Balance of Power in International Relations

The Balance of power is the oldest concept that originated early modern period in Europe. Balance of Power emerged as a universal principle as well as the solution to the problem of every war in international history. Every country used it as an instrument to protect their nation from their enemy countries.

Definition of Balance of Power

  • Already in 1814 British statesman Lord Castlereagh provided one of the first definitions of balance of power, interpreting it as “a system in which a natural equilibrium arises between the nations as a result of their equal strength and therefore is capable of preventing any state from becoming too powerful to dictate its terms to others”.
  • Legal scholar George Schwarzenberger offered another key definition of balance of power: “The balance of power means an equilibrium or a certain degree of stabilization in power relations achieved under favorable circumstances through an alliance of states or other mechanisms”.
  • Balance of power is an ambiguous term because it includes two related meanings – equality which one can understand from the even sides of an account and inequality when one side is stronger or richer than the other. It means preventing any nation or group of nations from dominating the others. The balance of power may be said to be the situation in which there is equilibrium among rival states to keep one power from dominating and imposing its will on others.

Types of the Balance of Power

The balance of power takes on different forms depending on the number of states involved and geographic scope.

Simple Balance
A simple balance of power exists when power is concentrated between two states or two opposing camps. The power distribution between the two sides is roughly equal, as with the Cold War rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Multiple Balance
A multiple or complex balance emerges when power is dispersed among several states or groups of states that balance each other. Multiple balances do not require a single overarching system but can have sub-systems and local balances within the larger framework.

Local, Regional, and Global
The geographic scope of a balance of power may be local, regional, or global. A local balance exists between neighboring states like India and Pakistan. A regional balance operates across a continent or other region, such as a European or Asian balance of power. A global balance encompasses the entire international system.

Flexible and Rigid
Historically, balances of power tended to be more flexible when alliances could shift rapidly. In modern times, increased ideology and economic interdependence make balances more rigid as alliance patterns solidify.

Nature of Balance of Power

The nature of the balance of power refers to the key characteristics that define this concept in international relations. While seeking equilibrium, the balance of power also involves some disequilibrium. It is a temporary and unstable state that must be actively achieved, rather than passively maintained. Balance of power relies on major powers as the main actors to enforce and manage the equilibrium. While it aims to prevent war, balance of power is not itself a tool of peace. Rather, it accepts war and conflict as inherent in the international system.

Certain essential conditions underpin the balance of power, including:

  • Multiplicity of states – No single state dominates, many competing states exist
  • States act based on national interest, not collective good
  • Major powers have significant influence and ability to shift balances
  • Equilibrium is actively enforced through changing alliances and interventions

The equilibrium sought is flexible and contextual, not an absolute standard. It involves judgments by statesmen about acceptable levels of disequilibrium and methods to counter rising powers. Overall, the balance of power seeks to manage competition between states and prevent hegemony but does not eliminate conflict as states pursue national interests. It is an inherently unstable arrangement that major powers must continually adjust through active diplomacy, war, and power politics.

 Characteristics of Balance of Power

The chief characteristics of the balance of power system include:

Equilibrium – The term equilibrium suggests an equal distribution of power. When this equilibrium is lost, the balance of power fails. Balance is not permanent as occasional disequilibrium may occur.

Temporary – The balance of power is always temporary and unstable. With changing times and conditions it also changes, giving way to new balances of power.

Active Intervention – Balance of power results from active intervention, not happenstance. States must take necessary steps, including war, to safeguard interests if the balance tips against them.

Status Quo – The balance of power favors the status quo, so those benefitting generally favor it while those losing out oppose it, often leading to war.

Difficulty Determining Existence – It’s not easy to determine if a balance of power exists. The real test is war, which upsets the balance.

Subjective vs Objective – Historians take an objective view while statesmen are subjective, seeking equilibrium and preponderance in their favour.

Conflicting Aims – The balance of power aims to preserve peace but also increases tensions and encourages wars at times.

Big Power Game – Big powers seek security, not peace/stability. Small powers are victims or spectators, not players.

Unsuitable for Democracies – Democracies avoid power politics except in crises. Dictatorships dominate.

The Balancer – The system needs a powerful balancer state(s) or organization. Britain filled this role in the 19th century.

Questionable Operation – Scholars argue balance of power is inoperative and irrelevant today due to globalization and technology. It continues but with new patterns.

