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The “Balance of Power”

Geopolitics provides a realistic look at the world as the arena of relative unity and the constant struggle of various world powers. And, in the geopolitical conceptions, this struggle is regarded as a struggle of opposites, which can not be undone as it is objective, it can only be balanced. Therefore, one of the major categories of geopolitics, reflecting the unity and struggle of the world’s major strength, is the balance of power. The action leads to reaction, the power gives rise to counterbalance of this force. That is the law of interaction at the global stage, and this is the base of the balance of power in international relations.

The balance of power is a force that affects the of forces and actions of actors in international relations, while “balancing” them. But also the balance of power can be used by individual actors to manipulate the situation in the international arena.

In this paper it is necessary to consider the notion of “balance of power” in international relations, the principles of balance and actions of actors within it.

The principle of balance of power in the international relations

The principle of balance of power has its roots in ancient times, where states were involved in a struggle for power and influence, their relations have always been built on this principle. The theory and policy of balance of power is closely associated with the ancient Roman principle of “divide et impera”. The essence of this policy is expressed in the formula of well-known English statesman of the XIX century Lord Palmerston: “We have no eternal allies and eternal enemies. We just have permanent eternal interests and we must follow them.” (Little 2007)

Every single state naturally seeks to expand its power and influence at a large territory, which it is able to effectively manage. In practice, however, other states provide obstacles to this, while also seeking to expand their influence, or limit the influence of others. The consequence is a clash of different interests and aspirations, in which the decisive role is played by the power of the state. Therefore, in the elementary form a balance of power is aimed not to keep the peace or to promote international cooperation, but to maintain the independence of each unit within a system of states, not allowing any of them to begin to threaten others.

The balance of power in international relations is the distribution of global influence between the individual centers of power – the poles; it may take different configurations: bipolar, three-pole, multipolar. The main objective of the balance of power is to prevent the domination of one or group of states in the international system. (Waltz 1979)

The system of “balance of power” is an international system without the political subsystem; the actors of this system are international actors. It is not so important what kinds of country are defined as the main national actors, but existence of a minimum number of actors is important for such a system. Although in the international system of “balance of power” there is no single political system, the individual actions of national actors complement each other, according to the basic rules of this system, describing the behavior of actors. The main force driving international politics is the concept of interest defined in terms of power. (Morgenthau et al., 2005)

The system of “balance” is characterized by the following basic rules:

  1. To act in order to expand own capabilities, but better through negotiations than through war. The first rule indicates that each main national actor seeks to increase its influence. However, this should be achieved, if possible, without war, without destroying the balance consequences that the war can bring for a system. (Kaplan 1962)
  2. It is better to fight than to lose the case of empowerment. According to the second rule, the duty of each national actor is to protect its own interests. This means that if the main actor could not protect its own interests, these interests tend not to prevail. Thus, opportunities should be expanded even at the cost of the war. (Kaplan 1962)
  3. It is better to stop the war, than to destroy one of the main national actors. The third rule corresponds to classical standards, when the main national actors should not grow enough to exceed the optimal size of a just and legal community. This rule is observed both between the legitimate dynastic regimes, and between modern national territorial states. (Kaplan 1962)
  4. To act against any coalition or single actor, who seeks to acquire a dominant position in relation to the rest of the system. (Kaplan 1962)
  5. To act against the actors who support the supra-organizational principles. The fourth and fifth rules are just rational requirements, necessary to maintain the international system. Formation of the dominant coalition, or the desire of a major national actor to a dominant position in the system, or to subordinate the other main actors, are threats to the interests of national actors that do not belong to this coalition. In addition, if the coalition succeeds in establishing a relationship of subordination in the international system, the dominant member (or members) of the coalition will be able to exert political pressure on the less important members of the same coalition. Therefore, the coalition tend to get counterweight, that is to form the opposing coalition. They arise in those cases when the first coalition begin to threaten the States not participating in them, and thus become vulnerable, and when they begin to threaten the interests of its own members. In this case the states, who are under pressure from the dominant coalition members, may find it more profitable to take a neutral position with respect to the coalition or to join the opposing coalition. These rules overlap with the third rule. It is important not to limit the aspirations of some countries and not to destroy other key national actors, then in the future they will, if necessary, enter into any coalition. (Kaplan 1962)
  6. To consider all the major actors as acceptable role partners. The sixth rule states that the very viability of the system depends on consistency of behavior of actors with major regulations and standards of the “balance of power”. If the number of major actors decreases, the international system of balance becomes unstable. Thus, a certain constant number of key national actors, within certain limits, is a necessary condition for stability of the system. For this right to full membership in the system is usually returned to the defeated earlier deviant actors (the example can be Germany after the World War II). (Kaplan 1962)

The rules of international system are interdependent. A set of rules is not constant, but is determined by certain actions of individual actors over a period of time. In the long period of time increases the possibility that some changes will create conditions for the transformation of the system. Any action that has positive feedback, could help to change the system. The historical examples to illustrate the effect of these rules, are easy to find: thus, European states didn’t take Napoleon up until he agreed to play by the rules of the system. (Diem G.)

