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Old Monday, November 19, 2007
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Default Balance of Power

Balance of Power

Balance of Power, theory and policy of international relations that asserts that the most effective check on the power of a state is the power of other states. In international relations, the term state refers to a country with a government and a population. The term balance of power refers to the relatively equal power capabilities of rival states or alliances. For example, the United States and the Soviet Union maintained equivalent arsenals of nuclear weapons in the 1970s and 1980s, which helped sustain a military balance of power.

The balance of power theory maintains that when one state or alliance increases its power or applies it more aggressively, threatened states will increase their own power in response, often by forming a counter-balancing coalition. For example, the rise of German power before and during World War I (1914-1918) and World War II (1939-1945) triggered the formation of an anti-German coalition, consisting of the Soviet Union, Britain, France, the United States, and other countries.

As a policy, balance of power suggests that states counter any threat to their security by allying with other threatened states and by increasing their own military capabilities. The policy of forming a geographically based coalition of states to surround and block an expansionist power is known as containment. For example, the United States followed a containment policy towards the Soviet Union after World War II by building military alliances and bases throughout Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.

As a theory, balance of power predicts that rapid changes in international power and status—especially attempts by one state to conquer a region—will provoke counterbalancing actions. For this reason, the balancing process helps to maintain the stability of relations between states.

A balance of power system functions most effectively when alliances are fluid, when they are easily formed or broken on the basis of expediency, regardless of values, religion, history, or form of government. Occasionally a single state plays a balancer role, shifting its support to oppose whatever state or alliance is strongest. Britain played this role in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly in its relations with France, Russia, and Germany. China acted as a balancer during the Cold War, when it shifted its support between the Soviet Union and the United States.

A weakness of the balance of power concept is the difficulty of measuring power. Ultimately a state’s power derives from the size of its land mass, population, and its level of technology. But this potential power—measured roughly by a state’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP)—translates imperfectly into military capability. The effective use of military force depends on such elements as leadership, morale, geography, and luck. Furthermore, leaders’ misperceptions can seriously distort the calculation of power. During the Vietnam War (1959-1975), for example, U.S. presidents consistently underestimated the strength of the Vietnamese Communists because by conventional measures of power they were much weaker than the United States.

Historical examples of power balancing are found throughout history in various regions of the world, leading some scholars to characterize balance of power as a universal and timeless principle. During the Period of the Warring States in China (403-221 BC), the development of large, cohesive states accompanied the creation of irrigation systems, bureaucracies, and large armies equipped with iron weapons. These Chinese states pursued power through a constantly shifting network of alliances. In ancient Greece during the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), the rising power of Athens triggered the formation of a coalition of city-states that felt threatened by Athenian power. The alliance, led by Sparta, succeeded in defeating Athens and restoring a balance of power among Greek cities.

In the 17th century the Habsburg dynasty, which ruled Austria and Spain, threatened to dominate Europe. During the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), a coalition that included Sweden, Britain, France, and the Netherlands defeated the rulers of the Habsburg Empire. Early in the 19th century, french emperor Napoleon I repeatedly made efforts to conquer large areas of Europe. A broad coalition of European states—including Britain, Russia, Austria, and Prussia—defeated France in a series of major battles that climaxed with Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. The classical European balance of power system emerged thereafter in an alliance known as the Concert of Europe, organized in 1815 by Austrian statesman Klemens von Metternich.

This loose alliance between Britain, Russia, Austria, Prussia, and France ensured that a handful of great powers would coexist, with none able to dominate the others. Under this system, and with Britain playing a balancer role, peace largely prevailed in Europe during the 19th century. During World War II, Germany’s rising power, aggressive conquests, and alliance with Italy and Japan triggered yet another coalition of opposing states—notably the capitalist democracies of Britain and the United States, and the Communist Soviet Union.

The Cold War standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union shaped the global balance of power after World War II. Although an actual war between these two superpowers never occurred, the balance of power process instead took the form of a massive arms race, in which each superpower responded by adding to their military buildup. The possession of large arsenals of nuclear weapons by both the United States and the Soviet Union ensured that any potential war would prove disastrous for both.

Because of the threat to human survival posed by nuclear weapons, military strategists often referred to the balance of power as a “balance of terror.”
During the Cold War, the U.S. policy of containment encircled the Soviet Union with military and political alliances in Western Europe, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. The major U.S. and Soviet military interventions of the Cold War—in Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan—took place in politically contested regions of the world where both superpowers jockeyed for influence. Small states sometimes benefited from the superpower competition. In the 1960s, for example, Cuba’s relations with the United States soured. At that time, Cuba allied itself with the Soviet Union and received large economic and military subsidies.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 left the United States as the world’s sole superpower. Balance of power theory suggests that without the Soviet threat the United States, as the dominant world power, will face difficulties in its relations with such states as China and the European powers. For example, in 1995 and 1996 France openly challenged U.S. actions or proposals on a range of issues. These included Middle East policy, the command structure of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the United Nations, world trade regulations, and responses to conflicts in Africa and the former Yugoslavia. At the same time, Russian-Chinese relations, which had been very hostile in the 1970s and 1980s, improved dramatically in the 1990s. This improvement occurred largely because both countries feared the predominant power of the United States.

In regional conflicts, balance of power continues to operate in a traditional manner in the post-Cold War era. For example, in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, aggression by Iraq catalyzed a broad alliance against that nation. In the future, the balance of power principle should continue to reduce the likelihood of aggression. Great powers such as China and Russia, along with smaller states such as Iraq and North Korea, generally understand that aggression creates new sources of resistance and is thus self-defeating.
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