Balance of Power: Meaning And Nature

The balance of power is one of the oldest concepts of international relations. It at once provides an answer to the problem of war and peace in international history. It is also regarded as a universal law of political behavior, a basic principle of every state’s foreign policy through the ages, and, therefore, a description of a significant pattern of political action in the international field. Before the present inquiry into a general theory of international relations, the balance of power was regarded as the only tenable international relations theory, especially from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century.

Broadly speaking, it refers to a relative power position of states as actors in international relations. With its emphasis on the cultivation of power and the utilization of power for resolving the problem of power, it appears to be a sensible way of action in an international society where their national interests and prejudices govern nations. The balance of power is part and parcel of a system of power politics. Its strength and life will always be determined by the latter.

Thus the theory of balance of power is widely held. It is an overused theory in international relations. It means different things to different scholars. Claude has aptly remarked that it is an ambiguous concept as it has so many meanings.1

Similarly, Schleicher observes, “it is virtually meaningless”2

Wight says the notion of the balance of power is notoriously full of confusion.3

It is used as a policy, as a system, as a status, and as a symbol. It is also used at times as a propaganda ploy.

Therefore, it becomes a tough task to precisely explain the meaning of the term, which will be universally acknowledged at any given time. Despite this difficulty, an attempt has been made in the following paragraphs to describe the meaning and nature of the concept with prominent scholars of international relations.

Meaning And Nature In Balance Of Power:

To know the meaning of balance of power, one may take the analogy of a balancer with a pair of scales. If the weights in the two scales are equal, there is balance. The same thing can be applied to international relations. The two states or two coalitions of states are in balance if they are equally powerful.

In a world where many nations with different degrees of power exist and in which each nation endeavors to maximize its power, there is a tendency for the entire system to be in balance. In other words, different nations manipulate and group themselves in such a way that no single nation or group of nations is strong enough to dominate others because that of a rival group balances its power. It is believed that so long as this kind of balance is established, there is peace, and small nations’ independence is protected.


How different scholars have endeavored to define this concept is mentioned as under. Mostly it is defined as a state of dynamic equilibrium characterizing relations among nations. It is the process of matching some nations’ powers against those of other nations so that there is no upheaval or chaos in the relations among nations.

For example, Castlereagh defined balance of power as maintaining such a just equilibrium between the members of the family of nations as should prevent any of them from becoming sufficiently strong to impose its will upon the rest.  Similarly, Fay defines it as just equilibrium in power among the family of nations as it will prevent any one of them from becoming sufficiently strong to enforce its will upon the others.5

Besides, many other scholars have also explained the concept of balance of power in terms of equilibrium. In practice, however, nations have mostly desired preponderance, not an equilibrium of power. Spykman observes the truth of the matter that states are interested only in a balance in their favor.

The balance desired is the one that neutralizes other states, leaving the home state free to be the deciding force and the deciding voice.6

Thus another usage of the balance of power refers to a situation in which competing powers prefer a disequilibrium condition and not of equilibrium. In this way, the balance of power sometimes means equilibrium and sometimes disequilibrium.

Dickinson also explains the two usages of the term “it means, on the one hand, and equality, as of the two sides when an account is balanced, and on the other hand, an inequality as when one has a balance to one’s credit at the bank.”7

He further says this theory professes the former but pursues the latter. 8

Dyke explains the prime object of balancing power is to establish or maintain such a distribution of power among states. It will prevent anyone from imposing its will upon another by the threat of violence. 9

The concept of power assumes that through shifting alliances and countervailing pressures, no one power or combination of powers will be allowed to grow so strong as to threaten the rest’s security.10

Thus as a status or condition, the balance of power has meant three things, namely,

  • Equality or equilibrium of power among states resulting in balance.
  • A distribution of power in which some states are stronger than others, and
  • Any distribution of power among states.

Thompson and Morgenthau have identified it as a policy. Thus it is held that in a multi-state system, the only policy which can check the erring behavior of other states is that of confronting power with countervailing power.11

The balance of power is also known as a system of international politics. According to this meaning, the balance of power is a certain kind of arrangement for international relations working in a multi-state world. Martin Wight, A.J.P. Taylor, and Charles Lerche have used this term as a system.

Many other scholars have used it not as a concept but merely as a symbol of realism in international relations. This usage is based on the idea that the balance of power is nothing but a corollary of international relations’ power factor. The acceptance of the power factor gives way to foreign policies based on the balance of power. Louis Halle, John Morton Blum, and Reinhold Niebuhr have all treated power balance as a symbol of the realist philosophy.

Morgenthau has used the term in four different ways :

  1. As a policy aimed at a certain gate of affairs,
  2. As an actual state of affairs,
  3. As an approximately equal distribution of power, and
  4. As any distribution of power.12

Haas pointed out that the concept had been utilized extensively in at least eight mutually exclusive meanings :

  • Equilibrium resulting from an equal distribution of power among nation-states.
  • Equilibrium resulting from the unequal distribution of power among nation-states.
  • Equilibrium resulting from the dominance of one nation-state (the balancer).
  • A system providing for relative stability and peace.
  • A system characterized by instability and war.
  • Another way of saying power politics.
  • The universal law of history  and
  • A guide for policymakers.13

Likewise, Schleicher has discussed three, Zinnes seven, and Wight nine meanings of power balance.14

Despite the multiple, imprecise, and ambiguous nature, the balance of power is near the very core of international politics.


