The Balance of Power: A Critical Enquiry of the Theory and Its Relevance in Security Studies Today

“For all its inconsistencies and ambiguities, the balance of power concept has been intellectually and politically significant in the development of the current international system and, precisely because of that, it remains significant, and worthy of study.”


BY HEIGRUJAM PREMKUMAR

The balance of power as a theory is essentially a theory of security and/or insecurity- more of insecurity and less of security- particularly among great powers.1 The balance of power theory supposes that states will form an alliance or a coalition whenever there is any ‘increasing threatening power’ to dominate the system, an outcome states, particularly rivalries, often see as a threat to their security.2 In fact, the feeling of insecurity inherent among the states in an uncertain environment set upon an anarchic3 international system seems to necessitate a balance of power in the system. The theory of balance of power thus stems from the very idea of ensuring state security in what Michael Sheehan describes as ‘an essentially insecure environment’4. For hundreds of years, the balance of power is considered to be one of the most important theories which can explain this state behaviour and guide foreign policy-makers in such a condition of international anarchy and concern for security.

However, many other scholars do not agree with this theory and what it says about security studies and international politics.5 There are even theoretical variations within the balance of power theory itself. On the other hand, the twenty- first century international politics characterised by unipolarity in the international order is considered an antithesis to the balance of power. Many scholars and theorists of International Relations even term the theory anachronistic to the present international system. This criticism is strengthened, critics argue, with the absence of a balance of power by great powers against United States hegemony in the international system since the end of the cold war.6

In this paper, an attempt is made to critically inquire and analyse the balance of power theory in relation to security studies in international relations. The understanding of both balance of power and security- the two important terms in the paper as well as international relations- is considered significant here. The paper, thus, firstly tries to examine what the balance of power means in this context. Further, it seeks to understand what security means and security studies consists of within the framework of the balance of power theory. Finally, this paper examines whether the balance of power thesis is relevant to the study of security studies particularly after the end of cold war. The central argument of the paper is that balance of power is still relevant in the contemporary study of security and it depends on what manner we understand the balance of power and what aspect of security we understand.

The Balance of Power Theory

What has to be examined at the outset is the very definition of the balance of power, the envious yet contentious position it occupies in the field of Security Studies as well as International Relations, and the manner in which the balance of power has to be looked at in a unipolar world.7 This section as a whole tries to capture the way balance of power has been understood so far and how it is to be understood in the post-cold war era.

The balance of power has been a central theoretical concept to the study of security studies as well as international relations.8 It is claimed to be one of the most enduring concepts in the field of International Relations. Balance of power has been employed to understand and explain the working of international relations for centuries and no other theoretical concept can claim this provenance.9 The advocates of the theory argue that there is a continuing effectiveness of the balance of power to account for the fundamental character of the international relations; and this is because of the fact that it “provides the ingredients needed to explain the resilience of the modern international system of states”.10 According to Kaufman and others, “the balance of power is one of the most influential ideas in international relations (IR). No theoretical concept has been the subject of as much scholarly inquiry and none is more likely to fall from the lips of foreign policy analysts and practitioners. This continued fascination with the balance of power is understandable, for it appears as central to scholarly debates about the basic properties of international systems as it is to policy debates over responses to US primacy in the early 21st century.”11

With all its fascination, however, defining the balance of power is not an easy task. There is a continuing difficulty of finding an uncontested definition of what balance of power actually means. In fact, balance of power is one of the most complex, controversial, and contentious theoretical concepts in International Relations (IR). Michael Sheehan, in his book The Balance of Power: History and Theory (1996), lists ten different definitions of the balance of power defined by various theorists of IR. Quoting Inis Claude, Sheehan argues that the difficulty in finding the essence of the idea of the balance of power is not that its meanings cannot be discovered; rather that it has too many meanings.12

What is to be noted here is the interesting fact that all the definitions of balance of power listed by Sheehan, however, reflected almost complete agreement on the key feature of a balance of power system. Sheehan, quoting Dina Zinnes, says that “a balance of power involves ‘a particular distribution of power among the states of that system such that no single state and no existing alliance has an “overwhelming” or “preponderant” amount of power’.”13 William C. Wohlforth and others, quoting Jack Levy, also agree that “notwithstanding the many ways it has been defined over the centuries, the concept has a core meaning: ‘that hegemonies do not form in multistate systems because perceived threats of hegemony over the system generate balancing behaviour by other leading states in the system’.”14 They further point out that “even though the unipolar structure of the contemporary international system is fundamentally different from the multipolar world in which balancing theory emerged, many scholars and statesmen share Kenneth Waltz’s (2000:55-6) expectation that ‘both friends and foes will react as countries always have to threatened or real preponderance of one among them: they will work to right the balance’.”15

