LinkedIn tracking pixel

The Balance of Power

Honore Daumier, L’Equilibre Europea, (1866)
Honore Daumier, L’Equilibre Europea, (1866)

In the realm of World Politics, the term “Balance of Power” is the governing concept that controls the entire field, but it is rarely even mentioned in any popular media. The explanation, so far as can be seen, is that public opinion is so consumed with personality, domestic politics, self-indulgence, good or bad behaviors, and other topics related to circumstance that abstractions appear remote or so distant as to be irrelevant.

Conceptions of the Balance of Power

Yet, at any given time, the Balance of Power (BoP) governs most, if not all, of the circumstances of daily life, including peace/war, powerful/weak, stability/chaos, etc. as to be an all-consuming but invisible gear that drives life and death.

A possible reason as to why BoP receives such scant attention in America is that we are so accustomed to being on the top of the scales that being lower is inconceivable.

The closest comparison to the idea would be the historic definition of Capitalism given originally by the Scottish economist, Adam Smith, in his classic The Wealth of Nations (1776). Smith determined that national wealth/poverty was controlled by what he called an “invisible hand” that allocates sound versus bad investment and drives out poor competitors and rewards good ones. The final result is rich versus poor nations and a hierarchy of global life that controls both national and international realities.

In today’s cultural milieu, Smith’s conception has been challenged by quasi-Marxist ideologies that define life as determined by a form of “dialectic” in which classes of “oppressed” versus “oppressors” compete endlessly for influence, power, and wealth. In the American media and popular culture, this concept has risen to a dominant position in the normal political “dialogue,” usually defined as one or the other form of “ism.”

Thus, blacks are “what” they are because of whites, women because of men, poor because of rich, “natives”  because of “outsiders,” “have-nots” because of “haves,” etc. Only “men,” the sole exception, are labeled for what they really are (as defined).

As shorthand, these competing conceptions can be divided between vertical against horizontal definitions of humanity, all “people” are either equal or “some are more equal than others” (Orwell). In terms of any analytical dimension, this can represent “reality” vs. “utopian.” The Marxist version is “utopian” since it has never existed.

Describing the Balance of Power

The global BoP has been around since time began but is totally ignored in American culture.

There are essentially two ways to approach this reality. The first is “descriptive.” At any given time, there exists a hierarchy of nations that can be divided into categories (as simple as 1, 2, 3). This is permanent and, indeed, essential, i.e. it always has existed and “cannot-not” exist. Simply, these are a) multipolar, b) bipolar and c) unipolar. “Polar” simply describes the number of “poles” (peoples, nations countries, empires) that are involved at any given time. This can be seen by a quick description of historic BoP’s.

Quickly (very), recorded history is about 6,000 years old. The vast majority of this time consisted of “unipolar” political structures, colloquially called “empires,” wherein political power consisted of a single entity (king, emperor, party, dictator, etc.) who governed usually by force, persuasion, or some other form of control. There is no need to name these realities, but Roman, British, Mongol, Byzantine, Chinese, Indian, Spanish, French, Dutch, Belgian, Russian, Austrian, Portuguese, Japanese, German, Aztec, Inca, Zulu come to mind immediately.

Today there are 193 sovereign states in the United Nations. As a speculation, probably 150 are “unipolar,” in domestic governance, i.e. tyrannical. The U.S. is the leading “multipolar” (democratic) country in world history, yet quasi-Marxism calls the U.S. “imperialist.”

America was founded precisely against empire and has been essentially that way since. True, the U.S. had “territories,” but they became either American states, (Hawaii, Alaska) or independent (The Philippines). The US has governed no “colonies” indefinitely against their popular demands.

The second category of BoP is “multipolar,” consisting of three or more “poles,” circulating among each other in a classic “balancing” mode. This is the heart of what modern historians mean by the BoP, wherein members compete in an endless series of maneuvers and where there is no overarching authority to govern. This means political “anarchy” and has been the basis of world politics since 1648, when the Peace of Westphalia ended the Thirty Years War, the Holy Roman Empire, and inaugurated the “nation-state.” Thus the “nation-state” world system is only about 350 years old, or approximately five percent of recorded history.

This is the model normally used in all BoP analysis. Essentially European, it consisted of at most twenty European nation-states who allied for or against one another in a chronic “game” of cat and mouse until it all crashed in the First World War (1918). Thus, the essential result of that war ended the classic BoP and brought on a totally new “bipolar” system that consisted of two dominant sovereigns, USA vs. USSR, who played “Cold War” until one side fell (1991).

The result since then has been called “unipolar,” since the only one left from all of this wreckage is America, the “sole remaining superpower” as the late Charles Krauthammer first put it in 1991. Whether America merits that title or not can be debated. Whether America even is aware of that is also debatable. (If one watched the recent Democratic Party debates, the notion that BoP remains an unknown and alien concept can only be reinforced).


The second method to analyze BoP is “prescriptive,” i.e. to pursue an authentic “balance” in an anarchistic world. Historically, this was always British foreign policy, as a maritime power on the “flank” of a continent. Best described in 1907 by a British Foreign Office official, Eyre Crowe, his memorandum remains the best analysis of history’s classic BoP.

From a British perspective, the rise of a powerful Germany in 1907 threatened the independence of both Britain and the world. Therefore, it was necessary to create an “equilibrium”:

“The equilibrium established by such a grouping of forces is technically known as the balance of power, and it has become almost a historic truism to identify England’s secular policy with the maintenance of this balance by throwing her weight now in this scale and now in that, but ever on the side opposed to the political dictatorship of the strongest single State or group at any given time.”

One Final Question

While such language may never reach the viewers of the next political debate, the question remains, how will American “weight” affect the Balance of Power that most assuredly will govern tomorrow’s world?

Perhaps the answer will come from outside, as it always has in the past.

The “sleeping giant” snores.

Academic Programs Admissions