The realist theory of the balance of power, attempts to explain the rationale behind different systems of world order. This paper will analyse and define this concept, while illustrating that it is not an effective mechanism for maintaining world order. An explanation of the international relations theory of realism is provided to depict the ineffectiveness of the balance of power theory.
The downfall of the balance of power has been examined from many different perspectives and included is an explanation of the conditions required for its international success and further clarification of where these circumstances are ineffective. Furthermore, the end of the Cold War is investigated to demonstrate that the demise of bipolarity triggered the rise of unipolarity. Unipolarity as a system of world order is unprecedented in history and currently consists of the United States as the dominant hegemon. This paper has endeavoured to exploit the success of unipolarity to prove that power balancing is not an effective and efficient means of maintaining world order.
Realism, as a concept, can have a multiplicity of different definitions. Mastanduno (1993, p. 50) refers to realism as a ‘research program that contains a core set of assumptions from which a variety of theories and explanations can be developed’. However, according to Kegley and Wittkopf (2001, p. 457) realism is a theory that considers world politics as ‘essentially and unchangeably a struggle among self-interested states for power and position under anarchy, with each competing state single-mindedly pursuing its own national self-advantage without altruistic concern for others or sentimental attachment to moral values’.
However, Gusterson (1993) refers to realism as a body of theory that came to achieve hegemonic status among international relations. According to Keohane (1984, p. 46) ‘States do whatever they think necessary for their own preservation, since no one can be relied on to do it for them… Self help is necessarily the principle of action in an anarchic order’. This means that states must rely for their security of military force and on alliances with other states against potential predator states. Gusterson (1993) believes realists assume that human behaviour in the international system can be uncovered by analysis and examination. One such theory is the balance of power. Waltz (1979, p. 140) quotes
‘The state among states, is often said, conducts its affairs in the brooding shadow of violence. Because some states may at any time use violence, all states must be prepared to do so – or live at the mercy of their military more vigorous neighbours. Among states, the state of nature is a state of war’.
Balance of power theory remains the most prominent realist theory of international relations. Stephen Waltz was first to initiate and develop the balance of power theory and he derives that a behavioural expectation exists for believing that balances of power will form and reoccur automatically (Mastanduno, 1997). Balance of power theory predicts that ‘any system comprised of states in anarchy will evince a tendency toward equilibrium’ (Wohlforth, 1999, p. 24). Furthermore, as Waltz (1997) states ‘unbalanced power, whoever wields it, is a potential danger to others’. More specifically, according to Griffiths and O’Callaghan (2002), all balance of power systems have certain conditions in common – balance of power configurations maintain a multiplicity of sovereign states, unconstrained by any legitimate central authority, they have continuous but controlled competition over scarce resources or conflicting values and contain an unequal distribution of status, wealth and power potential among the political actors that make up the system (Griffiths ; O’Callaghan, 2002, p. 13).
Furthermore, according to Kegley ; Wittkopf (2001), the balance of power can be used in a variety of ways, both regionally and internationally. Its core concept is that peace will result when ‘military power is distributed so that no one state is strong enough to dominate the others’ (Kegley ; Wittkopf, 2001, p. 555). In addition if one state, or arrangement of states, gains enough power to threaten others, compelling incentives will exist for those jeopardised states to disregard their superficial differences and unite in a defensive alliance. The optimal result from this collaboration would be, to ultimately deter the threatening state from advancing (Kegley ; Wittkopf, 2001).
The collapse of the Soviet Union produced the greatest change in world order power relations since World War II. With the fall of the Soviet Union from superpower status, the bipolar structure that had shaped the world order had vanished and the United States (US) emerged as the sole superpower. Cooper, cited in Thompson (1998) believes that the end of the Cold War marked the end of a long era in which the balance of power dominated the relations in Europe, and therefore, in the world.
