to pursue such a policy, with the Italic League, though historians have generally attributed the innovation to the Medici rulers of Florence.[7] Discussion of the Florentine activity can be found in De Bello Italico, by Bernardo Rucellai, a Medici son-in-law.[7] This was a history of the invasion of Italy by Charles VIII of France, and introduced the phrase 'balance of power' to historical analysis.[7]

Universalism, which was the dominant direction of European international relations prior to the Peace of Westphalia, gave way to the doctrine of the balance of power. The term gained significance after the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, where it was specifically mentioned.

It was not until the beginning of the 17th century, when the science of international law assumed the discipline of structure, in the hands of Grotius and his successors, that the theory of the balance of power was formulated as a fundamental principle of diplomacy. In accordance with this new discipline, the European states formed a sort of federal community, the fundamental condition of which was the preservation of a balance of power, i.e., such a disposition of things that no one state, or potentate, should be able absolutely to predominate and prescribe laws to the rest. And, since all were equally interested in this settlement, it was held to be the interest, the right, and the duty of every power to interfere, even by force of arms, when any of the conditions of this settlement were infringed upon, or assailed by, any other member of the community.[8]

This balance-of-power principle, once formulated, became an axiom of political science. Fénelon, in his Instructions, impressed the axiom upon the young Louis, Dauphin of France, Duke of Burgundy. Frederick the Great, in his Anti-Machiavel, proclaimed the 'balance of power' principle to the world. In 1806 Friedrich von Gentz re-stated it with admirable clarity, in Fragments on the Balance of Power. The principle formed the basis of the coalitions against Louis XIV and Napoleon, and the occasion, or the excuse, for most of the wars which Europe experienced between the Peace of Westphalia (1648) and the Congress of Vienna (1814), especially from the British vantage point (including, in part, World War I).[6]

During the greater part of the 19th century, the series of national upheavals which remodelled the map of Europe obscured the balance of power. Yet, it underlaid all the efforts of diplomacy to stay, or to direct, the elemental forces of nationalism let loose by the French Revolution. In the revolution's aftermath, with the restoration of comparative calm, the principle once more emerged as the operative motive for the various political alliances, of which the ostensible object was the preservation of peace.[6] Regarding the era 1848-1914, English diplomatic historian A.J.P. Taylor argued:

Europe has known almost as much peace as war; and it has owed these periods of peace to the Balance of Power. No one state has ever been strong enough to eat up all the rest, and the mutual jealousy of the Great Powers has preserved even the small states, which could not have preserved themselves.[9]

However, Taylor's argument for the 1848-1914 period did not hold for the period since 1945. Former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer interpreted the core of the concept of Europe after 1945 as the rejection of the European balance-of-power principle and the hegemonic ambitions of individual states that had emerged following the Peace of Westphalia in 1648: "European integration was the response to centuries of a precarious balance of powers on this continent which again and again resulted in terrible hegemonic wars and culminated in the two World Wars between 1914 and 1945."[10] Former US Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney expressed the same for Europe and other democracies: “It is not in our interest or those of the other democracies to return to earlier periods in which multiple military powers balanced one against another in what passed for security structures, while regional, or even global peace hung in the balance.”[11] NATO Secretary General, Manfred Wörner, outlined the European alternative at the end of the Cold War:

Europe has a basic choice: either it lapses back into the old power politics and balance of power diplomacy of past centuries or it moves ahead along the road leading to a new order of peace and freedom, whether this be based on multinational or supranational cooperation. Our choice is clear: we are going forward.[12]


Honore Daumier, L’Equilibre Europea, (1866)

It has been argued by historians that, in the sixteenth century, England came to pursue a foreign policy which would preserve the equilibrium between Spain and France, which evolved into a balance-of-power policy:

