By: Ahmad Syah Ejaz Bin Hj. Ismail
The concept of power and balance of power has definitely played an interesting and complex role in international relations theory than is generally recognized. Power in international relations means the ability of a national state to control other states. Such control can also be meant as influencing others to act or behave in a way that will fulfill ones need or ones strategic interest. Often this power was transpired in a form of war such as describe by Clausewitz in this work On War1.
There are four main theoretical frameworks that had previously discussed the concept of balance of power. The four main theories were as follows:-
- Hans J. Morgenthau’s Politics Among Nations (1948);
- Hedley Bull’s The Anarchical Society (1977);
- Kenneth N. Waltz’s Theory of International Politics (1979); and
- John J. Mearsheimer’s The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (2001).
The above four main balance of power studies had been the referent or focal point for scholars to understand the concept of balance of power in international relations for the past five hundred years in details. It has also played a key role in some of the most important attempts to develop a theory of international politics in the contemporary study of international relations.
The traces of the idea of balance of power can be tracked back to the Renaissance era where it is viewed as a ‘metaphorical concept’ that treats balancing behavior as a response ‘driven by a law of nature’. There were views by contemporary scholars such as Schweller that emphasized the contemporary balance of power theorist presuppose that the balance of power represent a natural law and that, as a result, the subscribe to a view of the international arena as a machine ‘created and kept in motion by the ‘divine watchmaker’2.
Approaches to the balance of power
The four main theories mentioned above had a different approach to the concept of the balance of power. Hans J. Morgenthau is more interested in the way that the operation of the balance of power has changed across time. This can be seen through his seminal work in the Politics Among Nations that emphasized the rise of nationalistic universalism in the twentieth century, in conjunction with the erosion during the nineteenth century of the factors that had helped to maintain what can be translated as an associational balance of power.
Although Morgenthau accepted the idea of the creation of a global world society preconditioned for the formation of a world government that could eradicate international war, Morgenthau still skeptical of this preconditions in the near future. This can be translated into a lay man term as a disagreement with the emergence of United States as a global hagemon with equanimity and unquestionably would lead to US unilateralism with alarm.
Hedley Bull’s approach to the balance of power in general has more in common with Morgenthau than is generally recognized3. For example, despite the centrality of the balance of power to their assessments of international politics, both scholars acknowledge the potential importance of world society in the future. Through Bull’s seminal work The Anarchical Society, he was cautiously optimistic that the United States and the Soviet Union could co-exist and indeed, the existence of the nuclear weapons had helped in stabilizing the relations between the two super powers although it can be said the nuclear arms build up was at the expense of establishing order on a more positive basis.
Bull’s also accepts the idea of states as an instrument of utilizing balance of power competitively to promote their own interests as well as cooperatively to help preserve a society of states. However, different from Morgenthau, Bull was more interested in interaction among the institutional dimensions of international politics and how this interaction affects and is in turn affected by both the adversarial and associational balance of power4.
For Kenneth Waltz, the balance of power emerges, in the first instance as an unintended consequence of states endeavoring to survive in the anarchic international system. Waltz seems to acknowledge the existence of an international society however the international society is more recessed and privileged by Waltz in his work5. For Waltz, the international society is subordinated to the international system. However, in his work, Waltz does mention that in the context of bipolarity, and adversarial balance of power was giving way to an associational balance of power.
The latest seminal works on the concept of balance of power were written by John J. Mersheimer in 2001 through his book The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. Mersheimer focus his work exclusively on the idea of an international system, but from a foreign policy as well as a structural perspective, privileges geography over polarity. Mersheimer considers the international system not in the context of the global dimension but more into a regional dimension.
Mersheimer boldly develops a stand that runs counter to Morgenthau, Bull and Waltz who all assume that the global balance of power takes precedence over regional balances of power. By contrast, Mersheimer argues that hegemony or unipolarity can emerge at the regional level and it is primarily, or to be precise, geography which prevents the emergence of global hegemony or unipolarity6. For an example, the United States only succeeded in becoming a regional hegemon because of a favorable situation that make US achieved such a status. And now the US will try it very best to prevent a hegemon from emerging in another region7.
Mersheimer does not only suggest that other states try to balance over United States, but that global geography inhibits any state from occupying a position of worldwide hegemony and it is this factor that is ultimately responsible for preserving a global balance of power.
What can be concluded from the four various theorists on the balance of power, the concept can be compared along three distinct dimensions (system/ society divide, polarity, geographical dimension). First, they vary in terms of the importance that can be attached to the system/ society distinction for understanding the balance of power. Bull formally draws attention to the significance distinction for our understanding of the balance of power; Morgenthau makes more effective use of the divide by arguing explicitly that the long-established (associational) balance of power was giving way to a new (adversarial) balance of power in the twentieth century. Waltz by contrast only draws on the distinction implicitly, while it plays no role at all in Mearsheimer’s thinking.
Polarity however plays a significant role in the way that all four theorists approach the balance of power. Bull associates polarity with complexity, while Morgenthau initially makes the argument that multipolarity is more stable than bipolarity in the grounds that it generates higher levels of uncertainty and therefore encourages caution. For Waltz, however, polarity is of overriding importance for his model of the balance of power because this is the factor that changes the structure of the system and as the structure of the system changes, so too does its impact on the constituent members of the system.
Polarity is also crucial importance in Mearshimer’s analysis, although it is impossible to disentangle this dimension from the third dimension that focuses on a global/ regional divide. He distinguishes between polarity at the regional and the global level. Waltz however disagrees with Mearshimer’s as he wants to exclude the geographical dimension from his analysis. Morgenthau and Bull on the other hand acknowledge the need to take geography into account and subscribe to a common image of the European international society expanding across the globe.
Although there were overlapping distinctions between the four theorists of the balance of power, the degree of the overlap had raises the question of whether or not it is possible to establish a composite model of the balance of power on the basis of three dimensions explained above. The concept of balance of power would be more interesting and complex in nature to understand as the world is moving from a different political background that would influence states to behave among each other.
1. Richard Little, Balance of Power in International Relations, Metaphors, Myths and Models, Cambridge University Press, 2007;
2. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Wilder Publications, 2008; and
3. Ken Booth, Theory of World Security, Cambridge Studies in International Relations, 2007.