Evolution of the balance of power system

ByM Ali Siddiqi

writer who contributes to leading periodicals


August 2, 2023

Balance of Power

M Ali Siddiqi analyses a
changing perception

It is not difficult to concede that the balance of power occupies a central position in the contemporary study of international relations because the concept lies at the heart of the traditional interpretation of keeping a semblance of harmony within the anarchic international system. This concept emerged out of the long-drawn theoretical debate about importance of realism while managing relations between states and its opposition by precepts of neo-realism that brought in additional rational characteristics that also underpin international relations. Though both conceptual interpretations hold considerable influence in the prevailing system yet their use has come under continuous criticism. What has emerged is that either realism or the balance of power has ever occupied a hegemonic position in the field. Instead, it is more appropriate to see them as occupying the central ground but at the same time being engaged in a constant debate with critics coming at them from a number of very different directions.

In this context it is pointed out that the progenitors of balance of power concept was based upon the European geopolitical experiences and they could at best view it with respect of both its adversarial and its associational dimensions. Despite their advocacy of the system they were keenly aware that in an international context, the balance of power could work at best only imperfectly. They considered the golden age for the balance of power was the era of dynastic international politics in the 18th century when states were governed by an international aristocracy that formed a distinctive international society. Under these circumstances, it was possible to achieve a just equilibrium by means of largely consensual and Europe-wide peace agreements. But even when these agreements broke down, it was argued that the uncertainties associated with any attempt to calculate the prevailing balance of power generated restraint on the part of the rival dynasties and encouraged them to operate on the basis of the established dynastic rules of the game. However the emerging realities were indicating that the world had moved a very long way from these conditions. In the aftermath of World War II, what was seen were two ideologically driven behemoths operating in the absence of any international society. The United States and the Soviet Union were restrained only by the crudest kind of balance of power and it was feared for the future of the world. In the changed circumstances it was mentioned that only if the two sides adopted the tools of classical diplomacy was there any hope that human race would survive.

The advocates of neo-realism approached the balance of power from a very different direction that was based upon the context of a detente that marked a period of relaxation in the Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. Their aim was to define the process of international politics through transcending historical difference and help reveal the essential differences between domestic and international politics and explain why the structure of the international system has proved so enduring. In the first instance, it was pointed out that all political systems can be categorised under one of two headings: hierarchy or anarchy. In a hierarchical political system, actors functionally differentiated and power is distributed on a vertical plane so that actors can exercise power over subordinate actors in the hierarchy but will themselves be subject to the power of actors that occupy a superior position in the hierarchy. Having made the distinction, however, the focus of attention was almost exclusively on anarchic political systems where actors are seen to operate on a horizontal plane.

It was elaborated that these actors do not consider that they are operating in a hierarchy or in a functionally differentiated system. They view themselves as independent and autonomous actors operating on the basis of self-help and so they are primarily concerned with maintaining their independence and autonomy. To be able to do this, they must, from the start, establish how power is structured in the system. This requires them to identify the dominant actors in the system—those actors that possess a disproportionate amount of the overall power in the system. The issue moved actually towards defining the issue in terms of clearly distinguishable bipolar and multipolar systems. It was pointed out that, contrary to realists, it was shown that multipolar systems are prone to generate an unstable balance of power, whereas bipolar systems are prone to generate a stable balance of power. In multipolar systems if the balance of power begins to move against any of the dominant states in such a system, they will be pushed to respond by either internal or external balancing. Internal balancing requires the actor to enhance its power position by domestic means. Along with it was also acknowledged that in a self-help or anarchic political system, there will be a tendency for any action that gives an actor a potential or future power advantage to be emulated by the other dominant actors in the system. As a consequence, in anarchy there will be a tendency for actors to take the form of like units. In other words, states can form alliances with each other to enhance their security but neo-realists mention that alliances are an inherently unstable feature of any anarchic system.

The problems of a multi-polar system reveal that its alliances generate the fear of entrapment, as the result of being drawn by an ally into an unnecessary or dangerous conflict and on the other hand, there is also the fear of abandonment. The problem persists even in the face of a rising hegemon when, rather than forming an overwhelming alliance, states will often choose to pass the buck and, at least in the first instance, leave it to other states to confront the hegemon. Because of these sorts of uncertainties, it becomes extraordinarily difficult in an anarchic system to identify the nature of the balance of power at any point in time. Nevertheless, despite these uncertainties, it is mentioned that there is sufficient flexibility in the system to ensure that any potential hegemonic state will eventually be met by an effective counterbalancing alliance. But, by the same token it is much easier to identify the state of the balance of power in a bipolar system. As a consequence, not only are there fewer sources of instability but it is also easier for the two dominant states to reach mutual agreement and thereby to move from an adversarial balance of power through to an associational balance of power.

Nevertheless, insistent realists are of the view that dominant states aim to maximise their power position and their resort to defensive realism because of the assumption that dominant states only aim to preserve their independence. It is however observed that anarchic systems transform into hierarchical or at least unipolar systems on a very regular basis. More pressing issue however was the persistence of uni-polarity in the post– Cold War world. It was mentioned that after the demise of the Soviet Union that uni-polarity is a very unstable structure and that it would rapidly give way to multi-polarity. At the outset it appears that in uni-polarity has proved stable comparatively yet the balance of power concept has shown that it is still evolving. The Weekender


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