The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Realism and the Great Balance of Power Debate

February 24, 2009

One of the panels I attended at ISA was a roundtable on Stephen Brooks‘ and William Wohlforth‘s excellent new book, World Out of Balance: International Relations and the Challenge of American Primacy. The participants did an outstanding job of discussing the strengths and weaknesses of the piece, but it was a point made both by Charles Glaser (soon to be of George Washington University) and Randall Schweller that got at the crux of a larger problem with the last six years of debate about balance-of-power theory.

In essence, the debate looks like this: “France and Germany opposed the invasion of Iraq, but they’re not preparing for a possible war with the United States. Oh noes! How can we salvage balance-of-power theory?”

Whether one opposed or supported the Bush Administration’s conduct of foreign policy, it can hardly be said that they sufficiently embraced unilateralism and diplomatic ineptitude to transform the United States into an existential threat to most of the second-tier powers of the world. On the other hand, both the Russians and Chinese have engaged in some degree of balancing. It just isn’t the case that most balancing looks like the Anglo-German naval arms race.

None of this should imply my endorsement of the current health of balance-of-power theory. I just think the problems largely lie elsewhere in time and space.

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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.