Balance of Power in International Relations

In international relations, the balance of power means, “The balance power theory in international relations suggests that states may secure their survival by preventing any one state from gaining enough military power to dominate all others”. In CSS International Relations (IR), questions about the balance of power and state politics are often given in the examination.  So, here I am going to share with you complete notes of CSS on the topic of balance of power in International Relations.

Balance of Power

Sovereignty and power are two main themes of International Relations. It emphasizes that the states, who wield power and sovereignty, can do whatever they like and that the nation-state system is not a system at all but, instead a polite label for international anarchy.

Nevertheless, most states are indeed on friendly terms with most other states, most of the time. This condition demands that some sort of restraint or control needs to be applied continuously.

An observer who believes himself to be a “realist” will insist that all states are pushed by a desire to expand their territory and enhance their prestige and influence. As such only military power in the hands of other states can restrain them.

The economic experts may emphasize the inter-dependence of states, the legalists may think in terms of rights and duties fixed by international law, and the idealists may be convinced that such goodwill and harmony as exists must be attributed to religion, to the fundamental decency of man and the world “public opinion”.

It is not the point that all states are aggressive and greedy or they can become so if they ever have strength and power. It is to say that states must be strong because some states may refuse to accept all other controls and because a state’s power is its last line of defense. National power is, therefore, the most important of all controls in inter-state relations.

National power can be used for peacekeeping or peacemaking as well as for warmongering. However, it has proved to be the most effective instrument for halting or averting aggression. The Balance of Power, therefore, means only the utilization of the arrangement of national power in a special way, and the same is true of collective security.

Our focus on national power, the Balance of Power, or the procedures for a peaceful settlement on international law or international organizations as institutionalized approaches to the control of interstate relations, does not mean that other controls may not be of equal or even greater significance.


The eagerness for power and influence on the part of several nations, each vying either to maintain or overthrow the status quo, leads to the necessity to arrange the Balance of Power and make policies to preserve it.

The international balance of Power is only a particular manifestation of a general social principle to which all societies, composed of several autonomous units, owe the autonomy of their compounded parts, that the Balance of Power and policies aiming at its preservation are not only inevitable but are an essential stabilizing factor in a society of sovereign nations.

The great period of the theory and practice of the Balance of Power began shortly after 1500 AD and its rise to prominence coincided with the emergence of the nation-state system and with the age of discoveries.

It became the paramount feature of international relations, especially after the treaty of (Westphalia of 1648. As Quincy Wright has observed, “while other factors have had an influence, the concept of the Balance of Power provides the most general explanation for the oscillations of peace and war in Europe since the Thirty Years’ War.”

“The classical period of the European Balance of Power system was 1648 until the end of dying Napoleonic era in 1815.”

The principle of Balance of Power was fully applied in the 18th and 19th centuries. It is still a basic principle in international relations and will continue to be so as long as the nation-state system is the controlling pattern of world politics.

In the present situation, the Balance of power is less efficient than in past centuries when Europe was the main arena of international politics and when the nation-state system was not under strain and stress which was prevalent in the second half of the 20th century. But it can be asserted that “The idea of ‘Balance of Power’ is still the central theoretical concept in International Relations.”

The word “equilibrium” is a substitute for balance. It means stability within a system, composed of several autonomous forces. Whenever the equilibrium is disturbed either by an outside force or by a change in one or the other elements composing the system, the system demonstrates a tendency to re-establish either the original or a new equilibrium.

Thus, equilibrium exists in the human body. While the human body changes, in the process of growth, the equilibrium persists as long as the changes, occurring in the different parts of the body, do not disturb the body’s stability. When, however, the body sustains a wound or loses any of its limbs/organs, the equilibrium— balance— is disturbed. The body, therefore, cries in pain and agony and tries to overwhelm the disturbance by rehabilitating the equilibrium either at the same or a different level.

The same concept of equilibrium is used in international relations while defining or understanding the meaning of ‘Balance of Power’. We, therefore, look for a proper balance between different geographical regions, such as East and the West, the North and the South, between different kinds of activities i.e., agriculture and industry, big and small businesses, producers and consumers, etc

Definition of Balance of Power

What, after all, signifies the term ‘Balance of Power? The term has been used in so many different ways that it almost contradicts the definition. The trouble with the Balance of Power is not that it has no meaning but that it has too many meanings. The essential idea is simple enough; it is the “equilibrium” of the type represented by a pair of scales, when the weight on the scale is equal on both sides, balance occurs.

Applied to the unbridled sovereign states, the concept of Balance of Power demonstrates that through shifting alliances and intense pressure no one power or combination of powers will be allowed to grow such strong to threaten the security of the rest The Balance of Power can be defined in several ways.

According to George Schwarzenegger, “Balance of Power is ‘equilibrium’ or a certain amount of stability in international relations that under favorable conditions is produced by an alliance of states or by other devices.

