One of the most mentioned concepts in the academic discipline of international relations is the balance of power. The concept implies that a sustainable balance of power must be established among states to maintain peace and order within the international system. States will not attack each other when the balance is attained, and they will try to keep the current status quo. On the other hand, if the material capacity of any state increases and disturbs the balance with other states, the others will try to rebalance the state in question either through their own means or by cooperating with each other. The main purpose of states, which rely on the balance of power politics in their foreign policies, is not to transform others based on the values and norms they hold sacred but to influence others’ foreign policy behavior.
The concept of balancing power is mostly valued by realist international relations scholars. All realist thinkers share the following points in common: States are constantly suspicious of each other’s intentions and do not trust each other easily because human nature is essentially selfish and evil; there is no supreme authority to control them and establish peace and order among them; the basic structure of the system is anarchic, and in such an order, states must ensure their own security; since survival is the primary precondition for achieving all other national interests, states try to either maintain their power capacity or become stronger than other states; it is impossible to establish order and cooperation among states on the ground of common values and identity, and the international environment in which the rules of the jungle apply cannot be easily transformed into a zoo in line with liberal dreams or idealist utopias.
The realist approach
Classical and structural realists support different arguments about how the balance of power is established. According to classical realists, the balance of power is formed as a result of responsible, forward-thinking rational decisions of statesmen. According to structural realists, the anarchic structure of the international system will automatically bring into existence a balance of power between states. Neoclassical realists, on the other hand, argue that the balance of power politics does not arise automatically just because states live in an anarchical international environment or that human nature is evil. Internal characteristics of states, political motivations of leaders and dynamics of domestic politics act as intervening variables between structural conditions at a systemic level and through the personal characteristics and judgments of decision-makers at the individual level. An important view expressed in this context is that states balance against threats, not power. Relative increases in power capacities of other countries are not automatically perceived as threatening. Perceptions matter and threats are socially constructed.
Balancing occurs either internally or externally. Internal balancing arises when any state tries to balance other states by increasing its own material power capabilities. In cases where this is not enough, states resort to external balancing. Here, states that feel threatened by the same power join forces and establish an alliance. When the external threat disappears, the alliance between them often also ends.
The historian Thucydides explains that the Peloponnesian wars in ancient Greece took place as a result of the deterioration of the balance of power between Athens and Sparta. The balance was broken with the increase in Athens’s power, and this frightened the Spartan rulers. Therefore, Spartans tried to establish an anti-Athenian alliance to reestablish the status quo ante.
Similarly, when France, led by Napoleon at the beginning of the 19th century, unilaterally disrupted the balance in Europe, other major powers of the European continent joined forces to counter the perceived threat. At the end of the war, France was defeated and a new balance of power came into being, lasting for about a hundred years. The "concert of Europe" has deteriorated following the unification of Germany under Prussian leadership and consequently, the British empire ended its splendid isolation policy by getting more involved than ever in continental politics. On the road to World War I, two balancing coalitions squared off against each other: The alliance between Germany, Italy and Austria was pitted against the alliance of Great Britain, France and Russia. The main factor causing the U.S. to join both world wars was to help restore the balance of power so that neither Germany nor Japan could establish hegemony in Europe and East Asia, respectively.
During the Cold War years, NATO was established by American leadership to ensure a power balance in Europe. At its inception, NATO had three purposes to fulfill: to keep the Soviet threat outside Europe, to keep Germany under control in Europe and to keep the U.S. heavily involved in European power politics. The U.S. maintained peace and order in Europe by providing security to its European allies so that the latter could devote their limited resources to their economic development. The European Union integration process also owes its success in part to the American commitment to European security.
Bipolar system and hegemony
Historical examples show that the policies based on balancing power are more successful when the international system is bipolar. In cases where the international system is unipolar, such policies may not produce positive results because the power disparity between the dominant power and all others is so huge that even if all other states join their forces, it is nearly impossible for them to balance the dominant power. Between 1991 and 2008, the U.S. was the hegemonic power and other states had simply two alternatives. They would either bandwagon with the U.S. or maintain a soft balance through the employment of nonmilitary instruments.
In cases where the international system is multipolar, policies are implemented more easily because the number of potential allies is greater. Besides, material power capacity is dispersed among major powers more evenly.
Today's international environment has already become multipolar in many different dimensions. If not directly forming an anti-American military alliance, states such as China and Russia are increasing their military cooperation as well as coordinating their foreign policies on multiple institutional platforms. The transition from soft to hard balancing is likely to occur as the multipolar character of the current world order is entrenched with the irreversible erosion of American primacy with each passing day.
On the other hand, we also see the U.S. has increased its efforts to counterbalance China all over the world, most notably in East Asia. China is now seen as the No. 1 threat leveled against the American primacy in global politics. There is now a bipartisan consensus on this point inside the U.S. American attempts at forming an anti-Iranian alliance in the Middle East, consisting of Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), is another example of power politics pursued regionally.
We are no longer living in the age of hyper globalization where power politics would be meaningless. The liberal dream of uniting humanity around universal rights and values has tarnished. The idealist utopia of living in a global village has experienced a major setback with the failure of humanity in responding to the COVID-19 outbreak with global consciousness. The globalization process will likely lose its appeal in the post-coronavirus age as the tension in American-Chinese relations is fast escalating to Cold War-like levels with each passing day. The years ahead will increasingly see humanity seek solutions to security problems through time-tested power policies.
*Professor at the Department of Political Science and International Relations at Antalya Bilim University