The continental policy of England [after 1525] was fixed. It was to be pacific, mediating, favourable to a balance which should prevent any power from having a hegemony on the continent or controlling the Channel coasts. The naval security of England and the balance of power in Europe were the two great political principles which appeared in the reign of Henry VIII and which, pursued unwaveringly, were to create the greatness of England.[13]

In 1579 the first English translation of Francesco Guicciardini's Storia d'Italia ("History of Italy") popularised Italian balance of power theory in England. This translation was dedicated to Elizabeth I of England and claimed that "God has put into your hand the balance of power and justice, to poise and counterpoise at your will the actions and counsels of all the Christian kings of your time".[14]

Statesman Richard Cobden labeled balance of power "a chimera" due to its unclear meaning: "It is not a fallacy, a mistake, an imposture—it is an undescribed, indescribable, incomprehensible nothing." The only point on which writers on the balance of power agree "is in the fundamental delusion that such a system was ever acceded to by the nations of Europe." They imply long, uninterrupted, peaceful and prosperous co-existence. Instead, for centuries "Europe has (with only just sufficient intervals to enable the combatants to recruit their wasted energies) been one vast and continued battle-field…"[15] He criticized Lord Bacon for his adherence to the balance of power as a universal rule:

As for the rule of Lord Bacon: were the great enemy of mankind himself to summon a council, to devise a law of nations which should convert this fair earth, with all its capacity for life, enjoyment, and goodness, into vast theater of death and misery, more dismal than his own Pandemonium, the very words of the philosopher would compose that law! It would reduce us even below the level of animals… [T]his rule would, if acted upon universally, plunged us into a war of annihilation … nor would the levelling strife cease until either the rule were abrogated, or mankind had been reduced to the only pristine possessions—teeth and nails! [Under such grounds] the question of the balance of power might be dismissed from further considerations.[16]

Sir Esme Howard wrote that England adopted the balance of power as "a corner-stone of English policy, unconsciously during the sixteenth, subconsciously during the seventeenth, and consciously during the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, because for England it represented the only plan of preserving her own independence, political and economic".[17] In 1941, Winston Churchill was criticized by his rival, Adolf Hitler, for his adherence to the balance of power:

Churchill is a man with an out-of-date political idea—that of the European balance of power. It no longer belongs to the sphere of realities. And yet it's because of this superstition that Churchill stirred England up to war.[18]

On another occasion he added: Without the Wehrmacht, a "wave would have swept over Europe that would have taken no care of the ridiculous British idea of the balance of power in Europe in all its banality and stupid tradition—once and for all."[19]

In fact, Churchill shortly adopted a similar view: Our Russian friends and Allies, he spoke in 1946, most admire strength and least respect military weakness. “For that reason the old doctrine of a balance of power is unsound. We cannot afford … to work on narrow margins, offering temptations to a trial of strength.” If the Western Democracies do not stand together “then indeed catastrophe may overwhelm us all.” If, however, “the population of the English-speaking Commonwealths be added to that of the United States with all that such co-operation implies in the air, on the sea, all over the globe and in science and in industry, and in moral force, there will be no quivering, precarious balance of power to offer its temptation to ambition or adventure. On the contrary, there will be an overwhelming assurance of security.”[20]

Historical evidence against the balance of power theory and implications

In an attempt to disprove the balance of power theory, some realists have pointed to cases in international systems other than modern Europe where balancing failed and a hegemon arose. William Wohlforth, Richard Little and Stuart Kaufman, point to the failure of state like units to balance against Assyria in the first millennium BCE; the Hellenic successor states of Alexander the Great to balance against Rome; the Warring States to balance against the Qin dynasty in ancient China and five other cases. [21] This cross-cultural research concludes:

Given that the version of the theory we are testing is universalistic in its claims — that ‘hegemony leads to balance … through all of the centuries we can contemplate’ — case selection is unimportant. Any significant counterexample falsifies the universal claim; eight such examples demolish it.[22]