In addition to the balance set by the basic rules, there are two other types of balancing characteristics of the international system: the balance between a set of meaningful rules and other variables in the international system, and balance between the international system and its external environment. If the behavior of actors is not subject to the rules described, the type and number of actors will vary. In this case, it becomes impossible to act in accordance with the rules. In addition, the basic rules of the international system of balance of power can leave the system in equilibrium, if the other system variables take specific meaning. Some of the changes in resources and information, available to key actors, can be compatible with the rules of the system, while others are not. Indeed, if the value of one variable changes, such as the influence of the coalition, the system can not be in equilibrium, if it does not change the amount of information available to a particular actor. Otherwise, the appropriate compensatory changes do not occur. Some changes in the coalition may be compatible with the rules of the system, while others can not. (Diem G.)

Principles and conditions of “balance of power” in international relations

One of the important conditions for the “balance of power” is a number of main national actors. If the system has only three national actors, and if their capabilities are roughly equal, the probability that two of them join together against the third are very high.

In the case when the third actor is not completely destroyed, he after the defeat may enter into a new coalition with the weaker of the winning actors. The probability of this outcome, required for the stability of the system, increases when the number of significant actors are more than three. At the same time mistakes or lack of information are equally devastating. Thus, only a sufficient number of actors gives the system flexibility to implement the required changes in coalitions when conditions change. (Healy 1973)

Coalition with a large number of members are more flexible and more tolerant of those States, which are not connected closely with this coalition or are not members of this coalition. But in this case, when a large number of actors are not connected to the present coalition or are not its members, any change in the coalition, such as the inclusion of new members, can be compensated by offering appropriate compensation or recognition of threats to the national interests of any actor. Finally, extending its sphere of influence the national actor often uses a strategy of “rewards and punishment”: if he has enough opportunities he can offer rewards for those actors who come into his coalition, and pose a mortal threat to those who refuse to join this coalition. As the political and economic power of the dominant actor is becoming more significant, friction in the system of “balance” may become so severe that the system may collapse. This process can be illustrated on the examples from the economic reality: it is more expedient, in terms of overall growth and profitability of capital investment, to invest it in less-developed or highly developed areas? Ironically, in raising capital developed countries have advantages over developing countries. Investor chooses those areas where, in his opinion, it is possible to make a profit, and developed communications and business sphere are good motivating factors. However, there are also economic reasons, since underdeveloped countries do not have sufficient production capacity, professional workers, means of transport, markets, and therefore unable to spend as much capital as developed countries. In any case, the two centers of rapid growth of economic potential are resulted in the early formation of a bipolar international system, rather than in the preservation of “balance.”

The fourth rule can help to assess the effectiveness of “balancing” in the international system of “balance of power. ” For example, possible that the main factor that contributed to the success of Great Britain in the implementation of ” balancing” role in the XIX century was fact that the UK dominated by the sea and had no territorial ambitions in continental Europe. As a result, other national actors were quite tolerant of the implementation of the UK “balancing” role. As the leading naval power, Britain could join the naval forces of other countries, or transporting armed troops into the conflict zone. United Kingdom had only relatively small land army, as it could use naval forces to fight with enemies.

Another important condition for the “balance of power” is a number of main national actors. If the system has only three national actor, and if their capabilities are roughly equal, the probability that two of them join together to influence a third is very high. In the case when the third actor is not completely destroyed, after the defeat he may enter into a new coalition with the weaker of the winning actors. The probability of this outcome required for the stability of the system increases when the number of significant actors in more than three. At the same mistakes or lack of information are less negative factors. Thus, only a sufficient number of actors gives the system flexibility to implement the required changes in coalitions. However, if the number of national actors is large, changes in the coalition create considerable tension in the international system. In such circumstances it is difficult to take the required “compensatory” actions. In the presence in the international system of a large number of actors in a fairly unstable coalitions, its members are more tolerant to the states performing “balancing” role, because they do not pose a mortal threat to the opposing coalition. But if the number of relevant actors is small, the fact of “balancing” can lead to permanent “imbalance” of the system and the system becomes intolerable to the implementation of “balancing” role, which will lead to instability.

