International Relations Balance of Power Theory
by
Steven E. Lobell
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 November 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0083

Introduction

The balance of power is one of the oldest and most fundamental concepts in international relations theory. Although there are many variations of balance of power theory and interpretations of the concept, all are premised on the minimum of a tendency and the maximum of a lawlike recurrent equilibrium model. According to this model, imbalances and concentrations in military and material capabilities among the great powers are checked, and the equilibrium is restored in order to ensure the survival of the major powers in the international system. The great powers have several mechanisms to restore the balance, including internal military buildup where economic wealth is converted into military power, the formation of counterbalancing alliances, passing the buck of balancing to another state, partition and compensation in postwar peace settlements, and emulation. In contrast, many scholars find that secondary and tertiary states are more likely to bandwagon or join with the more powerful state or coalition of states rather than balance against it. Based on structural realism as advanced by Kenneth Waltz in Theory of International Politics (New York: Random House, 1979), the self-help anarchic system and shifts in the relative distribution of capabilities mean that balances of power recurrently form in the international system. How states balance will depend on the distribution of capabilities among the greater powers. In bipolar distributions of power (two great powers) states will balance through internal military buildup. In multipolar distributions of power (three or more) states will balance through the formation of counterbalancing alliances. Finally, according to John Mearsheimer, in balanced multipolar distributions of power (three or more equally powerful states), great powers are likely to pass the buck of balancing or “buck pass” to a “buck catcher” the responsibility of balancing. In the current unipolar distribution of power, a number of scholars contend that states are engaging in soft balancing and leash slipping rather than traditional hard balancing. Others contend that no balancing is occurring and the imbalanced or unipolar distribution is both durable and stable.

General Overviews

A number of scholars provide a broad overview of the literature on balance of power theory for the great powers and for secondary states. Much of the discussion is about defining the concept of balance of power, the key propositions to test, and the historical or quantitative evidence.

  • Claude, Inis L., Jr. Power and International Relations. New York: Random House, 1962.

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    Examines the problem of managing military power in international relations through balance of power (including a critical assessment of the “ambiguous” concept), collective security, and world government.

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  • Haas, Ernest. “The Balance of Power: Prescription, Concept, or Propaganda?” World Politics 5.4 (July 1953): 442–477.

    DOI: 10.2307/2009179Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Identifies a number of different and incompatible definitions of the concept of balance of power.

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  • Levy, Jack S., and William R. Thompson. “Hegemonic Threat and Great Power Balancing in Europe, 1495–2000.” Security Studies 14.1 (January–March 2005): 1–30.

    DOI: 10.1080/09636410591001465Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Addressing the wide range of interpretations of balance of power theory and the ambiguity of the concept, the authors test the proposition that states balance against concentrations of power. They find that between 1495 and 1990, the great powers balanced against extreme concentrations of land-based military power in Europe.

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  • Nexon, Daniel H. “The Balance of Power in the Balance.” World Politics 61.2 (April 2009): 330–359.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0043887109000124Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Reviews four recent books on balancing and the balance of power. He makes the important distinction between balance of power theory, theories of power balances, and theories of balancing.

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  • Paul, T. V., James J. Wirtz, and Michael Fortmann, eds. Balance of Power: Theory and Practice in the 21st Century. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004.

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    Provides a broad theoretical overview of balance of power theory in the contemporary period. Chapters address how states respond to new security challenges such as terrorism and weapons of mass destruction and how they respond across different regional subsystems: including the Middle East, East Asia, and Europe.

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  • Posen, Barry R. The Sources of Military Doctrine: France, Britain, and Germany between the World Wars. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1984.

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    Posen provides a good overview of balance of power theory, the role of polarity, and structural modifiers such as technology and geography. Posen then tests balance of power theory against an organizational theory model to explain the military doctrine of the major Continental powers between the First World War and the Second World War.

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  • Sheehan, Michael. Balance of Power: History and Theory. New York: Routledge, 1996.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203344613Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Sheehan provides a comprehensive and historical overview of the principle and practice of balance of power theory.

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  • Vasquez, John A., and Colin Elman, eds. Realism and the Balance of Power: A New Debate. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2003.

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    Has a number of chapters that appraise and assess balance of power theory, including the key concepts, propositions, and evidence. The chapter by Jack S. Levy, “Balances and Balancing: Concepts, Propositions, and Research Design,” provides a helpful overview of the literature.