Wohlforth, Little and Kaufman state that systemic hegemony is likely under two historically common conditions: First when the rising hegemon develops the ability to incorporate and effectively administer conquered territories. And second, when the boundaries of the international system remain stable, and no new major powers emerge from outside the system. When the leading power can administer conquests effectively so they add to its power and when the system’s borders are rigid, the probability of hegemony is high.[23] The argument of universal reproduction of anarchy can be correct in the European context, "whereas a systematic survey of world history reveals that multipolarity has frequently given way to unipolarity or hegemony."[24] Henry Kissinger, Historian by profession, noted that "theories of the balance of power often leave the impression that it is the natural form of international relations. In fact, balance-of-power systems have existed only rarely in history." Yet based on these rare occurrences, many realists "elevate a fact of life … into a guiding principle of world order."[25] Earlier, political scientist Martin Wight had drawn a conclusion with unambiguous implication for the modern world:

Most states systems have ended in universal empire, which has swallowed all the states of the system. The examples are so abundant that we must ask two questions: Is there any states system which has not led fairly directly to the establishment of a world empire? Does the evidence rather suggest that we should expect any states system to culminate in this way? …It might be argued that every state system can only maintain its existence on the balance of power, that the later is inherently unstable, and that sooner or later its tensions and conflicts will be resolved into a monopoly of power.[26]

Still earlier, Quincy Wright, concluded on the balance of power in world history:

The predominance of the balance of power in the practice of statesmen for three centuries … should not obscure the fact that throughout world history periods dominated by the balance-of-power policies have not been the rule. The balance of power scarcely existed anywhere as a conscious principle of international politics before 1500…[27]

Evoking examples of the ancient Chinese and Roman civilizations, Quincy Wright added:

Balance of power systems have in the past tended, through the process of conquest of lesser states by greater states, towards reduction in the number of states involved, and towards less frequent but more devastating wars, until eventually a universal empire has been established through the conquest by one of all those remaining.[28]

The post-Cold War period represents an anomaly to the balance of power theory too. Since 2000, the founder of Neorealism, Kenneth Waltz, confessed that "the present condition of international politics is unnatural."[29] “Clearly something has changed.”[30] Wohlforth, Little and Kaufman undertook the above-mentioned historical study after they had coped with what they called the "puzzle" of the unipolar stability. Elsewhere, Richard Little wrote: Events since the end of the Cold War "create a potential anomaly" for the theory because the outcome has "left the United States as the sole superpower in a unipolar world ... A major puzzle for realists ... is the fact that unipolarity has not provoked a global alarm to restore a balance of power."[31] The same anomaly stressed eleven other experts on alliances, Stephen Walt, Randall Schweller, John Ikenberry, Robert Pape, T. V. Paul, Jack S. Levy, William R. Thompson, Fareed Zakaria, Michael Mastanduno, Thomas S. Mowle and David H. Sacko:

To date, at least, there is little sign of a serious effort to forge a meaningful anti-American alliance ... From the traditional perspective of balance-of-power theory, this situation is surely an anomaly. Power in the international system is about as unbalanced as it has ever been, yet balancing tendencies are remarkably mild. It is possible to find them, but one has to squint pretty hard to do it.[32]

[N]o peer competitor has yet emerged more than a decade after the end of US-Soviet bipolarity to balance against the United States. Contrary to realist predictions, unipolarity has not provided global alarm to restore a balance of power.[33]

Resistance has in fact appeared and may be growing. But it is remarkable that despite the sharp shifts in the distribution of power, the other great powers have not yet responded in a way anticipated by balance-of-power theory.[34]

Historically, major powers have rarely balanced against the United States and not at all since the 1990s when it has become the sole superpower.[35]

Traditional balance of power theory … fails to explain state behavior in the post-Cold War era. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has been expanding its economic and political power. More recently, it has begun to engage in increasingly unilateralist military policy… [Y]et despite these growing material capabilities, major powers such as China, France, Germany, India and Russia have not responded with significant increases in their defense spending. Nor have they formed military coalitions to counterveil US power, as traditional balance of power theory would predict.[36]

