In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Balance of Power Theory

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Historical Accounts
  • Classical Realism and the English School
  • Refinements
  • Polarity and Balancing Strategies
  • Balancing in a Unipolar Distribution
  • Neoclassical Realism and Balance of Power
  • Domestic Political Economy and Domestic Politics
  • Balance of Power as Foreign Policy

International Relations Balance of Power Theory
Steven E. Lobell
  • LAST REVIEWED: 01 August 2019
  • 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.

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.

    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.

    DOI: 10.2307/2009179

    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.

    DOI: 10.1080/09636410591001465

    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.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0043887109000124

    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.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203344613

    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.

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