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Balance of power (international relations)

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Balance of power (international relations)

At the core of the balance of power theory is the idea that national security is enhanced when military capabilities are distributed so that no one state is strong enough to dominate all others.[1] If one state gains inordinate power, 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 may balance or bandwagon. Balancing is defined as allying with others against the prevailing threat, whereas bandwagoning refers to alignment with the source of danger.[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 inter-realist debates 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]


  • History 1
    • England 1.1
    • Historical evidence against the balance of power theory and implications 1.2
  • Realism and balancing 2
  • Balancing versus bandwagoning 3
  • Chain ganging 4
  • Buck passing and bloodletting 5
  • Offensive and defensive realism 6
    • Defensive realism 6.1
    • Offensive realism 6.2
  • Balance of threat 7
  • Significance 8
  • See also 9
  • Notes 10
  • References 11
  • Further reading 12


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 whose praises were sung by the well-known Florentine writers Niccolò Machiavelli and Francesco Guicciardini.

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 rights, 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.[7]

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.[8]


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.[9]

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".[10]

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".[11]

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. Wohlforth, Little and 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; and the Qin dynasty in medieval China.[12] They 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.[13]

The same year Wohlforth & Little & Kaufman published their research, Max Ostrovsky published his Y = Arctg X: The Hyperbola of the World Order,[14] representing a similar anti-thesis to the balance of power. Hegemonies and empires overcame balance of power in geopolitically circumscribed systems—those geographically compact, not expanding, and politically isolated from other systems. European system was ever-expanding and perpetuated its balance of power; China, by contrast, was circumscribed, and perpetuated its unity. The same had held true for the difference between Egypt and Mesopotamia. The theory makes a step beyond Wohlforth & Little & Kaufman (2007): it is extended to all world history and applied for the global system. In world history there were two parallel processes—external expansion and internal unification. Expansion could outpace unification but the gap between the two processes was doomed to close due to the fact that the space of the earth is limited. The space ended circa 1900 and within less than a century the global system overcame the centuries-old balance of power and reached the unipolarity. Implying the theory for the future, the present hegemony is supposed not to dissolve back into balance-of-power system but rather to consolidate first into empire and later world-state. Ancient Egypt and China, having passed all these stages in their remote past, afterwards existed unified for two-and-a-half millennia of their circumscribed existence, until they were engulfed by larger system. The modern system, being global, can neither expand, nor be engulfed by a larger system, and this condition will remain to the end of history. Hence, the balance of power is not likely to return already after two-and-a-half millennia albeit for a very short and rare periods. The persistent balance of power has passed its event horizon.

Realism and balancing

Europe after the Congress of Vienna, 1815, 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".[15] 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,[16] 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.[17]

Balancing versus 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.[18] 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.[18]

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.[19] 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.[20]

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.[21] 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".[22]

Chain ganging

Chain-ganging occurs when a state sees its own security tied to the security of its alliance partner.[23] 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".[24]

Buck passing and bloodletting

Balancing and buck passing are the main strategies for preserving the balance of power and preventing a potential hegemon’s rise.[25] 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.[26]

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.[27] 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.[28] 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.[20]

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.[29] Likewise, buck-passers can enter wars late after both sides have been worn down, allowing the buck-passer to dominate the post-war world.[30]

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.[31]

Offensive and defensive realism

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.[32] 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.[33]

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.[33] Buck passing, rather than joining a balancing coalition, is another tactic offensive realists point to when disputing the balance of power theory.[33]

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.[26] However, since offensive realists theorize that states are always seeking to maximize their power, states are "effectively engaged in internal balancing all the time".[26]

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.[34] 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.[34]


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. ^ a b Kegley & Wittkopf 2005, p. 503.
  2. ^ Walt 1987, p. 17.
  3. ^ Mearsheimer 2010, p. 85.
  4. ^ Mearsheimer 2010, p. 86.
  5. ^ Wendt 1992, p. 397.
  6. ^ a b c Phillips 1911.
  7. ^ Phillips 1911 cites Emerich de Vattel, Le Droit des gens (Leiden, 1758)
  8. ^ A.J.P. Taylor, The Struggle for Mastery in Europe (1954) p xix
  9. ^ Pirenne 1963, p. 429.
  10. ^ Sheehan 2000, p. 35.
  11. ^ Howard 1925, p. 261.
  12. ^ Wohlforth, Little & Kaufman 2007, pp. 155–185.
  13. ^ Wohlforth, Little & Kaugman 2007, pp. 155–185.
  14. ^ (Lanham: University Press of America, 2007).
  15. ^ Waltz 1929, p. 121.
  16. ^ Waltz 1979, p. 118.
  17. ^ Mearsheimer 2010, p. 79.
  18. ^ a b Mearsheimer 2010, pp. 81–83.
  19. ^ Walt 1987, pp. 21–29.
  20. ^ a b Mearsheimer 2001, p. 139.
  21. ^ Walt 1987, p. 29.
  22. ^ Walt 1987, p. 21.
  23. ^ Christensen & Snyder 1990, p. 140.
  24. ^ Christensen & Snyder 1990, p. 138.
  25. ^ Mearsheimer 2001, p. 140.
  26. ^ a b c Mearsheimer 2001, p. 157.
  27. ^ Mearsheimer 2001, p. 151.
  28. ^ Mearsheimer 2001, pp. 154–155.
  29. ^ Mearsheimer 2001, p. 159–160.
  30. ^ Mearsheimer 2001, p. 160.
  31. ^ Mearsheimer 2001, p. 161.
  32. ^ Mearsheimer 2010, pp. 81.
  33. ^ a b c Mearsheimer 2010, p. 83.
  34. ^ a b Walt 1987, p. 5.


