Fundamentals of International Relations Unit 4


Balance of Power in the International System

Balance of power is a concept in the study of international relations. This unit examines the meaning of balance of power and how this theory has been employed in the international system.

The unending quest for power among states many times lead to a conflict of interests which in some cases lead to armed conflicts between nation-states. Balance of power is a tool by which the relative power position of a nation-state may be analyzed, adjusted and used as bases for action. It is the maintenance of an equilibrium in the power situations among nation-states. Balance of power aims at ensuring an equitable proportion in the power capabilities of nation-states so that no one nation-state emerges dominant over another or group of others.

There are generally two assumptions that contributed to the application of balance of power in the international system; first is that the  anarchic nature of the international system, leaves actors with no system-wide authority to serve as a form of check on aggressors or potential aggressors. According to Waltz, states do not have a world government to resort to in a situation of danger, but they can only try to increase their capabilities relative to one another through either internal efforts of self-strengthening, or external efforts of alignment and realignment with other states. The second assumption is that states are the main actors in the international system, as they contribute to the rules of engagement, have the monopoly of the legitimate use of force in their territories and also conduct foreign policy (unlike non-state actors). Hence states are considered as the unitary actors in the international system. The techniques involved in balance of power include armament, divide-and-rule, and alliance formation.

Armament is a situation that involves arms build-up between two nations competing for power in a bid to outdo the other or maintain an equal position. An example of this occurred during the Cold War between the East and West, led by the United States and the Soviet Union after World War II. One problem with this technique is that, mostly it leaves room for instability in the international system. It also leads to a huge budgetary expenditure on military hardware. The fact that balance of power adopts armament as a technique of balancing power contributes to the permissiveness of the use of force in maintaining peace. This is evident in the outbreak of the two major world wars.

Divide-and-rule is when a nation is kept at loggerhead with another in an attempt to reduce their combined power potential. Divide-and-rule can be seen when a country is divided among certain powers so as to maintain an equilibrium in their power base. An example is the division of Poland among Prussia, Austria and Russia. Territorial compensation was used to maintain balance in Europe during the period. Another instance is when Africa was shared among the European powers (Great Britain, France, Italy, and Belgium) during the scramble for its partition in 1884/85. These European powers extended their quest for power balance to the African continent and divided it into spheres of influence among themselves.

Alliance is one of the most important techniques of balance of power. An example of this occurred during World War II when the Allied nations formed an alliance against Germany and its allies. Also, during the Gulf war of 1990/91, the US led a United Nations allied force against Iraq to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi occupation. A nation may decide to form an alliance with another because of the perceived benefits it stands to gain or may withdraw considering the cost it may have on it. Also a nation may decide to undermine the power of another by going into an alliance or withdrawing from one.

From the above, we can understand why the balance of power theory has been employed in the international system. Although, this system failed to prevent the outbreak of World War I and II which claimed approximately 10million and 50million lives respectively, since the end of World War II in 1945, there has not been the outbreak of another major world war.

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