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How useful is the concept of the “balance of power‟ for understanding international security today? Essay

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Updated: Aug 23rd, 2019


In the highly dynamic world that we live in today, where nations constantly compete for power and influence, the concept of power balance is extremely vital to check and balance those holding power.

However, in spite of the remarkable global progress that has been made with regards to the balance of power and betterment of international security; Kochler (3) says that “no balance of power has emerged yet since the collapse of the post-World War II system of international relations.” In essence, this means that there is still a lot that needs to be done if the concept of “balance of power” is to be well implemented and its benefits enjoyed.

In this paper, the major focus will be on highlighting the usefulness of the power balance in understanding international security. In addition, other important aspects of international power balance like globalization will also be detailed.

Importantly, relevant concepts, ideas, facts and authoritative scholarly opinion on power balance sourced from relevant books and articles will be used to further the arguments presented herein. But before delving into such intricacies, what really do mean by balance of power?

Essentially, in politics, power is viewed variably by different scholars. However, in summary, power generally refers to the measure of one’s influence or control over resources, capabilities, outcomes, events or even issues. A person, country, region that exhibits influence—based on the above essentialities—is thus said to have power. In measuring global power, issues like economic stability, military strength, technological advancements and geopolitical power are normally assessed (Wohlforth 6).

The balance of power, therefore, denotes the existence of some parity or stability among those in power (Waltz 20-30). In other words, balance of power describes a situation whereby there is some equilibrium between the competing forces. According to (Sheehan 10-15), the major aim of international balancing power is to ensure that no nation becomes too strong to the point that it imposes its dominance over the rest.

Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, the U.S wields most powers in the world today and through that; it has been allegedly using its unipolar power position to exert influence on other nations (Wohlforth 5-7). An explicative discussion of how this has affected the world today—will be circumspectly detailed in the later parts of this essay.

Principally, when we talk of international security, reference is being made to the well-being of countries across the world. This well-being covers aspects like food-security, health security, economic security, security from lawlessness and events like war, and security from acts of terrorism, among many others.

According to (Nexon 335-340), power balance and international security are two interrelated concepts that mutually affect and reinforce each other concomitantly. This is based on the fact that the balance of power duly influences security just in the same way good security boosts the balance of power. It is based on this reason that the discussions presented below will address these two issues concurrently.

Major Aspects of Power Balance—With Regards to International Security Today

Just in the same way there are numerous definitions on power, the balance of power also has several aspects. In studying these aspects, as presented by various scholars, the following three main issues come up.

Firstly, the main objective of power balance is to ensure that there is a checked control of those in power. This is majorly to keep them from misusing their powers and endangering other people’s security.

Secondly, most nations and states rout for power balance for the basic purpose of self preservation. In the perilously competitive world we live in today, most nations only care about themselves (Hay 20-30). Once they realize that they have inadequate power or influence to meet their needs and wants, their second-best option is normally to ensure that those with the power are regulated in a way their needs are met, at the end of the day, in one way or another (Mearsheimer 15-25).

Thirdly, and finally, there have been increased complaints regarding the superiority of the U.S and how it has been managing its powers (Wohlforth 34). To such complainants, the only way of ensuring that their security is fortified is by pushing for power balance agendas.

Based on these three aspects, which embody many other aspects in them, there have been continuous push-and-pull forces regarding the concept of power balance. It is only a matter of time before things eventually come together or tear apart—with regards to this issue. For now, however, the most important thing to do is to try and make the most out of what we have while we intermittently hope for a better future. Below are some significances of power balance in understanding international security.

Usefulness of Power Balance in Understanding International Security

Preliminarily, the concept of power balance helps in the understanding of international security by outlining which countries, nations, states or regions are well-vast in terms of security (Chandler 43-49). Once this is known, viable measures can be taken to help solve the situation. As was mentioned earlier, assessing for power balance calls for the assessment of aspects like technology, economic strength and geopolitical power, among other factors. In doing so, one is able to know the nature of a country’s or region’s security.

For example, a country with poor economic strength essentially equals low security in terms of facets like food security, financial growth or even job security. Once this is known, relevant measures can be taken to solve the situation. A good example here is many financial aids that are normally sent by well-doing countries like USA and China to poverty-stricken countries in Africa. This greatly helps in ensuring that there is a balance of power.