Balance of Power and Security Dilemma

One important concept central to the understanding of the working of the balance of power is security dilemma. According to Mearsheimer, the essence of security dilemma is that ‘the measures a state takes to increase its own security usually decrease the security of the other states. Thus, it is difficult for a state to increase its own chances of survival without threatening the survival of other states.’16 John Herz first introduced the concept of security dilemma in an article in World Politics in 1950.

The concept of security dilemma ‘sees states perpetually competing, conflicting and fighting over issues of national security.’ The international politics is a struggle for survival- those who continue to fight continue to exist, and those who do not, perish. The structural nature of the international system in which states exists becomes the determining factor in their behaviour, forcing them to engage in the balance of power if they are to survive. ‘This characterization is central to the explanation of the balance of power by ‘structural’ or ‘neo’- realists such as Kenneth Waltz.’17

Theoretical Association of Balance of Power: Balance of Power and Realism

According to Jack S. Levy, “there is no single balance of power theory, but instead a variety of balance of power theories.”18 However, the theoretical understanding of the balance of power is mostly associated with realism.19 Though there were other influential political philosophers before whose works had been influencing realist thinking and scholarship in studying and understanding of international politics in terms of balance of power, this was most exemplified with the publication of Hans J. Morgenthau’s book, The Politics Among Nations in 1948. This was followed by Kenneth N. Waltz’s famous work, Theory of International Politics, published in 1979 in which Waltz famously insisted “that if there is any ‘distinctively political theory of international politics, balance of power is it’.”20 In this work, Waltz certainly redefined the realist understanding of international politics, and ‘made balance of power explicitly the fundamental organising principle of international politics’21, a central theoretical concept to the understanding of international relations.22 The most recent and prominent realist work on balance of power since the end of cold war, however, is considered to be John J. Mearsheimer’s book, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, which was published in 2001. All the three realists- Morgenthau, Waltz, and Mearsheimer- belong to different strands of realism. Morgenthau is a classical realist; Waltz a structural realists; and Mearsheimer an offensive realist.23

Despite certain dissimilarities, almost all realists have similar views about certain aspects regarding the working of international politics. Realists see that the international system ‘as it is’ is anarchy. The states are rational actors. The primary goal of every state in the system is to ensure survival. The relations among the states are carried out with states having their primary objective of ensuring, maintaining and increasing security in a condition of international anarchy.24

The question of survival (and thus security) in an anarchic international system is what all realists consider necessitates a balance of power. In an international system where there is no central authority to check the actions of states, in which there is no certainty regarding the behaviour of states, in which the only means states can ensure their survival is through self-help, the states must ensure their survival through maintaining or increasing their power by internal balancing (such as arm-build ups) or external balancing (such as alliance formation) against any external security threat.25

In tune with this understanding is Waltz’s famous dictum that “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.”26 Added to this are Mearsheimer’s assumptions that other than the anarchic structure of international system, the motive of survival among the states and states being rational actors, ‘states are potentially dangerous to each other’ because ‘great powers inherently possess some offensive military capability’ which empowers them ‘to hurt and possibly destroy each other’. Besides, ‘states can never be certain about other states’ intentions’ and ‘intentions can change quickly’.27 Therefore, according to Mearsheimer, there is always a security competition in the international system, particularly among the great powers. “The international system, not the particular characteristics of individual great powers, makes them to think and act offensively and to seek hegemony.”28 ‘The principal motive behind great power behaviour is survival.’29

Realists, particularly Waltz and Mearsheimer, thus, perceive “that bipolar balance of power systems are inherently more stable and less productive of war than are multipolar systems. Stability is, in fact, defined in terms of absence of war in the system…. A bipolar system is seen as being particularly stable because such a system is characterized by high levels of certainty and predictability…. In a bipolar system the enemy is easy to recognise, the issues are clearer, alliance patterns are simpler”30 which is not in the case of multipolar system.

