W(h)ither balance-of-power theory?

Mar 21, 2009

I already pimped it, but my review essay, “The Balance of Power in the Balance,” just came out in World Politics (abstract). Unlike a number of other journals, World Politics subjects review essays to peer review and insists that they include original argumentation.

Two of my conclusions:

Balance of power theory, at least in its stronger variants, cannot survive the combined weight of arguments and evidence presented in these four volumes. while a case exists for preserving a weak balance of power theory, such a theory ultimately works by decoupling the mechanisms specified by Waltz from his predictions about system-level outcomes. Indeed, even contemporary variants of hegemonic order theory, let alone neoclassical realism, hold that anarchy shapes and shoves units so as to make relative power and power transitions crucial factors in international relations. It is therefore not at all clear that realists can eliminate weak variants of balance of power theory without calling into question why realism enjoys any status as a general account of world politics.


These considerations should not obscure more immediate implications for the field concerning the study of the balance of power. The works reviewed here carry an important lesson: the field is long overdue for a time when we firmly decouple the study of balancing and the balance of power from the broader debate about realism. Both phenomena deserve our attention as objects of analysis in their own right. as I discussed earlier, a number of extant and possible theories of balancing and of power balances start from other than realist premises. But we have yet to see, for example, a well-developed constructivist research agenda on balancing. Given that, as skeptics of the existence of contemporary balancing note, leaders now find it useful to legitimate their policies with reference to balance of power considerations, we need much better understandings of, for example, the significance of balancing as rhetorical commonplace or normative orientation.

My major regret is that I didn’t develop my categorization of different forms of what we mistakenly call “soft balancing” in a full-blown typology, which is something rectified (I hope) in my current work.

After reading Emile Hafner-Burton’s and James Ron’s excellent essay on the state of research on human rights, I find myself with one additional shoulda-woudla-coulda about my own piece: that I wound up including a summary of the books; my original plan called for a straight “New York Review of Books” style piece, and the other essay demonstrates that this would have been acceptable.


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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.