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Balance of Power

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

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


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

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

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

A weakness of the balance of power concept is the difficulty of measuring power. Ultimately a
states power derives from the size of its land mass, population, and its level of technology. But
this potential powermeasured roughly by a states Gross Domestic Product (GDP)translates
imperfectly into military capability. The effective use of military force depends on such elements
as leadership, morale, geography, and luck. Furthermore, leaders misperceptions can seriously
distort the calculation of power. During the Vietnam War (1959-1975), for example, U.S.
presidents consistently underestimated the strength of the Vietnamese Communists because by
conventional measures of power they were much weaker than the United States.
Historical examples of power balancing are found throughout history in various regions of the
world, leading some scholars to characterize balance of power as a universal and timeless
principle. During the Period of the Warring States in China (403-221 BC), the development of
large, cohesive states accompanied the creation of irrigation systems, bureaucracies, and large
armies equipped with iron weapons. These Chinese states pursued power through a constantly
shifting network of alliances. In ancient Greece during the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), the
rising power of Athens triggered the formation of a coalition of city-states that felt threatened by
Athenian power. The alliance, led by Sparta, succeeded in defeating Athens and restoring a
balance of power among Greek cities.

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

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


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

Because of the threat to human survival posed by nuclear weapons, military strategists often
referred to the balance of power as a balance of terror.
During the Cold War, the U.S. policy of containment encircled the Soviet Union with military
and political alliances in Western Europe, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. The major U.S.
and Soviet military interventions of the Cold Warin Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistantook
place in politically contested regions of the world where both superpowers jockeyed for
influence. Small states sometimes benefited from the superpower competition. In the 1960s, for
example, Cubas relations with the United States soured. At that time, Cuba allied itself with the
Soviet Union and received large economic and military subsidies.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 left the United States as the worlds sole superpower.
Balance of power theory suggests that without the Soviet threat the United States, as the
dominant world power, will face difficulties in its relations with such states as China and the
European powers. For example, in 1995 and 1996 France openly challenged U.S. actions or
proposals on a range of issues. These included Middle East policy, the command structure of the
North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the United Nations, world trade regulations, and
responses to conflicts in Africa and the former Yugoslavia. At the same time, Russian-Chinese
relations, which had been very hostile in the 1970s and 1980s, improved dramatically in the
1990s. This improvement occurred largely because both countries feared the predominant power
of the United States.

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