Re-looking at the Balance of Power

The traditional realist understanding of balance of power is restricted to the very notion of balancing military capabilities among states so that no one state becomes hegemon in the system. It is mostly concerned with intense interstate rivalry where sovereign states struggle to accumulate more power and wealth to become the hegemon in an anarchic international system. Because, having relatively more power is considered to be more safe; and the best guarantee to security is to become the most powerful or hegemon in the system.31 This notion of the balance of power is generally referred to as ‘hard- balancing’, which is basically based on alliance formation and military build-ups.

However, defining the balance of power in terms of hard- balancing during the multipolar or bipolar international system is considered no longer relevant in a unipolar world. The empirical evidence also suggests limited or no occurrence of hard balancing in the international system today. The most cited case in this context is “the absence of a balancing coalition vis-a-vis the United States, the preponderant power in the contemporary international system.”32

In this context, many scholars in the field try to relook at the balance of power and how it has been understood over the centuries. Richard Little, for example, argues that historically the ‘power-polities’ interpretation of the balance of power is not the only interpretation of the concept.33 However, this ‘power-polities’ interpretation of the balancing power has been dominating the academic discourse. Little identifies two competing views within the balance of power tradition- adversarial and associational views of the balance of power.34 Describing what Little means by adversarial and associational views of balance of power, Michael Sheehan explains that “the former ‘depicts political actors in competitive and self- interested terms’, while the latter ‘assumes that in a balance of power political actors can be cooperative and pursue policies which embrace the interests of others’.”35

Bringing in a societal dimension over systemic perspective, Little argues that there is a need ‘to move beyond the conception of international system and embrace the conceptions of an international society and an associational balance of power.’36 Arguing in line with the English school, Little reemphasises the existence of a global international society and importance of international norms. The associational view of balance of power emphasises the elements of collaboration, consensus, global justice, and certain global norms and rules. Little argues that the balance of power is a dynamic theory and embracing the associational view of the balance of power will make the theory more relevant in the era of unipolarity.

Hedley Bull, and recently Michael Sheehan, also argues that balance of power can be explained within the neo-Grotian framework which takes into account the existence of an international society in which ‘international law, mediation, a balance of interests and dignities, and the pursuit of limited foreign policy’ objectives are possible.

Another important and convincing explanation regarding the understanding of the balance of power in the post-cold war era is presented by T. V. Paul (eds. 2004). At the outset, Paul distinguishes between what it means by ‘balancing’ and ‘balance of power’. Accordingly, “balancing is viewed as a state strategy or foreign policy behaviour while balances of power are regarded as outcomes at the systemic or subsystemic levels, that is, as conditions of power equilibrium among key states. The purpose of balancing is to prevent a rising power from assuming hegemony, and if and when that prevention effort succeeds, a balance of power is expected to be present [emphasis original].”37

Paul ‘presents three concepts- hard balancing, soft balancing, and asymmetric balancing– to describe various manifestations of balancing behaviour.’38 According to him, when there is hard balancing, states engage in intense interstate rivalry. “States thus adopt strategies to build and update their military capabilities, as well as create and maintain formal alliances and counteralliances, to match the capabilities of their key opponents.”39 This was most particularly the characteristic of a bipolar system exemplified by the cold-war era. “The traditional realist and neorealist conceptions of balancing are mainly confined to hard balancing.”

Soft balancing involves only ‘tacit balancing’ characterised by lack of formal alliances. According to Paul, soft balancing “occurs when states generally develop ententes or limited security understandings with one another to balance a potentially threatening state or a rising power. Soft balancing is often based on a limited arms build-up, ad hoc cooperative exercises, or collaboration in regional or international institutions; these policies may be converted to open, hard balancing strategies if and when security competition becomes intense and the powerful state becomes threatening.”40

On the other hand, by asymmetric balancing Paul refers to the act of balancing or containing threats posed by subnational actors such as terrorist groups. It also refers to efforts by state sponsored terrorist groups to weaken established states.41

Paul argues that in the contemporary international system characterized by unipolarity42, there is little possibility of hard balancing. Therefore, he argues the need for the broadening of the concept of ‘power balancing’. He argues that there is increasing case of soft-balancing of power in varying degrees today. According to him, certain conditions make soft balancing more preferable over hard balancing even among great powers. These conditions are the following:43

  1. The near-unipolarity since the end of the Cold War
  2. The increasing economic globalization, the engine of which has largely been the U.S.-based multinational corporations
  3. The common enemy of transnational terrorism, which challenges not only the United States but the other major players as well
  4. The difficulty of rapidly translating economic wealth into military power
  5. The value of free-riding and buck-passing, especially for the European and Asian allies in the general security and economic protection that Washington offers

In addition, Paul argues, weaker states no longer fear outright occupation and annexation unless they frontally challenge the hegemon especially because of the existence of strong international norms.