Assumptions of Balance of Power

Balance of Power theory makes the following key assumptions:

1. States Seek to Protect Vital Rights and Interests

The balance of power assumes that states are committed to protecting their vital rights and interests by all possible means, including war if necessary. States will take steps to protect their sovereignty, territory, resources, and national interests.

2. Vital Interests Face Threats

The theory posits that other states are trying to increase their power and influence in ways that threaten the states’ vital interests. These threats encourage states to take action through alliances or to increase their military power

3. Power Positions Can Be Measured

Balance of Power assumes the relative power of states can be measured with a reasonable degree of accuracy. Factors like military strength, industrial capacity, population, geography, etc. allow states to gauge the power ratios between themselves and other states.

4. Balance Deters Aggression or Defeat

The theory assumes that a balance of power will either deter a threatening state from aggression or allow the victim state to avoid defeat if attacked. The equilibrium prevents the preponderance of power.

5. States Make Decisions Based on Power

Finally, Balance of Power assumes that statesmen make foreign policy decisions primarily based on calculations of power among states. National interest is defined in terms of power.

Principles & Postulates of Balance of Power

Some key principles and ideas that underpin the concept of balance of power include:

  • States are willing to alter their alliances and treaties as circumstances change to maintain an equilibrium of power. A nation following a balance of power policy will shift its allegiances to prevent any one bloc from gaining hegemony.
  • When a nation finds that another state or group of states is becoming too powerful, it will be willing to go to war to restore the balance of power and check that preponderance of power. Preventing hegemony is a key goal.
  • In a major war over the balance of power, the goal should be to prevent any nation from being eliminated or wiped out. This allows for restored equilibrium after the conflict ends.
  • There should be a multiplicity of nation-states, rather than power consolidated under one empire or hegemon. The existence of multiple strong powers creates checks and balances.
  • The balance of power operates based on national interest, rather than morality or ideology. States make alliances and treaties purely based on calculations of power dynamics.
  • States are assumed to be rational actors that make decisions based on self-interest and evaluations of the distribution of power. Leaders are expected to alter policy to defend vital interests.

The balance of power relies on these underlying ideas about state behavior and the logic of preventing hegemony through temporary and shifting alliances. States are assumed to act rationally to prevent domination by any single bloc.

Methods of Balance of Power

Key methods of Balance of Power are

Alliances and Counter Alliances- Alliance and counter-alliance are the most important methods of balance of power to counter other countries to maintain peace in the world. This method leads to the establishment of counter-alliances by opposing nations. Alliances allow states to pool resources and capabilities to counter rising threats. One important alliance is NATO, in this alliance, nearly 31 countries are included. Alliance and counter-alliance increase the strength of the military and provide some hope to counter their enemy countries by allying with strong countries.

Compensation- Also known as territorial compensation, this involves the annexation or division of territory from a state whose power is seen as dangerous to the balance. A classic example is the three partitions of Poland by Russia, Prussia, and Austria in the 18th century.

Buffer States-  These are areas that are weak but possess strategic importance to two or more strong powers. Small states can be maintained as separating or buffer states to minimize clashes between major powers. Their main function is to physically separate powerful nations. In Asia, Two buffer states in Asia are Afghanistan and Mongolia. Afghanistan was considered a buffer state between British India and Russia during the great game in the 19th century and Mongolia is also a buffer state between China and Russia.

In Western Countries-
Austria and Finland are the best buffer states in Western countries.
During the Cold War, Austria acted as a neutral buffer state between NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and the Warsaw Pact. Finland was a buffer state during the Cold War, between the West, especially Sweden, and the Soviet Union.

Intervention and Non-Intervention- States may interfere in the internal affairs of other nations to change or maintain a situation favorable to their interest. Non-intervention is the opposite – avoiding involvement in conflicts between states to weaken both. For example, the USSR’s intervention in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Armaments and Disarmament-  Nations focus on building armaments to maintain or improve their position. Building armaments always gives benefits to the nation and it also shows the defence power of the nation. For example, the United States of America is a strong country in Armaments, which means it helps in balancing power with other countries, like buying weapons from the United States of America. most importantly, if any country has strong armaments, then no country will dare to attack that country, other countries will prefer a good relationship with that country. However, excessive arms races are dangerous. Disarmament is seen as better for peace. States must balance deterrence with avoiding provocation.