The end of the Cold War and the emergence of the “unipolar moment” have generated considerable debate about how to explain the absence of a great-power balancing coalition against the United States… That the United States, which is generally regarded as the “greatest superpower ever,” has not provoked such a balancing coalition is widely regarded as a puzzle for balance of power theory.[37]

Fareed Zakaria asks, “Why is no one ganging up against the United States?”[38] And John Ikenberry asks the same question.[39] French or Chinese officials publicly denounce “hyperpower” and aspire for "multipolarity" but refrain from forming a counterbalancing coalition.[40] "Rhetorically, leaders and publics want the United States to be balanced" but "we find very little balancing."[41] French academic Michel Winock said: “Before we could say we were on American side. Not Now. There is no counterbalance.”[42] Two American Neoconservative thinkers, Robert Kagan and William Kristol, completely agree: “Today’s international system is built not around a balance of power but around American hegemony.”[43]

Christopher Layne published two articles on the post-Cold War case, "The Unipolar Illusion…" (1993)[44] and "The Unipolar Illusion Revisited" (2006).[45] The former predicted imminent anti-American balancing as balance of power theorists expected; the latter explains "why balance of power theorists got it wrong."[46]

Realism and balancing

Europe after the 1814-1815 Congress of Vienna, is a classic example of trying to achieve a European balance of power.

The balance of power theory is a core tenet of both classical and neorealist theory and seeks to explain alliance formation. Due to the neorealist idea of anarchism as a result of the international system, states must ensure their survival through maintaining or increasing their power in a self-help world. With no authority above the state to come to its rescue in the event of an attack by a hegemon, states attempt to prevent a potential hegemon from arising by balancing against it. According to Kenneth Waltz, founder of neorealism, "balance-of-power politics prevail wherever two, and only two requirements are met: that the order be anarchic and that it be populated by units wishing to survive".[47] They can do this either through internal balancing, where a state uses internal efforts such as moving to increase economic capability, developing clever strategies and increasing military strength,[48] or through "external balancing", which occurs when states take external measures to increase their security by forming allies. States happy with their place in the system are known as "status quo" states, while those seeking to alter the balance of power in their favor are generally referred to as "revisionist states" and aspire for hegemony, thus repairing the balance.[49]

Balancing versus bandwagoning

Further information: Bandwagoning

States choose to balance for two reasons. First, they place their survival at risk if they fail to curb a potential hegemon before it becomes too strong; to ally with the dominant power means placing one’s trust in its continued benevolence. Secondly, joining the weaker side increases the likelihood that the new member will be influential within the alliance.[50] States choose to bandwagon because it may be a form of appeasement as the bandwagoner may hope to avoid an attack by diverting it elsewhere—a defensive reason—or because it may align with the dominant side in wartime to share the spoils of victory—an offensive reason.[50]

Realists claim that balancing is when states ally against the prevailing threat and results in a more secure world whereas in a bandwagoning world security is scarce as rising hegemons are not kept in check.[51] With bandwagoning, the threatened state abandons hope of preventing the aggressor from gaining power at its expense and instead joins forces with its dangerous foe to get at least some small portion of the spoils of war.[52]

The weaker the state is the more likely it is to bandwagon than to balance as they do little to affect the outcome and thus must choose the winning side. Strong states may change a losing side into a winning side and thus are more likely to balance. States will be tempted to bandwagon when allies are unavailable, however excessive confidence in allied support encourages weak states to free ride relying on the efforts of others to provide security. Since bandwagoning "requires placing trust in the aggressors continued forbearance" some realists believe balancing is preferred to bandwagoning.[53] According to Stephen Walt, states are more likely to balance in peacetime but if they are on the losing side of a war they may defect and bandwagon in the hopes that they will "share the fruits of victory".[54]

