Imperatives of power balancing

ByNabeel Zafar

Works in the private sector


March 15, 2023

Nabee Zafar discusses a tricky matter

Power balancing has always remained a difficult and contentious issue and rigorous steps are undertaken by states to maintain it. In this context states pursue a more general strategy and consider it as a goal and associated policy instrument that can promote peace through power balancing. Such efforts are pursued by states to protect themselves in a dangerous world by arraying power against power. States can attempt to counteract powerful or threatening states through internal and external balancing. Internal balancing is the process by which states muster their own power by mobilising their economy and increasing their defense capabilities. In external balancing, states enter into security alliances with other states.

In amassing counterbalancing force, states seek to dissuade other states from resorting to war. If a state knows that its power will be met with resistance – if it knows that its capabilities on the battlefield are no greater than those of its enemies – it will hesitate to start a war. In an international system in which power is balanced, states have incentives to act with restraint and caution. According to this logic, a world in which power is balanced is a world that will tend toward peace. Much of international politics in the modern era has involved states using balancing strategies to advance their interests.

The power balancing strategy in international arena is quiet an old exercise and the prime example in this respect is of the UK that pursued a strategy of power balancing to prevent the European continent from being dominated by a hostile hegemonic state. This strategy involved staying off shore and watching over developments on the continent. If and when a continental great power became too powerful or sought to dominate Europe as a whole, the UK would endeavor to organise a balancing coalition to undercut the challenger. This policy was in cognizance with the oft-repeated dictum that states had no permanent friends, no permanent enemies, only permanent interests.

This balancing strategy had as its objective the use of British power to maintain the balance between the great powers on the European continent, undercutting efforts by any state to make war and try to dominate the region. During the Cold War, the United States employed power balancing as a tool for managing its relations with the Soviet Union. The internal strategy involved mobilisation of the American economy, reflected in investments in research and development, education and training, and massive expenditure to boost military capacities. External balancing took the form of building alliances, providing foreign and military assistance, and championing economic and political cooperation within the non-communist world.

This so-called bipolar power balancing lasted for decades and, in retrospect, it appeared to play an important role in preserving peace between the two superpowers, although proxy wars were fought in other countries. States today still often pursue a strategy of balancing, either directly or indirectly. The rise of China has led countries in Asia to explore ways to counter or guard against the possibilities of China’s domination of the region. India, another large and growing Asian country, has looked warily at the rise of China – and has taken steps to strengthen its military capacities and political relations in the region as counter-measures.

Southeast Asian countries, such as Singapore, Australia, and the Philippines, seek to engage China and benefit from good political and economic relations. But indications suggest that at least some of these countries also want the United States to remain in the region as a balance against Chinese power. The United States has responded to this situation by reassuring East Asian states of its security commitments and leadership in the region. The US played an active role in brokering territorial disputes in Southeast Asia – disputes that pit China against the smaller states – reflected this use of power balancing as a tool of diplomacy. China, in return, has adopted a strategy of diplomacy, reassuring its neighbours and offering to participate in various regional economic and security institutions to mitigate the worries that other states have about a rising China, thereby undercutting the urge these states might have to seek to balance power against China.

Another method adopted by states to maintain balance of power that implies involving aggregating capabilities to resist the threats of an increasingly powerful rival state. This situation occurs when smaller states flock to a state for protection. Rather than resist the power of a leading state, weaker neighbours affiliate with the more powerful state. Their strategy is to tie themselves to the leading state, thereby gaining protection and other benefits from it. States often pursue this strategy in conjunction with power balancing. It is also pointed out that small states joined the US while trying to maintain balance with the Soviet Union. This process is still followed as maintaining balance of power is an essential attribute of international system. TW


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