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  • Walt, Stephen M. “The Enduring Relevance of the Realist Tradition.” In Political Science: State of the Discipline. Edited by Ira Katznelson and Helen V. Milner, 197–230. New York: W. W. Norton, 2002.

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    Reviews the contributions of the major realist approaches to international relations including neorealism, defensive realism, offensive realism, and neoclassical realism. Also includes a discussion of alliance theory.

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  • Williams, Kristen P., Steven E. Lobell, and Neal G. Jesse. Beyond Great Powers and Hegemons: Why Secondary States Support, Fellow, or Challenge. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012.

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    In contrast to the bulk of the literature on balance of power theory that emphasizes the great powers, this volume examines the security strategies of the secondary and tertiary states. Moreover, rather than bandwagoning with the major powers, the authors find that secondary and tertiary states have a wide range of alternative strategies.

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Historical Accounts

Diplomatic and international historical studies examine and test the central proposals and tenets of balance of power theory. These include the classical period of balance of power of the 18th and 19th centuries highlighted by the work of Dehio 1962, Gulick 1967, Taylor 1971, and Kennedy 1987. Diplomatic international histories such as Gaddis 1986 and Schroeder 1994 have also contributed to the discussion on the balance of power. Taliaferro, et al. 2012 examines the interwar period of the 1920s and 1930s, while Joffe 1995 assesses two alternative balancing strategies for the United States in the post–Cold War era. One criticism is that balance of power theory reflects a specific European historical time and place. A number of scholars have sought to expand the pool of cases across time and regions. For instance, see Wohlforth, et al. 2007.

  • Dehio, Ludwig. The Precarious Balance: Four Centuries of the European Power Struggle. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962.

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    Examines six periods when a European land power tried to dominate the Continent and the subsequent counterbalancing coalitions that preserved the balance.

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  • Gaddis, John Lewis. “The Long Peace: Elements of Stability in Postwar International System.” International Security 10.4 (Spring 1986): 99–142.

    DOI: 10.2307/2538951Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    For Gaddis one crucial element in explaining the long peace or the absence of major power war during the Cold War era was the bipolar distribution of power. In contrast to multipolarity, he maintains that the bipolar structure was simple and meant for efficient American and Soviet balancing that did not rely on the whims of their allies.

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  • Gulick, Edward Vose. Europe’s Classical Balance of Power. New York: W. W. Norton, 1967.

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    Traces the origin and application of the principles of balance of power by European leaders.

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  • Joffe, Josef. “‘Bismarck’ or ‘Britain’? Toward an American Grand Strategy after Bipolarity.” International Security 19.4 (1995): 94–117.

    DOI: 10.2307/2539121Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Joffe outlines two alternative strategies for the United States in the post–Cold War period based on Britain’s offshore balancing strategy and Germany’s hub-and-spoke system.

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  • Kennedy, Paul. Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000. New York: Random House, 1987.

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    Paul Kennedy traces the rise and decline of great powers. He finds that imperial overstretch contributed to the decline of hegemons.

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  • Schroeder, Paul W. “Historical Reality vs. Neo-Realist Theory.” International Security 19.1 (Summer 1994): 108–148.

    DOI: 10.2307/2539150Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    In challenging the conventional wisdom of balance of power theory, Schroeder finds that bandwagoning and hegemony have occurred more often historically than counterbalancing behavior.

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  • Taliaferro, Jeffrey W., Norrin M. Ripsman, and Steven E. Lobell, eds. The Challenge of Grand Strategy: The Great Powers and the Broken Balance between the World Wars. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139136808Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The chapters in this volume reassess some of the balancing strategies of the major power during the interwar period. For instance, several chapters challenge the conventional wisdom about British appeasement.

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  • Taylor, A. J. P. The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, 1848–1918. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.

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    Traces European great power history and the balance of power from 1848 until the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914.

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  • Wohlforth, William C., Richard Little, Stuart J. Kaufman, et al. “Testing Balance of Power Theory in World History.” European Journal of International Relations 13.2 (June 2007): 155–185.

    DOI: 10.1177/1354066107076951Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    To widen the pool of cases, the contributors test balance of power theory against eight historical case studies that cover 2,000 years of international relations. The authors’ findings challenge the core hypothesis of balance of power theory: that states balance against concentrations of power. Instead, the authors conclude that hegemonies are durable.