Couloumbis and Wolfe have summed up four pre-requisites for the existence of a balance of power system, which is explained as under:

  1. A multiplicity of sovereign political actors results
  2. in the absence of a single centralized, legitimate, and strong authority over these sovereign actors.
  3. Relatively unequal distribution of power (i.e., states, wealth, size, military capability) among the political actors that make up the system. This permits states’ differentiation into at least three categories great powers, intermediate powers, and smaller nation-states.
  4. Continuous but controlled completion and conflict among sovereign political actors are perceived as scarce world resources and other values.
  5. An implicit understanding among the rulers of the great.

Powers that the perpetuation of the existing power distribution benefits them mutually.15


There are certain assumptions of the balance of power that also operate as conditions affecting the balance’s stability. Quincy Wright has given five major assumptions, which are as follows:16

  1. States are committed to protecting their vital interests by all possible means, including war, though it is up to each state to decide for itself as to which of its rights and interests are vital and which method it should adopt to protect them.
  2. The vital interests of states are or may be threatened. If the vital interests are not threatened, then there should be no need for a state to protect them.
  3. The balance of power helps protect the vital interests either by threatening other states with committing aggression or by enabling the victim to achieve victory in case aggression occurs. This assumption means that states are not generally likely to commit aggression unless they have superiority of power.
  4. The Relative power position of various states can be measured to a great degree of accuracy. This measurement can be utilized in balancing the world forces in one’s own favor.
  5. Politicians make their foreign policy decisions based on an intelligent understanding of power considerations.
  6. One more assumption may be added to the list presented by Wright. The balance of power assumes that there will be one balancer maintaining splendid isolation and ready to join.

The side of the scale, which becomes higher at any given period. Such a state always works on Palmerston’s advice that it can have no permanent enemies and permanent allies in the world. Its only permanent interest is to maintain the balance of power itself.


The chief characteristics of the balance of power system can be enumerated as under:

1. Equilibrium:

The term suggests equilibrium, an equal distribution of power. When this equilibrium is lost, the balance of the sewer fails. Balance is not a permanent feature of international politics as occasional disequilibrium is not ruled out in the system. Thus, the concept is concerned with equilibrium as well as disequilibrium.

2. Temporary:

The balance of power is always temporary and unstable. With the change of time and conditions, it also changes and gives way to another system of balance of power. Neither a balance of power system nor its original contending powers can live long.

3. Active Intervention:

Balance of power is not  “a gift of the gods” but an outcome of the men’s active intervention. Whenever a state apprehends that the balance is being titled against it, it has to counter it quickly. It must be prepared to take necessary steps, including risking a war, if it is determined to safeguard its vital interests, which would be in danger if it remains passive. Thus, the balance of power is the result of diplomatic activity, not of natural happening.

4. Status Que:

The balance of power normally favors the status quo. Therefore, those who are benefited by it generally favor it, and it is opposed by those who see a loss to their own position. History has witnessed many wars owing to these contrary motivations of the states.

5. Difficult to De amine Existence:

It is not easy to say when a balance of power has been accomplished. A real balance of power can never exist, and it probably would not be recognized as such it did exist. “The only real test, presumably, is that of war, and resorting to war not only upsets the balance but also creates the very conditions which a balance of power policy is supposedly designed to prevent.”17

6. Subjective and Objective Approaches:

It offers both a Subjective and objective approach. Historians take the objective view while the statesmen take the subjective View. In the historian’s opinion, there is a balance between two states if they are equally powerful. Being more realistic, the statesman aims at not only equilibrium but a preponderance or imbalance in its favor.

7. Conflicting Aims:

Primarily it aims to preserve peace. At times it has achieved this aim in particular areas or the state system as a whole. At other times it has also tended to increase tensions between nations and to encourage wars.

8. Big-Power Game:

It is mainly a big power game. Big powers are neither interested in peace nor instability but their own security. Small powers are usually victims or, at best, spectators rather than players. They are used as mere weights in the scales. They are objects rather than subjects.

9. Unsuitable for Democracies:

Unless geographical, political, military, and other considerations are peculiarly favorable, democracy is never interested in this game. It is interested in power politics only in times of crisis. On the other hand, a dictatorship is most inclined to dominate the contest and gather all the rewards.

10. The Balancer:

It admits to the existence of some balancer state or states or an organization. The balancer state is not a small, insignificant power, but it is a powerful one in its own right, and the other contending powers try to cultivate such balancer. Britain was such a balancer during the ninetieth century. During the post-war period, when the power distribution had become largely bipolar, the UNO tried to function as a balancer.