Importance of Balance of Power- Balance of Power has been considered an important concept in international relations for several reasons and balance of power is very important for some weak countries, have strong enemies, and some developing countries. So there are some important reasons which highlight why balance of power is important. Reasons are:

A Source of Stability in International Relations- Balance of Power is seen as a device of effective power management that helps ensure peace and stability between nations and most of the countries use it to strengthen their military power. Preventing any one nation from becoming too powerful, reduces the likelihood of aggression and domination and helps maintain peace in the world. The balancing of power creates a deterrence and incentives for nations to avoid upsetting the equilibrium.

It Suits the Real Nature of International Relations- Balance of Power recognizes the inherent competitiveness and conflict between nation-states. Rather than naively assuming cooperation, it takes into account the self-interested nature of countries and the reality of power politics. In this way, the Balance of Power is a pragmatic mechanism that reflects the dynamic nature of international relations.

Ensures Multiplicity of States- By preventing the rise of a hegemonic power and protecting weaker states, the Balance of Power ensures the preservation and multiplicity of nation-states in the world. This is considered important for stability, diversity, and representing the interests of different peoples.

Guarantees the Freedom of Small States- Weaker and smaller states cannot adequately defend themselves alone against threats from larger powers. Balance of Power provides a degree of security and autonomy to small states by restraining potential aggression from bigger states. As such, it helps guarantee the independence and freedom of small nations.

Criticism of Balance of Power

The balance of power theory has been criticized on several grounds:

Cannot Ensure Peace-  Critics point out that even during the heyday of balance of power in 18th and 19th century Europe, it failed to prevent the domination of smaller states by bigger powers. Balance of power can strengthen the military power of any country but can not ensure war and peace. The Napoleonic Wars saw France dominate much of the continent. Balance of power could not prevent war in 1914. Its record of ensuring peace is mixed at best.

States are Dynamic, Not Static- The theory assumes states are static units but in reality, each state is constantly trying to increase its power. Statesmen are ambitious and constantly probe for opportunities to alter the balance in their favor. The international system is dynamic, not static.

Too Narrow a View- Critics argue balance of power takes too narrow a view, regarding power relations as the entirety of international affairs. But there are many other factors at play – economic, cultural, and ideological. Focusing only on relative power is an oversimplification.

Relevance of Balance of Power

The relevance and effectiveness of the balance of power have changed in the modern era due to several key developments:

1. End of periods of European superiority.
The concept of balance of power was a traditional European concept where the aim was to ensure equilibrium among European powers. New global powers from Asia, Africa, and Latin America have created a more intricate multi-polar world.

2. Rise of global actors-
International organizations such as the United Nations and regional bodies like the European Union, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and the African Union among others have appeared and introduced new channels of cooperation and instances of conflict resolution that go beyond the traditional way of balance of power.

3. The rise of ideology and psychological warfare-
Ideology as a tool of state policy and propaganda has diminished the significance of pure military might considerations. Now psychological and information warfare are major strategies.

4. Shift from pure military power-
With nuclear weapons, economic and technological power have become equally important elements of national power. This dilutes the role of the traditional military balance of power.

5. End of colonialism & rise of nationalism-
The closing of colonial empires and the appearance of new nation-states constrain major powers’ capacity to shape global affairs. Nationalism also unites various provinces thus limiting divide-and-rule policies.

6. Reduction in major powers-
The US and USSR dominated simple bipolar balance during the Cold War period. Today’s multi-polar world is characterized by greater diffusion of power.

In last, as such the traditional European balance of power system centered on military forces has lost its significance today because the contemporary international affairs that are mainly driven by nationalism, ideology, and new processes of international cooperation are too entangled and complicated. Balance of power still applies but is more complicated and restricted.


Overall, the balance of power is the moderated equilibrium between nations that stops one nation from gaining too much power. This doctrine aims at the maintenance of peace and stability in international relations.

The key points about the balance of power include:

– It is about equilibrium, but it is also about disequilibrium among countries.

– It is temporary and unstable.

– It needs to be proactively built with means such as alliances, payoff, intervention, buffers, etc.

– Balance of power involves major powers mainly.

– It is not based on peace; rather it is based on national interest.

– It makes assumptions such as states safeguard core interests and power can be measured.

– It can’t fully guarantee peace, states always want more power and ideology plays a role in the country even today.

– New global actors like the UN, the end of European domination question relevance.

Still, its analysis as well as understanding its dynamics and limitations is useful while analyzing world power structures.