Layne, cited in Mastanduno (1997, p. 54) illustrates that ‘the Soviet Union’s collapse transformed the international system from bipolarity to unipolarity’. While realists frequently discuss and analyses unipolarity, their attentions are usually focussed on its demise. For realists, unipolarity is the least stable structure of world order because any great concentration of power threatens other states and causes then to take action and restore the balance (Wohlforth, 1999). Therefore, realists consider that the unipolarity configuration will be temporary and other states will rise, creating conflict and counterbalance the current distribution of power. This paper will endeavour to illustrate that this is not the case in the current world order.
Kegley and Wittkopf (2001) present a comprehensive list of rules that are required for a balance of power system to be successful. It can be determined that these are not satisfied in today’s international political and economic environment. For example, their theory presupposes that there must be a number of independent states to make alliance formation and dissolution readily possible and a stable balance of power system requires at least five great powers of blocs of states. This is not the current state of affairs. The US is the global hegemon and it will be proven in this paper that their dominance is one of peace, stability and durability.
Furthermore, in the near future, one cannot foresee the rise and ‘balancer’ effect of any competing state. Another condition of Kegley and Wittkopf is that the powers must be in a limited geographical area. According to Layne (1998) the fact that the US is positioned away from the previous superpowers, such as Russia, Germany and Great Britain, works to their advantage. Moreover, all states in the system must have a weapons technology that inhibits pre-emption. Pre-emption is the first strike ability that defeats the competitor before it has sufficient time to mobilise (Griffiths ; O’Callaghan, 2001). This is not the case in the unipolar system of today. The US’s military capabilities and therefore, economic technology outweigh other states. Therefore, it can be proven that the balance of power theory is becoming obsolete in the quest for maintaining modern world order.
Many variations exist in the distribution of capabilities across states. This produces different configurations of the balance of power. It can be concluded that multipolar configurations are likely to contain more conflict and war zones that bipolar systems. Thus, by the same logic, it can be concluded, that unipolar systems would be the most stable and peaceful. The definition of unipolarity, according to Wohlforth (1999, p. 9) is a ‘structure in which one state’s capabilities are too great to be counterbalanced’. Once these capabilities are so concentrated, a structure arises that is fundamentally different to both multipolarity and bipolarity. From the literature, it can be determined that the balance of power theory is very clear about the international implications for unipolarity. This theory maintains that all states will seek to balance power and, therefore, the preponderance of power in the hands of a single state, such as the US, will stimulate the rise of new great powers and possibly coalitions of powers, which are determined to balance the dominant state (Mastanduno, 1997).
Layne, (1998, p. 14) asserts that ‘in unipolar systems, states do indeed balance against the hegemon’s unchecked power’. Furthermore, Waltz and Layne consider this rise of power to be a rapid transition and thus, the unipolar system is not preserved for a considerable length of time. Both these theorists predict that the world order will return to multipolarity in the 10-20 years after the end of the Cold War. It has currently been 14 years since the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and there is no indication of another state rising to challenge the US. However, Samuel Huntington (1996, p. 42) notes that ‘political and intellectual leaders in most countries strongly resist the prospect of a unipolar world and favour the emergence of true multipolarity’.
However if leaders policymakers always maintained the balance of power that they ultimately wanted, then neither bipolarity nor unipolarity would have occurred in the first place. Waltz, cited in (Mastanduno, 1997, p. 55) contends that Japan is the most likely state to threaten the US in the future and Waltz views that Japan is ‘ready to receive the mantle (of great power status) if only it will reach for it’. This paper is going to endeavour to prove that unipolarity is a very stable and peaceful means of maintaining world order. The paper will conclude that the balance of power theory is not relevant in the new international political and economic environment.
For a state to be a great power it needs to excel in numerous different areas. According to Morgenthau (1993), this includes characteristics such as geographic capabilities, military preparedness and more elusive categories such as national character, morale and the quality of government. Waltz (1993) furthers this discussion by stating that great power rank depends on how states score on a combination of attributes – size of population, resource endowment, economic capability, military strength and political stability and competence.
Realists’ emphasis that economic interactions among states are inherently competitive and this fact is due to the close connection between economic and military power. Throughout history, the capabilities of a state have depended on the size and level of development of its economy. The US has a strong world economy, which is reflected in their dominant military force. This also accounts for their unprecedented unipolarity. Waltz, cited in Mastanduno (1997, p. 74) argues that ‘economic competition is often as keen as military competition, and since nuclear weapons limit the use of force among great powers at the strategic level, we may expect economic and technological competition among them to become more intense’.