Balance of Power and Alternative Propositions

Balance of power understood as a strategy is often accompanied by alternative propositions. In this paper, the balance of threat, bandwagoning, and balance of interest are briefly discussed in comparison to balance of power as the most important and strong propositions challenging the significance of the balance of power concept.

The Balance of Power and the Balance of Threat: The balance of threat is a theory modified by Stephen Walt from the balance of power theory. While the balance of power theory says that balancing behaviour among states is triggered by the rise of a hegemonic power in an anarchic system, the balance of threat theory emphasises the role played by threat perceptions in stimulating balancing behaviour among states. According to Walt, ‘states tend to balance against threats and not necessarily against power.’44 Contrary to balance of power theory, Waltz argues that ‘states do not align solely or even primarily in response to the distribution of responsibilities.’ Instead, states’ align choices are driven by ‘imbalances of threat, when one state or coalition is especially dangerous.’45 According to Walt, “the level of threat that a state poses to others is the product of its aggregate power, geographic proximity, offensive capability and the perceived aggressiveness of its intentions.”46 Walt also argues that states usually balance and rarely bandwagon.

The Balance of Power and Bandwagoning: While balancing happens to be against the emerging hegemony, bandwagoning refers to the act of allying with the emerging power. Schroeder defined bandwagoning as ‘joining the stronger side for the sake of protection, even if this meant insecurity vis-a-vis the protecting power and a certain sacrifice of independence’.47 Speaking about the difference between balancing and bandwagoning, Schweller explains that ‘the aim of balancing is self-preservation and the protection of values already possessed, while the goal of bandwagoning is usually self- extension: to obtain values coveted.’ In other words, Schweller says that ‘balancing id driven by the desire to avoid losses; bandwagoning by the opportunity for gain.’48 For Schweller, ‘states tend to bandwagon for profit rather than security.’49

The Balance of Power and the Balance of Interests: Randall Schweller proposed the theory of balance-of-interests with the objective of bringing the revisionist state back in to the study of alliances. The basic assumption of the theory is simple- states’ interests vary and state behaviour can be explained by examining their interest-driven behaviours. For example, the status-quo powers seek self-preservation and the protection of values they already posses; they are security-maximizers and not power-maximizers. In contrast, revisionist states value what they covet more than what they currently possess. They want to change the present international system. Thus, generally, ‘revisionist powers are the prime movers of alliance behaviour; status-quo states are the “reactors”.’50

It is desirable to point out that there are other strategies states use other than the one discussed above such as “chain-ganging” and “buck-passing”. However, the balance of power is considered to be the most central and persistent theoretical concept to the understanding of security studies as well as international politics.

The Contemporary Relevance of the Balance of Power Theory in Security Studies: A Critical Assessment

The underlying argument in this paper has been that the study of security is central to the balance of power theory. With the increasing debate on the relevance of the balance of power theory and the various ways many theorists have been defining it, it is desirable to examine what security means and security studies consists of so that a more vivid picture regarding the status of the relevance of the balance of power theory can be drawn.

Like the ‘balance of power’, the definition of ‘security’ is also hugely contested. However, according to Paul Williams, “security is most commonly associated with the alleviation of threats to cherished values; especially those which, if left unchecked, threaten the survival of a particular referent object in the near future.”51 Here, he distinguishes between ‘security’ and ‘survival’. “Whereas survival is an existential condition, security involves the ability to pursue cherished political and social ambitions. Security is therefore best understood as what Ken Booth (2007) has called, ‘survival-plus,’ ‘the “plus” being some freedom from life-determining threats, and therefore some life choices’.”52

In security studies, as Williams also points out, it is important to know ‘what is security?’, ‘whose security are we talking about?’, ‘what counts as a security issue?’, and ‘how can security be achieved?’53

The emergence of security studies is rooted in the United States soon after the end of the Second World War. Security studies during the Cold War began to exclusively devote to the study of nuclear weapons and bipolar rivalry. From the beginning, it centred round the question of national security or the security of the state. However, the end of the Cold War and bipolar rivalry brought a crisis to security studies. Other referent points for security other than the state emerged in the academic discourse. In the words of Steve Smith, ‘as the state gets problematized so it becomes less secure’, thus, insisting that there is an increasing insecurity of security studies in the last twenty years.54 According to Smith, “questioning who security is for, how it is achieved, and what it means for whom are the kinds of questions that were not ask then, but which seem so obvious now.”55 He considers this as a positive and healthier development since this insecurity of the sub-field offers far more space to discuss security as compared to the past when security study was so precise and secure.

