Re-Assessing the Balance of Power

In keeping with our heritage and principles, we do not use our strength to press for unilateral advantage. We seek instead to create a balance of power that favors human freedom: conditions in which all nations and all societies can choose for themselves the rewards and challenges of political and economic liberty.

George W. Bush, September 17, 2002

The significance of the balance of power and its controversial character is evident in international relations (IR) discipline. Attempts to comprehend IR in terms of power distribution are continuously outlined in our academic program and it seems that no other theoretical concept can aggrandize this length of provenance. However, rarely do our textbooks present balance of power as a term explaining not only the resilience of the modern international system, but the insistence of certain foreign policy strategies as well.

Contemporary political actualities prove that the very act of “balancing” often exists in favor of a particular great power. One of the most popular examples that justify this truth is W. Bush’s attempt to affirm American pre-eminence with the moral good, human freedom, which instantly defined balance of power as having the capacity to condone the hegemony of the United States. By virtue of this notion and US’ actions in the Middle East, one can presume that regimes with high levels of political and social integration are more likely to balance successfully against external threats. Leaders of homogeneous societies encounter fewer difficulties in gaining domestic support for required reforms, than those of fragmented states, where domestic institutions do not generate common respect.

Consequently, in the event of a societal consensus, balance of power acquires the ability to designate a particular type of foreign policy. Its justificatory role commences to advocate for decision-maker’s psychology and hence influences the conduct of domestic politics. On this account, it then becomes comprehensible how great powers can manipulate the use of balance of power in order to advocate for their policies. More importantly, by revealing the presence of a continuous interaction between systemic and domestic-level forces, balance of power demonstrates how domestic imperatives influence and frequently determine the nation’s response to the outside world.

Beliefs and values are perceived differently by every state and the transformative nature of these domestic particularities allows great power to shape the normative dimension of the balance of power.

However, power distribution presented as a justification for certain external policies might undermine the original meaning of the concept. Emphasis has to be placed on the fact that the chief function of the balance of power is not to preserve peace, but to preserve the system of states itself. This implies that preservation of the balance of power requires war, since it provides the only means to restrict the power of a potentially dominant state. Notwithstanding, it can be stressed that the preservation of peace is a subordinate objective of the contrivance of balance of power, due to the fact that stability increases the likelihood of deterrence.

It follows that by reducing the risk of inter-state conflicts balance of power safeguards international order. Its ability to protect the preeminence of sovereign governments restricts the quest for absolute power and encourages states to coordinate their actions in conformity with shared normative principles. However, these common understandings are often subjected to critical analysis. Beliefs and values are perceived differently by every state and the transformative nature of these domestic particularities allows great power to shape the normative dimension of the balance of power. It is for this reason that balance of power should be disclosed as a justificatory mechanism which has the capacity to substantiate the insistence of certain foreign policy strategies, as it was in the case of the US, where the war on terror required extensive rationalization.



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