Why has the idea of balance of power proved so controversial? (2009)
Word Count: 1954
It is undeniable that the discourse on the balance of power remains to this day a central tenet of
International Relations, particularly within the realist sphere of theory (Wohlforth et al 2007: 1).
Regardless of its centrality in current IR discourse, it remains at the same time one of the most heavily contested concepts of the field (Claude 1962:12). In the 19th century, the radical liberal
Richard Cobden argued that the “theory of a balance of power is a mere chimera—a creation of the politician's brain—a phantasm, without definite form or tangible existence—a mere conjunction of syllables, forming words which convey sound without meaning” (Cobden 1836/1903: I.6.17). In addition to criticisms of its definitional weakness, balance of power was also for example strongly critiqued in aftermath of the two World Wars because of its supposed policy failures. Ultimately, one needs to take into account this controversial idea if only because balance of power has historically been at least a constructed reality at certainly at the European level, for hundreds of years (Sheehan
It is my contention, that the utility of balance of power, which seeks to provide a universal guiding principle to international relations, both as an analytical, descriptive tool of the international system, as well as a guiding principle of a states’ foreign policy, is certainly overemphasized, if not almost entirely worthless. Underlying this entire argument stands the realization that the debate over this concept spans over hundreds of years, and that therefore this essay will harness a large variety of historical and modern sources in its analysis. This paper will be structured into three main sections.
The first section will highlight the definitional jungle that underlies the phrase balance of power and show how this leads this concept as it stands alone it to be almost without meaning. Through the use of historical examples, this essay will then proceed to show the weakness of the concept as a descriptive and analytical of the international system even within a restricted definition. To conclude, section three will argue how balance of power is largely incoherent as a basis for foreign policy formulation and prescription and was instead used more as a justification for state interest.
The Definitional Debate of Balance of Power Theory
One of the main points of controversy surrounding the concept of balance of power has historically been its supposed definitional failings. Ernst Haas in his 1953 article “The Balance of Power,” identified at least eight main ways regarding how balance of power has been defined – balance meaning (1) “Distribution of Power,” (2) balance meaning “Equilibrium,” (3) balance meaning
“Hegemony,” (4) balance meaning “Stability” and “Peace,” (5) balance meaning “Instability” and
“War,” (6) balance meaning “Power Politics” generally, (7) balance as implied as a “Universal of
History,” and finally (8) balance as a “System” and “Guide” to policy-making (Haas 1953: 447-458).
Just at a purely definitional level, A. F. Pollard's speculation on what 'permutation and combination' could be extracted by mathematicians from the Oxford English Dictionary's found 20 meanings for
“balance,” 63 for “of,” and 18 for “power” (Pollard 1953: 58). When analyzing Morgenthau’s attempt to create a clear definition of the concept, Claude finds that not only Morgenthau explicitly lists four divergent definitions regarding the possible use of balance of power, but that he uses at least an additional one that contrasts with the other four, all in a chapter specifically designed to clear up the confusions on the subject! (Claude 1962: 25). This lack of external and internal coherence leads him to conclude that the “problem of balance of power, is not that it has no meaning, but that it has too many