11. Operation Questionable:

Many scholars point out that the balance of power is largely inoperative and irrelevant under present conditions. According to them, it worked well only when it was confined to the European state system, and that with the expansion of the state system to an international scale, it is impossible for any nation or international organization to play the role of a balancer or for the system to operate along its traditional lines.

Nuclear and space-age has further relegated its relevance. There is truth in these contentions, yet the fact is that this game continues to be played, with nation-states as the chief actors. Palmer and Perkins rightly observe. Certainly, new forces and patterns are developing, and though still in their formative stages, they may make former preoccupation with the balance of power seem inconsequential indeed.18

Types Of The Balance Of Power:

The balance of power has the following forms:

Simple Balance:

If power is concentrated in two states or two opposing camps, the balance of power is simple. This type’s chief characteristic is that states or groups of states are divided into two camps like the two scales of the balance. In simple balance, the power distribution between the two opposing camps is almost equal. The United States and the Soviet Union individually, and the Eastern and the Western block collectively, were the examples of the simple balance in the post-war period of bipolarism.

Multiple Balance:

When there is a wide dispersal of power among states, and several states or groups of states balance each other, the balance is called multiple or complex. There need not be a single system; instead, there may be many subsystems or local balances of power within a system. The multiple balance can be compared to a chandelier. A complex balance may or may not have a balancer. A simple balance may turn into a multiple or complex balance and vice versa.

Local, Regional, and Global:

Balances may, in terms of their geographical coverage, be spoken of as local, regional, and global. If it is at the local level, the balance is local, like we may speak of the balance of power between India and Pakistan. It is regional, if an area or a continent, say Europe or Asia, is involved. It is global or worldwide if all the countries participate in it through a network of alliances and counter alliances.

Flexible and Rigid:

Sometimes, balances have also been known as rigid or flexible. When princes could make sudden and radical shifts in their alliances in the monarchical days, the balance was generally flexible. With the coming of ideologies and greater economic interdependence, the balance of power has tended to become rigid.

We Devices And Methods:

With time, the balance of power has developed certain means and methods, techniques, and devices through which it can be achieved and maintained. The same are as follows arms new Armament and Disarmament. The main device of achieving balance is the arm.

Whenever one nation increases its strength, its rival has no other alternative but to enter an arms race. If the first nation can preserve its strength, the balance of power will be upset, but if its opponents can also consolidate their power through arming themselves, the balance of power is preserved. The armament race between the United States and the Soviet Union in the post-war period was perhaps the greatest of all armament races.

Like armaments, disarmament can destroy or restore a balance of power. The states concerned may agree on a proportionate reduction in their arms to stabilize the balance of power among them. But in practice, disarmament is sparingly utilized, except on defeated powers after a general war.

Though it is often resorted to by victor powers to maintain a favorable balance of power, its overall role has been disappointing.

Alliances and Counter-Alliances:

The balance of power has often been maintained by the method of alliances and counter alliances. Alliances have been the most convenient institutional device to increase one s insufficient power. Nations have always endeavored to make, abandon, and remake alliances depending upon their interests. Several security pacts are clearly designed to improve the military power position. Alliances can be offensive as well as defensive.

Offensive alliances, however, must be condemned as they breed counter coalitions, and the outcome is generally warred. The Triple Entente countered the triple alliance of 1882 in 1907. Similarly, the Axis formed in 1936 was a counterweight against France and East European nations’ alliance. The strange Alliance of the Second World War was a reaction against the Axis powers. It was, however, formed with a defensive purpose in the post Second World.

The US, with its allies, formed NATO, SEATO CENTO, etc., and the USSR countered them with the Warsaw Pact.

Compensation and Partition:

A state enhances its power by acquiring new territories and thus tilts the balance in its favor. When such a thing happens, the other side also takes immediate steps to increase its own power in compensation to preserve the balance. When some powerful nation occupies small nations’ territories, the powerful rival nations cannot tolerate this act. They place a condition either to share their prey with them or to allow them to compensate themselves elsewhere under such conditions.

The powerful rival nations divide small nations and swallow their share of the prey. Poland’s partition and later on its division between Russia, Prussia, and Austria is a well-known example of compensation and partition. After the Second World War, Germany, Korea, and Vietnam were partitioned similarly.

This method involves the redistribution of territory so that the international balance of power is not affected. Each Great Power becomes a beneficiary and a weak state of their victim. Generally, such redistribution arises after the war, yet it may also be needed during peacetime.

Intervention and Non-Intervention:

Intervention is another commonly used device for keeping balance. The allies may shift their loyalty from one side to another. Under such circumstances, it is quite usual for a big nation to regain a lost ally by intervening in domestic affairs and establishing a friendly government there.

Non-intervention suggests neutrality or guarantee of neutrality for certain states or efforts to localize war or protect the rights of neutrals in war times. At times neutrality also plays the role of keeping the balance of power.