Thus, the understanding and defining of security in terms of state security came under constant attack after the end of the cold war. The term began to increasingly associate with other referents such as ‘human security’, ‘security of the society’, ‘environmental security’, and ‘energy security’ and so on. The identification of whose security we are talking about and what counts as a security issue will determine any security policy we advocate.56

It is in this light of understanding security that the relevance of the balance of power theory- both as a theory that purports to explain the foreign policy behaviours of states and the resulting patterns of outcomes- is challenged. The understanding of security in this manner also sees that the balance of power theory can no longer capture the dynamics of present day security studies and international politics.

However, many other theorists and scholars who advocate the balance of power theory argue that the theory is still relevant. They argue that the balance of power theory based on ‘power politics’ and ‘security competition’ advanced by realists or adversarial view is not the only theory of the balance of power. These theorists are generally subscribed to what Richard Little has described as an associational view of balance of power theory.

Beginning from Hedley Bull’s The Anarchical Society (1977), to the later works by such as English school theorists, this tradition of balance of power theory brings in the Grotian understanding of the balance of power focussing on international society rather than on international system. According to this particular brand of balance of power theory, instead of competition, there can be collaboration in the international politics if we recognise the existence of an international society which follows certain norms.

A very important understanding of security studies and international politics is found in the work of Ken Booth and Nicholas J. Wheeler (2008). Relying on the aspect of the possibility of cooperation among states under anarchy and uncertainty, their argument presented a new and an alternative perspective to security studies similar to that of the associational view of the balance of power.57

Terming the realist view, especially the offensive realist view, of security and international politics as based on ‘the fatalist logic of anarchy’ and ‘regressive fatalist theorizing about world politics’, Ken Booth and Nicholas J. Wheeler has drawn “attention to the scope for human agency, the value of emphatic leaders, the importance of diplomacy, animated by security dilemma sensibility, the case for defensive military restructuring, the goal of moving contingent cooperation to embedded trust, and the aim of building of community at the transnational level.”58 They predict a more secure future on the basis of above assumptions derive from the three main themes of their work, namely:59

  1. Uncertainty is not the end– ‘insecurity in world politics can be radically marginalized, even under existential uncertainty.’ What has to be done is the identification of ‘shared interests and values through strategies of common security and trust building’, and thereby constructing new identities. The concept of security community is important here. It ‘represents a multifaceted and multilevel approach, embracing governments and societies, and military and social dimensions.’ ‘Security communities do not eliminate uncertainty, but they domesticate insecurity.’
  2. Security dilemma can be transcended– the security dilemma cannot ultimately be escaped, but it can be transcended. By developing the capacity and will to exercise ‘security dilemma sensibility’, ‘leaders, policy advisors, civil society activists can become sufficiently self- and other-aware that they will never, wittingly, contribute to turning security dilemmas into security paradoxes.’ It is thus possible to transcend security dilemma. Security communities ‘are actually existing institutions showing what it means for security dilemmas to have been transcended, though without uncertainty having been escaped.’
  3. Trust-building can ensure peace and security– ‘the political conditions could be created in which the properties of trust could become embedded.’ Political community can replace nuclear threats to ensure security. What at important is ‘a shared and daily commitment to create the conditions globally for the politics of peaceful uncertainty.’ ‘Choices are there to be made in world politics’- ‘community and society rather than anarchy, trust and cooperation rather than fear, and the hope of transcending security dilemma rather than living with the self-replicating condition of security competition.’

According to Booth and Wheeler, “it is not beyond human potential to construct the political conditions, regionally and globally, to live together in the room of embedded trust in the house of uncertainty.”60

On the other hand, T. V. Paul has highlighted the increasing importance of soft-balancing in the post-cold war era. The balance of power being understood as soft-balancing of power is considered to be relevant in the study of international politics and security studies today.

