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Max Planck Encyclopedia of Public International Law [MPEPIL]

Balance of Power

Detlev Vagts

From: Oxford Public International Law (http://opil.ouplaw.com). (c) Oxford University Press, 2015. All Rights Reserved.date: 18 August 2019

Act of state

Published under the auspices of the Max Planck Foundation for International Peace and the Rule of Law under the direction of Rüdiger Wolfrum.

A.  Notion

The concept of a balance of power implies an equilibrium of force as between the States or groups of States, within the system in question. Such a balance, it is asserted, works for peace since no State is in a position to seek hegemony. The balance may be conceived of as a status maintained by self-correcting natural forces or as the product of deliberate human intervention. Balances within regions may overlap a world-wide equilibrium. Writers sometimes refer to a favourable balance of power, as they might speak of a favourable balance of payments. While equilibrium analysis belongs primarily to the realm of international political science (International Relations, Principal Theories), it has also in the past played a role in international legal theory (International Legal Theory and Doctrine).

B.  Historical Evolution of the Concept

1.  Early Period to 1648

A developed balance of power theory requires acceptance of the proposition that there are independent sovereigns (Sovereignty), whose actions towards each other are not dictated either by a superior authority or by clearly ascertainable rules of law. Such States are free to form and reform alliances and, under some circumstances at least, to make war. Those preconditions do not exist when there is thought to be a single earthly sovereign—the Holy Roman Emperor (Holy Roman Empire)—or spiritual leader—the Pope. The system can include States regarded as outlaws or heretics, which are, therefore, ineligible as allies and are even legitimate targets of just wars by believers. As early as the 15th century such conditions prevailed in Italy, and writers such as Francesco Guicciardini saw maintaining the balance of power as a major function of the de’ Medici and other rulers of city States. The concept of balancing also had special appeal for an age in which symmetry was discovered in architecture, physics, and accounting.

However, the Italian balance was overwhelmed by external forces, and the Europe that was torn by the wars of religion was not fertile ground for equilibrium analysis. Here and there independent thinkers, such as Francis Bacon and nationalistic statesmen such as Cardinal Richelieu, expressed or practised the concept. True development of the equilibrium, however, required that religious animosities and drives for hegemony be burned out by the ordeal of the Thirty Years’ War.

2.  From 1648 to 1789

Balance of power practice and analysis are commonly thought to originate with the Peace of Westphalia (Westphalia, Peace of [1648]). That settlement accepted the coexistence of Catholic and Protestant sovereigns and rearranged the map of Europe in ways designed to deter monarchs from renewing their drive for hegemony (Peaceful Coexistence; Westphalian System). Over the next 150 years, European rulers, relatively free of religious constraints or of obligations to obtain the consent of consciously nationalistic popular constituencies, conducted policies aimed at their own survival or aggrandizement. In succession, some of them sought continental hegemony through conquest or dynastic acquisitions. With considerable consistency British policy aimed at thwarting those aspirations by forming and supporting countervailing coalitions that from time to time included the Netherlands, Austria, and Prussia. That policy found legal expression in the annually renewed Mutiny Act, which embodied Parliament’s control over the standing army which was maintained, among other things, for the ‘preservation of the balance of power’ in Europe (Phillimore).

On the continent, the idea of balance also exerted a strong influence on the rhetoric and motivations of statesmen. Perhaps the most dramatic legal expression of that consensus is to be found in the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), which ended the War of Spanish Succession. The Treaty of Utrecht’s stated purpose was to establish ‘an equal balance of power (which is the best and most solid foundation of a mutual friendship, and of concord which will be lasting on all sides)’ (Chalmers 43). The general aspiration was made concrete in provisions barring the consolidation of power of the French and Spanish Bourbon branches.

Reviewing this period, one might credit the balance of power with having made a major contribution towards preventing the wars that punctuated this period from attaining the intensity of those in the preceding and following centuries. That achievement was bought for a price that included, for example, the partition of Poland by powerful neighbours, including the new European power, Russia.

Throughout this period, propagandists, moralists and lawyers referred to the equilibrium idea. Indeed, it is difficult to disentangle the exhortations addressed to the conscience or judgment of the prince from assertions of the existence of a true set of rules of international law. It was easy to condemn a State seeking to acquire hegemony through aggressive tactics that threatened harm to its neighbours. What posed difficulties was the possibility of a State accumulating so much power through its own internal growth of wealth and resources, assisted perhaps by dynastic fortunes, as to upset the existing balance.

In the first case, it was thus easy to justify—and sometimes to regard as a duty—the creation of alliances to keep the aggressor in its place. Even military actions could be justified, extending perhaps to war that was not, strictly speaking, an act of self-defence but a preventive assault. As to the second case, writers were divided as to the lawfulness of actions taken to redress a balance upset by legitimate means. In any event, most orthodox writers saw in the balance an organizing principle amid anarchy and urged princes to heed its principles in the name of self-interest or of natural law (Natural Law and Justice). Still, rulers who sought power could find support in the writings of those such as Johann Justi who, in the first major book dedicated to the balance, saw in it only a chimera.