Chain ganging

Further information: Chain ganging

Chain-ganging occurs when a state sees its own security tied to the security of its alliance partner.[55] It chains itself by deeming any attack on its ally the equivalent of an attack on itself. This is another aspect of the balance of power theory, whereby the smaller states could drag their chained states into wars that they have no desire to fight. A key example of this was the chain-ganging between states prior to World War I, dragging the entire European continent to war over a dispute between the relatively major power of Austria-Hungary and the minor power of Serbia. Thus states "may chain themselves unconditionally to reckless allies whose survival is seen to be indispensable to the maintenance of the balance".[56]

Buck passing and bloodletting

Further information: Buck passing

Balancing and buck passing are the main strategies for preserving the balance of power and preventing a potential hegemon’s rise.[57] Instead of balancing against an aggressor, some states instead choose to "pass the buck" whereby instead of taking action to prevent a potential hegemon's rise, it will pass the responsibility on to another state. John Mearsheimer, a prominent offensive realist, claims that threatened states can take four measures to facilitate buck passing, including: seeking good diplomatic relations with the aggressor in the hope that it will divert its attention to the "buck-catcher"; maintaining cool relations with the buck-catcher so as not to get dragged into the war with the buck-catcher and as a result possibly increase positive relations with the aggressor; increasing military strength to deter the aggressive state and help it focus on the buck-catcher; and facilitating the growth in power of the intended buck-catcher.[58]

In the case that a state is an enemy with both the aggressor and the intended buck-catcher, a buck-passer can implement a bait and bleed strategy whereby the state causes two rivals to engage in a protracted war while the baiter remains on the sideline.[59] This form of buck passing enables the state to increase in relative strength at the expense of the two rivals. Bloodletting, a further variant whereby a state does what it can to increase the cost duration of the conflict can further increase the buck-passer’s relative power.[60] Thus, threatened states usually prefer buck-passing to balancing as the buck-passer avoids the costs of fighting the aggressor in the event of war.[52]

Some realists believe there is a strong tendency to buck-pass or free-ride within balancing coalitions themselves, usually leaving their alliance partners to assume the heavy burden of wearing down the enemy, leaving the free-rider’s military fresh to win the final battles of the war and thus be in a better position to dictate the peace, such as the UK’s light involvement in the early stages of World War I.[61] Likewise, buck-passers can enter wars late after both sides have been worn down, allowing the buck-passer to dominate the post-war world.[62]

A potential drawback of the strategy occurs if the buck-catcher fails to check the aggressor, as the buck-passer will be in a much more vulnerable situation. Proponents of the theory point to the Soviet Union’s role in World War II whereby it passed the buck to the UK and France through the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact with Nazi Germany. After eliminating France the Germans had no Western front to divide their forces, allowing them to concentrate their forces against the USSR.[63]

Offensive and defensive realism

Defensive realism

Main article: Defensive realism

Defensive realists emphasize that if any state becomes too powerful, balancing will occur as other powers would build up their militaries and form a balancing coalition.[64] Because this resulting security dilemma would leave the aspiring hegemon less secure, defensive realists maintain that it is in a state’s interest to maintain the status quo rather than maximize its power.[65]

Offensive realism

Main article: Offensive realism

Offensive realists accept that threatened states usually balance against dangerous foes, however, they maintain that balancing is often inefficient and that this inefficiency provides opportunities for a clever aggressor to take advantage of its adversaries.[65] Buck passing, rather than joining a balancing coalition, is another tactic offensive realists point to when disputing the balance of power theory.[65]

Offensive realists believe that internal balancing measures such as increasing defense spending, implementing conscription, are only effective to a certain extent as there are usually significant limits on how many additional resources a threatened state can muster against an aggressor.[58] However, since offensive realists theorize that states are always seeking to maximize their power, states are "effectively engaged in internal balancing all the time".[58]