He further explains that the Balance of Power “is of universal application wherever several sovereign and armed states co-exist”. Hans J. Morgenthau described the Balance of Power as “only a particular manifestation of a general social principle.”

Professor Sidney B. Fay offered the most logical definition of Balance of Power. He says, “It means such a just equilibrium” in power among the members of the family of nations as will prevent any one of them from becoming sufficiently strong to enforce its will upon the others”.


  1. The term itself suggests equilibrium — balance — but we understand that it is subject to constant, ceaseless change to shifting political patterns and relationships which is disequilibrium. The concept may, however, be discussed in terms of equilibrium theory, among other things with international disequilibrium as well as equilibrium
  2. In practice, the Balance of Power system has proved to be temporary and unstable. No Balance of Power system has lasted longer than a few centuries and most of the original powers living under the such a system have survived as independent powers for short periods.
  3. According to Nicholas J. Spykman, “The Balance of Power is not “a gift of the gods” but is achieved by the active intervention of man.” States cannot afford to wait until it “happens” if they wish to survive. They must be willing to go to war to preserve a balance against the growing hegemonic power of the period”.
  4. The balance of power has always favored the status quo. But history reveals that a policy that is not inclined towards change is bound to fail in the long run to be effective and result-oriented. The Balance of Power policy must be changing and compelling.
  5. It is difficult for a nation to claim when a Balance of Power has been achieved as a real Balance of Power seldom exists and if ever it exists, it would not be recognized. The only real test of the

existence of a balance of power is that of war, but resorting to war itself upsets the balance and creates conations that a balance of power policy tends to prevent.

  • The Balance of Power has not been primarily a device for preserving peace. Sometimes, it has been instrumental in preserving the peace in particular areas or laid an impact on the state system as a whole. It was a major factor in preserving the peace, with minor interruptions, for a century after the Congress of Vienna. On the other hand, it has also been responsible for escalating tension and hastening the wars. It is rightly assumed sometimes that the Balance of Power system “rests upon war”. It should, therefore, be understood that the primary object of the balance of Power is to maintain the independence of states and not to preserve the peace.” However, this point has triggered controversy and disagreement among scholars and students of the Balance of Power theory.
  • The Balance of Power game is a game for the great powers. Although the smaller states are essentially concerned with the results, they are more often a victim or spectator rather than players. Unless the small states can combine, they can only be weights in a balance used by others. Collectively, they may be able to exert some pressure upon the most powerful states as is evident by the roles played by international organizations such as the Arab League and UNO.
  • The balance of power policy neither suits democracy nor dictatorships. Democracy needs to have a favorable environment to succeed as a political system. There have to be geographical, military, political, educational, and other favorable conditions to make democracy work as a viable social and political order. Otherwise, democracy is a shy and reluctant player and a hapless leader in the Balance of Power game. It is deeply concerned with power politics only in periods of crisis. On the other hand, dictatorship tends to monopolize and dominate the contest. It is only interested in framing rules to suit its convenience and accumulating all the benefits and rewards.
  • Many analysts insist that the Balance of Power cannot operate under present conditions. They believe that it functioned well only when it was confined to the European state system. They point out that with the expansion of the state system to an international scale, where the balance is bipolar or multipolar, it is impossible. It is impossible for any nation or international organization to play the role of a balancer or for the system to function along its classical lines. They argue that the nuclear age and space age has relegated Balance of Power techniques to diplomatic history or that at best “the Balance of Power is not suitable to our era beyond its functions as a transitional device.”

Different Methods for Maintaining the Balance of Power

The Balance of Power is an uncertain regulator because it creates an equilibrium that is temporary and is created at the spur of the moment. Even under ideal conditions, its operation requires great skill and possibly a ruthless disregard for moral values and human welfare. In any game, it is necessary to develop perfect rules, techniques, and devices of their own.

The process of balancing can be carried on only either by reducing the weight of the heavier scale or by – increasing the weight of the lighter one. There are several devices and methods by which the process of balancing can be carried on, some of them are as follows:

1. Alliances and Counter-alliances

The historically most important explanation of the Balance of Power is to be found not in the equilibrium of two isolated nations but in the relations between one nation or alliance of nations and another alliance. Alliances and counteralliances have been the most frequently employed devices of the Balance of Power system.

Whenever one nation threatened the balance in Europe, other states formed a coalition against it and were always successful to curb the power of the overambitious nations.

Temporary alliances of a constantly shifting character have been standard d practice in modern European history. After the Triple Alliance had been formed in 1882, predicting significant changes in the European balance, a rival alliance — the Triple Entente — gradually emerged in dual agreements over seventeen years (1891-1907), first between France and Russia, then between France and England and finally between England and Russia

Whether or not a nation shall pursue a policy of alliances is a matter not of principle but expediency. A nation will avoid alliances if it knows that it is strong enough to hold its without any aid or help, or that the burden of the commitments resulting, the alliance is likely to surpass the advantages to be expected.