Toward the end of the period one finds writers who reject the concept as being part of a State system they consider immoral and dangerous. Returning to attitudes that saw Europe as a single interconnected system, they imagined institutions to substitute for the empire and the papacy in bringing the rule of law and reason to the continent. The Abbé de Saint Pierre’s vision of Europe rested upon a league of States rather than upon balance. The philosopher Immanuel Kant considered that ‘universal peace on the basis of the so-called balance of power…is a mere chimera’ (‘denn ein andauernder allgemeiner Friede durch die sogenannte Balance der Mächte in Europa ist … ein bloßes Hirngespinst’, [Kant, ‘Über den Gemeinspruch’ 67, translated by Hastie 65]). He, too, sought, a political structure that could make decisions that the balance system left to the self-interested judgment of princes.

3.  From 1789 to 1914

10  The French Revolution posed threats to the balance system in both power and intellectual terms. The dynamic force of the revolutionary people in arms, later magnified by the ambitions of Napoleon, not only overturned the old balance but at times substituted for it a continental French hegemony amid vassal States. Hindered by sloth and jealousies the monarchies sought to combine to restore the status quo. Their treaties of alliance, chiefly those of Chaumont, Reichenbach, and Teplitz, invoked the balance of power, even as their own peoples were increasingly motivated by nationalistic feelings that mirrored the French example.

11  When the allies prevailed at Leipzig and Waterloo, they met at the Vienna Congress (1815) to reconstruct the old order, on the pillars of legitimacy and balance. While anxious to ensure that France was rendered harmless by the restoration of the Bourbons and the diminution of its territories, they included it within the new system. The map of Europe was redrawn, various small States being wiped out in the process, to satisfy the great powers’ felt need for security. In order to maintain this equilibrium, a primitive international organization, the Concert of Europe, was temporarily established. This system proved unable to withstand the tide of nationalism and the emergence of unified German and Italian States. Although later practitioners of statecraft such as Otto von Bismarck and Benjamin Disraeli sought to create a new structure of balancing alliances, the underlying dynamics of national ambition and fear proved too strong and the outbreak of World War I discredited the whole concept.

12  In the 19th century, publicists’ opinions of the balance polarized; nationalists and populists tended to see it as a tool of monarchical-aristocratic manipulations; aristocrats such as Friedrich von Gentz, secretary to Prince Metternich, the great practitioner, leaned heavily upon it. National perspectives differed strikingly. Although Britain boasted of having called the new world into being to redress the balance of the old, neither authors from the United States of America (‘US’) nor Latin American authors thought well of the balance. Italians saw it as a useful protection, but Germans rather as an obstacle to power. The French wavered as conditions changed, while British loyalty to the balance remained steady. Meanwhile as legal analysis sharpened the distinction between morality and policy and law, few writers saw a meaningful obligation to preserve the balance or a legal reason to take violent steps to protect it. Indeed, they tended increasingly to deny it any status as a legal rule even when they acknowledged it to be the necessary precondition of all international law.

C.  Current Status of the Concept

13  Since 1914 the balance of power has occupied a diminished status. First the League of Nations and the Kellogg-Briand Pact (1928) outlawed war as an instrument of national policy and after World War II the United Nations Charter (‘UN Charter’) solidified that prohibition. Thus a State’s claim that preserving the balance of power justified warlike activity has no standing if self-defence under Art. 51 UN Charter is not at issue. On the other hand, as a way of practising or thinking about foreign policy the balance of power has retained some vitality. During the Cold War (1947–91) the US and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (‘USSR’) kept the peace through mutually assured destruction (Weapons of Mass Destruction). They reinforced this balance of terror by matching each other’s activities in other parts of the world such as the Horn of Africa and Latin America. More locally, the US government thought in balance of power terms when it reinforced Iraq in its long war with Iran in the 1980s and when it kept an eye on power relationships between India and Pakistan (Iran–Iraq War [1980–88]).

14  With the collapse of the USSR and the end of the Cold War the US was left in a unique position of strength. The rest of the world put together cannot match the military expenditures of the US and it alone has the power to destroy any other State and its armed forces. The US economy, while not representing as large a fraction of the world’s wealth as in 1945, is still the largest single productive unit. US scholars began to refer to their country as an indispensable superpower (Superpowers and Great Powers). They spoke of the end of history because the US pattern of market-oriented democracy now had no ideological rival. ‘Hegemony’ became a slogan. This is a situation which one would expect to be unstable in that it would lead smaller States to band together to create an equilibrium. That has not happened. Some theorists say that is because the US does not pose the sort of threat that earlier hegemons did and that it is therefore not worthwhile for other States to form a coalition. Differences between other States in terms of location, ideology, and interests would make coalition building difficult. One might perhaps characterize the co-operation of other States in preventing the Anglo-American coalition from obtaining approval of the United Nations (UN) for the 2003 venture into Iraq as a sort of balancing and there are occasions in which the hegemon is outvoted in international organizations by concerted efforts of smaller nations (Iraq, Invasion of [2003]).

D.  Assessment

15  Over the centuries the idea of the balance of power has persisted, sometimes under other names and in changing conceptual frameworks, such as mutually assured destruction, multipolarity and the like. It is reflected in its opposites such as hegemony and unipolarity. Although it has long since lost any claim to constitute a rule of international law, the gap between power and law in the international field is never very wide and lawyers need to bear in mind that members of international legal institutions such as the UN Security Council exercise their functions with balance of power considerations in mind(United Nations, Security Council). As the conceptual worlds of international relations scholars and international lawyers become more and more intertwined, lawyers will need to share with political scientists’ analysis in balance of power terms. What the future may bring cannot be predicted, but one possibility is that the position of the US will be hemmed in by growing States such as Russia, China, and India and that balancing exercises will become more obvious than during the Cold War or the era of US hegemony.