CSS Notes International Relations

Balance Of Power (BOP) Theory in International Relations | CSS Notes

Balance of Power in International Relations
Written by Shahzad F. Malik

Definitions of Balance Of Power

The equilibrium of power among members of the family of nations as will prevent any one of them from becoming sufficiently strong to enforce its will upon the others.
The power equation between states is based on an assessment of each state’s relative power capabilities and this assessment provides the basis for the conduct of relations between them.

Balance Of Power from a historical perspective

From 1648 (Peace of Westphalia) to 1789 (French Revolution) was a golden age of classical balance of power, when the princes of Europe began accepting BoP as the supreme principle of foreign policy.
Evident use of BoP is also noted in the mid-17th cent., when it was directed against the France of Louis
XIV. Balance of power was the stated British objective for much of the 18th and 19th cent., and it characterized the European international system, for example, from 1815-1914.

The Concert of Europe (from 1815 to 1870) provides another good example of major European states striving to achieve balance power. The increasing the power of Germany began seeing bipolar set of alliances form, leading to the World Wars.

After World War I, the balance of power system was attacked by proponents of cooperation and a community of power. International relations were changed radically after World War II by the predominance of two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, with major ideological differences between them.

After the 1960s, with the emergence of China and the third world, a revived Europe and Japan, it reemerged as a component of international relations. With the collapse of the USSR in 1991, the United States, as the sole remaining superpower, has been dominant militarily and, to a lesser degree, economically.

Some Balance Of Power Techniques

• Alliances (NATO) and Counter-Alliances (WARSAW Pact)
• Armament (arms race in the Subcontinent spurred by need to maintain BoP) and
• Disarmament (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty)
• Intervention (Soviets and US incursion into Afghanistan) and Non-Intervention (France and Britain did not interfere in Spanish civil war of 1936)

Kinds of Balance Of Power

Simple or Complex: Simple BoP requires parity between powers but in more complex situations competing powers can achieve balance from additional sources.
General or Particular: General BoP lacks a preponderant power whereas particular BoP can imply regional preponderance.

Subjective or Objective: BoP based on appearances is subjective and fragile whereas that based on actual capabilities is objective and more stable.

Fortuitous or Contrived: Fortuitous BoP is not based on particular policies whereas contrived BoP is based on conscious policies of either or both sides.

How is Power Balanced?

Often it is a matter of balancing threat rather than power, so distance, interdependence, and ideology matter. External balancing can take place through alliances but risks dependency on others and requires placing trust on them. This kind of trust and dependency was evident in NATO and Warsaw Pact during the Cold War.

Internal balancing takes place by building up the capacity of the state, as occurred with the US-Soviet arms race, in which both super powers tried to balance power by becoming more powerful themselves.

Degree of Polarization

Polarization is the process that causes neutral parties to take sides in a conflict. It also causes individuals on either side of the conflict to take increasingly extreme positions that are more and more opposed to each other. As parties move toward these opposite “poles,” they define themselves in terms of their opposition to a common enemy. Trust and respect diminish, and “distorted perceptions and simplified stereotypes emerge.” Parties assume more rigid positions and may refuse to negotiate.

The study of polarization first came to be identified with those realist writers who wrote about the structure of the international system, the impact of military alliances on war and peace, and the balance of power.

a) Tightness of poles – all states in one camp or other?
b) Discreteness of poles – degree of interaction between states on each side
c) Level of animosity – degree of animosity

Balance of Power and War

Truly uni-polar system would make major war less frequent, since one state can prevent others from arming for war. War is most likely during transitions in balance. Rising power gains strength, challenges previously superior state and, given newness of capabilities, war occurs because each side thinks it can win

Morton Kaplan’s Rules of BoP

1. All states act to increase capabilities but prefer to negotiate rather than fight.
2. All states fight rather than pass up an opportunity to increase their capabilities.
3. All states stop fighting rather than eliminate an essential state.
4. All states act to oppose any coalition or single state which tends to assume a position of dominance within the system
5. All states act to constrain states who subscribe to supranational organizing principles
6. All states permit defeated or constrained states to re-enter the system as potential partners

BoP in the Modern World

Creation of superpowers, made it impossible to negotiate individual BoP. Increasing disparity between states has made maintaining BoP very difficult. Ideological positioning also makes switching sides very difficult in the multi-polar world

Functions of BoP

BoP has prevented universal empires from transforming the world by conquest. It is provided peace in the absence of effective mechanisms of collective security. Need for BoP between big powers has proven particularly beneficial for secondary or smaller states.

Balancing Power for Secondary States

Secondary states, if they are free to choose, flock to the weaker side, for it is the stronger side that threatens them. On the weaker side, they are both more appreciated and safer. States ally with those who can not dominate them to avoid domination by those who can.

Criticism of BoP

Power not peace is the overriding concern within the BoP imperative. War not peace provides the best means to check instability in the BoP. BoP has resulted in absorption and partition of smaller states (Poland was divided by Russia, Austria and Prussia in 1772 to maintain BoP).

States are not static units as they can increase their power through armaments and also acquire power through development. It is difficult for states to switch sides, given the political, economic, socio-cultural ties.

Relevant Vocabulary

  • Assessment: estimation based on analysis
  • Fortuitous: unexpected or chance
  • Capability: capacity or the ability to achieve or do something
  • Preponderance: prevalence or hold
  • Fragile: subject to change, unstable
  • Intervention: intrusion or interference
  • Alliance: grouping or association to serve a specific purpose
  • Mechanism: device, apparatus, or system Polarization: division or diversion Acquire: to obtain or to get
  • Partition: breaking up or division
  • Static: the same, or unchanging


About the author

Shahzad F. Malik

Shahzad Faisal Malik is the administrator of CSSTimes.pk and is responsible for managing the content, design, and overall direction of the blog. He has a strong background in Competitive Exams and is passionate and sharing information with others.
Shahzad Faisal Malik has worked as a Graphic Designer/Content Creator at CSSTimes in the past. In his free time, Shahzad Faisal Malik enjoys watching Cricket, writing blogs for different websites and is always on the lookout for new and interesting content to share with the readers of this website.
As the website administrator, Shahzad Faisal Malik is dedicated to providing high-quality content and fostering a welcoming and engaging community for readers. He looks forward to connecting with readers and hearing their thoughts and feedback on the website.

Leave a Comment