The next important factor for the stability of “balance of power” is the rate of equalization to compensate the changes. If imbalance occurs quite often, national actors will be difficult to assess their situation, their plans may be based more on a combination of chance, but quickly the changes will make these plans totally unrealistic. The result would be chaos. Tension in the system leads to dysfunction of the system of decision-making within national states, and in their behavior will appear significant deviations from the rules of the international system of “balance of power”, and the system will become unstable. On the other hand, if the inertia in the system of “balance of power” is too high, the balancing changes will occur too late to carry out compensatory changes. In such circumstances, the system of “balance of power” will also be unstable. Consequently, there are upper and lower limits of speed of changes in the coalitions of main actors. (Emerson 1989)

Thus, the above presented are the conditions under which the system of “balance” is stable. If the main national actor is pursuing supranational organizational goals, if changes in the possibilities lead to the emergence of feedback, if the attempt of any actor to implement a rule of “balance” goes in conflict with the performance of one or more other significant rules, then the system of “balance” will become unstable. When the international system of “balance of power” becomes unstable, the events that were previously not able to pull it from its equilibrium position, can transform it into another system. Events, such as World War I or strengthening of a totalitarian power, can cause the transformation of the system. The new international system will follow a set of new major regulations, and may alter the characteristics of some of the actors. The most probable transformation of the system of “balance of power” is a bipolar system. It will happen if the two national actors and their allies form the dominant components, especially if the structure of one of the blocks can not weaken the organization by offering rewards. (Emerson 1989)

The “balance of power” and the possibility of actors to alter and manipulate it

In order to explain the possibility of influence and changing the system of balance of power, it is necessary to identify critical conditions under which the system can be changed by actions of the main actors. The conditions under which the system of the “balance of power” becomes unstable, are the following:

  • The existence of important national actors, who do not agree to play by the rules;
  • the presence of a national actor, the national policy of which is focused on the establishment of a supranational political organization;
  • Shortcomings in the information support for decision-making of national actors or personal actions of individual politicians, which deviate from the rules of the system;
  • Changes in resources, which are characterized by positive feedback,
  • The complexity of the application of certain rules, such as, for example, regulations of reconstruction of the defeated actors;
  • Conflicts between the rules and the serious national needs,
  • The difficulty of the “balance” maintenance due to the small number of major actors or insufficient flexibility of the mechanism of “balancing”. (Healy 1973)

If one of the main national actors does not follow the rules of “balance”, it can disrupt the stability of the system. The balance of the system is supported by complementary actions of the main national actors. In other words, the dominance of national actors in the international system will allow them to succeed in their deviance. Even if the diverging national actor has no intention to change the international system or to establish its dominance, its actions may nevertheless lead to similar consequences. Such changes of the “balance of power” become very likely if the main national actor aspires to any form of ethnic or supra-national hegemony. The main characteristic of the national actor is the limit, taking into account national targets; that means that national actor seeks to extend its influence, but do not transform himself into a supranational actor. If national goals become supranational, the development of weapons and transport will help to occupy large modern industrial areas, that can lead to a deviation from the rules of the international system of “balance of power.” (Kaplan 1962)

The system of “balance” becomes unstable, if any national actors have at their disposal the international political organization with a rigid structure, as a result of which the national actors use the power of other national actors. If the latter have no such organizations, they will be at a considerable disadvantage if they continue to play by the rules of the international system of balance. (Emerson 1989)

In the system of “balance of power” all the main actors follow limited objectives, so each one can safely fulfill its immediate interests. If action to implement them cause an increase in the influence of one of the actors, it is necessary to offer the rest of the actors remuneration to deter them from joining a coalition with powerful actor. To a certain point, such remuneration shall not be required, because in the interests of other actors is to limit the power of the most influential actor. For example an ancient political philosopher Machiavelli advised emperors not to enter into a coalition with the most powerful monarchs against their neighbors. This advice is not always followed, but the majority of nation-states in the “balance of power” is likely to find it too dangerous a situation where one of the national actors reach a clearly dominant position. However, if to the action come supranational organizational principles, and other states may have coalitions with actor oriented to the supra-national domination, and thus enable it to increase its influence, but even if this alliance is associated with short-term interests, it becomes too dangerous. For this reason, other national actors, to protect their interests, should form more or less stable blocks of supranational organizational principles, even if this requires a focus on a more powerful national actor. But these actions, as well as the actions of deviant actor, are negative for a system of “balance of power. ” (Kaplan 1962)

When deviating actor is a totalitarian state, then it is not always possible to perform the rules limiting such an actor. Consequence of the fact that the national actor is seeking to reorganize the international system, can be unlimited targets of warring parties. In these circumstances, the use by the state of any means of waging war may force his opponents also maintain an unlimited war. The consequences of such a war are unpredictable both for internal social structure of the national actors involved in the war, and for change in the influence of national actors who survive this war. The war may require forming a coalition with other actors, but if other national actors are not able to promptly assess changes in the relative distribution of national influence, they are unlikely to make the necessary compensating actions. (Kaplan 1962)


The balance of power of actors in world politics is the interaction of different expansion flows (depending on the strength of countries and their groupings) on the one hand, and the results of tiered and multi-directional cooperation on the other. Balance of power is not an equilibrium state of the world system, but only the balance of powers depending on the actions of all its elements. Therefore, the principle of balance of power is not aimed to preserve peace or to promote international cooperation, but serves to maintain the independence of each unit within a system of states, not allowing any of them to get the power and to threaten the world order.



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