Balance of threat

Further information: Balance of threat

The balance of threat theory is an offshoot of the balancing, coined in 1985 by Stephen M. Walt in an attempt to explain why balancing against rising hegemons has not always been consistent in history. In contrast to traditional balance of power theorists, Walt suggests that states balance against threats, rather than against power alone.[66] The “balance-of-power theory is not wrong; it is merely incomplete. Power is one of the factors that affects the propensity to balance, although it is not the only one nor always the most important.”[67] The theory acknowledges that power is an extremely important factor in the level of threat posed by a state, but also includes geographic proximity, offensive capabilities, and perceived intentions.[66]


It is the net effect, or result, produced by a state system in which the independent state as sovereign members are free to join or to refrain from joining alliances and alignments as each seeks to maximize its security and to advance its national interest.

See also

In history:


  1. 1 2 Kegley & Wittkopf 2005, p. 503.
  2. Walt 1987, p. 17.
  3. Mearsheimer 2010, p. 85.
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  7. 1 2 3 Gilbert 1949, p. 102.
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  23. Wohlforth, Little & Kaugman 2007, pp. 155–185.
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  26. System of States, (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1977, p 43-44).
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  30. Kenneth Waltz, "Structural Realism after the Cold War," America Unrivaled: The Future of the Balance of Power, (ed. John Ikenberry, Ithaka & London: Cornell University Press, 2002), p 54.
  31. The Balance of Power in International Relations: Metaphors, Myths, and Models, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2007), p 12, 252.
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  34. John Ikenberry, America Unrivaled: The Future of the Balance of Power, Ithaka & London: Cornell University Press, 2002), p 3.
  35. Robert Pape, “Soft Balancing against the United States,” International Security, 30/1, Summer: (2005), p 8.
  36. T. V. Paul, “Soft Balancing in the Age of US Primacy,” International Security, 30/1, (Summer 2005): p 52-53.
  37. Jack S. Levy, & William R. Thompson, "Balances and Balancing: Concepts, Proposition and Research Design," Realism and the Balancing of Power: A New Debate, (eds. A. Vasques & Colin Elman, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2003), p 7.
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  39. America Unrivaled: The Future of the Balance of Power, (Ithaka & London: Cornell University Press, 2002), p 3.
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  41. Thomas S. Mowle & David H., Sacko,The Unipolar World: An Unbalanced Future, (New York: Macmillan, 2007), p 149.
  42. Cited in Stephen Walt, “Keeping the World ’Off Balance:’ Self Restraint and US Foreign Policy,” (ed. John Ikenberry, Ithaka & London: Cornell University Press, 2002), p 125.
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  46. Christopher Layne, (2009). "The Waning of US Hegemony—Myth or Reality? A Review Essay," International Security, 34/1: p 150.
  47. Waltz 1979, p. 121.
  48. Waltz 1979, p. 118.
  49. Mearsheimer 2010, p. 79.
  50. 1 2 Mearsheimer 2010, pp. 81–83.
  51. Walt 1987, pp. 21–29.
  52. 1 2 Mearsheimer 2001, p. 139.
  53. Walt 1987, p. 29.
  54. Walt 1987, p. 21.
  55. Christensen & Snyder 1990, p. 140.
  56. Christensen & Snyder 1990, p. 138.
  57. Mearsheimer 2001, p. 140.
  58. 1 2 3 Mearsheimer 2001, p. 157.
  59. Mearsheimer 2001, p. 151.
  60. Mearsheimer 2001, pp. 154–155.
  61. Mearsheimer 2001, p. 159–160.
  62. Mearsheimer 2001, p. 160.
  63. Mearsheimer 2001, p. 161.
  64. Mearsheimer 2010, pp. 81.
  65. 1 2 3 Mearsheimer 2010, p. 83.
  66. 1 2 Walt 1987, p. 5.
  67. Stephen Walt, “Keeping the World ’Off Balance:’ Self Restraint and US Foreign Policy,” (ed. John Ikenberry, Ithaka & London: Cornell University Press, 2002), p 134.



Further reading

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