Balance of Power Theory
- LAST REVIEWED: 19 May 2017
- LAST MODIFIED: 25 November 2014
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0083
- LAST REVIEWED: 19 May 2017
- LAST MODIFIED: 25 November 2014
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0083
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.
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.
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.
Haas, Ernest. “The Balance of Power: Prescription, Concept, or Propaganda?” World Politics 5.4 (July 1953): 442–477.
Identifies a number of different and incompatible definitions of the concept of balance of power.
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.
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.
Nexon, Daniel H. “The Balance of Power in the Balance.” World Politics 61.2 (April 2009): 330–359.
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.
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.
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.
Posen, Barry R. The Sources of Military Doctrine: France, Britain, and Germany between the World Wars. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1984.
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.
Sheehan, Michael. Balance of Power: History and Theory. New York: Routledge, 1996.
Sheehan provides a comprehensive and historical overview of the principle and practice of balance of power theory.
Vasquez, John A., and Colin Elman, eds. Realism and the Balance of Power: A New Debate. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2003.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.
How to Subscribe
Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.
- Academic Theories of International Relations Since 1945
- Arab-Israeli Wars
- Arab-Israeli Wars, 1967-1973, The
- Arms Control
- Arms Races
- Arms Trade
- Asylum Policies
- Authoritarian Regimes
- Balance of Power Theory
- Bargaining Theory of War
- Case Study Methods in International Relations
- Challenge of Communism, The
- China and Japan
- China's Defense Policy
- China’s Foreign Policy
- Civil Resistance
- Civil Society in the European Union
- Cold War, The
- Conflict Behavior and the Prevention of War
- Conflict Management
- Countermeasures in International Law
- Criminal Law, International
- Critical Theory of International Relations
- Cuban Missile Crisis, The
- Cultural Diplomacy
- Cyber Security
- Cyber Warfare
- Demobilization, Post World War I
- Democracies and World Order
- Democracy and Conflict
- Democracy in World Politics
- Deterrence Theory
- Diplomacy, History of
- Diplomacy, Public
- Disaster Diplomacy
- Drone Warfare
- Eastern Front (World War I)
- Economics, International
- Embedded Liberalism
- Emerging Powers and BRICS
- Empirical Testing of Formal Models
- Energy and International Security
- Epidemic Diseases and their Effects on History
- Ethics and Morality in International Relations
- Ethnicity in International Relations
- European Migration Policy
- European Security and Defense Policy, The
- European Union as an International Actor
- European Union, International Relations of the
- Fascism, The Challenge of
- Feminist Security Studies
- Food Security
- Forecasting in International Relations
- Foreign Policy, Theories of
- French Empire, 20th-Century
- From Club to Network Diplomacy
- Future of NATO
- Game Theory and Interstate Conflict
- Gender and Terrorism
- Genocide, Politicide, and Mass Atrocities Against Civilian...
- Genocides, 20th Century
- Geopolitics and Geostrategy
- Germany in World War II
- Global Citizenship
- Global Civil Society
- Global Constitutionalism
- Global Environmental Politics
- Global Ethic of Care
- Global Governance
- Global Justice, Western Perspectives
- Grand Strategy
- Greater Middle East, The
- Hague Conferences (1899, 1907)
- History and International Relations
- Human Rights
- Human Rights and Humanitarian Diplomacy
- Human Rights Law
- Intelligence Oversight
- Internal Displacement
- International Conflict Settlements, The Durability of
- International Criminal Court, The
- International Economic Organizations (IMF and World Bank)
- International Health Governance
- International Justice, Theories of
- International Law
- International Monetary Relations, History of
- International Negotiation and Conflict Resolution
- International Nongovernmental Organizations
- International Organizations
- International Relations as a Social Science
- International Relations Theory
- International Security
- International Society
- International Society, Theorizing
- International Support For Nonstate Armed Groups
- Internet Law
- Interstate Cooperation Theory and International Institutio...
- Intervention and Use of Force
- Interviews and Focus Groups
- Iran, Politics and Foreign Policy
- Iraq: Past and Present
- Just War Theory
- Korean War
- Kurdistan and Kurdish Politics
- Law of the Sea
- Laws of War
- Leadership in International Affairs
- League of Nations
- Lean Forward and Pull Back Options for US Grand Strategy
- Mediation and Civil Wars
- Mediation in International Conflicts
- Mediation via International Organizations
- Middle East, The Contemporary
- Middle Powers and Regional Powers
- Military Science
- Minority Rights
- Multilateralism (1992–), Return to
- National Liberation, International Law and Wars of
- National Security Act of 1947, The
- Nations and Nationalism
- NATO, Europe, and Russia: Security Issues and the Border R...
- New Multilateralism in the Early 21st Century
- Nonproliferation and Counterproliferation
- Nonviolent Resistance Datasets
- Peace of Utrecht
- Peacebuilding, Post-Conflict
- Political Demography
- Political Economy of National Security
- Political Extremism in Sub-Saharan Africa
- Political Learning and Socialization
- Political Psychology
- Politics and Islam in Turkey
- Popular Culture and International Relations
- Post-Civil War State
- Post-Conflict and Transitional Justice
- Power Transition Theory
- Preventive War and Preemption
- Prisoners, Treatment of
- Private Military and Security Companies (PMSCs)
- Process Tracing Methods
- Pro-Government Militias
- Prospect Theory in International Relations
- Public Opinion and the European Union
- Quantum Social Science
- Race and International Relations
- Religion and International Relations
- Religiously Motivated Violence
- Reputation in International Relations
- Responsibility to Protect
- Rising Powers in World Politics
- Role Theory in International Relations
- Russian Revolutions and Civil War, 1917-1921
- Sanctions in International Law
- Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), The
- Shining Path
- Social Scientific Theories of Imperialism
- Soviet Union in World War II
- Space Strategy, Policy, and Power
- Spatial Dependencies and International Mediation
- State Theory in International Relations
- Strategic Air Power
- Strategic and Net Assessments
- Sustainable Development
- Teaching International Relations
- Territorial Disputes
- Terrorist Financing
- Terrorist Group Strategies
- The Changing Nature of Diplomacy
- The Queer in/of International Relations
- The Vienna Conventions on Diplomatic and Consular Relation...
- Theories of International Relations, Feminist
- Theory, Chinese International Relations
- Trade Law
- Transnational Actors
- Transnational Social Movements
- Trust and International Relations
- UN Security Council
- United Nations, The
- US and Africa
- US–UK Special Relationship
- Voluntary International Migration
- War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714)
- Weapons of Mass Destruction
- Western Balkans
- Western Front (World War I)
- Westphalia, Peace of (1648)
- Women and Peacemaking Peacekeeping
- World Economy 1919-1939
- World Polity School
- World War II Diplomacy and Political Relations