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Classical Realism and the English School

Balance of power is a concept that is rooted in European history and that emphasizes both power and principles. For classical realists one of the central characteristics of international politics is the absence of a central authority to resolve disputes. Classical realism is grounded in a pessimistic and egoistic theory of human nature, which emphasizes national power and the inevitability of conflicts. Classical balance of power realists build on the writings of Thucydides, Niccolo Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Classical realists include Kennan 1951, Kissinger 1954, Carr 1964, and Morgenthau 1963. Alternatively, the English school of international relations theory emphasizes the role of international society and institutions in the anarchic international realm. Bull 1977 discusses the role of diplomacy, war, and the balance of power.

  • Bull, Hedley. The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics. New York: Columbia University Press, 1977.

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    As opposed to classical realism and despite the anarchical nature of the international system, Bull maintains that a society of states exists. Bull maintains that states abide by certain rules that operate through the mechanisms of the balance of power, diplomacy, international law, and war.

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  • Carr, Edward Hallett. Twenty Years’ Crisis, 1919–1939: An Introduction to the Study of International Relations. New York: Harper and Row, 1964.

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    First published in 1939, Carr criticizes the idealist or utopian position for its confidence in a harmony of interests among the great powers.

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  • Doyle, Michael W. “Balancing Power Classically.” In Ways of War and Peace. By Michael W. Doyle, 161–194. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997.

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    Doyle outlines three versions of realist balance of power theory: structuralist (Hobbesian), constitutionalist or sociological (Rousseauian), and fundamentalist or diplomatic strategic (Machiavellian). Doyle applies these three variants to 18th-century Europe, or what is known as the “classical period” of balance of power.

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  • Kennan, George. American Diplomacy, 1900–1950. New York: New American Library, 1951.

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    Kennan criticizes moralism and legalism and sets the framework for his containment policy, which entails containing Soviet expansion in the strategic Eurasian mainland.

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  • Kissinger, Henry A. A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace 1812–1822. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1954.

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    Kissinger discusses the role of Austrian minister Prince Metternich and British foreign secretary Viscount Castlereagh, who negotiated and legitimized the concert of Europe that brought stability to the region following the Napoleonic Wars.

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

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    Writing from the English school approach, Little reassess the idea, institution, and myth of the concept of balance of power in four central IR models: Hans J. Morgenthau, Hedley Bull, Kenneth N. Waltz, and John J. Mearsheimer.

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  • Morgenthau, Han J. Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace. New York: Knopf, 1963.

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    In presenting a theory of political realism that combines power and interests, Morgenthau explains international politics by emphasizing man’s lust for power and his urge to dominate, as well as the continuous struggle for power to explain international politics. He maintains that the concept of an equilibrium or balance is a universal principle.

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Refinements

The concept of balance of power theory has been refined and extended beyond classical realism. Waltz 1979 advances a third image to explain war, which emphasizes the anarchic structure of the international system to shape and shove states. More recent variants of balance of power theory include structural realism as discussed by Waltz 1979, offensive and defensive realism as discussed by Mearsheimer 1990 and Layne 1993, balance of threat as discussed by Walt 1990, balance of interests as discussed by Schweller 1997, omni-balancing as discussed by Ayoob 1998, and components of power theory as discussed by Lobell 2012.

  • Ayoob, Mohammed. “Subaltern Realism: International Relations Theory Meets the Third World.” In International Relations Theory and the Third World. Edited by Stephanie Neuman, 31–54. London: Macmillan, 1998.

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    Challenges the dominant IR paradigms to explain international relations in the developing world by including the often violent process of state making: this means that external threats and the security dilemma are usually secondary in nature to conflict that takes place within states.

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  • David, Steven R. “Explaining Third World Alignment.” World Politics 43.2 (January 1991): 233–256.

    DOI: 10.2307/2010472Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    David argues that balance of power theory is inadequate to explain Third World alignment patterns. According to omni balancing, secondary and tertiary states will balance against primary threats that are mainly internal or domestic challengers to regime survival and will appease or align with secondary threats that are external threats.

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  • Haas, Mark. The Ideological Origins of Great Power Politics, 1789–1989. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005.