In the modern world order the US is in a class by itself. The present order is undoubtedly a unipolar system, with the US as hegemon. The US enjoys an unprecedented margin of superiority over the next most powerful state, or bloc of states, than any leading power in the last two centuries. Bruce Russett, cited in Wohlforth (1999, p. 10), compared the US position of the early 1980s with that of the British Empire in the mid-nineteenth century. His conclusion was that ‘the United States retains on all the indicators a degree of dominance reached by the United Kingdom at no point’ in the nineteenth century. This unprecedented power of the US is also proven by Joseph Nye and Henry Nau (Wohlforth, 1999), who conclude that the US is a uniquely powerful hegemonic actor with a much more complete portfolio of capabilities than Britain ever had. Moreover, the US is the leading state in modern international history with decisive preponderance in all the underlying components of power – military, economic, technological, and geopolitical (Mastanduno, 1997).
Furthermore, the current unipolar order is prone to peace. The unprecedented power advantage to the US means that an important source of conflict in previous multipolar systems is absent. This is the hegemonic rivalry over leadership. Presently, no major power is in a position to follow a policy that rivals that US (Wohlforth, 1999). Furthermore, unipolarity minimises the security competition among major states. As the hegemon, the US has the means to maintain key security institutions and to ease local security conflicts. The US also has the power to limit expensive international competition among other states. Moreover, the unipolar system at present is extremely durable. It is already over a decade old and, if the US constructs their strategies correctly, it can last for many years to come. Realists, who consider the balance of power system as a comprehensive mechanism for maintaining world order, establish that unipolarity is dynamically unstable. Wohlforth (1999, p. 8) finds the opposite to be true – that ‘unipolarity is durable and peaceful, and the chief threat is US failure to do enough’. This has been proven in the discussion above.
Unipolarity is an effective means of maintaining world order. It favours the absence of war among the political powers and encourages comparatively low levels of competition for security and progression. This occurs for two main reasons. First, the leading state’s power advantage removes the problem of the hegemonic rivalry from world politics and it secondly, reduces the awareness and importance of the balance of power theory. This discussion is based on two known realist theories – hegemonic theory and balance of power theory (Thompson, 1998). Hegemonic theory stipulates that extremely powerful states foster international orders that are stable until differential growth in poorer areas produces a dissatisfied state with the capabilities to challenge the dominant state for leadership (Wohlforth, 1999).
The larger the concentration of power in the leading state, the more peaceful the international order associated with it will be. The key point in this theory is that conflict only occurs if the leader and the challenger disagree about their relative power (Keohane, 1984). At this point in the modern world no state has risen, or are trying to rise, to balance the US’s dominance. In a unipolar system, the hegemon’s power should be much more stable than in any multipolar system with numerous states vying for power. As unipolarity is based on a historically unprecedented concentration of power in the US, a potentially important source of power conflict – hegemonic rivalry – will be missing.
The US strategy of preponderance is a realist perspective that aims to perpetuate America’s post-Cold War geopolitical dominance. The strategy of preponderance rests on the assumption that states gain security not through the balance of power, but by creating a power imbalance in their favour. Therefore seeking hegemony (Layne, 1998). In the current unipolar international arena, security rests on ‘hard’ power, such as military and economic strengths. This is where the US dominates. To implement the strategy of preponderance successfully, the US, according to a 1992 Pentagon planning document, ‘must account sufficiently for the interests of the large industrial nations to discourage them from challenging our leadership or seeking to overturn the established political or economic order’ (Layne, 1998, p. 12).
Although, Waltz and Layne have great confidence in their predictions of the new world order, with the uprising of Germany and Japan and Wohlforth (1999) believing that China will rise, in reality the opposite is occurring. Rather than undertaking measures to balance the power, as the theorists predicted, Japan and Germany have persisted with maintaining their pattern of engagement that characterised the Cold War. Furthermore, no other potentially powerful state such as China or Russia has attempted power balancing.