Before the end of World War II, Britain intervened in Greece to see that it did not fall into the hands of local communists. After World War ll, the United States intervened in Guatemala, Cuba, Lebanon, Laos, Kuwait, etc., and the Soviet Union in North Korea, North Vietnam, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Afghanistan, etc.

Divide and Rule:

It is a time-honored policy as well as a technique. This method keeps the competitors weak by dividing them or keeping them divided, thereby maintaining a balance of power. The Romans adopted it to keep their control over scattered peoples. Britain often used it to keep its large empire under control. She has been a notorious practitioner of this policy. It has been her cardinal policy towards Europe.

Now this policy has become a device of the balance of power. Both the superpowers have endeavored to create divisions in the opposite camp. If the Soviet Union was interested in Western Europe’s disintegration, the USA was interested in creating a rift in the East European camp led by the Soviet Union.

Buffer States:

The setting up of a buffer state has also operated as another device of the balance of power. Such a state is usually a weak one. It is situated between two powerful neighbors. It always keeps safely apart by contributes to peace and stability and maintains the balance of power.

There have been various instances of buffer states in history. Afghanistan had been a traditional buffer state between Imperial Russia and British India, as Tibet was a buffer state between Imperial China and British India. In Europe, Belgium and Holland had served as buffer states between France and Germany.

In the post-Second World War period, various lines, as the 38th Parallel in Korea or the 17th Parallel in Vietnam, on partitioned countries, and the ceasefire zones are indirectly serving the cause of buffer states in a new world situation. They are also designed to prevent a confrontation of Superpowers and thereby preserve a balance of power.

Domestic Methods:

If a state feels that the balance has been tilted in favor of the rival, it will also become more powerful. It can do so only by improving elements of power domestically. The state concerned would try not merely to acquire more powerful weapons but also to develop related industries and other aspects of science and economy whose total effect would strengthen the balance.

Domestic measures needed for this purpose may also entail the introduction of compulsory military training and allotment of more money in the defense budget. It may also include developing the indigenous capability to manufacture sophisticated weapons and related military hardware, including ICBMs.

Balance Of Power In The Past:

The concept of balance of power can be found in some form or the other in ancient times, especially among India, China, the Greek, and the Roman states. It is one of the oldest term in international relations theory. In his Essays and Treatise on Several Subjects, David Hume has maintained the Greek politics game as a distinct expression of the notion of the balance of power.

The Roman period saw a decline in the notion and operational aspects of the balance of power as Rome virtually demonstrated monopolistic power over the world. Similarly, it did not flourish during the entire range of the middle ages.19

However, the development of the doctrine of the balance of power and its large-scale practice became feasible from the fifteenth century onwards. Bernardo Rucellai and Machiavelli made the theoretical contribution to the formulation and enunciation of the doctrine.

In the words of Morgenthau, “the alliances Francis concluded with Henry VIII and the Turks to prevent Charles V of Ha Hapsburg from stabilizing and expanding his empire are the first modern example on a grand scale of the balance of power.”20

The sixteenth-century facilitated an identifiable process of balance of power. In this very century, England held the balance between France and the Holy Roman Empire.

The seventeenth century, and during it, the Thirty Years War (16184648) provides, among other points of analysis, a perceptible analytical point about the balance of power. With the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) and the nation-state system’s establishment, the concept became more practicable than ever before. The period between 1648 (the Peace of Westphalia) and 1789 (the French Revolution) is regarded as the first golden age of classical balance of power both in theory and practice.

The eighteenth-century formally recognized the balance of power in the legal process. The phrase ad conservatism in Europea equilibrium adopted under the Treaty of Utrecht (1713) provisions illustrates this. The concept found expressions in the works of Edmund Burke and David Hume during this period. The three partitions of Poland (1772, 1793, 1795) provide an example of applying the balance of power.

The nineteenth century (1815-1914) can be considered the second golden age of the classical balance of power. Napoleon Bonaparte confronted Britain and the other European nations during this century. After successive wars spread over the years, Britain and her allies finally restored the balance of power.

The Congress of Vienna (1815) sought to establish a new balance of power resting on the principle of legitimacy and possibly preserving the status quo. Subsequently, Britain acted as a balancer in Europe’s politics by her pioneering leadership arising out of the industrial revolution and her overall leadership based on her developed navy and world trade. The balance of power prevented seven wars between 1871 and 1914. It maintained peace for a long time in this century.

In the twentieth century, Europe was divided into two camps, with the Triple Entente (1902) completion in opposition to the Triple Alliance (1882). When the delicate balance in the Balkans was disturbed, it led to the First World War. In the inter-war period, the doctrine was still followed, though, in theory, it was incompatible with the concept of collective security.

But finally, it proved stronger than collective security embodied in the League of Nations. As a result, it provoked a series of alliances and counter alliances, thereby leading to the Second World War. The post-war trends reveal that the balance of power has ceased to perform the traditional role that it played in the Euro eccentric world order in both its theoretical and practical aspects.