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    Ideology and not capabilities shape threat perceptions and counterbalancing behavior. Haas finds the greater the ideological differences dividing leaders across states the more likely the states will identify the other as a threat and thereby provoke balancing.

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  • Healy, Brian and Arthur Stein. “The Balance of Power in International History: Theory and Reality.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 17.1 (March 1973): 33–61.

    DOI: 10.1177/002200277301700103Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    According to structural balance theory, Healy and Stein maintain that states in triadic relationships are pressured to sustain balanced relationships with other states, independent of power and capabilities. When an imbalance occurs, either due to improving or worsening relations with other state, this will pressure states to alter their relations until the balance is restored.

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  • Layne, Christopher. “The Unipolar Illusion Revisited: Why New Great Powers Will Rise.” International Security 17.4 (Spring 1993): 5–51.

    DOI: 10.2307/2539020Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    As a defensive realist, Layne highlights the self-defeating nature of a primacist foreign policy characterized by a preponderance of power. He maintains that such actions will simply provoke counterbalancing behavior. Layne calls for a policy of offshore balancing that entails “passing the buck” of balancing to regional and local powers (i.e., “buck-catchers”).

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  • Lobell, Steven E. “Britain’s Grand Strategy during the 1930s: From Balance of Power to Components of Power.” In The Challenge of Grand Strategy: The Great Powers and the Broken Balance between the World Wars. Edited by Jeffrey W. Taliaferro, Norrin M. Ripsman, and Steven E. Lobell, 147–170. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139136808Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    In recasting balance of power theory, Lobell argues that states do not balance against aggregate shifts in power. Instead he argues that states balance against specific components or elements of power, especially if they challenge important geo-strategic interests. The import is that shifts or imbalances of power will not necessarily provoke counterbalancing behavior.

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  • Mearsheimer, John J. “Back to the Future: Instability in Europe after the Cold War.” International Security 15.1 (Summer 1990): 5–56.

    DOI: 10.2307/2538981Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Mearsheimer, as an offensive realist, maintains that despite balance of power theory, aggression and territorial expansion often pays off, particularly in periods of balanced and unbalanced multipolar distributions.

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  • Miller, Benjamin. “Balance of Power or the State-to-Nation Balance: Explaining Middle East War Propensity.” Security Studies 15.4 (October–December 2006): 658–705.

    DOI: 10.1080/09636410601184587Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Challenging both realism and liberalism, Miller opens the black box of the state and contends that what matters is the internal state-to-nation balance. Specifically, the greater the congruence between states and national identity the less war prone a region will be.

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  • Schweller, Randall L. Deadly Imbalances: Tripolarity and Hitler’s Strategy of World Conquest. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

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    As opposed to balance of power and balance of threat theories, Schweller maintains that states balance against capabilities and interests, with the latter being a unit-level variable. Balance of interest theory maintains that revisionist states are more likely to bandwagon (for profit in some cases) and that status quo powers are more likely to balance.

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  • Walt, Stephen M. The Origins of Alliances. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990.

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    Walt argues that states balance against threats. According to balance of threat theory, the different sources of threats are a combination of aggregate power, geographic proximity, offensive power, and aggressive intentions. Walt finds that states balance against threats rather than bandwagon with them. Though he concludes that weaker secondary and tertiary states are less likely to resist threatening powers.

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  • Waltz, Kenneth N. Theory of International Politics. New York: Random House, 1979.

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    Structural realism, as developed by Kenneth Waltz, contends that states balance against shifts in the distribution of capabilities among the major powers. For Waltz, balancing is a lawlike recurring pattern that is independent of the domestic or individual level characteristics of the units composing the international system.

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Polarity and Balancing Strategies

IR scholars contend that the distribution of power will influence the mechanism and process of how states balance. The distribution of power includes bipolar (two great powers), tripolar as discussed by Schweller 1998, balanced multipolar (three or more great powers of relatively equal size), and unbalanced multipolar (one potential regional hegemon). For Mearsheimer 2001 and many realist scholars, bipolar distributions of power are more stable because they are simple and do not rely on allies, although Deutsch and Singer 1964 and Copeland 1996 argue that multipolar distributions encourage caution.

  • Copeland, Dale C. “Neorealism and the Myth of Bipolar Stability: Toward a New Dynamic Realist Theory of Major War.” Security Studies 5.3 (Spring 1996): 29–89.