Once again this determines that the balance of power theory is becoming obsolete in the present unipolar order (Mastanduno, 1997). Furthermore, the US has continued with their grand strategy and has been determined to remain engaged. Instead of preparing itself for the inevitability of multipolarity, as Waltz and Layne would suggest, it has remained focused on its Cold War commitments and strategies (Layne, 1998). The US has attempted to preserve the status quo in security relations with its Cold War allies and has tried to engage and integrate its Cold War adversaries, Russia and China, into an order that continues to preserve the dominant hegemon position of the US.
In the international political arena, the US is uncontested by other powerful states. No state is willing to attempt to balance the power, as the realists predict. Furthermore, it can be determined that most other states have scaled back in military expenditures much faster than the US at the end of the Cold War. One possibility for this lack of power balancing is that any effort to compete directly with the US is futile and most likely unsuccessful and therefore, no state tries.
The balance of power theory suggests that efforts to preserve unipolarity are bound to be pointless and likely to be counterproductive. This is the perspective of theorists such as Waltz and Layne, who believe that the dominant state should accept the inevitability of multipolarity and manoeuvre to take advantage of it. It has been proven that this balance of power position is not viable in today’s international arena for many reasons, as this paper has endeavoured to explain. The hegemonic position of the US is likely to be held for many years to come. Thus, the balance of power is not an advantageous theory for maintaining world order.
The current concentration of power in the world, with the hegemonic position of the US, is unprecedented in history. The current world order does not encompass the realist theory of the balance of power. This theory exists in bipolar or multipolar configurations. This paper has endeavoured to prove that there are many limitations with the balance of power as an instrument for maintaining modern world order. It has done this by explaining realism and defined the concept of the balance of power. Furthermore, this paper has examined the end of the Cold War and how this led the to the current, unipolar world order.
The limitations of the balance of power are discussed and used to prove that the unipolar system is the most effective and efficient means for maintaining world peace, stability and security. It can be determined that even if world order abided by the realist rules, and that democracy, new forms of independence and international institutions were not salient entities, the world should not see a return to the previous multipolarity balance of power. This is due to the fact that the modern world is in its first unipolar system. Furthermore, the conditions of this new world order are deeply established in the international political and economic environment and have the potential to last for many decades.
Griffiths, M ; O’Callaghan, T (2002) International Relations: The Key Concepts, Routledge, London, United Kingdom.
Gusterson, H (1993) ‘Realism and the International order after the cold war’ in Social Research, Vol. 60, Issue. 2, pp. 279-302.
Huntington, S. P (1996) The clash of civilisation and the remaking of world order, Simon ; Schuster, New York, United States of America.
Kegley, C.W ; Wittkopf, E.R (2001) World Politics: Trend and Transformation, MacMillian Press Ltd, London, United Kingdom
Keohane, R (1984) After Hegemony: Cooperation and Discord in the World Political Economy, Princeton University Press, United States of America.
Layne, C (1998) ‘Rethinking American Grand Strategy: Hegemony of Balance of Power in the Twenty-First Century’ in World Policy Journal, Summer 1998.
Mastanduno, M (1997) ‘Preserving the Unipolar Moment’ in International Security, Vol. 21, No. 4, pp. 49-88.
Morgenthau, H (1993) Politics among nations: the struggle for power and peace, 5th edition, Oxford University Press, United Kingdom.
Thompson, S (1998) ‘Not quite a new world order, more a three way split’ in Economist, Vol. 345, Issue. 8048, pp. 41-45.
Waltz, K (1979) Theory of International Politics, McGraw-Hill, New York, United States of America.
Waltz, K (1993) ‘The Emerging Structure of International Politics’ in International Security, Vol. 18, No. 2, pp. 44-79.
Waltz, K (1997) ‘Evaluating Theories’ in American Political Science Review, Vol. 91, Issue 4, pp. 913-119.
Wohlforth, W (1999) ‘The Stability of a Unipolar World’ in International Security, Vol. 24, No. 1, pp. 5-41.