However, this does not mean that the balance of power has completely not in existence since 1945. A regional type of balance of power such as NATO, SEATO, the Warsaw Pact, etc., revealed their existence. Moreover, the superpowers have created such equilibrium in practically all major areas of tension and conflict that if the USA has built up Pakistan to match India in the politics of the Indian subcontinent, the USSR has hobnobbed with India. There are so many similar examples.

According to the Soviet viewpoint, the balance of power was inconceivable before the twentieth century, in a situation where relations among the nations were rigidly hierarchical, and the dominance of imperialist power had no parallel anywhere. With the emergence and consolidation of a rival socialist system, the soviet Communists argued that the real balance of power came into being and countered capitalism’s designs and its highest stage of development imperialism.21

Balance Of Power Today-Is It Relevant?

Today, the balance of power has witnessed several significant changes. Keeping in view the rapidly changing world conditions. it is being questioned whether the balance of power is relevant or valid or it has become obsolete and outdated. It seems that the theory of balance of power cannot be applied in the present circumstances in the classical sense of the term.

There are two different opinions in this respect. According to one view, the existing world conditions are least favorable for the balance of power’s existence or relevance. The other view holds that its validity is still relevant. Both the views are discussed in detail as under:

Obsolete and Irrelevant:

The factors or unfavorable conditions or changes in the world that rendered the concept irrelevant and outdated are mentioned below:

1 . New Forces:

The balance of power Operated well in those times of modern history when in Europe, several states of approximately equal strength existed. Later on, when the European balance of power turned into a world balance of power, conditions became unfavorable for the successful working of the balance of power.

The effect of new forces like nationalism, industrialism, new methods and techniques of warfare, developments in international organization and law, growing economic interdependence of nations, mass education, the end of colonial frontiers, and the rise of many new nations have greatly changed the nature of contemporary world politics. All these forces and changes have made the balance of power too naive and too complex a phenomenon.

2. Numerical Reduction of Powers:

Before the Second World War, there were seven Great Powers. After this war, the USA and the USSR were the only two Great Powers left. In previous periods the balance of power Operated by way of coalitions among several nations. The principal actors, though differing in power, were still of the same order of magnitude.

The greater the number of Great Powers, the greater the number of possible combinations that will actually oppose and balance each other. The numerical reduction of Great Power in the post-war period that can play a major role in international politics has actually created unfavorable conditions for the balance of power system.

3. Bi-polarises:

As the balance of power presupposes the presence of three or more states of roughly equal power, and because the rise of a bipolar world system goes against this requirement, the balance of power is outmoded. All the major states were committed after the Second World War to one camp or another, and no single nation was strong enough to tip the balance between the two Super Powers.

The disparity in power between the Super Powers and other powers is so wide that each is mightier than any other power or possible grouping. As a consequence, the major powers have not only lost their ability to tip the scales, but they have lost the freedom of movement to switch sides.

The wishes of the small powers have become meaningless. The will of the Super Powers and other compelling circumstances determine their alignments. Gone are the days of ever-shifting alliances.

It was also contended that the bipolar system was itself a guarantee of peace. The superpowers in this system would not use weapons of destruction, but those weapons would be an effective deterrent against other countries.

4. Lack of Balancer:

There is no power now to play a balancer’s role, which was successfully performed by Britain in the yesteryear. Britain no longer holds so decisive a position to determine the balance. Its role as a balancer has ceased after the Second World War. The Great Powers are powerful enough to determine the scale’s position with their preponderance alone that third power has no place to hold the balance.

5. Nuclear Weapons.

The impact of nuclear weapons has made the classical assumptions of the balance of power invalid. The changed character of modern warfare would shudder even the most ruthless supporter of the balance of power from taking the risk of encouraging a global conflict to the right balance. The threat of war is of limited utility in the nuclear age due to the nuclear stalemate.

5. Ideological Factor.

The ideological considerations in world politics became so potent that it overshadowed nationalism. The ideologies are cutting across national boundaries and thus undermining the balance of power concept. When the foreign policy is guided by ideology, it loses its interest in the balance of power and lacks the essential means to follow it.

6. Disparities in the Power:

The inequalities in the power of states are increasing. Wide disparities can be seen among nations in the sphere of political, economic, and military power. While the superpowers are becoming more and more powerful, the lesser states are becoming weaker. Such a condition is contrary to the requirements of a working system of balance of power.

7. Collective Security:

The emerging importance of collective security, international law, and international organizations like the United Nations has further relegated the balance of power to the background. Many contemporary scholars believe that law and its enforcement should depend more on morals, the consensus of nations, public opinion, the United Nations, and collective security than on a mechanism of balance of power. They also consider that collective security and international organizations can better maintain world peace in the present circumstances.

8. Decline of Alliances:

The decline in the alliance system’s relevance, which is the cornerstone of the balance of power, has further made it obsolete. It is tough now for a state to observe any strict adherence to an alliance in an exclusive manner. It is becoming clearer that each nation has areas of both amity and enmity with every other nation. This trend is slowly leading to the rise of an almost universal bilateral system, as against multilateral alliances.