By Way of Conclusion

The balance of power theory has been a controversial one particularly because of the ambiguity of the concept of the balance of power. Other than definitional problems, there is also a confusion regarding whether it is about strategies or outcomes. According to Paul, generally, “scholars treat “balancing” as a policy or strategy and “balance of power” as an outcome, although these two dimensions are intimately linked.”61 Another problem is what Jack Levy points out that there are not one but multiple theories of balance of power.

On the other hand, the balance of power theory generally associated with the understanding of international politics in a multipolar or bipolar system is considered meaningless in the post-cold war era where there is no active interstate rivalry. The often quoted example is the lack of a balancing coalition against US hegemony in the contemporary world.

Today, questions arise that whether the balance of power theory is still relevant in the study of international politics particularly the security studies, when even the meaning of security has taken a dynamic transformation.

In this article, it is argued that the balance of power theory is relevant to security studies and the explanation of international politics in the post-cold war era. The position is three-fold and is backed by three accompanying conditions. The validity of the arguments is dependent upon the validity of these three conditions.

Firstly, if the security of the state is considered to be the most important understanding of security in international politics.

Secondly, if the balance of power is understood in associational view of the balance of power and if there is indeed an existence of international society.

Finally, if soft-balancing is accepted as the present defining feature of the balance of power.

The different positions taken here may attract the scepticism that the positions are contradictory. However, the objective here is to acknowledge the importance of these approaches and certain valid claims they still continue to hold.

First: The realist understanding of the balance of power theory is associated with the security of the state. And, as far as the understanding of security in terms of the state is concerned, the balance of power theory is very much relevant. Moreover, the theory is relevant in many other areas where other corresponding goals of the state to ensure security is concerned- this means that other areas of security such as security of the citizens, environmental security, etc. can also be explained by the theory. The only thing to be noted is that the central question of security within the framework of the balance of power theory is confined to the security of the state solely because of the fact that ‘survival’ is the highest goal of a state.

According to Mearsheimer, there is ‘the hierarchy of state goals’ and ‘survival is the number one goal’.62 What is central to the balance of power theory is also to explain the strategies of states to achieve this ‘number one goal’, that is, survival, and to secure it. Another central aspect to the balance of power theory is the explanation of the patterns of outcomes as a result of this ‘security competition’ among states, particularly the great powers.

Second: As Michael Sheehan also argues, if the balance of power theory has to remain relevant in the changing international politics, it has to embrace the ‘associative’ balance of power tradition identified by Richard Little. Today, the definition of security has become more embracive, the international system is no longer based on constant and active interstate rivalry, and the states have become gradually recognizing international norms. Moreover, ‘international relations is not simply a state of warlike anarchy whose social elements are minimal.’ There is an international society, ‘that states and governments are bound by rules and therefore form a community with one another, a society.’63

Thus, the balance of power theory today should embrace the notion of international society rather than international system, security community rather than anarchy and collaboration rather than competition.

Final: The last position corresponds to the argument of T. V. Paul that the post-cold war era has witnessed little occurrence of hard-balancing of power, instead there is soft-balancing of power in the international system. In the unipolar world, the understanding of power balancing as soft-balancing is convincing. Such an understanding also ensures the relevance of the balance of power theory in security studies in international relations. Though there is no case of hard- balancing in the form of arms build-ups and formal alliance formations, there are still cases of soft balancing in international relations today. The opposition by great powers to the US war on Iraq in 2003 is considered one good example of exercising soft-balancing today.

Jack S. Levy, in a recent work, refuted the general and most cited criticism of balance of power theory that the absence of a balancing coalition against the United States indicates the failure of the theory in the post-cold war era. According to Levy, ‘this absence of balancing is not a violation of balance of power theory’ and there is nothing to be puzzled. This is basically because the theory works under certain conditions and it is misleading to assume the universality of the theory while its origin and development is region-bias as well as system- bias.

To conclude, there have been disagreements, debates, and criticisms on how the concept of the balance of power is understood and on what the balance of power theory says. However, the balance of power continues to hold its significance in the study of international politics particularly the study of security of the state. To quote Michael Sheehan, ‘for all its inconsistencies and ambiguities, the balance of power concept has been intellectually and politically significant in the development of the current international system and, precisely because of that, it remains significant, and worthy of study.’ In the exact manner, the balance of power theory continues to be relevant.

 


Notes and References

1 I say this because the need for balancing is always considered to be an outcome of insecurity felt by states when they see the rise of a threatening power to their security in a system where there is no central authority to regulate the actions of states. I will return to this in the follow-up arguments.