According to Benjian (1), “In the anarchic international environment, national states/regions are fearful of each other because of mutual misunderstandings.” As a result, security becomes a first priority for most nations.

In effect, the race for military equipment and financial strength that can be used against other competitors becomes very vital. Often, countries that are already strong continue amassing more influence and become stronger while the weak ones dwindle downwards and become weaker. In such an instance, the institutionalization of on organization or body that balances power becomes very important.

In relations to the above need for power balance; entities like the UN (United Nations), AU (African Union), and the EU (European Union) have been quite instrumental. Of course there have been some few complaints regarding fairness of these organizations but, in overall; their performance in regulation and balance of power thus ensuring better security, has been commendable—to say the least.

Another important subject of concern with regards to power balance and international security is globalization. Primarily, Streeten asserts that “Globalisation is transforming trade, finance, employment, migration, technology, communications, the environment, social systems, ways of living, cultures, and patterns of governance.”

On the other hand, Goyal (1) says that “The term Globalisation refers to the integration of economies of the world through uninhibited trade and financial flows, as also through mutual exchange of technology and knowledge.” These definitions generally state that, in Globalisation, barriers to trade are vehemently broken down so as to pave way for reduced capital controls and the cutting down of transportation costs which, in turn, promote efficacy of economic markets and smooth running of trade.

More relevantly, globalization has reportedly been able to improve communication, transportation, education, technological systems, governance, job opportunities, and economic diversification as well as interdependence, among many others. In effect, this has greatly helped in bettering the balance of power—which, in effect, has bettered security across the globe. It is, however, important to note that some selected disadvantages like increased lawlessness in some areas have also resulted from globalization (Shuja).

With the knowledge of such effects of globalization, those is power are can manipulate circumstances to help better international security or limit it—depending on what they intend to achieve. As a positive example, the global economic crisis of 2008 exhibited the benefits of allying to stable economies. In spite of the devastating effects of the crisis—which affected various securities—countries that allied to strong economies like the U.S, Singapore and Canada were able to get help.

On the flipside, the economic crisis also exhibited the ramifications of overdependence on certain countries. In Africa, for example, where many countries depend on overseas aids from well-off countries to survive, the crisis was a huge blow to them since even their donor-countries had been affected.

These two examples of the positive and negative sides of the 2008 economic crisis clearly show how balance of power is vital in ensuring international security. Had there been some balance in power, the many insecurities faced by many countries would have been hugely avoided (Shuja).

As a matter of fact, the highly diversified nature of global markets calls a lot of rationalization from the people involved in it. Essentially, countries are obligated to make some critical decisions in order to ensure that their engagement in international businesses does not negatively impact on the domestic markets. In other words, in order to ensure that there is international security of businesses, there must be a balance of domestic and international power (Cox 130-134).

Explicatively, Walton and Huey (15-30) report of the way Wal-Mart—the world’s largest retail store—had to balance its operations in order to achieve its current revered global status. According to Sam (the founder of Wal-Mart); it fundamentally important for a company to, preliminarily, establish strong domestic business networks.

Once such business networks are in place, it will be very easy for them to continue expanding their business horizons (20-30). Streeten supports this by saying that by having a strong foundation, firms will be able to wither economic shake-ups which are prevalent in international businesses. This way, international security is hugely enhanced.

Another crucial concept in the balance of power and the understanding of international security is the issue of unipolar and multipolar governing systems. In this context, unipolar governing system refers to a system whereby there is no balance of power thus only one state or region is in control. In the multipolar system, several countries or regions have balanced power divided amongst them.

As glimpsed earlier, the current system that we are in is arguably unipolar based on the dominance of the U.S as a world superpower. To this regard, most spheres of influence are somewhat dictated by the U.S. In fact, Wohlforth (5) reports that “in 1992 the Pentagon drafted a new grand strategy designed to preserve unipolarity by preventing the emergence of a global rival.” However, several complaints from the U.S and the world, at large, regarding this move led to a silent death of the draft.

In spite of that, there are still many eminent cases of international securities being compromised as a result of lack of power balance. A good example here is the use of the “Security dilemma” theory to contain China via Taiwan. In the security dilemma theory, a security is problem is created then a solution is offered by the same people who created it.