Valid and Relevant

Although the balance of power has lost much of its significance in the conditions prevailing after the Second World War, its operation is still relevant. It is incorrect to say that it is fully obsolete or irrelevant or has no future.

The notion of its supposed irrelevance is based on an appreciation of the impact of values like peace and internationalism and the changes in international society. Those who consider it irrelevant and obsolete do so because they do not reckon with certain important factors. The factors that testify to the relevance and existence of balance

1. Reality of Power:

The change in the international society has removed those conditions in which the balance of power functioned in the past, yet it has not eliminated power’s reality. As the balance of power is a technique of managing power, it can be denounced as irrelevant only after some other method of managing power has been found out. Otherwise, the balance of power is still relevant, although its relevance would depend on how far its mechanism is modified to suit the changed conditions.

2. Objective Factors:

There are two other objective factors of the present international reality that prove a balance of power even in the days of bipolarism. One is the role of the uncommitted nations in maintaining an equilibrium between the two superpowers. These countries have been behaving like what Richard Rosecrance calls the multipolar buffer.22

This shows that the buffer concept, which has been so significant in the past, is not completely wiped out today. The other is the superpowers’ role in maintaining an equilibrium between the countries directly involved in a crisis. An example of the former is the relaxation in the cold war brought about by the uncommitted nations. The latter example is the attempts made by both the US and the Soviet Union to keep a balance in the Indian subcontinent in West Asia.

3. Nation-State System:

As long as the multi nation-state system exists, the balance of power politics will continue to be followed by the nations’ practice. Palmer and Perkins observe: in its heyday, it was a basic feature of the nation-state system. As long as the nation-state system is the prevailing international society pattern, the balance of power policies will be followed in practice; however, roundly, they are damned in theory. In all probability, they will continue to operate, even if effective supranational groupings, on a regional or world level, are formed.23

4. Rise of Multipolansm:

Bipolarism remained the feature of international politics for almost two decades after the Second World War. It was argued above that owing to bi polarization, the balance of power became obsolete. Since the early sixties, the bipolar ism has been declining and multifarious again rising. Britain, France, Germany, Japan, China, etc., have regained their lost power. Much middle-class or second-grade powers have also come on the scene. Thus the unfavorable conditions for the balance of power created by the numerical reduction of, Great Powers have now been removed to a great extent.

5. End of Ideology:

Though ideological considerations played l a significant role in the recent past for the last few years, its influence has been on the wane. By the late eighties, communism collapsed in the Soviet Union as well as in East Europe, the communist bloc disintegrated, and ideological struggle lost its edge. Consequently, ideology as a negating factor of the balance of power has disappeared.

6. Balance Exists:

After the collapse of Soviet power in the late eighties and the United States’ success in liberating Kuwait from Iraq, it is commonly believed that the only Super Power left in the world is the United States. Militarily and economically, it is matchless. Thus in the present world, the USA can be regarded as a balancer. In this way, the above factors and developments prove that the balance of power is still relevant, valid, and meaningful, although in a different context.

Critical Evaluation:

The theory and practice of the balance of power have been a subject of great debate and discussion. There is disagreement among scholars on the point of its ultimate value and advantage.  It has been defended as well as criticized. Its advocates and critics have put forward various arguments for and against the balance of power. The Same are discussed below

Purpose, Utility, and Merits:

The advocates of the balance of power believe in its utility and give the following arguments in favor of it.

 1.Guarantees Peace:

Balance of power is the only guarantee of peace in the absence of the universal acceptance of the principles of collective security. When security continues to be a national obligation, it can never be ensured except by a balance of power. The prerequisite of security and order among sovereign states is that force is checked by counterforce within a balance of power. It has always served the cause of peace and order in history. If the balance is preserved, neither will there be aggression nor war and therefore, peace would automatically be achieved.

2. Discourages War:

The balance of power prevents or discourages the resort to war. As a state cannot hope to win a war, it will not initiate one if its power is in equilibrium with a potential victim. Most of the wars of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries were due to imperial rivalries. In contrast, the balances were maintained in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which contained struggles between European powers. Whenever peace reigned in Europe, it owed its existence to the balance of power.

3. Curbs Imperialism:

Balance of power makes it difficult for any power to become so powerful as to overwhelm the rest. Indeed, the absence of a stable equilibrium creates an opportunity for the emergence of Powers of lesser caliber to dominance positions. Thus, the balance of power helps. In containing hegemony and universal imperialism.

4. Meets Justice:

In the absence of supreme international authority capable of enforcing justice, the balance of power enables international law to command respect. Vattel clearly mentioned this mutuality between the balance of power and the rule of law in international society in 1758. The balance of power acts as a deterrent to grandiose ambition and thus meets the cause of justice.

5. Maintains International law:

The balance of power is essential to the maintenance of international law. For example, Oppenheim supports this argument by observing the Balance of power is an indispensable condition to the very existence of international law. He further says that a law of nations can exist only if there is an equilibrium, a balance of power, between the family of nations. Several other authors of international law also agree with this argument.