On the other hand (simply for clarification), Richard Little says that such a notion is the perspective of American realists. “From their perspective, the balance of power is a product of the insecurity experienced by states operating in an anarchic international system.” In the footnote given to the sentence, Little says, “as a consequence, the balance of power is closely related to the idea of security dilemma”. Little, p. 11.

2 Various theorists in the field define balance of power in different ways. However, the central argument is always the question of ensuring security and protection from insecurity. Well, defining the term is much broader than this simple explanation. I will return to this aspect in the follow-up arguments. Those scholars who deal with security studies also consider balance of power as an important tool for explaining security problems. All this will be discussed in this paper.

3 By anarchy here, I simply mean what John J. Mearsheimer explains in his well-known work, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (2001). According to Mearsheimer, this notion of anarchy is an ordering principle and does not necessarily mean conflict and chaos. It says that the international system comprises independent sovereign states that have no central authority above them. There is no “government over governments”.

I consider this to be true in the contemporary international system as well. Though I do not totally deny the existence of an ‘assumed’ international society and certain norms accordingly, as claimed by English school theorists and others, I find it little useful and meaningful considering its very limited influence over the nation states, particularly the strong states and also in case of regional strong powers. International events since the end of Second World War and more particularly since the end of Cold War clearly indicate that the agencies of the international society are manipulated and greatly influenced by the United States. The so-called norms of the international society are often disregarded and hardly followed by majority of the nation-states. The case of United States unilaterally declaring ‘war’ against Iraq in 2003 despite the disapproval of the action by the maximum number of states in the world, and the war Israel is still carrying out against Palestine by not obeying a single norm of the United Nations and not listening to a single protest against its action are few examples among dozens. Indeed, the states operate in an international system of anarchy where the existence of an international society to enforce certain norms in their act of engagement is often disregarded or paid little attention in order to gain their interest. There is no case of international society playing a dominant role in the relations among states. The primary goal of every state always remains ‘security’ of the state, and accumulation of more wealth and power among others. However, whether the structure of international system still ensures the alliance of states when there is a preponderant power in the system, and if so, in what manner is the subject of this paper.

4 Sheehan, p. 75.

5 There is a heated debate even among IR theorists and scholars on the ability of balance of power theory to explain patterns of systemic outcomes or the type of such outcomes. See Wohlforth et al. (2007). I will not engage into that debate.

6 See Sheehan, Michael and Paul, T. V.

7 Whether today’s world is a true unipolar world is contested. On the other hand, whether the United States, which is considered the strongest power, occupies global hegemony is also contested. For example, Mearsheimer argues that there is no global hegemon and there is not going to be one anytime soon because of ‘the stopping power of water’ (Mearsheimer, 2001: 41). However, I go in line with the position that the world today is unipolar.

8 The conceptual understanding of the balance of power in this paper is strictly meant to be in the context of security studies in particular and international relations in general as different from the use of the concept in other areas of various social science disciplines, or other common or general use of the term.

9 See Sheehan, and Little. It is more vividly captured in Kaufman (ed.), The Balance of Power in World History.

10 Little, p. 3.

11 Kaufman, et. al. (eds.), p. 1.

12 Sheehan, pp. 1-4.
13 Ibid., p. 4.
14 Wohlforth et al., p. 156.
15 Ibid., p. 156.
16 Mearsheimer, p. 36.
17 Sheehan, p. 8.
18 Jacks Levi, p. 31.
19 Sheehan, p. 4. However, Sheehan argues in the later part towards conclusion that the balance of power is not synonymous with realism. I will keep this in mind in my arguments in this paper.
20 Little, p. 167.
21 Sheehan, p. 193.
22 Somewhere a prominent scholar tried to distinguish between international relations and international politics. In this paper, I will use both the terms interchangeably.
23 The way they are classified or put into a particular category of theoretical approach is not done by me. It is already classified by scholars in the field. In a footnote, Little points out what he identifies to be the useful reviews of the evolving approaches to realism viz. Schweller and Priess (1997) and Rose (1998). Little, p. 213.
24 State security and national security are sometimes distinguished- the former to mean loosely the survival of the state and the later embracing other aspects of security such as the security of the people within the state. In this sense, the later term is considered broader. However, such a distinction seems very arbitrary. What affects the state affects the nation and its people. By state, we should avoid to mean only the leaders or power holders within the state or the territorial existence of the state. Such an isolatory meaning of state would dilute the constitutive nature of the two terms (Well, there can be nations without states. But, can there be a state without nations is something I cannot explain here). State security diverted from traditional meaning should mean the security of the state, its people, and territory among others. There is no point of creating more terms in the name of clarity but creating more confusion which is already the case in any social science discipline. In this paper, I will use both the terms interchangeably.