All these are done with the aim of exerting some form of control. In the case of Taiwan and China, the U.S allegedly fuelled the war between them. Then, in the bid to curb the rising dominance of China as a great power country, the U.S supplied Taiwan with weapons “guarantee the so-called military balance between the Mainland and Taiwan” (Khalizad 23-34). In effect, insecurities in China escalated thus reducing their powers while the U.S continued to maintain its unchecked dominance.

It is based on such examples that there have been agitated campaigns for a multipolar system that will restore balance of power and fortify security across the world (Chatergee 51).

However, Kochler (2) remarks that “In the absence of a global balance of power, regional stability and comprehensive interregional co-operation, ensuring the sustainability of the former, are indispensable for the future emergence of a multipolar world order.” It is for this reason that the power balance across the world must be established. Some of the proposed ways in which the power balance agenda in place can be accentuated, while international security is better, are detailed below.

Recommendations towards better power balance and international security

Other than the proposed solutions that have been partially given in the above sections, the following ways can also help in bettering the nature of power balance while augmenting international security:

  • Re-definition of states interests and ensuring that they comply with global expectations. This way, conflicts with other international players will be reduced.
  • Increased efficacy of organizations like the UN in playing their mandated role of peace-keeping and balance of power.
  • Stringent punitive sanctions being placed for superpowers to prevent them from over-stepping their international mandate.
  • Regular checks-and-balance procedures being carried out to reduce the gap between the “so-powerful” and the “not-so-powerful” regions, countries or states.


If positive progress is to take place regarding the balance of power and international security, then it is paramount for change to take place from the top-most levels of power to the grassroots. According to Wohlforth (6), “the United States enjoys

a much larger margin of superiority over the next most powerful state or, indeed, all other great powers combined than any leading state in the last two centuries.” If unregulated, such powers can used wrongly and lead to detrimental effects.

Moreover, the absence of a balanced power system leads to unfair competition, absence of hegemonic rivalry and over-stepping of boundaries which are recipes for international security disasters (Wohlforth 32-34).

It is worth stating emphatically that no one is condemning the U.S for working hard to amass such an amount of power and influence. All that is being said is that, in the spirit of the balance of power, such powers should be well-regulated. As a matter of fact, through America’s dominance as a world superpower, several positive results have been realized variably across the world.

Examples here include (but are not limited to) increased world peace through signing of treaties and sanctioning of laws, better donor and relief aids being distributed to poor countries, offering a sense of direction and leadership to economically growing countries, prevention of some and finally, unifying some regions and countries. All these have greatly helped in making the world safer than it was before.

So whereas the likes of U.S, Russia, Germany and China have a part to play as some of strongest countries and states in the world, people in the grassroots also have to play their part. It is only through this that positive change can be utterly enhanced.

Works Cited

Benjian, Xin. “Security Dilemma, Balance of Power Vs. US Policy Towards China in the Post-Cold War Era.” September 2001. Xiandai Guoji Guanxi (Contemporary International Relations). Web.

Chandler, David. International Statebuilding – The Rise of the Post-Liberal Paradigm. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2010. Print.

Chatergee, Patricia. “The Classical Balance of Power Theory.” Journal of Peace Research, 9 (1972), 51.

Cox, Robert. “Social Forces, States and World Orders: Beyond International Relations Theory Cox Millennium.”Journal of International Studies 10 (1981): 126-155.

Goyal, Krish A. “Impact of Globalization on Developing Countries (With Special Reference to India).” International Research Journal of Finance and Economics, Issue 5 (2006): 1-6.

Hay, Colin. Political Analysis: A Critical Introduction, Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Khalizad, Zamay. “U.S. Grand Strategy: Implications for the United States and the World.” Strategic Appraisal1996, (1996): 23-34.

Kochler, Hans. “.” 2008. International Progress Organization. Web.

Mearsheimer, John J. The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. New York, NY: Norton, 2001. Print.

Nexon, Daniel H. “The Balance of Power in the Balance.” World Politics, 61 (2009): 330-359.

Sheehan, Michael J. The Balance of Power: History & Theory. New York; Routledge, 2000. Print.

Shuja, Sharif M. “.” 2001. TheFreeLibrary. Web.

Streeten, Paul. “” 1998. TheFreeLibrary. Web.

Walton, Sam., & Huey, John. Made in America: My Story. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

Waltz, Kenneth. Theory of International Politics. Reading, MA: Addison–Wesley Pub. Co., 1979. Print.

Wohlforth, William C. “The Stability of a Unipolar World.” International Security, 24 (1999): 5–41.

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