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An Analysis of the Concept of Balance of Power

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The balance of power, a natural and inevitable outgrowth of the struggle for power, is as old as political history itself. It has profoundly influenced international relations and it has been the closest thing the nations have had to an operational theory of interstate relations for a long time. Balance of power is a system of international relations in which nations seek to maintain an approximate equilibrium of power among many rivals, thus preventing the preponderance of any one state. The international balance existed, if at all, among similar entities, the recognized powers, which placed in the scale weights of the same kind--military power, actual or potential. It was the lack of any precedent and effective authority among nations that made the balance of power necessary. The threat of war maintained the balance, and sometimes war was needed to restore it.

The notion of balance of power has also been a source of great debate. Some advocates of the balance of power tend to view it as the foundation of regional and global stability because it limits the quest for hegemony by a single actor or coalition of states. They defend it on the ground that it maintains peace, or, at all events set limits to wars--a proposition supported to some extent by the American revolutionary war. However, other authorities view it as an unstable thing in balance is determined by the unstable equilibrium of competitive interests maintained by jealous watchfulness and an antagonism of interests which are deep rooted, and thus a source of conflicts. They assert that the balance "has been the original [origin] of innumerable and fruitless wars" and "ever has been, and it is to be feared always will continue a cause of infinite contention and bloodshed." To such critics the purpose, or at any rate the desirable result, of the balance was the maintenance not of peace but of liberty. As many have pointed out, there is something inconsistent about the notion of going to war to preserve peace.

It will forever be impossible to prove or disprove the claim that by its stabilizing influence the balance of power has aided in avoiding many wars. While nobody can tell how many wars there would have been without the balance of power, it is not hard to see that most of the wars that have been fought since the beginning of the modern state system have their origin in the balance of power. It is against this background therefore that this paper seeks to critically analyze the concept of balance of power in relation to maintenance of international peace and security.

Historical Perspective

Preserving the balance of power as a conscious goal of foreign policy, though certainly known in the ancient world, resurfaced in post-medieval Europe among the Italian city states in the 15th century. Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan, was the first ruler to actively pursue such a policy, though historians have generally attributed the innovation to the Medici rulers of Florence whose praises were sung by the well-known Florentine writers Niccolò Machiavelli and Francesco Guicciardini. Universalism, which was the dominant direction of European international relations prior to the Peace of Westphalia, gave way to the doctrine of the balance of power. Balance of power gained significance after the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, where it was specifically mentioned.

It was not until the beginning of the 17th century, when the science of international law assumed the discipline of structure, in the hands of Grotius and his successors, that the theory of the balance of power was formulated as a fundamental principle of diplomacy. In accordance with this new discipline, the European states formed a sort of federal community, the fundamental condition of which was the preservation of a 'balance of power, i.e. such a disposition of things that no one state, or potentate, should be able absolutely to predominate and prescribe laws to the rest. And, since all were equally interested in this settlement, it was held to be the interest, the right, and the duty of every power to interfere, even by force of arms, when any of the conditions of this settlement were infringed upon, or assailed by, any other member of the community.

This 'balance of power' principle, once formulated, became an axiom of political science. FĂ©nelon, in his Instructions, impressed the axiom upon Louis, duc de Bourgogne. Frederick the Great, in his Anti-Machiavel, proclaimed the 'balance of power' principle to the world. In 1806, Friedrich von Gentz re-stated it, in Fragments on the Balance of Power. The principle formed the basis of the coalitions against Louis XIV and Napoleon, and the occasion, or the excuse, for most of the wars which Europe experienced between the Peace of Westphalia (1648) and the Congress of Vienna (1814), especially from the British vantage point (including the World Wars).

The Nature and Form of the Concept of Balance of Power

There are two factors at the basis of international society; one is the multiplicity, the other is the antagonism of its elements, the individual nations. The aspirations for power of the individual nations can come into conflict with each other - and some, if not most of them, do at any particular moment in history through either the pattern of direct opposition or pattern of indirect opposition. Pattern of direct opposition occurs between a nation that wants to establish its power over another and the latter, which refuse to yield. Examples that correspond to this include Russia opposing domination by Napoleon's France (1812) and China refusing to yield to Japanese domination (1931-1941). In this patter, the balance of power results directly from the desire of either nation to see its policies prevail over the policies of the other. This balancing of opposing forces will go on, the increase in the proportionate increase in the power of the other, until the nations concerned change the objectives of their policies if they do not give them up altogether- or until one nation gains or believes it has gained a decisive advantage over the other. Then the weaker yields to the stronger or war decides the issue.

The pattern of indirect opposition or competition refers to a situation where two powers compete for domination of another country. The competition between Britain and Russia for the domination of Iran, and the rivalry between USA and USSR for the control of the countries of the Southeast Asia and Africa during the Cold war era fit well into this pattern.

The balance of power can be achieved through three methods, i.e.,



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