25 Though the understanding and explanation of ‘balance of power’ by Morgenthau, Waltz and Mearsheimer is desirable, I will not engage in explaining each of them separately nor is it of extreme importance in the context.

26 Waltz, p. 121.
27 Mearsheimer, pp. 30-31.
28 Ibid., p. 33.
29 Ibid., pp. 33-34.
30 Sheehan, p. 198.
31 Well, there is a debate between defensive realism and offensive realism regarding how much amount of power is enough and which policy of accumulating power- relative power or absolute power- is better. I will attend to these notions where it is necessary.
32 Paul, T. V. et al., p. 2.
33 Sheehan, p. 169.
34 Little, pp. 11-12.
35 Sheehan, p. 169. Also see Little, pp. 11-12 and 251-287.
36 Little., p. 270.
37 Paul, p. 2.
38 Ibid., p. 2.
39 Ibid., p. 3.
40 Ibid., p. 3.
41 Ibid., p. 3.
42 Paul, however, uses the term ‘near-unipolarity’ not ‘unipolarity’ in his work.
43 Paul, p. 16.
44 Paul, p. 8.
45 Schweller, p. 75.
46 Schweller, p. 76.
47 Sheehan, p. 165.
48 Schweller, p. 74.
49 Ibid., p. 99.
50 Ibid., pp. 104-105.
51 Williams, p. 5.
52 Ibid., p. 6.
53 Ibid., p. 5.
54 Smith, p. 97.
55 Ibid., p. 97.
56 Ibid., p. 5-9.
57 Whether Booth and Wheeler are subscribed to associational balance of power thinking is not my concern here. The importance is the workability of associational perspective being substantiated by their study on security dilemma.
58 Booth and Wheeler, p. 295.
59 Ibid., p. 295- 299.
60 Ibid., p. 299.
61 Paul, p. 368.
62 Mearsheimer, p. 46.
63 Sheehan, p. 11.


Bibliography

Booth, Ken and Wheeler, Nicholas J., 2008, The Security Dilemma: Fear, Cooperation and Trust in World Politics, Palgrave, New York.

Kaufman, Stuart J., Little, Richard and Wohlforth, William C. (eds.), 2007, The Balance of Power in World History, Palgrave, New York.

Levy, Jack S., “What Do Great Powers Balance Against and When?,” in, Balance of Power- Theory and Practice in the 21st Century, Paul, T. V. et al. (eds.), pp. 29-51.

Little, Richard, 2007, The Balance of Power in International Relations- Metaphors, Myths and Models, Cambridge University Press, UK.

Mearsheimer, John J., 2001, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, W. W. Norton & Company, United States.

Paul, T. V., Wirtz, James J., and Fortmann, Michel (eds.), 2004, Balance of Power- Theory and Practice in the 21st Century, Stanford University Press, California.

Schweller, Randall L., “Bandwagoning for Profit: Bringing the Revisionist State Back in”, International Security, Vol. 19, No. 1, (Summer, 1994), pp. 72-107.

Sheehan, Michael, 1996/2000, The Balance of Power- History and Theory, Routledge, London.

Smith, Steve, “The Increasing Insecurity of Security Studies: Conceptualizing Security in the Last Twenty Years”, in Critical Reflection on Security and Change, Stuart Croft and Terry Terriff, Frank Cass, 2000.

Waltz, Kenneth N., 1979, Theory of International Politics, Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Philippines.

Williams, Paul D. (ed.), 2008, Security Studies: An Introduction, Routledge, New York.

Wohlforth, William C, Little, Richard, Kaufman, Stuart J., Kang, David, Jones, Charles A., Tin-Bor Hui, Victoria, Eckstein, Arthur, Deudney, Daniel and Brenner, William J., 2007, “Testing Balance-of-Power Theory in World History,” European Journal Of International Relations, Vol. 13 (2), (2007), pp. 155-185.


* I wrote this article as a term-paper for “National Security and International Studies” paper during my Masters in Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
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