    DOI: 10.1080/09636419608429276Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    In challenging the conventional wisdom of the stability of bipolarity, Copeland asserts that multipolarity is inherently more stable. War can only occur in multipolar distributions when one state is significantly more powerful than the rest. When there is a rough balance of power war is less likely, since the victor will still need to fight the remaining powers to become the hegemon.

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  • Deutsch, Karl W., and J. David Singer. “Multipolar Power Systems and International Stability.” World Politics 16.3 (April 1964): 390–406.

    DOI: 10.2307/2009578Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Deutsch and Singer maintain that multipolar distributions of power are more stable than bipolar distributions. Most importantly, uncertainty from multipolarity encourages caution, and the cross-cutting pressures across interactions promote moderation.

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  • Jervis, Robert, and Jack Snyder, eds. Dominoes and Bandwagons: Strategic Beliefs and Great Power Competition in the Eurasian Rimland. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

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    The contributors to this volume examine the causes of the strategic belief in domino theory or that states bandwagon with threating nations, which runs counter to balance of power theory.

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  • Mearsheimer, John J. The Tragedy of the Great Powers. New York: W. W. Norton, 2001.

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    Mearsheimer maintains that in bipolar distributions states will balance through internal military buildup and in multipolar distributions states will balance through alliances. Mearsheimer further refines Waltz’s argument by claiming that in balanced multipolar distributions states will try to “pass the buck” of balancing (or “buck pass”) to another state (i.e., the “buck catcher”). In unbalanced multipolar distributions states will balance through counterbalancing alliances.

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  • Ross, Robert S. “Balance of Power Politics and the Rise of China: Accommodation and Balancing in East Asia.” Security Studies 15.3 (July–September 2006): 355–395.

    DOI: 10.1080/09636410601028206Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Ross engages with the debate on whether secondary states balance or bandwagon. He finds that secondary states are sensitive to local balances of power and tend to accommodate rather than balance against great military powers.

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  • Schweller, Randall L. “Bandwagoning for Profit: Bringing the Revisionist State Back.” International Security 19.1 (Summer 1994): 72–107.

    DOI: 10.2307/2539149Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Schweller argues that rather than allying with the weaker side in a conflict, powerful revisionist states will bandwagon or join the stronger side to gain spoils from conquest.

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  • Schweller, Randall L. Deadly Imbalances: Tripolarity and Hitler’s Strategy of World Conquest. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.

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    Schweller amends balance of power theory to include human agency in his balance of interest model. In combining structure and agency, he distinguishes tripolar systems from bipolar and multipolar ones.

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  • Waltz, Stephen M. “Alliance Formation and the Balance of World Power.” International Security 9.4 (Spring 1985): 3–41.

    DOI: 10.2307/2538540Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Waltz argues that great powers balance in opposition to threats rather than bandwagon or ally with them. The import is that states are more secure, since aggressors are opposed. Secondary and tertiary states, however, are more likely to join threatening major powers.

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Balancing in a Unipolar Distribution

In the early-21st-century unipolar distribution of power, there are at least three distinct balance of power schools. One school, as discussed by Walt 2005 and Layne 2006, maintains that the United States is the unipole and is provoking balance, especially in acting unilaterally. A second school, as discussed by Ikenberry, et al. 2011, calls for abandoning the concept that balancing prevents systemic hegemony. Given the imbalance of power, these scholars maintain that it is difficult though not impossible to create a counterbalancing coalition. The rationale is that the overwhelming disparity in military power means that any state or group of states that counterbalances against the United States (either through internal or external balancing) will remain greatly outmatched. The cost for such states given the likelihood of punishment would be great. Moreover, the possibility of coordinating an overwhelming coalition to balance the United States is difficult given the collective action problem. A third school, as discussed by Pape 2005 and Paul 2005, does not call for abandoning balance of power, but contends that the concept should be amended and that balancing in a unipolar world entails nonmilitary mechanisms of soft balancing and leash slipping.

  • Brooks, Stephen G., and William C. Wohlforth. “Hard Times for Soft Balancing.” International Security 30.1 (2005): 72–108.