  • Christensen, Thomas J.; Snyder, Jack (1990), "Chain Gangs and Passed Bucks: Predicting Alliance Patterns in Multipolarity", International Organization 44: 138–140,  
  • Howard, Sir Esme (May 1925), "British Policy and the Balance of Power", The American Political Science Review 19 (2): 261,  
  • Kegley, Charles W.; Wittkopf, Eugene R. (2005), World Politics: Trends and Transformation (10th ed.), p. 503 
  • Mearsheimer, John (2010), "Structural Realism", in Dunne, Tim; Kurki, Milja; Smith, Steve, International Relations Theories, New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 79–85 
  • Mearsheimer, John (2001), The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, New York: Norton, pp. 139–161 
  • Pirenne, J. (1963), The Tides of History: From the Expansion of Islam to the Treaties of Westphalia II, London, p. 429 
  • Sheehan, Michael (2000), The Balance of Power: History & Theory, Routledge, p. 35 
  • Waltz, Kenneth N. (1979), Theory of International Politics, Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, pp. 118, 121 
  • Walt, Stephen M. (1987), The Origins of Alliances, New York: Cornell University Press, pp. 5, 17–29 
  • Wendt, Alexander (1992), "Anarchy Is What States Make of It: The Social Construction of international Politics", International Organization, p. 397 
  • Wohlforth, W.C.; Little, R.; Kaufman, S.J.; et al. (2007), "Testing Balance-Of-Power Theory in World History", European Journal of International Relations 13: 155–185,  

Further reading

  • Ostrovsky, Max, (2007). Y = Arctg X: The Hyperbolae of the World Order, (Lanham: University Press of America). Ostrovsky describes International System to be anarchic as exception from the rule and hierarchic as a rule. His balance-of-power (BOP) theory says that in certain conditions, most explicit in the global system, states fail to balance the preponderant power which proceeds first to establish its hegemony and later consolidate it into empire. The unipolar structure is the most stable and has been the dominant model in world history. Ostrovsky is a realist in all but one: hegemonic powers usually overcome BOP and establish universal empires some of which persist for millennia. The global empire is possible, probable, and presently we are half way through. It is expected to last longer than any previous empire.
  • Waltz, K. N. (1979). Theory of International Politics. New York: Random House. Waltz described IR in a systemic way, consisting of an anarchic structure and interacting units. His BOP-theory says that (smaller, weaker) states will balance the power or preponderance of more powerful ones to ensure that the latter do not become too powerful and dominate all other. For Waltz, a bipolar structure, as given in the Cold War, seems to be the best, i.e. the most peaceful one. Most relevant for his theory are Chapters 1 and 4–6.
  • Walt, S. (1987). The Origins of Alliances. Walt puts the BOP-theory on a new basis and calls it balance-of-threat (BOT) theory, since some states do not balance each other, because they do not perceive one another as threats (e.g. the West in the Cold War, worked together against the Warsaw Pact, but didn't balance each other).
  • Mearsheimer, J. J. (2001). The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. New York: W. W. Norton. Mearsheimer tries to mend BOP theory after it was unable to predict or explain the end of the Cold War. He describes himself as an "offensive realist" and believes that states do not simply balance, but because they want to survive in an anarchical system they get frequently aggressive. This is in contrast to Waltz, whom he describes as "defensive realist", who says that states primarily seek survival through balancing. Mearsheimer is an ardent critic of other IR theories (such as neoliberalism, constructivism etc.) and warns heavily of the Chinese rise in their relative power position.
  • T.V. Paul, Michel Fortman, and James J. Wirtz. Balance of Power: Theory and Practice in the 21st Century. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004) ISBN 0-8047-5016-5. Balance of power theory has been severely criticized since the end of the Cold War. Regions where BOP dynamic would have been expected, Central Asia for example after the Soviet left, did not experience it. This book analysis the theoretical and historical criticisms of balance of power theory and test whether the theory is still valid in the 21st century.
  • - 'Balance of Power', Dictionary of the History of Ideas
  • Hedley Bull, Anarchial Society (United States of America: Macmillan Ltd, 1977).
  • John Lewis Gaddis, Surprise, Security and the American Experience (United States of America: Harvard University Press, 2004).
  • Ernst B. Haas, "The balance of power: prescription, concept, or propaganda", World Politics, Vol. 5, No. 4, (1953), pp. 442–477.
  • Lawrence Kaplan & William Kristol, The War Over Iraq (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2003).
  • William Keylor, A World of Nations (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).
  • Little,Richard, The Balance of Power in International Relations. Metaphors, Myths and Models (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007)
  • Hans Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations: The struggle for Power and Peace: Fourth Edition (New York: Knofp, 1967).
  • Paul W. Schroeder, "The Nineteenth century system: balance of power or political equilibrium?", Review of International Studies, 15, (1989), pp. 135–153. Schroeder argues that the BOP system is inherently unstable and conflict-prone because particular nations tend to have differing conceptions of what constitutes a "balance"; he contends that the equilibrium achieved in Europe between 1815 and 1854 rested not upon a BOP but upon a generally recognized system of British and Russian hegemonies.
  • Michael Sheehan, The Balance of Power: History and Theory (London: Routledge, 2000).
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