6 Prunes Independence:

The balance of power has also proved useful in preserving the independence of small states. It prevents the destruction of any particular state because, in their own interests, other states will not allow this to happen. The balance of power is designed to preserve each state’s independence by preventing any state from increasing its power to threaten the others.

7. Preset-ewes State System:

The balance of power preserves the multi-state system. It does so by preserving the identity of individual states. It helps in the preservation of a multiple nature of international society and its stability. It serves as a means of maintaining a community of states. Thus, it has served the cause of peace, justice, law, and independence, thereby preserving states’ community through the ages.

Defects, Criticism, and Demerits:

Morgenthau has criticized the balance of power on three counts: its uncertainty, unreality, and inadequacy.  Its other defects and demerits can be explained as follows:

1. Does Not Bring Peace:

The balance of power does not bring peace. On the contrary, it encourages war. Many believe that nations will light only when the two are equally matched. But if the preponderance of power is on one side, the stronger nation may not fight to get what it requires, while the weaker nation would be foolish to begin a war for what it wants. In periods called the golden age of the balance of power, there were actually constant wars. Moreover, by pursuing the policy of preventive war and intervention, the balance of power may directly serve the cause of war.

2. Divides the World:

The operation of the technique of alliances and counter alliances divides the world into rival camps, inflicted by mistrust and suspicion. Therefore, any local conflict will tend to become a big or world war. If it prevents small wars, it instigates the big one having more devastating effects.

3. No Real Security:

As politicians never accept a real equilibrium of forces but always look ahead to a favorable balance in terms of the bank balance, they are regularly engaged in a struggle to improve their power position. Thus instead of security, it int intensifies the power struggle.

4. Does Not Increase Power:

Nations are not static units. They enhance their power through military aggression, seizing territory, and alliances. They employ certain domestic and foreign, internal, and external means for this purpose. They can consolidate their power from within by improving the social and economic organization. So the traditional method of the balance of power is not the only cause responsible for increasing power.

5. Does Not Meet justice:

The balance of power never aims at concluding treaties upon principles of justice. It aims merely at preventing the supposed preponderance of one power over another or acquiring preponderance of one power over another. It acts based on expediency and immediate gains. Once these are realized, the system of alliances breaks down, and the world is once again sent back to mutual animosity and hostility.

6. Wrong Assumption:

Balance of power rests on the idea of power or physical force. Its underlying assumption is that if one nation possesses the ability to attack another, it will utilize that ability sooner or later. It assumes that states are naturally hostile political entities. It accepts the condition of enmity between states as normal relations. But it is difficult to accept such assumptions today.

Such assumptions take for granted that nothing other than power drives and urge for power to dominate states. But states are interested in many things other than power. Many are genuinely interested in peace. Most civilized states accept that there are ethical norms that must be given precedence over mere power considerations. Peace also depends on the moral conscience of nations and the restraining influences of ethical norms.

7. Unrealistic:

Balance of power is, after all, a mechanical concept. To attempt to appropriate the law of statics and convert it into a principle to be applied in a dynamic world is, at the bottom, unrealistic. Balance of power entails many factors such as population, territory, resources, armaments, allies, etc. These are not static. Thus, it is tough to calculate precisely and pursue rationally a policy of balance of power over a considerable period of time.

8. Big Power Game:

It believes that the equilibrium among great powers would ensure world peace. In it, small countries matter little. They are required to play to the tune of the great powers. Thus the balance of power theory favors big powers and ignores smaller ones.

Despite the above defects and criticism, the balance of power is still a valid concept in international politics. As a matter of fact, the impact of new forces that shaped our contemporary world has prevented the balance from operating appropriately. In conclusion, it can be said that the balance of power is difficult to be applied in practice.

Even then, it has acted as a universal pattern of political action of states in history. It did something to preserve a nation’s independence and prevent any nation from becoming over powerful. It has survived the passage of time and the league of nations or the United Nations and the nuclear age. The balancing process will continue in the future and the struggle for advantage and power in international relations.

It is wrong to ignore its current relevance as the long spell of peace at the center or global level is mainly caused by balance and deterrence. Notwithstanding the disturbance in local balance, superpowers always endeavor that such disturbance in the peripheral balance does not lead to the central balance’s tilting. Thus, central balance will generally be maintained in the future while periodic disturbances can occur in local balances.

Power Vacuum:

As stated above, the concept of balance of power has undergone a sea change, especially in the second half of the twentieth century. This period witnessed the emergence of two Super Powers who strived to create their own Spheres of influence in different parts of the world and devised new techniques of balancing each other.

One of the techniques was filling the power vacuum. Under the pretext of filling the power vacuum, each Super Power endeavored to increase its own power and contain or balance the opponent’s power.

The term power vacuum is of recent origin. The United States coined it during the cold war days. The declining imperial powers Great Britain, Germany, France, Spain, Portugal, Holland, etc., were granted independence to their erstwhile colonies in post-World War II. After the decolonization, the newly independent countries found themselves very weak politically, economically, and militarily, needing some outside powers’ crutches.