    DOI: 10.1162/0162288054894634Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    As critics of the concept of soft balancing, the authors maintain that it is difficult to distinguish subtle forms of resistance to the unipole from normal diplomatic bargaining and disputes that are a constant feature of international relations.

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  • Brooks, Stephen G., and William C. Wohlforth. World Out of Balance. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008.

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    Brooks and Wohlforth review and challenge the core assumption of balance of power: that imbalances of power are not stable and not durable. The authors maintain that the leading power, the United States, is not provoking counter-balancing behavior and is not constrained by the prospect of either internal or external balancing by other states.

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  • Ikenberry, G. John, Michael Mastanduno, and William C. Wohlforth, eds. International Relations Theory and the Consequence of Unipolarity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511996337Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The absence of hard balancing behavior in the contemporary period allows the contributors to explore the impact of unipolarity on the behavior of the leading state and the secondary powers. Important discussions include balancing strategies in a unipolar distribution that emphasizes subtle ways to resist the unipole.

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

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230591684Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This edited volume challenges the conventional wisdom and findings of balance of power theory by examining premodern and non-European cases.

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  • Layne, Christopher. “The Unipolar Illusion Revisited: The Coming End of the United States’ Unipolar Moment.” International Security 31.2 (Fall 2006): 7–41.

    DOI: 10.1162/isec.2006.31.2.7Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    According to Layne, secondary states are engaged in leash slipping, which is not hard or soft balancing but rather entails hedging and gaining autonomy from the unipole against future uncertainties.

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  • Lieber, Keir A., and Gerard Alexander. “Waiting for Balancing: Why the World is not Pushing Back.” International Security 30.1 (Summer 2005): 109–139.

    DOI: 10.1162/0162288054894580Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Lieber and Alexander are critical of the concept of soft balancing. The authors maintain that no balancing has occurred and that soft balancing is simply normal diplomatic friction and politics as usual that occur between sovereign states.

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  • Pape, Robert Anthony. “Soft Balancing Against the United States.” International Security 30.1 (Summer 2005): 7–45.

    DOI: 10.1162/0162288054894607Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    States in the current distribution of power are unlikely to balance through traditional hard-balancing measures since directly confronting the United States is too costly. Pape calls for extending the concept of balancing and maintains that states are balancing against the United States but are engaging in soft balancing, which entails using international institutions, diplomacy, and economic statecraft to resist US interests.

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  • Paul, T. V. “Soft Balancing in the Age of U.S. Primacy.” International Security 30.1 (Summer 2005): 46–71.

    DOI: 10.1162/0162288054894652Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Paul maintains that a number of second-tier states and emerging powers are engaged in soft balancing and asymmetric strategies intended to wear down the United States.

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  • Posen, Barry R. “European Union Security and Defense Policy: Response to Unipolarity?” Security Studies 15.2 (April–June 2006): 149–186.

    DOI: 10.1080/09636410600829356Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    According to Posen, rather than hard or soft balancing, the European Union is seeking greater autonomy to act independent of the unipole.

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  • Walt, Stephen M. Taming American Power: The Global Response to US Primacy. New York: W. W. Norton, 2005.

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    Walt maintains that if the United States acts unilaterally and is perceived as aggressive (and in contradiction to its traditional reputation as a hegemon with benign intentions), it will provoke a countervailing coalition.

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  • Wohlforth, William C. “The Stability of a Unipolar World.” International Security 24.1 (Summer 1999): 5–41.

    DOI: 10.1162/016228899560031Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Wohlforth advances three important propositions about the current international order that challenge the core assumption that states balance against concentrations of power: the system is unipolar, it is peace prone, and it is durable.

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Neoclassical Realism and Balance of Power

“Neoclassical realism,” a term coined in Rose 1998, accepts the underlying logic of balance of power but is critical of the quasi-mechanical application of the concept. The causal logic places domestic- and unit-level intervening variables—such as the state according to Lobell, et al. 2009; perceptions according to Wohlforth 1993; and elites and domestic politics according to Schweller 2006—between the distribution of capabilities and a state’s foreign policy to clarify the barriers to adjusting and adapting to shifts in the distribution of power.

  • Christensen, Thomas J., and Jack Snyder. “Chain Gangs and Passed Bucks: Predicting Alliance Patterns in Multipolarity.” International Organization 44.2 (Spring 1990): 137–168.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0020818300035232Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Christensen and Snyder highlight that great powers in a multipolar distribution will engage in “buck passing” when they perceive the defense has the advantage over the offense due to the expectation of a long and costly war. Using the same logic, they will engage in “chain ganging” when they perceive the offensive has the advantage.