It is because of these reasons that both Great Britain and the United States have refrained from concluding peacetime alliances with other nations.

Also, Great Britain and the United States have avoided concluding an alliance with each other from the promulgation of the. Monroe Doctrine in 1823 to the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. However, they acted on other European states as if they were allied.

Alliances are usually of two kinds i.e., offensive and defensive. Both are concerned with the Balance of Power. An offensive alliance seeks to upset the balance in favor of its parties while a defensive alliance aims at restoring the balance or shifting it in favor of the states that ally.

The Balance of Power, carries great importance in national policies, maybe the world balance or strictly a regional balance. Understandably, two or more states should ally to deter aggression when they are unable to ward it off by force.

This move will be regarded as the first step toward an effective alignment. Balance of Power consideration, whether regional or worldwide, is a deciding factor in every alliance of states.

Enough power is the most essential ingredient of an alliance without which it would neither be valid nor operational. Power is required to achieve the very objective for which the alliance was formed. The second prerequisite of an alliance is a common fundamental interest between or among the allying states. Other conditions such as geography, strategy, cultural similarities, and admissible economies, though are helpful to make alliances stable and long-lived but are not prerequisites of an effective alliance for a temporary purpose.

Therefore, the alliance with the Soviet Union was the foundation stone of the United States foreign policy during World War II. Despite geographical separation and ideological and cultural differences, the two states were able to cooperate with each other, with Great Britain and other states so effectively that together they carried out a big military operation in history. “The Strange Alliance” was the meeting together of unlike, kept together only by urgent needs but was temporary.

Offensive alliances promote wars because it is their very objective. These alliances are usually condemned but defensive alliances are a different matter altogether. All alliances are open to discussion and conflicting interpretations. Every alliance is defensive for those states who participate in it and offensive from the viewpoint of those who oppose it.

This complicated terminological interpretation makes most alliances suspect. There is nothing to stop aggression-minded states from committing aggression and waging wars on the weaker states. The “would-be” victims have the right to combine in their defense and nobody can prevent them from doing so.

2. Divide and Rule

This is an age-old and everlasting policy, not essentially associated with a Balance of Power. It has been used by the nations who tried to keep and make their competitors weak by dividing them or keeping them divided.

The most consistent and important policies of divide and rule of the modern time are the French policy concerning Germany and the policy of the.

The Soviet Union concerning the rest of Europe. Ever since the 17th century to the end of the Second World War, it has been the consistent principle of French foreign policy either to favor the division of the German Empire into several small independent states or obstruct the alliance of such states to become one unified nation.

The Romans employed the policy of divide and rule to maintain their hold over scattered people, and imperialist nations, and to keep native populations in subservience.

“The support of the protestant princes of Germany by Richelieu, of the Rhinebund by Napoleon I, of the Princes of Southern Germany by Napoleon III, of the abortive separatist movements after the First World War, and the opposition to the unification of Germany after the Second World War all have their common denominator in Europe.

France was found threatened by a strong German state”. But divide and rule have also been a device of the Balance of Power as described by Morgenthau and its best example in modern times are the traditional policy concerning Germany since the seventeenth century, and the historic policy of England toward the Subcontinent to divide and rule, and the policy of the Soviet Union toward the rest of Europe.

The Soviet Union always opposed the unification of Europe as it believed that if the scattered and divided nations combined to form a “Western Bloc”, it would prompt the enemies of the Soviet Union to threaten its security.

3. Compensations

Compensation is a common device to maintain a Balance of Power, it entails the division or annexation of territory. Compensations of a territorial nature were a common device in the 18th and 19th centuries for maintaining the Balance of Power that had been or was to be disturbed by the territorial acquisitions of one nation.

The division of Spanish possessions, in Europe and outside, among Bourbons and Hapsburgs in the Treaty of Utrecht, the partition of Poland, the revision of the territorial arrangements of the Treaty of San Stefano at the Congress of Berlin, and the territorial losses of the defeated power after World War I and II are a few examples of the compensations device to maintain Balance of Power.

The Treaty of Utrecht of 1713, which put an end to the Spanish war of succession, openly acknowledged the territorial compensations as a rule to maintain the Balance of Power. Territorial compensations have frequently been made by strong powers at the expense of weaker ones and by victory nations at the end of a war.

They were employed frequently during the great period of new imperialism from 1870 to 1914 as is evident from the distribution of colonial territories and description of areas of influence in China and elsewhere among the European power.

The partition of Poland in 1772, 1793, and 1795 which almost put an end to the excellent period of the Balance of Powers, speaks volumes of its importance by moving by the principle of compensation.