This is an illustration of what a power vacuum implies. This afforded a golden opportunity to the newly emerged Super Powers the USA, and the USSR, to provide them the necessary props in political support, economic and military aid. In this way, Super Powers filled the power vacuum in different weak countries after declining imperial or smaller powers. Super Powers vied with each other to woo these countries to their side.

For instance, the Soviet Union filled the power vacuum in East Europe, North Korea, Vietnam, and other decolonized Third World countries. The USA also took prompt action to counter the move of the Soviet Union by spreading its tentacles to these very countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America on the plea of containing the communist hegemony.

The concept of power vacuum was given a definite shape by the United States in the wake of the British decision to withdraw East of Suez. The United States invoked this theory to justify its naval presence in the Indian Ocean.

It argued that a complete withdrawal from the Indian Ocean would lead to a dangerous power vacuum over a vast and vulnerable area which the US and Britain’s other allies would find extremely difficult to fill, a vacuum that would serve neither Britain’s long term interests nor its stake in world ace and Stability.

The Americans argued that if they did not move into the Indian Ocean, the vacuum would be filled by the Russians. In brief, over the vacuum theory’s pretext, the US justified its entry into the region.

The vacuum theory was vehemently rejected by India and other major littoral states of the region. For instance, Mrs. Indira Gandhi, India’s then Prime Minister, during her visit to some Southeast Asian countries in May 1966, said that the British’s withdrawal did not create any vacuum. If it did so, she asserted it should be filled by local powers and not by outside powers.

Even the US Congress disapproved of the power vacuum theory. However, despite this, the US Defense Department continued to increase its naval presence in the region. In fact, the US defense department insisted on the need for a permanent military presence in the Indian Ocean since the early sixties.

By the early seventies, the US had established control over all the main gates to the Indian Ocean. Thus it had established a hold on Simonstown, at the entrance of the Atlantic Ocean, on Masirah, which served as an approach to the Persian Gulf on Diego Garcia which commanded central position in the Indian Ocean and Malacca Straits, which was the most important route from the Pacific through their political proximity to the ASEAN countries.

In sum, the US made the Indian Ocean an American lake. The Soviet Union countered and balanced America by entering into a friendship treaty with India in 1971 and consolidating its hold in Vietnam.


1. Inis L. Claude, Jr., Power, and International Relations (New York, 1962), p.11.

2.Cp. Schleicher, International Relations: Cooperation and Conflict (New Delhi, 1963), p. 355.

3. Martin Wight, “The Balance of Power” in H. Butterfield and Martin Wight, ed., Diplomatic Investigations: Essays in the Theory of International Politics (London, 1966). Paperback, p.149.

4. Cited in Lenox A. Mills and Charles H. McLaughlin World Politics in Transition (New York, 1956), pp. 107-108.

5.Sidney B.Fay, “Balance of Power” Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (New York, 1937), II, p. 395.

6.Nicholas J. Spykman, America’s Strategy in World Politics (New York, 1942), pp. 21-22.

7.C. Lowes Dickinson, The International Anarchy 1904-1914 (New York, 1926), pp. 5-6.


9.Vernon Van Dyke, International Politics (Bombay, 1966) p.221.

10.Norman D. Palmer 8: Howard C. Perkins, International Relations (Calcutta, 1970), p.212.

11.Kenneth W. Thompson and Hans J. Morgenthau, eds. , Principles and Problems of International Politics (New York. 1950), p. 103.

12.Hans J. Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations (New York, 1967) Fourth Edition, pp. 161-63.

13.Ernst Haas, “The Balance of Power: Prescription, Concept, or Propaganda ?” World Politics, July 1953), pp. 442-77.

14.For detail, see C.P. Schleicher, n.2, p. 355. Dina A.Zinnes, ” An Analytical Study of the Balance of Power Theories,” Journal of Peace Research (Oslo), 4(1967), pp. 27087 Martin Wight, n.3,p. 151.

15.Theodore A Couloumbis and James H. Wolfe. Introduction to International Relations: Power and justice (New Delhi, 1986) Indian Reprint of 3rd and, p. 43.

16.Quincy Wright, A Study of War (Chicago, 1942), Vol.11, pp. 74359.

17.Palmer and Perkins, n. 10, p. 214.

18.Ibid., p. 215.

19.For detail, sees Supra n. 10.p. 218-19.

20.Morgenthau, n. 12, p. 173.

21.For detail sees, William Zimmerman. Soviet Perspectives on International Relations 19564967, (Bombay, 1972) Indian ed., p. 250.

22.See Richard N. Rosecrance, “Bipolarity, Multipolarity, and the Future,” in James N. Rosenau, ed., International Politics and Foreign Policy (New York, 1969), 2nd ed., p. 332.

23.Supra n. 10., p. 235.

24. L. Oppenheim, International Law, Vol. 1, RF. Roxburg, Ed. (Longmans, 1926) p. 93-94.

25.For detail, see supra n. 12, pp. 202-221.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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