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  • Friedberg, Aaron L. The Weary Titan: Britain and the Experience of Relative Decline, 1895–1905. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988.

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    In examining how leaders think about power, Friedberg’s perceptual model maintains that balancing is likely to occur in “discrete chunks rather than in a continuous stream of minor corrections” (p. 17) that are conventionally associated with balancing.

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  • Lobell, Steven E., Norrin M. Ripsman, and Jeffery W. Taliaferro. Neoclassical Realism, the State, and Foreign Policy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511811869Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The contributors to this volume examine the role of the state to account for why, how, and under what conditions the internal characteristics of states intervene between the leaders’ assessment of the international environment (including the distribution of capabilities) and the actual diplomatic, military, and foreign economic policies the leaders pursue.

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  • Rose, Gideon. “Neoclassical Realism and Theories of Foreign Policy.” World Politics 51.1 (October 1998): 144–172.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0043887100007814Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Rose coined the term “neoclassical realism” to capture the import of a state’s relative material capabilities and the insights from classical realism to argue that systemic pressures are translated through domestic- and unit-level variables to explain foreign policy.

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  • Schweller, Randall L. Unanswered Threats: Political Constraints on the Balance of Power. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006.

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    Schweller maintains that domestic constraints, especially elite fragmentation and disagreement, can result in inefficient balancing and pathological under-balancing behavior.

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  • Taliaferro, Jeffrey W. “State Building for Future Wars: Neoclassical Realism and the Resource-Extractive State.” Security Studies 15.3 (July–September 2006): 464–495.

    DOI: 10.1080/09636410601028370Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Taliaferro challenges the realist assumption that states can freely balance and emulate the more successful powers. He finds that lacking state power or the ability to extract and mobilize societal resources is an important factor in shaping the balancing strategies that countries will pursue.

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  • Wohlforth, William Curti. The Elusive Balance: Power and Perceptions during the Cold War. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993.

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    In challenging the quantification of the “real” balance of power as a useful measure, Wohlforth examines state leaders’ perceptions of power and the balance of power during the Cold War.

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  • Zakaria, Fareed. From Wealth To Power: The Unusual Origins of America’s World Role. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998.

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    Zakaria distinguishes between state power and national power and maintains that states expand as their ability to extract and mobilize societal resources increases.

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Domestic Political Economy and Domestic Politics

Skålnes 1998, Papayoanou 1999, and Narizny 2003 use a domestic political economy model to highlight inward- and outward-oriented sectors and factors, and financial political economy constraints and tradeoffs between alliances and internal resource extraction can impact balancing behavior. For Barnett and Levy 1991, domestic politics can drive a state’s choice of balancing through alliances and domestic resource extraction.

  • Barnett, Michael N., and Jack S. Levy. “Domestic Sources of Alliances and Alignments: The Case of Egypt, 1962–73.” International Organization 45.3 (Summer 1991): 369–395.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0020818300033142Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Barnett and Levy argue that when considering balancing strategies, secondary and tertiary states must examine both internal and external threats to the regime. The authors assess the domestic political economy of the tradeoff between external alliances (external balancing) and domestic resource extraction (internal balancing) as alternative strategies to enhance security.

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  • Narizny, Kevin. “Both Guns and Butter, or Neither: Class Interests in the Political Economy of Rearmament.” American Political Science Review 97.2 (May 2003): 203–220.

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    Balancing through rearmament or alliances can have a differential effect on the domestic balance of political and economic power between societal groups. Narizny finds that conservative governments are more likely than leftist governments to substitute alliances and appeasement for arms to enhance security.

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  • Papayoanou, Paul A. Power Ties: Economic Interdependence, Balancing, and War. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999.

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    For the author, economic interdependence generates domestic economic interests that affect a leader’s capacity to mobilize resources. The more extensive the commercial and financial ties between states, the easier it is for political leaders to mobilize domestic support for an ally, and the more credible the counterbalancing alliance in the view of potential challengers.

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  • Rosecrance, Richard, and Arthur A. Stein, eds. The Domestic Bases of Grand Strategy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993.