As the territorial acquisitions of Poland by any of the interested nations i.e., Austria, Prussia, and Russia excluding others, would have disturbed the Balance of Power, the three nations agreed to divide the Polish territory in a way that would not have disturbed the power equilibrium among themselves and it would remain the same after the partition as it had been before.

It was mentioned in the Treaty of 1772 between Austria and Russia that the acquisitions shall be equal and the share of one will not exceed the portion of the other.

At the time of acquisition of territory, the nature and quality of soil and population are taken into account and used as objective standards to determine the increase in power which the individual nations received by the acquisition of territory.

4. Armaments

Every nation has to be ready militarily to defend itself from all sorts of threats, or aggressions from other states. All major powers emphasize military preparedness and other means of national defense.

This policy may invoke a race for more arms among the major powers and that ultimately leads to a dangerous and uncertain state of affairs. Armaments mean the power by which a nation endeavors to re-establish or maintain the Balance of Powers.

The armament race in which a nation tries to keep up with, and then undo the armaments of another nation and vice versa, is the typical instrumentality of an unstable and changing Balance of Power. The consequences of the armament race are a constantly accumulating burden of military spending that eats a major chunk of the national budget and gives roots to fear suspicion and a feeling of insecurity.

The situation that prevailed before the First War of the Naval Competition between Germany and Great Britain and the rivalry between the French and German armies amply explains this point. Moreover, improvements in weapons and methods of warfare may accelerate the offensive which may temporarily favor the aggressor.

In theory, a more stable Balance of Power could be established by putting an end to the armament race and by an equal reduction of armaments by the warring states. Since the end of the Napoleonic Wars, repeated attempts have been made to create a stable Balance of Power, if not to establish permanent peace using equal disarmament of hostile nations.

The technique employed to stabilize the Balance of Power using a proportionate reduction of armaments is somewhat similar to the technique of territorial compensations. But, unfortunately, all such efforts to achieve proportionate disarmament failed.

The only exception was the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922, in which Great Britain, the United States, Japan, France, and Italy agreed to an equal reduction and limitation of naval armaments. Even this famous treaty was limited in application and duration.

This treaty was part of an overall political and territorial settlement in the Pacific which was meant to stabilize the power relations in that region on the foundation of Anglo-American pre-dominance.

There are several kinds of disarmaments proposed from time to time as quantitative and qualitative disarmament, arms-building holidays such as the Washington Naval Treaty, revisions of the rules of war i.e., “disarmament not of materials but methods” and moral disarmament rather “moral re-armament”.

But the results of all these well-intended efforts have been disappointing. “The problem of disarmament is not the problem of disarmament. It is the problem of the organization of the world community”. In essence, it is the problem of the maintenance of balance power.

5. Intervention and Non-intervention

These types of devices are employed by countries holding the position of balancers, most often Britain. With a couple of choices available to them, they were able to utilize different devices for maintaining the European balance.

Intervention may vary from slight deviations from neutrality to full-scale military involvement in a major war. Non-intervention is the policy usually adopted by small states and also by those great powers which are satisfied with the political order and can follow peaceful methods to maintain balance. Non-intervention is a political term meaning virtually the same thing as intervention.

Non-intervention also suggests neutrality because it is the best policy for certain states as it ensures neutrality and protects the rights of neutrals in times of war.

The small states seeking means of protection of survival, in a world dominated by great powers, particularly emphasize the policy of non-intervention.

The policy of non-alignment has been a vital principle of inter American system in recent times, on the insistence of the Latin American states, and has been time and again advocated by statesmen of newly-emerging nations of Asia and Africa most of whom are following different forms end patterns of neutrality and non-alignment.

6. the Buffer States

In a bipolar world without buffer zones with the rival powers in direct contact with each other, it would be difficult and rather precarious to maintain a Balance of Power. To some extent, this situation prevails today, though the two superpowers, the Soviet Union and the United States, are widely separated by land and ocean barriers and even an iron curtain” separates their allies in Europe, yet their troops are face to face with each other.

Buffer states hold great importance because of their ability to sustain the pressure of the great powers’ clashes and rivalries.

One of the most important buffer zones in the world is that which separates the Soviet Union from major non-communist powers. This is an area of weak states, vast distances, formidable geographic barriers, rising nationalism, and conflicting interests among the great powers.

It carries tremendous importance today and even may be of greater significance tomorrow. Just imagine for a while if Russia breaks through one of the weak – points in the buffer zone through the Straits to the Mediterranean and possibly beyond, through Iran to the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean, through Afghanistan to the Punjab and plains of the Indian Subcontinent and the Indian Ocean, through Manchuria and Korea to the China Seas and Pacific, if any of these eventualities, very possible in peacetime and may occur any time in the event of war, happens, it will do immeasurable damage to the Balance of Power.

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