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Balancing and the balance of power, part 2

November 11, 2005

In September I started series on the balance of power. Since then, I’ve been distracted by breaking news and other obligations. I am returning to the topic today.

The first part of the series discussed, in very stylized terms, the history and core concepts of the balance of power. Since then, I’ve mentioned some aspects of the argument about “soft balancing” as it relates to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. At least part of the reason why some scholars have introduced the concept of “soft balancing” relates to the general crisis of balance-of-power theory – in particular, the apparent lack of counterbalancing against the United States.

In this post, I want to stress the distinctions betwen “balance-of-power theory” and some of the major alternatives within contemporary realist theory.

By “balance-of-powert theory” I have in mind the notion that the balance of power is a fundamental process of international politics: that, for whatever reason, the balance of power is a kind of “master law” of international relations.

There is a long history to this “Newtonian” conception of the balance of power. Yet in the European intellectual tradition it was, at least through the eighteenth century, a minority view. Much more common was the idea that prudent sovereigns ought to pursue balance-of-power politics. If they followed balance-of-power logic, they would preserve their own independence as well as prevent Europe from falling prey to an “oriental-style” despotism. As I alluded to in my early post, the “balance of power” was an important adjunct to European ideologies that rejected universal empire on normative grounds.

In contemporary international-relations theory, “balance-of-power theory” (as I’ve defined it) is primarily associated with structural realism. Kenneth Waltz, the founder of structural realism, argues that because the international system lacks a common authority (is in a state of anarchy), it inclines states to behave in ways that, over time, produce recurrent balancing equilibria.

Within contemporary realism (broadly defined) there exist a number of approaches that reject this interpretation of the basic dynamics of world politics.

Both hegemonic-stability theorists and power-transition theorists argue that the natural equilibrium of international systems is unbalanced: that systems are characterized by the repeated emergence of dominant powers. In substance, the arguments of both camps are basically identical, although the former incline towards qualitative analysis and the latter towards statistical studies. They do adopt somewhat distinctive terminology, however.

Hegemonic-stability theorists generally view such systems as “hegemony under anarchy,” i.e., the dominant power acts as a kind of quasi-world government, setting the rules for trade, war, and peace. Power-transition theorists, in contrast, tend to dismiss the notion that the international system is anarchical. In J.F.K. Organski’s view, the international system is characterized by a pyramid of power, with the dominant state at the top. This system is hierarchical, and has a great deal in common with domestic systems.

Advocates of both approaches tend to disagree with balance-of-power theorists that the best way to preserve peace between major powers is for states to achieve a balance of power between them. The logic is straightforward: when power is unbalanced, i.e., when a state or coalition of states is clearly superior to their potential rivals, then the former have no need to initiate wars to get what they want while the latter know they are likely to lose any confrontation. Wars between great powers, however, happen when both sides believe they can win, i.e., when they at least perceive the existence of a rough equality of capabilities.

Hegemonic-stability theory – and particularly the work of Robert Gilpin – helped spawn a third variant of realism, often called “neoclassical realism.” Neoclassical realism shares a great deal in common with the understanding of the balance of power prevalent in early modern Europe: balancing is a prudent policy, but there is no “force of nature” that impels states to engage in balancing behavior.

As Gideon Rose argues (may be subscription only),

Neoclassical realists argue that relative material power establishes the basic parameters of a country’s foreign policy; they note, in Thucydides’ formula, that “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” Yet they point out that there is no immediate or perfect transmission belt linking material capabilities to foreign policy behavior. Foreign policy choices are made by actual political leaders and elites, and so it is their perceptions of relative power that matter, not simply relative quantities of physical resources or forces in being…. [S]ystemic pressures and incentives may shape the broad contours and general direction of foreign policy without being strong or precise enough to determine the specific details of state behavior. This means that the influence of systemic factors may often be more apparent from a distance than from up close–for example, in significantly limiting the menu of foreign policy choices considered by a state’s leaders at a particular time, rather than in forcing the selection of one particular item on that menu over another.

In short, neoclassical realism is not a balance-of-power theory; it does not imply any aggregate tendency among states, or at the systemic level, towards a balance of power.

In my view, balance-of-power theory is clearly facing an intellectual crisis – even if not all of its advocates recognize it yet. There are two main reasons for this:

1) The lack of balancing against the United States in the current international system.
2) The mounting comparative-historical evidence that many international systems do not experience the recurrent formation of balancing equilibria.

I will examine these challenges more closely in my next post.1

1 I suggested in the first part of this series that I would examine these challenges in my second entry. In keeping with the blogging genre, however, I don’t want to make any given post a “tome.” Hence, my decision to push the crux of the discussion into part 3.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.