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    The contributors to this volume go beyond realism, and some of the chapters challenge the equilibrium assumption of balance of power theory by highlighting domestic constraints that can result in departures from realist assumptions and international pressures.

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  • Skålnes, Lars. “Grand Strategy and Foreign Economic Policy: British Grand Strategy in the 1930s.” World Politics 50.4 (1998): 582–616.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0043887100007371Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    States in need of allies and supporters will pursue favorable discriminatory foreign economic policies toward the target country. For Lars Skålnes, the intent is that the foreign beneficiaries will have a stake in closer military and economic relations with the initiating country and are more likely to fulfill alliance commitments.

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  • Snyder, Glenn H. Alliance Politics. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997.

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    One mechanism of balancing in a multipolar distribution is through the formation of counterbalancing alliances. Alliances are often portrayed as part of a mechanical process of balancing. Snyder highlights the intra-alliance bargaining process in alliance formation and management.

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Balance of Power as Foreign Policy

A number of scholars apply the concept of balance of power to guide American foreign policy. Scholars disagree on whether Washington should engage in offshore balancing (as argued by Art 2003) or deep engagement (as argued by Brooks, et al. 2013). Offshore balancing entails retrenchment in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. As Gholz, et al. 1997 argues, too much American power will provoke hard balancing among the major powers. Alternatively, deep American engagement, according to supporters, will dissuade other states from attempting to challenge the United States in a military arms race, which discourages regional security competition and reassures allies. Of particular importance, as discussed by Friedberg 2005 and Christensen 2006, is the rise of China and the response of the “Great Powers.”

  • Art, Robert A. A Grand Strategy for America. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003.

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    Robert Art discusses a range of grand strategies for the United States and calls for Washington to adopt a strategy of selective engagement. He describes selective engagement as a middle course premised on the assumptions of balance of power theory: doing too much will provoke counterbalancing, and too little would encourage other states to rise up.

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  • Brooks, Stephen G., G. John Ikenberry, and William C. Wohlforth. “Lean Forward.” Foreign Affairs 92.1 (January–February 2013): 130–142.

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    The authors call for a policy of deep engagement and challenge the arguments supporting a strategy of retrenchment. They maintain that deep engagement reduces regional competition, facilitates the liberal international trading order, and makes it easier for the United States to secure cooperation in combating a wide range of international threats

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  • Christensen, Thomas J. “Fostering Stability of Creating a Monster? The Rise of China and U.S. Policy toward East Asia.” International Security 31.1 (Summer 2006): 81–126.

    DOI: 10.1162/isec.2006.31.1.81Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Christensen synthesizes both positive-sum and zero-sum perspectives on US policy toward China. The former adopts a defensive realist and liberal internationalist perspective and maintains US engagement of China promotes restraint through interdependence, transparency, and multilateralism. The latter adopts an offensive realist perspective and that US engagement of China has strengthened a regional competitor.

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  • Friedberg, Aaron. “The Future of U.S.-China Relations: Is Conflict Inevitable?” International Security 30.2 (Fall 2005): 7–45.

    DOI: 10.1162/016228805775124589Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Friedberg outlines the causal mechanisms identified by realists, constructivists, and idealists who are either optimistic or pessimistic about the future of US-China relations.

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  • Gholz, Eugene, Daryl G. Press, and Harvey M. Sapolsky. “Come Home, America: The Strategy of Restraint in the Race of Temptation.” International Security 21.4 (Spring 1997): 5–48.

    DOI: 10.1162/isec.21.4.5Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The authors call for retrenchment from global commitments including Europe, Asia, and a limited pullback from the Middle East, while challenging the primary counterarguments for deep engagement. They maintain that restraint will husband America’s prosperity without provoking counterbalancing among new rivals.

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  • Ikenberry, G. John, ed. America Unrivaled: The Future of the Balance of Power. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002.

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    The contributors to this edited volume address important questions such as how durable is the current unipolar order and whether the age-old dynamic of balance of power will return as new great powers emerge.

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  • Posen, Barry R., and Andrew L. Ross. “Competing Visions for U.S. Grand Strategy.” International Security 21.3 (Winter 1996–1997): 5–53.

    DOI: 10.2307/2539272Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The authors discuss four grand strategies for the United States: neo-isolationism, selective engagement, cooperative security, and primacy.

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